News Ticker

SPECIAL ROUNDTABLE: Donna S. Frelick, Sharon Lynn Fisher, and Laurie A. Green Discuss the Rise of Sci-Fi Romance

Science fiction and romance have five things in common: 1) they’re both awesome, 2) they explore important issues of all kinds, 3) they have long and fascinating histories, 4) both enjoy high levels of mainstream visibility, and 5) they both become 20% cooler when combined in sci-fi romance.

With that in mind, I’m here to present a roundtable featuring three SFR authors for an in-depth look at sci-fi romance and what it brings to the speculative fiction table.

Donna S. Frelick, Sharon Lynn Fisher, and Laurie A. Green

Heather Massey of The Galaxy Express

Q: Ladies, welcome! Let’s begin with a bit of history. Where did science fiction romance (SFR) come from?

Modern SFR is widely acknowledged to have its roots in STAR TREK fan fiction, beginning even before The Original Series was canceled. Fans of the show saw all kinds of possibilities for romance for the characters, most notably Kirk and Spock—sometimes even Kirk with Spock!—and used the parameters of the TREK universe to tell their own stories with a strong romantic arc. I started out as a TREK fanfic writer myself. But traditional SF of the Golden Age had its own romantic elements, with the hero coming to the rescue of his spunky heroine—E.E. “Doc” Smith, Edgar Rice Burroughs and other pioneers of SF set the stage for James T. Kirk.

I’m in agreement on the early Star Trek beginnings for the lion’s share of today’s SFR writers. As a youngster, Star Trek (The Original Series) captivated me, but it sent me on a different path than penning fan fiction. It spurred me to join the Science Fiction Book Club where I devoured the works of classic SF authors like Ellison, Heinlein, Clarke, Bradbury and Asimov. But in many of these stories, something was missing for me. Though many had romantic partners, their relationship came secondary to the struggle to be won or problem to be solved.

Two books that really grabbed my imagination and opened the portal of possibility were Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey and The Ice People (la Nuit des temps) by French author Rene Barjavel. Finally! SF + Romance. Love in the distant stars. Love in an unknown future or a forgotten past. What exciting concepts!

Years (okay, decades) later when talking to other authors and fans of SFR, I found Star Trek and Dragonriders of Pern to be the most mentioned influences, suggesting they were both major factors in the development of Science Fiction Romance. I think the trend was inevitable. SF and Romance share the same DNA. At their very heart, both are about exploration and discovery. What surprises me is that SFR didn’t gain a stronger foothold much sooner.

Though I also watched a lot of Star Trek and read Dragonriders of Pern, for me it was really the original Star Wars trilogy that helped me see the possibility of SFR. Even so, I mostly stuck with fantasy until I started writing my debut, Ghost Planet. I didn’t even know there was a fiction category called “sci-fi romance.” When my first novel was named a finalist in RWA’s Golden Heart paranormal category, Laurie wrote about it on her blog, and that’s how I learned what genre I was writing!

Q: As paranormal romance gained popularity, sci-fi romance was frequently conflated with it. Readers, publishers, and authors lumped the genres together for the purposes of marketing, book labels, contests, and even story descriptions. To help clear up any confusion, what would you say are the key differences between SFR and PNR?

Biggest difference and easiest way to tell them apart: What happens in SFR must have a scientific explanation. What happens in PNR may have a supernatural/magic or other explanation. The scientific explanation in the SFR story might rely on “alien” or advanced (future) science, but it must be internally consistent (that is, it must make logical sense throughout the story). That’s why Superman would be SF, Dracula would be paranormal, and their romantic descendants would follow in their (literary) footsteps.

And let’s not forget Frankenstein, which is actually SF (arguably the first), though Hollywood has turned it paranormal. I would counterpoint to Donna that I think in PNR the magical system must also be internally consistent and make logical sense throughout the story. It just doesn’t need a scientific explanation. Finally, I think the boundaries are fuzzier than they used to be. My current release (Echo 8) could be called an SFR vampire story. And I’ve read recent PNRs that utilize some scientific explanation. (Darynda Jones’s grim reaper series, for example.)

Absolutely agree with you on Frankenstein, Sharon, the foundation of the mad scientist trope!

Q: Do you think SFR has begun to diverge from PNR into a more distinct genre, both in terms of content and in the minds of readers? If so, what were the signs?

I think it has always been distinct for its readers and writers. It’s The Publishing Establishment that has found it so difficult to distinguish. For example, Diana Gabaldon is still tagged on Amazon as SFR, though she never offers even a hint of a scientific explanation for why Claire fell through those standing stones. Time travel=SF forever in some people’s minds.

I look at the 80s as the tipping point for the emerging genre. Though Anne McCaffrey released her first Dragonriders story in 1968, the trilogy and the bulk of her work came in the mid-to-late 70s. Along with it came the original Star Wars trilogy in 1977-83 with its Han-Leia pairing bringing a sudden new surge in SF+R interest. A steady up-tick in SFR or Romantic SF authors followed in the 80s and 90s with an explosion during the 2000s-2010s (see The Galaxy Express SFR authors-by-decades list).

But SFR still hasn’t achieved full separation. Because SFR is a niche genre, it’s often lumped with PNR or SF/Fantasy on many fronts—writing competitions, traditional bookstores, even e-book presses and major online retailers—as a grouping strategy. I think this tends to muddy the distinction in many readers’ minds and hasn’t helped SFR gain recognition as a distinct and separate genre.

Q: What have been some of the challenges you faced as authors/bloggers regarding spreading the word about SFR in a PNR world?

Well, there are advantages and disadvantages to being on the cutting edge of a new publishing trend. Yes, we are lumped in with the paranormal in contests, but we also have a chance to stand out as something different among all the werewolves and vampires and other, um, things. The three of us found each other early on, thanks to Laurie, who established first Spacefreighters Lounge, then the SFR Brigade, and asked us aboard. Online presence is not the problem now, with the enormous influence of blogs like The Galaxy Express.

SFR has always faced a dilemma in that it doesn’t have large enough numbers (yet!) to rate its own category on bookshelves or in award categories. It’s constantly tossed into the catch-all, and as a result confused with, PNR. Add to this how the literary world has long bundled SF/F (Science Fiction/Fantasy) together as interchangeable parts. I think this all feeds into the general confusion by the reading public about what delineates SFR from PNR. Many of us face situations where, upon explaining what genre we write, are asked, “Oh, you mean like Twilight?” I guess it’s no wonder readers are confused!

As proponents of the genre, all we can do is continue our quest to educate—one reader at a time. I think if SFR were to be boiled down to a one-word description, it would be “hope.” Because SFR requires a satisfying resolution, the technological or social problems are usually solved as well as the romantic conflict. It’s uplifting to believe there is hope in our future, and it’s not all gloom, doom and darkness.

The biggest challenge I’ve faced as an SFR author is connecting with new readers. There is a degree of resistance to reading sci-fi amongst romance readers (including PNR readers), and vice versa. I can’t tell you how many people who, after finding my book accidentally and deciding for some reason to give it a try, have said, “I don’t normally like sci-fi, but …” How do we persuade new readers to take that chance? It keeps me up nights.

In general I will say that romance readers seem to be more open to trying sci-fi than the other way around. (And when I say this I don’t just mean men v. women. I’ve read plenty of reviews from female SF readers who prefer stories not to include romance.) But this does seem to be subtly changing. With the release of my third SFR this month, I noticed it popped up in quite a few lists of anticipated sci-fi books, and the blogger didn’t find it necessary to include a cautionary note for the reader. That reminds me I want to say I’ve been very grateful to paranormal bloggers, who have in general been willing and eager to support my books as an extension of their PNR offerings.

Q: Very true–readers can’t read books they don’t know about. Plus, readers are sometimes hesitant to take a risk on something new to them. In light of those challenges, describe some of the strategies you’ve used to increase the sci-fi romance presence in the market as well as awareness of its existence.

Laurie’s been instrumental in increasing the SFR presence in the market with the creation of the SFR Brigade. Personally I’ve done well with contests, with the first two books in my SFR series, Unchained Memory and Trouble in Mind, garnering attention at the regional level and earning RWA® Golden Heart® nominations in 2012. I have a social media presence, through Spacefreighters and commenting on other blogs, that advocates for SFR. I’ll be part of an SFR panel at the RT Con in Dallas this May with SFR pioneer Linnea Sinclair, which will be fancifully titled “COOTIES IN SPACE: How to Keep the Romance Without Losing the Rocketships!”

I love the theme of Linnea Sinclair’s RT panel this year. It should be a very thought-provoking discussion in terms of all the great things SFR aspires to be.

My main thrust in getting SFR out to a wider audience was in founding the SFR Brigade community. The Brigade gave SFR writers, authors and professionals the opportunity to work together to build a greater sum than the individual parts in terms of raising up SF Romance as a unique reading experience. The idea was a direct result of some brainstorming between Heather, myself and several other writers. Since inception in 2010, it has propagated many methods to reach out and connect readers with the stories they want to read.

One of the biggest projects the Brigade undertook was creating a free anthology of SFR short stories with a range of flavors and settings—Tales from the SFR Brigade—as a way of enticing new readers to give SFR a try. Through blog hops, showcases, a library of SFR titles, regular SFR Brigade Recommends features, an active Facebook Fanpage, Twitter account, and occasional special events, the group works as a collective to promote SFR as a whole.

Several members also contribute to the annual SFR Galaxy Awards, which was inspired by Ursula K. Le Guin’s call for celebrating “… our writers continually and in droves.” The SFR Galaxy Awards recognize stand-out SFR stories in a wide variety of categories.

For readers, just finding SFR can be frustrating. We still encounter delighted new readers who didn’t realize SFR stories exist. A very recent development to help make the search more reader-friendly is the creation of a one-stop shopping site for quality SFR titles—SFR Station. Author Corrine Kilgore was instrumental in creating the site and populating it with genre-specific titles.

The group’s efforts have really helped raise awareness about SFR, but I also think the Brigade’s mission is far from done. The audience is out there. We just need to keep inventing new and creative ways to reach them.

Bravo, Laurie! And Veronica Scott of USA Today’s Sci-Fi Encounters, who also works tirelessly to promote and champion SFR.

Q: Vampires, zombies, and werewolves are super, but an oversaturated market can lead to fatigue. That’s when readers often begin the hunt for something new. What’s the appeal of SFR for readers who have had their fill of PNR?

The big appeal of PNR has been the alpha male matched with the resourceful (ie. “spunky”) female. SFR gives us all kinds of iterations of this trope—with starship captains, space pirates, lone wolf traders, long haulers, mercenaries, etc. in both genders and all combinations. For those PNR readers who love the “chosen” trope (fans of Christine Feehan’s Carpathian vampire series, for example), there are hundreds of alien abduction (to serve as his mate) stories. But the best SFR, like the best PNR, explores the often-wounded characters of its heroine and hero in an imaginative setting, allowing the reader to escape to another world. Maybe that world is light years away. Maybe, like in my debut novel Unchained Memory, it’s right here on Earth, with a challenge presented by an alien menace we had not imagined before we picked up the book.

PNR can take the reader to another world that might exist in place of, or simultaneously with, our “normal” world, a place with different abilities, rules or laws. SFR takes that idea and shoots it out of a laser cannon. How will (or did) science and technology affect our daily lives? Current disabilities might be done away with or even sought after as in The Ship Who Sang by Anne McCaffrey. Racial and gender biases may go extinct, only to see new prejudices and conflicts arise against human subspecies or alien allies á la Fortune’s Pawn by Rachel Bach.

We may encounter people from parallel universes that stretch our understanding of physics and interconnection as in Sharon’s Echo 8. Our past may hide great secrets we are yet to discover. Our future could reveal threats we can’t even imagine. Human beings are wired to explore, investigate and experiment. We seek answers. It’s what we do.

And wherever we venture in the space-time continuum, we won’t go alone. For us, the journey is as much about who we take with us as what we discover. That’s the spirit of SFR.

One of the main things readers love about PNR is exploring conflict in weird relationships. I’m oversimplifying, but look at Twilight’s hook: They can’t be together because he might eat her. And OH! She’s his favorite flavor. It’s not the type of conflict we get in our everyday lives and romances. SFR offers PNR readers a fresh take on that same theme. In Ghost Planet, the heroine’s dead (big obstacle), and in The Ophelia Prophecy the hero is a fierce human/praying mantis bio-tech mashup.

Look at The Last Hour of Gann! That hero is a giant lizard who thinks the heroine’s ugly. In Laurie’s Inherit the Stars … Okay, I can’t say. Too spoilery. But you get where I’m going. These all make for juicy conflict and incredibly interesting relationship dynamics—and a great place to go if you’re experiencing vampire or zombie fatigue.

Q: Tell me about your current releases–how do they illustrate what SFR has to offer?

Unchained Memory has two of the wounded characters I referred to earlier: a woman tormented by memories of an alien world and the man who risks everything to protect her. On the run from black ops kidnappers, they uncover a conspiracy of mind control, alien abduction and interstellar slavery. The story is mostly set on Earth, but our familiar world quickly becomes a landscape we don’t recognize, full of hidden threats and unexpected defenders.

Strange stuff happens, but I use believable science to explain it. That makes it science fiction romance, not paranormal romance.

Inherit the Stars is about one man’s attempt to escape sexual enslavement and the devastating loss of those he loved. To evade a galactic superpower, he strikes a desperate deal with the female captain of a prototype starship, and soon finds himself not only emotionally connected but fatefully entangled in her destiny–a course that will take him full circle to face the very evil he most fears.

The story differs from PNR in that technology and innovation work as catalysts for the characters’ interaction and growing attraction. The story wouldn’t gel without both the romance and the technological aspects present. The protagonists may have some truly nifty “powers,” but they are not based on magic, extrasensory perception or superhuman capabilities (unless made possible by technology). The characters are not bigger than life, but their technology often is.

Echo 8 is actually the most paranormal of the three books I’ve written. The heroine (Tess) is a parapsychologist working to save a man (Jake) dislocated to her Earth from a parallel universe, where his own Earth has suffered a devastating asteroid impact. On Tess’s Earth, Jake and others like him (Echoes) must drain energy from others to survive. So in a way this is a vampire story, but his dislocation and need to feed are explained scientifically via the scientist heroine. Speculative science, to be sure, but the story grew out of my research on quantum physics, string theory, and parapsychology.

Q: Donna, Sharon, and Laurie, congratulations on your new releases and thanks for sharing your insights on the sci-fi romance genre. Before we part ways, I have one last burning question for you: What’s an invention the human race will never, ever need?

A computer program that makes up stories. And if it already exists, we need a virus to destroy it!

TBR Assistant 1.0

  • Analyzes your TBR pile
  • Scans Goodreads and book blogs while you sleep
  • Your TBR grows by dozens of titles nightly!
  • Daily alerts keep you updated about estimated reading hours required for completion

Pet rocks. Oh, wait…

About Heather Massey (9 Articles)
Heather Massey searches for sci-fi romance adventures and writes about them at Galaxy Express 2.0 and Sci-Fi Romance Quarterly.
Contact: Website

7 Comments on SPECIAL ROUNDTABLE: Donna S. Frelick, Sharon Lynn Fisher, and Laurie A. Green Discuss the Rise of Sci-Fi Romance

  1. Excellent, wide ranging discussion! and thanks for the shout out to my US Today column too, Sharon 🙂 I think together all of us who write and love SFR are doing our best to help Readers find us and grow right out of the niche designation.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Veronica, and ditto what Donna and Laurie said! 🙂 It’s so wonderful to see SFR with a presence on HEA.

  2. Blogs like yours are huge, Veronica, because they help us reach out to a wider community of readers. The more people who find us, the better chance SFR will have of expanding beyond our current “solar system” into the broader galaxy of readership.

  3. I’m a huge fan of your column too, Veronica. And yes, what Donna said. The SFR community is actively seeking to expand its audience in the bigger universe of readers, and we really appreciate the reach of some of the larger broadcasters like USA Today Sci-Fi Encounters and SF Signal. They’re sort of like SETI for readers.

  4. I stumbled into SFR, too, Sharon. Really enjoyed the discussion and the interactive nature of it. It was listening in on you all sitting around and chatting. 🙂

    • Hi Pauline! So glad you stopped in. Heather did a wonderful job pulling all this together and I think our answers reflect how passionate we all are about the topic.

    • Thanks for stopping by, Pauline! It was a lot of fun to put together, and thanks to Kristin at SF Signal for her interest!

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: