Keeping it in the family

Keeping it in the family… No, I wasn’t actually referring to the ancient Egyptian nobility’s tradition of marrying their own daughters. They often say genetics is nature’s revenge on parents, and in this I imagine they considerably increased their chances of genetic problems. No, I was referring to the familial saga.

It’s an interesting little branch of sf and fantasy, and fiction in general, and politics (which has a lot in common with Fantasy – although given some of the antics you start wondering about this inbreeding – and if this is a ‘Game of Thrones’ reality show with no likable characters allowed to survive.)

I was thinking about this as a result of a comment from a reader – plainly someone (like me) to whom family is important. After all: we like to read books about things that are important to us, with characters that we can at least support if not love or identify with.

Maybe when you’re 16 (or not maturing much past) or single, the heart of a story is the drama and the hook up… but honestly the older I get the more I love books that at very least hint to a continuation. Maybe it is mortality catching up on me. Maybe the lack of grandkids seeing as my boys are now grown up and married and keeping me waiting… I look forward to helping the young tykes be suitable vengeance on my boys. I want to corrupt the youth with my song (yes, that is a Zelazny reference) and teach the ancient traditional ways of my people — in a fashion that horrifies the very people raving on about the wickedness of cultural imperialism. Mine are a hunting people, a warrior people, and learning to use the tools of the trade – the knife, the spear and the gun are our way. Funny, that’s not cutesy culture anymore, and cultural imperialism in doing away with that is entirely different. But aside from that – well there is a fascination in family. Military sf – and modern literary sf (where families, children and a healthy interest in future generations just fails to be unique, like all the rest) do have a harder time of it, although Bujold does weave it in well to her military sf. But the rest of sf/fantasy? THE ROLLING STONES. My HEIRS OF ALEXANDRA books – there are definitely some.

So: is it rare? Has it become less common? Is this sf/fantasy/fiction in general reflecting the diminishing role of the family in society (or at least in NY publishing and who they choose to publish) Or is just a false impression of mine, nothing to do with reality? Was the Scouring of the Shire the least important part of LotR and just important to me?

More important, as writers, why does it work, if it does? And what of books, series that follow generations. I can see the attraction – you want to know what became of those heroes that one invested so much in. But is it good for the reader? Is going to get the best out of a writer? I was thinking of some I enjoyed – DUNE sequence (to my mind got weaker), Heyer’s THESE OLD SHADES, and then DEVIL’S CUB (which got better to my mind) SHOGUN and the follow ons (which I liked less).

What are your thoughts?


  1. I don’t like tooting my own horn… but I’m a writer so it’s part of the job description. Anyway, my first novel Nobility Among Us is an alternative history/dystopia where the focus of the book is on the influence a single healthy family in a moderate position of power has on those they come into contact with, and how much of a difference they can make to the corrupt and tyrannical society all around them.

  2. One of the nice things about Pam Uphoff’s “Wine of the Gods” books is that it has protagonists who manage to have adventures while bringing up families and whose kids grow up and continue the family business

    1. I enjoy both bringing in new characters and keeping in touch with the old. However _useful_ the hero’s journey story form is, I refuse to kill the mentor a third of the way in so the young hero has to do it alone.

      Really. It’s OK if the kid simply grows up and goes out on his own.

      And as a method of handicapping the hero(ine), having a kid tagging along works pretty good.

  3. I always hated the “Children of . . . ” continuations. Never as good as the original. If that’s what you mean, count me out.

    But if you mean stories where the hero has more on his mind than himself, he’s working for a better life for his children, yes, they’re missing from the modern bookshelves. That’s because in America in the 1960’s, the fundamental organizational unit of society shifted from “the family” to “me” and now that the Children of the Me Generation are writing (and dictating what can be written) the stories are All About ME.

    1. Well, maybe I should be writing for ‘me’ – but as I figure the future belongs to those who turn up for it (and a lot of ‘me’-centrics have no kids to turn up) I’ll stick with writing ones where the family is core to what motivates the hero. 🙂

  4. One older series that’s a “family saga” is Juanita Coulson’s Children Of the Stars.

  5. Just finished listening to a very nice audio book version of Edgar Eager’s classic “Half Magic”. The character in that is the family, not just the four children but the mother as well.

  6. McCaffrey’s Rowen-Lyon series in the Pegasus universe (The Rowen, Lyon’s Pride, can’t recall the others). I thought it worked to a point. The Acorna series might also bee a family saga of sorts, but after the first two I drifted off to other books.

    Not fantasy or sci-fi, but Wilbur Smith’s first South Africa books (the original 7-8 IIRC) are about two families. It turns out that John Masters Indian novels are also a loose family story, although he doesn’t have tight family links in the ones I’ve read (_The Deceivers_ and _Night Runners of Bengal_)

    1. You know, I’d forgotten John Masters and Bowani Junction etc. I think loose connection works better than absolute generation by generation.

  7. I liked old books like Swiss Family Robinson. A new book just came out this year and is on the New York publishers best seller list. It is called The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney. I never read it though because some of the reviews said it was winded and boring. After going through the Probate on my Mothers property with my siblings, the thought of reading it crossed my mind a couple of months ago.

    1. Swiss Family Robinson remains one of my favorite stories, and has been re-read many times. And there is Little Women…. I read both of these (and many others) aloud to Cedar and her sisters when they were small.

    2. Hello other Dave Freer :-). I re-read Swiss Family Robinson as an adult about a year ago… and as an adult biologist got very annoyed by it (plants and animals from multiple biomes and wrong in many places) – but I loved concept of it as a youngster. It was pretty much my beau ideal daydream-life. Now as I do a lot of what it talked about… it’s harder in reality 🙂 even if I still enjoy it.

      1. I was fortunate enough to first encounter it in the Time-Life annotated version. “This creature is actually only found in Madagascar. That plant only grows in Sumatra.” And so on.

        I think the major thing I like about it is that it is very much in the mold of the Campbell / Heinlein / others “self-reliant man.” Except for being a “self-reliant family.”

      2. Even as a child (I was eight or nine when I first read Swiss Family Robinson) I was aware that the plants and animals in the story didn’t all belong in the same place. I loved the story anyway, and still do!

  8. To be perverse, it isn’t that many novels are anti-family, it is just hard to have a rip-roaring narrative with that constraint. In a similar vein, while it is certainly *possible* to have a mil-sf story with the main character a lowly grunt, and I’ve read several enjoyable ones, the first thing the author does is get that character *out* of the restrictions of being a lowly grunt by having them lost in space/kidnapped/sent on a mission/ whatever that gets them out from under the thumb of the command structure. The character has very little freedom otherwise. Similarly, it is hard to have adventures whilst making sure the younguns don’t eat things they aren’t supposed to or get *eaten* by things they aren’t supposed to. The main character can’t take risks. So, like in Disney films, parents have to go 😀 And by the time the kids are old enough to not be a liability they are equivalent to Crewman #7 anyway and what’s the point?

    1. I was thinking along those lines, and of demographics and readers expectations, when I thought of some real people who, a little over two centuries ago, put their families in harms’ way.

      The first was an entrepreneurial fellow who had several businesses, two of which required him to locate near the hostiles. His family was in a cabin some miles away, near the top of a hill, with a fort between them and the hostiles. Given that the frontier was a porous thing, it didn’t mean they were out of danger, and I think he knew it, which may have been why the cabin was on a hill. But when he tended to some of his other business, he left his wife and young ones in the safer location.

      The next was of some other fellows who illegally crossed over into Indian territory. If they got along with the Indians, fine, If not – well, the details aren’t for the squeamish.

      All made a decision based on calculated risk. I don’t know what convinced them or other settlers to go into harm’s way, and more than once they would flee to the forts or eastward. But they knew the risk and judged it to be worthwhile. Maybe they thought they could handle it or maybe they didn’t have a better option. Louis L’Amour had a reason for Barnabas Sackett to head for the frontier. James A. Michener did the same for his characters in Centennial and Alaska.

      Could this be why family stories often place them on a frontier, in the past or future, or dealing with events beyond their control, such as shipwreck, war, or natural catastrophe? But what of books like The Godfather, with a family faced with drama and danger from other sources? A different kind of family, to be sure, but still a family. What of Blue Bloods, which deals with a police family?

      Not trying to be a contrarian there; just trying to figure out if there’s a limit to the situations that a fictional family can face compared to a solo character. True, in a novel about family, the family is the principle concern. But even with a Western with a lone drifter hero, he tends to end up with a pseudofamily for a short time, even if he rides off into the sunset at the end. For at least the duration of the book he’s concerned as much about them as he is himself.

      Oh, and the real person at the start of this? One day his family found a wounded man unconscious outside their door. From there things ramped up to an event where the outcome was life or death. They may not have gone looking for adventure, but adventure had come looking for them.

      1. Kevin: ‘readers expectations’ – may be key to this. Readers assume kids to be looked after and protected as they are in modern Western society. That certainly hasn’t been true for 99.9% of history.

    2. Then again, there’s the situation where making sure the younguns don’t eat things they aren’t supposed to or get eaten by the things they aren’t supposed to IS the adventure. So then, the main character *has* to take risks.

    3. This isn’t perverse. There are stories that are, and need to be, about just the main characters, no family involved. Many of those stories are very good; I’ve enjoyed reading some of them.

      My concern has been that so many stories are leaving family out in situations where family could — and in real life probably would — be at least background characters. And very often when the main characters do have children, they only have one and call it good. I can see that if a planet is extremely over-populated (which the Earth is NOT, not yet, anyway), but often they are part of dying populations, or on frontier worlds, where big families would (in real life) be desirable.

      I just read Nathan Lowell’s South Coast — a very good read, by the way — and the main character, young Otto Krugg, is an only child. Other families in the community weren’t mentioned much, but it seemed like one child, possibly two, was the norm. If two people only have one child, and that is repeated throughout the community, it doesn’t take very many generations before that community is on the verge of extinction. So my concern about some of the stories I’ve read wasn’t just that it would be good to see more family-oriented stories (and it would be good), it was that it’s not realistic to portray what families there are as having zero children, or only one. Even two is pushing it, because there will be some mortality, the community just won’t go extinct quite as quickly.

      This is a modern cultural artifact that is being dragged into stories set in a different time and culture, and one that probably wouldn’t be accurate for that time or culture. It’s like Sarah was saying on her blog about ‘preaching to your ancestors’, only in this case it’s ‘preaching to your descendants.’

      1. Georgette Heyer’s novels always have family members around. They are often charming and/or amusing.

        In my novel Manx Prize, the Charlotte Fisher’s family was definitely around. She works at the same company as her father, and that causes tensions and plot threads.

        My first book, however, I stuck everyone’s family off stage. I had enough to handle.

        1. I love Georgette Heyer’s novels. And yes, she does usually have family involved, sometimes large families, and she does it well. But she started writing in an era when large families were still common — it’s contemporary fiction that I see having a real problem with families and children.

      2. ‘This is a modern cultural artifact that is being dragged into stories set in a different time and culture, and one that probably wouldn’t be accurate for that time or culture.’ This. Although some cultures… 12-15th Century Venice and its wealthy, where one male child was the norm – to keep the fortune, and excess girls were literally packed off to a nunnery – not all of which were very saintly places.

      3. In the 14th Century series I did for the kids, I had two characters that were an only child. The reason for one of them was in the family crypt, a sickness that swept through the kingdom. Later, both she and her mother almost didn’t survive her birth. It was all backstory, but had certain effects on her family, and rumors of a curse surrounding a dark deed of an ancestor.

        The second isn’t explained, except her father is a widower. In the broad outline, he remarried and she gained a step sister, and later some half siblings. So while the two became friends while they were both only children, one didn’t stay that way.

        Then there was another with only two. In what I’m working on now, it’s clear why: their parents married each other out of economics and political maneuvering, and hate each others’ guts.

        The rest have large families. All the others with one child are either young and starting their families, or have all but one child grown and with families of their own.

        Correction: There are some other only children. They are bastards. I call them orphans in that particular book. A adult would probably pick up on what’s going on, especially since there are a considerable number in a coastal trade town.

    4. I would agree, it is a tough ask, and not suited for ALL stories. I wondered whether it had had a quantitative decline, that was all.

  9. A lack of families in science fiction may reflect two features of our current society: a general lack of extended family and a general infantilization of children. Is leaving a six year old unattended a great plan? No, but if grandma and the cousins aren’t available, six year olds can be trained to manage, and if you posit a frontier society, then they will be trained for it.
    If you run a quick sweep of some of the large family homeschool sites you will see references to six year olds cooking dinner, four year olds changing diapers, etc, and get an idea of just how much little kids can actually do, which is pretty much lost in our mainstream society. Sure, that’s with adult supervision, but you really think when the space pirates arrive and the folks have to go chase them off, the kids wouldn’t be left to fend with a kiss and ‘Do it just like I taught you’?

    1. Yes! I’m reminded of a true story from the early days in this area (Eastern Oregon, high desert ranch country). A husband was working away from home, leaving his wife and children on their ranch while he earned some cash. Someone at home broke their leg and Dad was needed at home, so Mom put the eight-year-old boy on a horse and sent him, by himself, on a hundred-mile ride to get Dad. Obviously, the boy was already a good rider and pretty capable, or she wouldn’t have been able to do that. But he made it!

      My kids were homeschooled, and as I think Cedar has mentioned, by the time she was ten, she could put a full dinner on the table by herself (or with her younger sister’s help). At seven or eight, she was helping butcher chickens (small hands fit into the body cavity better to pull the insides out!); by age seven she could milk a goat. My grandmother, at eleven, was milking five cows before and after school each day.

      And when I was little, my mother taught my two-and-a-half-year-old brother to load wood in the barrel stove, because I was scared to death of fire (I’m fourteen months older, but had gotten burned a couple of times). She had to go down a steep path to the lake to get water, and worried that she might slip on the ice and hurt herself, and then the three of us kids would freeze to death in the cabin.

      My cousins ran trap lines and hunted — their foster-sister got her first moose when she was thirteen, and I think my cousins all got their first game at around that age. As pre-teens they ran loose over square miles of wild backcountry (remote Alaska), fishing, cooking over small fires, and so on. They also all became excellent shots at a young age.

      I have friends who are homeschooling their five children (the sixth, the oldest, is out of the house already). The number of skills those children have, and are learning, amazes even me — the fourteen and fifteen year olds are running a small video store; they can build just about anything, including geo-domes; they can run a bandsaw mill and make lumber; fix bikes; take care of animals (a couple of years ago, they took care of my animals and milked my goats for a few days while we were gone); they play musical instruments WELL; and on and on.

      We could probably compile quite a list of skills that children can have — real-life children — and then use those skills in stories!

      1. A opportunity to say something tasteless! The Japanese homeland defense plan included a mobilization of…

        More seriously, thanks, this puts me in a better mindset for a project.

    2. Indeed Holly – this is a VERY recent and modern thing – and still very Western. We had a lovely Italian lady here on the island – who when she died had a profitable farm, and two houses in town – and a family of well-off very successful and well educated kids and grandkids – but she had like her 11 siblings -just 4 years of schooling, and as Italian peasants just post WW2 – the kids worked at the various chores from the moment they old enough to gather twigs for the family fire. That’s still true in many parts of Africa, India and other places. My boys were taught to cook young – I do all the cooking by choice, and when I got malaria and ended up in hospital – the boys 6 and 7 cooked supper for their mum 🙂

  10. Amanda Green’s Nocturnal and Ashes series both incorporate the concept of close family ties into traditional milSF and LEOSF action adventure tales. (military and law enforcement officer for those who don’t get the reference)
    And I have a strong feeling she may soon be coming out with an urban fantasy that takes a similar approach.

    As for family, raised two boys. Younger now lives with wife and two kids about 500 miles away. Kids are now 14 and 15.
    About once a month I will get a phone call out of the blue. “You won’t believe what that rotten grandson/granddaughter did now!”
    I no longer even try not to laugh. Other than details regarding newer technology it’s always something he or his brother tried on me.

    1. LOL! My younger brother, who was an imp, called my mother when his older son was little and apologized to Mom for being such a rotten kid! He’d gotten one just like him (only worse!), and finally realized just how hard it was to raise a kid like that!

    2. Uncle Lar, I spent my life trying NOT to get my mother to tell my kids what I used to get up to! I’d tell them not to do xyz – and she’d say “Oh your father always used to do that.”
      Sigh. I look forward to similar undermining of parental authority.

  11. Then there are families with a supernatural secret that binds them together against the outside world. Ray Bradbury wrote a number of those stories. I used a very dysfunctional family dynamic to bring together two (or three, depending on how you look at it) characters in my series. The Weasley’s in the Harry Potter books come to mind. And The Incredibles. I’m sure there are more.

  12. The Crofters
    my vague recollection of Zenna Henderson’s stories
    There was a series of short stories in of all places Dragon magazine about a family of magicians in our modern world.

    1. George – I’m a fan of the Zenna Henderson stories – but that’s 1950’s. (whenever I hear this ‘sexist men kept women out of sf, and wouldn’t read them ifthey published under female names’ twaddle I think 1950’s Zenna Henderson. ;-/

    1. I agree, but I think that’s more of a “loss of innocence” (if there was any left by then) and a “you can’t go home again” theme than a family theme. Frodo going wherever-it-was and leaving Sam and his kids behind was definitely a family theme.

  13. I liked the generational saga nature of Alastair Reynold’s most recent trilogy, consisting of “Blue Remembered Earth”, “On The Steel Breeze”, and “Poseidon’s Wake”. Though the children are born and grow up in the gaps between the books.

    The first book puts family ties centre stage, with the protagonists and the villains all members of the same extended family.

  14. If it’s planned from the start, I can see how a multi-generation family could make an excellent means for examining a society over time. Family fortunes rising and falling, different branches of the family gaining prominence, revered ancestors becoming legendary, or forgotten, or sometimes re-discovered, the culture changing…there are lots of things that can be done.

  15. As a writer, you need the character to fit the story, or you fit the story to the character.

    But the larger society ought to be more normal–for however you’ve invented an alien society–or for human society. A society of Conan’s would be be pure hell. A decades long voyage of a peaceful vessel will be designed for normal family life, where a military might grudgingly make some concessions towards the inevitable. Or turn itself into a military school and raise soldiers.

      1. Sparta apparently messed itself up badly with how it handled family matters.

        The Spartans were supported by a slave people who were assigned with the land they farmed. Some of the female Spartans are said to have gotten into empire building with the land assignments for their families. Net effect was that the land supported much fewer Spartans.

    1. Imagine an FTL generation ship. Perhaps refugees fleeing the Galaxy.

      Certain fields generated by the drive are conducive to the growth of mutant plants. Ingesting these plants let the mutant human passengers do kung fu better.

      Boom, you can import the Xianxia martial arts family that does what it takes to maintain its supply of cultivation resources.

  16. It wasn’t really central to the story, but Margerhet (sp?) in Queen of the Damned is one of my favorite family characters. Keeping track of – and interacting with – your family generation after generation would be creepy, heartbreakingly sad, and very cool.

    1. Can’t remember title or author (I’m terrible at both of those) but a few years ago I read a Christian novel set in the time of the tower of Babel. If you look at the ages of people in the Bible, you’ll see that they still lived for several hundred years even after the Flood — ages dropped off abruptly after the dispersion from Babel, but even Abraham lived about 175 years. So the story was about the Babel generation and included their interactions with Shem (who lived about five hundred years after the Flood, well past Babel) and other elders who were living a lot longer than the current generation. The elders were grieved by watching the younger generations die ahead of them. So it’s not a new theme, by any means.

      1. Poul Anderson’s *Fire Time* involved a long-lived alien race the humans were studying/helping. One of the characters has an alien she calls “Sugar Uncle.” It’s established that her father called him something similar.

        Near the end the alien says something (to himself) like “Damn these humans–you have to make friends with a *bloodline.* When is that girl going to marry and raise some more kids for me to uncle?”

  17. I’m rather surprised nobody has yet brought up Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter International series or Sarah Hoyt’s Witchfinder, which are both thick with familial themes.

  18. This isn’t precisely what Dave was talking about, but… We didn’t set out to do this, but my wife and I found that, as we wrote our books, we naturally wind up bringing in the family of the characters, and they tend to become hostages to fate or stakeholders in the actions of the novel. It is just perverse to have a hero/heroine who has no real ties to anything. Also, since so much of real life is about taking care of and providing for children, that becomes one of the big “ratchet up the tension” points in the narrative.


  19. The Liaden novels by Lee & Miller are big on family/Clan. The original main characters have a child now, and the whole extended family uprooted themselves and moved to a new planet. Various stories follow various family members of assorted generations. They’re still being written, so definitely modern.

    Much less well known, but I like ’em, L. Shelby’s Across a Jade Sea trilogy (indie published in 2014), that she referred to as the Scholar’s Revolt back when talking about it. The main female character has a rather large family who play supporting roles, and they all get to visit the foreign land with their sister.. It’s a non-magical fantasy, sort of diesel-punk. I love the voice. And the intelligence of the characters. Her books in other settings are also worth a look, but less family oriented.

    Some of this discussion reminded me of one of the late Vorkosiverse books, the cryogenic planet one, where Miles assumes the kid who helped him is competent and shocks the adults who weren’t brought up with Miles’ family stories. Miles deals with the adult shock by reminiscing about how when his dad was (young age) he was an aide-de-camp and such like.

  20. Reblogged this on The Arts Mechanical and commented:
    I think that the reason that there are fewer stories with families in them is that so many of the “people in charge” are more into alternative lifestyles rather social stability.

  21. Cedar Sanderson’s Vulcan’s Kittens, with a slightly exotic bit of family heritage.

    Judith Tarr Sun something or other –read it a long time ago — father and daughter.

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