Family Structures in Science Fiction and Fantasy (A Balticon 56 Panel)

I’m back with more notes from Balticon 2022!

At the titular panel, the panelists were: Monica Louzon, C.J. Cherryh, Christine Sandquist, and Ada Palmer, with Jennifer R. Povey as moderator. The description was as follows:

From werewolf clans to alien hives, this panel will discuss the most imaginative and thought-provoking examples of family structures in genre works.

In science fiction and fantasy, you’ll find a wide array of “unusual” family structures. In America, the expected family structure is the nuclear family, with a married couple consisting of a man and a woman with a median of two children.

“Unusual” Family Structures found in SFF

  • extended family groups
  • found family
  • family displaced in order by space and time
  • from history — royal/noble families with their households of supported artists, craftsmen, servants, fosters, and more
  • polyamorous relationships – like a web, everyone in the relationship can be dating any number of other people, so long as everyone knows
  • relationships not centered around the raising of children

How to shape the families in your world

Does the family shape the world, or the world shape the family? Obviously, you can do it many ways!

  • Start with the characters! – Maybe just two people and grow their connections out from there
  • Or look at historical family unity shifts and the underlying factors, then kick those factors up to the extreme and play with them
  • research non-fiction on how civil rights, lgbtqa+ rights, medieval family structures, and cultures from around the world
    • i.e. the Irish had 1-year and a day trial marriages
  • Ask “what did the previous generation look like” to make sure you’ve thought out how this can play through
  • Investigate if the family structure you have makes sense with the current story/world structure
  • Think through the less human elements
    • i.e. For hive families
      • Is it a family, or a queen with slaves?
      • Are there individuals or just one mind with each body as an arm or leg
      • Can awareness shift from hive unit to hive unit

How does reproduction control families?

A lot of human family structures are influenced by inheritance practices and taking care of children. Control over reproduction changes things a lot.

  • In The Expanse series and CJ Cherryh’s Cyteen, there are people who use artificial wombs, educate their offspring through tapes, and their people come out ready to be productive citizens. No parents, but they’re assigned an instructor/mentor
  • The Vorkosigan series by Lois Bujold has a main character whose life was affected by not using an artificial womb, bioengineered people in Centaganda, and, in Ethan of Ethos, a planet of only males that have children with donor eggs and artificial wombs.
  • Thesally by Jo Walton has a generation of children raised by a city of philosophers as a grand experiment

Recommendations

This panel was 90% recommendations, so let’s get to them.

  • Books of the Raksura by Martha Wells has a matriarchial hive family.
  • Murderbot also by Martha Wells has found family and AI
  • The Expanse series by James S. A. Corey contain James Holden, whose parents a polyamorous group, with 5 men and 3 women.
  • The Deepest Rift by Ruthanna Emrys has scientists where the characters’ assigned research group is expected to become their family.
  • The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester has family relationships at the core of the plot.
  • The Alliance-Union series by C.J. Cherryh has the Spacer families, traveling through space, where everyone on the ship is related, and dalliances happen when they’re in port.
  • No Gods, No Monsters by Cadwell Turnbull has polyamorous relationships.
  • Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy by Timothy Zahn has people who switch families based on politics or for new job opportunities
  • The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein has polyandry and “line marriages” where if something happens, the next in line replaces the lost husband or wife (gives children a continuity of parents, but can be squicky in practice).
  • A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge has hive mind alien “dog” families and AIs that can overwrite organic creatures’ minds.
  • Astro Boy (Mighty Atom in Japan) by Osamu Tezuka has an AI boy created for human parents who lost their son, and later ends up with AI created to be his parents when the humans have no more use for a boy who never grows up.
  • Catfishing on CatNet by Naomi Kritzer explores online friendships and AI.

Are there relationship structures you’d like to see get more page time?

Any tips or tricks that the panelists missed?

2 Comments

  1. I was going to bring up “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” if you hadn’t! I have loved that book since it first came out, for numerous reasons. Among those, I found the concept of a line marriage very interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

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