Thursday, February 26, 2009

Alien Sex in IBIS

Speaking of the moral systems of alien societies based on nonhuman reproductive biology, a reader of this blog introduced me to IBIS (1985), by Linda Steele. Terrans stranded on the planet they call Ibis encounter a humanoid species with the biology and social structure of hive insects. Only the queen breeds. Drones (the only males) die after a single session of copulation. All other members of the group are queens-in-waiting or sterile female workers and warriors. The human male protagonist, thinking himself the only survivor of his group after an attack by the indigenous species, is captured by the queen and forced to become her lover. They gradually become attached to each other, although she continues to exercise control over him. When the other human survivors turn up and become captors of lower-ranked Ibis females, these people regard the protagonist as a traitor. He must face choosing between his crewmates and the queen, who is amazed that he survives their mating and fascinated by his intelligence, so unlike the males of her species. He professes to love her, and as far as she can (given the lack of any such concept in her culture), she seems to care for him.

The author labels this novel a “science fiction romance.” Yet calling it a romance in the conventional sense feels deeply problematic. No matter how much the queen claims to cherish the hero, he has the status of a pet—and her prisoner, whom she punishes for trying to escape. His infatuation with her arises to a great degree from her powerful pheromones, which compel him to join her in a protracted sexual frenzy regardless of his more rational wishes. By the end of the story, they seem to have moved closer to a truly intimate relationship, but a permanent imbalance of power remains.

The most unsettling aspect of this novel, for me, was that I realized how closely it mirrors one of the most popular romance tropes. It’s not unusual for hero and heroine to meet and fall in love because she becomes his captive. “Forced seduction” is fairly common, too, and like many female readers, I find this practice “hot” when the hero does the seducing. Why does the same pattern feel “wrong” when the hero is the forcibly seduced captive? Are our reading tastes really so much more ruled by sexist assumptions than we usually acknowledge? Or are these stories simply erotic fantasies detached from real-world gender relations and therefore nothing to worry about?

Margaret L. Carter (


  1. It depends on how you define 'Romance.'

    From the way you explain it, the story is about sex - not romance.

    In my definition, sex without love is just sex. Any non-sentient animal can do it. At worse, it's an addiction, like any other addiction and just as destructive, especially if children result.

    Romance, on the other hand, requires love, while sex is optional in expressing that love. Nothing is more romantic, for example, than a man staying faithful to his disabled wife, even though she cannot engage in sexual relations with him.

    Love cannot exist without mutual trust and respect. The queen you described does not respect the human male as an equal and he can not trust her to not harm him. Love is impossible, so there can be no romance. It's just sex.

    Call it Science Fiction for exploring the possibilities of existence or call it Erotica, but, please, don't call it Romance.

  2. The plot reminds me of one of Jacqueline Susann's books, where the heroine was kidnapped and put in a cage with the Bee Queen's morally backward son with a view to mating.

    The different was, bee did not get girl.

  3. I may not have explained the story as well as I should have. There is definitely more than sex between them; a passionate attachment, with some degree of affection, develops. The squicky aspect, for me, is that it's definitely not an affection between equals. Even at the end, when the queen is willing to change her society to accommodate their relationship, it still feels to me as if he's more of a pet than a consort to her.

  4. Margaret,

    What did the rest of the society, especially the queens-in-waiting, think about the queen's foreign pet?

    Presumably, he was able to fertilize her eggs?

    What happens to the next generation?

    I'm sure nature kills off the drones that successfully mate with the queen (don't their penises remain lodged, like a plug, inside the queen?) so that each brood of bees has a different father.

  5. And regardless of how odd and wrong this society seems to us, why should they change their biology just because some humans crash-landed on their world?

  6. The other potential queens, if I recall correctly, used this "aberration" of hers as a sign that she was losing her grip, so she had to exert her authority sternly to suppress their incipient rebellion. Most of the other Ibis natives treated their human captives much less kindly than the queen did the protagonist -- basically just used them with no pretense of affection.

    The human hero couldn't breed with the queen. She still needed to mate with a drone of her own species in order to reproduce. She saw this situation as simply a biological necessity, no reflection on her relationship with the hero. Which is another element that makes it difficult for a reader (me, at least) to perceive this story as a romance in the standard sense.

  7. The most unsettling aspect of this novel, for me, was that I realized how closely it mirrors one of the most popular romance tropes. It’s not unusual for hero and heroine to meet and fall in love because she becomes his captive.

    I don't see a difference either, and this is largely why I lost interest in reading Historicals -- because that power differential has to be there or it's not historically accurate. What I like about Science Fiction and Science Fiction Romance is that we can build a world like the one in Ibis to comment on our own present and past or we can build a world to which to aspire.