Family Connections


BIS Space

A genuinely alien view of family life. Published by Panther Books 1973. Cover illustration by Chris Foss.

The concept of the family pervades our thinking.  We even consider many relationships with people with whom we are not actually genetically linked in terms of family life, or as extended families.  Companies and other organisations these days are keen to view their employees as part of one big happy (or perhaps not so happy) family.  It underlies much of our communication at a deep level.

Which calls into question just how easy it might be to communicate meaningfully with an intelligent extraterrestrial species which has an entirely different idea of family, or perhaps none at all.  In William Tenn’s 1953 science fiction short story The Deserter, the main protagonist tries to act as the interpreter for an utterly alien enemy deserter during an interplanetary war.  He does a pretty good job of it, but when it comes to understanding their processes of procreation and growth, he’s lost. 

One of the most detailed and memorable descriptions of an alien family relationship appears in the second part of Isaac Asimov’s Nebula and Hugo award-winning 1972 novel The Gods Themselves.  In a parallel universe where the nuclear force is stronger than ours, and so materials move differently, “hard” and “soft” beings co-exist, with the latter having the three sexes of Rationals, Emotionals and Parentals.  Melting into one another achieves intercourse and ultimately conception.  Asimov himself later expressed how effective he thought his writing was in this section, and rightly so.

We are left with images of a completely unearthly set of relationships which dictate a way of thinking that is truly alien to us.  Or it might be that even the aliens themselves could be puzzled over how they have come into existence.  In Terry Carr’s extraordinary 1968 short story The Dance of the Changer and the Three, nominated for both the Hugo and Nebula awards, strange energy beings who perform “complex, shifting wave-dances” remain mystified as to where they come from, and ask “how new things are made”.  Any thinking creature is bound to question its origins and to feel some sort of affinity to whatever, or whoever, enabled it to exist, which leads us to consider what it would be like for an alien species which had no concept of family origin whatsoever.

There have been limited attempts in our history to discontinue the nuclear family.  In Marxist theory (or at least some versions of it), the family is considered to be an arrangement that perpetuates class inequality, and so it should be abolished as private property vanishes.  However, that never really got off the ground in the Soviet Union, nor in Communist China even during the Cultural Revolution.

But we may get an inkling of what it might be like from Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel Brave New World, where people are produced in artificial wombs and conditioned through childhood to belong to one of the established social classes based on levels of intelligence.  The family concept has disappeared, and references to it are effectively considered vulgar and in poor taste.  But it is a civilization based on the assembly line principles of Henry Ford, which had become highly significant at the time of writing, and few nowadays (or then) would consider it attractive in any way.

Even so, the absence of any family ties would be bound to affect a being’s outlook on life.  The expression “You can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family”, appearing in Harper Lee’s classic 1960 novel To Kill a Mockingbird, is often quoted as suggesting that the bonds (or shackles?) of family life can seriously restrict people in what they would really like to be doing. 

A species with absolutely no such links might be genuinely free, and freedom on that level could be quite enlightening if we tried to communicate with it.  On the other hand, one can’t help thinking that it might also be lacking in some of the affection which (we would hope) family life might bring.


Richard Hayes, Assistant Editor (Odyssey)

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