The sci-fi android romance comic Artifice is arresting—but not because it features gay protagonists. Rather, it's arresting because, reading it, you suddenly realize the extent to which gay protagonists are normal.
"Normal," in this context, means a couple of things. Most straightforwardly (if that's the right word here), writer Alex Woolfson and artist Winona Nelson are working in the yaoi comics genre. Yaoi—also referred to as boys' love or BL—is a Japanese comics (manga) genre written mostly by women, for women, which focuses on romance between gay men. The genre is popular with a small but avid fanbase in the United States—and Woolfson has courted that audience explicitly. Artifice, published in book form this month, first appeared as a webcomic on Woolfson's website, which is called Yaoi911.
Admittedly, Nelson's art is looks much more like mainstream Western comics illustration than like manga. But Woolfson's story is very much in the yaoi tradition. In the west, the strongest traditions of gay comics have been confessional (like Fun Home) or pornographic (like Tom of Finland). Woolfson, on the other hand, tells a story about an android assassin (Deacon) who falls in love with a young man (Jeff) his corporate owners want him to kill. Much of the comic involves Deacon talking to a therapist (Dr. Clarice Maven) whose job is to try to get him to work out his issues so he can return to being a good corporate solider The gay romance, in other words, is a trope, to be mixed in gleefully with other tropes—android assassins! malevolent analysts!—in the interest of pleasurable genre frisson. Gayness, in this context, is "normal" in the sense that it is conventional. It's a story element that you use just as you would use, say, heterosexual romance—because genre readers want genre pleasures, and this is one of the genre pleasures they want.
The gay romance in Artifice is, though, also normal in the sense that it is normalizing. That is, it makes it clear just how closely science fiction tropes map onto, or even, arguably, borrow from, gay experience. Woolfson isn't coy about connecting Deacon's feelings as an android with Jeff's feelings as a gay man in a future world where most homosexual children are identified and aborted in the womb. Both understand, as Deacon suggests, the loneliness of being different.
This parallel is almost over-obvious. So over-obvious, in fact, that it starts to creep out of the pages of Artifice, and into all that other science-fiction that supposedly isn't gay, but...well. Other android stories are, of course, the first place to look, from the intense relationship between Frankenstein and his unnatural, tormented, loveless monster/child/other self; to Blade Runner's virtually normal replicants clutching the photos of their half-forgotten (estranged?) families, to the nude, Tom-of-Finland muscled Schwarzenegger as Terminator.
But the analogy can be transferred to other sci-fi characters as well. In one of the cutest scenes in the book, Jeff asks Deacon what their chances are of getting out of a sticky situation alive. "Oh, 1, 732, 413 to 1", Deacon says in perfect Spock deadpan. Part of the joke is that he's kidding—he just made the numbers up. But part of the joke is that he is, in fact Spock—not just in his non-human humanness, but in the way his alien/familiar surface conceals his emotions...or, perhaps, hints tantalizingly at those emotions. In short, he's like Spock because as legions of slash-reading fangirls know, it's easy to read Spock as gay.
Of course, the homosexual subtext of science-fiction isn't exactly a secret. At least since the 1970s, in fact, sexual themes, and alternate sexualities, have been staples of sci-fi. Writers like Samuel Delany and Ursula K. Le Guin used sci-fi as a way to imagine different sexual mores and possibilities, and often those differences were explicitly, decidedly queer.
The thing about Delany and Le Guin, though, was that they didn't use gayness as a function of genre. Rather, in their work, gay material or themes tended to work against genre, or served as a sign that the authors were transcending genre. In Fictions of Sappho, Joan DeJean traces the way in which Sappho and lesbianism served as markers of aesthetic seriousness and passion for centuries of French writers. Similarly, in the work of Delany and Le Guin (and others like Joanna Russ and Octavia Butler) the use of queer sexuality was part of what made them, or marked them, as avante garde. Sci-fi genre hacks didn't write about gay sex.
Which brings us back to Woolfson, a genre writer with no discernible avant garde pretensions, and a definitively discernible interest in gay romance, not to mention gay sex. Artifice isn't experimental; it doesn't push any conceptual boundaries in its treatment of sexuality, or, indeed, of anything. It's just a well-written, cleverly plotted action-romance with two likable, appealing leads who are gay.
The fact that they're gay is what makes this a niche genre title. But the genre aspects are also what makes it feel so...well, generic, or at least potentially generic. The mainstream isn't exactly interested in gay protagonists in its pulp genre product at the moment. But reading Artifice, you can almost see that future in which gayness in sci-fi is neither disavowed, nor avante garde, but simply normal.