The best short fiction has an element of danger to it. You should fear for the protagonists — but even more than that, you should fear the abyss they're suspended over, and what it represents. And short erotica needs more, not less, danger than other types of fiction, because it's about the loss of control and confronting the fear of annihilation through raw sexuality. All too often, though, erotica feels tame, safe — even cozy.
So I am thrilled to report that Fantastic Erotica: The Best of Circlet Press 2008-2012 is absolutely jam-packed with danger. This is fiction that won't just keep you turned on or whatnot, it will actually keep you in suspense. You could actually buy this erotica collection for your friends or lovers as a holiday gift, on the strength of the writing and world-building herein.
Top image: Matt Towler/Sponge Studio.
As its name suggests, Fantastic Erotica collects the best stuff from the last five years of Circlet Press, Cecilia Tan's independent publisher that has specialized in science fiction and fantasy erotica for two decades. And these stories give a pretty good sense of the range of Circlet's offerings — but also of what you can do, generally, with speculative elements and explicit sexuality.
A number of the stories here feel like excellent science fiction and fantasy, in which sex is a crucial element but not a prop holding the narrative up. There were a few stories where I may or may not have exclaimed "hot damn" in the middle and started trying to quote some of the particularly hilarious or saucy passages to people around me. And at least a few of these stories actually squeezed down on my brain and didn't let go, even after the story was over. (And yes, there are also some major duds. Most short story collections have them, and here I'd estimate the ratio is below 20 percent, which is way better than average.)
Scanning through the list of contributors, the name that jumps out at you right off is probably N.K. Jemisin, author of the Inheritance Trilogy — and her story "The Dancer's War" is a major treat for sure, one of the book's biggest highlights. (It's about a society where a long-running feud is settled by having two young men duel through dancing — and soon enough, the dancing becomes something else. Read an excerpt here, about halfway down the page.)
But there are plenty of other standouts too. Like the "Lovecraftian Erotica" story "Ink" by Bernie Mojzes, which you can read a big excerpt from here. It begins:
The Eldritch Horror sat quietly at the end of the bar, smoking and staring at the olive in an otherwise empty martini glass. One supple pseudopod held a Virginia Slim menthol to one set of lips. Another mouth drew on a Camel unfiltered, held in a withered claw of a hand. A third, hand-rolled (for want of a better term), smelled of cloves. With each exhale, smoke seeped from various orifices scattered around its amorphous body, both out of and under the cheap suit it had stuffed itself into.
A pencil-thin tongue snaked out of one mouth and twisted sensuously around the olive at the bottom of the glass. The tip prodded the pimento out of the olive, then curled the olive up into its mouth.
I wondered if it really disliked pimentos, or if this was the Eldritch Horror version of peeling labels off beer bottles.
The barstool next to it remained empty, even though it was a Friday night and the college kids were out in force. I made my way through the sea of earnest, drunken faces. The fragments of conversation I caught were less about sports and relationships, and more about contextual framing of meaning, and Hegelian dialectic, and one particularly ill-advised comparison of Umberto Eco with Dan Brown. Not even English and Philosophy majors wanted anything to do with the Eldritch Horror.
Or so it seemed.
Still, it was a public place, and it seemed safe enough. I settled in next to the Horror and waved for the barkeeper.
"I'll have one of what he's having," I said. I glanced at the Horror. "Or she. Or it. But with a twist. And his next round's on me, too."
For the most part, these are stories which use sexuality in exactly the way that the best science fiction and fantasy use their speculative widgets, like magic or warp drives — the sexuality propels the story and helps to define the relationships between the characters.
So why do I say the stories in Fantastic Erotica are dangerous? It's not because they feature anything nonconsensual or especially squicky — although sex with a Lovecraftian horror might just weird some people out, I suppose. Nor is it because there's quite a lot of non-heteronormative sex in here — you're a grown-up, you can handle that. It's more that these stories feature authentic characters who are changed and shaped by some weird and outlandish sexual experiences. They struggle with how much control to give up, and how much of their constructed selves to let go of. They discover that much of what they were taught about the world is false or incomplete. Through really hot sex.
A lot of the hotness of these stories comes from a sense of characters stepping outside their comfort zone, and facing the possibility of becoming something different — something their original selves might not have recognized or approved of.
In Monique Poirier's "At the Crossroads," an angel is forced to go into the worst hole in the city and have sex with a demon... or die. In Elizabeth Reeve's "A Woman of Uncommon Accomplishment," a Jane Austen-esque heroine summons a supernatural creature, and finds that she's gotten more than she bargained for. There are stories about space navigators who have to have sex to control their abilities, and men having sex with an automaton that occupies the whole top floor of a building. There are faerie revels, and werewolves, and a hard-to-explain Matrix riff, and vampires, and Snow White/Evil Queen slash. Basically, there's everything.
Many of these are stories where something changes and sex is a catalyst: enemies become lovers, master becomes slave, the watcher becomes the watched, and so on. There's something intensely erotic about role reversal, and many of these stories play with that idea in a really fun way. And the explicit sexuality actually performs an important function besides just making your happy parts happier — it makes the emotional stuff feel more emotional. And gives these stories more weight.
The biggest trick an erotic story can pull off is to make sex between two characters seem unlikely, or taboo — and then show them having sex, without the reader feeling cheated or annoyed. Many of the stories in this book pull off that trick, through sheer character development, with a helping of magic or weird science to push the characters together. Often, the most interesting part is what happens after these characters get together, and how they deal with everything that's changed as a result of their forbidden (or inconvenient) lust.
Like I said, I didn't love every story in Fantastic Erotica — there were a few especially weak ones, and a few that felt lukewarm — but the overall quality of the writing here is really great. And as a whole, this book will remind you just how much science fiction and erotica belong together (as they have for decades, ever since Philip Jose Farmer.) Both speculative fiction and erotic fiction are about stepping outside of yourself, and confronting the strangeness that is both light years away, and close enough to touch. The best encounters are the ones that change you forever, and the best stories of transformation are ones which feel a little bit dangerous.