From Star Wars to Avatar, stories blending science fiction and romance have persisted for decades in books, films, fan fiction, and even video games. However, despite such evidence, there are those who believe the two genres can’t, or shouldn’t, be combined. We asked this week’s panelists:
Read on to see what they said…and be sure to sound off!
I’ve been posting a long series of long blogs at Alien Djinn Romances where I post on Tuesdays exploring the history of the SF field from despised kiddie twat of the 1930’s to Oscar and Emmy Award nominees of 2000’s (and sometime winners) and what we might learn about the low regard the Romance field has stagnated in for some time now.
My Tuesday June 1, 2010 blog post on aliendjinnromances.blogspot.com is titled “Why do “they” despise Romance?” and is based on a discussion on a twitter chat #scriptchat (I also attend and often blog about #scifichat ) about the Romantic Comedy film subgenre. That post answers this question at length. Here I’ll be brief (for me, that is)
For at least twenty years, Romance writers have sought to inject elements of SF and Fantasy into Romance novels.
Lately, SF writers have begun to blend Romance motifs into novels.
Certain editors and mass market publishers have found a receptive readership for this kind of mixed-genre product, and others have just bounced right out of the market entirely.
This is a marketing puzzle, a writer’s business model puzzle, and a reader’s dilemma. Why do these two fields repel each other?
Solve that puzzle and make a fortune because Romance is huge and SF is shrinking.
My exploration of this puzzle caught the imagination of Heather Massey at The Galaxy Express and she has compiled a pair of posts about how hard it is to mix SF and Romance:
There she focused on my 1978 Award winning novel, Unto Zoer, Forever — published when there was an absolute, blast-barrier wall between SF and Romance, a taboo stronger than the taboo against words like hell and damn in books sold to libraries (almost all of my fiction, so it doesn’t contain much English invective).
In 2010, I found my name mentioned (via feeddemon search) in an Australian blog and discovered a woman who had read Unto Zoer, Forever years ago, and only now, on re-reading realized that it is indeed SCIENCE FICTION ROMANCE and belongs with the modern books she likes. That’s why Unto stood out to the point where she had obsessed over it.
So in 1978, SF readers were starting to accept a romance driven plot.
By 1985, Romance readers started to accept an SF driven plot.
Today, if you read the comments on Heather Massey’s two posts cited above, you’ll see that readers of SFR and Paranormal Romance are devouring novels by a writer who admired some of my novels and founded a career “writing like that” — SF with a solid romance driving the plot and story, Linnea Sinclair (I adore her books!). And there’s a generation of writers (and readers) now working to replicate the magic Linnea Sinclair has created who have never heard of me.
Ten years from now, nobody will remember that it was ever possible to write SF or Romance as separate genres.
The reason for that is that both SF(including Fantasy) and Romance are “Wish Fulfillment Fantasy” genres.
We enjoy the stories that show us how to get our heart’s desire.
SF delivers the heart’s desire of someone who wants to be loved as the one person who actually understands what’s going on and can solve the problem innovatively, thinking outside the box.
Romance delivers the heart’s desire of someone who wants to be loved because they are more important than war, work, politics or sports – loved, admired and valued because they are understood completely (no matter how far outside the box the guy has to think in order to grasp the intricate complexities of who this very special person (me!) is.
Now you explain to me how those could possibly be incompatible objectives?
Here is a more complete explanation and a long list of examples in the early years of how to blend these two genres.
For more examples in current novels, see my professional review column archive.
What does romance bring to the SF genre? Well, new readers, for one thing. Reading preferences aren’t as stringently defined by gender as they were, oh, twenty years ago. There are male readers who want more of the emotional conflicts highlighted in the romance genre, and there are female readers craving the action and intellectual challenges found in SF. Absolutely, movies, television, and fan fic have contributed to that desire for a mixture. But our society has also changed. Back when I was a little girl (when dinosaurs roamed the earth), little girls wore dresses and little boys wore pants. In eighth grade I wore a dress to school every day. EVERY day. There were girl-activities and boy-activities. Books for girls and books for boys. Which developed into magazines for women (Redbook, Cosmopolitan) and magazines for men (Field & Stream, Playboy).
That was eons ago. And while, yes, Cosmopolitan and Field & Stream are still around, things have changed, Our approaches toward entertainment (and reading commercial genre fiction is, yes, entertainment) have changed to where gender is not the decisive factor it was.
Recently glommed via my nook have been Jack Campbell’s Lost Fleet series and R.M. Meluch’s Myriad books. Both contain what I’d deem as significant romantic sub-plots to the extent that a main or (strong) secondary character’s “love interest” affects character decisions and key plots points. To wit: “Black Jack” Geary and Captain Tanya Desjanis. Kerry Blue and Colonel Steele. Captain Farragut and…well, I won’t get into spoiler territory.
Catherine Asaro’s Alpha has an almost Mr. and Mrs. Smith feel to the emotional issues between her main characters, General Thomas Wharington and Alpha. And the relationship between Bren Cameron and Jago in Cherryh’s superb Foreigner series definitely affects character decisions and plot movement, as does the relationship between Morgan and Sira in Julie Czerneda’s awesome Trade Pact books.
Another worthy contender, in the vein of Czerneda’s In The Company Of Others (which combines SF, genetic/bio engineering issues, and a romance subplot) is Sara Creasy’s Song of Scarabaeus.
In November 2010, noted editors Gardner Dozois and George R.R. Martin are releasing Songs of Love & Death: Tales of Star-Crossed Love, an anthology that addresses this very issue: romance melded with SFF. I have a short story in the anthology (“Courting Trouble”), and am honored to be there along with Jim Butcher, Mary Jo Putney, Diana Gabaldon, Carrie Vaughn, Neil Gaiman, Peter S Beagle, Jo Beverley, and more. Will this break down any perceived taboo against romance and SF? I doubt it. There will always be those who want only “pure” SF or “pure” romance, just as there are those who only want pure chocolate, and would never consider a Reese’s Peanut Butter cup or a York Peppermint Patty.
But there is a growing number of readers who don’t define their reading preferences by gender restrictions, and don’t at all mind a little peanut butter with their chocolate. For them, I’d recommend not only the books mentioned above, but also ones by Ann Aguirre, Susan Grant, Jess Granger, Lisa Shearin, Elizabeth Moon, Tanya Huff, and Mike Shepherd. And check out the list on the left side of The Galaxy Express: Each author mentioned combines their chocolate and their peanut butter in differing degrees. But all are definitely tasty.
>> Q: Is there a taboo against romance in science fiction?
You betcha. And it’s the single biggest reason I didn’t read science-fiction for many, many years.
What does romance bring to the SF genre?
Personality, character development, personal conflict. Romance makes science fiction more relatable. Readers can be fascinated by spaceships and ray guns and aliens with two tails and purple-dotted tongues, but we can better relate to falling in love because it always complicates and complements.
What are some good examples of romance in SF that illustrate this?
I’m going to start with the movies that molded my science-fiction upbringing. Star Wars, Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. I was only in elementary school, and while I loved the spaceships and aliens and light saber duels, what I cared most about was whether Han and Leia would ever get together. Fast forward twenty-five years, and let’s talk about Firefly. Can anyone tell me they weren’t attached to at least one of the romantic couples on that ship? I tuned in every week because Joss Whedon knows how to tell a hell of a good story. I could relate to all the characters, their trials and tribulations, and I darn well wanted them to have a happy ending. Doctor Who. Rose and the Doctor. Do I even need to say anything more?
Science Fiction has a long history of meshing with other genres. A recent Mind Meld on cross-genre novels explored this topic well and cited some great examples. Science Fiction plays well with Romance specifically because Science Fiction is at its best when it is examining how technology of all sorts affects humanity and potential life elsewhere. Romance has many tools with which to accomplish this. I’m absolutely fascinated with black holes, the formation of planets, elemental particles, and the potential for traveling vast distances, but I can learn about those topics in Scientific American (and do). Conversely, I read novels for the characters. I’ve read numerous times that historical novels examine where we’ve been, contemporary novels examine where we are, and Science Fiction novels examine where we might go. It plays out the permutations on what we may become and how science might help or hinder that outcome. Combining with Romance is one way for Science Fiction to examine how science might affect our relationships.
Science Fiction Romance offers a spectrum of emphasis between science and romance. In the Mind Meld I just mentioned, James Enge brought up the idea of one genre “enclosing” another and specifically applied this to Romance. Cross-genre novels that have one genre clearly overshadowing the other fall on the outside edges of that spectrum. My favorite Science Fiction Romance novels combine the two genres on a fundamental level using each other’s conventions to illuminate character more deeply. Some of my favorite novels that illustrate this point include pretty much any of Catherine Asaro’s books, but most especially Primary Inversion because of how science was used to alter some of her characters in a posthuman way. Similarly, I enjoyed Linnea Sinclair’s Games of Command because of its cyborg hero struggling to rediscover his humanity. Joan Vinge’s Snow Queen series examined what happens when a civilization forgets its own origins, but the cost of rediscovery is brought home to the reader through its impact on the relationship between Dawn and Gundhalinu. Other favorites include Susan Grant’s Contact and Lois McMaster Bujold’s Cordelia’s Honor for showing how differing attitudes civilizations have toward science affects the ways people relate to one another.
As far as whether Romance in Science Fiction is taboo, no I don’t think it is. Some readers do make unfortunate assumptions about the Romance genre, but many readers have unknowingly read — and enjoyed — novels that could easily be considered Science Fiction Romance. Heather Massey at The Galaxy Express has done a great job of highlighting many of these hidden gems and providing a common space for readers to discuss SFR. Just like Science Fiction, when Romance combines with another genre it mutates and creates a brand new way of looking at where we’ve been, where we are, and where we might yet go.
As a romance reader who’s also a fan of science fiction movies and TV, what I generally tell people is that I watch SF, not read it. Almost all the SF I’ve read has been recommended by other romance readers who are also SF readers; books like A Quantum Rose by Catherin Asaro, Archangel by Sharon Shinn and Dragonflight by Anne McCaffrey. (I’ve even enjoyed several of the Pern books by Anne McCaffrey without expecting any romance, too.) But while I liked the above as SF with some actual relationship plots embedded within none of them ever made me want to read more SF, no matter how much I might occasionally crave more science in my romances. So, I probably couldn’t even begin to respond to the first question about taboos in SF and I’m definitely not sure how to comment in general on romance within SF.
As to what romance brings to SF or any other genre, though, first and foremost, romance brings the same thing it’s always brought to storytelling from the very beginning – the ultimate reason why the “hero” goes out on any quest, whether that “hero” is male, female or an alien being without gender of any kind. It doesn’t matter whether the “romantic hero” we’re talking about is the medieval knight waiting to receive the favour from the fair lady (Codex Manesse), the starship captain and his first officer racing to save another imperiled home world (Star Trek) or a student learning from his master while attempting to save a princess (Star Wars). All need motivation to fight.
To win. To never give up.
That reason is home, hearth and family, even if they never claim it for themselves and only ensure it for others – the others on those planets and in those cities, towns and castles they end up saving. That reason is still ultimately love because without it, what is the point of saving the universe?
What is the point of risking it all, time and again?
The second thing that modern genre romance does is bring that motivation down to the intimate personal level with something that we in romance call The Relationship (TR), that central romance plot as distinguished from any other relationship within the story. TR like what is found within Linnea Sinclair’s Games of Command or Gabriel’s Ghost, which I love and which introduced me to stories with science fiction and romance plots side-by-side, possibly for the first time. People get hung up on romance readers overwhelmingly requiring a “happily ever after” for TR and completely overlook how one gets to that point, i.e. by actively working on TR. Nowadays, that means the pair spending a significant amount of time together and not being across the world or universe from each other for most of the story.
Or never talking regardless of genre and whatever else is going on.
And if we’re talking about crossover novels, or even media tie-ins, even the strict happily-ever-after requirement can be stretched if TR is respected. Yes, I’m a longtime, diehard romance reader but one of my favorite media tie-in sets is Imzadi and Triangle: Imzadi II by Peter David, a male author who gets TR. He also gets the point of saving the universe for love. Or even sacrificing it for love, too.
So, yeah, romance can bring quite a bit to SF.
Absolutely not. I don’t know why we go around and around with this topic because no genre is pure. Most science fiction stories, like any other genre fiction, contain elements of horror, mystery, and/or military fiction, even comedy, so why all the fuss about romance? I think it all comes down to the taste of the readership, and many science fiction readers simply do not want to waste precious paragraphs on “mushy stuff.” My 18 year old son is constantly trying to get me to write a “real SF book” (his definition, as far as I can tell is fantasy, horror is okay, just not any romance in it.) When I ask why, he explains, “Mom, it’s [insert unPC word beginning with g here that rhymes with day]. Let’s use “dumb” or “gross.” Conversely, ask a romance reader why they don’t like science fiction and you’ll hear things like “dry” “boring” and “stupid guy stuff like ray guns and space ships.”
My feeling is this: if you don’t care much for romance in your fiction, few attempts to combine the two will work for you. No matter how many Mind Meld discussions there are, or blogs, ranting or gushing about one kind of book or another, I doubt anyone with defined reading preferences powerful enough to be participating in this forum will suddenly change…although I’m sure it does happen. For every cliché lobbed from science fiction purists about “bodice rippers” there is an answering salvo of “snickering, socially awkward geeks.” These knee-jerk reactions are why my book covers are often disguised to look like erotic romances rather than the half-breeds of SF and romance they really are. To my publishers, science fiction simply doesn’t sell as well as romance, and by God, they want those numbers (so do I, of course). Yes, Sex Sells, but in MY opinion, few publishers “get it” when it comes to a cover representative of both genres without offending or turning off either reader with a goofy mess or, in some cases, out-and-out misrepresentation. But, I digress. To ME, romance makes a science fiction tale a richer, fuller, more realistic story. I want my science fiction and my romance, too, and when I read a blend of both, you better believe I want the science fiction and the romance elements each to be done well, which really just translates that the particular book is to my personal taste, and that brings me back to my statements in the first paragraph. It’s not about romance (or not), it’s all about individual taste.
I have quite a few great (in my opinion) examples of SFR on my home shelves: Lois McMaster Bujold’s Cordelia’s Honor, Catherine Asaro’s Primary Inversion and The Radiant Seas (read back to back) Anne McCaffrey’s Freedom’s Landing, Linnea Sinclair’s Games of Command, and, while more fantasy than SF, Elizabeth Vaughan’s War Prize, which incorporates one of the best, most well-done romances I’ve read in years. Of my books, readers who like hybrids seem to enjoy Moonstruck and Contact (both RITA finalists, like your Nebula, and one a winner), My Favorite Earthling and How to Lose an Extraterrestrial in 10 Days (SF RomComs), and The Star Trilogy (circa early 2000s and newly re-released). Read and enjoy!
SF started out as a boys’ club, and while it’s opened up over the decades to women, I think that some of the conventions of an insular, guy-centric literary form remain. Thus a relative lack of romance but no lack of bromance. Odd too that westerns, a similar genre rooted in the pulps, have made more accommodations toward romance – I’ve not read many but have known male fans who told me this was the case. Great romantic stories depends on tension – the lovers have to be kept apart, they hate each other till they don’t, etc. etc. Blame it on Beatrice and Benedick in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, or on Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, or a million other literary couples. Traditional science fiction depends on a different kind of tension (to crib from the Buzzcocks), world-building rather than nest-building, maybe.
Most of the romances I recall from classic SF are failed ones: Brom Helmstrom and the Spike in Samuel Delany’s Triton, Severian and Thecla in The Book of the New Sun. I honestly don’t read that much SF these days, and one reason might be that I’m a romantic at heart. We’ve had the Big Bang: bring on more of the Big Clinch.
Science fiction and romance are two genres that sometimes seem to have a hard time co-existing peacefully between the covers (pause for dramatic effect)…I didn’t intentionally write that play on words but as soon as I typed it, it seemed somehow apropos, because not only does science fiction sometimes see romance as too taboo for intermingling, romance often has the same feelings about science fiction. You can see evidence of this just by looking at the covers of science fiction and science fiction romance books. One doesn’t want to hint at any of that “heaving bosoms” stuff so as not to scare away science fiction fans, and one doesn’t want to scare away any romance fans by hinting at anything too science fiction oriented. As a publisher, there’s a tightrope you walk in order to attract both audiences to one book, without alienating one or the other-or even more disastrously, both.
I know I’m biased because I come more from the romance side of publishing and reading, but in my opinion, and as a long-time fan of the science fiction and romance genres, I think science fiction and romance are perfect for each other. The science fiction aspect allows for tremendous opportunity in unique world building and plot situation. The romance aspect allows the author to have hard-edged, kickass characters who still demonstrate their humanity and softer edges through relationship development, making them relatable and real for readers. Authors who I think have smoothly combined science fiction and romance elements include Linnea Sinclair, Tanya Huff in her Valor series, and writing duo Sharon Lee and Steve Miller.
As an added bonus for both science fiction readers and authors (and publishers) adding a romantic element also brings with it the tremendous buying power of romance readers. As a genre, romance and its readers account for approximately fifty percent of genre fiction sales. Nearly half. And because romance as a genre is comprised of sub genres, from contemporary and mystery, to fantasy and science fiction, romance readers are also known as the one group who will share the generosity of their buying power by cross buying into genres outside of romance–including science fiction and fantasy. This remains true despite what I said in my opening paragraph about the taboo working both ways, because at the end of the day, romance readers are adventurous in their reading tastes.
In fact, if you’re at all a fan of science fiction TV shows, you’ll notice this is a truth they’ve long recognized: adding romance gives the show wider audience appeal and improves the odds on the show’s longevity and profit. We could name pretty much any science fiction show and then discuss the associated romance(s) among primary or secondary characters. And, let’s be honest, money makes the publishing world go ’round. But regardless of whether you’re invested in the sales numbers of a book/author, I think for anyone who’s a fan of any genre, the idea of attracting this kind of buying power is attractive because it brings with it the possibilities of increased numbers of titles being published and made available for us to read!
Yes, I think there is a bias against romance in science fiction among some groups, those who focus on the mechanics of an unfamiliar technology or culture and have no patience for emotional entanglement of the characters. (Translation: No girl cooties!) But there’s a flipside to that–a growing readership who want the spark that romance can bring to the story arc. (Translation: Ugh, spare me the technical manuals!) No profiling intended, but it’s safe to say the first group is predominantly male and the second predominantly female. But SF and SFR don’t need to be mutually exclusive. SFR is wooing a whole new audience to the intrigue of science and even drawing some formerly solid “hard SF” readers to the relational end of the spectrum, because it puts a human face and heart on the possibilities of science, technology and the future. I think this is a very good thing for SF in general, whatever it’s labeled.
To wit, the success of Avatar. The bond between Jake and Neyteri-the romantic journey-becomes a bridge for Jake between the human and alien cultures. It’s the catalyst that drives him to question his preconceptions about Pandora, because his love for Neyteri opens his eyes to a new perspective, that of the Na’vi. If Jake and Neyteri hadn’t formed their emotional bond, he may never have decided to join the alien cause. Yet interspersed with the tender meeting of the minds in the Pandoran jungle there was also enough eye-popping technology and macho-machine visuals to keep both sides of SF crowd smiling. The story appealed to a wide audience because there was “something for everyone.”
In SFR, the challenge is to create worlds–or even universes–where the history, politics, technology, environment, and/or cultural stigmas create fascinating conflicts the characters must overcome for their relationship to survive. It goes beyond man against machine or man against culture to explore the influences of human sexuality in the equation.
A few good examples of romance in SF that might have cross-spectrum appeal? Catherine Asaro’s Alpha uses interpersonal conflict amid some very plausible, imaginative technology, when a lieutenant general is abducted by the female super-android he’s supposed to be interrogating. Another excellent example-and personal favorite-is Sandra McDonald’s The Outback Stars. The author drew on her Naval experience to create a credible future military where giant ships travel an ancient alien transportation corridor and a romantic conflict between Lieutenant JoDenny Scott and her subordinate, Sgt. Terry Myell, develops in the face of a conspiracy and non-fraternization taboos. Linnea Sinclair’s The Down Home Zombie Blues teams a modern day police detective with a female alien officer who is hunting down interstellar jumpgate detection and repair drones run amok in modern day Florida (ZOMBIE stands for “Zeta Obedient Machines Built for Infiltration and Exploration”). Though not usually considered SFR, I’d also like to suggest John Scalzi’s Old Man trilogy-Old Man’s War, The Ghost Brigades, and The Last Colony-which carries a masterful understated romance that spans the story arc of three novels while making the reader re-think life, love, aging, humanity and the pitfalls of DNA-manipulation technology. (And any book that binds two characters at the conclusion in a way that makes me cry-in a good way, mind you-qualifies as SFR in my universe.)
I believe SFR is a subgenre on the cusp of an explosion in popularity, as generations of fans intrigued with the Han and Leia love affair in Star Wars find futuristic adventures of relational discovery also exist in the print medium. And more readers searching out any flavor of science fiction in bookstores has to be a good thing for SF in general, right?
My local bookstore is full of water. Not because the pipes flooded or the roof leaked, but because readers are channeled in an orderly flow down aisles and around islands — science fiction being a small isle of wonder, romance being a giant isthmus covered in green. Some readers cross from riverbank to riverbank quite easily, but the water can be wide, the currents unusually deep. We can say science fiction is upstream and romance is downstream, or vice versa, but it doesn’t really matter – water offers resistance, and often times it’s easier to stay on dry land.
When I think of romance readers, I think of (predominantly) women in search of an exciting story between a woman and a man that will be emotionally and dramatically rewarding. The romance readers I know will chase that kind of story through many a genre on the recommendation of reviews and word-of-mouth. When I think of science fiction readers, I picture (often times) men in search of the technological frontier, pushing boundaries and extrapolating the world to come – with relationships perhaps not the most foremost consideration. The trouble with my interpretations, of course, is that I’m knee-deep in the river and soaking wet in personal and anecdotal evidence. I’m just as likely to drown in stereotypes as anyone else.
Romance brings strong heroines to science fiction, a genre that since its early years has been full of laser-toting heroes. Science fiction brings to romance a vision of how technology might shape our experiences a hundred or thousand years from now. I think it’s easier for a Nora Roberts reader to move from J.D. Robb’s futuristic mysteries (Robb and Roberts being the same woman) to Linnea Sinclair and Ann Aguirre than a hard science fiction fan to cross the water in the opposite direction.
In the end I don’t think there’s a taboo so much as the aforementioned resistance to go against the tidal rivers that many of us have followed in our adult reading travels. It takes courage and faith to step off your island to near or distant lands. That, and a sturdy pair of wading boots. Or you can plunge in barefoot, letting the water cool your toes. Even if you step ashore in a novel that doesn’t interest you, the journey is worth the trip.
Science fiction. Romance. Romance in science fiction. Science fiction in romance. Is the concept of the genres mixing silly, or does it work? Can it work?
Nearly a century ago, just as the American short story was coming into its own, strong lines of demarcation were laid out for various categories of fiction in both short and novel lengths. This was a time when the category “romance” did not allude solely to fiction that involved itself with personal relationships. It took in everything from adventure and exploration to the horrors of vampires and the first tentative forays into scientific extrapolation-nearly anything that wasn’t a mainstream tale.
But when the pulps began to rise at the beginning of the Great Depression, when people wanted and needed cheap entertainment and advertisers needed cheaper ways to reach markets-something more sustaining than silent film and lectures and music on the radio-magazine publishers began to target audiences, just as the non-fiction magazines had done. There were magazines for ladies-on housekeeping, fashion, and so forth. And magazines for men. Why not all-fiction entertainments for groups defined by their interests, ages, and circumstances?
Hence, new categories of fiction were defined, beginning with obvious demographics (female and male) and then getting more and more refined. It’s 1930. What can we use to interest young women and lure them into buying our magazines? Of course they dream of romance, it being unseemly for young ladies to go out into the world and have adventures on their own. So, we’ll bring them tales of romance. And we can further hone the leading edge by targeting interests. Western romances, big-city girl romances, aviation romances, ranch and even spicy romances. (The spicy tales were doubtless read by more than a few daring males, the allure of a story that allowed one to imagine that actual sex-or at least heavy petting-had taken place overcame the embarrassment of being caught reading a “magazine for girls.”)
Young men burning with excess energy? Why, adventure and crime tales, and the ever-popular stories of taming the frontier in the old West would serve them well. All the culturally shared themes of modern society and popular history. If not those categories, there were tales of flying, of business achievements and financial success. Excitement galore, spiked with imaginative venues and villains-the Dark Continent, the Yellow Peril, lost cities, ultra-criminals bent on amassing endless fortunes, hidden treasure. But no romantic magazines for men; that would be either pornographic or sissified, depending on how it was presented. Still, sex could raise its head here and there, in the form of women being menaced by evil criminals. The sex mostly happened on the magazine covers, with women draped in diaphanous gowns or tight dresses, their figures so clearly visible that you would think that the artist painted them nude and added the clothing, rags and shadows later (which was often the case). On occasion, one could discern the outline of a nipple, but no doubt many a reader saw nipples where there were none!
But what about those boys (and men) who wanted to really escape, to roam the farthest frontiers of imagination? Those males (and some females) with intelligence who found the G-Men and locked-room mysteries and good guys in white hats boring and repetitive? Youngsters who ostensibly valued intellect over sex and romance. That group could be reeled in with science fiction and fantasy. And SF and fantasy could include sex on the covers, too. Fans paid a price for reading the stuff, though; up through the 1970s, in the eyes of many Americans of all classes reading that weird science fiction stuff was like reading porn.
At some point, as pulp magazines faded and the paperback book entered the popular market in the late 1940s, genres began to mix in the tightening market. Science fiction saw light romance, as in the works of E.E. “Doc” Smith. It was the type of romance in which gentlemen were genteel, and nobody got laid on-camera if at all. SF writers such as Robert A. Heinlein continued this tradition (almost nobody got laid without getting married, and it was still off-camera-even in his later work). Some SF and fantasy authors wrote romances under pennames for financial reasons (Andre Norton, for one). And vice-versa.
But there was no overt sex in mainstream science fiction until the 1970s. By and large, the guardians of the gates at the more prestigious outlets made sure it was so. Editors at Analog and publishers such as Scribners kept the focus for the mostly young, male audience on science, patriotism and clean living. When sex broke out in science fiction, it was in the B- and C-markets among magazines, and low-end paperback publishers who handled books like Philip Jose Farmer’s The Lovers. (Never mind that the imagery of rockets plunging into the mysterious depths of space evoked certain images….)
It could not have been otherwise, for the law said that writing about an orgasm beyond the implication of waves rolling in, or describing stiffening cocks and nipples, or fingers plunging into and tongues licking private places was offensive to the public. In a word, it was pornographic. Which made it against the law to write, publish or distribute such filth. People could and did go to prison.
But the real world eventually outstripped the restrictions on entertainment, in terms of permissiveness and moral perceptions. And right along with the real world, the genres of romance and science fiction ran ahead of what was perceived as right and proper and decent. By the 1970s, aliens were having sex in SF. Humans were having sex in SF (married or not). And aliens and humans were mixing it up in bed, too.
Interestingly, despite the focus on fact and detail that was traditional to SF, it was and remains rare for a tongue to touch a nipple or cock in a science fiction story or novel. Science fiction’s women do not become wet with arousal. Rarely do men or women perform oral sex on partners of either sex.
At the same time, romance novels-rooted in fiction that was “proper” for young ladies and suggestive of nothing-have fellatio and cunnilingus (not quite reduced to the old pornographic level of cocksucking and pussy-eating) galore. Nipples get hard and tingle. Other body parts tingle. Juices flow. But it’s all leavened with romance-with love and caring and concern-and almost nobody gets offended.
So, if women can take on this kind of plunging, kissing, grappling, licking, slipping and sliding in romance novels, why can’t men and women accept it in SF? Are SF readers not horny? Oh, they are, to be sure. I think it has to do with perceptions of the genres. To read a romance is to cut loose and have fun. To read science fiction is an intellectual exercise, sometimes a solemn break to consider the nature and future of humankind.
I think it also has a bit to do with the fact that women and men are wired differently. Women usually perceive the physical acts of sex as part of romance. Men (admit it or not) tend to objectify sex and treat it as something that’s not a part of daily life, and can be part of romance or not part of romance. Perhaps this is a legacy of pornography and the earlier genre distinctions. If you’re out exploring the solar system or saving the universe, it’s a fine and noble endeavor with no room for “minor” concerns like romance and fucking. Science fiction is (ahem) bigger than romance.
If you’re having a romance…well, romance and sex can happen while you’re saving the universe, during a quest for the amulet that will save your land from the vile beasties from the north, or while you are surviving the aftermath of a worldwide plague or nuclear war.
It’s ironic that the literature descended from purity, innocence and romance includes so much graphic fucking, while the literature once thought of as on a par with pornography remains relatively free of sexual, emotional and romantic conflict.
But science fiction romance does work. For an example, see In Enemy Hands, by K.S. Augstin, for one. It’s available as an ebook at Carina Press. The book should convince anyone that competently written SF and romance can blend into a story that satisfies readers of both genres. Sex in science fiction works, as well. See Larry Niven’s Ringworld, for starters.
Is there a taboo against romance in science fiction? Yes, but thankfully that hasn’t stopped many writers from incorporating it into their stories. This taboo appears to stem from some very deep-seated fears because the aversive behavior demonstrated by many fans extends beyond the quality or nature of the romance in question. In other words, romance of any kind, good or bad, of any degree, has been considered taboo in science fiction.
The forbidden nature of romance in SF seems to have resulted from several factors: discrimination against women SF authors (some of whom might have written more SF-romance blends if not for such an obstacle); historical segregation of romance and SF; and fear of genre dilution.
There are readers who don’t want romance in their SF-and that’s perfectly fine. However, I become concerned when some of them dictate it has zero place in SF and go out of their way to deride these kinds of stories. Science fiction is full of tales with action, adventure, mystery, and horror elements. I don’t see anyone complaining about those elements to the extent that they gnash their teeth and pull at their hair over a little romance. SF-romance blends are as valid as any other hybrid stories.
They’re also here to stay.
Including a romance in a science fiction story is one way to ensure that science fiction not only survives, but also reaches new audiences and new generations. I didn’t develop a love (!) for science fiction because someone handed me a hard SF story when I was twelve; rather, I got turned on to it by a romantic SF anime show that at one point featured walking, talking humanoid bee aliens! (Yes, I am woman enough to admit that.) My interest in SF with plausible science came later. But it was the relationships in the show that provided me with an emotional connection to the whole idea of “science fiction.” I cared about the characters, and so the science fictional elements then became relevant to me.
Blends of SF and romance explore what happens when science and technology impact our need for love and belonging. Such stories come in all flavors, shapes, and sizes, and I would like to recommend a few that illustrate an effective integration of science fiction and romance:
Catherine Asaro’s Alpha features a hot heroine android who discovers not only sentience, but also love with an intrepid military man who sees more in her than just an assembly of circuits. Susan Grant explores the darker side of both romance and alien abduction in Contact, a story about an airline pilot who falls in love with her captor.
Kristin Landon’s The Hidden Worlds blends smokin’ singularity action with a mature, subtle romance, and humanity’s future depends on the hero and heroine being able to negotiate a deep level of trust. Jess Granger’s hero in Beyond The Rain is a slave whose unique hormone is harvested as a narcotic, and his survival depends on the military skills of the emotionally guarded heroine-all as a civil war rages across the galaxy.
It pains me to stop there, but over at The Galaxy Express, we’re compiling a list of the “must-read” science fiction romances, so I invite you to check it out for more titles.
And speaking of bee people, for those who are adamant about keeping all romance out of SF, just remember: You’re more likely to attract others by spreading honey instead of vinegar.