Erotic Superheroine Fiction:
Does It Have a Future?
By Brantley Thompson Elkins
Two years ago we had an economic meltdown. Lately, it often seems as if we’re having a meltdown of the whole erotic online superheroine fiction genre. Discussion at the Aurora Universe Readers Group has declined drastically because – well, there hasn’t been a lot to discuss. There hasn’t been a lot of new fiction from members of the Aurora Universe Writers Group. Elsewhere, the picture looks even bleaker.
Are any of you familiar with Xtreme Strength? It used to be one of the leading sites for superheroine fiction, photomanips and occasional comics. But it’s definitely fallen on hard times. If you click on the “Enter Site” link at the home page below, you’ll find there hasn’t been an update since last March, and that was a pretty skimpy one.
Xtreme Strength got off to a slow start in 1998, with just three updates (although it was then customary to have several small updates each month). But over the following three years, there were updates during nine or ten months each, and for the three years after that – 2002-2004 – monthly updates. Then a slow but almost steady decline set in, until last year’s one and only update.
If you look at the March 15, 2010 items, it’s easy to understand why. The stories follow a familiar pattern of the superwomen showing off their strength, maybe having sex, and nothing else. It’s the same with the photo-manips: women lifting huge weights, or even tanks and trains – old stuff, and most borrowed from another site. One link to a “new” superheroine blog has already expired.
In short, Xtreme Strength has simply run out of ideas. But the ideas were much the same in its glory days, which raises the question on whether it is the appeal of those ideas that has actually run out. Recent traffic, or at least participation, appears to have fallen drastically at Superwomenmania, and once-prominent figures there like Conceptfan have dropped out of sight. In the Aurora Universe Writers Group, there has been nothing new from veterans like AK (Julie of Velor). Superheroine bloggers like Daphne Orgone have also disappeared, and an attempt last all to revive a role playing group, Bronze Babe and Friends, came to nothing. There aren’t any new superheroine fiction writers coming out of left field that I can find through Google search.
Yet at the same time, David E. Kelley is mounting a new Wonder Woman TV series, with busty Christine Hendricks of Mad Men reportedly being eyed for the part. ABC TV, which launched No Ordinary Family last year (as the title implies, an entire family gets superpowers), is developing a series featuring Marvel Comics’ Jewel, aka Jessica Jones, with Melissa Rosenberg (of Twilight movie adaptations) as head writer. Demi Lovato is rumored to be up for a superheroine part in Josh Whedon’s movie The Avengers, also from Marvel. And CW TV is gearing up for a series based on DC Comics’ Raven. There is also some successful superhero-superheroine fiction by science fiction writers, notably George R.R. Martin’s Wild Cards series, which is a variation of Marvel’s X Men.
Commercial websites devoted to superheroine photosets, comics and videos, such as Girls of Steele, Project Superwoman and SuperSexyHeroines, seem to be doing well – and UltraSexyHeroines can afford to hire models who strip out of their costumes (One even shows pink). There seems to be a cult following for the fan film Confessions of a Teenage Supergirl, starring Katie Norris – there was supposed to be a sequel to that but it never materialized (whether for lack of funding or DC putting its foot down, I have no idea). Meanwhile, Hollywood superhero films like the Iron Man series have been hits, and even the much-troubled Broadway version of Spider-Man was drawing good preview crowds at this writing.
What can I say about the future, if there is one, for superheroine fiction?
I can’t speak for the people behind any other sites, only for myself. I came late to superheroine fiction – it was 2002, seven years after “Sharon Best” launched the Aurora Universe, four years after Xtreme Strength, a year after the tragic death of Douglas W. MacBeth, and about the same time that Kelly Johnston started the Mandi Steele thing. I didn’t have any background for this – I had rarely followed the comics, and haven’t paid any attention to them at all since. My background was in science fiction. Yet somehow I developed a belated infatuation with the superheroine fantasy. It was a guilty pleasure, so of course I wrote under a pseudonym from the start – but so did “Sharon” and the other Aurora Universe writers. But while my fiction started as a guilty secret, I don’t feel guilty about it any more.
Not that I haven’t written some bad stories. Probably the worst was, ironically, “As You Like It,” an ill-advised attempt to imitate the Xtreme Strength formula. Hardly anybody liked it. It was boy meets supergirl, supergirl shows off her powers, boy gets to fuck supergirl. Period. The “period” is what ruined it – think about a movie thriller that has nothing but car chases and explosions. Same problem. I came close to doing the same thing with “An Unsuitable Job for a Messenger,” initially titled “Relentless Breasts” as it was heavy on fetish sex. The only things that redeemed it were the glimpses of Lisa Binkley’s Nova’yul as a child, and Messenger Tera’nol’s guilt and anger at having been used in a cynical intelligence sting operation that may have cost the life of the Aurean he was induced to seduce.
From the very start, however, I’ve tried to do something different with my stories. It was my idea for the protagonist of “The Defector” to be a middle-aged college professor. It was my idea for him to be traumatized by the death of his artist wife and to face a sea of troubles related to academic politics and the culture wars. It was my idea to work in allusions to authors as varied as Tolkien and Conrad. It was my idea to have Shakira the superheroine pose as an Ugly Betty type, herself troubled, and to reveal herself only when the professor’s life was in danger. It was my idea how to lead up to the Great Sex Scene and all that followed. Except that it was not my idea that he should find love with another superwoman at the end – although “Sharon” ran that ending by me in one edit, it didn’t feel right to me. Reddick Mallard ended up where and how I wanted him to.
It was my idea for the narrator of “Mundane Secrets of the Yo-Yo Brotherhood” to turn out to be an unsympathetic character, to set the story in Deer Meadow (scene of the first part of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire, Walk with Me), and to have Carl Rodd, one of Lynch’s characters, pass judgment on Jeffrey Goode. But I invented the Beasley Boys, who made a return engagement in “Deer Meadow Shuffle.” They were a lot of fun to write about. Maybe they’ll appear again some time.
In between those stories, I’d contrived to free Charmin in Sleeping Beauty, which gave me the chance to develop a romance with a lonely asteroid miner (a C.J. Cherryh-type character, Cherryh being one of my favorite sf writers). It was my idea for Charmin to make a lucky strike without her even realizing it, and for her and Alex to thus become rich and even (reluctantly) movers and shakers. But Sleeping Beauty was also a case of remarkable synergy, with the scene of Charmin’s awakening drafted by Evelyn York (the process described in a manual extract written by WordMouse), commercial attractions of Adara Station brainstormed by members of the Aurora Universe Readers Group, and, to cap it all, the Vendorians and the Vendorian Vauld – this last, which made it possible to resolve the plot came from Shadar, previously known as Sharon, and enabled me to end the story on just the right note. I’d like to see more of that creative synergy.
I like my stories to begin and end on the right notes. I’m really happy with “Twins” on that account – it seems to start off as one kind of story and end as another, yet it all hangs together as we learn what the real mission of the Twins is. I like stories that aren’t part of the Aurora Universe to be true to the characters of the superheroines in the source materials, as with “His New Super Girlfriend” (My Super Ex-Girlfriend) “The Amulet of Raja” (Lara Croft) and “Electricity” (“She’s a Marvel” episode of Guiding Light). And once I was even inspired by a throwaway scene from an Xtreme Strength story, Larafan’s “Ultrafemme – Gemini;” that’s how “The Adaptive Intimate” came about.
Most of all, I like to experiment; one example is “Double Blind,” my entry in a Superwomenmania contest for a story of no more than 1,000 words. Whitepaw said it “read like Hemingway Noir,” which hadn’t occurred to me when I was writing it, but I’ll accept the flattery. Conceptfan was a lot more perceptive: “A really enjoyable read in narration terms, well-crafted. A very simple story, ideally suited to the short format which still managed to squeeze in some atmosphere and a decent enough twist.”
Terms of Enhancement and Pictures of an Expedition were experiments in telling Aurora Universe stories in different ways – one loaded with fetish sex, the other without it. The former was also my first experiment with a Seeded world (Shadar having already created Reigel 5 for Ordinary Velorians). Of course, I had help from Jecel Assumpcčo for the Nordeste dialect of Brazilian Portuguese, but I had to work out the culture, politics and military situation of Nova Recife. The Velorian Legion was also my idea – why should superheroines all be whitebreads? It was important to me for Bidu to be a heroine, and loved from afar by Major James Kim’Vallara, before her enhancement in order for their romantic fulfillment to ring true. In Pictures, I made it a point for Alisa Kim’Vallara to have an entirely different kind of relationship with Jecel Davidson than she’d had with Peter Durgin in “Alisa’s Story,” a collaboration with Shadar. I wanted it to be a different kind of story in other ways, too, a meditation on history, as you can tell from the fadeout scene.
History is an obsession with me, and what I have enjoyed most over the past few years has been making my own stories and related ones by Shadar and others part of a historical cycle. Cordwainer Smith is one of my chief inspirations; in the shorter works of The Rediscovery of Man and his novel Norstrilia, there are a number of allusions to and cross-connections between characters and events of different eras. “The Dead Lady of Clown Town,” for example, ends with a seemingly irrelevant sentence: “In that year was born the man who was to be the first Lord Jestocost.” In “Under Old Earth” a woman we have known as Santuna vows to bring down the bland utopia of the far future, but the last lines are:
And she did it.
In later centuries she brought disease, risk and misery back to increase the happiness of man, She was one of the principal architects of the Rediscovery of Man, and at her most famous she was known as the Lady Alice More.
In “Alpha Ralpha Boulevard,” set those very centuries later, we are eyewitnesses to the Rediscovery of Man, “under the leadership of the Lord Jestocost and the Lady Alice More,” and in “The Ballad of Lost C’Mell” and Norstrilia Lord Jestocost is one of the protagonists. It was this sort of effect I was reaching for when I added a seemingly irrelevant epilogue to Part Three of Homecoming (primarily Velvet’s work), in which Aphro’dite enlists Alexius as the First Messenger to bear word to Velor that the era of the Companions in over and that of the Protectors is to begin:
"A new purpose has been given unto ye, ordained by Skietra herself, whose Appointed One approaches. Prepare ye the way of the Goddess, make straight Her path!”
I wish Shadar would finish First Protector… sigh. But I have to give him credit for starting me on this course, just as I have to credit him for having seduced me into the Aurora Universe in the first place. The pre-history of the Velorian Enlightenment had been pretty vague until he came up with the idea for the trade in Companions – I was immediately inspired to write Companions, and that in turn inspired Velvet to create the culture of the Scalantrans for the Homecoming trilogy. It is now the basis for Empress of the Dawn, based on his outline of the career of Kalla. Shadar even inadvertently gave me the idea for the Madstop Conference, as the first draft of the few chapters he wrote of First Protector referred to a planet called Potsdam – an anachronism, since Potsdam is a modern city in Germany, site of an allied conference after the defeat of Germany. So, in Cordwainer Smith fashion, I began dropping allusions to the Madstop Conference that founded the Enlightenment before giving readers an impression of the Conference itself in “Incident at Madstop.”
One of my recent experiments was Emigrants, a story set in the Aurora Universe but without any Velorians or Aureans onstage. It was about fugitives from Belside, a world created by Lisa Binkley in “Questlings,” who have to find a new home after their own is nuked by the Empire. That new home turns out to be Kelsor 7, and the story is thus yet another link in the ongoing cycle of stories I’ve been working on.
Almost as soon as it was posted, Shadar declared that it was time to scrap the old Aurora Universe canon and come up with a more realistic version of the Velorians. Given the moribund state of superheroine fiction in general, I can see his point. But I begged to differ at the time, and I still beg to differ. I have too great an investment, emotionally and intellectually, in my ongoing story cycle, which I have done my best to keep consistent internally and consistent with his earlier works and those of other contributors. I gave several examples at the time Shadar proposed his agonizing reappraisal of how essential the old canon was to me, but here I’ll stick to one from Throne of the Gods, in which disgraced Protector Theel’dara has to act like a true Velorian for the first time when cosmic disaster comes to the out-of-the-way world Domyr to which she has been effectively exiled. She can save only a few people in a shuttle that can’t get off the ground under its own power before the wave of destruction hits:
“Get in, strap down," Theel'dara said decisively. "I'll get us into space."
As the lock closed, she scrambled to grab hold of the docking attachment on top of the shuttle. Gently, she had to remind herself as she began to lift the craft. They're done for if you tear off the attachment.
There was pressure building in the atmosphere, even at this extreme altitude, as Theel'dara rose, bearing the shuttle and its precious cargo. She had only moments to spare before the terrible wave of destruction reached the Throne of the Gods.
The land itself rippled in the distance as the underlying bedrock shifted, but that rippling took only a minute to reach the Throne. The winds driven before it had already scoured the summit of all the works of the Domyrans, but hardly had the first tectonic wave reached it than another from the opposite direction around the world arrived.
Like an irresistible force meeting an immovable object, the waves simply passed through each other and continued on their way. Carried by winds that could be measured only in thousands of kilometers per hour, an impenetrable cloud of dust enveloped the mountain. But by then, Theel'dara had brought the shuttle clear of the atmosphere.
Was the cloud rising, or the mountain sinking? Probably both. She could not tell, had not really been able to pay attention. Her eyes were needed elsewhere: to scan the heavens in the right direction, to locate, zoom in on and lock on to the Scalantran ship.
It was something she had never done before. But her eyes served her well, and her course was true.
Now this scene obviously couldn’t take place if Theel’dara weren’t a Velorian in the original canonical sense. Yet if it could somehow be rewritten to show a more ordinary rescue operation by a more ordinary sort of heroine, there would be nothing particularly remarkable about it. We’d expect it to be the work of a professional simply doing her job. There’d be nothing redemptive about it, whereas for Theel’dara it is a life-changing act – “her course was true” thus has a double meaning. The entire thrust of the story is that of her redemption, from Domyr through other adventures that involve the use of her powers, to her trial on Velor where, rather than defend herself, she pleads for her world to come to the aid of Domyrans surviving in space habitats. I wanted to tell that story, and I wanted to turn the world of Velor upside down – which is what happens when Aphro’dite gives Theel’dara her blessing after being moved by her eloquence, and her father Sigurd seizes the opportunity to stage a virtual coup d’état before the eyes of the world. I’m proud of that story, and I wouldn’t want to try to retell it any other way.
To my own great surprise, The Bright Empire comes out on top in a Google search for “erotic superheroine fiction.” And from statistics over the years from two different servers for the site, I also know my readers prefer stories like Throne of the Gods, Terms of Enhancement, Pictures of an Expedition and Companions that involve a lot of imagined history and background to the sort of stories that rely only on the superheroine fantasy. “Judgment Day,” my coda to the Mission series, has attracted several times as many readers as the episodes written mostly by Rob Nagle – collaborating with him turned out to be the worst decision I ever made. Turning Shadar’s unfinished Encounter at Westfold into a steampunk story turned out to be a good decision. Taking over his “Lounge Singer” and developing it into The High Cruel Years was less so – perhaps because I got too deeply into the Machiavellian politics of Reigel 5 and introduced too many other complications. In the case of one of my original AU stories, The Rescue, I couldn’t figure out why it worked for so many readers; I thought it was a mish-mosh. Only recently did I realize I’d accidentally written a road story.
I owe my literary life to Shadar, both for getting me into this genre in the first place and for being generous in allowing me to pick up on his unfinished stories and ideas – Tanzrobian Nights is an example of the latter. Yet on the face of it, the whole enterprise is based on an absurd premise. Velorians and Aureans and behind them the Galen, are far less believable that the vampires and werewolves of the current wave of urban fantasy. Anybody who has taken even high school physics knows there’s no such thing as a “gold field,” and that it’s even sillier to imagine the Velorians tapping “orgone energy” from some parallel universe as a source of strength and invulnerability. I can hear the message: Get real!
Only I can’t. I don’t think I should. And based on apparent readership, I don’t think the people who visit The Bright Empire would want me to. God knows, I’ll never rank with Tolkien, but imagine him rewriting The Lord of the Rings to eliminate the wizards and elves and turn Sauron into a tin-pot dictator. Yet even in seemingly realistic forms of fiction, there are absurdities that we take for granted. On CSI, for example, the forensic evidence is tracked down in what seems a twinkling of the eye, and the slow process of solving crimes is speeded up for the sake of dramatic effect on many other cop shows. In regional mysteries, whether books or TV series like Murder, She Wrote, quiet little towns become murder capitals. We have historical novels by John Jakes and Herman Wouk in which members of the same families somehow manage to take part in all the key events of the Civil War or World War II. And when it comes to science fiction, the literary love of my life, can we really believe in the likelihood of faster-than-light travel, wormholes, time travel and time paradoxes, galactic empires and all the rest?
For me, the bottom line is good stories, or at least the kind of good stories I want to write. I’m willing to accept the absurdity of the Aurora Universe, as long as it can give me the pleasure of writing the kind of stories I’m best at. That doesn’t mean I’m a purist. Tarot has his own take on the Aurora Universe – in fact, he’s changed the name of it and renamed the Velorians and Arions in stories he’s working on now. I think that AK and the late Douglas W. MacBeth (ST Mac) varied the canon too, if you look at the details. In my own writing, I’ve ignored a rule that when a Velorian takes off her gold, there is a sudden spectacular release of energy. For me, that would be an encumbrance in stories about continuing relationships between Terrans and Velorians – especially in cases where the Terran isn’t supposed to know at first that he’s in a relationship with a Velorian. I learned from Tarot only recently that it is supposedly canon that starships must accelerate to near light speed to enter a wormhole. But that goes against my whole conception of interstellar journeys taking years, like the voyage of Magellan – and the revolution of the Quantum Electric Drive that reduces the time needed to reach wormholes. It’s too late to change that now, even if I wanted to.
With the precedent of Emigrants, I can see the potential for stories that would be set in the Aurora Universe as it stands, yet be entirely about the lives of the Scalantrans or the inhabitants of Seeded worlds. After all, there is a lot of good fiction set on Earth that deals with ordinary lives, and never touches on terrorism or global warming or the rising economic challenge of China, or any of the other burning issues that make the headlines. Velorians and Aureans don’t have to figure in every Aurora Universe story, any more than national politics figures in, say, Joyce Carol Oates’ We Were the Mulvaneys. But the Velorians and the Aureans are out there, just as the movers and shakers of the world were out there in 1996 when Oates’ novel was published. And those movers and shakers will take center stage again in other stories. That’s how I want it, and that’s how my readers seem to want it. So shall it be.