Mothers in science fiction and fantasy don’t often get an easy time of it. They die in childbirth to be conveniently out of the way for the hero to go off and have adventures; or they carry a ‘chosen one’ for nine months and then disappear; or they are mysteriously absent from the plot, all the better for our characters to be able to do their thing without an annoying maternal voice trying to keep them safe and sensible.
Cyril Connelly famously said that ‘the pram in the hallway is the enemy of good art’, but I wonder if the pram in the hallway always has to be the enemy of a good story? Are storytellers really inhibited by imagining nuanced and realistic depictions of this most ordinary and basic of relationships? It might seem ironic to be looking for realism in science fiction and fantasy, genres which by definition push the boundaries of what the human mind can imagine. But that’s precisely my point. If we can imagine other species living at the outer edges of the universe, mythical creatures, or completely rewriting the laws of physics to achieve a wild magic system, surely we can manage to conceptualise worlds in which mothers not only exist, but maybe have adventures of their own?
Luckily, for the many examples of what Aliette de Bordard calls ‘empty spaces or hollowed-out characters’ (in her brilliant essay ‘On Motherhood and Erasure’) there are also quite a few books which subvert this trope and portray mothers and motherhood in all their complex, messy glory.Rachel Pollack’s 1988 novel Unquenchable Fire is one of the first that comes to mind. It plays with the ‘chosen one’ trope with the story of a woman who is impregnated by a spirit with a child destined for extraordinary things. We’ve heard this tale many times before, and often from the point of view of the child who is chosen or someone in the world the child is meant to save, but this novel gives us a woman who does not accept the inevitability of her silent role in the story.Pregnancy and birth are far from passive and gentle and there’s been a few recent books that explore these uncanny aspects of the very beginnings of motherhood.
In Sealed by Naomi Booth, a pregnant woman tries to escape a horrifying plague to keep her unborn baby safe; a potent metaphor for this uncontrollable, unknowable force that invades a person’s own skin and changes everything about their life. In Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich women start to carry babies that mysteriously resemble earlier forms of human evolution, prompting a Handmaid’s Tale-type takeover of women’s bodies by the state. This is an evergreen topic, reflecting a pertinent anxiety in our own world as pregnancy is not yet independent of politics. Perhaps by imagining the worst a state can inflict on mothers we can equip ourselves with the activist tools to avoid such a situation?
Genre fiction also asks if we can escape the biological realities and inequalities of childbearing itself, and if we can, what would be the effects on society? In The Growing Season by Helen Sedgwick anyone can carry a child using an external pouch, making natural pregnancy and childbirth the irresponsible choice. In The Beauty by Aliya Whiteley, a world without women leads to unusual consequences for the men who are left. I love the way these two books in particular sit with the ambiguity of reproduction, not shying away from the paradoxes surrounding birth and motherhood; the simultaneous privilege and burden of being able to nurture new life.
Perhaps it’s the ideas that pregnancy makes a woman delicate and small babies are vulnerable that lead to the assumption that mothers should stay at home instead of going on adventures, something Terry Pratchett challenges in his Discworld novel Carpe Jugulum. When the witches of Lancre are tasked with removing the vampires who’ve moved in next door, Magrat has a new baby to look after so she and Nanny Ogg simply pack up everything the little one needs and take it with them.
Essun in NK Jemisin’s award-winning Broken Earth trilogy is a mother who calls upon all her considerable power during an apocalyptic event to avenge and save her children. For why shouldn’t a mother attempt to move heaven and earth to keep her children safe? It’s no different to the many thousands of women in our reality who flee their homes with their children. Yes, they’re fleeing wars or climate chaos instead of seeking swashbuckling adventure but there is almost nothing a mother won’t do to ensure the survival of her children – and as story stakes go, that’s pretty high.
Speculative fiction also offers us other ways to think of motherhood beyond bringing up children within the nuclear biological-family unit. In The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin, children live and grow communally and the parental relationship is not privileged above others. The fact that this feels more radical than the concept of space travel is a mark of how deeply we hold our assumptions about family bonds. Le Guin explores motherhood again in Tehanu, the fourth Earthsea book, when Tenar adopts an abandoned child and forms a second family later in her life. Becky Chambers offers different ways to think about family in her Wayfarers series, where all the messy realities of different species’ interactions with their biological, adopted and found families are tenderly explored in a way that made me wonder about my own relationships.
It hasn’t escaped my notice that almost all of these books are written by women. I don’t think that themes of family and nurture are the natural subjects of female writers, nor that only women have a licence to write about these intimate, delicate parts of our lives but it seems that it is mainly women trying to redress the balance. Perhaps when we can read about wizards balancing their magic studies with paternity leave or male aliens packing food for their babies as they mount an invasion, we’ll know we’re really approaching equality.