March 15, 2015

Slice of PIE: Science Fiction Families!
Using the panel discussions of the most recent World Science Fiction Convention in London this past August, I will jump off, jump on, rail against, and shamelessly agree with the BRIEF DESCRIPTION given in the pdf copy of the Program Guide. The link is provided below…

Reimagining Families: “In a 2013 column for, Alex Dally MacFarlane called for a greater diversity in the way SF and fantasy represent families, pointing out that in the real world, “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.” Which stories centre non-normative family structures? What are the challenges of doing this in an SF context, and what are the advantages? How does representing a wider range of family types change the stories that are told?”

I’m going to jump on the last question first: “How does representing a wider range of family types change the stories that are told?”

As a school guidance counselor in the 21st Century, I deal with family constellations in almost every configuration and the one thing that remains constant…well, is the one thing that Tolstoy pointed out in ANNA KARENINA in 1887: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

I’m not sure how many family types were represented on this panel, but I can speculate.
For the purpose of this exercise, there will be five panelists.

The first set would be families that actually raised each one of the panelists. Assuming no divorce, no deaths, and a traditional marriage, this would, of course, be five "normative families”. Five panelists, ten parents -- five male, five female.

But let’s say that every one of the panelists had a pair of biological parents who divorced. If you postulate that every one of the divorc├ęs entered a second relationship of some sort, you could have four different kinds of relationships for each person on the panel.

From there on, you can get creative, but let’s try to be realistic.

Five panelists, we’ll be conservative and say that three of their parent sets stayed married. (I KNOW the current divorce rate is 50 percent, but nobody's perfect and I always opt for the positive!) For the other two…well, there are a certain number of combinations, not to say the ages at which RE-combinations happened.

I’m going to put parameters on this and limit the years that there is profound parental influence: from birth to eighteen. That is NOT to say that your parents getting a divorce when you’re twenty-five won’t have a profound effect on your life; or one of your parents dying of cancer or a heart attack is NOT traumatic when you’re fifty-seven, but it will have a smaller effect on you then than when you’re fourteen.

So: five panelists; three normative families (mother, father, panelist and some number of siblings of some sort whether biological or adoptive). Let’s say one of those families is a normative divorce family: two parents, each remarried or in a significant relationship. Now we have ten individuals with which four of our panelists interact at various levels. To be creative…well, I’m not, I’m going to add a family that I have personally worked with.

In this non-normative family, there are six children under 18. The individual I know is one of the six. The individual’s father is a parent to four of the six. The individual shares mother and father with one of the siblings. The biological mother of these two is deceased. One of the children is a half-cousin/half sibling. Another child is a cousin. The fourth child is a step-sibling and no blood relation and the sixth is a child of the father’s current relationship and the fourth child's mother. The individual has relationships with ALL of the members of this family constellation. They are wildly variable and change all the time. The individual’s family is unhappy in its own way. The panel now consists of fourteen different adult "PARENTAL" relationships. The number of sibling/half-sibling/relative/step relationships is wildly variable and impossible to speculate on. The only way to look at those relationships is to interview and count. Add as well grandparents…

I think the reason that science fiction has not delved into “non-normative family structures” should be plain here: SF is a literature of ideas. The ideas require explanation. Sometimes pages of explanation.

It is IMPOSSIBLE to simply layer on a “speculative family” to a story!

You can’t write this sentence: “Before the ship took a hyper jump to the battle front, Keogathe [male name, Botswana] got a beamed message from his father’s wife’s child…” and then go on with the story! Well you can, but doesn’t that then defeat the purpose of creating non-normative family structures in speculative fiction? Tolstoy spent 864 pages writing about family structure in turn-of-the-last-century Russia. How many pages would it take to tell WAR OF THE WORLDS including the familial relations I described above?

I hope someone at that panel brought this up!

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