Romance is a genre with a long history of attracting opprobrium. Especially among certain sorts of sci-fi/fantasy fans: all those feelings getting in the way of science and politics. Add queerness, and the enthusiasm level seems to go right down....
Me, I suffer intermittently from depression and anxiety. When I’m in a slump—or when I’ve been freaking out, as postgraduate students do, and trying to do shitloads of work in not nearly enough time—I don’t want to be reading big crunchy juicy books full of bittersweet pain or complicated politics or ethically complex issues: I want to read books that ask little of my attention, and give a lot back in terms of comforting entertainment. Last year, not for the first time, when I went looking for the comfort food of SFF literature, I kept coming up against a brick wall, one ably described by Foz Meadows in her “The Unbearable Lightness of Default Settings” in December:
“I haven’t been taking issue with all flaws, universally, but rather with a particular subset of flaws whose presence in SFF narratives is so ubiquitous that, up until last night, I hadn’t rightly distinguished them as belonging to a separate category... novels which, overwhelmingly, could be fairly categorised as light or easy reading—the similarity of their flaws was obvious: All were stories whose treatment of gender, race and/or sexual orientation had rubbed me the wrong way, most usually through the use of unhelpful stereotypes and problematic language... Which meant that Sword stood out to me, not because it’s thematically original, but because it’s a fun, straightforward adventure fantasy that doesn’t demean its female characters.”
Much of SFF’s “easy reading” is problematic in one way or another. The ways that stand out most vividly to me, naturally, are to do with gender. And, honestly? Sometimes a body wants a book that’s all about the women, no men involved, in which things blow up, or duels and battles happen; a book that doesn’t justify the absence of emotional investment in its male characters, or make it a book about terrible, painful struggles.
You find that in lesbian SFF romance, I discovered. They’re books that can be problematic in ways all of their own, and occasionally play into the stereotypes of subcultures with which I’m not familiar—but one thing they don’t do is demean their female characters. Or their female readers, for that matter.
I’m not going to lie to you. Lesbian SFF romance is very much a niche subgenre, and my experience suggests the quality of writing in said subgenre is all over the map. Much of it, in fact, is terrible prose, and occasionally a lack of narrative logic, that I’d wince to see emerge from the slushpile in less niche skiffy. That bad writing on technical grounds can still provide emotional enjoyment, no one’s denying, but my challenge to myself in 2012 was to find examples I wouldn’t be embarrassed to recommend to others.
Reader, I succeeded. Although for the number of such novels I read, the number I can recommend is disappointingly low. (Dear world: more stories where gender equality is the unmarked and unremarkable state, and more queer characters in fiction, and more lowbrow novels that meet these criteria, please?)
Jane Fletcher is the first author writing lesbian SFF romance whose work I read, several years ago now. Her prose style is plain, tending to the naive, but her characters possess vividness and personality that makes up for it. Occasionally the worldbuilding’s on the raw side, but on the whole, I’m very fond of her Celaeno series, flaws and all.
Shadows of Aggar, by the late Chris Anne Wolfe, is planetary space opera in a mode deeply influenced, to my eye, by the likes of Bradley’s Darkover. The prose is for the most part fluid, and the characters and situations engaging, although the device employed to compel the two main characters into close contact bears all the hallmarks of a debut author’s decision and very little logical justification. The not-quite-a-sequel, set many generations later, Fires of Aggar, is also a novel worth considering, and bears evidence of improvement in craft... although certain conceits strike me as a touch overdone. They’re only available as Kindle ebooks, it seems—converting to epub to read is an annoying inconvenience.
The Pyramid Waltz, by Barbara Ann Wright, is a novel I have mentioned before. The debut offering from a writer whose prose is already more than competent and whose narratives will, I think, improve with practice. I’ve always been a sucker for secret lives, and outsiders who have to navigate societies new to them: I look forward hopefully to the sequel, which should come this year.
An honourable mention goes to Sandra Barret’s The Face of the Enemy, which is a not-very-terrible romance between two fighter-pilot cadets in a space-opera setting: the science is made of handwavium but the story is at least entertaining.
And let me mention Ruth Diaz’s novelette Dynama, about the relationship between a single-mother superhero and the woman who comes to take care of her children, under the shadow cast by the supervillain ex-husband: an accomplished and emotive story.
There are some truly terrible lesbian skiffy romances out there: the ones that come foremost to mind were written by Cate Culpepper, which I read in the spirit of WTF? and non-stop cackling—O, the worldbuilding, O, the plot, O, the pointless angst and somewhat ridiculous BDSM overtones, O my sides hurt so much—but of the remainder, I shall pass over in silence, for they are no more ridiculous than a number of straight romances that I’ve turned to in many a difficult hour (pinned down by pain, as the poet wrote).
I want there to be more stories with queer female protagonists, and more where queerness and femaleness are both unmarked states. The unmarked state part is important to me: representations are important, and being represented as normal, natural, without need for justification: that’s a balm, so it is. On anecdotal evidence (which is to say, my impressions), we’re still more likely to see gay male protagonists or important secondary characters in mainstream skiffy than lesbian ones, and neither portrayal has yet reached the point of sufficient saturation that one could call the utterly unremarkable. Therefore let me appeal to writers and publishers alike: increase the saturation, please.
As for everyone else: lesbian SFF romance, yes/no/maybe? Who, what, and why?
Liz Bourke rejects the gender binary, but not binary code. Find her @hawkwing_lb on Twitter.