Queer Time in Space: Helen S. Wright’s A Matter of Oaths and Non-reproductive Futures
In 2017, Bloomsbury republished Helen S. Wright’s science-fiction novel A Matter of Oaths, which had originally appeared in 1988 with Methuen in the United Kingdom and Popular Library in the United States. The novel unfolds a space operatic vision of opposing galactic empires and a cyberpunk technology that harnesses pilots’ minds to power spaceships. On her website, Wright features the novel’s new cover and a short passage titled “A Question of Covers,” commenting on the original editions and their choice of cover design: in the 1980s, both publishers, Wright points out, engaged in White- and agewashing, rendering the main male protagonist White on both cover illustrations, and depicting the main female protagonist as a young woman rather than close to retirement.
These instances of visual packaging that disregard the text’s diverse cast of characters highlight the norms at play in the genre and marketplace. Moreover, the presence of a conventionally attractive man and woman on the Popular Library edition’s cover implies a heterosexual romance that the novel does not bear out. The relative but belated success in 2017 suggests a sense of untimeliness: what seems to have been a marketing conundrum in the late 1980s now situates the novel squarely in a wave of women-authored SF, concerned with the speculative politics of gender, sexuality, and race as well as the entanglements of human and machine. In the same vein, blurbs by Ann Leckie and C. J. Cherryh on Wright’s website illustrate how the republished text chimes with contemporary sensibilities in 2017.
The short preface by Becky Chambers introducing the re-published text draws on this notion of timeliness. Chambers frames Wright’s novel as having come “too early” for her as a young reader. As a queer child looking for fiction resonating with her experience, Chambers writes: “I didn’t read A Matter of Oaths when I should have. . . . I needed this book a decade later, when I was devouring the written side of science fiction like I’d been starving my whole life prior. But by then, A Matter of Oaths was out of print” (Chambers 1). Chambers goes on to inscribe the novel in a feminist and queer archive claiming Wright as a forgotten precursor of recent SF like her own: “Female leads, queer characters, characters of colour—these did not spring forth from the 2010s, Athena-like, a stunning new dawn in the realm of science fiction” (3). Instead, she holds, readers and writers need to remember and recover the writing of marginalized authors and acknowledge their contribution, despite their absence from the canon and bestseller list: “we have a short memory, we humans. It’s a definite trait in the science fiction community, and a particular irony, as we revel in thinking as far out as we can” (2). This brief look at the novel’s publication history illustrates how it jarred with contemporary notions and sensibilities governing the marketplace in the 1980s. Chambers’s preface and Wright’s own website both draw on notions of timeliness and temporal misses in the way that the novel mis/aligns with particular moments. This throws into relief themes that recur in the novel itself. Biographical time, temporal disjunction, and memory and the archive play a crucial role in the plot, bridging text and paratext in a surreptitious crossing.
My reading of A Matter of Oaths focuses on the way that time in the novel is bent into queer time to accommodate the protagonists’ identities and relationships in a hopeful reconfiguration of the SF trope of immortality. This temporal biographical anomaly is at the root of the central conflict and emerges as the surprising discovery at the end of the novel. The novel opens with Rallya, the aging commander of a spaceship, taking on a new officer, Rafe, who has been “identity wiped” because he has allegedly broken his oath of serving only one of the immortal twin emperors ruling over the galaxy. He joins Rallya’s ship, falls in love with a crewmate, Joshim, and becomes the target of assassination attempts, which neither of the characters can explain. The narrative starts to cover not only the present, but also the past as Rafe and his friends and lover try to recuperate the memories of his life before they had been erased. It turns out that he had been kidnapped and identity wiped by the Old Emperor to spite the New Emperor, who had been Rafe’s lover. These memories resurface because Rafe’s present lover looks exactly like the New Emperor, an unwitting doppelgänger, and a coincidental mnemonic trigger. Eventually, in an instance of dramatic irony, Rallya realizes that the reason for the emperors’ interest in Rafe is that he, too, is immortal, a fact that Rafe is ignorant of.
This constellation pits different biographical and temporal trajectories against each other: Rallya stubbornly clings to her position on the ship but will eventually have to appoint a successor. Her aging is explicitly framed as embodied physiological deterioration, for example, when “her hip was troubling her. The surgeons talked about the inevitable effects of age, suggested drugs that would keep her out of the web, and were surprised when she would not listen to them” (Wright 26). At the same time, Rallya is an important character and mover in the story, occupying a position of power and agency. Although the depiction of her aging seems ordinary in the SF setting, her prominence in the story is extraordinary in that it centers on an aging yet still desiring female body. Joshim provides another foil for the ordinary and extraordinary biographical chronologies embodied by Rallya and Rafe. As an adherent of Aruranism, he believes in reincarnation and engages in mnemonic techniques to remember his previous lives, which the text suggests is successful. The plot is organized around the puzzle of Rafe’s memories and their recuperation, which entails an active recreation of his identity. With every newly recalled detail about his past, his relationship with Joshim and the other protagonists shifts. This recuperation relies on guesswork from flashbacks, déjà vu moments, dreams, and a trance induced through a ritual inspired by Aruranism. The halts, gaps, and jumps in this reconstruction are juxtaposed with the ‘official time’ of documents pulled from the Empires’ archives and reproduced at the beginning of chapters. While the recovery of Rafe’s past is a creative process animating the plot and keeping relationships in suspense, it also drives home the idea of identities and memories as unstable markers. My brief summary already assembles different configurations of time that may run parallel or across each other: end-less and end-stopped biographical trajectories, cyclical and remembered time, and fixed and official calendar time. Although the text may be productively mined for any of these, I specifically focus on Rafe’s immortality and how it is couched in the queer, that is, emphatically non-reproductive time of ‘webbing.’
These different ‘times’ play out in a horizon in which sexual reproduction as the main structuring element of ‘straight time’ is missing. This absence is over-determined in the text: Firstly, the sexual relationships among the crew are almost exclusively gay, and secondly, participating in ‘webbing,’ that is, in piloting spaceships by fusing the crew’s bodies and minds with the ship comes with the inevitable side-effect of infertility.  This emphasis on non-reproductivity becomes even more obvious when considering how ‘webbing’ is imagined in terms of intimacy and sexual pleasure. The web as a technological device and a metaphor is lifted from cyberpunk but, I would argue, Wright modifies its meaning. The web room is a special part of the spaceship where the members of the crew submerge themselves in a gelatinous liquid and connect their bodies’ neural systems with the ship’s conduits to control it. The web designates both this virtual space and the artificial modification of the webbers’ bodies that allows them ‘to web.’ The effect is not a renunciation of the body, as in cyberpunk, but the joyful embodied experience of exclusive sociality in terms of sexuality:
In the web, your brain was linked to the body of the ship, your nerves carried sensations that nonwebbers would never know. You only had to loosen the chains of discipline a little to tap the web’s full potential, to create new sensations, to explore new pathways through your extended body, a body that encompassed your companions in the web as their bodies now encompassed you. (Wright 129)
Thus, unlike the cyberpunk trope of virtual reality as a refuge from or for the body, there is a continuity between the intimacy of the web and the corporeal romantic and sexual relationships lived by the participants outside it. Both spaces complement each other and both present versions of queer, non-dyadic, non-monogamous sexual pleasure. Significantly, in this constellation, sex is always non-reproductive because infertility is an inevitable side-effect of webbing, a fact that is never raised as a ‘problem,’ but as a scientific if inconsequential fact. Instead, ‘family’ is created through affinity and allegiance, epitomized in the eponymous collective oaths that signify elective kinship.
The web as a queer space also codes gay pasts. The webroom bears overtones of historical bathhouses: it teems with the “tangle of bare skin, dark and pale, brown, yellow and red” (35) around tubs, showers, and locker rooms that are also the site of erotic encounters. The material infrastructure of the ‘web’ thus gestures towards earlier historical spaces of gay culture and public sex which functioned as utopian subcultural pockets of possible futures (cp. Muñoz 33ff). The web figures as a queer knot of virtual space-time that carries echoes of the past and transposes them into the far future so that it connotes images that elasticate its meaning by drawing in the present and ghostly past of actual queer places and times.
In this context, Rafe’s immortality may be framed as the expression of queer temporality through a generic trope that is turned into a hopeful and reparative image. The chrononormative (Freeman 3) progress of the individual from childhood and youth to maturity, marriage, reproduction, and death underwrites the trajectory of the bildungsroman following the male subject gradually growing into heterosexual and national citizenship. Within and aslant this time, however, exists queer time, “unscripted by the conventions of family, inheritance and childrearing” (Halberstam 2) and instead organized around subcultural “transient, extrafamilial and oppositional modes of affiliation” (154). This appears affectively asynchronous to straight time through delays, repetitions, and a utopian charge that reaches beyond the straight horizon of history and generation into what Muñoz describes as “anticipatory illumination of queerness” (22). A Matter of Oaths offers a queer timescape for its plot to unfold, in which the structuring elements of generation and reproduction are irrelevant. Instead, Rafe’s posthuman lifespan signifies biography beyond chrono- and heteronormativity. The Old Emperor, another immortal, is described as having a “face alarming in its apparent youth. A thousand years or more older than Ayvar [the New Emperor]; he looked as if he had been frozen as a gauche adolescent” (Wright 238). Suspended in puberty, he literalises Halberstam’s epistemological centering of youth to understand the “alternative temporalities” of queer subculture that forego chrononormative adulthood (Halberstam 2).
As the most prominent gay character in the novel, Rafe’s ‘chronic condition’ also emerges as a reparative metaphor. First published in the late 1980s, the text suggests “the temporalities of HIV” (Dean 77) as another horizon in which to understand the trope of immortality. Tim Dean describes the affective temporal disjunction that infection engenders as “death sentence time” (80) to capture the uncertainty and asynchronicity of living with HIV. In this context, Rafe’s immortality also figures as a utopian image of survival against all odds whose temporal hyperbole contrasts sharply with the reality and experience of “death sentence time.” Alexis Lothian has made a similar argument about the vampire’s immortality in relation to indigeneity (discussing Jewelle Gomez’s The Gilda Stories), writing that “the stretched-out life narratives of immortality . . . breed futures for communities whose past has been lost or stolen” (123). A Matter of Oaths proffers a similar reparative reading that values queer temporalities through speculative metaphor.
 In the case of Rallya, her age introduces a third barrier, as the reader has to assume that she has entered menopause.
Chambers, Becky. Introduction. A Matter of Oaths, by Helen S. Wright. Bloomsbury, 2017, pp. 1–3.
Dean, Tim. “Bareback Time.” Queer Times, Queer Becomings, edited by Mikko Tuhkanen and E. L. McCallum. State U of New York P, 2011, pp. 75–99.
Freeman, Elizabeth. Time Binds. Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories. Duke UP, 2010.
Halberstam, Jack. In a Queer Time and Space. Transgender Bodies, Subcultural Lives. New York UP, 2005.
Lothian, Alexis. Old Futures. Speculative Fiction and Queer Possibility. New York UP, 2018.
Muñoz, José Esteban. Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. New York UP, 2019.Wright, Helen S. A Matter of Oaths. Bloomsbury, 2017.
Sabina Fazli is a postdoc in the collaborative research centre Studies in Human Categorisation at Mainz University, Germany, where she is working in a project on popular and independent magazines at the Obama Institute of Transnational American Studies. She is co-editor of a German-language handbook on magazine studies published in 2022. Sabina received an M.A. in English literature, comparative literature, and cultural anthropology and a Ph.D. in English literature from Göttingen University. Her thesis was published as a book in 2019 as Sensational Things: Souvenirs, Keepsakes, and Mementos in Wilkie Collins’s Fiction. She has taught and published on speculative fiction, with an article on popular steampunk forthcoming in Neo-Victorian Studies.