As a young bisexual growing up in the 1980s, when I thought I was possibly the only one of my species, I was drawn to science fiction because while I didn’t see space for myself to exist in contemporary stories, I could imagine a world that included people like me only by imagining other worlds. I wasn’t the only one who felt that way: many writers also used the expansive canvas of worldbuilding and futurism that science fiction afforded them to explore sexuality “outside the box,” and bisexuality in particular is a trope that has been explored variously in every era of the genre.

The bisexuality trope entered science fiction literature very early in the genre’s history. Robert Heinlein introduced his recurring character Lazarus Long in a 1941 issue of the pulp magazine Astounding Stories, though some would say Long’s “coming out” as a bi character didn’t really take place until 1973, with the publication of the novel Time Enough for Love. By that time a number of other infamous bisexuals had appeared in science fiction: the murderous pedophile villain Baron Harkonnen in Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965), Barbarella (1968 film), and Philip Jose Farmer’s “Lord Grandrith” (a thinly-veiled Tarzan) and “Doc Caliban” (Doc Savage), who get it on in Fest Unknown (1969).

Lazarus Long went bi at the same moment in popular culture when bisexuality was equated with avant garde–perhaps futuristic–social attitudes. Bisexuality as an identity or orientation existed so far outside the monosexual “norm” that David Bowie’s public image was cemented as not only bisexual, but alien from outer space. (Bowie would much later explain in interviews that he latched onto bisexual identity as a way to shock the mainstream and give himself street cred, but despite a well-documented dalliance with Mick Jagger, he eventually settled into lifelong heterosexuality.) Science fiction literature of the 1970s used bisexuality as a signifier of outsider/other, alien, or futuristic status. Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren (1975) uses the sexuality of “The Kid” as well as many other narrative elements to dislocate the reader from the status quo. Many of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s characters in her Darkover books are bisexual, in particfular the Darkovans (as opposed to the Terrans from Earth, who are more “like us.”) Joanna Russ’s The Female Man was written in 1970 but published in 1975 and intertwines elements of bisexuality with deep thinking about gender and gender roles. Another thinky example from the time is David Gerrold’s The Man Who Folded Himself (1973), where the homoerotic aspects enter with the idea that time travelers can have sex with themselves. Even the not-so-thinky but just as subversive Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) runs in this gestalt track of bisexual-as-other.

By the 1980s, though, the free-love sixties and the swingin’ seventies were over, Reaganomics was the order of the day, and while various science fiction and fantasy writers continued to explore bisexuality, the culture wars of the period meant that in some cases the sexuality was highlighted, in others downplayed. On the highlight side we had David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve as bisexual vampires in the film adaptation of Whitley Streiber’s The Hunger (1983). Marion Zimmer Bradley’s breakthrough mainstream bestseller The Mists of Avalon (1984) featured a bisexual Lancelot caught between his love for Guinevere and his lust for Arthur. At the other extreme, you have examples like Jack L. Chalker’s Four Lords of the Diamond (1981, a body-swapping novel) and George R.R. Martin’s 1980 novel Nightflyers, which featured a bisexual female main character, but when adapted for film she was straight-washed.

Some authors carried the social experiment ideas of the seventies forward, positing societal structures that embodied inherent bisexuality, where bisexual-as-other moved from individual status to groups. Heinlein continued to write novels with many bi characters (Friday, Andrew-who-becomes-Libby Jackson, Ira Weatheral, and many more) and explored ideas like line marriages. Diane Duane’s Door Into Fire (1979) and Door Into Shadow (1984) presented a culture where group marriages was the norm. And in 1987 Iain Banks began publishing the Culture novels, all of which feature an advanced future in which characters can change gender merely by thinking about it.

Coming into the 1990s, sf literature saw “the bi trope” dwindle while genuine representations of gay and lesbian characters began to finally appear, with a few bisexuals thrown in. Some authors, notably Tanya Huff (The Fire’s Stone, 1990), Fiona Patton (The Stone Prince, 1997), and Melissa Scott (Shadow Man, 1995) included bi characters and represented their bisexuality as something normal within their universe’s context. But in the 1990s we also saw a fair amount of what might be deemed push-back against “dated” concepts of bisexuality and encroaching possibilities of queerness. In a much-reviled 1991 Star Trek: The Next Generation episode Dr. Crusher falls in love with a symbiotic alien, but to save his life he transfers from a male to a female body. So much for love: Crusher can’t deal with him being embodied as female and ends the relationship. John Varley’s Steel Beach (1993) has gender swapping as a norm, yet the relationships depicted are heterosexual. Varley does make a very interesting distinction between how attraction would work if you could change gender: what would you call a person who was always attracted to a specific sex regardless of their own sex, versus one that was always attracted to the same or opposite sex? But the actual relationships on the page in Varley’s works are largely straight. The go-to trope of bisexuality was on the wane.

This waning was not necessarily bad, as various authors and creators were making attempts at representation across many types of orientation, representing true life experiences for their characters rather than relying on grand gesture world-building concepts to inject bisexuality-as-otherness. By the turn of the millennium we start to see various notable bisexual characters: Phedre in Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel’s Dart (2001), Claudette and Pamela in Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse books (launched in 2001), Inara from the television show Firefly (2002), and let’s not forget Willow’s bisexual arc in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (2000). The list continues, Elizabeth Bear’s Jenny Casey (Hammered, 2004), Grace Choi in the DC Comics title The Outsiders (2003), and how about Caprica Six in the 2004 television reboot of Battlerstar Galactica. There’s one other thing notable about all these examples from 2000-2006: they are all female. Where did all the male bisexuals go?

I’m happy to report that the men have had a few high profile comebacks since. None was more visible than Captain Jack Harkness of the Torchwood television series (launched 2006), followed in 2008 by Erik Northmen in the True Blood television adaptation of Charlaine Harris’s books. But the television world continues to have its push-backs, as with the vehement–sometimes nastily homophobic–denials by actors and writers regarding a bromance between the angel Castiel and Dean Winchester on the show Supernatural. In the realm of the written word, award-winning British science fiction writer China Mieville has male bisexuals in various books. N.K. (Nora) Jemisin’s much-lauded Hundred Thousand Kingdoms series (2010) features multiple characters who are casually bisexual to the point it’s not mentioned as unusual. We continue to see issues of gender and bisexuality touched on in the works of longtime writers such as Jo Walton, Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman. Interestingly enough, now most of the male bisexuals beginning to appear are being written by female writers, especially those entering the field from the vectors of fanfiction (where the practice of queering canonically straight male characters is common) and romance. J.R. Ward’s mega-bestselling Black Dagger Brotherhood series features an ongoing saga of vampire war with a new romantic heterosexual pairing in each book. In 2013 a previously established character, Qhuinn, finally took the spotlight with his male partner Blay in Lover at Last. Rie Warren’s futuristic military Don’t Tell series also mixes male-female pairings with male-male pairings.

These works are still the exception. The audience for strictly gay “male-male” romance and erotica is much larger than that for bisexual male or female romantic leads, but I’m heartened that there is a corner of the romance world where bisexual characters can flourish, under the banner that true love knows no gender. My own new adult romance series, Magic University, features a bisexual hero as he makes his way through four years of college. (Like many young men arriving at school, Kyle starts out somewhat heteronormative. Let’s just say it doesn’t last.) Within the framework of romance and building on the pre-existing tropes of fantasy and the paranormal that lend themselves to sexual exploration outside the gender binary, the Magic University books don’t merely make a nod to bisexuality, Kyle’s bi nature is crucial to the plot and to saving the human race. Popular male/male romance writer L.A. Witt strays into bi territory occasionally, too, with fantastic results, as in the award-winning gender-change novel Static. Elizabeth Schechter’s steampunk romance House of Sable Locks was multiply nominated for many awards and features the rare bisexual hero paired with a female heroine. These kinds of variations from the “norm” are exciting. Romance has a reputation as a hide-bound, restrictive genre, while science fiction’s reputation is the opposite; rule-breaking and upsetting the status quo are supposedly in the genre’s DNA. But perhaps like bisexuality itself, a kind of hybrid vigor results of a mix of the two. I plan to keep my eye on paranormal and futuristic queer romances in the hopes that a new hotbed of bisexual representation is about to flourish.

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16 Responses to “A Look at Bisexuality in Science Fiction”

  1. 20 January 2015 at 1:42 AM #

    Dear Cecilia,

    You forgot S.M. Stirling, Shirley Meier and Karen Wehrstein in your list. The Fifth Millenium books, while not specifically genderqueer certainly contained queer characters. Even queer main characters. The only hate mail I ever got for a book was for The Cage, because the two main characters were lesbians (actually both were bi but that’s neither here nor there).
    My Eclipse Court novels, online, have queer, poly and bi characters.

  2. 20 January 2015 at 3:04 PM #

    Two obligatory nerd nitpicks:
    It could be argued that Long wasn’t bisexual until that point, as there are frequent comments about how he doesn’t care but isn’t interested in men himself, until he is convinced to change his mind in Time Enough. There’s a meta argument to be made as to if he’s bi when he doesn’t identify as such, which is complicated by factors like time travel and his family telling him that his preferences are silly, but it’s probably not worth having.

    Secondly, the Six instance you’re thinking of is not Caprica-Six, but Gina.

  3. 21 January 2015 at 9:22 AM #

    Olaf Stapledon’s Odd John had a bisexual character in 1935.

  4. 21 January 2015 at 7:01 PM #

    The only book I’ve read recently that could possibly fit on this list is “wildcatters” by Dave Duncan. In Earth’s future, parents can choose to give their children the ability to switch gender using drugs, and one of the main characters falls in love with both a guy and a girl, because this person can switch genders. Though I think both of the non-switchers are heterosexual. It was still a good read.

  5. 22 January 2015 at 3:40 PM #

    Lets not forget Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series, where each dragon rider has a different colored dragon, and female “greens” can be Impressed (paired with for life) by men or women. They have “Weyrmates” of male/female and male/male pairings very casually, and when I read the books in my adolescence I didn’t even realize how notable that was because of how normally they treated it. When a green dragon went into a mating-flight, many eligible male dragons and their male riders lined up to be involved, regardless of the gender of the green’s rider. Very free love, typical of the 70s, but focused on male/male dynamics instead of the more typical bisexual-female dynamic. McCaffrey was publishing gender-role defying and subtly bisexual male characters for decades.

  6. 23 January 2015 at 12:27 AM #

    A really informative article. I would like to add mention of another novel series which features a parallel Earth populated by advanced Neanderthals instead of Humans. Their entire societal structure depends upon their bisexuality.

  7. 23 January 2015 at 1:05 PM #

    Loved this article, Cecilia! You know so much and impart the information so supply and tantalizingly. I want to get my hands on all these books and just binge.

  8. 24 January 2015 at 12:29 PM #

    Much the same experience, and Heinlein’s Friday was my saving book. Then I found slash and the concept of the OT3, and in Star Wars fandom, it worked so hard. I write bisexual characters,–contemporary, historical fantasy, SF, urban fantasy,–and the m/m community regards me with wariness. We need more bi characters.

  9. […] character Lazarus Long in a 1941 issue of the pulp magazine Astounding Stories (…)” A Look at Bisexuality in Science Fiction (Lambda […]

  10. 2 February 2015 at 7:50 PM #

    Is it really right to call Willow from Buffy bisexual? Once she and Tara got together it was pounded into the viewer’s heads that Willow is a lesbian. She stopped dating guys and the part of her which once loved one disappeared. I always read it as erasure.

  11. 5 February 2015 at 11:32 AM #

    Constantine seems like a bit of an omission, though I guess if no pre-2000 comics get mentioned it works. Seems odd to pick Grace Choi over Jenny Sparks too, both are important I think.

  12. 17 February 2015 at 11:26 AM #

    “(Bowie would much later explain in interviews that he latched onto bisexual identity as a way to shock the mainstream and give himself street cred, but despite a well-documented dalliance with Mick Jagger, he eventually settled into lifelong heterosexuality.)”

    I’m hugely disappointed that an article promoting bisexuality would actually erase it. Does my being married to a man for twenty years mean I’m in “lifelong heterosexuality”? Or does it just mean that the person I fell in love with, and chose to marry, happens to be male? If I’d fallen for a woman, would I then be lesbian?

    Seriously, it’s this kick back such an article should be avoiding, not casually embracing.

  13. […] character Lazarus Long in a 1941 issue of the pulp magazine Astounding Stories (…)” A Look at Bisexuality in Science Fiction (Lambda […]

  14. […] to be the only one, and about how bisexuality itself was a marker of futurism in early sci-fi (here). But was he? The interview canon is clear on only one point: that Bowie declared his sexual […]

  15. […] probably due more to a lack of opportunity than orientation. An article from last year on bisexuality in science fiction includes both Long and Harkness in its litany of […]

  16. 17 May 2016 at 11:29 PM #

    I am in the process of writing a book with a Bi protagonist. It can be difficult to write because I feel no matter which sex she ends up with, there will be criticism. Your article helped me to locate research materials, and I very much enjoyed your insight.

    There is however, one point of contention. The show Supernatural. I am hugely pro LGBTQ, but not to the point of bullying writers and actors into making the characters fit what I fantasize about. The work belongs to the creators, and they SHARE it with those who consume it. It isn’t fair to get angry with them because it isn’t what you want. Maybe it gets nasty because they get tired of repeating themselves. Remember, some of the fanfic also suggests incest between the brothers, and the actors are probably annoyed by how many times they have to define the sexual orientation of their characters…. I mean, it’s badgering.

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