The Queer SF Reading Project

I’m making my own list.

I got tired of seeing lists of SF books containing queer characters, created after various Internet kerfuffles, which didn’t differentiate between books with throwaway bisexual characters and books with bisexual protagonists.  I got tired of seeing lists in which characters were counted as bisexual for a throwaway mention of a one-night stand with a member of the same sex.  I got tired of seeing lists which lumped female bisexuality with male bisexuality.  I got tired of seeing lists which didn’t distinguish between positive and negative portrayals of bisexuality.  (The last time I counted, half of the men on Wikipedia’s List of bisexual characters in television were from Oz, an HBO prison drama. Yeah, no. Not helping. Fuck you.)

So I’ve been going through fiction looking for bisexual male protagonists, like you do, when you’re male and bisexual and still figuring out what that means.  And I mostly read SF, so I’ve mostly been looking for SF.

Or at least that was what I set out to do.  Turns out that there’s not a lot of SF with bisexual male protagonists.  Nor is there much SF with queer protagonists at all, though I’ve discovered several veins I’ve only begun to tap, and the landscape is changing even as I write, which is awesome.  (If you know of mainstream or literary fiction with bisexual male protagonists, I’d love to hear about it.  But consider the guidelines below.)

In the process of searching for SF with bisexual male protagonists, however, I’ve encountered a lot of SF with lesbian or gay protagonists, and some of that wound up on the list too, because something about it resonated with me.  I’ve also expanded out of SF, because there’s interesting stuff in other genres too.  What I’ve ended up with is something like a list of “good fiction with queer protagonists, mostly SF,” but that’s too long.  So The Queer SF Reading Project it is.

Some definitions and guidelines.

“Sympathetic” — I’m looking for stories I enjoy and characters I like enough to consider emulating.  I’m not a Depraved Bisexual, and I don’t want to be one.  And Bury Your Gays endings suck.

“Male” — Several of the fictions I list have sympathetic female protagonists, and I’ve found I enjoy those stories too, but I started out looking for sympathetic male protagonists because I’m male, and I find male bisexuals harder to find in fiction (and real life) than female bisexuals.

“Bisexual” — The character has an expressed interest in, or demonstrated history of, sleeping with or forming romantic attachments with both men and women, not necessarily simultaneously; or, the character identifies as such.  (I use binary gender here but some of these characters are more fluid; this is the minimum requirement, not the total requirement.  Extrapolate reasonably for definitions of “gay” and “lesbian”.)

“Major viewpoint character” (mostly meaning “protagonist”) is very important.  Queer spear-carriers don’t cut it.  The queer characters need to be the focus of the story for me to include them here.  Because queer people matter, and fuck you.  I’m not just the comic relief in everybody else’s story.

The interplay of sexuality and identity — It’s not necessarily important to me that the character’s sexuality be important to them as a person.  Richard St Vier in Swordspoint doesn’t seem to think too much on his sexuality, for example; on the other hand, Ringil Eskiath in The Steel Remains thinks about his sexuality a lot.  Either way, it needs to matter for them as a character; it needs to affect the story in some way.  And indeed Richard’s story would be very different if he didn’t love Alec, and Ringil’s story too would be very different if he hadn’t loved men.  Bi the Way is the opposite of useful here.

This is not an exhaustive list.  This is a list of fiction with queer protagonists I’ve found apposite, identified with, or otherwise cared about (and not even an exhaustive list of that).  I’ve finished everything I review here, with some caveats around serial fictions, where I am often not always entirely caught up.

I’m not going out of my way to spoil things, but I’m not being super-cautious either, and often it’s been too long for me to remember what’s a spoiler and what’s not.  So, you know, SPOILER WARNING and all that.

The list so far:

  1. Doctor Who/Torchwood — John Barrowman as Captain Jack Harkness is the first sympathetic male bisexual protagonist in media I ever saw.  I would like to say that, the first time I watched “The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances” (the two-part episode of Doctor Who where he’s introduced), everything exploded with awesomeness because I was finally seeing someone like myself reflected, but I don’t think I quite realized it at the time.  Torchwood never lived up to its promise, and Harkness as a character is a stereotype in some ways I’m still wrestling with.  Still, if I had to pick one of these characters to be when I grow up, it would have to be Captain Jack.
  2. New Amsterdam et seq., by Elizabeth Bear — If you told Don Sebastien de Ulloa, the vampire half of this series’ crime-fighting duo (she’s a forensic sorceress), that he was bisexual, he’d have to go back to the word’s roots to parse it, and his worldview is so alien that it’s hard to ascribe romantic feelings to him.  Given how blood-sucking stands in for sex so often, though, it’s undeniable, and his loves are played for touching if tragic effect.  This was only the second time I’d encountered a positive bisexual man in media, and it electrified me.
  3. Ink and Steel/Hell and Earth, by Elizabeth Bear — A duology whose protagonist is Christopher Marlowe (saved from his untimely fate by a Queen of Faerie), it’s really all about Kit’s loves, and he loves man and woman alike.  I occasionally describe it to friends as “Marlowe-Shakespeare slash,” and man, what slash.  At turns sweet and startling, these are definitely my favorite of Bear’s books (which is a tough competition to win).
  4. Palimpsest, by Catherynne M. Valente — I hesitate to include this book a little, because while it’s all about sex and the characters all have encounters with people of both genders — and eventually end up in something we might call a stable quad — the men in particular seemed… foreign to their love, for lack of better words, and I wanted people more forthright in their skins.  It’s still a gorgeous, sexy, wondrous book, with prose as rich and thick as cream with honey.
  5. Black Blade Blues, by J.A. Pitts — This was where the “bisexuality” part of the project started to break down, but to good effect.  It’s urban fantasy, so we expect the main character to have bisexual attractions but to go through a series of men, but in fact the main character is a lesbian from a pretty rough background, and not nearly started working through her issues when she finds a magic sword and discovers a magical underground to Seattle she never knew existed.  I sympathized a lot with her background and her struggle, both for the acceptance of others and of herself.  Especially if you’re young, and you’re stuck figuring shit out without help from your family or community, and you want to read just one of these, read this one.
  6. Orlando, by Virginia Woolf — This book is a bit of an odd beast.  It concerns a man who inexplicably becomes a woman halfway through the book.  It’s an interesting book, and it made a list of slipstream fiction earlier this year, so someone besides me and my friend who recommended it to me thinks it’s SFnal.  The main character has exclusively heterosexual relationships despite their gender change, making its inclusion here somewhat dubious, and it’s much more literary than I expected.    It was an amusing read, and it gave me something to think about, and it was an interesting introduction to Woolf’s writing, so on no count a loss.
  7. Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel — Graphic novels seem to be doing a lot of autobiography and memoir these days, which makes me wonder if there’s something unique about the form which makes that use so compelling.  Alison Bechdel here tells the intertwined and many-layered story of her own coming out as a lesbian around the same time as she discovered that her father was gay, followed shortly by his death (possibly a suicide).  Bechdel does a good job of presenting his faults without villainizing him, and I found that I identified with her growing up and her own coming-out.  A worthwhile portrayal and a worthwhile book, and one I mean to revisit.
  8. Rule 34, by Charlie Stross — A whole batch of unsympathetic queer characters, and, while I didn’t mind that so much in Fun Home I minded it more here.  It’s more gritty near-future SF from Stross, and while I think it’s a brave choice that all three viewpoint characters are some variety of sexually non-normative, the choices on offer (a divorced lesbian policewoman, a bisexual man who turns tricks behind his wife’s back, and a clinical sociopath) didn’t compel me.  It may be a case of bleed as much as anything — Stross is (presumptively) heterosexual, and I felt a little more objectified than identified.  (Then again, everyone is objectified in the book, which may be one of its points.)  It was a good book, and I enjoyed it well enough, but don’t come here looking for role models.
  9. The Steel Remains, by Richard K. Morgan — Another (presumptively) straight guy writing a gay protagonist, one Ringil Eskiath, master swordsman.  And boy howdy, what a protagonist.  You know that gritty fantasy is a thing right now, right?  Morgan’s a big part of that — not exclusively because of this book, but it’s part of the trend.  I think the fact that his character is gay is part of that grittiness, and I’m not sure what I think of that, but on the other hand Morgan writes the best hate-mail responses due to that fact, so I’m hard-pressed to criticize too much.  I actually found the relentless homophobia of the setting a bit hard to take without any kind of “it gets better” message, and the gritty-grim-dark isn’t my thing, but if you want a hero who could stab homophobia in the gut, Gil’s your man.
  10. The Love We Share Without Knowing, by Christopher Barzak — This book turned out to be unexpectedly formative for me.  I was considering accepting a job offer in Japan, and, searching for fiction about Japan to take with me while visiting my sister over Thanksgiving, remembered reading about it in a Big Idea piece on John Scalzi’s  Whatever.

    It’s told as a bunch of interlocking stories about Japanese people and Americans in Japan, and it’s beautiful — all about love, and loss, and feeling alienated from your culture and the people around you.  It’s also about being queer.  Nothing about the blurb I read suggested to me that one of the characters was bisexual and another gay, but they were, and those stories were the ones that mattered most to me.  I got the sense that it was not necessarily a terribly happy thing, to be queer in modern Japan, even as a foreigner.

    I read the book bit by bit while I was away and then again, in one long jag on the red-eye back, underlining frantically.  And then I decided to stay home.  Which has been both an unhappy and a happy choice, and thereby hangs a tale this blog post’s not wide enough to tell and still unraveling, but that’s not the book’s fault.  I really, really like this book.

  11. don’t take it personally, babe, it just ain’t your story, Love &al. — I’ve written about this visual novel before, in another context, but I thought it did a compelling job with the high school students’ interpersonal drama, and (depending on how you play) there are a couple queer love stories in it which are super-cute.  (There’s also some creepy student-teacher relationship stuff, so be forewarned.  You as the main character don’t have good boundaries.)  The art doesn’t always live up to the story, but it’s obviously trying hard, and the story is good enough to make up for it.
  12. Outland — This is an Australian TV sitcom show about a queer SF club.  I’ve got some social anxiety, and I usually find “comedies” painful because I spend the entire time embarrassed on behalf of the characters.  This had some of that going, but the creators are obviously fans, and the show tapped into a lot of what’s happening right now, so it felt very much “laughing with”.  (Also a couple episodes in I had a glass of wine and suddenly it was hilarious, so, you know, consider enjoying it in that context.)  It’s a little hard to find — I saw it showing at the local GLBT film festival — but totally worth seeking out.
  13. Swordspoint, by Ellen Kushner — This book took me a long time to read, I’m not entirely sure why — I tried to read it piecemeal, and it really wanted me to sit down and consume it in a couple large gulps.  Having done so, was totally worth it.  The story feels set during an analogue of the Regency, perhaps.  (My English history is shaky).  The main character is Richard St Vere, a swordsman, the best in the City, who is contracted to kill nobles (or their appointed swords) in quasi-legal duels, and the story greatly concerns his relationship with his lover Alec, and Alec’s past and future..  Richard I would call bisexual, he having been married to a woman.  I liked how Richard and Alec’s relationship was handled.  For all that the setting is a lower-class pseudo-Regency fantasy, there was no homophobia; the conflict came from elsewhere.  A super-sweet gay love story.
  14. Private Romeo

I’ll keep adding links here as I read and review more things.

Anti-recommended: Up in Honey’s Room, by Elmore Leonard (stereotypical, cross-dressing bisexual villain); Persona 4: The Animation (bad treatment of gay and trans characters)

Still to read:  Everything.

What have you read that fits?