Recently, over at the Tor.com blog, there was an article lamenting the absence of polyamorous relationships in science fiction and fantasy. The piece gets a bit repetitive in parts as Mandelo pines for more examples of plural love, but the questions posed near the end (one explicit, one implicit) struck me:
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.
As far as science fiction is concerned, the situation I have encountered most frequently with regard to polyamory is the gene pool angle. From hardcore “science fact” speculative fiction to flashy space operas, the issue is treated in one of two ways. In the first, it is treated with sterile, clinical disregard for sentimentality attached to sex, and for some reason, everyone goes along with it emotionlessly. The other, with a wink and a nod, men offer serious reasons (note: gene drift and shrinking gene pools are serious issues in isolated communities) but in reality are grinning like 14 year old boys at the thought of repopulating the species with as many women as possible.
For example, a classic moment in Star Trek: TNG: (Jump ahead to 4:40. The timed embed isn’t working)
When the episode aired, the very notion of suggesting polyamory on prime time television was controversial. This is before we had shows like Big Love dedicated to handling the topic in a more realistic way. So on one level, I appreciate Star Trek: TNG’s effort in shifting the Overton Window on polyamory just by bringing it up. But the scene itself is dripping with stereotypical behavior. Even Dr. Pulaski can’t help but grin here. (To be fair, it seems she can’t wipe that smirk off her face no matter how serious the topic is.) Topping it off is the only plausible reaction: Picard rolling his eyes at the absurdity of it all as something between genuine character response and audience surrogate. He lampshades the silliness being displayed, and in the one redeeming moment offers the suggestion that the other delegate is just scared of the ramifications of uniting their societies, not of the polygyny specifically. He desperately gives the audience hope that this is still a serious topic being dealt with maturely, only to have that hope dashed by the delegate declaring that it is “repugnant.”
As far as fantasy, Mandelo’s article missed the granddaddy of modern fantasy epics: the Wheel of Time. In it, Rand al’Thor falls in love with not one, but three women: Elayne, Min, and Aviendha. He spends the better part of Fires of Heaven whining about this predicament (as do several of the women who pine for his return). Eventually, he ends up married to all three, and them to each other.
How do you know it’s a cop out? It’s easy. It’s far too easy, to the degree of being unbelievable. The women are all such good friends that they readily and wholeheartedly jump into it. And from that point forward, none of the relationships is ever truly explored in any meaningful way. Aside from moments of longing for one or the other, there’s no window into the reality of their relationships. There’s nothing domestic about the relationships; the problems of the world supersede all else to the point where the relationships are conveniently about sex and longing. We don’t need lurid details of whether the women bump uglies without Rand around. But the effect of the absence of detail of any sort beyond the Rand+Woman of the Day coupling is a rigidly compartmentalized set of three relationships independent relationships (no matter what is said about how much the women care for each other). He’s married to three separate women, in three separate relationships, not unlike wife-and-mistress-and-mistress. We never see anything normal or relatable about how they interact as a polyamorous unit, so there’s no way to really treat them as such.
The end result is the “Luckiest Man Alive” phenomenon. Again.
So, what would the best way to handle it be? My feeling on it is to build it into the world on day one if you are going to explore the topic at all. Don’t even “explain” it. Just have it present. If it’s a fantasy world, have the MC’s parents in a polyamorous relationship, or someone in their village, or whatnot. The fact that they are in a polyamorous relationship should, at that point, be treated like any other relationship. It doesn’t need explaining, or excusing, or further comment. Just make it an unobtrusive part of the world, as everyday and normal as trees.
I’m not saying it should be done this way to avoid criticism or opposition. Quite the opposite. If it is explained thoroughly, or treated as something “special” enough to warrant a long description, then it becomes an author soapbox, where the author is shouting, “SEE? THIS IS NORMAL!” The best way to show something is normal is to treat it as uninteresting from the perspective of the characters.