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Science Fiction/Fantasy

What SFF Taught Me About Queer Family Making

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Laura Sackton

Senior Contributor

Laura Sackton is a queer book nerd and freelance writer, known on the internet for loving winter, despising summer, and going overboard with extravagant baking projects. In addition to her work at Book Riot, she reviews for BookPage and AudioFile, and writes a weekly newsletter, Books & Bakes, celebrating queer lit and tasty treats. You can catch her on Instagram shouting about the queer books she loves and sharing photos of the walks she takes in the hills of Western Mass (while listening to audiobooks, of course).

I started reading science fiction and fantasy in elementary school. My whole family was Star Wars and Lord of the Rings obsessed, and I was no exception. My older brothers wolfed down sci-fi like it was candy, and I happily copied them. It was not long before I realized I loved the genre for its own sake and not simply because I wanted to be like my brothers.

Then, at age fifteen, when I realized I was queer, science fiction and fantasy took on new meaning. I had a fabulous queer adolescence. I went to a liberal high school where I spent most of my teenager years as a baby gay activist. I had great friends and a phenomenal family and I was never afraid of being bullied. But when I looked at the world around me, I rarely saw the kind of family I wanted. The media I consumed was dominated by straight couples and traditional families. In the literature I read, the standard cookie-cutter family was valued above all others, even when the characters were queer. In the narratives swirling around me about growing up, falling in love, and finding happiness, there were few other available options. Until I turned to science fiction and fantasy.

My all-time favorite science fiction series was, is, and will always remain Lois Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga. In one of the early books, the main character sort-of-accidentally creates a mercenary space fleet, the Dendarii Mercenaries. The Dendarii Free Mercenary Fleet was the first spaceship family I fell in love with. None of the characters were queer, but it didn’t matter—what I saw in that fleet, and in the people who made those spaceships their home—was queer family. I recognized it in the Dendarii even before I knew how to articulate what it was that felt so familiar and important. I felt a physical ache when I read those books for the first time. It felt like arrival.

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'EngleThe Dendarii will always have a special place in my heart, but as a teenager and young adult, I read my way through queer families in dozens of spaceships and imaginary kingdoms. I fell in love with the family Lyra builds through multiple worlds in Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials and the family Ender Wiggin finds at the Battle School in Ender’s Game. In the Harper Halls of Pern and the Herald’s Collegium of Valdemar, I saw Menolly and Talia and Vanyel find familial comfort and acceptance they never dreamed they’d have. I watched Lilith Iyapo build a family with aliens in Octavia Butler’s Xenogenisis series, and in Madeline L’engle’s Wrinkle in Time universe (which I read as a kid and returned to as a teenager), I saw how even biological family can expand into something beyond the traditional man + woman + 2.5 kids.

These ragtag spaceship crews, eclectic bands of questers, and institutions of music and magic were peopled by those who’d been rejected by their families of origin. They were running away, starting over, reinventing themselves. They had strength that nobody saw or power that no one understood. Some were adventure seekers. Some came from loving, understanding homes, but felt the pull of a life outside the confines of normal. They were fugitives and runaways, the children of royalty and the streets, battle-worn and bright-eyed with possibility. They were unlike each other: a mix of genders and races and ages, people with their own scars and secrets and yearnings. They all had their own reasons for being out in the middle of space or alone in an unfamiliar kingdom, but once they were there, something extraordinary happened: they became family.

Here were people who were fiercely loyal to each other. They took care of each other, even in the midst of danger, war, homelessness, loss. They saved each other’s lives. They made mistakes, and sometimes they hurt each other, but always, always they belonged. They belonged even though they weren’t neatly paired off. They belonged to their friends as much as they belonged to their partners. The family unit was not determined by blood or marriage, but by shared work and responsibility, love and companionship, bonds of experience and memory.

Very few of these characters were actually queer. But I recognized myself among them anyway. I saw the kind of family I wanted in those spaceship crews and communal dinning halls. They celebrated something different, and I knew it was what I wanted, even before I had a name for it: belonging, but on my own terms. Queer belonging. These stories showed me that there was another way to make a family. They affirmed the joyful, nontraditional mess of friends and lovers and kids and elders that is at the heart of queer family making. Reading those books was like someone gently taking my hand and telling me I was not alone. “This is where you belong,” those stories said. “You’re allowed to have family, too.”

In a world that continues to extol one right way to build a family, queer folks have learned to build our own families outside of rigid societal norms. Before I ever saw this kind of family in real life, I saw it in science fiction and fantasy. It is only as an adult that I’m beginning to understand what an enormous gift that was.