I grew up thinking that everyone was bisexual. When I came out in the 1980s, I believed that all people were, in varying degrees of self-awareness, lying to themselves about being straight or gay. They just hadn’t met the right person to sway their compass. I believed that, despite all the evidence in books that men were men and women were women and the differences were as clear as the ends of magnets.
Of course, as you do, I came to accept everyone as they are, whomever they love. Still, I continued to look for reflections of my own loves in the fiction I read.
Before I share the books that were important to me, let me say that I’ve limited my list purely to science fiction. There are many worthy books like Octavia Butler’s Fledgling, Pat Murphy’s Nadya, Tanya Huff’s Sing the Four Quarters, and many volumes of paranormal/queer genre romance, but those didn’t fit my parameters for this list.
Also, this list can’t claim to be the definitive list of all science fiction with bisexual main characters. As in life, bisexual characters aren’t easy to identify unless they announce themselves. Please add to my reading in the comments.
THE LEFT-HAND OF DARKNESS by Ursula K. LeGuin
Genly Ai is a human envoy from the Ekumen, an 83-world collective that’s striving to broker peace in the galaxy. Genly is sent to Winter, where the inhabitants can choose to alter their gender in order to have sex and bear children. Poor misogynist Genly despises everything womanly he sees in the Gethenians, even as he is politically outmaneuvered and has to rely on Estraven to survive. The book was published in 1969.
When I read this award-winning novel for the first time at university, I was enraged that the main character couldn’t get over his physical repulsion to connect with Estraven, who seemed to be the perfect bisexual, completely unconcerned by the gender of his/her lovers. (Pronoun usage is complicated, because the Gethenians are a neutral gender — designated by Genly as he — until they choose to manifest male or female attributes.) I read the novel differently when I finally got up the courage to face it again. In fact, it demonstrates that love transcends the need for sex. I wonder how I’ll read it in another 30 years.
DHALGREN by Samuel R. Delany
Six years after LeGuin’s book was published and won the Hugo and Nebula for best novel, Samuel Delany’s main character had crazy bisexual sex in the trippy masterpiece Dhalgren. The Midwestern city of Bellona has survived some unknown catastrophe that cuts it off from the rest of the world. Gangs roam the streets in holographic drag. Even the sun and moon are out of whack. Through the chaos moves the Kid, suffering from amnesia as least and schizophrenia at worst, writing poetry and having sex with anyone who shows an interest.
The sex remains surprisingly raw, 40 years after the book’s publication. What’s remarkable about Dhalgren, beyond how graphic it is, is the way that while Kid makes sure to get his, he also makes sure that everyone else gets theirs, too. He’s been compared to the god Pan, which makes total sense to me. Gender is no thing to Kid, who prefers young men but isn’t the least bit picky. The sex has a gritty, slightly Burroughsian roughness to it, but the fluidity of Kid’s appetites is remarkable. I found the book fascinating and liberating, but I can see how it might be too much for others.
BURNING BRIGHT by Melissa Scott
Jumping forward into the 1990s, Melissa Scott’s space opera novel of games players was recommended to me by members of Facebook’s Queer Sci Fi community. The book opens with apprentice pilot Quinn Lioe, who is eager to show her prowess at the virtual reality game that is the central draw for tourists to the city and planet of Burning Bright. Of course Lioe is unaware that the planet is caught between the human-led Republic and the alien Hsaioi-An — and the game she’s playing will enmesh her in the conflict.
I was thrilled to discover a civilization where everyone is bisexual and same-sex relationships are so commonplace that no one blinks. Relationships merely display facets of the characters, not the sole determinant of how they get along in society or a mark of class or an expression of personal politics. People have relationships with whomever they choose and no one judges. I was amazed to discover the future I have wanted to live in all along.
THE THIRD CLAW OF GOD by Adam-Troy Castro
Andrea Cort is an investigator for humanity’s Diplomatic Corps, traveling from planet to planet to sort out murder mysteries that could lead to interplanetary incidents. In this, the second book of the series, Andrea is trapped in a locked-room mystery in space and must unravel the machinations of the conscience-free Bettelhine family, arms merchants whose destructive impulses threaten life throughout the galaxy.
By 2009, when this second Andrea Cort novel was published, bisexuality had had its own flag for 10 years. It had been an accepted part of the LGBT rainbow for 17 years. Despite that, debates still continued about whether bisexuals were experimenting, lying to themselves, or simply indecisive.
So it was refreshing to me to meet Skye and Oscin Porrinyard, a woman and man who have been cylinked into a single person with two bodies. Porrinyard falls in love with Andrea Cort and, before long, she wakes up to her attraction to them, loving each individually and both as a pair. The relationship is complicated — or enhanced — because whatever Andrea does to one of their bodies, it’s experienced by both. Their relationship is the highlight of the series for me.
GENTLEMAN JOLE AND THE RED QUEEN by Lois McMaster Bujold
Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga began in 1986 with Shards of Honor and has survived the death of one of its main characters with Gentleman Jole, which was published in February 2016. Admiral Oliver Jole is still grieving the death of Aral Vorkosigan, his commander and true love, when the Vorkosigan’s widow offers a proposition: she and Aral had frozen some of their genetic material in hopes of having more children some day — and she would like to give Jole the possibility of fathering posthumous sons with Aral. As he considers the pros and cons, he falls deeper in love with Cordelia herself.
Several authors I respect have mentioned that the Vorkosigan novels — particularly this one — are their favorite depictions of bisexuality. I’d been meaning to read the series eventually, but the buzz was strong enough that I started at the end. I enjoyed this book immensely. For one thing, the characters are adults making conscious, considered choices about their lives and their futures. Jole’s exploration of his bisexuality is tender, thoughtful, and beautiful. It makes a good place for me to end this list.
As I said in the beginning, I welcome additions to my reading list. What other novels have thought-provoking depictions of bisexuality?
Loren Rhoads is the author of the space opera trilogy In the Wake of the Templars, which features bisexual assassin Raena Zacari.
A “trippy masterpiece,” eh? You’ve piqued my interest in Dhalgren.