Hugo Awards Finalists That Are Worth Reading

Short Story

Do Not Look Back, My Lion: A heartbreaking anti-war story, featuring lesbians and bizarre gender worldbuilding. This is what tragedy can be at its best: cathartic, transcendent, sublime. Highly recommended.

As The Last I May Know: The codes to use an apocalyptic superweapon are implanted in the heart of a child; to use them to defeat an enemy, the president must first kill the child with his bare hands. The story is told from the point of view of that child. I recommend setting aside some time to cry afterward.

And Now His Lordship Is Laughing: Horror-fantasy set during the Bengali famine, which is both a summary and a content warning. Reads like a particularly good The Magnus Archives statement, for those of you who are into that podcast.

Novelette

Omphalos: One of two stories Ted Chiang published this year! Set in a world where it is provably scientifically known that God created the world ex nihilo six thousand years ago; the worldbuilding is clever and well-thought-out, full of “of course it had to be that way” details. A profound and thoughtful exploration of finding meaning in a purposeless world. I broke down crying at the end.

For He Can Creep: A whimsical and charming story about Jeoffry, a cat who belongs to a poet, and his fight with the Devil in order to prevent the Devil from keeping his master from finishing his poetry. Jeoffrey’s voice is strong and clear, and the sentences are hilarious. If you like cats you’ll enjoy this one.

Novella

To Be Taught If Fortunate: Becky Chambers returns with another slice-of-life science fiction novella, this time set among some of the first astronauts traveling to exoplanets to explore alien life. Chambers is rigorously biologically accurate (at least to my layperson’s eye) and clearly fascinated by the details of biology. Plot happens– sort of– but Chambers is clearly far more interested in the intricacies of what it would be like to discover nonsapient aliens. If you prefer that your science fiction novels be mostly about what it implies about evolution that alien microbes use both chiralities, this will be up your alley. It also features some of the most stirring pro-space-exploration sentiment I have read this year.

The Deep: Adapted from clipping’s Hugo-nominated song of the same name. (clipping is Daveed Diggs’s band, and if you like Hamilton you should check them out.) If you enjoy a well-characterized autistic protagonist, a weird take on mermaids, and themes of remembrance of history in the wake of generational trauma, you might enjoy this. Unfortunately, strips out a lot of the Lovecraftian themes which I appreciated so much in the original song.

Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom: One of the two stories Ted Chiang published this year. As always, absolutely brilliant. A technology is developed which allows you to talk to versions of yourself who made one decision differently. Most of the book is devoted to the consequences of the technological development for society: support groups for people who found they made the wrong choice; the millions of dollars people are willing to spend on being able to see their deceased loved ones in alternate universes one last time. It concludes with a heart-warming affirmation of individual choice. Both Anxiety and Omphalos are much less depressing than usual Chiang and it is making me wonder if someone slipped him an antidepressant.

Novel

The City In The Middle Of The Night: My one-sentence summary is “YA dystopia but actually, like, good.” The character development is thoughtful and rich, and common dystopian tropes are subverted cleverly. Set in the twilight part of a tidally locked planet, the setting explores the concept of time. In totalitarian Xiosphant, everyone eats, sleeps, and works at the exact same time, or is severely punished for being late. In anarchic Argelo, you sleep and wake and work whenever you feel like it– or don’t. The alien species has its own unique relationship to time which I won’t spoil. The cities are richly detailed, with clever and true-to-life details, and yet the thematic unity makes it all hang together.

A Memory Called Empire: Written by a historian, and it shows. The Aztec/Byzantine mashup that is the Teixcalaanli Empire should not work as well as it does. The protagonist, Mahit Dzmare, is the new ambassador to the Teixcalaanli Empire. Like many people from her home, Lsel Station, she carries around the memories and personality of her predecessor in a device called an imago. But her predecessor’s imago is twenty years out of date– and he’s gotten up to a lot of shenanigans since then. If you enjoy political intrigue, rich worldbuilding, fast-paced and gripping plotting, people constantly quoting poetry at each other, and characters who arrange their elaborate betrayals to be a reference to classic epic poetry, you’ll like A Memory Called Empire.

Related Work

Becoming Superman: The serendipitous discoveries are one of the reasons I read the Hugo nominees each year. I would never have picked up J. Michael Straczynski’s memoir on my own, but it’s probably my favorite book so far this year. Straczynski was diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder after an astonishingly abusive childhood. His memoir is the story of a person in the general cluster B/CPTSD/reactive attachment disorder cluster striving to overcome the lessons he was taught in childhood in order to become a better person. (The better person is Superman.) I found it comforting, validating, reassuring, and hilarious; I recommend it to anyone in that cluster or who loves someone in that cluster. Also, frankly, it’s just great to see Straczynski live the dream by outing his abusive father as a literal Nazi war criminal. Vengeance is sweet.

Young Adult Book

Catfishing On CatNet: Cat Pictures Please is now a novel and it is every bit as good as the original short story. I assume this is a sufficient pitch.

Dragon Pearl: This is the first book I’ve read in the Rick Riordan Presents line, and it’s definitely making me want to check out more of them. Dragon Pearl is science fantasy in the best and goofiest way possible, a space opera set in a world where Korean mythology is literally true. The protagonist is a kumiho (fox shapeshifter) from a planet which is incompletely terraformed and therefore poor. At one point someone sabotages a spaceship by throwing things around to fuck up the feng shui. Yoon Ha Lee is writing for a middle-grade audience, which means that he has been forced to tone down his love of spaceship battles and only have a reasonable number.

Minor Mage: A classic Ursula Vernon story; if you like her (or Diana Wynne Jones, whom she’s typically very reminiscent of), I recommend checking it out. Oliver is a mage who has to go on a quest to end the drought, despite only knowing three spells, one of which unties shoelaces. Oliver wins through cleverness rather than through overpowering might. I particularly appreciated the harpist whose magic ability is to turn dead bodies into harps that play themselves and sing about who murdered them. He is so profoundly irritated about this state of affairs! I love it.

Deeplight: Once, giant Lovecraftian beasts– the gods– ruled the seas. A generation ago, all the gods died. Fifteen-year-old Hark, an orphan, grew up on an island with no advantages other than his ability to spin a clever story. Deeplight has Frances Hardinge’s characteristic twisty plot full of betrayal and intrigue, where you’re never quite sure who to trust. If you enjoy themes of body horror, antitheism, and emotional abuse in your children’s literature you will enjoy Deeplight immensely.

Poly ITT: Anti #15

1. Why do you believe what you believe? What would change your mind?

I think that pro-poly arguments often sound as though they should be correct, but their models tend to fail when confronted with actual humans.

As a very central example – it seems like poly people sometimes talk about jealousy as something of a brain bug, an irrationality, an unfortunate limitation to be worked around or fixed. But actually it follows pretty straightforwardly from the preferences that people tend to have about their relationships – in particular, the fact that people’s preferences about relationships tend to be positional: it’s not just that you want your partner to have a certain set of feelings about you and spend a certain number of hours with you each week and do some activities with them, you also want to be as important to them as they are to you; to speak crudely, you want to have as high a rank in their priority hierarchy as they have in yours. Usually you want to be the most important person in their life.

It’s not that poly people never have Most Important People – primaries are a thing – but when additional relationships are possible, it’s harder to maintain an equilibrium where both partners tend to put approximately the same amount of energy into the relationship. And in any case it seems that in practice people tend to have the specific positional preference that their partner should do romance and sex things ONLY with them. This isn’t a bug to be worked around, it’s a perfectly valid preference, the utility function isn’t up for grabs, and it’s generally unhealthy to try to make oneself be okay with things one is not actually okay with.

You could make the argument that having secondary relationships is no different than having friends, and abstractly it seems like that makes sense, but – in practice, romance and sex seem to be special? We see this in a lot of aspects of our society – humans have built up a lot of customs and norms around these things specifically. Sex actually isn’t just like everything else, it plays a particular role in our minds that can’t be abstracted away into “well it’s just like deciding to watch a particular TV show with just one person”. This is for evolutionary reasons which… don’t fully apply anymore given modern medicine and birth control and such, but (a) our brains are still profoundly shaped by those reasons, and (b) those reasons aren’t actually down to zero? We do in fact still get very messy scenarios around STIs and reproduction when multiple people are involved; I’ve definitely seen some which would have been much less bad or wouldn’t have happened at all without the polyamory.

I worry some about people deciding to be poly because it SEEMS like it should work, and then ending up in emotionally painful situations, trying to fight their natural inclinations, because it seems like they SHOULD be okay with their partner sleeping with someone else – there’s no law of physics or ethics they can derive that says it’s bad, so it should be okay, right? But this is a limitation of our knowledge of physics and ethics, not a true indication that it will in practice be okay – it usually isn’t, and fighting those instincts can be damaging to one’s self-trust and self-respect.

On a broader scale, I worry some about a world in which polyamory grows more popular and begins to impose its norms – not everywhere, not even in all of e.g. the US, that seems too remote a possibility to really worry about, but it seems not implausible that in coastal yuppy circles it will keep gaining popularity and normative force. Specifically I worry that – just as now it is (rightly) considered abusive to forbid one’s partner to have friends, in poly-normative circles it could conceivably become considered abusive to forbid one’s partner to have other partners. (Not that “forbidding one’s partner to have other partners” is really the right framing here, it’s a mutual agreement, but the analogous “I will only date you if you agree not to have friends other than me” is still bad.) I don’t think we’re anywhere near having such norms, but I don’t think this is outlandish to worry about; I do encounter people opining that polyamory is ethically better, and the arguments they make do seem to lend themselves well to being extended into a “monogamy is abuse” stance.

What would change my mind: hm, for one thing we need better research on this topic. But also, I guess, if polyamory stood the test of time and seemed to generally work for people? Inconveniently, to really evaluate it better we’d need broader social acceptance of polyamory, since otherwise this is hopelessly confounded (in both directions – on the one hand maybe if poly people are less happy this is because of societal stigma, on the other hand people doing a stigmatized thing tend to be pretty defensive about it and might not be fully open about its flaws), and also I’d want to see how things work out if a lot of people are poly for a long time. I personally don’t expect that this would work very well, and as such I don’t actually want this test to happen. But perhaps it will happen anyway, and then perhaps we’ll know more.

2a. A monogamous person has a crush on someone other than their partner. In a healthy relationship, what would happen next?

Generally you take steps to lessen the crush. Which notably does not mean that you should be ashamed of the crush or try to violently squash it down; trying to fight one’s emotions tends to make them worse. If having a crush feels shameful, you’ll avoid acknowledging it and taking steps about it until it’s grown to a point where you can’t possibly deny it but it’s also harder to deal with. Also, if you seize on any thought that might indicate a crush and worry that it means you’re being unfaithful, you are then dedicating MORE of your brainspace to those thoughts and training yourself to spend more time thinking about it! Whereas if your reaction is a quieter “oh, a thought”, it doesn’t have that effect.

You do want to avoid actively feeding the crush, though. This may mean spending less time around the person, depending on the situation; maybe if you usually hug them you might want to stop; if you notice yourself daydreaming about the person, maybe distract yourself with something?

I will note that I think crushes of a magnitude that is likely to be a problem are generally less likely to happen when you’re observing monogamy boundaries and generally happy with your relationship. Physical affection can feed crushes a lot; so can wishing/hoping/fantasizing, which you’re more likely to do if you don’t already have a relationship you’re happy with. If you’re not doing those things much or at all, you’ll be generally less susceptible to major unwanted crushes.

2b A polyamorous person has a date scheduled with their primary partner, but their secondary partner is in the hospital with an emergency and needs support. What typically happens next?

You go to the hospital, which is reasonable in itself; you’d also go if it was a good friend.

But it does matter, actually that it’s a partner rather than a friend. Your primary partner probably agrees that going to the hospital is the right move, but it doesn’t mean they can’t have feelings about it. Monogamy gives you a sense of security that of course this person is and will continue to be the most important person in your life; when you already lack that, even otherwise totally reasonable actions like “go support this person in the hospital” can ping an existing sense of jealousy/insecurity/unease. And then you may be having feelings about your secondary partner being in pain or in danger, which means you’re emotionally focused on them, which is also the kind of thing your primary partner might notice and be hurt by on some level even though it’s not at all unreasonable to have feelings about someone important to you being in the hospital. If it was just a friend, this would not matter nearly as much.

3. What would happen if 90% of people in a society were polyamorous? (You may assume they all practice one style of polyamory, or different styles.)

This is pretty hard to imagine because I think that the vast vast vast majority of people do better with monogamy, so it’s hard to imagine polyamory taking hold at the scale of an entire society.

I can imagine… oppressive setups that aren’t trying to satisfy most people? Like, men taking multiple wives in very patriarchal cultures – this makes sense if powerful men are in charge, the people hurt by this are primarily women and less powerful men. (Though I would argue that the powerful men with multiple wives are hurt too – they may be in charge, but they’re deprived of the chance to build an actually meaningful, equal, trusting partnership.) I don’t think this really counts as “polyamory” in the relevant sense, though.

I can also imagine certain pockets of society moving in that direction (hence my concern above that in social-justicey poly-heavy spaces it could come to be considered unacceptable to restrict one’s partner’s sexual and romantic choices). I don’t think this will sweep the world or even e.g. the entire US – I do think that monogamy generally works better by a wide enough margin that most of society would push back against any such pressures – but I could see this becoming normative in some circles.

What consequences can we expect in such circles?

There would be pressure for people to be more sexually available than they want to be. (We already see this effect for attractive young women in some spaces with poly or poly-like norms.)

There would be pressure for people to accept relationship terms they’re not actually happy with, because it’s considered unacceptable to want monogamy.

There’d be lots of complicated emotionally painful situations. For one – it definitely happens sometimes that – A (who is single) starts a relationship with B (who has a primary partner, C), because why not; the relationship wouldn’t have happened if they were monogamous, because B would already be taken, but it happening at all opens the door for A to develop strong feelings for B and then want them to themself, which is a recipe for lots of emotional pain – either they break off a relationship they really care about or they accept the indignity of being a less important person to B than B is to A, and they deal with jealousy on a regular basis, and all this is pretty bad for their self-respect. Or maybe B falls in love with A, too, and since that’s where their attention is going this causes them to grow more distant from C, and C suffers a slow-motion heartbreak that nobody can quite acknowledge because B is still dating them, right?

In the same way that people sometimes pay lip service to other unreasonable-as-stated ethical principles while in practice conducting their lives in a more reasonable way, I suspect that in such a culture there’d be couples that end up being monogamous in all but name. They’d be like, oh yeah we can love whoever we want, and maybe occasionally they’d make out with someone at a party or something, but on some level they’d realize that it would not actually be good for their relationship if they branched out more than that.

(And then one day one of them would get drunk while hanging out with someone they’re very attracted to, and think, well, I have the freedom to do whatever I want, right? and they’d sleep with them – and you’d think that without monogamy rules “cheating” wouldn’t be a thing, but emotionally it would be just as much a betrayal, except maybe worse because they don’t have the language for it or a known framework to understand it in, and the one who “cheated” would also feel betrayed because their partner is so unreasonably and unexpectedly upset with them, and it would be SUCH a mess.)

It’s not that there would be zero positive aspects to such a world. It’s true that people would get to explore their sexuality more and have some good experiences they otherwise wouldn’t. But this would be accompanied by lots of emotional pain, and for the vast majority of people I think it would also limit the maximum depth and trust that relationships could reach.

It’s like – if you really love microbiology, and also you really love ballet dancing, and also you really love astrophysics… you can try spending significant amounts of time on all of them, but that will severely limit how much you’ll accomplish in any given field. Whereas if you specialize, you will lose access to some of the things you enjoy, but you may be able to get really good at your specialty and become a respected professional in that field.

This analogy is imperfect in a few ways. For one thing, some people prefer not to specialize; they’ll do whatever for their day job, and in their off hours they’ll dabble in a bunch of different hobbies, and they won’t be an expert at anything but they’ll enjoy themselves and that’s valid. But while people do tend to value being good at something, the kind of depth of mastery that you get when something is your life’s passion is…. important to some people, but not anything like a universal need. Whereas the need for a deeply committed loving partnership where you fully trust each other and make each other your top priority and make a major effort to avoid hurting each other is – nothing is truly universal given human psychological diversity but this is pretty damn close. So norms that make that harder to achieve are pretty bad.

Also – you could be an astrophysicist and do ballet on the side, and this will limit how good you are at ballet but you probably won’t hurt your astrophysics work this way and you probably won’t accidentally fall in love with ballet so much you abandon astrophysics. But if you have a committed long-term partner, and you have a hookup buddy on the side, you may well hurt your partner, and you might fall in love with your hookup buddy and mess up your relationship that way.

My point here is – yes, you lose something when you decide to be monogamous, but you also gain something, and the thing you gain is in general way more important to human psychological health than the thing you lose.

Poly ITT: Anti #14

1. Why do you believe what you believe? What would change your mind?

You know the weirdest thing to me about this whole contest, about the entire framework the questions were asked in?

It doesn’t say a single word about kids. Not a question. Not even an optional prompt. The framing assumes an attitude towards relationships that is wholly foreign to me, and one I confess I don’t like: a focus on relationships as emotional support for the partners involved more than as a deliberately restrictive structure designed to create a healthy environment for future children. The level of attention paid to sex in conversations like this is similarly odd to me. Yeah, it matters, but there are so many more important things to talk about in my eyes.

I run the risk of coming off as a crank conservative here, I know. I won’t waste time establishing my liberal credentials. I grew up embedded in a traditional religion, and even though I left it and can now be fairly categorized as a secular liberal, liberalism is a second language to me. Its defaults are not my defaults. I know exactly how well my defaults worked for the people in my life. I recall two times in my life I saw my parents fight, neither at all serious. It just didn’t happen. I can count on one hand the people I knew until my mid-teenage years who didn’t come from monogamous, two-parent homes that at least looked healthy from my angle. And the whole while, I read online and noticed a) that the rest of society made fun of our approach, and b) that the rest of society seemed to have deep-rooted dysfunction, completely foreign to me. Because of this, every time someone proposes that those defaults are wrong and something else is better, I take a lot to be convinced.

As a gay man myself, I’m not going to tell anyone they can’t live in the way they feel is right for them. In particular, I think thoughtful, smart, pro-social people can make just about any arrangement work, and polyamory is hardly the strangest or most difficult. But positive structures are hard to create and easy to destroy, and entropy always looms. No matter how sincere and careful the people spreading the norms are, if those norms hint at hedonism, ease, and lack of structure, those are the parts most likely to trickle down and gain mass hold. A few happy, functional, pro-social polyamorous couples–stable, nice, and I wish them the best. A widespread norm of polyamory, though, is something I would expect to encourage a focus away from families as restrictive societal building blocks to relationships as hedonistic fulfillment of personal pleasure. Those two goals both have positive elements, but they are always in tension, and I value the first and want to live in a society that values it as well. This can be partially reduced to a tension between breadth and depth. By analogy, experts in a field can access aspects of human experience impossible to amateurs, and longtime residents in an area will build connections, memories, and understanding that necessarily elude tourists. An individual has plenty of depth, and long-term relationships offer an opportunity to build each other and raise others in a way that is fundamentally inaccessible with flings. This isn’t impossible in polyamory, but I believe it is more likely for someone focused only on depth to find the value there than for someone torn between breadth and depth.

Changing my mind here would mostly require seeing social scientists in the field landing on answers that contradict their own biases. I’m continually frustrated when I jump into social science research, see it reach a conclusion that strikes me as alien and bizarre (like “religious conservatives have higher divorce rates than others”), then dive in and realize the data says basically the opposite but the researcher massages it until they can technically get something that, if you squinted, looks like it supports their claim. Real example! I’d want to see socially conservative researchers find positive (or non-negative) social effects from polyamory before shifting my expectations substantially–or at least a project with a credible social conservative voice attached, even if they weren’t spearheading it. On a personal level, I see nothing that would convince me polyamory was right for me. It’s a firm dealbreaker.

2. Responses to scenarios

The prompt lists a number of scenarios, where all of the answers boil down more-or-less to “be generally decent and communicate openly.” Partner is jealous in a monogamous relationship? Talk through it. Affirm your commitment to them. Be trustworthy and trust them back. Have a crush on someone other than your partner? Well, committed love is hardly about crushes. Mention it if you feel the need, but if you’ve reached the point of serious monogamous commitment, you should have a lot more than a crush attaching you to your partner, more of a willingness to mutually build meaning than straightforward romantic feelings. Not that the romantic feelings for each other shouldn’t be cherished and sought after, but they’re just not the point.

In polyamorous relationships, I expect there would typically be similar open conversation in the case of something like an STI or tension between metamours. People are people. Most are decent most of the time. It would occasionally cause tremendous drama, and I expect one of your partners hating another would often lead to one breakup or another if they saw no way to make amends, but mostly it would just be the sort of hurdle that crops up naturally and can be dealt with reasonably in a relationship. And a date versus a hospital visit? Really, I’d be shocked if I had a friend in the hospital who needed focus and my partner wanted me to put a date above that. Given a closer relationship, the decision for both should only be clearer: visit the other partner in the hospital, find another time for the date. I would only add that time-dividing like that is part of the breadth-depth tradeoff I mention above, but in a case like that it’s not more than a passing concern.

3. What would happen if 90% of people in a society were polyamorous? (You may assume they all practice one style of polyamory, or different styles.)

If 90% of people in a society were polyamorous, the main difference I would expect is a massive nosedive in the number of children around. I’m also reminded of an xkcd comic I’m sure every polyamorous person is tired of seeing. People are complicated. Sex is complicated. Adding more people and more sex makes things more complicated. Society as it stands is already much more focused on sex than I’m natively used to, but I do expect that depth of focus on sex would increase given more polyamory. Many would prefer that, I imagine. I personally wouldn’t. The same goes for a broader feeling of hedonism. Since one-man, many-woman polygamous structures have proven viable long-term, I imagine looser polyamorous ones could find some sort of equilibrium as well, but I admit I have a hard time picturing a 90% polyamorous society not either shifting in the direction of de-facto monogamy or simply collapsing and reorganizing out of necessity.

Polyamory ITT: Anti #13

1. Why do you believe what you believe? What would change your mind?

My beliefs are based on a combination of experience and values.  In my opinion, the ultimate goal of a relationship is marriage.  Not the legal sense, but in the full “two people making a lifetime commitment to become a single unit based on their love for each other.”  I have been lucky to grow up around many marriages like this, and I’ve made it a goal for my own life.  That kind of marriage is a powerful thing, and a society made up of marriages like that would, I believe, have superior outcomes to any other society.  That kind of marriage also takes work, years and years of work, but the greatest rewards require the greatest investments.I understand that many people may not value the same things that I value, but to me choosing to pursue relationships with no long-term potential is similar to choosing to live in your parents basement and play videogames all day, instead of getting a job and supporting unhealthy for the individual and the society that they belong to.  This is a case of “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Poly relationships…just seem like parts.

A consistent pattern of poly marriages lasting 20 years or more would make me change my mind. I have never heard of a poly group that was truly long-term in the sense of being able to raise a child.  Obviously a large number of vanilla heterosexual marriages fail too for all kinds of reasons, but as far as I can tell the failure rate for poly relationships is 100%.

2a. A monogamous person is jealous of their partner (for example, because they’re afraid their partner has a romantic interest in someone else). In a healthy relationship, what would happen next?
In some situations jealousy would be a valid response, e.g. if their partner was actually interested or having an affair with someone else. But since you specified a healthy relationship, we can assume there is no basis for the jealousy. Therefore, the next thing would be for the jealous partner to communicate their concerns, and together find a way to address them.
2b. A monogamous person has a crush on someone other than their partner. In a healthy relationship, what would happen next?

That person takes steps to distance themself from their crush.  Like the old story about “two wolves in side of you” the feelings fade away if they are not fed.
3. What would happen if 90% of people in a society were polyamorous? (You may assume they all practice one style of polyamory, or different styles.)

The notion of exclusivity in a relationship would disappear, followed by the notion of commitment. Relationships would become ephemeral–instead  of having partners for life, people would just have a list of whomever they happened to be sleeping with at any given time.  Additionally, without the focus on monogamy and commitment, there would be little appreciation for the work that goes into maintaining a healthy relationship.  Instead of encouraging one’s partner to grow and address their defects, the incentivized behavior would be to simply find a new partner.  Such a society of adults may be able to function well enough, but such a society could not provide a consistent environment for children to grow up in, and as a result a society like that could have no future.

ITT Poly: Anti #12

  1. Why do you believe what you believe? What would change your mind?

Bringing up children is a core task of a family unit. I would go so far as advocating that this is the sole rational foundation for the legal privileges usually granted upon marriage: the state has no reason to favor one relationship type over another just because the people involved have (or are thought to have) sex with each other. I believe that current secular norms regarding “no-fault” divorce or the non-stigmatization of non-marital cohabitation have (in spite of their proponents earnest desire to prevent tragic situations) set in motion (or at least greatly increased) social changes that ultimately resulted in the increase of the prevalence of children being raised in single-adult households, which naturally burden the “single-adult” and are strongly correlated with increased poverty and with the lack of opportunity for parent-child interaction and the child’s intellectual and social development.

From my limited readings, I got the impression that polyamorous relationships entail a very fluid understanding of the obligations of one member versus the other(s), going as far as requiring one member to not merely tolerate but to positively cherish the others’ outside romantic attachments as one important part of the partner’s “self-actualization”. I cannot see how this emphasis can be harmoniously combined with the ensuing likelihood of looking at each of one’s present attachments as intrinsically temporary , and I believe this is likely to result in much less stable arrangements and a less well-defined set of obligations towards the child.

I would change my opinion if, in a carefuly controlled study (or as controlled as feasible in the social sciences), polyamorous relationships were shown, across all social classes (though especially in lower SES) to:
A) not increase average, median or first-decile child poverty, <18 yo delinquency rate
B) not decrease children’s average, median or first-decile academic scores and mental health/social adjustment scores

2. A monogamous person is jealous of their partner (for example, because they’re afraid their partner has a romantic interest in someone else). In a healthy relationship, what would happen next?

A loving and frank conversation should ensue to understand why one partner fears abandonment or why the other is tempted to look elsewhere for the fulfilment of their romantic needs. Ideally, both partners should strive to understand the source of their feelings and work on improving mutual displays of affection/care.

3. What would happen if 90% of people in a society were polyamorous? (You may assume they all practice one style of polyamory, or different styles.)

I think that the loosening of sexual mores has made it more difficult for people with less sex-drive or who (due to philosophical/religious reasons) value chastity to compete for partners. This also has consequences in people (mostly women, due to their average lower libido) , whose interests in “going slowly” are now no longer as culturally supported , and who now may feel more pressure to engage in a sexual relationship before they really feel comfortable with that step. Likewise, I expect that, if 90% of the population became more comfortable with the idea of non-exclusivity, the remaining 10%, as well as the “bottom-half” of desirability distribution will become more handicapped in their quest for romantic fulfilment due to “prime mates” no longer having to (overtly) “settle” for one partner. Less extrovert/”sex-appealing”/etc. men and women will find themselves socially pressured to accept a “lesser role” compared to their partners’ more numerous relationships, and this may cause resentment. I do not claim that the total amount of romantic/sexual resentment will be larger than that in our present society, but I do believe that the resentment will be “re-distributed” in ways that do not strike me as socially advantageous. Nowadays, introverts/high conscientiousness individuals (both men and women) who are willing to devote themselves to a stable relationship for the sake of a larger social purpose (supporting their children and partner through thick and thin, for example) do have some expectation (when in a stable relationship) of being “rewarded” with increased romantic/sexual opportunities. If they are, instead, placed in a position where, in spite of their pro-social (but not “sexy”) qualities, their partners are encouraged/expected to spread their love around, their incentives will change and they will likely feel exploited and feel that society, as a whole, does not care about their needs and that pro-sociality is a fool’s game.

Poly ITT: Anti #11

  1. Why do you believe what you believe? What would change your mind?

I believe that monogamy on the whole leads to stabler relationships and healthier people.

Having monogamy as a societal norm gives a baseline expectation for relationships, and societal norms around it. If someone is married (or in a significant relationship) society holds certain expectations of them. If they are seen to be in a different relationship, it’s clear to anyone who knows them that they are in the wrong. This protects members of society that have less social clout from being taken advantage of, or being neglected, and encourages stable relationships.

Childrearing is one of the most important functions of society, and closely tied to monogamous relationships. A monogomous relationship gives the security and permanency needed to the incredibly difficulty time consuming act of raising children by increasing the cost of leaving a relationship and encouraging stability. With only one partner, monogamists have more time to focus on each other and their children. Having stable, healthy, engaged, and permanent relationships is essential for raising healthy and resilient children. I don’t mean that polyamorous relationships can’t raise healthy children – of course they can! – and conversely there are many failed monogamous relationships that had disastrous effects on children – but a societal norm for monogamy provides a bulwark and support to permanency for the purposes of raising children

Lastly, and perhaps counter-intuitively, polyamory is limiting. Polyamory encourages couples struggling with issues to avoid confronting their own problems and instead to seek out others as solutions. The security of a monogamous relationship provides fertile ground for a couple to grow and work together to better themselves, looking inward rather than outward for fulfillment and satisfaction, rather than looking for other people to meet their needs.

To change my mind I would hope to see evidence that polyamory can not only be successful, but can be successful across all strata of society. I would want to see evidence that polyamory doesn’t lead to less stability and poorer outcomes for children, and that i t leads to increased satisfaction in relationships for all partners.

2. A monogamous person has a crush on someone other than their partner. In a healthy relationship, what would happen next?

In a healthy relationship, they should acknowledge their crush. If it is someone unattainable (eg, a celebrity), it can be joked about. If it is someone seen often (eg, a colleague), they should be careful not to put themselves in a position where their partner would have reason to doubt their faithfulness. Likewise, the other partner should be confident in a healthy relationship to not be concerned or jealous.

3. What would happen if 90% of people in a society were polyamorous? (You may assume they all practice one style of polyamory, or different styles.)

I would expect to see a divergence in society – for some polyamory would produce healthy, successful relationships. Others would be left behind. Some of those wanting monogamous relationships would be unable to find partners. Still others would be in less fulfilling relationships and would struggle or be unable to grow. Fatherhood would take on a lesser role; with increased breakups the norm for children to stay with their mothers would also increase (and the knock-on effects that would bring). I would expect a polyamory norm to benefit those with power in society (and in particular, men) at the expense of those without societal clout (and especially women), as the socially powerful would have more say in defining their relationships, and the socially weak to feel an even stronger pressure to yield to others’ desires.

Poly ITT: Anti #10

1. Why do you believe what you believe? What would change your mind?

First, what I believe is this: there’s a Laffer-type curve for monogamy, and Western society is on the left-hand side of it. That is, individuals and society would benefit if more people formed monogamous relationships. There is probably a point at which there would be “too much monogamy,” but we’re not at it.

The people I know who are most interested in polyamory are high-intelligence, slightly eccentric types. And they are the people I’d most like to see form monogamous partnerships and start families. That’s not a preference based on eugenics. It’s a preference based on my observation that high-intelligence, slightly eccentric types make great couples, provide good environments for kids, and improve the communities around themselves.

I’ll allow that there are people for whom polyamory can “work,” and I don’t want to go around telling people how to live their lives. But if a friend asked, “should I get into polyamory?” I would strongly advise them against it. It’s not that I’d judge them harshly if they did; it’s that I want to “preach what I practice.”

What would change my mind? I’m open to evidence from either direction. If we find that places with less or decreasing monogamy start looking like great places to move – i.e., they are safe, have vibrant economies, and good schools – then I’ll happily start promoting non-monogamy. Similarly, if we find that places with more or increasing monogamy start looking like bad places to move, then I’ll update my model.

2B. A monogamous person has a crush on someone other than their partner. In a healthy relationship, what would happen next?

The monogamous person would sigh a lot, listen to music about unrequited love, pace back and forth aimlessly for hours, and eventually get over it.

Harsh, I know! But there are lots of things that one can (a) want, and (b) be better off without. Temptations are everywhere, and romantic ones aren’t particularly special.

That said, I have sympathy for people with crushes. Crushes are really intense – I’m still bruised by ones I had as a teenager! Getting over them isn’t easy, and I wouldn’t wish the experience of having a crush while in a committed relationship on anyone.

(3) What would happen if 90% of people in a society were polyamorous?

In my “Laffer-type curve” model, I think the optimal amount of polyamory is something like 5 to 10%. Enough that most people know some polyamorous people, and enough that people for whom monogamy doesn’t work have an alternative. But 90% is way past what I would want to see.

What happens on the left tail of the monogamy curve? I don’t think it’s a parade of horribles; I think it’s a subtle shift to a slightly worse society. Fewer stable households, fewer kids, less long-term investment. I don’t mean to imply that poly people can’t or don’t put down roots; I mean that in a 90% poly world there’s less incentive to do it (even for the 10% minority).

Put more viscerally: The 90% poly world is one in which every place is San Francisco (the city proper, not the greater SF area). There’s nothing necessarily wrong with the people there, but it has lots of obvious dysfunction and correspondingly few households with kids. I might live there if I have to for work, but I’d want to get out as soon as possible.

Poly ITT: Anti #9

1. Why do you believe what you believe? What would change your mind?

Because I have actually seen what poly communities look like and treat that as my main evidence rather than idle speculation about human psychology and abstract social norms.

Poly communities, basically invariably, put an onus on their members of perpetual sexual and romantic availability and desirability, and jeopardise the standing of anyone who can’t maintain those. It’s not hard to produce explanations for these trends, of course, but there’s no need to rest my confidence in them on conjectural a priori reasoning: they are visible, empirically, without need to defer to just so stories. Consistently, members who are exceptionally able and willing to engage with many partners find themselves with positions of correspondingly exceptional social status and power, while those for any number of reasons unable to do so (parents and non-twentysomethings, for example—point me to a single poly community with that’s not at least 80% childfree or under 35) find themselves at the margins and worse.

The point about older members (including parents) bears stressing: if you treat anyone middle-aged in your local social graph as creepy-until-proven-innocent, and reliably fail to make community events and spaces appropriate for children, your “community” is failing at an essential task. The healthiest, most attractive, and least burdened age range in a population is the one that will (on average) require communal support least, and yet it’s consistently the demographic poly-dominated social circles mainly cater to. A community is, first and foremost, where you live your life, and if that excludes both the first eighteen and the latter half of its years you’re in a very bad way. (This policy of graduating members into communal abandonment renders pretty darkly ironic the common argument that polyamory provides an alternative to monogamous social atomisation.)

Of course, you might say this is only a criticism of basing communities around polyamory, not the relationship style on its own. Maybe, you’ll say, it’s a bad idea to turn poly dating scenes into all-encompassing communities, but the same is true of birdwatching and you don’t see me calling for stores to toss their field guides and binoculars in the interests of social harmony.

To which I respond: I’ll believe it when I see it. Poly people cluster together, and it’s not hard to understand why: relationships and sex are a large part of most people’s lives, and it makes sense they would seek out social networks where the way they practise them won’t stick out as an oddity. Of course not every poly-heavy community forms around polyamory as such, which is a problem on its own; often you’ll find yourself stuck with a poly social circle just because you’re kinky or trans or think AlphaGo gaining sentience is a bigger global risk than climate change, meaning if you’re mono you’ll be stuck choosing between social disconnect, romantic loneliness, or dating in a way you find gross and incomprehensible. Which you’ll find ready examples of if you scratch an inch below the surface: plenty of people in the demographics I just mentioned will talk about the awkward choice of either a dating style they can’t stand or strained social relations, either over lifestyle with normies in a mono-by-default community or over dating style with the people otherwise like them in their poly community.

Of course, since this (unlike most defences of polyamory and a few too many criticisms) all rests on empirical observations about actually existing poly communities, it’s also open to empirical refutation. But after a certain point alleged empirical counterexamples in the form of poly communities with healthy norms become more likely than not to be noise, and if I have not reached that point I have come very close.

2. A monogamous person has a crush on someone other than their partner. In a healthy relationship, what would happen next?

These sorts of scenarios are wheeled very frequently as cases that polyamory handles more smoothly than monogamy, which I think speaks badly to the self-control of most polyamorous people. Everyone experiences crushes that it would be inappropriate to act on: towards people whom they know wouldn’t reciprocate, for example; or too young for them; or in a professional setting where consent becomes iffy. And if you haven’t figured out how to tone these feelings down yet ditching monogamy won’t do anything but kick the maturity can down the road.

(Of course, it speaks to this culture of indulgence that poly communities tend to be especially weak on these points, cf. the feigned incomprehension at the stigma on age gaps you frequently find in them, or the rate at which they encourage solving work/life balance problems by straining the boundary between job and polycule.)

3. What would happen if 90% of people in a society were polyamorous? (You may assume they all practice one style of polyamory, or different styles.)

This is a weird counterfactual to assess: am I supposed to imagine the actual population suddenly switching en masse to open relationships? or am I supposed to imagine a different population where polyamorous dating norms would be remotely stable?

If the former, the answer is easy: there would be an immediate spike in discontent and people would overall either explicitly or de facto switch back to monogamy and look back on their brief societal dalliance with free love as an embarrassing act of collective naïveté. Most people simply aren’t constitutionally suited to polyamory, witness the striking rates of weirdness you see in any actually existing polyamorous community and the way that among vanilla normie monogamous couples“opening up your marriage” is universally understood as a prelude to an especially nasty breakup/divorce.

I don’t think the other question is very hard, because we essentially have a long run of test cases in the form of every queer, kink, or rationality community anywhere: people would have fun elevating cuddle parties, hippie college dorm culture, and hookup scenes into the governing paradigms of social life from their late teens to early thirties before settling awkwardly into isolation in middle age. The difference being, of course, that rather than containing this failure mode to a few fringe subcultures it would become essentially inescapable.

Poly ITT: Anti #8

1. Why do you believe what you believe? What would change your mind?

The problem with polyamory is human nature itself. When you’re in love, even if you’re not the jealous type, you still want to be your partner’s #1 priority. Being told you’re just as important as a second person isn’t very satisfying. And actually, it’s worse than that, because while many poly relationships claim to be egalitarian, in practice there’s almost always a hierarchy, and no one wants to be second fiddle. This tends cause a lot of tension in poly relationships, tension which usually boils over sooner or later.

A second issue (which is often a product of the first) is that poly relationships tend to be unstable. I’m not saying that no poly relationships last long-term but in my experience it’s very, very rare. This is probably the thing that could most easily change my mind about poly—if someone could show that long-term relationships are the norm for poly rather than the exception. But they seem to be like 1% of poly relationships.

2. A polyamorous person hates their partner’s other partner (their metamour). What typically happens next?

I’m not sure this situation ever ends well, but there are probably a few different ways it can play out. Often what happens is the person in the middle will downplay the issues, until one day the metamour notices the other partner being hostile for seemingly no reason, at which it all comes out and one or more people end up feeling manipulated and hurt.

But it doesn’t always take that much time for a situation like that to blow up. Sometimes, somebody gets dumped right away, and not necessarily the metamour. In poly sometimes people get dumped even for diplomatically bringing up an issue they have with their partner’s other partner.

3. What would happen if 90% of people in a society were polyamorous? (You may assume they all practice one style of polyamory, or different styles.)

I have a little trouble imaging what that would be like. I’d think that if polyamory started becoming ridiculously popular, all the resulting drama would start scaring people away before you got to 90% of the population being polyamorous. But if somehow it did happen, I think the results would be really weird. Forget about the divorce rate—would people still have time for hobbies other than poly drama? I don’t know. Like I said I find the whole thing hard to imagine.

Poly ITT: Anti #7

1. Why do you believe what you believe? What would change your mind?
Monogamy has always been an important feature of Western Civilization, and many other civilizations besides. All relationships are difficult, but monogamous people have Tolstoy for the hard times and Shakespeare for the good: long tradition both proves the model and teaches from experience. Meanwhile poly people have Sex at Dawn and The Ethical Slut, plus a lot of confident online commenters. Monogamous people go through ups and downs, and sometimes bitter break ups, but over time they grow together, they raise children, and they teach their children how to have relationships like theirs. Thus society continues from generation to generation. Poly people tend to remain suck in childhood themselves, their lives filled with petty drama and haunted by unacknowledged uncomfortable feelings. The institutions of civil society are overwhelmingly built and maintained by monogamous people for the benefit of themselves, their children, and their communities; poly people may be active within a subculture and occasionally write good software but are often disconnected from society at large.
If polyamory were to become more widespread, and society were to continue to flourish with it, I might be convinced that it is not necessarily worse for society. If I saw poly people living full lives, rather than skating along on the margins, I could be convinced that it works for individuals.
2. A polyamorous person hates their partner’s other partner (their metamour). What typically happens next?
In situations like this, people generally agree to a “compromise” that reflects the underlying power dynamics of the relationship. If the partner in the center of the triad is more attractive or has greater social capital than the person who hates the metamour, they will use their superior bargaining position to get what they want. The unhappy partner may “acknowledge the need to unlearn their toxicity” or something, which just means acquiescing to the consequences of their weak position.
3. What would happen if 90% of people in a society were polyamorous? (You may assume they all practice one style of polyamory, or different styles.)
Many societies in history have been 90% polygynous, if you count the guys who remain single because the women are all taken. They have been highly unequal and often unstable. If a society such as ours somehow became 90% polyamorous, in any of the styles commonly practiced by readers of this blog, their low fertility rates would likely mean that polyamory were not so popular in the next generation.