Jun 17 2010 5:04pm

Romance and Science Fiction, Sittin’ in a Tree…


I know. Romance and science fiction hybrid stories? Scandalous.

But is it really? Isn’t this rather old news, that writers in mainstream, niche, and fan fiction venues have blended romance and science fiction in books, films, television, graphic novels, and even videogames?

In light of runaway blockbuster hybrid films like Avatar, it is rather passé. These days, science fiction romance stories (including romantic SF) are poised to exit the ghetto. Because it’s one thing to say you don’t care for romance-SF blends, and quite another to say they have no place in science fiction...or romance, for that matter.

The cat’s already out of the Han and Leia bag.

Therefore, I reckon it’s a right swell time to have this conversation again—the one about the changing nature of science fiction. And here are a few happening right now:

Over at SF Signal, there’s a discussion brewing in the weekly Mind Meld about the blending of romance and science fiction, with participants being asked the participants these questions, “Is there a taboo against romance in science fiction? What does romance bring to the SF genre? What are some good examples of romance in SF that illustrate this?”

Recently, I speculated on my blog about Why SF Fandom Is Full of Romance Haterz:

“…for decades, romance, SF, and action-adventure were segregated along gender lines (see my previous post A Brief History of Science Fiction Romance). That went a long way toward constricting the definition of a science fiction story, a romance story, and what were the “acceptable” elements to include in either one.

Is it any wonder that, in large part, SF authors were conditioned to avoid including romance in their stories, and that romance authors were conditioned to avoid including speculative/action-adventure elements in theirs?”

Then I noticed that Jacqueline Lichtenberg posed a similar question at Alien Romances in Why Do “They” Despise Romance?:

“I've been blogging here about how we can change the public perception into a respect for Romance in general, and the cross-genre Romance forms in particular.

In exploring that issue, we've examined the whole publishing field and much of the screenwriting world, the writer's business model, and even the esoteric roots of human emotion. But we still haven't solved the problem.”

In Why do I read more male SF writers?, SF author Ann Wilkes reveals the following:

“Here's my problem. I'm an advocate of women writing speculative fiction because, well, I'm a woman, and more importantly, a woman who writes speculative fiction. But if I'm such an advocate, why do I read novels by men far more than those written by women?

Perhaps it's because I know I won't get any romance in my science fiction.”

Ding ding ding! Science fiction romance author KS Augustin responds to the post—at Ann Wilkes’ blog, no less! She states that:

“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.”

In Dick Does Chick Flick, JP Frantz expresses concern that by including a romance in the The Adjustment Bureau (September 2010), the filmmakers ruined a perfectly good Philip K. Dick story:

“Is this some sort of mad attempt by the writers to cram a romance storyline into a PKD novel? Is that even possible and if so, Matt Damon?!”

Is The Adjustment Bureau doomed? Time will tell, but in the meantime, I responded with a post of my own and pointed out that folks are consistently describing this film asscience fiction romance….” Frankly, if films like The Adjustment Bureau attract more readers to science fiction, then that’s a good thing.

Whether you agree or disagree about the place of romance in SF, my challenge to you is this: Let’s have a conversation about romance in science fiction that’s constructive instead of destructive. What’s your response to the Mind Meld questions? And just as importantly, how does science fiction as a whole benefit from cross-genre stories?

Heather Massey is a blogger who travels the sea of stars searching for science fiction romance adventures aboard The Galaxy Express. Additionally, she pens a science fiction romance column for LoveLetter, Germany's premier romance magazine.

1. reattmore
A Civil Campaign shows that SF/Romance works . .
2. hapax
This is *still* an issue?

I thought that the sf community had outgrown the "you got romance cooties in my science fiction!" long ago.

Especially with all the authors who write wonderful science fiction romances. (Asaro, Lee & Miller, Bujold, Baker, Czerneda come immediately to mind)

I personally don't like dystopias, so I don't read 'em. I don't think they somehow "contaminate" the entire genre. If you don't like romantic elements in your sf -- don't read those books.
3. Cthulhu512
So how do you define Romance?
There is Romance as a a genre, and romance as a character interaction arc.

Building up characters and their interactions in a way that makes sense to the SF reader may not be easy.

On the other hand, there is a lot of character driven and relationship driven stuff out there.
Ben R
4. sphericaltime
I don't mind Romance and Spec Fiction getting entangled occasionally. I don't think it should be expected the way romantic subplots are in the movies.

'specially since I don't often connect with M/F romances on a general basis in fiction.

I do like "bad" gay mystery novels though, but I haven't found a reviewer to recommend gay sci-fi romances with whom I agree.
Yvonne Eliot
5. Yvonne
IMHO, the best science fiction (okay, so the science fiction that I most enjoy) explores how scientific discoveries and technological progress affects us as a society (collection of societies?) and as individual human beings. The relationships between human beings, be it romantic or otherwise, should be part of that exploration.
Rob Munnelly
6. RobMRobM
Having read and enjoyed Bujold and Galbadon over the past year, the mix of romance and SF can be a very good thing indeed. Rob
7. KevinMarks
I'm confused by this too - Connie Willis has been doing romantic SF and indeed romantic comedy SF for years, and winning Hugos for it.
8. AuroraTheGeek
One of the dangers of writing romance into speculative fiction is that is can really take over a narrative. Much like in real life, romance plays such a large part that it can take over and cover the main purpose of the story. For instance, instead of seeing how people deal with the apocalypse, we see 50 pages of a couple arguing. Romance can be very potent.

Personally, I don't enjoy that type of romance but like many others, I find myself shipping characters and love it when romance just makes it's way in and actually influences the story and helps to move along the main plot along.
Rob Munnelly
9. RobMRobM
@7 - I read Connie Willis this year as well. To Say Nothing of the Dog is a very good example of romance and SF done well. Rob
10. ciar cullen
Aurora, I think one thing that maybe is missing in the comments--in a romance SciFi work, the romance IS the plot--that defines the genre. Not to say a heck of lot can't happen while the couple gets together, but it is the defining thread.

That said, I think that writers who do go into SF and Fantasy genres tend to spend more time (perhaps out of necessity) on subplots and of course, worldbuilding. Whereas someone writing SF out of the romance genre might include romantic elements.

It's kinda like writing from different base camps. I'm not sure that will ever truly change, but I see more blending, where there may be equal emotion spent on the romance and the non-romance plot elements.
11. Shay J
I think I object to romance in SF because of female protagonists. I like reading them because it's more reflective of me. The problem comes, to me, when a writer no longer writes a strong feminine presence. Not that she's a man in woman's clothing; but that the things she did earlier in the book, she magically can't do anymore because there's a man around. That's my problem. Truth be told, as long as both characters get to be themselves in addition to being linked to another, then it's a worthwhile yarn and I'll read it any day.
12. rgouldtx
Much of the formative Science Fiction was written by men who were pioneering scientists as well as writers. The environment in most of the labs and think tanks of the day were strictly male. As a result, most of the stories were focused on a scientific fictional element and it's effect rather than the relationships between individuals. I would hope we are beyond that today and that modern writers would address the relationships as well as the technology.

One story I am currently writing has a relationship developing along with the rest of the plot. I hope it is favorably received when finished. I was told at one conference I attended that in modern fiction, regardless of genre, relationships had to be addressed as well as the rest of the elements in the story. I have attempted to follow that advice ever since. I would recommend that we as writers explore relationships where they fit into the story but don't contrive a relationship where it doesn't fit.

I'll get off my soapbox now...
Joseph Blaidd
13. SteelBlaidd
Hi, My name is SteelBlaidd and I am a F/SF Romance Junkie.

I'm also male and as far back as I can remember the love story aspect has been a very important part of SF for me. I attribute this to having started my SF reading with Edgar Rice Burroughs. "A Princes of Mars" is, after all, the courtship of a Martian Princesses, as are the rest of the Mars books. Tarzan has Romance as a major plot driver to.
14. Sophy S
A goodly portion of the SF reading that I do is in the form of fanfic. What this means: there is almost inevitably romance mixed in with the scifi. And it works well! There's the fascinating ideas, which scifi offers, and there's the human connection and emotional involvement, which romance offers. And together the two genres create what is, in my opinion, the ideal book: fascinating and engaging at the same time.

Obviously romance in published scifi works at least somewhat differently from that in fanfic, but I think the two genres still have a lot to offer each other.
15. DaveQat
There's quite a tradition of subtle sff/romance crossover, thanks to writers like Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, who're damn amazing.
Janet Hopkins
16. JanDSedai
There is a whole line of paperbacks marketed as romance that have SFnal or fantasy elements-- such as time travel, aliens, ghosts, or vampires. So there is a market for that kind of stuff.

But I guess most of the people on this forum would not consider this as "science fiction", as the writers have no "creditials" in the SF community.
17. hapax
@16 -- I thought the question was specifically addressed to Science Fiction. There is a long tradition of crossover in the romance and fantasy genres (after all, in many ways the "Ur-Fantasy" -- myths, legends, and fairy tales -- are as concerned with winning the hand of the princess as with defeating the dragon. In fact, the very word "Romance" originally referred to such a tale, written in the vernacular language.)

Nowadays, it's hard to tell where one leaves off and the other begins, since the best-selling titles in either genre (as any glance at a bookstore rack will tell you) are in the crossover categories of Urban Fantasy / Paranormal Romance.

With Science Fiction, it's a little bit different, since the "Ur-SF" might be seen in the adventure / traveller type tale. This can take a major romantic cast -- the example of Burroughs above, or McCaffrey -- but in many ways, these still have a "fairy tale"-ish FEEL to it. (Are those "dragons" or "genetically engineered flying lizards"? Is it "psionics" or "magic"? Would the story be substantially changed if they were swapped around?)
Maiane Bakroeva
18. Isilel
I have to say that I am very wary of romance in my SF and fantasy. IMHO, writing romance well is very difficult and few manage it, especially in the romance genre, LOL.
It is even more difficult to avoid romance coming into the way of the overall plot in a consciously cross-genre book.

I mean, what happens is usually that relationship stuff intrudes at the most inappropriate times and characters who are in imminent danger or whatever begin to incongruously mope over their romantic life, etc.

Or that what should be world-changing decisions become overshadowed by "will they, won't they" dance.

Or that other relationships become totally side-lined by (at least potentially) romantic ones, which makes character interaction in general shallow.

Also, in case of heroines, they are often sabotaged by the authorial need to provide them with a "worthy" ("alpha-male, blergh) partner, so that they don't get to be badasses of the piece and/or have to constantly excuse themselves for/emo about their heroic status, as well as have frequent moments of weakness so that teh man can show his "protectiveness".

The need for "Happily Ever After" constrains the plots even more.

All of the above hamstrings a lot of otherwise promising fantasy and urban fantasy books and I am not eager to see it in SF too.

Yes, it can be done well. Bujold did it well in her Vorkosigan saga, though she gradually lost that balance in her fantasy. Some of the Miller and Lee books do it well. But it is rare and even those who manage can easily lose the handle on it.
19. Lsana
Whether a SF/Romance cross really works depends on what you mean by "Romance." As others have pointed out, there are many ways to define it.

1) "Romance" = "A story primarily about the relationship between two people of attracting genders." If this is your definition, then of course a Sci-Fi romance can work. See aforementioned Civil Campaign.

2) "Romance" = "The Romance Genre", a genre with its own conventions and rules every bit as strong as the mystery genre and stronger than the SF genre. I don't think these work terribly well. SF/Mystery works mostly because the mystery usually explores the SF aspect of the word, but the romances rarely do. I won't say this is an absolute, but for the most part you could take the alien lover and substitute a wild man/savage warrior/high lord, move the setting from the Andromeda galaxy to the Wild West/Imperial China/Mideval Scotland, and keep the rest of the story exactly the same. The genre romances tend to stay genre romances, no matter how exotic the setting, and the SF is no more than background description.

3) "Romance" = "George Lucas Love Story", where the love story is obviously tacked on at the end and adds nothing to the rest of the plot. Typical of movie SF, where we have an attractive female scientist for pretty much no reason except to get together with the hero at the end. Tends to result in romantic angst at inappropriate times, like when we're 5 minutes from the end of the world. I'm not a fan.

Basically, I think SF/Romance CAN be done well, but that there is reason for skepticism. It's difficult to write a good story blending romance with exploring some aspect of science-fiction. It's too easy to fall into the trap of either making the SF just window dressing for a typical bodice-ripper, or making the romance an extraneous part of what seems to an outside observer a far more interesting story.
20. David DeLaney
A quick note, because coincidentally this just came up on a newsgroup too: we can go a bit further back and run into Anne Maxwell's wonderful Carifil novels, as well as her Dancer's series. As well as the above-mentioned Lichtenberg (and Lorrah) and the Sime/Gen series, which was romance as much as it was anything else. Star-crossed romance with tentacles, sure...


PS: the captcha is "put mounties", which can do naught but make it Better, right?
Kristin MacDonough
21. krispymac
If a story is about people, elements of what makes us human will have to come up. Those successful authors stick to their plot but don't ignore the side effects of what can occur when a particular character is in a predicament. I would think of unsuccessful as dropping the plot by suddenly focusing on a seemingly random passionate love. the conflict presented at the start is completely forgotten.

A good story is like a healthy diet- a little bit of everything is needed to keep it going. (no slim fast thank you.)

my best example after the others before me: joe haldeman's "the forever war". filled with technical jargon that made me slow down, but in the end, it was (mostly) about people.
Gavin McMenemy
22. antihippy
I am all in favour of genre mix-matching but let's be careful here. The important thing is that the quality of the writing is good - not that SF includes "romance" elements. If romance is what you are looking for then there is an entire genre just for that. If you want to mix it into SF then respect both genres and produce good work. But please people no romance in SF "just because" or "we need to attract the female demographic".

Just dropping in while I was looking at the site. If someone has already said what I've said then, "I'm with Spartacus."
23. Confutus
Lois McMaster Bujold, one of the authors who has done well at mixinng romance and SF, has commented in various interviews about how difficult it is. One of the reasons is that much SF and Fantasy has a strong political element (a feature that has been noted by other commenters) and the reader has one set of expectations, while romance has a different sort of expectations. To satisfy both sets of expectations in a single story is somewhat more challenging that it might seem. Often, one set of readers or other winds up feeling short-changed.
24. eilidhdawn
I am all for romance in sci fi. In my opinion the best sci fi is about people and how can you talk about people without it. I have always been more interested in peoples reaction to and uses for tech also why they have the tech not so much how the tech works. David Weber, Sharon Lee & Steve Miller, Lisanne Norman, Anne McCaffrey, Ann Maxwell are all excellent examples of combining both elements without overpowering either.
25. emmellen
I love SFR. I think one of the challenges is that there are also major fantasy writers working in this blend--think of Patricia A. McKillip, Anne McCaffrey, Robin McKinley, Sharon Shinn, and Anne Bishop. When you consider that, it's been around SF/F for years.
26. Denver0501
Shards of Honor by Lois Bujold. One of the most well written books I have ever run across. Cordelia Naismith is as distinctive a character portrait as the currently popular Lisbeth Salander.
Barrayar, the sequel, is also very good, as are the rest of Bujold's Vorkosigan series which have won many well-desrved awards.
27. Scott Warwick
Romance in science fiction? What a novel idea! I guess the old guard never thought of that.
Oh, wait; there's Heinlein's "Job; a comedy of Justice" where the entire book is driven by the love between Marga and Alex. And Dorothy and Richard in Doc Smith's Skylark series. And Leif and Fulla in Lester Del Rey's "Day of the Giants". I won't go on, it would be beating a dead horse. Romance and science have always been, I would say, romanticly involved.
28. Erica W
I'm puzzled by the assertion that romantic arcs in SF and F novels are a new thing and that only women include them in their stories. I've been reading SF and F since I was a kid (back in the 70s), and my childhood reading included many books by authors from the 50s and 60s. I can think of many books by male writers (even some of Heinlein's) that incoporated romantic subplots into their stories.

Do people simply not notice when a male writer has a love story, romantic conquest and/or sexual tension interwoven into the plot? Or is there a particular way men treat romance that is more palatable to male (and some female) readers? Why, for instance, was Piers Anthony so popular with both male and female fantasy fans back in the 80s, in spite of nearly every one of his stories having a romance that was pretty central? Why is Brandon Sanderson not derided for the love story between the male and female protagonists in Elantris? I can think of other examples as well.

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