helloladies: Horseshoe icon with the words Guest Columnist underneath. (guest column)
[personal profile] helloladies posting in [community profile] ladybusiness
Ever since my kid was born almost three years ago I've been paying more attention to how moms are portrayed in the stories I consume-—or rather how we are not portrayed in SFF.

Because there are not a lot of stories about moms in SFF.

In my corner of fandom we often talk about representation mattering. This is the one aspect of my identity that I’ve wanted see represented in fiction, but haven’t found. I've been lucky enough to have other parts of my life and identity reflected in fiction for me, including other life stages. As kid I wanted to defy stereotypes like Alanna from Tamora Pierce’s Tortall books or Cimorene from Dealing With Dragons. Later I looked to characters like Lirael form Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom and Cordelia Naismith from the Vorkosigan Saga as I struggled to figure out my place in the adult world. There are a fair number of coming of age books featuring young women and many romances. Fiction has helped me understand the ways people in my situations might feel. I've always looked to fiction to help me think about how I want my life to go and it was strange not to have that when I became a parent. I want to see this part of my life reflected in fiction. I want some fictional moms to be my role models. I want to feel like moms are worthy of being the hero of the story. I want to feel like motherhood is something worth talking about, something worth telling stories about. Instead when I look for mothers in fiction I find a blank place.

I rarely see SFF that centers the relationship between mothers and their children—and almost never from the mother’s view point. Fiction about the problems of parenthood that sees parents as real flawed people who are trying their best is so rare. Fictional mothers are either perfect mothers or bad mothers or most often not there at all. It doesn’t leave much room for moms to have complex and nuanced relationships with their kids. We see then from their children's point of view but rarely see them from their own. I’ve been watching Star Trek: The Next Generation recently, and there are more episodes focusing on the relationship between Picard and Wesley, than on the relationship between him and Dr. Crusher, his actual mom. It’s hard not to take this kind of thing to heart as stories saying that these relationships just aren’t that interesting.

I want to shout out to few of my favorite SFF moms. While there aren’t many good portrayals of moms in SFF there are a few that I really love. These include Ekaterin in Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga; other moms that Bujold has written are better known, but Ekaterin is the one where she is raising a young child. Her relationship with her son Nikki is central to her character arc. I also love Isabella’s interactions with her son Jake in The Memoirs of Lady Trent by Marie Brennan. While this relationship isn’t central to the plot, I love that they explore and learn together, but also that Isabella feels conflicted about society's expectations that she care for Jake over her scientific career. In Record of a Space Born Few by Becky Chambers there’s not one but two viewpoint characters who are moms. One is a grandma who lives with her extended family and the other is raising two kids while her husband is away mining asteroids. I’ve also gotten into Steven Universe recently, and while Steven’s mom is dead, he’s got three adoptive moms who give me all the mom feels, especially Pearl, who always wants to explain things and keep Steven safe.

If you read a bunch of SFF looking for moms you’ll probably notice that there are a lot of stories out there with dead moms. So many dead moms, and when there's a living mom then she’s generally absent or abusive. I complained about dead moms in books so much that my friends have started warning me about books with dead moms. Every time someone tells me a book I was looking forward to reading has a dead mom I getting a sinking feeling. One more book I'll have to consider carefully whether or not to read, and if I do decide to read I'll have to brace myself. You just can't be an SFF fan these days without running into dead moms at every turn. I’ve been taking a break from fiction where the protagonist's mom is dead recently—and I that means I haven’t read a bunch of well received recent YA. For example Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pa, The Cruel Prince by Holly Black, The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden, Skinful of Shadows, by Frances Hardinge...I could go on for a while, and that's just YA.

Motherhood is an important aspect of many women's experience that very rarely shows up in SFF. I know there are people who want to see women get to have awesome of adventure of the type men have always gotten to have: exploring, fighting, inventing and so forth. That’s something I want too. But doing traditionally masculine activities shouldn’t be the only way women are allowed in stories. We should have stories that feature women doing traditionally feminine things too—like taking care of children. Reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s book of essays Dancing on the Edge of the World was formative to my understanding of the need to see work traditionally done by women in SFF. Le Guin talked about the value of such work and how we don’t tell stories that center domestic labor but that labor is vital for society. She talked about how valuable "women's work" and emotional labor are, and also about how stories rarely center these things because dramatic conflict has tendency to take over. I think part of the reason that motherhood is so invisible in fiction is that childcare is considered domestic labor.

Just recently Strange Horizons published a round-table on domestic space opera that digs into these topics. The round-table makes clear that in the future people will still need to eat and raise children. The article talks about including these aspects of life. The complexities of motherhood (and domestic labor more generally) are worth exploring in SFF. I want characters who are good at some parts and bad at other parts. I want complex mother-child relationships that feel real.

People say motherhood is isolating. I thought they meant physically, like having a kid makes it hard to get out of the house. But what I find isolating is the feeling that no one wants to hear about it. That motherhood is just too boring to tell stories about. There are a handful of SFF stories that feature moms who are complex people, who have their own adventures, who sometimes struggle with relating to their kids. I treasure these characters but I wish they were not so few and far between. I wish that motherhood felt like normal part of SFF, rather than something I have to search for. It's a complex state that is under-explored in fiction. I want SFF stories to really dig in and explore motherhood. SFF has unique tools with which to do this, and it's a shame they don’t get used more. I want stories about improvements to reproductive technology and how that changes and doesn’t change what it's like to be a mom. I want stories about queer moms using tech or magic to have babies together, I want stories about moms from lots of marginalized groups—trans moms, moms of color, disabled moms. Stories about clones and raising your own identical twin, or clones and raising identical twins born years apart. Stories about mom and kids working on futuristic science projects like designing an ecosystem together. Stories about what it's like to let your kids have magical adventures, stories about moms taking care of people and baking cookies in space!

Let's un-disappear moms form SFF and start treating motherhood as something worth telling stories about.

[personal profile] forestofglory is a fan, crafter, an avid reader of science fiction and fantasy short fiction, and a mom. You can find her on Dreamwidth and on Twitter at [twitter.com profile] forestofglory.

Date: 2018-09-12 05:15 am (UTC)
stardreamer: Meez headshot (Default)
From: [personal profile] stardreamer
I pretty much agree with everything you say here, and I hope that this is one of the things we'll see changing as more women are recognized for writing good SF. The "dead mom" trope is more or less the equivalent of the "fridged wife/daughter/girlfriend" trope -- a cheap and easy way to provide motivation for a protagonist, or to get an inconvenient relationship out of the way.

Old though they may be, you might want to check out the Telzey Amberdon stories by James Schmitz. Telzey's mom is very much alive, and while the mother/daughter relationship isn't centered, it's not absent either. I did a re-read of the whole Telzey ouvre a few years back when Baen reprinted all of them, and was very pleased to find that the Suck Fairy has largely left them alone.

I'd also like to mention that the "isolation" thing sometimes cuts both ways. As a woman who chose not to have children, I got sadly accustomed to losing friends during my late 20s and 30s as they married and had kids. And it wasn't just the lack of time, although that does play a large part; it was also the distinct feeling that they no longer wanted to hang out with me because I couldn't swap kid stories with them. A few of them I got back once the kids were school-age, but usually not.

Date: 2018-09-12 01:22 pm (UTC)
princessofgeeks: (Default)
From: [personal profile] princessofgeeks
Yes to all this!!!!!

Date: 2018-09-12 02:09 pm (UTC)
dolorosa_12: (matilda)
From: [personal profile] dolorosa_12
I relate to this post so much.

In addition to the stories you've already discussed, I would definitely include works by Aliette de Bodard (particularly her Xuya universe stories, and The House of Binding Thorns, the second in her Dominion of the Fallen series), and Kate Elliott (especially her Court of Fives trilogy, which originally she had intended to kill off the main character's mother, but then she decided not to, and reshaped the whole story in really interesting ways due to the fact that the mother survived - and the mother is probably the most interesting character in the entire book, and her heroism and skills stem from her identity and work as a mother). Both are particularly interested in mothers and motherhood, and make it central to a lot of their SFF stories.

Date: 2018-09-12 04:34 pm (UTC)
grammarwoman: Janelle Monae as a close-up fembot (Janelle Monae torso fembot)
From: [personal profile] grammarwoman
This is something I've noticed as well, especially in comparison to all the SFF stories based on creating and "parenting" artificial life, like robots and AI. (Frankenstein, Blade Runner, Westworld, Asimov's Robots, and so on). And funny how many of those are about men creating life...hm.

Date: 2018-09-12 04:51 pm (UTC)
kutsuwamushi: (feminism)
From: [personal profile] kutsuwamushi
I'm not a mom and not planning to be, so for me, this lack of representation isn't as visceral. But it's still really noticeablee! I'm looking at my shelves now, and there are none where a mother is a major protagonist or viewpoint character.

Actually, the only one I can really think of is ... Cersei ... and she's an antagonist in a story with a very large cast.

But, you know - there are stories there. A lot of fantasy and sci-fi erases or minimizes a character's familial relationships: The protagonist moves sets off on the journey alone, perhaps meeting new people along the way - but leaving the old ones behind. Maybe their family was awful, or maybe their family was killed; it all gets the family out of the way so the "story" can happen.

(To be clear, I don't think that's the only issue - dads are also underrepresented in genre fiction but not nearly so much.)

Trying to write a story in which these kinds of relationships are present and an important part of the characterization could result in a really good, and really DIFFERENT type of story. I'd be interested to see more of it, especially outside of... what might I call it? "Dynastic" fantasy? I'd like to see a mother and daughter whose relationship isn't important because it's part of a political plot, but because they're family.
Edited Date: 2018-09-12 04:51 pm (UTC)

Date: 2018-09-14 03:18 am (UTC)
rosefox: Green books on library shelves. (Default)
From: [personal profile] rosefox
If you're citing ASOIAF, Catelyn Stark is pretty significant too, and motherhood is absolutely central to her character. GRRM puts a lot of effort into showing the emotional side of family relationships, which I think is often absent from epic fantasy that's nominally about family but really about power (magical or tangible inheritance, the right to the throne, etc.).

Date: 2018-09-12 05:59 pm (UTC)
heavenscalyx: (Default)
From: [personal profile] heavenscalyx
While not technically SFF (though certainly a pulp adventure fantasy in a lot of ways), the Amelia Peabody mysteries by Elizabeth Peters has self-reflections on her maternal capabilities and relationships with her children (biological and adoptive) as a central feature of Amelia’s character. I don’t know whether that would be to taste because of the borderline nature of the genre, but I find it mostly entertaining, in part because Amelia often refers to her own lack of maternal instincts.

Date: 2018-09-12 06:30 pm (UTC)
cahn: (Default)
From: [personal profile] cahn
Jemisin's Hugo-winning Broken Earth trilogy deals very prominently with a mother-daughter relationship, and one of the things I loved best about the trilogy is that it portrayed both mother and daughter trying their best and also making huge mistakes.

An older book, but I also really loved Orson Scott Card's Pastwatch and the lovely mother-daughter relationship between Tagiri (a scientist mom) and Diko. (I know a lot of people don't read Card because of his disagreeable opinions, and his recent books are kind of terrible, but Pastwatch is pretty great.) And there's Meg Murry O'Keefe, who was an interesting role model for me in that she didn't become a scientist mom, but decided to go full mom for a while, and that's a valid choice too.

There is a particular kind of story/book I wish there were more of: I want the particular skills used in being a mom to be ones that are useful in solving the mystery and/or fighting the Big Bad. I feel like my mom experience involves a lot of figuring out what my kid is trying to tell me (this changes with the kid's age, of course); wouldn't this be useful in an alien story? And it involves a lot of navigating social networks and building up these networks; what I'd love to see is a mystery story, say, where it's the strength of these networks that lets the mom-detective figure out what happened. (See also Connie Willis' story "And Come from Miles Around," which I love madly.)

YA is particularly bad for this sort of thing, I agree, but to some extent I think that's a limitation of the genre; adolescents and young adults are often trying to fight their way out of their parental relationships, and so there's something a bit freeing about re-imagining those relationships as broken. I snarfed up books with dysfunctional/evil/dead moms when I was a teenager, because they gave me a lens with which I could work through my issues without doing violence to my own fraught mom-daughter relationship.

(Of course, there should be more YA with interesting and realistic mother/child relationships! And I'm sure a lot of authors get lazy about it. (And I couldn't even read McGuire's novella that was up for the Hugo because of the evil parents.) I'm just saying there are other reasons as well that contribute to this.)

ETA: Rereading my comment I forgot about "Story of Your Life," which I also love madly!
Edited Date: 2018-09-12 06:33 pm (UTC)

Date: 2018-09-12 08:57 pm (UTC)
ninetydegrees: Drawing: a girl's face, with a yellow and green stripe over one eye (Default)
From: [personal profile] ninetydegrees
"If you read a bunch of SFF looking for moms you’ll probably notice that there are a lot of stories out there with dead moms. So many dead moms, and when there's a living mom then she’s generally absent or abusive."

Kinda mirrors what you can find in traditional European fairytales... Lots of dead moms, bad step-moms and the likes.

There are a few out there. . .

Date: 2018-09-13 02:53 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I write futuristic suspense bordering on SF, (cmichellejefferies.wordpress.com) I feature mothers in domestic situations, and mothers and their spouses and children in my work often. Maybe it's because I am a mom and write some of what I know. But you're spot on. There isn't much out there.

Date: 2018-09-13 04:33 am (UTC)
krait: a sea snake (krait) swimming (Default)
From: [personal profile] krait
Plenty of moms in Bujold's works! From Cordelia to Zap the cat to Ista.

Not major characters, but I appreciate that Cherryh's Foreigner novels features both Bren's mother (and their somewhat fraught relationship) and Jiri's mother. And when Bren's mother passes away, it's something that he has to process and live with, rather than the too-neat parental exits we often see.

Date: 2018-09-13 11:59 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Minerva Wakes by Holly Lisle is a good mother character book, although I need to reread for details.

Spot on

Date: 2018-09-14 02:59 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Really great column, I’ve definitely had that experience of very limited view points. Ann Leckie’s Provenance has fraught parent-child relationships in it, but more from an adult coming of age and breaking away perspective, not that of the mother. As a genre, romance novels can be better for this, because they are generally more interested in relationships and female relationships specifically. Otherwise you have to find memoirs by writers you enjoy - I like Catherine Newman. But off the top of my head I can’t think of any other examples that haven’t already been noted above (Bujold and Beckie Chambers). Will follow this thread with interest!

Date: 2018-09-14 06:49 am (UTC)
rosefox: Green books on library shelves. (Default)
From: [personal profile] rosefox
If you're looking for examples/book recs:

I'm surprised no one has mentioned Lady Jessica in Dune, one of the most powerful and significant SF/F mothers of all time.

I don't exactly recommend David and Leigh Eddings's Belgariad/Malloreon series, but Polgara is actually a pretty great mother figure (she's technically the hero's many-times-great-aunt but raises him from a baby) and her mother, Poledra, is a significant side character in later books. The series heroine, Ce'Nedra, becomes a mother between series one and series two, but her child is kidnapped very early on, so we don't see her being maternal in any real way.

Ygrawn in Patricia Kennealy-Morrison's Arthur books definitely deserves a mention.

Toll in James K. Schmitz's The Witches of Karres is the mother of the titular witches, and doesn't show up much but is terrific when she's there. (She is an almighty good witch.)

In Jane Yolen's Great Alta books and Tanya Huff's Quarters books, the heroine of an earlier book has a child who grows up to be a protagonist in a later book. The earlier heroines do fade into the background a bit once they become mothers, but they're there and significant.

There should certainly be more, and I hope people will write more stories with awesome moms in them!

Date: 2018-09-15 04:40 am (UTC)
fred_mouse: cross stitched image reading "do not feed the data scientists" (Default)
From: [personal profile] fred_mouse
Dodgy as a lot of Robert Heinlein's work is, there are a number where there are mother/child relationships included (and I'm not including 'To Sail Beyond The Sunset' there, which is incest between adults). Space Family Stone is the one I'm thinking of specifically, although it is decades since I've read it, and don't want to claim that it is a good representation.


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