About a year ago, I was reading an anthology that collected almost fifty science fiction stories, a high percentage of which were recently published. Some offered exciting, thought-provoking ideas of the future. Many did not: the far-future felt like today, IN SPAAACE.
This failure of the imagination is one I encounter too often, and it can happen in many ways. The one I want to talk about is the depiction of families: namely, that they are almost always families of one man and one women—straight, cisgender—with a child or two.
Families across Earth exist in great variation, from extensive kinship networks to only a few relationships, connected by genetics or choice. People of all sexualities and genders join together in twos, threes, or more. Family-strong friendships, auntie networks, global families... The ways we live together are endless.
Yet in science fiction, families—where they appear at all—are normally small, one man and one woman, with children or parents. There is little sense of an extended family beyond these immediate relationships, or that people other than one man and one woman might form a family. And this is a norm.
It can certainly be argued that some plots, especially in shorter works, don’t support the opportunity to meet the protagonist(s)’ extended family. Not all stories need mention who is attracted to whom. It would be a poor argument to suggest that these explanations (and others) cover the entire breadth of storytelling. Where are the quick mentions that a character has mothers or fathers instead of just one of each? Where are the soldiers who want the war to be over so they can visit their aunts and uncles and cousins and meet their new great-nephew, rather than just their partner and child? Where are the stories rooted in family, their conflicts and revelations drawn from these relationships?
These stories exist, but they are few and far between. I want more.
I want there to be no norm.
I want more families like the sedoretu of Ursula K. Le Guin’s stories “Mountain Ways” and “A Fisherman of the Inland Sea” and others, set on the planet O: a marriage unit of four, shaped by strict rules. I want the importance of extended families, as in Aliette de Bodard’s “Scattered Along the River of Heaven,” “Immersion,” “The Weight of a Blessing,” and On a Red Station, Drifting, where existing family structures are extended into the future (and sometimes your great-great-aunt is a spaceship). I want Mako Mori and Stacker Pentecost, found-family fighting together.
Pacific Rim (2013) is an interesting film among the standard Hollywood output because it centres family and co-operation. The film makes it clear that the lone hero won’t work: they tried that and the lone heroes died. When the paired pilots become celebrity heroes, they start losing the fight against the aliens. It is won when you see the crews who maintain the Shatterdome and Jaegers being addressed by Stacker Pentecost alongside the pilots. The named characters can’t walk through the Shatterdome without passing crew at work. And the pilots are family units: the Wei triplets, the married Kaidanovskys, the father and son Hansen team, the Becket brothers and, later, Raleigh Becket and Mako Mori. The faults with the film could be listed at length, but to me it’s strikingly different to what I’m used to in a Hollywood science fiction film.
One area where it’s lacking is in LGBTQ+ characters. Their absence in science fiction is utterly unrealistic. I don’t believe a future without trans* people, non-binary-gendered people, women who love women, men who love men, people who love people of all genders—forming families in all sorts of configurations. These people exist now. The only explanation for their complete absence in the future is systematic eradication—which, to be quite honest, is not a future I want to read about.
While there are a number of authors writing LGBTQ+ characters in the future, including in families, their work remains a marked minority. This is why I’m eagerly anticipating the anthology Fierce Family, edited by Kay T. Holt and Bart R. Leib: a speculative fiction anthology focusing on strong families, specifically ones with one or more LGBTQ+ person. But I want to read these stories without having to turn to a themed anthology.
I’m not calling for an end to family-less stories or far-future families of one man and one woman. I’m calling for variety.
I’m asking science fiction writers to think about the full array of families that will exist in their futures—and then start writing more of them.
Alex Dally MacFarlane is a writer, editor and historian living along the Thames estuary. Her science fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, The Other Half of the Sky and Stone Telling. She is the editor of Aliens: Recent Encounters (2013) and The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women (forthcoming in late 2014).