Saturday, March 28, 2009

Sex and fantasy worlds

While sexual practices in fantasy worlds can’t be too outre (readers can take only so much novelty in this respect), they shouldn’t be white-bread either. For a default race, one that’s physically or mentally very similar to humans, you could get away with heterosexuality or monogamy being the norm. But a more alien species should have equally alien sexual customs – and here are a few.


I don’t intend to portray these as alien forms of sex, but a very high degree of acceptance of homosexuality or bisexuality (or, for that matter, a requirement of these) can often make a society seem unusual.

In Suzy McKee Charnas’s Walk to the End of the World, men and women are all but different species, so for them, what’s normal is to mate with one’s own kind. In Robert J. Sawyer’s Hominids, each Neanderthal has both a male and a female mate. Just make sure that if any one way is idealized or preferred, it’s the characters who are doing this rather than the writer, and it’s in their personalities or mindsets to do so.


In Vonda N. McIntyre’s Dreamsnake, people and dreamsnakes alike mate in threes, and that was the premise of a Star Trek: Enterprise episode as well. The Tenctonese in Alien Nation also require a third person to prepare a female for reproduction. Additionally, depending on the world, successful reproduction may require genetic material from three donors, hence the threesome.

Another reason for triplex pairings would be if there’s a shortage of either gender. For instance, in a race which normally produces more male than female offspring, a male/male/female pairing might be normal. Better that than have half the males permanently denied the opportunity to marry and reproduce.

One caveat is that these shouldn’t be eternal triangles. If everyone in the society accepts that such a marriage is normal, there might occasionally be some light competition, but it shouldn’t be with the end goal of having a two-person-only situation.


This field has a lot of landmines in it. I was all right with the brother-sister scene(s) in A Song of Ice and Fire - that kind of arrangement worked for the ancient Egyptians as well. It was difficult to read about Craster’s polygamous family, though, since Craster turns his daughters into wives when they’re old enough. I’d probably find this even more difficult to read after that case in Austria.

But other cultures will have sexual attitudes and customs we don’t like, and vice versa. They might even have sexual arrangements we’ve never even considered. And that’s part of the challenge – and the fun - of writing them.


Anonymous said...

Hey Marian,

"But other cultures will have sexual attitudes and customs we don’t like, and vice versa. They might even have sexual arrangements we’ve never even considered."

- True. Things which some people would consider a big deal on our planet would get a shrug on others.

There was an ep on Farscape where they returned to Earth. The Nebari Chiana was talking to Crighton's teenaged nephew.

nephew: "My parents would kill me if I had sex! They'd say I was too young."

Chiana: "Why should anyone care when you have sex?"

She wasn't being crude or flip. Simply, where she came from, the age one had sex was of no concern and she found the concept ridiculous.

fairyhedgehog said...

There's also the option of sexual differentiation only happening when needed, as in The Left Hand of Darkness. Sherri Tepper has some interesting ideas about how human sexuality could be different in Gibbon's Decline and Fall. Parthenogenesis is always and option and slugs apparently have some curious mating habits.

Just a few more ideas to add to the pot.

sirayn said...

I once read a brilliant unpublished novel about a setting where the three-person triad was the standard unit, people were perceived as each having three different personalities which each performed different social roles. There was a whole subplot about the female protagonist stealing and using a man's birth certificate, because in this non-dualistic society birth certificates didn't depict gender ...

Damn, I want to go back and reread this novel. It was on, which is a terrible waste.

Marian said...

Hi sirayn,

The example you gave reminded me of the Asimov novel The Gods Themselves, where there was an alien race which mated in triads. The three participants were called the Rational, the Emotional and the Parental - and IIRC the Parental came off as male. Or what we might perceive as male, anyway.

Gets very interesting when there's more than one gender, just like Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis novels.

Marian said...

Hey Tasha,

Farscape is on my list of SF-shows-to-watch right after Babylon 5. I've read a lot about it on Wikipedia and it sounds intriguing.

Just curious, though - did Chiana's species or society have any age restrictions on sex?

Marian said...

Hi fairyhedgehog,

Thanks for reminding me about parthenogenesis. David Brin has a novel called Glory Season, where a certain race reproduces by parthenogenesis except during the glory season. I think they mate during that period.

And the Riding Women of Suzy McKee Charnas's Motherlines also reproduced via parthenogenesis. I liked the fact that they could always tell a woman's lineage from her appearance.