The 2010 Hugo nominees include at least three stories that puzzle over the nature of love. This is nothing new for science fiction, but it is remarkable to me that they arose at about the same time, and that many people were reading them in tandem, as it were, in order to decide their votes.
The stories I mean are rachel_swirsky's "Eros, Philia, Agape," kijjohnson's "Spar", and nicolagriffith's "It Takes Two." Each story is brilliant and troubling in its own right, and each approaches differently the same question: Is love real? How can we know? And does it matter?
In "Spar," which was (to me) the most upsetting of the three, a woman is trapped in a tiny spacefaring lifeboat with an alien creature with whom she has near-continual sex for weeks. The alien is so different from her that they have no way to communicate; she cannot tell whether it knows she is alive, and is not sure that it has a "mind" in the sense that she understands minds. The sex is sometimes fantastic, sometimes awful, but totally random -- she and the alien do not learn from each other, do not learn to please each other; she does not want to please it, cannot tell whether it wants to please her. In the end they are rescued, and she chooses to leave the empty, enveloping cocoon of physicality, presumably in search of something "real."
What's upsetting about "Spar" is the extent to which we are alienated from our love objects. The protagonist's inability to know whether the alien feels anything for her or even thinks about her is an exaggerated expression of what we are unable to know in our romantic lives. How can you know what your lover actually feels for you? How can you know whether your desires for him/her are what s/he wants/needs? Even when your lover deliberately brings you to the height of ecstasy, does that mean anything? We are existentially locked in our own heads, and the deep emotional intimacy we feel, especially in sexual moments, may be a comforting illusion. *Shudder*
In "Eros, Philia, Agape," an adult victim of child sexual abuse purchases an android lover, programmed to be exactly what she needs, and not to be the things she fears/hates. The android's solicitude is so perfect that she comes to love him, militates politically for his rights, and eventually alters his programming so that he is able to self-program, free of any constraints set by her or anyone else. As soon as she does this, he chooses not only to leave her, but to delete the aspects of his personality that make him human, beginning with speech but moving on to attachments of any kind. She is left longing and desolate, he is left moving in a direction he does not know. The story ends on a barely-hopeful note, leaving us with the possibility that maybe, maybe after the android has discovered what/who he really is, he will find that he loves her and return. But maybe not.
As the title suggests, "Eros, Philia, Agape" is a meditation on the compatibility of the different varieties of love. Sexual love can be comforting or can be not love at all, but brutality. Love of the other as other -- the wish to promote the happiness of the love object (agape) -- may run contrary to desire (eros) and filial love (philia). The beloved, freed to find his own happiness, may desert the family and become an unavailable object of desire. But more to the point, the protagonist learns that the love and intimacy she thought she experienced with her android was the result of the programming; given the freedom to explore himself, he leaves her in a moment. Yet even that is too simple -- he may want to love her, but how can he know whether he loves her if he does not know what or who he is? Is it fair to expect desire, or empathy, or loyalty, from someone who is unformed?
The most optimistic of the three, for me, is "It Takes Two." Two women are the willing subjects of an experiment in which they (1) forget they are in an experiment, and (2) are subjected to biochemical-behavioral manipulation which causes them to fall in love with each other. The emotions they experience are profound -- not merely a specific sexual longing for one another, but an intense empathy and desire for emotional intimacy. When they have begun to experience the intensity of their feelings, but before they have the chance to commit to anything like a permanent relationship, the experimenter reveals the experiment to each of them. He gives them the option of reversing the effects of the experiment and forgetting each other. Each woman knows that she has been chemically manipulated, that the feelings are "artificially" created; each suspects that the other woman may be engaged in her own manipulation, may not, in "fact", love her at all. But each chooses, nonetheless, to refuse the reversal and to pursue the relationship.
"It Takes Two" reminds me a lot of Much Ado About Nothing -- the romance is deliberately induced by an outsider. Does that make it unreal? More to the point, what's more "real" about "naturally" occurring feelings? We know that we are biological creatures, that our emotions are the result of electrochemical impulses in our brains, but that does not mean that we dismiss them, minimize their importance or disregard their personal and ethical implications. As the protagonist of the story says, we never really know whether another person loves us. But life, but love, consists of accepting that uncertainty with open eyes and stepping forward together.
I'm a romantic, and I’m also long-married. To me a meditation of the nature of love may be the most important thing an artist can do. I am grateful to these wonderful women for their profound, crucial stories. I hope you all read them.