What’s the Value of Romance in Sci-Fi & Fantasy?

I still experience a visceral shiver when I remember the passage from Tamora Pierce’s In the Hand of the Goddess, in which Alanna of Trebond, dressing up as a “proper” lady on her birthday, runs into Prince Jonathan in the palace gardens. Seeing her not as his squire Alan but as a woman in feminine trappings, he plays with the laces on her bodice, and Alanna is overtaken with a heady need, a self-described giddiness that’s almost as strong (almost) as her desire to continue living as a man in order to earn her knighthood. I read that book twenty years ago, when I was nearly a decade younger than Alanna, yet this moment remains as fresh as when I first came across it. The same goes for the moment when George Cooper, King of Thieves, catches “Alan” with her hands full and steals a kiss, trading it for the promise of accepting her however she wants him. Or when both men profess their love for her and offer her very different futures—one of which would supplement her life as a lady knight, the other which would eclipse it—and her response is to flee to the desert to clear her head.

The Song of the Lioness’ main draw is easily the girl-disguises-herself-as-boy-to-train-as-a-knight plot. Yet as a gawky preteen with glasses, braces, and frizzy hair, there was no way I would summon any of Alanna’s chutzpah—but her romantic entanglements? Those grounded both the fantastical setting and Alanna herself, making her a relatable heroine.

Every five years or so, I seem to come across a piece of fantasy or science fiction whose love story especially resonates. Were it not for these components—of love unrequited or tragic, freely given or used as coping mechanism—these books and TV series would not remain as important to me, and I would not revisit them as often as I do. That’s not to say that a romantic plotline is obligatory or necessary; but it undeniably layers on an extra dimension to the narrative that would not exist otherwise.

The you-got-peanut-butter-in-my-chocolate, Mars-versus-Venus debate over the presence of romance in SFF (but especially SF) seems to flare up every few years, with a lot of commentary in 2010 and smaller mentions in the years since. While I may have cracked at least a dozen romance novels, I’m out of touch with the current state of the genre, so rather than intrude on SFF romance (and risk violating Sarah MacLean’s flowchart on romance thinkpieces) I’ll instead be focusing on romance as an element of SFF, and their influence on me personally. (But if you want to know more about SFF romance, check out spaces like The Galaxy Express and SFWA, and the recommendations of The Book Smugglers and B&N SFF.)

Romance in SFF was a big part of what kept me part of the Firefly fandom long after the series went off the air—it’s a big wide ’verse that’s changing even when we’re not looking. When the show was cancelled (I got the news the night of a school dance, eclipsing my excitement about getting to slow-dance with my crush), the pain was so raw that I sought out anything that made me feel as if I were still on Serenity with the crew. Which is what brought me to fanfiction… specifically, slash fiction. If Tamora Pierce’s books represented a lot of firsts for me in terms of understanding how love fit into larger epic narratives, Firefly crystallized that education with a whole side lesson on sex.

But despite the R-rated details of those fanfics—that, let’s be honest, were about as bad as the Piers Anthony books I’d read far to young thanks to my grade-school library—my main takeaway about Firefly’s various romance arcs was that out in the black, you hold on to whatever you can. Whether it was rewatching that scene in “Heart of Gold” where Inara cries over Mal, or reading a “5 Times…” fic envisioning the different ways they could actually be together; putting equal stock in Simon/Jayne fanfiction or Simon/Kaylee in Serenity; I saw how love and sex and companionship made that ’verse a little bit smaller because these characters had other people around which to orbit.

romance in SFF Firefly Mal Inara Objects in Space

The same goes for the crew of the Stella Maris in Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, a group of friends and colleagues brought together by enough chance and coincidence for at least one member to believe that their mission was divinely inspired. While each crew member possesses a skillset that makes them invaluable to the first-contact mission, love is what enables them to actually survive on the alien planet of Rakhat. One of my absolute favorite passages is Anne Edwards’ speech to Jimmy Quinn as he agonizes over the love triangle he has fallen into with his soon-to-be-crewmates Father Emilio Sandoz and Sofia Mendes will still on Earth:

“I have been married at least four times, to four different men.” She watched him chew that over for a moment before continuing, “They’ve all been named George Edwards but, believe me, the man who is waiting for me down the hall is a whole lot different animal from the boy I married, back before there was dirt. Oh, there are continuities. He has always been fun and he has never been able to budget his time properly and—well, the rest is none of your business.”

“But people change,” he said quietly.

“Precisely. People change. Cultures change. Empires rise and fall. Shit. Geology changes! Every ten years or so, George and I have faced the fact that we have changed and we’ve had to decide if it makes sense to create a new marriage between these two new people.”

Their years on Rakhat like a sort of marriage, the group finds themselves doing just this: becoming entirely new people due to hardship, grief, language barriers with Rakhat’s alien species, jealousies, miscommunications. But it’s Anne’s words that ground all of these SF scenarios.

The Sparrow Mary Doria Russell love in SFF

Cover art from The Sparrow 20th anniversary edition

In a 2010 discussion on Tor.com, The Galaxy Express’ Heather Massey pointed to SF author Ann Wilkes’ blog post about how she advocates for female writers yet shies away from reading their work because of the expectation that romance will dominate the plot; and SF romance author K.S. Augustin’s rebuttal about not being so reductive:

Romance is not merely about the kissing and the sex. Romance is about the psychology of the people involved and how they try to establish connections while the universe is against them. What a lot of sf writers have forgotten, in my opinion, is that you take yourself with the technology. We have PCs and tablets and mobiles and what-have-you. They were all originally meant to be productivity aids. And what have we done with them? We’ve connected. We’ve commented. We’ve hated. We’ve loved. We’ve laughed. You are connecting with me right now, drawing conclusions about what kind of person I am, whether you would like the kind of stuff I write, whether you would like *me*, all separate to—and yet an intrinsic co-effect—of the technology that’s delivering these words to you. To say that we can have one (the setting) without the other (the human connections) is to live in sterility, where one primate-shaped block can easily be exchanged for another, without any harm coming to the unfolding storyline. Such thinking debases our individual and precious humanity, reducing us all to ciphers.

Romance teaches us that everyone has the potential for intimate connection. Science-fiction teaches us the wonder of what-if. If that isn’t one of the most perfect matches ever thought of, I don’t know what is.

I initially misread Augustin’s point as “you take yourself with you” into space, which would perfectly demonstrate my point. A closer read reveals that Augustin was not talking literally about taking love into space (don’t worry, Interstellar took care of that), but rather, about taking yourself into consideration with these futuristic narratives. Few pieces of writing illustrate this point as well as Tim Pratt’s valentine to his wife from a few years back, in the form of the poem “Scientific Romance”:

If I had a time machine, I’d go back
to the days of your youth
to see how you became the someone
I love so much today, and then
I’d return to the moment we first met
just so I could see my own face
when I saw your face
for the first time

This is only a sample, and you should read the whole thing, because there are similarly heart-tugging stanzas about zombie apocalypses and multiverses and their love making the case for aliens preserving humanity. In each of these instances, the futuristic technology or situation is only as interesting as the human variables interacting within that context. There’s a reason Audrey Niffenegger called her book The Time Traveler’s Wife—Henry’s chrono-displacement certainly saves him from a tragic accident in childhood and shapes how he learns to survive across time, but it’s when he meets the love of his life and finds a reason to control the time travel that the story really gets interesting. Conversely, if Niffenegger had gone for a more straightforward interpretation of her metaphor—the book was inspired by failed relationships and a father who traveled extensively—it might not have been as relatable without the time travel layer.

Crosstalk Subterranean Press cover Connie Willis

Crosstalk cover art by Jon Foster

Or take Connie Willis’ Crosstalk. I so wanted to fall head over heels for this romantic comedy about a new form of hyperconnection that instead telepathically links the two people most “wrong” for each other. Unfortunately, I found the telepathy worldbuilding too shaky to take seriously, and Willis’ relationship with the smartphone technology she was discussing to err more on the side of silly than savvy. As speculative fiction, Crosstalk let me down.

But then there was Briddey and C.B., our hapless romantic leads. For the entire last third of the book, ramping up to the moment I closed the last page, I was seized by the urge to write Briddey/C.B. fanfiction. I haven’t been moved to write fanfic about book characters for almost a decade (since the Tamora Pierce days). But how can you read every instance of C.B. telling Briddey that sex blocks out the voices—while dropping plenty of pained hints about how he doesn’t think about her because he’s “not a masochist”—and fill in a deleted-scene where they simply have to block off their thoughts from the nefarious people trying to pry into Briddey’s mind? That is fanfic gold.

There’s traditional romance embedded in a sci-fi setting, but Crosstalk is not that. It’s also not hard-SF whose emotional arc is tracked along a romance. Really, it hews more closely to a number of speculative romance movies from the last decade or so: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, in which a couple exacerbates a nasty breakup by erasing all memories of their relationship; a lonely human and a curious OS (operating system) falling in love in Her; and the world of TiMER, where romantic hopefuls get timers embedded in their wrists that count down to the exact moment they will meet their soulmates. Although truly, it is a spec-fic descendant of the screwball comedies of the 1930s, as Gary K. Wolfe expounds upon over at Locus: “Like time travel (another favorite Willis theme), it’s a convenient impossibility that nevertheless can generate terrific stories, and what Willis has figured out here is that few story types seem better suited to telepathic miscommunication than the screwball romantic comedy” utilizing tropes such as “the ping-pong dialogue, eccentric secondary characters, missed connections, and endless exasperation.”

So, Crosstalk got me searching Archive of Our Own for fanfiction, but I doubt I’d give it a second read. Compare that to the heavily-creased spine of any Kushiel’s Legacy book by Jacqueline Carey. If The Sparrow gave me hope as my college relationship ended in my early 20s, then Kushiel’s Dart got me through singledom and dating. Unlike Alanna of Trebond, who could choose to ignore her suitors, Phèdre nó Delaunay’s every interaction is sexually charged: the thrill of assignations with clients who know just how much cruelty she craves; the yearning desire for her nemesis Melisande Shahrizai and the more piercing unrequited love for her mentor Anafiel Delauney. Seduction, sex, and love are wrapped up in Phèdre’s every move as a courtesan-spy, and they guide the plot, from her arrogant need to prove herself worthy of an anguisette‘s reputation to her fatal flaw of letting down her guard once she finally gets Melisande. Love as thou wilt is not only the foundation of Terre d’Ange’s society, it’s the granting of permission to enjoy SFF that weaves its speculative, fantastical, otherworldly stories around grounded human emotions.

 

What are the SFF love stories that have stuck with you?

Alanna/George art by Minuiko

Please note that we’ve updated the original title of this essay to address concerns that the post was implying that romantic and sexual relationships are universal, and we recognize that this is not the case. We fully appreciate and support our ace/aro readers, celebrate the diversity and inclusiveness of the SFF community, and sincerely apologize to anyone we may have offended by generalizing or universalizing one person’s experience.

Natalie Zutter can’t believe she just found a Crosstalk fanfic. The power of fandom! Find her on Twitter and Tumblr.

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