Family Matters

Families are one of my favourite things to write about. It sounds obvious when said like that – family as a theme is at the heart of so many novels, films, TV shows, etc. But I think it’s something that is sometimes forgotten or not prioritised in the SF/F genres. This can happen in either the writing of the texts or the reading, or sometimes both. And it’s totally understandable and no bad thing. SF/F are, however you define them, genres of cool stuff. World-destroying space stations, downloadable personalities, colonies on Mars, magic systems: these are all exciting things that drew me to the genres in the first place – as a reader. As a writer, I find myself strangely less interested in these ideas. I still avidly read SF/F that is arguably more focused on ideas than family relationships, but when it comes to writing this seems to be reversed.
In Your Brother’s Blood I have the central ‘cool idea’ of the living dead, but everything about them is family-orientated. All moments, big and small, are connected to the central theme of family relationships.

You don’t need to be a professional psychiatrist to realise something is going on there. My own family situation is interesting, but not exactly unique. Growing up I was just another child whose parents had divorced. Most of my close friends were going through the same kinds of experiences, some later, some earlier.

It wasn’t something we as friends talked about much, just accepted. And perhaps that’s why I keep coming back to it in my writing. It’s an unresolved issue in the sense that life is an unresolved issue – it’s constantly changing as I get older and my understanding of what happened and why is altered by my own experiences of adulthood.

So, in my Walkin’ novels, I examine some of these themes and I get to do it from both the perspective of the children and the adults. This duality really interests me. But it’s obviously not the only way to handle family.

One of my favourite books, the late Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, is also an undead narrative that I consider family-focused. It’s a harrowing but poignant tale of survival and isolation that had a profound effect on me as a reader and a writer. It’s not one of my favourite films, but all three versions (The Last Man on Earth starring Vincent Price, The Omega Man with Charlton Heston, and Will Smith’s I Am Legend) have a place on my DVD shelf. I like the book so much it became a major part of my Ph.D. thesis. And one aspect of this Masterwork that doesn’t garner much attention is the role of family in the story.

For those who haven’t read the novel – which I hope is the minority of readers of the JFB blog – here’s a brief summary. Robert Neville has survived a pandemic that has left the population in a zombie-state (Matheson uses the word ‘vampire’ but in terms of archetypal tropes and characteristics some have argued they resemble zombies more than vampires).

He struggles against nightly tirades and maintains his house like a fortress. But he’s doing more than just surviving – he’s looking for a cure.

Through effective use of flashbacks the reader witnesses Neville as a caring husband and father. Without giving too much away, some of the most affecting moments in the book come from these close family relationships and their breakdown.

Neville’s dark experiences with his wife and daughter are the more obvious vehicles for the discussion of parenthood and love. But the role Neville’s own parents take in the novel are more subtle and just as important.

Neville’s mother and father are both dead by the beginning of the narrative and they don’t get the same flashback treatment as his wife and daughter. Instead, it’s their influence on Neville’s behaviour that comes through. His mother teaches him about music at an early age, which is an essential tool for his survival against the taunts and temptations of the horde outside his door.

He cranks up the music to drown them out – and this goes a long way to creating a safe environment for Neville both physically and psychologically. Every time he puts a record on, he conjures the reassuring presence of his mother. His father gives him science.

Neville is methodical in his search for a cure, which involves understanding why the ‘vampires’ are affected by certain weapons and not others. It becomes an interesting examination of the moral dilemmas scientists can face when pushing boundaries in their work.

Matheson further complicates the situation, as Neville isn’t happy he has inherited his father’s way of looking at the world, however essential it is to his survival. Matheson shows three generations of one family – not necessarily giving them their own perspective, but suggesting their significance to the story.

I am always wary of comparing my novels to great works of SF/F. But I Am Legend and Your Brother’s Blood share more than just an interest in the undead. Both explore the on-going influence of family relationships and how extreme situations can test them. For some readers a post-apocalyptic landscape is not the most obvious setting for family drama, but when you tear away all the other elements of our technological culture, what else is left?

– David Towsey

Leave a Reply