I love to read science fiction romance, but I also enjoy studying this subgenre on a more scholarly level. There are trends to explore, covers to analyze, and subtext to discover. Reading for entertainment alone is great, but I also want to actively evaluate stories in terms of their culture, context, and impact.
Exploring the subgenre’s history—especially the more obscure books—yields a lot of interesting information about its origin as well as how it has evolved over the years.
Such is the case with a book I recently read, namely Unto Zeor, Forever by Jacqueline Lichtenberg. This book was initially published by Doubleday in 1978. But thanks to the wonders of digital technology, the author has been releasing the backlist of her Sime~Gen series, of which Unto Zeor, Forever is a part. So, I snagged a copy for my Kindle.
The least you need to know about the story:
Humanity has genetically mutated into two subspecies: Simes, who sport wicked-looking tentacles on their forearms, and Gens, humans who produce a chemical (selyn) that Simes need in order to live. Simes have a history of preying upon Gens for the selyn and thus developed a reputation as monsters (despite the fact that they are still human).
Unto Zeor, Forever, is about the adventures of Digen Farris, a Sime with special abilities, and how he joins with his soul mate, Ilyana Dumas.
This is a book I read for the subtext. There’s a plot, of course, but I was more interested to discover how an early science fiction romance book was structured. Having followed the author’s blog posts at Alien Romances and from learning about her through other sources, I knew she was equally invested in both the SF and romance elements. That would have made her a pretty rare bird back in the seventies.
So what insights did I gleam from this book?
On its surface, Unto Zeor, Forever is very much a science fiction story. The Sime~Gen universe is highly detailed and this book chronicles a specific period in its history. The story tackles the political, the psychological, the social, the biological—you name it.
Beneath the SF veneer, however, I discovered a few interesting things about the romance elements.
First, let’s talk about those tentacles! The Sime tentacles both puzzled and intrigued me. Superficially, they were simply a physical manifestation of the genetic mutation in Simes. But are they also a symbolic representation of sex? Take, for example, this passage of Digen and Ilyana’s first selyn transfer (taken from the second chapter):
Her hands slid up his arms, stroking the bulging tentacle sheaths that lay along the arm from elbow to wrist. As her cool fingers came to the hard, swollen ronaplin glands, halfway up along the side of each forearm, under the lateral tentacle sheaths, Digen sucked breath through his teeth. The ache of Need spread through his whole body, and the ronaplin glands responded, pouring their selyn conducting hormone into the lateral sheaths as the small, delicate transfer organs flicked in and out of the orifices on the side of each wrist.
Expertly, then, she seized him, using gentle pressure on the reflex ganglions to bring his tentacles into transfer position along her arms. Dazed and giddy with it, he found himself bending to make the fifth point contact with his lips against hers.
“Bulging tentacles”? “Hard, swollen ronaplin glands”? “Organs flicked in and out of the orifices”?
I’ve read/watched some hardcore erotic romances and hentai in my day, and the above passage actually shocked me (in a good way, heh heh). I’m thinking I had the reaction I did because I was highly conscious of when the book was originally published. Unto Zeor, Forever hit bookstores far before the present wave of highly charged erotic romances. I knew I was reading about a selyn transfer, but I couldn’t help but think it was, in part, a pretty hardcore euphemism for sex. These days, graphic love scenes in sci-fi romance are commonplace.
Another interesting aspect is that the story is highly character-driven and relationship-focused. In fact, Digen has a colleague-friend named Dr. Joel Hogan and these two processed so much of their friendship and were so supportive of each other and had to work through so many trust issues that, for a while, I seriously thought (and secretly hoped) that they were heading for a bromance. Alas, it was not to be.
Even though they are just friends, I couldn’t help but detect the seeds of the current male/m alescience fiction romance books. In the words of the immortal Butt-head, “That’s pretty cool, Beavis.”
However, I still felt hesitant drawing the above conclusions about Unto Zeor, Forever, because I didn’t want to make the mistake of reading too much into things. This was a time when for me, I felt it was important to know about the authorial intent. When I contacted Jacqueline Lichtenberg with my question about her intent, she generously provided some information.
The author describes the Sime~Gen series as a “soul mate saga.” That aspect definitely resonated with me as I read Unto Zeor, Forever. The concept of “soul mates” is a mainstream concept now thanks to paranormal romance, but back in the seventies and eighties, it was a pretty strange concept for science fiction. (Pretty ironic considering that it’s the job of SF to ask “What if…?”)
In the author’s words: “Built into the ’science fiction’ premise is the ’paranormal romance’ premise that souls are reborn until they learn not to fear, and so become capable of real love, and true eternal (happily ever after) bonding.”
So the science fiction premise behind this whole “worldbuilding” exercise [Sime~Gen series] is "Love Conquers All.”
However, while Unto Zeor, Forever has a strong romantic underpinning, it doesn’t feature a convention that’s pretty much required (these days, at any rate) in order for a book to be called a Romance: the Happily Ever After. Jacqueline Lichtenberg explains:
What you have in Unto is an intermediate stage of this multi-incarnation love affair. Unto has a tragic ending for the personal relationships of everyone involved. These are souls who have put it all on the line for the sake of all humanity…
Digen and Ilyana are two of those souls, and while they do have time together as a bona fide couple (with lots of tentacle action!), the Sime~Gen saga dictates that their love must be sacrificed (or perhaps subsumed would be more accurate?) for the greater good. Even if their relationship doesn’t fall in line with the romance genre conventions of today, it’s still awfully romantic. Plus, the romance of Ilyana and Digen serves double duty in the science fiction part of the story.
Now that’s what I call multitasking!
What Unto Zeor, Forever demonstrated during its time is that in order for science fiction romance to find its way to readers, it had to blend love, the political, and the sensawonder in a way that’s both covert and subversive as well as right there on the surface. It all depends on how you approach the story. In other words, what you experience of the story depends on where you focus your mental camera. There are codes and secret handshakes happening all over the place.
In some ways, little has changed in science fiction romance since Jacqueline Lichtenberg’s Unto Zeor, Forever. Authors still struggle with how to position the various elements in order to tell effective stories. For better or for worse, marketing departments dictate which parts of the story—either the SF or romance—should be made prominent because, quite frankly, they realize how risk-averse readers can be.
Does that underestimate readers or is it for their benefit?
In conclusion, here’s my take on the takeaway lesson from the Sime~Gen saga: Like the Simes, science fiction romance shouldn’t have to hide or restrain its tentacles. And as the Simes are obliged to act responsibly toward the Gens, so does science fiction romance have a responsibility to tell great stories, ones that fans of both SF and Romance can enjoy on different levels.
She’s also an author: Her latest sci-fi romance is Queenie’s Brigade from Red Sage Publishing.