Three Reasons There Are So Few Children in Science Fiction

Sean Stewart

Conference presentation at ConSpec 99 Edmonton, September 1999

Sean Stewart is the critically acclaimed author of Passion Play (Winner 1992 Aurora and Author Ellis Awards), Nobody's Son (Aurora Award, 1993 and Canadian Library Association Award), Resurrection Man, Clouds End, The Night Watch (Nebula and World Fantasy Award finalist, New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle "Best of Year" lists), and Galveston. Critic John Clute recently reviewed Galveston as one of the ten greatest fantasy novels of all time and ranked Sean Stewart as one of the two or three best fantasy authors now active.

The following is an abridged transcript of Sean's presentation at the ConSpec sf Symposium held in Edmonton, September 1999 and is published here with the author's permission for the first time.

That there aren't very many believable children or families in science fiction rapidly became apparent t to me. Three problems popped up once I started writing books where I attempted to include families or children in them, the first of which is the issue of plot.

The Problems of Plotting with Children

Science fiction is traditionally based on action adventure. Action adventure is really hard to do with kids, especially with small kids, because they're not really very good at much. They don't run fast; they don't blow things up; they don't leap mighty chasms; and they don't figure out how to re-wire a jeep at the moment of crisis. They mostly sit around going "Are we still on the death planet, Daddy? Are we still here? I'm bored with the death planet, Daddy!" [Laughter]

A friend of mine who had not yet had children, once gave me a manuscript in which there is a woman fleeing through a space station under battle conditions with her kids in tow, and one of the kids gets his foot shot off. And she goes "Oh my God!" And bandages him up, and then just never thought about it again, through the rest of the book, because she was busy doing action adventure stuff. Every now and then, the author would mention that these kids were gamely trotting down the corridors and whatnot, but it was just.... You know, if my four year old had her foot shot off, that would be it. Someone else would have to save the stupid space station. [Laughter]

And even if I did manage to just bandage the leg up and not think about it, then the fact remains that big people run faster, and do things that become very difficult to do with children in tow. When I was writing the The Night Watch, which has a 3-1/2 year old in it, plotting was torture because everything that you would naturally do in a science fiction novel you could not do. You couldn't do the fancy running away, escaping, shooting stuff, because she had a 3-1/2 year old to look after.

The Problem with Children and Pacing

That sort of segues into the second point which is about pacing. Much writing about families is cumulative and exploratory. There is less emphasis on narrative. Parenting is a very slow process. The day dawns and then you have 16 hours of parenting and sometimes you are adequate and sometimes you are terrible, and then you go to bed 16 minutes after the child does and you wake up at 5:37 the next morning and do it all over again. And the realizations that you come to out of that tend to accumulate over years. Well o.k., some realizations like "I don't want to be up before 6:00 AM" accumulate sharply. [Laugther] But the long-term impact they have on your life is something that is played out across years, and that's a time frame that's difficult to work with in terms of the standard action adventure story. What you learn about families, and what you learn about marriages, and what you learn about being a parent, are all things that unfold over years, which is an awkward time length for an action adventure story. You can't have a guy sit down, site his target and then let a couple of months pass before he squeezes the trigger - so, it's hard to make these two kinds of stories dovetail.

This is not to say it's impossible to write stories about children. One of the most successful fantasy books of this decade is undoubtedly Philip Pullman's Golden Compass, which has a wonderful 11-year-old protagonist. But an 11-year-old still has a world more competency than a smaller child - than someone who is three or four. I was trying to think of the case where these two paces of stories - the slow unfolding story and the quick hitting narrative of the sf genre - fold together. I'm sure there are thousands of them where people have done this brilliantly, but the first one that popped into my head was The Shining. In The Shining you had a character who again is a very competent child, but nonetheless a child. It is a horror novel but it is exactly the slow disintegration of the family - notably the father - that the child's viewpoint is uniquely suited to discover. But the pacing here slowly accelerates the development of the horror, rather than starting by hitting the ground running in that kind of gun battle one associates with space opera.

The Problem with Children and the sf Audience

And the last point, moving very quickly so we can have questions from the audience: sf has an assumed audience. Everyone knows the old joke: "What's the golden age of science fiction?" Answer: "Fourteen." There are some kinds of stories that are not meaningful to most of the people who read sf. We in this room, many of us are older than 14. At least chronologically. [Laughter] But we are, I think, atypical. Some of us were talking yesterday about the arrested development implicit in having an adult writing science fiction. There are stories that a 17-year-old is not going to get a lot out of, although they are fine stories. I always think about the ongoing cult status of Jack Kerouac, who's blessed by having written about things that 17-year-olds really care about. But if you try to walk into a freshman undergraduate class in university and teach the Death of Ivan Ilych, - which is a very dry story by Tolstoy about mid-life crisis, about that moment in your life when after you've been very successful for 20 years but then find it is somehow hollow inside - this is not something to which the average 17 year old can easily relate. The sonar ping you send out into that class of freshmen is not going to come back. [Laughter] Maybe it's kind of a wet thud. [Laughter] I read that story first when I was young and I thought "Oh yeah, it's one of these mid-life crises stories", but it didn't have emotional power for me until I reached that same phase, where I had been successful to a degree and there was an emptiness within. The reverse way of putting this is, when I was 19 I took my dad to see The Breakfast Club, and he totally did not get what a great movie that was. [Laughter]

So these are some of things that I think about when I am contemplating writing about families and children. I increasingly want to do that, but I increasingly find it problematic to imagine a narrative in which those things work well. And I find that it's increasingly difficult for me to write a book that will really play well to someone who is 14 or 15, which is absolutely part of the audience for my early books. I used to write a lot of books that were all about the issues of growing up without a father, and other issues of adolescence. Since I've had a child - one of the difficult things that happens to you is that I became one of "them", and I started writing books: "Well, when looked at from the point of view of the grown ups, you know, it's not so simple." [Laughter] But I can't help but feel that this falls on stony ground for part of my readership. The ending passages of The Night Watch don't make emotional sense unless you can connect to some of the kinds of betrayals parents feel from their children, as well as the kinds of betrayals that children feel from their parents. That's a part of the book that doesn't make sense to a lot of my readership.

I was on the Internet and I ended up having a conversation with someone who had liked every single one of my books, however impossibly different from one another, up to The Night Watch. They didn't like The Night Watch at all. And I was crushed, depressed because I thought I had finally written a book every one of my possible fans would like, and the very first person to say anything about it in a public forum said that the book was very disappointing. She had written so intelligently about all the other books I just couldn't figure out what was going on. Two and half, almost three years later I had a conversation with her and I find out that at that point she had just turned 21. So it's a hard audience . . .

[These three points were followed by some excellent, but unrecorded comments, by audience members Nalo Hopkinson, Candas Jane Dorsey, Dave Duncan, Peter Watts, and others. During this discussion, Sean went on to make a fourth point, that the realities of parenting do not always make for sympathetic reading.]

See also: Paula Johanson's article on "Parent-Child Relationship in Canadian Speculative Fiction"

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