There are some – the Atreides in all their dysfuntional glory, Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigans, but the vast majority of sci-fi stories I’ve read don’t have families central to the tale. (I am, as ever, happy to be shot down.)
Books without families, however, abound. The solitary figure taking on space, the team of adventurers becoming each other’s family, the colony providing the place of safety, almost a replacement family, they’re all part of the genre. It’s as if, in the future, there will be no place for family, that we’ll become one large mass of people interconnected, without the need for roots.
Why is that? Why is Logan not on the run with his family? What is it about making his decision a solitary one that gives the story more than a family would have done? Would it have reduced the enigma of the character? Logan runs because he’s going to die. What would have changed if it was his sister who was going to die? Because that’s the point about storytelling – the context changes the story we tell. And in scifi we tell a lot about the individual.
Science fiction is the genre of the frontier. About space, the ultimate barrier to expansion. But it’s also about the frontier of ideas – being carried as far as our imagination can take us. We can fight the limitations of our world when we write it.
Taking a family to the frontier limits what a character can do. I’m a mother of two, I know that small children and space ships wouldn’t necessarily match (which is one of the reasons I open Abendau’s Heir with a father on his space ship with two children – the opportunity for tension, the setting of someone relatively helpless against the expanse of space, seemed to give the feeling I wanted, that no one is safe.) But on the real frontier, families existed. It’s not impossible to provide that scenario in space and especially not in space colonies, and yet we still don’t do it.
So, why else? The focus of the genre, perhaps? Scifi – or at least some parts of it – explores the technology, future societies, not the personal. Perhaps it is a reflection of the fragmentation of our society, that families have become less of the norm than they once were, and a logical stepping path to the what might-be.
Except, for me it isn’t. For me, removing the family from stories makes them cold. It allows the characters to operate in a sterile vacuum where those they love you don’t impact on decisions. How often do we see the solitary astronaut look at the picture of their loved one and muse on it? We use it as a plot device, a way to broaden the character and yet we don’t actually explore what those human dynamics might do to the person we’re writing about.
When I started writing scifi I didn’t think about any of this. I didn’t consciously set out to write stories about families, because, to me, families just Are. And yet, my stories are all centred around one.
From Abendau, my Dynasty in space (shoulder pads optional), to Inish Carraig, centred around a small family just trying to survive. For me, without the tension of someone we love being part of the story and raising the stakes, a work threatens to become soulless.
Stephen King, knows this – he uses families to make us care, to give us something to rip the heart out of. It’s part of what makes his stories so chilling – that we could be in that family, that community. In Pet Sematary we know it’s futile to hope the father won’t take his child to the graveyard. We know it because that hopeless act of love is exactly what we could imagine a devastated father doing. We can’t hate the character, no matter how much we want to stop him, because we understand what he does. It makes the story come alive, on so many levels.
I’m not saying sf should become one great, big space family. Part of the appeal of the genre is the pitting of a person against technology, of about facing that frontier and finding it within you to push through. Sometimes solitary works well. 2001 would never have been as chilling without that sense of aloneness. But there’s room for both and, for me, scifi hasn’t always made that room. And I’d really like it to.
(Rec’s are welcome, by the way.)
Jo writes sci fi and fantasy, mostly involving families in various degrees of functionality. Her Amazon Author page can be found here: