A Twitter question and conversation involving Holly Black, among others, got me thinking about non-traditional relationships in speculative fiction. While I’m seeing more and more queer characters and couples in SFF, there’s still a dearth of other types of relationships. Threesomes, foursomes, moresomes if you prefer the term—where are they?
The multiple-partnered relationship is inherently queer even in occasional circumstances where the attraction and involvement is predominantly heterosexual: they’re outside the social norm and unwelcome in that norm. They're treated as Other, legally and socially. In circumstances of equal attraction among the parties involved, a non-traditional relationship is queer on that level also. Bisexuality (or pansexuality) isn’t altogether common as a whole in SFF, let alone in combination with an alternate love-structure.
So what gives? Is it the potential difficulty in juggling the emotional conflicts and developments of three or more characters that keeps people from writing stories about them? Is it that most people who’ve never been in a polyamorous relationship don’t think about them, though they may think of queer couples? I can’t say for sure.
In the interest of full disclosure: my first passionate love-relationship was as part of a triad. Things did not work out—ego, age and the problems of a young man who was uncomfortable with his sexuality—but it left me with a lasting impression of love as something bigger and more open to possibilities than most people accept. That may be the reason I’d like to see more stories that treat three-and-moresomes as viable, acceptable relationships. It reflects my experience.
(On the other hand, I happen to prefer stories about queer folk as a whole, so even if I hadn’t had that relationship, I still would have been thumbs-up for non-traditional love structures.)
The original Twitter discussion was about love triangles in YA fiction (love ‘em or hate ‘em?), which spurred me to think about the trope as a whole: why does it have to be combative? So many books use the triangle to push plot but would never consider letting the three characters in question come together. YA is a genre that frequently explores the development and discovery of a lead character’s sexuality; I would expect a bit more relationship variety. (Though honestly, I’ve found less queer spec-fic as a whole in YA—I’m unsure if that’s my lack of ability to find it, or an actual lack? Topic for later.)
Outside of that genre, in adult speculative fiction, there have been a few stellar examples of stories with moresomes. Catherynne M. Valente’s Hugo-nominated Palimpsest features a polyamorous romantic unit in an erotic world where sexuality as a whole is much more fluid than in most novels. The relationship built between the lead characters comes together slowly, piece by piece, and has some friction as is inevitable in any combination of people. I thoroughly appreciated the portrayal of alternate relationship-structure and how it contributed to the novel as a whole instead of being shunted off to the side.
Another book, this one older, also sticks out in my mind. Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time deals with different family units and relationship structures. The building of a family with three or more folks involved is a point I haven’t seen much of in SFF, though I know there must be more examples out there, especially from the libertarian-heyday of SF. The tensions between characters as they parent in one group, love in others, and manage everything in between is fantastic—Piercy allows for the problem of jealousy and mediation of jealousy in these alternate structures. It’s not a perfect book but it’s an interesting one.
And you may never hear me say this in public again, but that’s one thing the later Anita Blake books by Laurell K. Hamilton have going for them: Anita’s relationship with her live-in partners Nathaniel and Micah is perhaps the most functional and sane of all the romance and sex going on in the book. The latest novel also explored a bit of the relationship between the men themselves, too. The books might be, well, not good, and frequently make me wince on a feminist and/or writer level, but they are openly kink-and-poly-positive at this point in the story. (Everyone has a guilty pleasure, all right?)
The interview with Elizabeth Bear from a few weeks ago dealt some with this, too, as she herself has written novels with alternate family and love structures.
So, I can’t say there are none. I simply wish there were more that treated polyamory with respect and intelligence in SFF. The romance genre seems to have a bigger availability of alternate relationships despite its tight restriction to convention, but we all know my love is for speculative fiction.
As for why there aren't more, I do think the potential difficulty of writing a functional polyamorous relationship might be part of the reason. Weaving tension, struggle and inevitable friction between a couple together with an overarching plot in a novel is hard, to say the least. Adding another character, which in many books would mean adding another POV, may be a bit daunting. The added component of the enhanced struggle of managing emotions between three people without allowing jealousy or “unfairness” to creep in is difficult in real life. In fiction, equally so, especially if the writer themself has no experience in the matter. Writing a three-way relationship instead of the usual two-way adds a new level of expertise to the narrative: after all, in an SFF novel, you've usually got some large, earth (or wherever) shattering calamities going on that need solving in addition to the interpersonal relationships.
I'm not trying to excuse the lack of poly relationships, mind. I still think there should be more and that it can be done well, since I've seen writers manage it. That doesn't mean I don't have some idea of what might be holding people back. So, one of the things I'd like to see: more stories that challenge the social norm entirely, discard it in favor of exploring the possibilities of larger love-structures.
In space, why does the two-person relationship stay the norm? I’d like to see more collective relationships developed between people living together in shuttle environments, for example. Close quarters are bound to produce some interesting variety in liaisons and emotions. In a second-world fantasy, it would be one more part of the created universe to have the regular structure of relationships include three or more people for a family unit. (Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis books present a way of dealing with this through science fiction, though I wouldn’t say they present the two human, one alien relationship as equal or fair.)
I would like to see more stories with characters doing things a little differently and making it their own way, with the people they choose, even if it’s not what everyone expects. I’d like to see more love triangles turn into relationships. That’s what I want more of. Equal, loving, functional relationships between more than just two people—I know it can be done, dammit. Throw any books or stories my way, I’ll happily find and devour them. I’m also interested in narratives that deal with the management of a long-term alternately structured relationship and not just the initial “hook-up,” so to speak.
Then again, Nalo Hopkinson’s tweeted response to my musing on needing more threesomes in YA and specfic is perhaps the most meaningful of all: “We gotta write em if we want em.”
That’s certainly the truth.