WHITE FEATHERS: Erotic Dreams
by Cecilia Tan
Running Press, Philadelphia, 288 pp.
What's the difference between pornography and erotica? One definition might be that pornography, written primarily for men, is geared to get a reaction from the sex organ between our legs. Erotica, on the hand, can be for both men and women, and is geared to the sex organ in our heads. Another definition might be the writings of Cecilia Tan, whose well-polished and artful prose is most definitely erotica.
I've known Tan for more than a decade, mostly from crossing paths with her at science fiction conventions. She appears at many Boston-area cons, as well as Worldcons, because much of her work as writer and editor is in the area of erotic science fiction and fantasy. In person she seems perfectly "normal," however you care to define the word. She's as ready to talk about the business of publishing or her other big passion, Major League Baseball. (She's written extensively on the New York Yankees, including for "Gotham Baseball" magazine where she's a senior writer.)
In the early '90s Tan started writing erotic fiction and found that her interests in science fiction and what might be termed consensual kinkiness combined in ways that readers enjoyed. After getting favorable reactions to early works posted on Usenet newsgroups, she published her first chapbook, Telepaths Don't Need Safewords. The title story was later republished in her 1998 mainstream collection – mainstream in that HarperCollins published it—
Her second collection of short fiction, White Flames, is an eclectic mix of stories. Not all of them fall into the fantasy/SF category as readers of IROSF would define the genre, but there's a fantasy element to almost all of the stories. In "Baseball Fever" Tan allows herself a bit of self-indulgence in describing a wholly imaginary tryst with Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter. It's amusing precisely because the story acknowledges that it is a fantasy. One can only imagine what Jeter would make of it.
It's in her retelling of the fairy tale "The Little Mermaid" that you begin to appreciate the imagination and skills as a writer Tan brings to her work. In many ways the story follows the outline of the Hans Christian Anderson tale, with a mermaid rescuing a prince and falling in love, becoming human but losing her voice, and in danger of her life if the prince should choose to love another. Tan elects to tell the story from the viewpoint of the mermaid, so that we feel her conflicted yearnings. The sex is an intrinsic part of the narrative, giving insight into character as well describing the physical acts. While still a mermaid she is aroused but has no way to join with the prince save through oral sex, an encounter, Tan writes, which ends with "a wave of saltiness that was the taste of home."
Another fairy tale like story, "Rite of Spring," sounds like it could be from the Brothers Grimm, save for the sex. A prince has gathered the nubile virgins of the kingdom to find an ideal wife, a process that will involve bedding each one in turn in search for the perfect mate. The narrator, Melinne, is the youngest of the women assembled and the only one not summoned to the prince's bedchamber, even as she is falling in love with him from afar. She contrives to take the place of her roommate, who has been chosen many times but has little interest in the prince, leading to an unexpected encounter where—
Many, but not all, of the stories delve into themes of non-vanilla sex, including fantasies involving bondage and discipline and other sado-masochistic elements. Tan, however, is interested in consensual adult play, not violent fantasies of rape or torture, which makes readers unfamiliar with these worlds willing to visit them, at least on the page. Indeed, one of the most extreme stories in the volume is "A Tale of the Marketplace," originally written for a collection by Laura Antoniou where she invited other writers to set stories in her fictional S/M world. It's a story of someone who seeks out people who desire to be trained as sexual slaves who ends up falling in love with his student. These are people who are as alien to many of us as Martians or other extra-terrestrials would be, but Tan eases us into this world so that we can connect with the feelings of the characters if not quite the way they choose to express them.
Tan is also willing to explore a variety of combinations, with her characters engaging in both heterosexual and homosexual coupling. In "Storm Rider" she even offers up some rough sex involving gay men that makes it a work of pure imagination on her part, no matter what research she may or may not have conducted. Yet she's also willing to offer up what's a straight romantic love story in "Just Tell Me the Rules," in which a heterosexual couple negotiates how far they're willing to go in what may be a doomed relationship, as the man is a friend of her boyfriend.
It is in the book's final section that she provides us with out and out science fiction, offering up three such tales. "Gyndroid" is a short tale of a sex worker robot and its first experiences from the moment of its "awakening." Even in a sketch like this Tan has given thought to the world she has created, raising the issue of what being surrounded by women's bodies designed for men's pleasure might do to the person who programmed these androids as part of his job. It's not a pretty picture. "Now" might strike one as a bit of a writer's exercise, as Tan seesaws the narrator's viewpoint between past and future while showing how military pilots who direct their ships by linking their brains to the controls might need to burn off the resulting adrenaline rush after a mission.
The most fully realized story in this section is "Spark," about how a far future musical group comprised of four women copes with the death of one of its members. It leads to an extended sex scene, of course, including Tan's invention of a sex toy not likely to be seen in our lifetimes, but the story also gets into the nature of creativity and collaboration. Indeed, that's really the point of the stories in this book. The sex is about something. It's not simply faceless bodies writhing together.
There's no question that Cecilia Tan's stories are not for every taste, and those who prefer their phallic symbols to be rockets rather than actual phalluses should give White Flames a pass. However for those willing to take a chance on something unusual, Tan offers sharp, concise and often witty prose, and continues to take the genre in new directions. The stories may stimulate the sex organ in your head, but it will be in ways that stimulate your imagination as well.