Tue
Oct 1 2013 11:00am

Sleeps With Monsters: Writing Families in the Future

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).

17 comments
pCiaran
2. pCiaran
There is a couple of references in 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson to family groups that are not the bog standard Jetsons in space. I enjoyed the reference one character makes to how his people think at least 8 people should be involved in parenting, even if there isn't an explictly sexual relationship.

There are also a couple of challenges to basic gender assumptions in the book which I enjoyed.
pCiaran
3. Szervetlen
One of the reasons the Expanse by Daniel Abraham and Thy Franck is so awesome.
Kit Case
4. wiredog
Heinlein has all sorts of families in his novels.
pCiaran
5. TBGH
Certainly such family groupings are in the minority in scifi, but as you pointed out they do exist. To be frank, that sounds like the population at large right now.

Personally I don't think the gender/sexuality of characters is or should be the point of the vast majority of science fiction. I think authors in general have found a good balance of acknowledging LGBTQ characters without going overboard by checking one off in each story as a token to show their sensitivity.

Also, if alternate societial family grouping fiction interests you, I'd recommend Glory Season by David Brin. There are others I've enjoyed, but I can't for the life of me remember the titles.
Alex Dally MacFarlane
6. Alex Dally MacFarlane
pCiaran - While references to ways of living can be great fun, illuminating other parts of the future and showing that it's even bigger than the story's focus (I really like the necessity of 8 people in parenting!) what I really want to see is more of this in story's or novel's centre. Otherwise it feels very much like this variety must remain only in the margins...

TBGH - Yes, we wouldn't want to go overboard, now would we. /rolls eyes
pCiaran
7. TBGH
@6
Touche, overboard was the wrong word. Let's just say I dislike tokenism and don't see the lack referenced in the article.
pCiaran
8. K. Piet
I fully believe that futuristic books (and post-apocalyptic ones) should address the full spectrum of sexuality and gender identity/expression. Like you, I don't believe that everything between and outside the boxes our society likes to shove people in will simply... disappear over time. :)

One book I read recently is "Sinews of the Heart" by Cody Stanford, and it's a fantastic YA post-apocalyptic trans* novel. I can't recommend it enough. The combination of trans* and sci-fi with young adult literature... it just WORKS with this book!

Thanks for your article.
~K
Alex Dally MacFarlane
9. Alex Dally MacFarlane
TBGH - The juxtaposition of "I don't think gender/sexuality should be the point!" with "I hate it when people include characters of multiple identities because it can be tokenism!" rather suggests an interest in not mentioning this very much, which is a very effective way to reinforce normative ideas. Indeed, it has a long history. I want stories where gender and sexuality are centred. That hardly needs to be the only thing centred.

Additionally, in reply to your comment about science fiction representing "the population at large right now" - this is science fiction, not contemporary fiction.
pCiaran
10. TBGH
Now come on, I didn't misquote you to make a point.

I expect the majority of science fiction written now to reflect today's society. I expect minorities to reflect major changes in the social order in a variety of different directions. I think we already have that in regards to gender and sexuality issues in science fiction. I enjoy some stories that are progressive with alternative lifestyles and family structures. I don't think pushing authors to insert LGBTQ characters more often into stories for the sake of having LGBTQ characters will result in better stories.

I am only mildly interested in fiction with the themes you expressed and perhaps it's because I'm a regular reader of Tales of Mu, but I see it all the time and don't see the need for the call to arms that more must be added.
Alan Brown
11. AlanBrown
SF reflects the time when it is written even more than it does the time it is supposed to be about. Now that alternative relationships are more obvious in the world around us, it is inevitable that this diversity will be reflected in fiction.
pCiaran
12. D A Beam
Great article to think about. In my current project I just switched two characters of an all white male group to female and made one of them a mixed race bisexual. Now that I think about the family situation, I think I did the easy thing which is not okay. Time to mix up this crazy family somoe more.
pCiaran
13. janmaus
That family plan pretty much existed for centuries prior to the 1950s, with exceptions of many more extended and "blended" families due to the higher risks of the death of a spouse, and provisions for elderly relatives. I don't have personal issues with expanding the definition of a family, but the 1 man/1 woman/kids thing--that 1950s style nuclear family--is still most of what is out there, and what most people, ie readers, still want whether it works out for them or not.
John Laudun
14. johnlaudun
I agree that it's important to remember that science fiction is as much a mirror as a lens and that time will tell what readers need/want to see. I'm also curious to learn about more novels that play with such things. I remember being struck as an adolescent by the three sexes of Asimov's The Gods Themselves -- something that Iain Banks plays with in his The Player of Games. Speaking of Banks, do his long-lived citizens of the Culture that migrate back and forth across the sexes count? Also, I'm thinking of the character in one of the last novels who had penises emerging from all parts of his body. It was a bit odd, because as any Banks reader knows, his novels rarely hinge on sex, or really love for that matter -- which is not something I had really considered before now. Thanks for moving the gray matter!
Sally Brackett
15. sallybrackett
Thank you for this post! I would also love to see more fiction and poetry with a variety of family structures, especially since kinship patterns can be really different across cultures, time periods, and communities.

One series that explores family structures immediately occured to me when reading this, Laurie J. Marks' Logic books. (Fire Logic, Earth Logic, and Water Logic).
pCiaran
16. bejeweledcat
Give Gini Koch's Alien series a shot. Yes, there are plenty of nuclear families in it but some of the books have subplots about how stifling that ideal is. Race, religion and sexual orientation are all challanged and dealt with. Ms. Koch handles hot button topics with grace, humor and intellegence. Well worth a try.
Sanne Jense
17. Cassanne
I remember reading science fiction maybe for the first time, as a young child. It was some kind of old collection. In one story the main character returned from space and 30 years had passed. He went to see his daughter, who introduced him to her husband and her wife. That was quite the eye-opener for little me, and one of the root causes of my love for science fiction :)

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