Sunday, March 9, 2014

Idea Garage Sale: The Myth of Self-Sufficiency

It's been awhile since I engaged with the MG side of my brain, which is where I always used to live, so let's step back there a minute.

The principle of ditching the parents to give kids more agency in stories is time-honored, and a good one. How you go about ditching the parents is a creative decision with a large impact on the presentation of the core story. Parents who are absent due to family crisis demand a different sort of story than parents who are absent or childlike due to idiosyncrasy.

Let's go with idiosyncrasy. The parents are mad scientists and have developed a statis chamber which is ready for human testing. The testing process goes wrong, probably due to familial chaos intruding on the basement lab. Preferably, this will be the fault of the child protagonist, and the funnier the sequence is, the better. I bet it involves undisciplined pets, younger siblings, and some activity that the protagonist feels is unreasonably restricted by fussy parental rules. (Why shouldn't the toddler ride the goat? The goat doesn't mind and the toddler loves it.) In any case, the result is that the parents are both in stasis at the same time for an extended period - say, all summer break.

Because of their particular lifestyle, no other adult particularly expects to see them during this period, so the protagonist anticipates no difficulty covering up the family's unsupervised state. She (or he; I generally prefer female protagonists so let's go with she; in fact, let's call her Mirasol just to make things easy) even looks forward to her parents returning from stasis and seeing how much better she ran things in their absence than they ever do. She already does all the work around here anyway! Paying bills in these days of online banking requires only a low-level degree of hacking that a perspicacious seventh-grader may well be up for, especially if her eccentric mad scientist parents have found it convenient to let her know a couple of passwords, possibly absent-mindedly revealing their own in the process of helping her set up her own.

Of course it isn't as simple as that.

Much as we all enjoy the Robinson Crusoe/Swiss Family Robinson/Little House on the Prairie idea of families or individuals as independent economic units, it never works that way. No one is self-sufficient. No one. Even hermits require mail service. The anchorite on top of a rock who never speaks to anybody needs an active community below that sends food up to him. I may make my own clothes but I don't make my own thread or weave my own fabric and even if I did, I would still need to get the wool or cotton or whatever to make them. Specialization lies at the root of civilization - the more time you have to spend on survival, the less time you have for art, for conversation, for play - for life as you prefer to live it, so you specialize in something that enables you to acquire everything else in exchange.

Marisol's workload will vary depending on the composition of her family and its specific requirements. If it's just her, the toddler, and the goat then she cannot get any help from within the family. If she has a sibling close in age to herself then help will be available, but at the cost of a time-consuming power struggle. No brother or sister ever tired of saying: "You're not the boss of me," and without an acknowledged authority to mediate Marisol may be surprised at just how exhausting it is to make other people do even what is in their own best interests. This will start at the level of familiar-as-dirt disputes over dishwashing and bedtimes, but should in the spirit of the premise escalate to bigger, more absurd disputes over such matters as which lies to tell which grown-ups, how the escape-proof goat pen should be constructed, and whether or not it's an acceptable use of funds to hire a pavilion for a birthday party and invite the entire fifth grade (minus mortal enemies).

Marisol will at some point have to recruit someone outside the immediate family into the secret. This cannot be anyone whose authority she can be forced to recognize, but should be someone with whom she is on more or less equal terms, such as her best friend. Secrets are harder to keep the more people share them, and this initial sharing in order to get help could escalate quickly. If the secret is uncovered by someone who does not have her best interests at heart - the aforesaid mortal enemy, or even someone with a separate problem that can be solved by blackmailing Marisol into some action she would normally refuse to take, such as allowing a runaway teen to live in the basement - then we get an escalation of tension, which will probably require her to bring in more allies and create ever more complicated situations.

And all the time the deadline is looming - Mom and Dad will come out of stasis on Labor Day, at which time the house must be more or less in order and the results of their work on the stasis chamber ready to present to whoever is financing it (because even mad scientists need grant money these days).

1 comment:

  1. A stasis field is certainly a novel way to arrange to be "home alone". I like it. Temporary orphanhood with no guilt.

    Horrid thought: The kids are shown to have a rich fantasy life, constantly turning the car into a spaceship, the spare bedroom into Europa, &c. What if the parents are not actually in stasis down in the basement, but simply, the deep freeze....

    But with a save that when an adult finally looks, the parents aren't actually underneath the frozen peas, they're someplace else, less romantic than in stasis but less gruesome than the freezer.