Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Childrearing in speculative fiction

In a lot of speculative fiction – even that set on other worlds and taking place in other societies – the nuclear family is the norm. Parents raise children. But there are variations on this here on earth, and there can be even more pronounced differences elsewhere.

Some Native American tribes were matrilinear, meaning that descent was traced through maternal lines. A child was brought up by its mother and her oldest brother. One advantage was that they were sure that the child was related to them, whereas a biological father doesn’t always have the same certainty. I wouldn’t mind seeing a few alien societies like that.

Children can be reared communally (a la the kibbutz system) or by trusted and/or trained individuals other than their parents – nannies, guardians or household demons. In Suzy McKee Charnas’s Motherlines, children of the Riding Women are born into a small group of women – one of whom is the bloodmother, who actually gives birth and one of whom is the heartmother, who will be closest to the child. The others are sharemothers.

The system takes into account the fact that humanoid children require so much care that it can be difficult for one (or even two) people to provide it all. It may well take a village.

On the other hand, it doesn’t have to be the child’s own village. That’s the premise of Bernard Taylor’s The Godsend, which begins when a pregnant stranger seeks shelter at the home of a family with four small children. She gives birth that night, but seems curiously unattached to her baby daughter, and leaves the next morning - alone. The family decides to adopt the little girl.

When their youngest son dies suddenly, they believe the new baby is a godsend. At least they have someone to fill the void. Then another child dies… and the father remembers what cuckoos do with their young.

If certain traits – those that will be the most evolutionarily advantageous for passing on genes – are coded in those genes themselves, a child doesn’t need to be taught much by whoever raises it. Nature counts for more than nurture. It may need a parent to feed and protect it until it grows to adolescence, but that’s all. Or children might be born with an adult’s knowledge or memories, as they were in the universe of Dune if the mother underwent spice agony.

Children’s education is fun to imagine as well. The best story I ever read on this topic is R. A. Lafferty’s “Primary Education of the Camiroi”, in the anthology Asimov’s Extraterrestrials. The Camiroi have a rather unique way of bringing up children.

First Year Course:

Playing one wind instrument.
Simple drawing of objects and numbers.
Singing (this is important. Many Earth people sing who cannot sing. The early instruction of the Camiroi prevents that occurrence).

As someone raised in a family and culture that stressed achievement at all costs, I can sympathize. As for what’s done with children who fail (in the Camiroi, not in my original culture), well, there’s a judicious winnowing of the herd.

That could also be done in a race which produced dozens or hundreds of offspring and which couldn’t realistically allow them all to grow to adulthood. It’s not pleasant to contemplate. But it’s also not human, and that’s what makes it interesting.


Mary Witzl said...

Here's to babies born with encoded wisdom -- if ONLY!

Your description of The Godsend thoroughly creeps me out -- and makes me want to read it.

Marian Perera said...

LOL, yes, human babies aren't at that stage. Yet.

I read a few of Bernard Taylor's horror novels, but The Godsend is the best. Simple but compelling premise, horror building up to the conclusion, it's just brilliant.

The editions on Amazon have terrible covers, though. The kid on the cover looks like she's wearing '50s rejects from Goodwill.

Anonymous said...

I'm going to see if my library has that book. The Godsend.

Daughter of Elysium has an interesting family set up for one of the cultures. Everyone is a test tube baby and they are raised in a group and considered children until they are 30 years old. (These people live to be over 1000). They are raised by a robotic nana.

Michelle G. Pereira said...

I agree with everyone else here. That Godsend book sounds great! Also, I wanted to say that what you mentioned about different ways of having a family is one of my favorite reasons for getting an education. Everything I learn can be applied to my writing. Just the other day we learned in bio that they can take out the proteins in jellyfish that make them glow and put them in most any other creature and make it glow too. Take that farther and there may be an interesting fantasy/sci-fi there :)