Stranger in a Strange Land
For many, Robert Heinlein remains one of science fiction’s all-time greats. We know that many may take issue with this one, we thought it'd be nice to start with a classic example. While people tend to be more familiar with books like Starship Troopers and The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, Stranger in a Strange Land won the Hugo Award for best novel in 1962 and may be one of Heinlein’s most polarising works. When it was first published, it served as an introduction to the concept of polyamory for many readers. The book tells the story of Mike Smith, the so-called “Man from Mars” who returns to Earth after years on the red planet. Having been raised by martians, Smith is largely ignorant of Earth customs, and so must adapt to the lifestyle and culture of earthbound humans.
As well you can imagine, this is where the polyamorous aspect of the book comes in. Thanks to his having grown up so far from humanity, Mike Smith boasts a range of powers, abilities, and attitudes far from the human norm. Once he’s had a chance to familiarise himself with human culture, Smith founds a church influenced by his martian heritage. Unfortunately, for all the ways in which Stranger in a Strange Land feels like a about the importance of maintaining a sense of openness, the fact remains that it was largely written in the 1950s. There are points at which the book shows its age almost painfully, not least in its attitudes to women, but for all that it remains a solid read.
If you enjoy the Heinlein take on polyamory, you’d also do well to check out Friday and Time Enough for Love.
Woman on the Edge of Time
Unlike Robert Heinlein, Marge Piercy probably won’t be on too many people’s list of all-time great science fiction writers, but that’s a shame given the calibre of her writing. Though Piercy is probably better known for her 1993 Arthur C. Clarke Award-winning novel, He, She and It, her near-utopian Woman on the Edge of Time may be of more interest to readers looking for depictions of polyamory in fiction.
It would probably be more accurate to describe Woman on the Edge of Time as speculative fiction, rather than science fiction, but as ever there’s a lot of crossover. The book’s protagonist is 37-year-old Connie Ramos, who has been institutionalised and begins to have visions of a woman from the future named Luciente. In the world Luciente describes, concepts like income inequality and racism have been extinguished. Men and women take lovers of any gender (their “sweetfriends”) and reproduction is controlled so that children are born only when a member of the community dies. It’s an idealistic portrayal of a future in which polyamory is just one element of a more open and sustainable culture.
The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet
Becky Chambers’ debut novel The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet was shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award and longlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2015. This is an excellent book for anyone who’s ever fallen in love with the tight constraints of a ship’s crew struggling to get by while they flit from one star system to the next. Here, we’re introduced to the crew of the Wayfarer through the eyes of Rosemary Harper, a young woman trying to distance herself from her own past.
As is so often the case in your typical close-quarters space exploration scenario, members of the Wayfarer’s crew become romantically entangled in the course of their business establishing wormholes to new locales. Alongside the polyamory that’s led to the book’s inclusion in this post, there are some unconventional romances that suit the combination of theme and setting too well to ignore, but to describe them in too much detail here would rob you of the fun of seeing them unfold for yourself. For the moment, we’ll have to leave you with that tantalising tidbit.
If The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet leaves you hungry for more, Chambers has since produced a sequel, titled A Closed and Common Orbit, which has been nominated for the 2017 Hugo Award for best novel.
We’ve talked about Octavia E. Butler before, though in that instance it was to recommend her frankly spectacular Patternist series (if you haven’t read it, it’s well worth a look). If it’s possible, Dawn is an even stranger book than the telepathy-based Patternmaster or Mind of My Mind. Set in a distant future in which humanity has been brought to the brink of a nuclear extinction, the book picks up centuries later when its protagonist wakes on an Oankali spaceship, in which the last remainder of humanity is being returned to repopulate the Earth.
The undoubted highlight here is that the alien race that saves humanity, the Oankali, are such a fundamentally alien race. Given how often alien races in science fiction effectively mirror human gender and sexual relations, it’s a particular pleasure to read that the Oankali’s cross-species sexuality, which necessitates that they mate not only with other Oankali, but also with members of other races. The resulting narrative is an interesting meditation on ideas of purity, gender, and humanity. It’s one of that excellent class of science fiction novels that quietly challenges views its readers may never have known they held.
The Fifth Season
N. K. Jemisin has made a name for herself with her spectacular Inheritance trilogy, beginning with The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. While The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is itself an excellent novel with a strong poly relationship at its core, sadly it doesn’t qualify for this list by virtue of being a fantasy novel. By contrast, her Hugo Award-winning novel, The Fifth Season, has a rich seam of science fiction running through it, and while it could be read as either sci-fi or fantasy, it also features a polyamorous relationship that’s just too sweet to ignore.
Early in the novel, we’re introduced to a class of individuals with the power to manipulate the earth with their minds. Due to the obvious implications of having human earthquakes wandering the landscape, these individuals tend to be strictly controlled and trained, but they are also the subject of rigorous breeding programs to produce increasingly pronounced powers. Given that this program of forced breeding is effectively the first relationship we see unfold in the narrative, the protagonist’s progression to a loving and stable polyamorous relationship is both unexpected and touching. The relationships between the three individuals involved are sometimes fraught, sometimes complicated, but never feel unnatural or constructed.
Honestly, more than anything else, it’s sweet. Saps that we are, we can’t help but love it.