Crossroads: Is this a Kissing Book? SFF’s Relationship with Romance

Whenever I think of speculative fiction’s relationship to romance, I am always reminded of that scene in The Princess Bride where Fred Savage’s character interrupts his grandpa and – voice dripping with scorn – asks: “Is this a kissing book?” The implication is that romance is antithetical to the cool stuff at the heart of a good story, namely the action, the fencing, the adventure. Romance – this opinion holds – just gets in the way, slows down the action, and adds little of value to the story. It is easy to condemn this view as narrow-minded (and it often is) yet I think it derives from a fundamental disconnect in the structural use of romance in science fiction and fantasy. The Princess Bride: Is this a Kissing Book?

Science Fiction and the Philosophy of Love

Science fiction’s history is firmly rooted in the pulps, which were explicitly targeted towards young men and adorned with famously lurid covers (as MD Jackson wrote about a couple of weeks ago). Early science fiction derived many of its conventions from the action/adventure genre, which itself treated romance and love in certain fairly proscribed fashions. With few exceptions, early science fiction would use romance (if at all) as a reward in the dénoument (the “hero gets the girl”), as a device for motivation (the hero needs to save the girl), or as a thinly-veiled vehicle for didacticism (this type of love/sex/relationship is good/bad).

The Skylark of Space by E.E. Doc Smith

Stories like E.E. “Doc” Smith’s The Skylark of Space (originally serialized in Amazing Stories) set the tone by adopting an essentialized, simplistic, and emotionally superficial relationship between the hero and his love interest. The focus in these stories was on the technology and the adventure, turning the love story into a convenient device to help move the plot (but not the character development) forward.

When we think of science fiction’s problematic relationship with romance, it is these pulpy adventure-oriented stories that spring most readily to mind. With blatant sexism and cardboard characterization, they feature the social mores stereotypically (and sometimes – though not always – justly) assigned to the world of science fiction. When many think of science fiction’s approach to emotion or romance or love, it is these stories and their problematic nature that they think of. Yet the reality is more complex, and the use of love and romance in science fiction a little more varied.

As the genre grew more sophisticated (particularly in the works of Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, Alfred Bester, and Robert A. Heinlein) romance came to signify more than a convenient plot device. Orwell, Heinlein, Huxley, Bester, and the like began to use sex (notably distinct in their treatment from love) as a symbol for more fundamental philosophical themes.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley 1984 by George Orwell The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester

Huxley’s Brave New World (easily one of my favorite science fiction novels), set the stage: it lacked the juvenile and superficial exploration of theme characteristic of contemporary pulp SF, and instead explored philosophical themes of sociological, philosophical, and economical significance. Sex, in Brave New World, was more than a mere plot device, as the act and Huxley’s characters’ attitudes towards it are central to the novel’s philosophical conjectures.

Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein The Female Man by Joanna Russ Her Smoke Rose Up Forever by James Tiptree Jr.

Much of the science fiction which followed – whether Orwell’s 1984, Bester’s The Demolished Man, Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, or later works like James Tiptree Jr.’s (aka Alice Sheldon’s) “Love is the Plan the Plan is Death” (recently collected in Her Smoke Rose Up Forever) or Joanna Russ’ The Female Man – tended to use sex and love as an explicit model for philosophical values. Yet in all of these examples – including Huxley – the romantic and sexual relationships and the underlying emotions less focus than the philosophical concepts they symbolize.

The philosophical questions which the romance genre would leave between the lines as subtext, science fiction traditionally makes explicit. The effect is to keep emotions at an intellectual distance, and to frame their exploration in terms of feminism and sociology rather than romantic love.

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

Though no doubt some of science fiction’s stereotypical disdain for romance can rightly be blamed on narrow-mindedness, at least some portion of it derives from this tradition of giving intellectual philosophy primacy over emotion. However, works like Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War began to shift this balance, and more recent works tend to use romance very differently.

When I look at works like John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, Rudy Rucker’s Mathematicians in Love, or Madeline Ashby’s recent vN I see a fundamentally different approach to love and romance. These stories rarely use their romantic relationships as tools of explicit philosophical didacticism, instead relying on them to deepen the reader’s understanding of the principal character.

vN by Madeline Ashby As a result, they rarely tie into the story’s driving conflict. Their love stories become a B-plot, a device through which the author can more deeply explore a character’s emotions without interfering with the core narrative’s action. When done well, this serves to ground us in the character and engage us more deeply with the story’s fictional world. When done poorly, as comments on earlier posts in the series noted, it can bring the action of the story to a grinding halt.

Structurally, it leads these more modern science fiction love stories to more closely resemble the subtextual exploration of relationship dynamics traditionally found in the romance genre. Stylistically, however, all of these stories (old and new alike) are presented in an aesthetic firmly rooted in science fiction’s mimetic tradition. The lush language characteristic of the romance genre – the same language which serves as code to accelerate the formation of romance reader expectations – is utterly absent from the science fiction landscape, unless one looks to the science fiction romance we talked about last week.

Fantasy, Subtextual Love, and Explicit Power Dynamics

Though fantasy shares a pulp history with science fiction, it has had a much closer relationship with romance. Historically, I suspect this stems from fantasy and romance’s shared roots in medieval sagas and even earlier myths. Yet regardless of the reason for it, the fact remains that fantasy has traditionally used romance differently from science fiction.

The most important difference, I believe, is that fantasy rarely adopted the tone of philosophical didacticism which dominated mid-20th century science fiction. As a consequence, its philosophical and thematic explorations needed to be more carefully grounded in the story’s subtext, which means more fully expressed through the characters’ emotional and active development. The two fantasists who best established this tendency were, in my view, Fritz Leiber and Andre Norton.

Fritz Leiber stands out for elevating sword-and-sorcery beyond pure adventure. Though at first blush his Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser may seem to be adventurers in the same vein as Robert E. Howard’s Conan or Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan, Leiber explicitly built them to be more complex and multifaceted. Their capacity for romantic love is one of their defining traits, however tragically cut short in their first appearance. As Leiber’s stories progressed, the characters matured and evolved beyond mere roguish adventurers, with romantic love a key way of expressing that maturation.

Andre Norton was a far more prolific writer than Leiber, and her prodigious output had an enormous influence on several generations of fantasists. She built on Leiber’s development of complex, multifaceted characters and explicitly introduced devices and conventions from the romance genre into her works. Her Witch World series – which explicitly explores themes of gendered and sexual power – is perhaps the defining forerunner of romantic fantasy.

The Gates to Witch World by Andre Norton

The first novel in the series – Witch World (which was nominated for a Hugo in ’64 and recently released in the omnibus The Gates to Witch World) – is significant for establishing the world-building intrinsic to the series’ overarching conflict. The parallel world in which the stories take place has magic, but it is magic that is exclusively performed by virgin women (a construction later inverted in Ursula K. Le Guin’s early Earthsea novels). Norton initially explores this environment through the eyes of a Simon Tregarth, a man from our world, who finds love and builds a family amidst the adventure and war of Witch World.

The importance of Norton’s Witch World novels for romantic fantasy cannot be overstated. They established the now-universal alignment between world-building, romance, and the power dynamics both explore. In Witch World, Norton solidly establishes a robust secondary world with complex and functional social interactions, communicating the existence of extensive history and cultural development. Such world-building is a core component of fantasy, and Norton uses this world-building to set the frame for her exploration of power and gender dynamics.

The love story between Simon Tregarth and Jaelithe aligns with and operates exclusively within the confines of that world-building: Norton’s skilled world-building imposes limits on their romance, establishes tension to their relationship, and provides deeper insight into both characters.

By further aligning the story’s action conflict with the sexual and gender power dynamics at play within both the world-building and the Tregarth/Jaelithe relationship, Norton succeeds in fusing the action, themes, and characters together through the use of romance. This makes for excellent writing, but more importantly also established a canonical approach that later authors – like Lois McMaster Bujold, Mercedes Lackey, and others – would follow.

The difference between Norton-esque romantic fantasy and the contemporary science fiction of the time lies in the reader’s emotional distance. Norton’s books – and those she later inspired – elided the emotional distance so common in science fiction. Her books explicitly dealt with themes of gender and sexual power dynamics, exploring them through metaphors of magic, consent, and rape. This was serious philosophical analysis, yet emotionally accessible in a way that much science fiction of the time was not.

Magic's Pawn by Mercedes Lackey

Mercedes Lackey I think deserves special discussion because she not only followed in Norton’s footsteps in exploring gender power dynamics, but likewise explored questions of sexuality at a time when doing so was rare in literature (let alone in fantasy, which was often was perceived as “for children”).

I first picked up Mercedes Lackey’s Magic’s Pawn when I was eleven, and so her Last Herald-Mage trilogy was without a doubt formative in my early reading of fantasy. While a recent re-reading lets me recognize their weaknesses, these books (and the other Valdemar books that precede and follow) remain startling and laudable for their emotional power and matter-of-fact approach to sexuality. While Lackey’s love stories tend to skew more tragic than Norton’s, she likewise aligns the tensions in her romance with the tensions in the story’s wider conflict, leading to an often simultaneous resolution of both.

This is unification of world-building/romance/conflict extends fantasy’s appeal far beyond the boundaries of the core fantasy audience. It is closer to the close perspective so typically found in romance, and it leads to a visceral engagement on the reader’s part with the characters, their narrative arc, and the world they inhabit. In romantic fantasy, it is the standard mode:

Anne Bishop uses it in her Black Jewels trilogy. Jacqueline Carey relies on it in her Kushiel’s Legacy series. Mary Robinette Kowal does it in her Glamourist Histories. M.K. Hobson uses it in her The Native Star. All of these authors – and many more I have not listed here – explicitly explore gender roles and power dynamics in either a small or large scale, and do so using the same strategy of thematic unification. Yet while this structural approach is applied universally in works of romantic fantasy it is likewise found in the best non-romantic fantasy.

Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

Consider Saladin Ahmed’s debut Throne of the Crescent Moon, a non-romantic action/adventure fantasy closer in kind to Fritz Leiber’s work than Andre Norton’s. The central conflict of the story – a mystery/adventure with the world itself at stake – is not romantic in the least. Yet the narrative arc of the central character is centrally concerned with the tension between love and duty, and the various character relationships in the book all model and represent different phases or aspects of that tension (last year, I wrote a whole essay on this subject alone called Romance as the Emotional B-Plot in Speculative Fiction).

Happily Ever After?

Yet despite the frequency and facility with which fantasy incorporates elements of romance, a question remains: why does supernatural fantasy (as opposed to the more heroic/epic flavor) dominate paranormal romance?

For one, much romantic fantasy features ambiguously happy endings. The optimism so beloved of the romance genre is muted in these works, partially because they often make their power dynamics so explicit. By explicitly modeling complicated fictional gender, class, and social relationships, romantic fantasy establishes larger barriers to a clean happy ending.

In much traditional romance, a happy ending is relatively plausible due to the happy marriage/union of a pair of anachronistic individuals. The world around them may be oppressive, but they will happily live together by their own rules. This is a common trope in much romance. However, when the action-plot of a romantic fantasy explicitly concerns itself with the secondary world’s imbalanced power dynamics, it is hard to offer the story’s heroes a “simple” happily ever after.

Even if – as at the close of Norton’s Witch World series, or in Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels trilogy – the power imbalances are fundamentally realigned, it would be implausible for all the world’s injustices to be rectified overnight. Romantic fantasy tends to concern itself simultaneously with highly focused, individual concerns (the love story itself) and with wide-scale, epic conflict (the locus of the lovers’ adventures).

Such epic conflict rarely gets resolved neatly, and this presents a fundamental challenge for fantasy’s alignment with the romance genre’s sensibilities. It is not, however, an insurmountable challenge – yet it is one which rests more in the hands of publishing houses’ sales teams, publicists, and booksellers than in the hands of the genre’s authors.

Fantasy has had a closer relationship to romance than science fiction, yet both genres clearly benefit from romance’s emotional intimacy and philosophical opportunities. Science fiction, in particular, can benefit from this emotional intimacy, and I hope to see this trend accelerate in coming years. The romance genre, I think, can in turn benefit from the more explicit exploration of power dynamics which science fiction and fantasy’s secondary worlds can offer it.

Both speculative fiction and romance have spent much of their histories in the literary ghetto, but they are rich, enjoyable, and incredibly satisfying to read. Even though they always bring to mind The Princess Bride‘s question of “Is this a kissing book?” I am encouraged by the fact that at the end of that story – a story that is itself centrally concerned with True Love – the young boy doesn’t mind the kissing so much. And that, I think, is something the whole genre can learn from.

Next Week…

Well, that wraps up my month-long series of posts on the romance genre. I hope you’ve had fun reading these posts (I certainly had fun writing them!). Next week, we’ll be kicking off the next Crossroads series looking at the relationship between Westerns and Speculative Fiction.

Until then, what do you think of speculative fiction’s relationship to romance?

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  1. Thanks for this series of articles, Chris. I've enjoyed them.

    In Norton's first "Witch World" novel, I though it quite telling that Jaelithe is supposed to lose her power when she has sex with Simon, but, since it is both consensual and loving, she keeps her power.

    Fantasy has been enriched by female writers with their more intimate viewpoints and emphasis on character, and female fantasy writers have often had their training in romance which has a robust teaching system through RWA and various online teachers.

    Narrative in most genres has become increasingly intimate and sensual as in the senses, not sex, and most readers seem to want this. The vast majority of readers is also female.

    It would be a great pity if science fiction and its community refuses to change enough to embrace this kind of narrative technique as well as a larger audience.

    1. You're absolutely right! Thankfully, I think SF (and its community) are both maturing, and they are becoming much more comfortable with intimate and sensual (though not necessarily sexual) narrative description. I hope this trend continues, since it only increases the tools at writers' disposal within genre. At the same time, it might hopefully help ease the accessibility burden and attract new audiences.

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