Saturday, April 12, 2014

K is for Kinship

The term kinship often refers to blood relationships, or, in other words, relationships between family members.  The history of our own world has shown us a variety of family structures, but I contend that kinship extends beyond blood.  As the saying goes, “it takes a village to raise a child.”  We form complex bonds with those around us, bonds that influence who we are.  In the realm of science fiction, where alien species enter the picture, and where human societies have evolved over time, the kinds of families and social networks one can form will inevitably be more varied than we are used to in this day and age.

One book that comes to mind is Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.  In this story, a human man visits Gethen, a world inhabited by ambisexual people.  They spend most of the time as androgynous, nonsexual beings, but for a few days out of the month, they enter kemmer, where they become either male or female based on the acquired gender of an interested partner.  In this world, any one person could be a mother to a child, and a father to another.  This is a strange concept for the human in the story to comprehend, and it certainly challenges our traditional notions of family.  In our daily lives, we relate to one another as male or female.  What would it be like if those distinctions did not exist?  How would families form?  Would there be less of a focus on the nuclear family and more of a focus on extended family?

Sometimes science fiction portrays alien species with three genders, all of which are necessary for the act of procreation.  The Star Trek Enterprise episode “Cogenitor” brings us the Vissians, who have the male, the female, and a cogenitor.  The cogenitor, while necessary for the reproductive process and demonstrably intellectually equal to males and females, it is not granted the same rights.  This inequity highlights how, as humans, we are often uncomfortable with anyone who does not conform to our standards for how males and females should behave.  Those who fall outside those established definitions is sometimes met with hostility.

Another novel that I’d like to look at is Clay’s Ark by Octavia E. Butler.  In this book, an alien life form has infected a group of humans, igniting in them an intense need to reproduce.  They have isolated themselves to protect the rest of the world from infection.  Monogamy disappears as those infected need to mate, whether there is an unattached partner for them or not, and the children who are born from these couplings are definitely not human.  Still, the parents love their children, and the nature of their situation bonds all of them together.  They are essentially one large, albeit unconventional, family.

What is family?  How do the varied expressions of family and relationships in science fiction reflect who we are?  Why do certain familial configurations make us uncomfortable, and what do you think of stories that challenge us with those dynamics?

Image courtesy of nitanita/


  1. Family is what you make it. Stitch comes to mind from Lilo and Stitch :). It's very sweet and light, but it makes a good point. I love that sci-fi often pushes the boundaries of what we think, be it society or individual based. It's one of the joys of reading it.
    Tasha's Thinkings - AtoZ (Vampires)
    FB3X - AtoZ (Erotic Drabbles)

  2. Great minds think alike. Kinship is my word for the alphabet K :)

    I will check out Clay's Ark on Amazon. Sounds interesting.

  3. Those books sound really interesting, and different. I think family doesn't always mean blood-relative - anyone could be considered family, if you were close enough to them.

  4. I love the Left Hand of Darkness. I've read it every year since I was a kid. Wonderful, wonderful example. Happy A to Z.

  5. I've watched "Cogenitor" twice in the last few weeks. Next month, I'll be delving into the interspecies relationship between T'Pol and Trip for Story-a-Day May, so I get to call it writing research, even!

    I found this exchange particularly relevant:

    T'Pol: Why do you call it 'she'?

    Trip: *shrugs, is uncomfortable at the challenge* Well, I, uh - she looks more like a 'she' than a 'he'.

    It's not easy to let go of your preconceptions, maybe especially when you're unaware that they're ingrained responses...although after that incident of being pregnant himself, you'd think Trip might be getting an idea, at this point, that some things are not the same all over, but that's probably a different story..for next month! .=)

    My own family is toxic. Abuse has been carried on for generations; in order not to carry it forward to my own children, I've become estranged from most family members.

    But we are far from without family. We've chosen instead a shifting network of people who share values and worldviews that are diverse, but share a focus toward positive attitudes, and humane behavior. We've got honesty, support, inspiration, challenge, and love.

    To me, regardless of the details, that's really what's most important. More of that in the world would make a better one.

    Two more books to add to my ever-growing TBR list - thanks!

  6. Great post as always.

    I originally was going to touch on the evolution of kinship for my blog until I came up with the articles i did.

    The congenitor episode of Enterprise was a favorite. It show cased gender and sexual discrimination that was alien but all too familiar. It was disheartening how the episode ended.

    Family to me is more about the people who choose to have in it, rather than be bound by blood or obligation from birth. To this end, the crew of the Firefly were a family, than the family they were born to. Even Simon and River, who were effectively abandoned by their parents.