The Parent-Child Relationship
In Canadian Speculative Fiction

by Paula Johanson

Prominent in many works of Canadian speculative fiction is the theme of parent-child relationships among characters. This is a theme less common in American speculative fiction, and one which is handled very differently by British writers in this genre. Not only have Canadian authors as varied as Guy Gavriel Kay, Margaret Atwood, and Monica Hughes been developing well- rounded characters in their stories by writing about parent-child relationships; many Canadian authors are writing stories which depend upon these relationships as essential plot elements. I will be discussing stories written in English in this paper, as I have done far less research with Canadian stories written in French and am familiar with them mostly through translation.

The use of the parent-child relationship in recent writing is not limited to the works of well-known speculative fiction authors. Emerging writers integrate this theme into an astonishing variety of stories, with the result that as new novels, magazines and anthologies are published, the general focus of Canadian speculative fiction is changing. No longer is the science fiction story of necessity fixated upon a moment in the life of a solitary scientist working in an isolated laboratory, or a lone hero defending a mate from barbarian attack. A Canadian speculative fiction story published in the last ten years, since around 1985, is more likely to feature a protagonist with a past and a future, and family ties to make that past and future real.

Not only does Canadian speculative fiction published since 1985 include an increasing number of stories with parent-child relationships, but many of these stories show a change from an earlier assumption which dominated American sf and by extension much of Canadian sf, and which can be stated baldly: "Real adults have children... somewhere else from their real work, and this isn't part of the real story." The worldview common to recent works can be summarized as the more complex, and to me far more interesting idea that "Parents' real work includes the raising of their children, and we all tell different stories as we do this."

There has been a wealth of Canadian sf stories published since 1985, notably in the Tesseracts, Northern Frights, Senary, Northern Stars and Prairie Fire anthologies as well as On Spec, Horizons sf and Transversions magazines. Each year the list of novels eligible for the Prix Aurora Award grows longer, and even a list of publishers such as Pottersfield Press and Orca is too long to summarize here.

There are not only more parents and children as characters in the stories, but their relationship is now being explored in different ways. Alternate methods of conceiving and raising children are sometimes the main focus of the story, as should be expected in the genre of speculative fiction. Many stories focus on crucial decisions of adolescence: that pivotal moment when a growing child emerges from the protective unity of the family to an adult role. And one of the surprisingly predominant themes of recent Canadian speculative fiction is that the parent and child find peace by being together. A mythic wholeness is achieved by uniting estranged parent and child, to establish the sanctuary of ordinary family life within the extra-ordinary speculative story.

Before explaining these statements and giving examples, I'd best make clear why I think this trend in Canadian speculative fiction appears to have begun around 1985.

The original Tesseracts anthology was published in 1984. The Copper Pig Writer's Society began soliciting stories for On Spec in 1988. New sf magazines such as Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine were founded around that time, expanding the market for sf even though these magazines were mostly published in the US. Canadian literary magazines increased their percentage of stories with speculative content around this time as well.

But ultimately, the reason for my arbitrary setting of this date is that my own children were born in 1985. I became more conscious of these themes as they became more prevalent in Canadian speculative fiction. And the changes I outline in this paper can be seen in my own works of fiction.

The parent-child relationship among characters in Canadian sf is no longer the old American theme that insists all truly mature adults have children... somewhere else, and that isn't the important part of the real story. Nor is it the traditional Canadian sf themes of learning interdependance as the child grows, or the parent defending the child against adversity.

The increasing presence of parent-child relationships in Canadian sf is not even a matter of the authors writing "what they know." Some authors have no children but their stories; no offspring realer than the dream child computer program in Candas Jane Dorsey's "Death of a Dream" from Tesseracts 4. It isn't necessary to be a parent or trained in the raising of children to write about the parent-child role. When asked what qualifies them to write for children, both Maurice Sendak, author of Where the Wild Things Are, and the author of Mary Poppins respond: "I have been a child." That reasoning applies here as well. Former children are able to write about parent-child relationships as much as parents are. But what are we to write about parents and children in an sf story? What makes it sf? What does sf do with this relationship that isn't being done in other genres of fiction?

There are many answers to those questions being written each year. These stories may show a parent's concern for a child's sense of wonder ("The Children Do Not Yet Know" by M.A.C. Farrant, On Spec Vol 4 #2), parents doing the right thing for the wrong reasons ("Phenotype II: On Line" by Paula Johanson, Horizons sf Vol 13 #2) or parents stifling children with horror ("Fourth Person Singular" by Dale Sproule, Northern Frights 2). There is, thankfully, humour in Canadian sf. From frank comedy to a mere leavening of a serious tome, humour keeps this genre from becoming a series of grim manifestos.

One of the result of shuffling through my bookshelves is that I have found three prevalent themes where parent-child relationships are explored in recent Canadian sf: alternate methods of conceiving and raising children, the emerging adolescent, and the Holy Grail of Unity in ordinary family life.

It is to be expected that this genre would include stories about alternate methods of conceiving and raising children. Nowadays we live in a world where these sf concepts are commonplace. If my own mother's fallopian tubes had not been blown clear, I would not have been conceived. My twins were diagnosed and monitored before birth. My godsons' mother, a single parent, wants to conceive a daughter at the sex selection clinic. I write sf, yet I can't make up weirder ideas than the reality in my own family.

After reading about child abuse in suburbia and communes, Gary Sandhu's story "The Suffering of the Rock" in Horizons sf Vol 13 #2 is grisly, not surprising. In a world where ten-year- old Iranian boys hunt for mines, the savagery of Marian L.Hughes' "Birth Rite" in On Spec Vol 5 #2 is not shocking. But in gentle contrast to the plethora of nonfiction books and articles on How To OverCome Your Awful Childhood, Bruce Taylor's story "The Coat" in On Spec Vol 4 #2 is a good example of how this genre shows hope.

"Little Nicholas Jackson was born into his father's heavy black coat," the story begins, and it is soon clear to Nicholas that no matter how ill-fitting, his parents' only advice is: "You'll learn to love it as you grow into it for there are no other alternatives that are love-defined in this family for you."

Only when Nicholas reaches through all that hampering fabric to touch a friend does he "look down to see a shirt he was wearing beneath suddenly become a blaze of colours." The friend had helped her own father see that he, too, was wearing a stiff, dark coat which he could take off. The metaphor is beautifully simple and clear. So much seems possible for Nicholas that only moments before was smothered in the layers of his coat.

There are Utopian as well as Dystopian visions in stories about people raising children. Lesley Choyce shows in his story "The Best of Both Worlds" from Tesseracts 4 how one person's Utopia is another's Dystopia, especially when people begin to not want to have children. It would be easy to see only the stories of misery, but even a casual reader can pick up references to how positive childhood and raising children can be. Catherine MacLeod writes in "Sommelier" in On Spec Vol 5 #4 of a character's wish to recover memories of raising her children.

"I was busy building up my company when my children were small...They're not resentful -- but I am," says Tess Edmund, influential businesswoman, to the winemaker whose wines are truly "a glass of autumn; a goblet of May; a chalice of birdsong. There was always a market for memory." And the wine blended for the wistful mother is "bittersweet... It would leave Tess giddy and breathless, or calm and content." Her children were grown and making lives of their own, and now Tess would have her memories.

Many stories focus on the growing child's struggle to define itself as separate from its parents and family. Mainstream fiction describes this self-determination through cautionary adventures. Earlier Canadian sf told of characters emerging from adolescence through political and ideological examples, as in stories from H.A. Hargreaves North by 2000, where his young characters were bonded to mentors and to pupils, learning Dependance, Independance and Interdependance. Defining self as separate from parents is done very differently in Of Two Minds, a recent novel collaboration by Carol Matas and Perry Nodelman. For these new writers, their characters are capable of defining not only themselves, but reality around them.

Reading a lot of fantasy books never hurt anyone, but it does give Princess Lenora a lot of ideas. Of Two Minds is the story of Princess Lenora and her perfectly ordinary ability to imagine things real. An ordinary ability, that is, in her home kingdom of Gepeth, where everybody can make things real. And Gepeth is "a good balanced world. A place for everything, and everything in its place," says the Queen to Lenora. "Why can't you just accept it, like everybody else in Gepeth?"

But Lenora has some ideas she wants to try out before the marriage her parents have arranged for her with the prince from a neighbouring kingdom. Prince Coren is nobody's dream prince --not only is he skinny, pale and freckled, he resists using his ability to read minds. Why? Because he's tired of people jumping into his head univited, and has resolved not to do it himself, which makes him very odd in his own country.

"What he wanted was a place where the world was real and solid, not some imagined place that existed only in your head. His parents might be content with the magnificent rooms and mansions they imagined they were living in, inside their minds. But Coren himself was just too sensible to blithely ignore the real dust and ruins that he saw all around him in Andilla, the once beautiful buildings that had been abandoned when people decided that mental dwellings were better than real ones and mental beds softer than real mattresses... Gepeth sounded like paradise in comparison to Andilla."

The wedding plans are made, but Lenora isn't ready to be tamed by an arranged marriage. And Coren wants nothing more than to -- but that would be telling. What Coren and Lenora end up deciding has as much to do with ethics and morality as it does with marriage and the responsibilities of their adult abilities.

This is not a recent trend of Canadian fiction in general, nor of Canadian fiction for young people. Mainstream fiction is not currently focusing on alternate choices for child characters growing out of the "nest" of their families; at present, Canadian mainstream fiction for children and young adults is much more conservative than Canadian sf. Where mainstream fiction deals with responsible decisions by growing children, it is to affirm the moral rightness of parental or societal models. In most of the novels sent for review to the papers and magazines for which I write, child characters ultimately disagree with their parents' morals only to choose societal morals where those are higher.

(Must writers be so conservative? I'd give a lot to review the 1995 version of Huckleberry Finn.)

Where Canadian sf before the mid-1980s discussed how growing children develop ethics, it was in the sense of personal survival in a harsh, traumatic world, as in Doris Lessing's Survivors. Now the questions are many and varied. Is this where I belong? ("Black Dog", Candas Dorsey, Dark Earth Dreams) Can my parent accept me as I am? ("Mamasan" by Bonnie Blake, On Spec Vol 6 #2) Whose needs fence me in? ("Couples" by Eileen Kernaghan, Tesseracts 4) This is clearly a fascinating theme for many writers, to write about the pivotal moment in a life where a child emerges from the protective unity of parent-child relationship to an adult role.

There is no clear-cut division between speculative fiction and mainstream fiction, particularly among books written for children and young adults. Often there are one or more speculative elements crucial to the plot of a mainstream story such as The Amazon Influence by Marion Woodson. In that young adult novel, a teenage boy solves a mystery by applying the methodical analysis his absent father uses. A voodoo rattle sent by the father is a focus of the boy's attention, but ultimately the rattle is what Hitchcock called a McGuffin: a distraction rather than the solution.

A mainstream novel which has more speculative elements is Something Weird Is Going On, by Christie Harris. She tells a story set in contemporary Vancouver, of young Xandra who won't let loneliness for friends and her absent father overwhelm her -- but sometimes it's a near thing.

Xandra gets the feeling that she's being watched, and her new friend from the Granville Island ferry gets tripped and pushed in odd ways. It reminds her of an old imaginary playmate, and she begins to wonder... could a poltergeist or a restless ghost have followed her all the way to Vancouver?

"Gran, do you think there are ghosts?" Xandra asks her grandmother, who writes stories and has been hypnotised for past lives regression.

"Yes, I do, dear. But that doesn't mean that there are ghosts. But, there certainly are some strange happenings that are hard to explain otherwise."

Harris is a confident writer who can show a girl picking her way through everyday problems as well as telling the difference between ghosts and imagination. But it is the character of the grandmother, and her caring for Xandra, that make this story more than just another ghost thriller for kids. Equally important for Xandra is the realization that her absent father and overworked mother can show their caring for her, when their family unites to watch the fantasy television show her father has written.

That is an increasingly common theme in Canadian speculative fiction: parents and children uniting as a caring family. For all the imaginative elements, futuristic settings and speculative plots in these stories and novels, the goal for these characters and frequently the resolution of the story lies in the ordinary everyday family life they desire. The peace and protection of the family seems like a sanctuary, and not an unattainable goal. Monica Hughes makes this clear in The Golden Aquarians, her latest in a series of young adult novels. Aqua is a watery planet, where Walt has come to join his father. The Colonel is terraforming Aqua, to dry up land for humans to plant oil-bushes. "To the north the land was like a sore, the kind of sore that doesn't heal properly." Walt finds reasons to believe that the planet should be left in its natural state. "An intelligent being had made and knotted that piece of string. But if there were any intelligent beings on Aqua, his father wouldn't be allowed to terraform the planet."

Walt is sensitive in ways his domineering father does not respect, but he uses his own good sense to make sense of what he learns about Aqua. The environmental focus of the story takes the high moral ground: humans must not terraform a world already inhabited. The resolution Walt finds with his father brings home how important living in the real world is, especially for those who are desparate to change it. The frustration and hope in Walt and his father become peace when they live as a family in a world they do not attempt to re-mold.

This image of parent and child together achieving a momentary peace is not merely a "You and Me Against the World" theme of contemporary mainstream fiction. It is astonishing to find this mythic wholeness, this union of parent and child enshrining ordinary family life at the centre of extraordinary speculative fiction stories. Children may be conceived in test tubes or on board space ships (Horizons sf), wanted or scorned ("The Weighmaster of Flood" by Eileen Kernaghan), raised in protection or abuse ("Birth Rite" by Marian L. Hughes, On Spec Vol 5 #2) and used or rejected by the community because of their abilities (Passion Play by Sean Stewart) but even in these imaginative stories, a lot of Canadian sf writers enshrine everyday family life like a Holy Grail. A good parent-child relationship in these stories becomes a mythical bond of the family, as if it were the Alchemical Marriage which Robertson Davies wrote of in Bred in the Bone.

This theme was rarely used in Canadian speculative fiction in the past. Where it is used in mainstream fiction, the family peace is a protective nest within the outside world. But in recent stories, this theme was made most clear by Sean Stewart in Nobody's Son, where Shielder's Mark learned that he needed to be accepted by his father, to know that what he had made of himself was acceptable -- and he needed to have a child of his own. The peace and completion he achieved makes mere dragon-slaying seem a petty goal in comparison.

It is no surprise to me that the Prix Aurora Award winners and nominees for the last three years are dominated by novels and stories in which parent-child relationships are not only essential to the story, but developed more completely than I have managed to outline simply in this paper. Add in stories relying on the connections between grown children and their parents, and it's hard to see where authors have enough time and space left to write about sex or space travel or science.

In my own writing, I have come to the conclusion that I am evolving as a writer through these same changes I have outlined for Canadian sf. My story "If You Go Out in the Woods" (On Spec, Vol 1 #2) comes from the earlier trend of Canadian sf, in that the parent is willing even to commit murder to protect her children. Moral decisions aren't as important as the survival of the family in their harsh, post-nuclear world. Though it was published in 1989, I first wrote that story eight years earlier, before the arbitrary date I have set for the trend towards the current style.

The manuscript of my novel If You Go Out in the Woods shows the change in my own writing, from working with a character who simply does whatever is necessary for protecting her family, to showing how that family links her to the larger community, and how she is changed by her children even as they grow.

It would make more sense to discuss my novel Phenotype if it had seen print as a whole, rather than three brief excerpts. Even so, the two parts which appeared in Horizons sf show drug dealers and professional escorts loving their children enough to do the right thing, even if for the wrong reasons.

Seeing my own writing in light of a trend which encompasses writers as different as Leslie Gadallah and Lesley Choyce makes it clear to me that there is no definitive way to analyze recent Canadian sf. As well, just as there is no one right way to raise children, there is no single way Canadian sf authors write about parent-child relationships. (But wow, when you line them all up, it makes a great picture!)

No Parent Is an Island
Paula Johanson's book on the writer as parent.

Paula Johanson is co-editor of Tesseracts7(with Jean-Louis Trudel). Her collection of real-life stories, No Parent is an Island, is available from Temeron Books in Calgary, or by email from paula@freenet.edmonton.ab.ca
back home next

This page last updated: May 24, 2000

Colophon Credits and copyright information.