Families in Science Fiction

At Powered by Robots, James Pyles asks “Where Are the Families in Science Fiction?”

I’m curious. Of the science fiction and fantasy you read, have you seen any family life shows in a positive way, especially in more recent publications?

I haven’t seen much in recent science fiction, because I haven’t been reading much science fiction recently. My reading priorities lately trend to the Classics and other nonfiction.

However, when we started out writing what became “In the Shadow of Ares”, this was one of the elements that we noticed was missing from a lot of SF at the time. We wanted to write a young adult novel that avoided the cliches of that genre and SF itself. So, we created a main character who was human, who made mistakes, and who wasn’t some sort of infallibly smart and precociously wise Secret Chosen One destined for greatness, and we set her in a family with parents who made some pretty risky sacrifices to make a go of it. We explicitly avoided making her an orphan, or situating her on her own in some manner like many of Heinlein’s juveniles’ protagonists (stowaways, runaways, castaways, and kidnappees). Too, families fit with the overall nature of the fictional universe, in which Mars is just starting to be settled – one character observes (perhaps only in draft) that if you’re not having babies, it’s a base and not a settlement…you’re not really committed to stay and build a new world.

In “ItSoA”, Amber’s positive relationship with her parents (especially her father) is a key element, while in the sequel, “Ghosts of Tharsis”, her close relationship with her mother is explored. In both books, the issue of children and families on Mars is an important theme, and this theme reappears in “Redlands” and (indirectly) in “He Has Walled Me In”. In “Pipeline” (unpublished), Thoreson’s children are entrusted with his business empire on Earth when he emigrates to Mars with his grandchildren to run the project. Also in “Ghosts of Tharsis”, every protagonist is shown in the context of family: Amber, Marek’s children, Ethan and his parents, Ezekiel and his brothers, even some tag characters. The only story we’ve published so far without a positive family element in it is “Anatomy of a Disaster”, which is appropriate given the story is a farce inspired by the Piper Alpha disaster. Even our non-Ares Project story, “Silent Stalker”, involved the positive portrayal of two families.

The funny thing about it, though, is that while we chose consciously at the beginning to include positive portrayals of family, it’s played out naturally in the creation of characters and situations. For example the “Baby Taboo”, once conceived (no pun intended), took on a life of its own in the fictional universe and suggested different but always opposed reactions from different characters – everyone hates the taboo, and you never see anyone but the villains truly supporting it. At the beginning of “Ghosts of Tharsis”, when the MDA relents and allows a small number of children 13 and older to emigrate, that not only brings Amber some kids her own age to associate with but necessitates exploring the family backgrounds of those new arrivals to explain how and why they ended up on Mars.

Apart from that initial decision, though, it’s not something that we’ve shoehorned in, and is not presented in a treacly or sentimental way. It just followed naturally as we drew on our own experiences and those of families around us.

Perhaps that’s the real problem: those authors who cannot or will not write positively about something as commonplace and essential as families are themselves broken children from broken homes. Like the majority of modern culture creators, their creative priority is the non-stop masturbatory airing of their childhood resentments – they hate their fathers so much that they write them out of the future.

Life Imitates Art: The Mars Rovers of Iceland

On my next to last day in Iceland, I drove the Kaldidalur route from Reykholt to Thingvellir, passing en route the Langjokull ice cap. Much to my surprise, there was a modestly-marked turnoff that led not merely close to the ice but out onto it (just left of the prominent hill in the center of the image): 

Between Iceland and Norway, I’ve been up close to a dozen or so glaciers but have only ever seen ice caps from a distance. I always pictured them as being bounded by ridges or mountains where they didn’t squeeze out through passes as outlet glaciers, and didn’t anticipate that the margin of the ice would simply taper off to nothing. Just look at this – is this what you would have expected? That such a huge mass of ice would just kinda…end?

I took some pictures and made some notes and filed it all away for when we eventually send characters to the North Cap. Expect to encounter this scene with a red tint at some point.

Another surprise, and the point of this post, was the tour vehicles used by Into the Glacier to ferry people to a man-made ice cave further out on the ice cap.

A little research turned up that they were custom made from MAN 8×8 military chassis by a British company, Army-UK. The things were huge – the pictures don’t convey just how large they seemed up close (but note the Ford Explorer for some sense of scale). I couldn’t see how many seats there were in the front cab, but it looked wide enough to seat four abreast. Army-UK gives a maximum cabin capacity of 38 passengers, which would work out to ten two-by-two rows (minus two seats for the entrance door and steps).

This one was even larger than the one above:

While these aren’t exactly how we pictured the rovers in the Ares Project universe (at least not the rovers sent to Mars as part of the titular Ares Project, which we describe as having cylindrical bodies with a single large front transparency akin to the submersibles from The Abyss), they are great analogues against which one can imagine what other sorts of rovers might look like. In particular, the rovers used by the ill-fated British Trans-Marineris Expedition of 2050…oh, wait, we haven’t talked about that story yet, have we…

 

 

 

 

Rights Enforcement Without Government

One of the common themes in the Ares Project universe is the problems that result from the lack of a government on Mars – or, to be more broad-minded about it, the lack of formalized mechanisms for resolving disputes, something traditionally handled by government.

The Mars Development Agency is a non-governmental organization, and while some characters see it as a provisional government, it’s authority and powers are strictly limited in scope and degree by the Mars Charter. It was established primarily to run the land claim registry system and to build and operate essential infrastructure in support of settlement activities. As a number of characters have pointed out, MDA has no army or police force through which it can exercise a force monopoly – a fact the stories provisionally titled “True Crime” and “The Olympian Race” explore in some detail. Its power lies in its ability to screw over the commercial settlements that get out of line by cutting off their interplanetary communications and cargo shipments via Phobos, pressuring the (in some cases vital) concessions at Port Lowell to charge astronomical prices or not do business with them at all, and in the case of settlements whose land claims have not yet vested, taking away their provisional claim and thereby undermining their business by scaring off their investors. The settlements are left to work out their own rules for resolving disputes, and when this fails to litigate through their agents on Earth.

After reading the draft of “True Crime”, one of our reviewers noticed similarities in certain elements of the story’s background to David Friedman’s contractual/market-based alternative for rights enforcement – something quite unexpected, as neither Carl nor I had heard of David Friedman. In a nutshell, the concept is that individuals contract with a rights enforcement agency to represent them in disputes with others – think of it like having an insurance policy where the insurance company protects your rights. In the event of a dispute, your agency and the other party’s agency contract with an impartial third-party arbitrator to settle the matter. Along the way, a form of law evolves out of (among other things) what the agencies are willing to go to bat for you over under what circumstances, and the track records of agencies in accepting the rulings of arbitrators and of arbitrators in how they make rulings.

I like the concept, given that it could emerge naturally in a clean-sheet society with no government in the familiar sense, made up of people most of whom have joined it through a contract (the standard 5-year employment contract covering the cost of transport to Mars), who live in communities that are essentially company towns where conduct is subject to rules laid down in the employment contracts, and where relations outside the town are subject to the terms of commercial contracts. (I can’t see this ever emerging in an existing society and displacing an extant government.)

One question that I haven’t resolved is, unfortunately, something at the core of “True Crime”: what do you do when someone murders someone? No one in their right mind is going to contract with a rights enforcement agency that would countenance the death penalty, however unlikely they are to engage in a capital offense. I’m betting this is a plus for those libertarians who would consider this arrangement, given their philosophical opposition to capital punishment: in order to get any business, a rights enforcement agency would have to state in its contract and in negotiations to select an arbitrator that it will not accept execution, torture, or other extreme penalties. If one did not, they would get few if any clients, and their willingness to let them be killed would be rendered moot by the unwillingness of other agencies and arbitrators in this regard.

That still leaves the question of how murder (for example) would be punished under a contract-based society like this. The obvious alternatives are imprisonment, servitude, and restitution. Mars doesn’t have the resources for literal prisons (barring an unlikely rate of crime that makes private prisons paid for by the “losing” agencies economically viable). That leaves servitude and restitution, which in practice may amount to the same thing – indenturing the killer to work for the victim’s settlement for some period of time, for example, or adding the dead man’s remaining contract to that of his killer (payable to the victim’s settlement) as restitution. 

But as with many bright libertarian ideas, it treats the problem in purely economic terms, ignoring the moral and societal aspects. Is simply paying what is in effect a weregild adequate punishment for murder? How would one ensure the establishment of social norms beyond simple payment of money, so as to ensure that one can’t simply murder as many people as one can afford? I suspect that anyone running into this more than once would render themselves ‘uninsurable’, i.e.: unable to find any agency to protect their rights, and thus ironically in the vulnerable position of the outlaw in Commonwealth Iceland instead of being able to murder at will. Given time to look further into this, I suspect answers to most such objections can be found in medieval systems of tribal or thing law.