Another story I’ve read before, and had a slightly different response to this time. My first reading was when the story appeared at the late lamented Sci Fiction, at which time — without really knowing anything about the story beforehand other than that it won a Nebula and was nominated for a Hugo — what I took away, in general terms, was the experience of being othered, the experience which Hal Duncan describes so expressively in his tribute to the story, on the occasion of Sci Fiction’s demise:
Which, in its clipped tumult of young neutered spacers tearing up the town on shore leave and the fetishists, the frelks, they scorn, tease, hustle and, in one brief fling of incommunication, try to understand–in short, of desires abandoned and frustrated–managed to articulate in a way I couldn’t the disjunction at the zero-spot of my queer adolescent sexuality. Laid out in dynamic snapshots of an Earth of foreign cities, the Other, what it is to be it and what it is to want it. Delany riffed with his modern jazz of language, concise yet complex, and I understood something of the frelk in me, that thwarted appetence, and the spacer, the corresponding surgical disconnect, the pervert and the neuter . . . and the gap of need between them filled with energy.
It’s there in the coupling of constant movement — up and down — with repetition, that is without progress or change, the Spacers encountering the same limited spectrum of understandings and responses wherever on the Earth they go. And, as Duncan identifies, it’s there in the gaps in the story, the bits that don’t quite connect.
This time around, I read the story in a copy of the book it originally appeared in, Dangerous Visions (1967, although the Sci Fiction text has copyright of 1971; I don’t know what the revisions might be), and it struck me as being more about the process of othering, and how human sexuality and society interact to produce alienation. Not for nothing does Delany describe it in an afterword as “a horror story”; it describes a tragic arms-race of sexuality, encouraged by the technological ability to reshape human bodies. The encounters between spacers and frelks “only allay. They cure nothing”. On either side; the frelk tells the narrator. “If spacers had never been, then we could not be … the way we are.” And later:
She looked back at me. “Perverted, yes? In love with a bunch of corpses in free fall!” She suddenly hunched her shoulders. “I don’t like having a free-fall-sexual-displacement complex.”
“That always sounded like too much to say.”
She looked away. “I don’t like being a frelk. Better?”
“I wouldn’t like it either. Be something else.”
“You don’t choose your perversions. You have no perversions at all. You’re free of the whole business. I love you for that, Spacer. My love starts with the fear of love. Isn’t that beautiful? A pervert substitutes something unattainable for ‘normal’ love: the homosexual, a mirror; the fetishist, a shoe or a watch or a girdle.”
Glamorisation of otherness has become as much a dead-end as an attempt to repress it.
Of course, the story is actually always about both sides of the equation, as Duncan identifies, and Graham Sleight does too:
The Spacers’ nature becomes apparent as the story progresses. They have somehow been altered to make their bodies withstand the rigours of space travel. (It’s impossible not to remember Cordwainer Smith’s “Scanners Live in Vain”  in this context.) The process deprives them of the ability to have sex, and so Spacers are chosen from children whose sexual responses are “hopelessly retarded at puberty” (p. 97). Frelks are unaltered humans who find spacers sexually attractive. The story is a series of vignettes exploring these two linked conditions, from the point of view of the group being objectified. (At one point, a female frelk launches into an extended rhapsody about the “glorious, soaring” life of Spacers (p. 97). It seems very detached from how they experience their lives.) Anyhow, nothing is “resolved” in the story: the Spacers go up and come down in place after place. At the end, they and we have a clearer sense of where they stand, but they still have no abiding city.
“Scanners Live in Vain” is indeed one of the stories that comes to mind; the other, for me, was Tiptree’s “And I Awoke And Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” (1972), in which aliens represent a hypernormal sexual stimulus to humans; their perceived beauty is irresistable as the perceived glamour of the spacers is for frelks, and to the same futile end. (There’s also an echo of Delany’s story in the liaison of Shaheen Badoor Khan and the nute Tal in Ian McDonald’s River of Gods.) Perhaps the resonance with Tiptree’s story, the memory that it uses sexuality to critique science fiction‘s outward urge, is what gave me a fresh spin on Delany’s story, or perhaps it was just noticing this passage:
Marsscapes! Moonscapes! On her easel was a six-foot canvas showing the sunrise flaring on a crater’s rim! There were copies of the original Observer pictures of the moon pinned to the wall, and pictures of every smooth-faced general in the International Spacer Corps.
On one corner of her desk was a pile of those photo magazines about spacers that you can find in most kiosks all over the world: I’ve seriously heard people say they were printed for adventurous-minded high school children. They’ve never seen the Danish ones. She had a few of those too. There was a shelf of art books, art history texts. Above them were six feet of cheap paper-covered space operas: Sin on Space Station #12, Rocket Rake, Savage Orbit.
Duncan heads towards this point when he suggests that, “Maybe it’s appropriate that I wanted to be this story’s . . . worshipper? . . . so bad I end up trying to express my reverence by imitating its style”, but the above passage makes it explicit: this frelk’s perversion is fannish.