L'Ombre de l'Olivier

The Shadow of the Olive Tree

being the maunderings of an Englishman on the Côte d'Azur

04 September 2007 Blog Home : September 2007 : Permalink

Grown Up SF

On my recent trip to the US I went to some bookstores to buy books that are hard (or expensive) to buy over here. [We will ignore the eBooks for $5 rant and settle for the world as it is]

Anyway I bought the third book in Scalzi's Old Man's War series "The Lost Colony" as well as the first three of Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game series (Ender's Game, Speaker For The Dead, Xenocide). For reasons that are somewhat obscure, but boil down to DFW's completely crap selection of books, I read Speaker for the Dead first. In his intro to that Orson SC writes that he finds most SF to be written from the perspective of the young adult. The heroes/heroines etc. tend to be young and even if not are rarely encumbered with children or other dependents just like a young person. One can see this in Scalzi's Old Man War (for example) where the hero, despite being a father of 75 gets to restart his life and act young and irresponsible again.

In my fog of jetlag I thought this was a profound statement, and I still think so even now. I note that Scalzi's book 3 (and to some extent book 2) also have parents as major characters. Interestingly Speaker for the Dead's hero - Ender Wiggin - doesn't have children. He's somewhere between 30 and 3000 years old but until this book appears to have had very few if any romantic encounters let alone the chance to become a parent. Mind you the relationship between parents and offspring is rather crucial to the rest of the plot so that lack probably doesn't matter.

Apart from "Lost Colony" I have been wracking my brain to find other books where some of the main characters are parents to see how parenthood affects what the character does. I can think of a few where, for whatever reason, the parents don't have their offspring around to crimp their style. In some of course the children have been kidnapped or otherwise lost and the parent has to get them back (e.g. Eric Flint's "From the Highlands") but more commonly the character is able to somehow offload the offspring on someone else while undertaking the adventures described. In David Weber's Honorverse the heroine becomes unexpectedly pregnant. It will be fascinating to see whether the next Honorverse book deals with the juggling of new parenthood and galactic diplomacy/military action or whether the child spends most of the pages "off screen".

One writer who has a lot of parents as major characters, and where the protection etc.of offspring is a major part of the background if not the plot is Lois McMaster Bujold's Vorkosigan works - Barrayar, Komarr and A Civil Campaign being perhaps the most critical. Parenthood is also critical for Niven and Pournelle's mote sequel - The Gripping Hand.

It seems to me that one reason why perents and "grown ups" fail to appear in most SF is that parenthood tends to reduce risk taking and hence parents are less likely to be convincing heroes (or villains). This is, of course, not limited strictly to science fiction (or even other sorts of speculative fiction), but it is interesting given that parenthood is such a key part of the human experience. It isn't as if we don't have lots and lots of subplots concerning the precursors to parenthood: romance, marriage, even striving to become pregnant/give birth; yet despite all that once the family has been formed it seems like it drops off the SF menu, except as depicted from the point of view of the child looking up at his or her parents.

I'm debating whether SF is particularly bad in producing works featuring the point of view of parents or whether it is a lack in all forms of story telling. Certainly the more I think about it the more I realise that any number of popular genres such as romance, western and detective tales also rarely present a parental viewpoint.