In a 2013 column for Tor.com, 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?
True nuclear families are rare but they’re the default because of natural biology.
However, science is evolving. Biologically we can have three or more parents now – how will that pan out? What about clones and genetic engineering? How will they affect relationships and family life? [Orphan Black is showing an unconventional family with a sisterhood of clones who have complex relationships with each other and are all dedicated to protecting young Kira, Sarah’s daughter, although I suppose she’s genetically the daughter of them all. Gattaca tackles genetic engineering by creating a world where God’s natural children are a rare and persecuted group who are only allowed to do menial jobs while the social elite are engineered to be without flaws – healthy and beautiful.]
It’s easier to write about protagonists who’ve had their support systems taken away. In this way, authors are lazy. Orphans are common. Sticking to tropes is safe, relatively risk-free and feeds into reader expectations. Drifting too far away from tropes may alienate readers, agents and publishers. There’s also an inherent fear of misrepresenting unconventional families and relationships which risks accusations of tokenism.
There’s not enough complexity, hardship or jealousy to overcome in relationships in general in SF&F. We should be tackling questions like “Do I need to sleep with the people I love, or love the people I sleep with?” Alienation and disconnection are also factors to consider.
‘What if there were a drug that would make you open to polyamory?’, said one panelist.
[I wonder if that’s covered by erotic SF, SF romance and the Mars Needs Women trope. They’re more likely to entertain the possibilities of unconventional families and relationships with the inclusion of menage, polyamory, cohabiting couples and gay SF&F. On the other hand, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex protagonists are still rare. Asexuality is also overlooked but they, too, will struggle with relationships and family life just like everyone else.]
Disappointingly there was a lack of discussion on sexuality regarding the gender hopping Dax in Star Trek. [You could also say the same about Stargate SG-1‘s symbionts, the Goa’uld and Tok’ra.]
Best panelist Laura Lam said she:
- Knows someone who calls they’re best friend their ‘platonic life partner’.
- Would happily solve love triangles with polyamory. [So would I. There’d be a lot less angst.]
- Has an intersex protagonist in Pantomime.
- The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin – communal childcare and sexual freedom
- Chaos Walking series by Patrick Ness – boys raised by men in a woman-less world
- Fledgling by Octavia Butler – genetically modified bisexual protagonist
- Pantomime by Laura Lam – intersex protagonist