In his essay “Beyond 1984: The People Machines,” Ray Bradbury writes: “People ask me to predict the future, when all I want to do is prevent it. Better yet, build it. Predicting the future is much too easy, anyway. You look at the people around you, the street you stand on, the visible air you breathe, and predict more of the same. To hell with more. I want better.”
Bradbury knew well that envisioning a different future means figuring out how to raise the kids who’ll live in it. Some of his best work, from “The Veldt” to “All Summer In a Day,” tackles precisely that question. This week, as we head toward Father’s Day 2016 amid ongoing election-year furor about how to shape our society’s immediate future, we’d like to offer one simple idea for a holiday that might help shift our collective vision of parenting a little farther into tomorrowland.
Allow us to explain.
We recently wrote a book, Geek Parenting, in which we sift through decades worth of fantasy and science fiction stories—in books, in movies and TV, in comics—to find life lessons that suggest ways we might strive to be better parents, better grandparents, better mentors and teachers. Better people.
We consider the families depicted in these stories: the families connected by blood as well as forged by choice, all filled with people trying to relate to one another amid countless challenges and triumphs. Sometimes we find wisdom in what they do right, such as the mutual supportiveness of Deep Space Nine’s Siskos or the Weasleys’ generosity in Harry Potter. In other instances, we learn from what they do wrong, like the frequently abusive Lannisters in Game of Thrones or Coraline’s manipulative Other Mother.
And then, on occasion, speculative fiction gives us stories that offer completely new perspectives on what a family can even be.
Take Ursula Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), which introduces us to a world where individuals’ sexual attributes are variable with the moon; every month, a usually-androgynous person might become temporarily female or male, might become pregnant. Or Marge Piercy’s Woman at the Edge of Time (1976), in which there are biologically fixed men and women, but assumptions about their gender do not dictate social relationships in the way ours do; men and women are all partnered together as co-mothers (everyone breastfeeds), and there are no feminine or masculine pronouns, only per for person.
Stories like these imagine alternatives to our society’s traditional attitudes about what parenting looks like. They introduce us to ideas we may never have considered before. They show us dreams of better futures, as well as nightmares that build upon the tragedies of the past and the worst expressions of human nature.
In his brilliant “How Great Science Fiction Works” lecture series, Professor Gary K. Wolfe points out that we need to be able to imagine something, to name it, before we can work toward making it happen (or prevent it). In this way, fantastic stories have at their core an incredibly subversive potential: They create communities of readers with shared imaginative experiences.
With Geek Parenting, it was incumbent upon us to recognize speculative fiction’s endlessly imaginative vision of human possibility. We strove to populate our pages with sf’s full variety of parents and guardians, diverse not only in gender and race, but also in the kinds of families they represented: single moms, multigenerational families, same-sex couples, blended families.
That meant embracing as broad and inclusive a definition for “parent” as we could come up with.
A parent, in our book, is someone who is present in a child’s life to help ensure their basic needs are met, but also to love and nurture them, support and guide them as they grow toward achieving their future potential. Depending on the child, that potential might include mastery of skills, creative expression, scholarship, or—when necessary—healing from trauma.
Many of the parent-child relationships covered in Geek Parenting are connected by blood, but we also include a significant number whose bond is spiritual rather than directly biological: Giles and Buffy; Michonne and Carl; Korra and Tenzin; Claudia, Louis, and Lestat; Harry Potter and Remus Lupin; Data and Picard. Because sometimes a parent is not someone from the family you are born into. Sometimes you marry into a family where your spouse’s parents become like your own, or a trusted teacher or coach takes on that role. As we discuss in our chapter on Maleficent and Aurora, there are a lot of different ways that children (and parents) can come into our lives.
Which brings us back to Father’s Day. And Mother’s Day.
And what’s missing alongside them.
Anna Jarvis created the American incarnation of Mother’s Day in 1908. Though she herself chose to be childfree and unmarried, Jarvis worked to have it become an official U.S. holiday, and President Woodrow Wilson signed a measure officially establishing the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day in 1914. Father’s Day seems to have its origins with Sonora Smart Dodd‘s efforts to honor fathers in Spokane, Washington in 1910, not becoming an official federal holiday until President Richard Nixon made it so in 1972, 58 years after Mother’s Day.
The intention behind both days is a celebration of a parent’s contribution and love. But what about the people in a child’s family who go unrecognized? Those who are not named in holidays specifically dedicated to moms and dads?
What about the brother or sister who has become a guardian, children raised by grandparents or aunts and uncles, families with two mothers or two fathers, or two moms and two dads, stepfamilies, foster families, families made up of transmen and transwomen, queer parents and gender fluid folk who are paving the way for families that do not fit any “traditional” model—as well as countless combinations of all those and more that have yet be named or invented?
Some of those parents would reject the moniker of mother or father, because they themselves do not fit into the binary system that privileges cisgendered, heterosexual, able-bodied, biological mothers and fathers. Some of those parents are still discriminated against because of gender, disability, race, or religion.
Among the great gifts of science fiction and fantasy are the “what if” scenarios they posit, as in the case of Le Guin and Piercy, as well as countless other authors like Robert A. Heinlein, Vonda N. McIntyre, Elizabeth Bear, and Jo Walton, for whom gender and sexuality are woven into the fabric of their world-building. What if we reject the rigid gender binary that we have inherited from familial and cultural experiences? What if we accept the idea that people exist on a fluid gender spectrum? What if we celebrate differences instead of trying to fit people into boxes?
So here’s another of those what-ifs: What kind of holiday would be more inclusive in such a future?
The heart of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day is the idea that we’re honoring the people who help children to grow up loved, healthy, and strong. Shouldn’t we, then, also celebrate a nonspecific Parents’ Day?
There’s a reason we titled our book Geek Parenting, after all, and not Geek Motherhood or Geek Fatherhood. Because the future is bigger than binary identities—or century-old holidays. Parents’ Day would let us honor, for instance, custodial aunts (hi, Aunt May!), nurturing mentors (we see you there, Alfred!), and gender-fluid families (represent, Crystal Gems!) alike.
In fact, there have been two initiatives over the past couple decades to officially institute such an inclusive holiday.
In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed a Congressional resolution into law (36 U.S.C. § 135) for “recognizing, uplifting, and supporting the role of parents in the rearing of children.” The resolution was unanimously adopted by the U.S. Congress establishing the fourth Sunday of every July as Parents’ Day. More recently, in 2012, the United Nations declared June 1 to be the Global Day of Parents, to honor parents throughout the world and celebrate their commitment to children.
While these two alternatives exist on the calendar—one following Mother’s and Father’s Days, the other smack in between them—neither seems to have caught on. And that’s on us. The celebrations of both Mother’s Day and Father’s Day were successful because of grassroots efforts. People saw the need and embraced the idea.
Perhaps those of us who love visionary stories of possible worlds might consider doing the same for Parents’ Day.
Many of us read and watch fantastic or futuristic stories to imagine a brighter place, to feel like we have hope. When tragedy strikes, like the shooting in Orlando last weekend, the cry goes out for justice, for healing, for preventative changes, for a better future. We need to do better.
Well, we can.
In creating speculative spaces where we consider profound societal and cultural changes, science fiction and fantasy give birth to possibilities—alternatives to our own reality. We’ve already proven that we can act to bring fictional ideas into being: space travel, robots, pocket computers, medical diagnostic scanners. We can do the same with a social idea like parent inclusivity—we just have to decide it’s worth accomplishing, and invest the years in modeling and practicing it so that reasonable people everywhere can see that it works.
And it’s important to remember that if we want more possible futures, we need more stories.
More different stories.
As we researched pop culture to write Geek Parenting, it was painfully apparent that, however slow it seems social progress has been in speculative literature, it’s been slower still in Hollywood, where fiction’s ideas percolate from us hardcore fans out to the mass audience. We’ve only barely started to see television and movie protagonists who vary from the oppressive sameness of pop culture’s white, heteronormative default with enough storytelling richness to include characteristics like a well-developed family background.
That’s why the recent storytelling diversity movement we’re seeing publishers consciously support—like Rosarium Publishing, like the Lightspeed magazine group’s dedicated “_________ Destroy Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror” editions—is so important. These showcases collect, underline, and promote much-needed voices, and we need those voices to describe better futures. Lots of better futures.
People encounter ideas, sometimes for the first time, in stories. They discover possibilities they never considered, possibilities that may not even exist… yet, but maybe someday. Small changes make ripples: being heard, being seen, being named, being celebrated.
Perhaps watching innovative films, reading imaginative books, getting to know and love new characters will inspire more of us to work toward making changes in our own communities. Changes like marriage equality, which has been accomplished through a broad and determined activist will. Changes like equal justice, a struggle that the insidious nature of racism makes maddeningly slow to accomplish. And smaller, subtler changes like a Parents’ Day, quietly reinforcing the underlying idea that all who contribute to our children’s care and growth are partners in birthing the future.
A future that’s not just technologically advanced and brilliantly otherworldly. But also better. Better for parents. Better for children.
Better for everyone.
Top image from Steven Universe
Valya Dudycz Lupescu and Stephen H Segal are the co-authors of Geek Parenting: What Joffrey, Jor-El, Maleficent, and the McFlys Teach Us about Raising a Family (Quirk Books), available now where books are sold.