Cecilia Tan writes about her many passions, from fantasy to baseball, from her home in the Boston area. Her latest book is The Poet and the Prophecy, the final volume of the Magic University series. Her other books include the award-winning Slow Surrender, Daron’s Guitar Chronicles, and The Prince’s Boy. She has edited over 50 anthologies of erotica for Red Silk Editions, Thunder’s Mouth Press, Blue Moon Books, Masquerade Books, Ravenous Romance, and for the publishing house she founded, Circlet Press. Her short fiction has appeared in Ms. Magazine, Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, Best American Erotica, and many other places.
by Cecilia Tan
Back in the nineties I spoke on many panels at sf conventions about “genre crossing” and “genre blending.” At the time “fusion cuisine” was becoming a thing, with chefs mixing Asian, Mexican, and other influences with “traditional” fine dining. Remixes in music (the word “mashup” wasn’t in yet) were also rising, and cross-genre covers, like reggae bands covering synthpop, were the rage.
In other words, postmodernism had arrived in popular culture. The panels at science fiction conventions were about elements of mystery, romance, and erotica seeping into sf/f, but osmosis went the other direction, too: this was when paranormal romance began a meteroric rise, and more time travel and alien “Star Man” stories crept into romance.
Twenty years later mashup culture is an entrenched thing. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a thing. There’s a LEGO Harry Potter video game. The thing to understand about mixing genres is that, like with fusion cuisine, if the creator doesn’t have a firm grasp on all the elements going into the recipe, it’s a mess. Fusion is hard.
When I told people I was putting erotica and sf/fantasy together in 1992, the most common response was, “You mean like alien anal probes…?” I can’t exactly blame people for this reaction since a trip to the adult video store (remember those?) looking for “sci-fi” yielded the worst cliches of science fiction melded with the worst porn. I tried to explain to people that my goal wasn’t to combine the worst aspects of both genres, but to supplement what was missing from each one with the other—to result in something fresh, new, and good.
Twenty-three years later, I’m pleased to say it’s now commonplace to mix erotica with other genres. What was once exotic, misunderstood, or even feared (sushi is raw fish?! you’re going to actually eat that hot pepper?!) is now a staple on menus. But erotica is still a challenging ingredient to work with. Put in too much sex and your book can actually get boring. Likewise if the characters are too busy saving the universe to have sex, you’re probably not writing erotica. How do you get the balance right?
For me the essential key is make sex an integral part of the plot. In writing the Magic University series, I had an obviously fertile setting–college–for sexual experimentation and coming-of-age themes, hence the label “New Adult.” Having a MAGIC university landed me in “Contemporary/Urban Fantasy.” Kyle’s decision to study sex magic steered us right into “Erotica.” And my decision to have Kyle’s heroic quest be a search for true love (rather than defeat evil), made it definitely “Romance.” Through four novels and one short story collection I satisfied the needs of all four genres. Kyle finds himself (New Adult) through magical sex (Erotica) so he and his true love (Romance) can save the world of magic (Fantasy).
I think the book also counts as “science fiction” i.e. mimetic fiction based on worldbuilding. As Melissa Scott’s book on writing science fiction Conceiving the Heavens says, the necessary ending for a given genre is often about the status quo. In science fiction the status quo changes from the beginning of the book, whereas in a mystery it is restored (the culprit brought to justice). A love story where the couple does not get together is not a romance; a crime story where the crime is not solved is not a mystery. By this logic, if you have a worldbuilding-based setting where nothing changes, you haven’t successfully fulfilled the narrative imperative of science fiction. I thought, surely in my nice little urban fantasy I’m not going to have a massive change?
Nope. One of the major underpinnings of magical society will be flipped upside down as a consequence of Kyle’s heroic actions. So there you have it, Magic University is science fiction, too. I’m working on a series for Tor Books now that is very similar, The Vanished Chronicles, drawing together elements of urban fantasy, secret history, erotica, and romance. I don’t think the world will be irrevocably changed by the time I’m done, but who knows? I’m a “discovery” writer. I may yet surprise myself.