There’s no love lost between families, right? Rick Wilber, author of Alien Day, joins us on the blog to talk about some of his favorite sibling rivalries in SFF and how they’ve impacted the genre. Check it out here!
By Rick Wilber
I’ve written a lot about sibling rivalries in my novels and my short fiction. There is no love lost between brothers, the human brothers and the conquering alien brothers both, in my S’hudonni Empire stories. A number of these stories have been published in some top magazines and anthologies, and two are at novel length, first in Alien Morning (2016, Tor) and now in the sequel to that book, Alien Day (Tor, 2021), out June 1, 2021. Alien Morning was a finalist for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel 2017. We’ll see if Alien Day can find its own success in the marketplace.
The Holman brothers, Tom and Peter, are deadly enemies who have chosen opposite sides between the two warring princes of S’hudon, Twoclicks and his brother Whistle, who have come to Earth for profit, not conquest, and are battling each other for control of Earth’s colonial profits. Tom and Peter’s sister, Kait, is caught in the middle of all these brotherly conflicts, both Earthie and alien, but rises to the occasion and winds up one hero of the story. Hollywood action-hero Chloe Cary, the supposed girlfriend of Peter (Chloe would disagree) is the other.
All of this fractious sibling strife may be reflective of my youth, growing up with four siblings, an older brother and a younger one, and two younger sisters. We were often harmonious, the five of us; but there were moments of sharp competition, too, especially with me and my brothers. Driveway basketball games sometimes erupted in anger and, more than once, required parental intervention. We’re all a great deal older now, but the friction between us, for one reason or another, often still rubs.
Happily, for me as a writer, there’s a silver lining to the dark cloud of all that family strife. It gives me another tool to use in storytelling.
Sibling rivalries lend themselves to drama and comedy, since they provide the kind of conflict that makes a good plot happen. Science fiction has plenty of sibs in conflict to choose from, from the pulps to the cutting edge of today’s science fictional storytellers. I wanted to take a look at some of those, and I asked my Facebook friends for help and, wow, did I get some great things to read.
So with the help of those well-read Facebook friends here are some favorite science fiction novels, older and newer, that feature siblings in conflict, starting with some classic work from the 1950s and moving forward to today.
At least two of Robert A. Heinlein’s juvenile novels feature siblings. Writer Leisa Clark reminded me that in Podkayne of Mars , our hero Podkayne has plenty of conflict with her brother, about whom, Podkayne tells us, there is “no present indication that Clark ever intends to join the human race. He is more likely to devise a way to blow up the universe.” (Which, by the way, he actually does in the book, though it’s limited to a large building on Venus and not quite the universe). Podkayne throughout doesn’t think much of Clark, and with good reason. Ultimately, she loses her life to Clark’s machinations.
Writers Paul Di Filippo, Brendan DuBois and John Kessel all mentioned another early Heinlein juvenile, Time for the Stars, that features identical twin brothers who learn to communicate telepathically, and instantly, across time and space. Tom and Pat Bartlett (and many other sets of twins) are the critical component of a long-range search by torch ships for habitable planets for burgeoning mankind (hey, it’s Heinlein). Heinlein tells the story through Tom, who’s insecure and envious of his more successful older brother until, finally, he’s not. Relativity and time dilation eventually separate the brothers until the final scenes, where they patch things up and Tom, who’s been the loser in love throughout, finally gets the girl, a great grandniece who’s been telepathically connected to Tom for years. Through the wonder of time dilation, they’re nearly the same age.
Time for the Stars was my favorite novel when I was twelve years old, sitting on the couch in the family home on a sunny Midwest Saturday, reading like mad about these other brothers who had the same insecurities I did. My father, who’d been a Major League baseball player and was, by then, a coach and scout, yelled at me to put down the book and go outside and play some ball, like my brothers were. But the book was unputdownable and I argued, unwisely. Then my mother came in to rescue my reading, telling Dad that it was okay to have one son who loves to read. I kept reading heavily. I’m reading still, some sixty years later.
My favorite reads of the last month or so are books that were recommended to me by pal (and World Fantasy Award winner) Greg Bossert and pal and colleague at Western Colorado University’s MFA in Genre Fiction, Fran Wilde.
Bossert mentioned that Ian McDonald’s Luna trilogy is chock full of sibling rivalries. I’ve been a fan of McDonald’s novels and short fiction since Desolation Road, but until this past month I hadn’t read Luna: New Moon (Tor, 2015) and its sequels. Big mistake on my part! Luna: New Moon is riotously filled with sibling rivalries, mostly in the Corta Helio, where brothers and sisters are, sometimes literally, at each other’s throats. McDonald’s exuberant writing is perfect for this book about the Five Dragons, those corporate dynasties that control the moon’s economy, battling against each other all the while. It’s tempting, in fact, to think of the Five Dragons as corporate siblings, squabbling for power, making alliances and breaking them, always looking for an angle one against another. Sounds a lot like me and my siblings.
Fran Wilde pointed me in the direction of Laura Lam’s False Hearts (Tor, 2106), which tells the near-future story of conjoined twins, Tila and Taema, living in San Francisco after being separated surgically. The twins were raised in a cult but have left it behind. Maybe. They’re now trying to live their separate lives, but they’re inevitably drawn together. The story is one part murder mystery, another part drug war, and a third part the power of the cult that raised them. It was author Lam’s debut adult novel and an excellent story of rivalry, dependence, and undercover sleuthing.
Yet another excellent book with sibling conflict is the 2020 novella (published first on Tor.com and then as a short ebook by Tor) is Anthropocene Rag, by Alex Irvine. This is a buckle-your-seatbelt crazy road-trip nanotech post Boom apocalypse story where contentious twin brothers Geck and Kyle and their friends like Prospector Ed travel to find the mythical Monument City at the behest of Life-7. When they get there they find out the truth of things, sort of, and one brother pays a heavy price.
An interesting story of sibling hubris versus humility is another Tor.com novelette published first on the website and then as a book. In Firstborn, by Brandon Sanderson, High Officer Dennison Crestmar, a much younger clone of High Admiral Varion Crestmar, must find a way to understand and overcome his famous, and overly ambitious, older brother. Any younger brother who spent time in high school hearing teachers wonder why he didn’t measure up to his older brother’s successes, will appreciate how this story ends.
There are many more novels, both adult and YA, that my Facebook friends reminded feature sibling rivalries, from Ender Wiggin and his siblings in Ender’s Game, to Lois McMaster Bujold’s excellent Brothers in Arms where a cloned brother fights for acceptance, to Madeleine L’Engle’s classic A Wrinkle in Time where Meg Murry’s love frees her genius brother Charles, to Harry Turtledove’s powerful alternate-history novel, Joe Steele, where the point-of-view in the storytelling involves two brothers, Mike and Charlie Sullivan, on opposite political sides during the 1930s and 1940s in an America where President Joe Steele assumes dictatorial powers.
There are plenty more, and I’m sure you have your favorite. My favorite of the newer sibling rivalries is a tossup between Laura Lam’s False Hearts and Ian McDonald’s Luna: New Moon. Both of them were a joy to read and both of them led me to more work by these authors, Shattered Minds (Tor, 2017) by Laura Lam and Luna: Wolf Moon (Tor, 2019) by Ian McDonald. And now it’s time for some reading.
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