In a way, any story with a child under the age of twelve in it is going to be a horror story for parents. Youth might be a great adventure for kids, but it’s a long, harrowing trial for the parents, let me tell you, with plenty of opportunity for tragedy. How we help our children meet and navigate the challenges of a very weird world is a task fraught with pitfalls that threaten the guide as much or more than the child.
“When the Circus Lights Down” by Sarah Pinsker (Uncanny Magazine #3) is not a story expressly about parenting, but it is a story in which an entire town has been rendered childlike by the arrival of an otherworldly circus. The allure of this circus is so strong that all life stops whenever it arrives – even the water and electricity are likely to go out – and many of the town’s residents leave with it when it goes. Only Haley, her daughter Annie, and her mother even try to resist the circus, though Haley increasingly questions why she bothers.
Pinsker’s piece has a troubling subtext only because Haley – and her mother – are parents. Both characters feel responsible for safeguarding “real life” while the townsfolk give in to the wonder of the circus. They know, as all parents do, that being an adult means giving up pleasures in order to provide safety, stability, and family.
The circus is an unadulterated delight. It’s a place of wonder and dreams, where everything is free, delight is abundant, and people don’t really age. It’s no surprise at all that everyone drops everything when it lands, nor any surprise that so many people leave their mundane lives to join it. But stuck between her responsibilities to her mother and daughter, Haley wonders about the circus’s cost. “I never understood how they all could drop everything. Weren’t there people relying on them?”
Though the people they know in the circus – including Haley’s grandparents and Annie’s father – appear happy when they meet, it isn’t clear what they do when the circus isn’t in town; how they live or even exist. They aren’t really present for the people in town. With her mother steadfastly opposed to the circus, Haley is naturally wary of it. She has been taught that she needs to abide by what is “real” – responsibility.
A simple reading of “When the Circus Lights Down” suggests the idea that life has to be hard, that doing “as we’re told, to pretend we don’t hear the call, to work jobs we can’t quit until our knees and backs and hearts give out,” is a trap. But the circus feels like a trap too. Circus people are distant, frozen in time, and content in a way town people cannot be. It’s hard not to think of them as having passed on, that the circus isn’t a kind of limbo. What happens to the people left behind? Children, sisters, mothers? Who can they rely on? The too-simple fantasy of the circus opens but does not answer these questions. There is a lot of room for the reader in this story. The circus might be the freedom we don’t allow ourselves, or it might be the siren that calls our loved ones away from us. How you read it might depend entirely on whether you would join the circus, and who you might leave behind.
“PRIVATE: No Parents Allowed” by K. A. Gillett (Abyss & Apex) explores more explicitly the struggle of a parent trying to protect her child from the non-specific, unrealized dangers of diving headlong into a fantasy world. On the day of Pel’s 10th birthday, he is drafted into ASCOPRU – the Army Special Co-Operations: Robots Unit. After a month of training, he returns to his parents’ home to kill terrorists overseas on his home computer.
It’s a concept right out of Ender’s Game: the government recruits talented kids to control opsbots – semi-autonomous robot infantry. The interface is designed to look like a video game, distancing the kids from the reality of their violent purposes. Pel is thrilled to be recruited. This is every kid’s dream: to kill bad guys and be a hero, all from the safety of home. But Pel’s mother is less sure. She’s worried about the effect killing real people will have on her young son.
Problematically, she’s not particularly worried about the effect her son and his opsbot are having on the people he kills. When eventually she realizes how many people he has killed in the short months of his assignment – and the number is staggering – her concern remains for him. “My son. It’s hard to think of him as a mass killer.” Pel is never in any physical danger, but the psychological danger is close at hand.
The story focuses on a mother’s role in protecting her son from a danger which isn’t as simple as kill or be killed, and does it well, but it’s hard to overlook the assumptions that go into creating the impossible scenario we find Pel in. The terrorists he is hunting use civilian shields in the most comic way possible – literally carrying babies around. Pel not only has to kill “terrorists” but their shields as well. After all, we are told, “When you consider all of the tragedy these men have caused in nations throughout the world, Pel’s body count is merely a grain of sand to their beach.”
That’s hard to imagine without further worldbuilding. Pel has killed a phenomenal number of people. Can we believe that each of them have killed an order of magnitude more? That’s a scale of genocide that is in no way suggested by Pel’s comfy suburban home life. It feels like a convenient math error designed to sidestep the ethical question entirely. Should Pel kill babies? Should he be killing anyone? The story doesn’t ask. His task is taken as given and the only question is whether his mother should protect him from the consequences. I sympathize as a mother, but not much as a human being.
Finally, an unwilling parental sacrifice. “Zanders the Magnificent” by Annie Neugebauer (Fireside #21) is a darkly funny bit of work about a mother raising twin boys as if they were one person in order to, eventually, perform as stage magicians à la Christopher Priest’s The Prestige. Of course, being told you have to be dead half your life can be damaging to any small child, and Robby and Bobby don’t come out quite right in the end.
Mrs. Zander really seems like a nice enough lady. She trains the boys in stage magic as well as mimicry, bent on making the boys utterly indistinguishable. Every second day one of the boys has to be “dead”, spending the day with mother at home having a “marvelous time.” The boys desperately wish to be alive at the same time and Mrs. Zander apologizes quite genuinely for that hardship, but it is the cost of the trick. “It will be the most magnificent trick, my darling. It will all be worth it.” They have their escape-artist father to follow, after all.
The Zanders’ home life is dark and quirky, but it doesn’t feel particularly unpleasant. Mrs. Zander loves her boys: she just wants to see them succeed where their father did not. He died on stage, a sacrifice the boys must remember. “You must always remember that it is life and death on the stage,” she tells them. As on stage, it must be in life as well.
Unfortunately for her, Robby and Bobby internalize her example of staged death too well. The ending comes a bit out of left field but it has the ring of poetic justice nonetheless. This is the world Mrs. Zander prepared her sons for, and this is the world she reaps. Parents might find the resolution a bit unfair – she only did what she thought was best, after all – but that’s all any of us can do in the end. At some point you just have to let your children go. What they do with the tools you have given them is entirely up to them.
Charlotte Ashley is a writer, editor, and independent bookseller from Toronto, Canada. She has reviewed short stories for ChiZine.com and The Quill and Quire, and writes short fiction. She keeps a bookish blog athttp://once-and-future.com/.