Small things, quiet stories

It’s the little things in life. I have gotten off to a slow start this morning not because I was busy, but rather that we didn’t have anything pressing, so we stole some time to be wrapped up in one another. As I was preparing to write the blog, and address a few questions I’ve been asked this last week, I was thinking about this. Right now, my family isn’t fighting to save the world, save the universe, or even the multimeter. No, we’re just trying to make ends meet, make life better, and steal some time like this morning to remind ourselves of why we keep battling on.

One of the questions I was asked this week was “do you know of any small stories in science fiction? I liked Nathan Lowell’s trader series. I am not a huge fan of Military SF, or ‘save the world’ all action books.” I was tired and half-asleep, so the only one I could name was Cal Primer’s Company Daughter. Wide awake now, I’d add The Martian by Andy Weir, for stories of people living, or fighting to live, while being good stories to read. I suspect that there is a market for those smaller stories, back off the grand stage of most action-adventure tales where Our Hero carries the literal weight of the world on his shoulders. I’ve seen similar questions asked before, by folks who like a slower-paced story with smaller stakes, more about the characters who just want to succeed in modest life goals, and raise fat happy babies.

Which brings me to the second question I saw asked: where are the families in science fiction? There seem to be a paucity of tales where the story mentions happily married life, a pile of kids (with puppies and kittens of course!), and all the home love that sustains so many of us. I know the meme is that writers tend to be bitter and alone, but looking around, that’s not actually reality. So why don’t we see more stories like Heinlein’s The Rolling Stones? I still love that book no matter how many times I have read it before. We see, so often, Our Hero broken and alone, but it’s much rarer to see the main character supported, loved, and surrounded by others who will tease them one minute and watch their six the next.

Which brings me to the last question I saw asked. What about the space travel that takes place like the settling of the world really did? Where the explorers that are gone from home and family for months, if not years, at a time? There is a wealth of research material out there which could bring stories like that to life. I have one in mind immediately, the tale of William Dampier, the reluctant pirate. He was gone from home (in the 1600s) on one voyage for eleven years, while his wife, it is recorded, ran the farm profitably and raised children. As a writer, incorporating the tales of those who stayed behind to keep the home fires burning could be a welcome note. Or the story of the left-behind who had to fight off the invasion with a baby on their hip and a plasma rifle in the other hand. Or the Iliad, the man who returned after twenty years to find his wife beseiged by suitors, or…

There are a million stories out there; more, if you look at the entire Amazon catalog, even allowing for duplicates of public domain works. I know some of them would answer the questions, but I also think there is room for more to be told. The reader doesn’t always want thrills, original, avant-garde… Sometimes they want the warm, familiar, comforting feeling of knowing these people, knowing just what they are going through. Shopping for a spaceship on a budget. Finding a way to teach the kids while mining the asteroids. Keeping up their own education (not every character can be a genius who absorbs All the Knowledge by osmosis). Working, and finding a market for their skills. Plumbing a second bathroom into that too-small spaceship…. Ok, maybe not fodder for a whole story, but a hilarious note to all us parents of teens.

And on that note, I’ll leave this to you, my gentle readers, to suggest extant stories which would satisfy these readers. I hope that the writers among you will have a few ideas to thread into your tales. For me? I apologize for any typos, I have written this from my tablet, unwilling to move and waken the slumbering. Or to leave the warmth of the blankets. I can now snuggle back down until the children clamor for breakfast…


      1. I liked it for other reasons, but there was a lot of emphasis on disfunctional families there, if I’m remembering it right.

  1. “We see, so often, Our Hero broken and alone, but it’s much rarer to see the main character supported, loved, and surrounded by others who will tease them one minute and watch their six the next.”

    Absolutely. That’s why I’m three books into a story where they do have that. The Lone Wolf is romantic and actiony for sure, but realistically that guy/girl is good for maybe a couple of years before they burn out, and they can only handle problems that one person will be sufficient for. Our Hero needs a bunch of help, if only because you can’t think of everything yourself.

    When the world is at stake, what you need is for the whole world to stop screwing around and get to work. One guy can’t do that.

    I don’t know if anybody else will like it, but I do.

      1. This series I’m trying to get dead tree published, so I can be a “real” writer. That of course is taking forever.

        My evil plan is to take this next one that’s trying to get out of my fingers and self-pub it. Some of the characters will be the same, but the universe will be different. A little more action and a little less smooching hopefully. ~:)

      1. I never got into the Elenium, but you’re absolutely right about the Belgariad… the theme of family (and friends who are just like family) just permeates those books. The love and support they provide are critical more than once in the series.

      2. I have all of them. Some of my favorites from years past. Always used to cheer me up.

  2. Several years ago, I read this short story in some collections.

    Can’t remember author or title but the main character was an elderly woman in a small town that was in the path of a solar eclipse.

    I think she managed a small bed & breakfast place and she noticed something odd about some of the guests who had come to witness the eclipse.

    Well one of her friends/relatives mentioned that the Earth-Moon system was unusual in that the Moon was apparently the same size (as seen from Earth) as the Sun so we saw more spectacular solar eclipses than likely were seen on other worlds.

    She decided that the odd guests had to be aliens visiting Earth to witness our solar eclipses.

    Since they were good guests, she wasn’t worried about it. 😀

      1. “And Come from Miles Around” by Connie Willis is similar, with a housewife and her family waiting for an eclipse, odd characters, and un-cooperative weather. Some of Willis’s best stories, IMHO, are the ones where she focuses on the ordinary – Belleweather, “Blued Moon”, etc.

        1. My mom always loved “And They Came From Miles Around” because it so well encapsulates what it’s like doing something big and grand while dealing with a cranky toddler.

    1. I don’t know about this one, but in 2000 I published a story (in German) in which it turns out that Earth is the _only_ inhabited planet in the Galaxy that features total solar eclipses, which makes it a major attraction for aliens from all over.

  3. This.

    One reason I stopped reading *The Dresden Files.* The ever-more-epic stress and scale got tiresome.

    Whereas I can always go back and read a Nero Wolfe. A sufficient problem, and a band of friends dealing with it.

    1. SKIN GAME scaled things back a tad for something more fun and friendly, more like a really cool “Caper” adventure than the epic McCosmic stuff. I really enjoyed it.

    1. I haven’t seen the show, I saw a modern movie that was… Lacking. But it’s a good solid story concept right out of the Swiss Family Robinson I grew up with.

        1. Lost in Space is on CBS’ broadcast syndication network, Retro TV. I think it is Sunday nights about midnight or 11:30. The black and white eps are interesting.

  4. The wife/family/homestead is usually *after* the conflict/story. It’s what the hero is working *for*.

    It’s possible to write around that, as noted upthread, but it’s often clunky.

    As for the Dresden Files… despite the serious protagonist and backstory problems, there’s always Michael and his family, taking life one day at a time.

  5. Family and courtship (and saving the world, sort of) are the background of the WIP. (The Rajworld stuff on my blog, for those curious).

    Maybe we should start a new, er, brain cramp (not enough caffeine yet), tag? thing on Amazon, sort of like Human Wave, for for quiet sci-fi and quiet fantasy – all of the story, not so many booms. 🙂

    1. How about cozy science fiction? Cozy fantasy?

      Ooh, ooh. I just remembered, Barbara Hambly’s Dragonsbane had a very nice family and husband.

  6. CEDAR!!!!! I did _not_ need to be invaded by a new story this morning!!!!!
    Space capsule 674-243 was all the family finances could manage. It would have to do.

  7. I suspect that there is a market for those smaller stories, back off the grand stage of most action-adventure tales where Our Hero carries the literal weight of the world on his shoulders.

    Totally agree! 😀 I love those smaller-scale stories. I’m adding some of the recs here to my TBR. Thank you!

    1. One that I really liked that had both a lot of family relationships and an adventure was Ms. Ney-Grimm’s Fate’s Door. It’s really cool. (Full disclosure: JM and I were college roommates and found each other again via The Passive Voice).

        1. There was that “J” and the “Ney” and I went and looked her up on Amazon. Then I was shy for months. 🙂

    1. They are, and it feels a bit like glue – we’re far from being ‘broken’ in any way, but this sticks us together a bit tighter. The difference is that now, I have to think about it and fight for that time.

  8. Part of the issue is the limiting of characters in story. You only have so much space and I find that when a main character has a large family it tends to overwhelm the writer. Keeping track of everyone, making sure they’re all distinct, giving them a reason to exist in a story. Quite tricky. As an example, I have two brothers and no sisters, all of us are blonds, over six foot one, over two hundred pounds, with the same tone and timbre to our voices. We don’t get mistaken for each other but I have had friends of my older brother who I’ve never met stop me in a bar, call me Swannee, and buy me a beer.
    Describing that you’d be reliant on their personalities to be distinct so as to differentiate those characters, but we were all raised by the same people to be the way we are and there are more similarities than differences.

    The way this is overcome is odd to me because usually the personality differences become so exaggerated that the characters could not have been raised by the same people (though in fantasy where the differences between first and second sons are so important in terms of inheritance then I can see them being raised significantly differently but in modern terms it seems false-ish to me).

    I’m not a big reader of Epic anything, so take this with a grain of salt but I find that in epic novels the author thinks they’ve differentiated the characters enough when writing families but often they just become one mass of ‘those people’ rather than individual characters.

    One example where I found it was done extremely well was in one of my favorite books; The Mirror of her Dreams and A Man rides Through (Mordant’s Need) by Stephen R. Donaldson. Geraden’s family is distinct from each other, serves a purpose in the story (moves the story forward while showing why Geraden is the character he is) and all have different voices while still feeling like they sprung from the same well. That said, all the rest of the character’s families are much more limited in scope and I assume that was a deliberate choice. In that kind of fantasy realm large families would be normal but that would be too many characters, too many personalities, too much complication. One large family worked well though.

    A side note; why is Donaldson more famous for the Covenant series? They’re not as fun, not as well written, does not have the sympathetic main characters of Mordant’s Need. But Mordant’s need was kind of a flop from what I understand and he never really tried to write something like it again. Was it marketing? Being the only fantasy story to star a character with leprosy might have been an interesting hook, I guess. Never made much sense to me but the world contains multitudes.

    1. In large part, Donaldson is more famous for the Covenant series because the Covenant series came out in 1977, when a huge audience was starved for epic fantasy. Mordant’s Need was released in 1986–87, when the market was glutted with other stuff like it.

  9. Clifford Simak is the master of the small story. His “New Folks, Home” is my favorite short story, bar none. An aging lawyer who feels he’s at the end of his usefulness discovers an unusual house and a new purpose while on a fishing trip.

  10. Close to 60 years ago there were a series of stories about the Websters and their dogs. At the end, the intelligent ants were advancing to citify the world. There was also a robot. More I do not remember.

        1. Sorry, hit the wrong button. I wanted to say that ANYTHING written by Clifford Simak fits the requested category. His heroes are usually simply countryfolk.

  11. My little brother has started a novel series of this sort, and Book 1 is almost ready to go indie. It is about a practical woman who is looking for a practical spaceship buy, and finds her dream ship instead – albeit it’s a fixer-upper. Lots of stuff about starting a small business in a space empire of the far future.

  12. Mike Shepherd’s Kris Longknife series deals a lot with Kris’s famous (some would say infamous) family, though the scope of the stories has grown considerably over a dozen volumes.

    1. The last time I read that series, I got the idea that Kris would call some in her family “infamous”. 😉

  13. I deal with family — oh, do I deal with family! Albeit in the realm of historical fiction where it slots in rather more easily, while still offering loads of drama. If it is not a blood family, it is an association-family, The current nearly-finished WIP deals with this – a set of characters who are “almost a family; – in that they look out for each other, support each other through thick and thin.
    So – it’s not all that hard to create, I think. Do readers want to read it? Well, that all depends…

  14. In one of my sci-fi worlds, you get assigned to work on a ship, and that ship runs a classic trading route, like the ‘old days’. If you get back to your home port once a year, you’re doing pretty good. If something causes a change in your trading, you might be gone for two or more.

    Each tour is six years long, so your ship effectively becomes your home, and you’re in space 99 percent of the time, and every three years half the crew gets swapped out, so you lose part of your ‘family’ when that happens.

    So I have dealt with the ‘long trips, long times between ports’ and all of that in the past, and honestly? I just don’t think the readers are interested in that at all these days. That may change some day, but right now, people aren’t about waiting or things that you have to devote years to. It’s all instant gratification.

    As for families, well we don’t have them much anymore in Real Life, so of course people aren’t looking for them anymore.

  15. I have a story about a family enterprise on a mining planet.
    The last one of the bunch is packing up and leaving the house
    he grew up in. The mines have played out and it’s time to move on.

    And a mal-future piece about a band of folks who have reverted to
    the old (Viking) ways and are trying to keep their world from being killed off by people who are determined to do exactly the wrong stuff for what they
    think are the right reasons.

    Grandparents figure in several of the stories. Three of mine were
    on the scene till I was 10, and two till I got out of high school.

    Still trying to figure out how to get the story collection published.

      1. I dunno. I liked “The Warlock in Spite of Himself” a *lot* back in the early ’70s when I first read it, and it’s still a fun read today. But I liked each successor novel exponentially less, until I quit picking them up at all.

        Stasheff’s writing suffered a lot, and he got a bad case of the preachies.

  16. Cozy SF. Cozy fantasy. I like that, though I’ll cop to having a fondness for Big Dangerous Things That Go Fast and Then Blow Up. My novels are all action-adventure. I’ve done a few shorts that would qualify as cozy, and if I correctly recall writing them (some are quite old) it was hard freaking WORK compared to fights and explosions and all that dangerous stuff that comes so easy to me.

    Humor is hard. Cozy may also be hard. I’ll have to think further on why that should be so.

    In the meantime, my best cozy SF story is “Bathtub Mary,” which is about yearning for your friends, and the power of religious symbols, even on the non-religious. It’s in my collection about strong AI, *Souls in Silicon.*

    1. Writer Nancy Atherton is a mystery writer who grew up reading fantasy and SF. In fact, I met her briefly after a panel on “F&SF Fans Who Write in Other Genres.” She had never heard the term “cozy” when applied to books, even though her mysteries are very much in the “cozy” strain. (Her Aunt Dimity stories almost never have any real danger, and are set around a family and a small English village.)

      1. Ever since reading Dave Freer’s Joy Cometh with the Mourning, I’ve been trying to figure out how to find more cozy mysteries, a genre about which I know nothing. This looks like a good place to start. Thanks.

    2. I think Cozy is difficult because everything is so close. It’s a lot easier to fudge up the details of locality and personality, and handwavium becomes more difficult because you’re so close to the situation. And because that closeness (the ability to *snuggle in* if you will to the details of the setting) is part of the appeal, screwing it up will kill you with the readers.

  17. It’s not science fiction, but I’ve always liked Nevil Shute’s “Trustee From the Toolroom”. It’s the story of a grandfather who travels around the world to recover his grand-daughter’s legacy. He’s not rich, but he’s published work in magazines for toolmakers about various miniature machining projects and it turns out he has a large following. His fans sort of pass him along from one to the other. It’s a very quiet, cozy story with no smash-bang conflict, and it’s quite good.

    1. Oh, yeah. It took me years to find a copy of that book. And it turned out to be something entirely different from what I expected…

      I reviewed it over on the Home Shop Machinist forum a few years ago.

      That jewelry box belongs to his niece, and it’s his duty to retrieve it for her if he can… but Keith is a man who seldom leaves his house. He has no passport, no car, no friends, no relatives he can impose on, and almost no money. He doesn’t even have any friends; just some casual acquaintances among the local model engineering hobbyists. So he starts calling up the only people he knows…

      Today we’d call it “networking”. And that’s really what the book is about; how a reputation can precede you, and a dash of “six degrees of separation.”

      1. And this book is a PERFECT example of what’s wrong with the industry today. It was published in 50’s, the paper back is about 4 – 5 dollars, but the ebook is $13.
        Yeah, really? I would have bought it right now if it was the price of the paperback, but $13? Not a chance.

      2. Ah, niece, not grand-daughter. It’s obviously time for me to re-read the book. Still highly recommended – it’s a quiet book of determination with a world-wide scope.

  18. Some of you might find of interest in this line my novel “Mistress of the Waves”. In my tale, the heroine has friends if not a family, solves large numbers of moderate challenges — OK, the two assassins in her bedroom and the pirate attack on her large three-master qualify as violence, but her contribution to the second is “her bodyguard picks her up and sets her down behind the mizzenmast where she is out of bowshot” and the “I have the helm” — but doesn’t even know for much of the book that there is a big challenge, let alone do anything about it. On the other hand, my “Minutegirls” closes with the heroine and one of the good guys in each others’ arms, agreeing to marry each other.

  19. As much as I like the idea of having a family for your hero, I suspect the reason most people don’t add one, is that it’s just easier that way. In particular, going ahead and killing off your character’s family either at or before the beginning is a cheap way to make him more pitiable and broken. Then, your hero gets to rise beyond the pain, and that makes the story interesting. I suppose it’s why the story of Job in the Bible is so compelling. One guy loses everything, but refuses to lose his principles.

    Plus, if you have a family, then that’s a whole bunch more characters you have to keep track of, and who’s got time for that?

  20. The problem with families is that the character’s problem either has to be something the entire family can’t fix — or be the family itself. this can be limiting.

    In Madeleine and the Mists, Madeleine starts out with a husband and a two-year-old, but the husband’s not present for quite a few chapters (the driving plot) and there are issues with both her in-laws and her own relatives, without which the problems would have been rather less.

    Short stories more so, since the ambit is smaller. I’ve done several about women who are mothers. “Sword and Shadow” is about a husband returning from several years absence. All the others — “Witch-Prince Ways,” “Never Comment On A Likeness,” and “One Name” — I have to remove the husband from the stage.

    Then there’s “”Fever and Snow” which features a father. A foster father, so I don’t have to worry about the mother. And actually probably fits the description best as a small story.

  21. The family relationships are often found in YA works, since the main characters are usually teenagers, which means that their family interactions are frequently essential drivers of the characters, and sometime the overall plots.

    So that, for example, in Diane Duane’s Young Wizards series, although the main characters are often fighting against Really Big Evil, that doesn’t prevent us from learning a lot by watching how they interact with their parents and siblings.

    1. OTOH, for a YA story, the adults have to be
      1. useless
      2. absent, or
      3. the problem.

      ’cause otherwise your protagonist will not have the agon. Even if, like Young Wizards, their uselessness is not their fault.

      1. I just heard something odd and confusing, and that is that genre designations have YA as younger than “teen”, because “teen” often has graphic language or adult situations.

        This makes NO SENSE.

  22. The meme in place for modern protagonists seems to be “Any hero who has romantic attachments or needs loved ones who are related by blood DOES NOT COUNT as a -real- hero! Especially if they are female.”

    So we have the mass of current protagonists who outside of a few work buddies seem to go through life totally alone, devoid of the attachments and comforts of family, community, home….

    Why? It usually seems to boil down to something like “Traditional Relationships are EVUL because REASONS!” or some such.

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