Speculative Fiction Writers Discuss Polyamory and Diversity
Moderator Su J. Sokol, author of the Sunburst Award-nominated Cycling to Asylum, speaks with panelists Redfern Jon Barrett, Jacqueline Koyanagi, B R Sanders, and RoAnna Sylver.
Su J Sokol (SJS): Polyamory in speculative fiction is nothing new, but some would say it’s been enjoying something of a renaissance. What’s your analysis? Also, do you see differences between past depictions of polyamory and what you’ve been seeing more recently?
Redfern Jon Barrett (RJB): There's absolutely a sweeping transformation going on right now with polyamory and the media. I think it was inevitable as same-sex marriage became more widely accepted—those doom and gloom homophobes who screamed that 'polygamy will be next' weren't so far off the mark (as they bitterly pointed out in British and Irish newspaper columns in response to my calls for polyamory rights.) Much of the public has accepted love between consenting adults, and if there's nothing wrong with two men or two women being in love, well, why not more than that? It's prompted huge interest. As for how they're depicted, I think it depends on the writer's class, gender, and social views more than time. There are works created now which show a very patriarchal mode of polyamory, and works in the 70s which are very queer and egalitarian. The main thing that's changed is the language used, particularly since the word 'polyamory' started being used in the 90s.
B R Sanders (BRS): Definitely we've seen polyamory represented before. There is Poul Anderson's Virgin Planet. There is Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. It's been around forever, but what's historically bubbled to the surface has struck me as a very male gaze-y portrayal and understanding of what polyamory could be.
I don't know that the frequency with which polyamory has been represented has changed, but I would say that the way it's been represented has begun to shift. I still see the kind of male-gaze-SO-SHOCKING-PUSHING-THE-ENVELOPE type depictions, but sprinkled in amongst them, are kinder, slyer, and often queerer depictions. Normalized depictions. These newer depictions are more often rooted in the nuts and bolts of relationships, relationships that feel lived in and populated by distinct individuals. The older ones are statements and idealizations rather than real relationships, and the participants are interchangeable.
SJS: Another question I have is whether you think that polyamory is more present in speculative fiction—particularly in dystopian and utopian fiction—than it is in general or mimetic fiction, and if so, why you think that is.
RJB: As a writer I’ve found that speculative fiction often grants us freedoms the present can't allow, a space in which alternate ways of living can gain a greater sympathy from the reader than one which might conflict with their idea of how things should be done right now. Somehow 'what can be' is less threatening than 'what we can change more immediately.' I think that's the reason polyamory (along with a whole host of other issues) turns up more frequently in future-based fiction. My first novel Forget Yourself was speculative for that exact reason, as were many of my short stories. People approach speculative and science fiction with an open mind.
A year ago I gave a paper for a polyamory conference in Lisbon, in which I explored ethical nonmonogamy in utopian science fiction. This led to two works in particular: Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) and Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time (1976). I think Piercy's queer feminist vision presents the stronger basis for a poly future, but we can see through Heinlein's book how influential such works can be, as it sparked many 'free love' groups and movements in the decades that followed.
Perhaps it's because the future has such potential as a place of hope: we're more willing to believe in an alternative if it's a little distanced from the world we live in now.
SJS: Yes! So much of what you say here resonates with me. And it's cool that you mention Marge Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time. This is one of my absolutely favourite novels. I read it when I was very young and it influenced my thinking a lot, as well as my own writing. In fact, like Piercy's book, my novel Cycling to Asylum presents both a dystopian and utopian vision of the future at the same time, though in my story I use two different cities—New York and Montréal—to do this. (Can you guess which is which?)
I’d forgotten about the poly aspect of Piercy's utopian society! It's funny, because my novel also includes the beginnings of a strong poly relationship between my two main adult characters and a third character. And it’s true what you said, Redfern—I did feel freer to express my political ideas, including about non-traditional relationships, in the context of a near-future speculative fiction novel. But now I’ve written a new manuscript that puts the type of MMF triad I'd created in Cycling into the story in a very front-and-centre way. I’m not sure I could’ve done that without having written the speculative fiction story first. And I do think that people consider my new manuscript to be more risqué because it is contemporary, mimetic fiction instead of SFF. (OK, and maybe also because it has a lot of explicit sexual content.)
RoAnna, what are your thoughts? I understand that you like to write "oddly hopeful dystopia books." Can you also tell us about that?
RoAnna Sylver (RS): I think that Redfern is onto something, absolutely: Spec-fic gives us freedom to express ourselves in ways we can't in modern-day/realistic fiction. Readers do seem to find poly or otherwise-nonconventional relationships 'more risque' here than if they're SFF. Sometimes it's easier to accept the unfamiliar if it's in the future or another planet, or 'just a dream.' I like the more optimistic way Redfern put it, though, that "people approach speculative and science fiction with an open mind."
I don't think I've seen many poly characters or relationships in utopian or dystopian fiction. Maybe writers want their dys/utopian worlds to be relatively close to reality, and including 'unrealistic' relationships and/or marginalized identities might break readers' suspension of belief. At least readers who don't fall into the above identities ... which is a sad thought. Better, more varied representation is the answer again. See enough of us, and the world will know we're no more extraordinary than any other human, certainly not an alien or magical being. We're cool, but not unrealistic!
Thank you for asking about my 'oddly hopeful' dystopian books! There's a ton of dystopian fiction around now, probably because the world can be a scary place. It serves a purpose. We need to express our fear. But we also need to know hope still exists. In Chameleon Moon, everyone has been imprisoned inside a city called Parole, and left to die above a lake of fire. Parole is a visual metaphor of living while marginalized through identity, orientation, disabilities/chronic illnesses. It is about isolation, pain, fear —and hope, survival through love. A warning, and a reassurance. Look where we're heading, in many cases, already there. But look how much we can survive. Look how strong we are already, how beautiful, how lovely, how brave.
SJS: Thanks, RoAnna, that sounds great. So what do folks believe are some of the most common misconceptions about polyamory? Do you address these misconceptions in your writing, and if so, how do you do that?
RJB: The misconception on polyamory I find most troubling is the unending assumption that it's all and only about sex. Yes, sex can be a significant and wonderful part of our relationships, but it's called polyamory for a reason—if we were simply looking for sex then we'd just have open relationships. In reality there are many types of bonds covered in polyamorous webs and constellations, and not all of them are sexual. Some very romantic, deep, and involved loves I've had have been entirely free from any kind of sex, and that's not to mention the fact that many asexual people are polyamorous.
It bothers me because that the same societal drive to limit discussions on polyamorous people to the sex they have is one which has long been used against those of us in the LGBTQ community. It's getting better, but focusing only on the sex queer people have rather than the love we share has long been used as a means of marginalising, dismissing, and mocking us, and I fear that the same tactic is being used against poly individuals. Even many of my own friends and relatives did the same at first, until they saw my family and how happy we are--and really that's the way to counter these assumptions. Familiarity brings understanding, not contempt.
That's why, when writing about polyamory in my novel The Giddy Death of the Gays & the Strange Demise of Straights I made sure to focus on the nonsexual romantic love which develops between two heterosexual roommates Richard and Dom, and the relationship they build together and with Dom's girlfriend Caroline. It's weird and new and it takes a great deal of adjustment, but it's recognising different forms of love and celebrating them which can truly allow us to move on both as individuals and a society, in all its bizarre diversity. There are speculative snippets throughout looking into the changes in their lives and to the world around them, exploring how attitudes to polyamory might change in the future.
BRS: So the biggest thing to learn about relationships in general is that they are all different, and what's true in one does not necessarily hold true in another. Polyamory makes this necessarily more complex since it factors in more people. My polyamory doesn't look like someone else's polyamory. And my polyamory with one partner doesn't really look like my polyamory with another partner. It's all a negotiation, a work in progress, a series of moving parts. Its biggest commonality is that its a huge amount of communication and transparency (mine is, anyway). It's not easy, but it's rewarding, and it works for me.
I tried to get this across in my book Ariah. Ariah, Sorcha, and Shayat each have to negotiate their relationships with each other as their triad begins to form and change. It happens pretty organically, but it also happens in a cultural space that doesn't have room for what they are trying to do--and they aren't going to be able to do it without talking it through it and being on the same page.
I also want to echo what Redfern Jon Barrett said about polyamory being reduced to sex. As an asexual person, for me, reducing polyamory to sex is deeply erasing. I am not in it for sex; my partners are not with me for sex. There is a qualitative difference in the kind of love I have for them and how I feel about my friends.
SJS: Yes, those kind of misunderstandings can be very harmful. I wonder—is polyamory one of those areas where it’s better not to write about it if you are from outside of that community, so to speak? Or is this something that anyone could write about, regardless of their actual relationship histories?
RS: I feel like with any marginalized identity, someone writing their own experience is going to be the most direct and realistic expression—ideally, many different expressions, since no identity is a singular entity and everyone experiences them in different ways. My experience of being poly will inevitably be different than somebody else's, and the only way to get an ‘authentic’ picture of what it's really like is to have as many of these voices heard as possible. That said, I don't think it's absolutely necessary for somebody to be established in the community (which can be hard to find sometimes, even with the aid of the internet) or have 'experience' to write about polyamory. It certainly helps, but experiences are such a spectrum (and the 'am I ___ enough' hurdle is steep) and good representation itself is so rare that I think whenever SFF with positive/accurate/well-written poly characters and storylines exist, it's cause for celebration. (And I've seen it happen more times than I can count with my own friends: if a writer is exploring these themes with a serious and genuine draw/interest/importance, not just chasing a trend, they're probably questioning themselves. If a non-poly writer ends up 'in the community' before long, I wouldn't be surprised.)
BRS: I think it's like anything else, really—as long as you do your homework, you can write about it really well. And that goes for being both inside and outside of a particular community. I am poly, but that doesn't mean that I am necessarily going to write about this well. I could have a very narrow perspective on it if I didn't step back and think about it and explore multiple angles of it. I think by virtue of being within a certain community you are more likely to be exposed to the multiplicity of a given community and therefore less likely to fall prey to stereotypes about that community in your writing—but it's not a given. It's really about doing the legwork. I think, as writers, there's a kind of Hippocratic Oath at play: a first, do no harm ethos. Make sure you interrogate why you want to write about a certain group of people, then make sure you talk to those people and understand what life is actually like for them.
SJS: There are some people who believe that monogamy is a more natural or desirable state or institution, whereas others may believe that a polyamorous lifestyle is the more natural and/desirable. Would you say that your inclusion of polyamorous relationships in your writing is more descriptive or prescriptive? What do you think, Jacqueline?
Jacqueline Koyanagi (JK): I aim for descriptive depictions; the last thing I'm interested in is prescriptively encouraging people to pursue one relationship path over another. If I want to encourage anything, it's the idea that nourishing relationships are best found after conscious self-examination. What do you want? What do you need? What can you offer others in relationship? Where are you growing and how does that fit into your patterns of behavior? Instead of swallowing what we're prescribed by culture without question, let's figure out what works for us and move forward from there. It may turn out that what one wants is perfectly in line with what culture teaches us, but it's often the case that we have to carve out a place for our needs and desires that doesn't quite gel with tradition. Whether that place involves monogamy, polyamory, or some other relationship style ... well, that's up to you and the people you become involved with.
SJS: Yeah, I'm pretty sure we can all agree that forcing people to be, for instance, either monogamous or polyamorous would be a bad idea. Yet, at the same time, I am curious to know if there are other thoughts on this question. People may legitimately feel that certain types of relationship styles are more or less likely to be healthy or sustainable. For instance, Redfern: Having read some of your writing—including both of your novels and, especially, the short story "Liquid Loyalty"—I do get some sense that you have more of an "advocacy" stance on this subject.
RJB: Wow, I'm really flattered that you've read all that! I have been a strong advocate for polyamory, but at the same time I agree with both of you —it should be about choice, not enforced transformation. I've long believed the polyamory-monogamy spectrum to be a form of orientation—a romantic orientation—where some people are innately more suited to polyamory, some to monogamy, with many people being more flexible and falling somewhere in the middle. I've campaigned so that people have the option to be who they are, however they love. Fiction is a wonderful tool for spreading that kind of awareness. The more people become familiar with and understand polyamory, the more they can open up to who they potentially are, or if they're more mongamously inclined, the more likely they are to accept those who are different. It might be idealistic, but I really believe we can reach the same level of tolerance and equality which has been achieved so far with same-sex relationships.
SJS: There are many possible types of polyamorous relationships, structures, and institutions, and some of them resonate quite differently than others. Can you speak about representations of polyamory that you’d like to see more of, as well as some that you might like to see less?
JK: Really, with any representation—be it relationship style or anything else—I want to see diverse depictions. I don't just want to see polyamorous triads, I don't just want to see hierarchical polyamory, I don't just want to see relationship anarchy or solo polyamory. I want to see it all. I want us to explore the myriad ways we can organize relationships, reject organization, and/or manifest something entirely unpredictable. I want to see relationships with diverse races and genders and religions or lack thereof. I want to see relationships of mixed sexual orientations, and the challenges that can arise thereof. I want to see it all.
SJS Very beautifully put, Jacqueline! How about you RoAnna? Are there relationships or related social structures that you are longing to see more of in fiction? And could you also speak about things that you are less anxious to find in stories—for instance, tired tropes, depictions that reinforce negative stereotypes, or any other representations that you could do without seeing again?
RS: Jacqueline's answer is spot-on. There are as many kinds of poly relationships in the world as there are people in them! I want to see more 'more' as well, especially mixed orientations and relationship dynamics. Queerplatonic relationships as well—I don't remember ever having seen one in a book; that would mean a lot. Here too, diverse representations of any experience is always better. You get to ‘feel more parts of the elephant,’ as it were. Anything that demonstrates the richness and vastness of who we are. Infinite diversity in infinite combinations, to borrow a Trek-phrase.
Here's one of the very few songs I know that actually talks about polyamory—and it illustrates another point. "The Perils of Poly," by Bone Poets Orchestra/Gaia Consort.
I find the song cute and fun, but by the bridge ("hot bi babe/chasing everybody like they're candied fruit", "what's got us terrified is that we'll really fall in love") I'm rolling my eyes. Because yeah, that's what everybody thinks, 9 times out of 10, that the be-all is casual hookups. Sure, that's a valid experience, but when that's the only picture anyone has, it's a little discouraging. I want more in fiction, of all kinds. I'd especially like to see healthy and realistic poly, people working out their problems, communicating, and coming to resolutions.
SJS: I just checked out the video. Thanks for adding a bit of fun and music to our panel discussion, RoAnna, and yeah, I hear you!
So are there other types of non-traditional relationships folks think should be better represented in speculative fiction or fiction in general?
BRS: I would love to see asexuality and asexual people in relationships written about more and with more depth and plurality. There are definitely tropes there to avoid (that ace people are broken, or cold, or incapable of romance or relationships). But ace people do exist and do have families and lovers.
JK: I'd like to echo BR's call for more asexual representation. I've only recently come out publicly about my own asexuality, in part due to the myriad misconceptions that slam into you the moment you start talking about it. Both asexuality and non-monogamy are far more diverse than stereotypes suggest; we've barely scratched the surface in fiction. I'd also like to see more stories in which the gradient between friendship and romance is blurred, or where friendship is a deliberate, ongoing commitment the way romance is. More characters hopping off the relationship escalator, or at least interrogating and dismantling their assumptions about relationships so that they might build something of their own.
RS: Relationships with neurodiverse and/or disabled people are incredibly important, to me personally, and to see in general. Both between two or more ND/disabled people, and able-bodied/neurotypical people. It's something we don't get nearly enough of and therefore there's very little understanding of physically or mentally ill people/how we interact and fit together in what can be incredibly meaningful, beautiful relationships. Or any concept of how we can have amazing adventures or be heroes, or attractive/romantically desirable. My feelings here are similar to the ones I have about polyamorous characters being left out of so much fiction, or LGBT in general—audiences are being robbed of awesome characters and stories, and we're not being seen for the whole, multidimensional people we are. I want every poly/lgbt/disabled reader to know exactly how valid they are. Sometimes it's the first time you've ever heard or felt it, and that is the most important feeling in the world.
BIOSSu J. Sokol is an activist, a cyclist, and a writer of speculative and interstitial fiction. A former legal services lawyer from New York City, she immigrated to Canada with her family in 2004 and now makes Montréal her home. Her debut novel, Cycling to Asylum, was long-listed for the 2015 Sunburst Award for Excellence in Canadian Literature of the Fantastic. Su’s new manuscript, Run J Run, is about the conventions of friendship, polyamorous love, chosen family, and the treatment of the mentally injured in our society.
Dr. Redfern Jon Barrett a polyamory rights campaigner and author to novels The Giddy Death of the Gays & the Strange Demise of Straights (finalist for the 2016 Bisexual Book Awards) and Forget Yourself. They currently divide their time between Britain and Berlin, where they live with their two partners.
Jacqueline Koyanagi writes science fiction and fantasy featuring queer women of color, folks with disabilities, neuroatypical characters, and diverse relationship styles. Her debut novel, Ascension, was released from Masque/Prime books at the end of 2013, and landed on the 2014 James Tiptree Jr. Honor List. Folks can find her work at jkoyanagi.com, and she’s active on Twitter @jkoyanagi.
Pronouns: they/them/their. B R Sanders is a white, genderqueer writer who lives and works in Denver, CO, with their family and two cats. B writes about queer elves, mostly, as featured in their two novels, the award-winning ARIAH and their debut novel RESISTANCE, both of which are set in the same universe. Their writing can be found here: https://brsanderswrites.com/
RoAnna Sylver (Amazon) is passionate about stories that give hope, healing and even fun for LGBT, disabled and other marginalized people, and thinks we need a lot more. Aside from writing oddly hopeful dystopia books, she is a blogger, artist, singer and voice actor. She lives with family and a small snorking dog, and probably spends too much time playing videogames. She has recently released a rewritten 2nd edition of Chameleon Moon, which she says is a lot more true to myself and the original intent—and has a lot more poly/nonbinary/asexual-explicit content.