Last week, we talked about paranormal romance and the ways in which it uses longstanding cultural archetypes (vampires, werewolves, etc.) to explore power, sexuality, and possibly even deeper existential themes. But speculative fiction is composed of both fantasy and science fiction, and speculative romance is no different. So how does science fiction romance differ from its more fantastical cousin?
|What’s the difference|
Perhaps the most important difference is not creative, but commercial: spaceships and aliens apparently move fewer books than do vampires and werewolves. Paranormal romance authors like Charlaine Harris and Stephenie Meyer are household names. Why then are such great science fiction romance authors as Catherine Asaro or Lois McMaster Bujold relatively unknown outside of fairly specific fandoms?
I think the reason for this discrepancy stems from three inter-related factors: audience, archetypes, and accessibility.
Romance Readers and Science Fiction Reading Protocols
It stands to reason that if as many people read science fiction romance as read paranormal romance, the two sub-genres would have equal sales and be equally well-known. But there is a significant difference in the two audiences, which I believe stems from the archetypes each sub-genre relies on and their impact on accessibility.
Paranormal romance appeals to three groups of readers: those who enjoy speculative fiction, those who enjoy romance, and non-readers who consume pop culture in other mediums. Popular television shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Vampire Diaries, True Blood, etc. are bringing the conventions of paranormal romance into the mainstream, and educating each of these three groups about the reading protocols necessary to enjoy the mashed-up genre.
As Linda Barlow and Jayne Ann Krentz point out in “Beneath the Surface: Hidden Codes of Romance” (one of the great essays collected in Dangerous Men and Adventurous Women: Romance Writers on the Appeal of the Romance), the often-derided, often-purple prose of romance is itself a convention, a code for communicating with the romance cognoscenti: lush words and phrases used to describe a character act as signals for the reader, allowing a fast contextualization of that character’s role in the story, which helps the reader to form expectations about them.
Speculative fiction – and the more magical sort typically featured in paranormal romance – has its own set of reading protocols, often centered around the world-building employed to make the fantastic accessible. As Samuel Delany points out in “About 5,750 Words” (a classic essay of SF criticism collected in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction), the science fictional interpretation of such sentences as “The red sun is high, the blue low” demands a different imaginative and cognitive process. This process is learned, albeit often self-taught. And within science fiction, there remain gradations and variants of this interpretative process: fantasy and horror rely on a particular set of conventions which are different from those that apply to science fiction.
As paranormal romance gets increasingly mainstreamed, it is simultaneously educating the potential audience about both romance and fantasy. In a sense, it primes the pump from both the romance and paranormal ends: romance readers are gaining the imaginative vocabulary necessary to interpret fantasy, fantasy readers are gaining the reading protocols to enjoy romance, and non-readers are learning to consume both.
|Where’s the love?|
But while recent years have seen popular science fiction programming (Lost, Doctor Who, Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek, Marvel’s The Avengers, etc.), these programs were never romance-oriented. Thus, even though science fiction programming has become popular enough to enter the mainstream, its action orientation fails to communicate the romance reading protocols necessary to enjoy science fiction romance. It might teach people how to consume science fiction, but it falls short of teaching them how to consume science fiction romance.
The reasons for this discrepancy are likely complex and varied, but I think at the heart of it they stem from the cultural legacy and resulting familiarity of the archetypes employed in paranormal romance. Science fiction – and science fiction romance – doesn’t (yet) have such a longstanding history.
The New Archetypes of Science Fiction Romance
Vampires, werewolves, witches, etc. have a significant legacy in Western culture, and are firmly entrenched in popular consciousness. Even the most culturally unaware understand the rules by which vampires operate (although Twilight’s sparkly vampires may erode this familiarity for the younger generations).
Vampires in one form or another span almost all cultures, and stories featuring them (and their psychosexual symbolism) date back thousands of years. The spaceships, aliens, psychic powers, and interstellar war featured in the works of Catherine Asaro, Heather Massey, Jacqueline Lichtenberg, Jayne Ann Krentz, or Lois McMaster Bujold have a much shorter history: as archetypes go, they’ve only been around for most of the past century (with the original incarnation of Amazing Stories a major factor in their popularization).
Most science fiction romance devices – in particular spaceships, the pilots/captains who fly them, and interstellar empires – trace a clear lineage to earlier action adventure fiction, which gives them a common heritage with much rather-anachronistic historical romance. While starships and intergalactic war are relatively new devices, the character devices they produce are strongly reminiscent of older traditions.
Consider Heather Massey’s Once Upon A Time In Space, which explicitly features an explorer (Nick Venture) and a pirate (Racquel Donovan). While the novel is set in the distant future, the fact that the hero and heroine have their adventures in space is almost incidental to the novel’s structure. If the bones of the story were pulled back to the seventeenth century, the story’s underlying structure would still work. Stories like Jayne Ann Krentz’s Lost Colony trilogy, Diane Dooley’s Mako’s Bounty, or Kris DeLake’s Assassins in Love all bring their romance into adventure stories with elements reminiscent of H. Rider Haggard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, or their adventurous contemporaries.
A similar observation can be made about either Asaro’s Skolian Empire Saga, or Bujold’s Lois McMaster Bujold: their plot structures and character archetypes draw heavily from historical romance (Jo Walton has drawn clear parallels between Bujold’s Vorkosigan romances and Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances) and action adventure, although they notably use science fictional conceits to explore or highlight themes otherwise inaccessible in a historical setting.
It is this use of science fictional devices to explore power beyond the sexual dimension which sets Asaro and Bujold’s work apart: both use technology (medical technology in particular) to explore the boundaries of personal agency, and its social, political, and psychological implications. This is a powerful technique with roots firmly in science fiction, but while such a science fiction laden approach may appeal to readers experienced and comfortable with science fiction reading protocols, it may be off-putting to those less comfortable in that genre. Both Asaro and Bujold moderate this risk through their narrow focus on the personal implications of their science fictional devices, which invariably tie back into their character development and perforce their character’s relationships. Asaro in particular, by incorporating psychic powers into her Skolian Saga comes closest to the intensely personal, powerfully emotional, and easily accessible devices so commonly found in paranormal romance.
As archetypes go, psychic powers are the area where science fiction romance most closely mirrors its paranormal cousins: the themes explored by works like Nalini Singh’s Psy-Changeling series, Jacqueline Lichtenberg’s far earlier Sime-Gen stories, or Sharon Lynn Fisher’s Ghost Planet all focus on the power dynamics between emotions and actions among individuals and social groups. Metaphorically, these themes are not dissimilar to those explored by the use of vampires, werewolves, ghosts, and shapeshifters.
I have a hypothesis – though I lack the sales data to back my hypothesis up – that those science fiction romances that are modeled more closely on their supernatural cousins may be more popular than their more hard science fiction/adventure-oriented siblings. If that is the case (and that’s a big IF), then I suspect it stems from the relative accessibility of the archetypes and devices used.
The Accessibility Challenge of Science Fiction Romance
Some might argue (and I’ve done so myself, here) that through the increasing popularity of science fiction in pop culture, the devices and archetypes of science fiction are gradually being made universal and universally accessible. But while many of the fictional devices traditional for science fiction (“warp drives”, “laser guns / plasma cannons”, “cryosleep”) can now be easily understood even by non-science fiction readers, they are not yet so universal as to grant science fiction authors an assumption of familiarity.
While taken on its own, every reader might intuit the meaning of Catherine Asaro’s science fictional portmanteau “biomech”, the term itself is meaningless without the social and political context she establishes in Primary Inversion. The science behind Asaro’s “inversion” process – through which the starships featured in her Skolian Empire Saga can travel faster-than-light (technically, through which they can get around the restrictions on speed imposed by special relativity) – while unimportant through the reading protocols of romance, remains a core component of the novel’s science fictional conceits. Yet the same elements that are intrinsic to the novel’s reading as science fiction may represent a turn-off for readers unfamiliar with science fictional reading protocols.
Lois McMaster Bujold adopts a very different approach in her Vorkosigan Saga, which itself is far more complex than Asaro’s work. While the saga’s first novel (chronologically and in publication order), Shards of Honor combines in equal parts elements of a traditional romance structure with those of military science fiction, most of the other early books focus on the development of science fictional conceits before introducing more overtly romantic dimensions.
This almost-sequential approach enables Bujold to establish the technology and social mores of her fictional future, which in turn are used to strongly affect the development of her primary hero: Miles Vorkosigan. As an exploration of power, Bujold builds a rich and complex power dynamic early on, and explores in equal fashion the political, social, cultural, and gendered dimensions of that dynamic.
A romance reader who approached many of the earlier Vorkosigan works, or who began reading one but never finished, could be forgiven for not realizing that the series as a whole can be considered science fiction romance: the way the novels are constructed makes them seem heavily science fictional in nature, requiring science fiction protocols to interpret the story long before any romance protocols are employed. Yet taken as a whole, the Vorkosigan Saga can be interpreted as a science fiction romance, exploring the relations and power dynamics among several generations of the Vorkosigan/Naismith family.
Both Asaro and Bujold write science fiction romance in the purest sense. While many of their stories’ militaristic devices hearken back to action adventure traditions, they cannot be divorced from either their science fiction or romance components. However, by developing the romance elements in parallel to their science fiction counterparts, Asaro has gained more acknowledgment amongst the romance community: she has won the Sapphire Award twice, the RT Book Club Reviewer’s Choice Award for Best Science Fiction Novel three times, the Affaire de Coeur Award for Best Science Fiction twice, and been nominated for a RITA award at least once. From a science fiction standpoint, her work has been nominated for the Hugo three times, the Nebula five times, and has won a Nebula twice.
Bujold, by contrast, developed her science fictional and romance elements in sequence rather than in parallel, and many of the books in the Vorkosigan Saga (taken individually) lack significant romance of any kind. As a result, she has received far more recognition from the science fiction community: as far as I could find, her Vorkosigan books have
not been nominated for any romance awards , yet she has won five Hugos, three Nebulas, and three Locus awards (with six other Hugo nominations, and five other Nebula nominations).
All of this suggests that the necessity of establishing science fictional conceits, and satisfying the world-building demands of science fiction readers, makes science fiction romance less accessible to a romance-derived audience than its supernatural cousin. In essence, science fiction has yet to become as “mainstream” as the supernatural found in paranormal romance.
Yet there is a third approach, a way around the accessibility challenges inherent in constructing a science fiction romance perhaps best exemplified by J.D. Robb’s In Death series. As I discussed last week, much of the paranormal romance genre adopts noir-inspired conventions by way of romantic suspense and thus obviates the need for the world-building used in secondary-world fantasy. Despite already using long-established archetypes and symbols, this structure helps make paranormal romance even more accessible by establishing well-grounded plot and character expectations.
While both the action/adventure so often found in science fiction romance and the noir/suspense seen in paranormal romance have long traditions, the action/adventure tradition is far more varied and diffuse. Noir and suspense have developed a far more stable and recognizable set of conventions, which are in turn used and repeated across literature, film, and television. As a result, the reading protocols of noir/suspense are more solidly developed, which leads to a larger potential audience that I believe science fiction romance has left largely untapped. J.D. Robb’s (aka Nora Robert’s) bestselling and award-winning In Death books capitalize on this noir/suspense tradition, rather than on the action/adventure found so often in science fiction romance.
Ostensibly, the books are constructed as a classic police procedural mystery. Were it not for their futuristic setting and the technology used by the characters, the stories would not be out of place in any mystery or romantic suspense section. The heroine, Eve Dallas, is a classic police procedural detective, with a clear lineage traceable back to Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski (the same V.I. Warshawski who was so critical in Laurell K. Hamilton’s creation of Anita Blake).
As far as accessibility goes, the science fictional devices at work in the In Death books take a backseat to the suspense/mystery devices. As a result, the stories are perhaps amongst the most accessible science fiction, in that they use archetypes and conventions familiar to readers/viewers of mystery, suspense, and the long-standing and popular noir tradition. In essence, Robb builds on the already-mainstreamed reading protocols of noir and mystery, adding a light sprinkle of science fiction for a little flavor.
Considering the porous borders between so much science fiction and noir, and romance’s own long-standing love affair with mystery and suspense, it is surprising that more science fiction romance authors haven’t adopted this approach. It is one that has worked well for paranormal romance (as I wrote about last week). And if, as I wrote last month, there is nothing inimical about noir and science fiction, one would think that the same archetypes and conventions could be more readily adopted by science fiction romance.
Paranormal romance has clearly benefited from a ménage of genres, so why not science fiction romance?
Coming Up Next Week…
Next week, I’ll be wrapping up the Crossroads romance series by looking at how speculative fiction incorporates elements of romance, taking a specific look at the works of Mary Robinette Kowal, Anne Bishop, M.K. Hobson, and Saladin Ahmed. ‘Til then, what are some of your favorite science fiction romances?
Great post. It's sad to see that sci-fi romance isn't as popular as it could be, as sci-fi offers so many interesting possitilities to the romance genre. So many different ways to get your characters together, or keep them apart.
I'm hoping that my sci-fi romance will appeal to readers who don't normally read sci-fi. The sci-fi elements (space travel in my case), are relatively soft. I think that perhaps the language often used in sci-fi novels can put of a lot of readers who aren't as up on the tech speak.
Sorry I didn’t return sooner! Thanks for your insights.
>So how does SFR increase buy-in to post-Christian, post-patriarchal, post-Western fantasies
Very carefully, LOL! Plus a few decades of blood, sweat, and tears.
Some of it is easier to do than others (patriarchy, unfortunately, is so hard to shake—and I’m speaking as a reader. I need to question it more often when I see it.). Also, compelling characters doing interesting things in a way that encourages readers to take the chance. That said, it might take a hundred authors writing a thousand stories to come up with just the right combination. Or maybe the culture needs to shift more in a direction that supports the artistic endeavors.
As for specific titles, there aren’t many in terms of what a story does as a whole (compared to my experience of encountering post- this or that element sporadically across a number of books) but here are the ones that came to mind:
Stellarnet Rebel by J.L. Hilton—this story features an alternate romance in terms of structure, culture, etc. Probably the one I’d recommend the most.
Melisse Aires writes stories with a “hearth and home” emphasis. IMHO the couples aren’t complete without their extended families. Refugees on Urloon and Starlander’s Myth in particular.
Europa, Europa by KS Augustin—hero and heroine are genetically engineered and kind of comprise their own culture. The story isn’t long enough to explore the implications but I enjoyed what’s there.
Ann Somerville’s work. Specifically On Wings, Rising, which subverts many things but I particularly liked what she did with the humanoid hero. I’m currently reading Cold Front and it’s in this camp as well.
Erica Anderson’s erotic sci-fi romance The Antaren Affair has some interesting elements along these lines but they’re buried awfully deep and some of them are by implication only. Hard to explain without going into spoilers (and my impressions are hugely subjective with this one.).
Anyway, that's my list FWIW. I hope to discover more as I keep reading.
Just a quick heads up, Heather Massey has written an interesting response to this piece over at The Galaxy Express.
Lois McMaster Bujold posted on her blog about this post:
And her link to her awards, including a couple of romance ones (1999 for A Civil Campaign and 2004 for Paladin of Souls) is here:
I'm a fan of Bujold and got sent here by her post above –I'm not an author.
I like your theory about why paranormal romance has mainstreamed but SF romance not so much. Makes a lot of sense, speculative fiction does have a lot of tropes and assumptions that need to be absorbed before they can be enjoyed. I'm a long time speculative fiction reader (and romance reader, got into both as a kid) and find it takes much more energy to get into a new speculative fiction work than a new romance. Speculative fiction romance that has its roots more in the romance (Nora Roberts, for example) takes much less energy than the speculative fiction romance with more science-y roots (Bujold). Though I'm a huge fan of Bujold, so that gets read automatically.
On the other hand, though I've seen Catherine Asaro's work mentioned repeatedly with Bujold's and been recommended, I just haven't picked it up. Didn't look very appealing when I've had a brief look.
But with all the media attention, I have ended up reading the Twilight books, Hunger Games, 50 Shades, etc. Just to see what they're all going on about. 🙂
Ack! Thanks for pointing that out. It figures that with all of the research I've been doing for these posts, I would miss the prominently-labeled "Awards" link. 😉 I'll fix it shortly in the post. Nice catch!
Not a problem! Lois actually put the link to her own awards in her post on her blog and said she didn't feel like having to register and log in to point it out.
I thought I might help her out and point it out to you instead. So I didn't catch it myself, she did. 🙂
I enjoyed reading the article, definitely made me think. 🙂
I'm glad that you enjoyed the article! And thanks to both Lois for catching my blunder, and to you for registering and letting me know (I just fixed it).
And here's another comment from merriank (from here) which raises some interesting questions about the border between space opera and SFR:
Here's another comment from merriank (left at my blog):
Part of the difficulty with this discussion is that we aren't making a distinction about the types of stories we are talking about. Here are the standard definitions as established in Eighties by those of us in this market.
Futuristic romance. An historical romance set in the future. You can change the space ship captain to a pirate captain, and the story can still be told. The driving plot is the romance.
Science fiction romance. The driving plot is the romance, but the story can't be told without the worldbuilding of the science fiction novel.
Science fiction with a romance. The novel's plot is driven by science fiction elements, not by the romance.
Authors like Catherine Asaro, Linnea Sinclair, and Lois Bujold write science fiction with romance. Susan Grant and Jayne Anne Krentz write science fiction romance. Futuristics are not very well-represented these days, but any of Dorchester's line of books of this type were all futuristics.
As to the future of this market, there may be hope in young readers. Wildly popular dystopias like THE HUNGER GAMES are science fiction even if readers don't know it so we have a whole new group of readers.
I read the reviews in the teen section of "RTBookclub," and I'm seeing more and more straight up science fiction young adult novels being offered. Whether these books will be a success isn't evident yet, but they do offer hope that our next generation of adult readers will be open to science fiction romance.
Thank you, Chris, for this excellent and insightful post. Those of us who write SFR struggle to find that balance between the SF'nal elements and the romance elements, intertwining the arcs in a way that will keep our audiences turning pages until the emotionally satisfying ending. The problem has always been that we walk a fine line between boring the romance readers with too much SF tech and making the SF readers roll their eyes with too much relationship "drivel". Part of it, as you say, is that the language and story conventions are different for the two audiences, but I think we've had too few writers familiar with (or willing to use) the conventions of BOTH genres to use them successfully. SF writers and romance writers too often look at each other across a gulf of –to put it nicely–misunderstanding.
The best and most successful SFR writers–those you have named in your post, as well as Linnea Sinclair, Susan Grant, Gena Showalter, Angela Knight, Alexis Morgan and others–write to the conventions of both SF and romance and, in particular, capture the expectations of their romance readers without losing the respect of readers familiar with SF tropes.
Thanks, Donna! Glad you enjoyed the post! I think you're absolutely right: finding the balance between SFnal and romance elements is the tricky part, and – while I can't discount the possibility of some writer stumbling onto a healthy balance through happy accident – I suspect it's more likely to come about as a concerted effort for mutual understanding. The conventions and tropes of both genres aren't in opposition, necessarily. But finding ways for them to unify and enhance each other on both emotional and intellectual levels certainly isn't easy. Those wishing to write SFR have a better chance of success if they do their homework, regardless of where they're coming from. 🙂
merriank made another great comment over on my blog, which I'll quote in full here:
Also, here's the reply that I posted over on my blog:
Another great post, Chris, and another great graph 😀
You strike a note of optimism that more science fiction romance authors could achieve success by limiting their use of sfnal tropes to window dressing, in the same way that paranormal romance uses its fantasy elements as fairy dust to make the same old stories sparkle. I expect you're right and we're likely to see more of this.
But for it to happen we'll need sf romance authors who don't come from an sf background.
The problem is the point you touched on WRT Heather Massey: "If the bones of the story were pulled back to the seventeenth century, the story’s underlying structure would still work."
Who was it who said, "If you could tell the same story without the science fiction elements, you're not writing science fiction"? I want to say it was Damon Knight. He said so much good stuff.
And I think this is a cardinal imperative for most sf authors. They (and I) believe that if you shove the sf into the background to make way for noir, romance, or what have you, you're not writing science fiction anymore. You would just be writing romance with sf facepaint on. Which is worth doing for its own sake, I suppose. But sf authors won't do it.
So, I agree we will see more successful science fiction romance authors–but they will be ROMANCE authors who decided to ring the changes by making the alpha werewolf an studly alien instead.
Hey. I think I just found the format for my next bestseller 😛
Heh. 🙂 I think that slavish attention to genre conventions – whether SF or romance – does any creative work a disservice. Whether SFR success comes to romance authors who venture into SFnal galaxies, or to SF authors who venture between the sheets, I think the key is always going to be to develop a solid union between the metaphors, devices, and structures employed.
As merriank points out in her comment above, alpha werewolves are more than just strong-jawed studly folks who get hairy once a month. They are a device through which certain cultural interactions are dramatized. Aliens may be used in the same way, but they aren't the same, and they raise different questions and introduce different implications.
It is that understanding of their implications that makes them an effective device. I think that such an understanding can be achieved coming at it from either the SFnal approach, or the romance approach. But however we get there, if the understanding of implications (beyond the merely sexual) is there and adequately explored in terms of structure and aesthetics, the resulting work will simultaneously be good SF and good romance.
So sure, the format for your next besteller might just work! But it's got to be well executed, however it's approached. 😀
Regarding sfnal tropes/worldbuilding, as with everything else in fiction it's a subjective issue. Some people will think an author's worldbuilding and/or concepts is too complex while others find it lacking. Some readers are willing to tackle a steep learning curve while others prefer to be broken in gently.
Yes, some authors have gotten sloppy or use minimal SF elements. But for every author who goes that route, there will be readers who enjoy the story just fine.
Given that readers have such varied tastes, how will an author know the "right" amount of setting detail to include in her story? She can't please everyone. Inevitably, somebody somewhere will be disappointed one way or another.
The great thing about having numerous authors writing numerous stories is that readers have choices. If you want complex worldbuilding/science fictional elements in your SFR then those books exist. Want stories that are more plot or character-driven? You can read those, too. I see it not as one-size-fits-all but rather let's have enough choices available to meet a variety of needs.
Is there room for improvement in science fiction romance and is it advantageous for authors to consider issues like plausibility and depth of worldbuilding? Absolutely. If enough of them do it, would SFR become more popular? I don't know. But there are multiple factors at play. The window-dressing issue is simply one of them.
>But for it to happen we’ll need sf romance authors who don’t come from an sf background.
I come from an sf background and so do many other authors writing SFR. What we read and what we choose to write can be two different things. And sometimes a professional chef who works in a five star restaurant just wants to make a piece of toast for breakfast. There's nothing wrong with toast.
I'm all for more SF authors writing SFR (more for me to read, heh!). If they do so, I hope they're as familiar with romance conventions as they are with the SF ones, because in the case of hybrid stories like SFR, both are important to the story.
Heather – Thanks for joining in the conversation! Your point about hoping that SF authors writing SFR are "as familiar with romance conventions as they are with the SF ones" is, I think, particularly important. It is so easy for those of us who write in a particular genre to favor it over all others – to think that it is The Coolest, The Most Fun, and The Most Intelligent of all genres – that we can easily miss the strengths, techniques, and conventions of others. If SF writers approaching SFR look down on romance, can we effectively write it? I somehow doubt it. And the reverse holds just as true: romance authors who fail to respect SF traditions will run into just as much trouble.
Coming back to add that I might have misinterpreted this statement:
>But for it to happen we’ll need sf romance authors who don’t come from an sf background.
I started thinking of my *reading* background in SF. To clarify, I don't have an sf *writing* background as in I wrote traditional SF stories. Also, I inadvertently missed the "don't" part of the statement and responded accordingly. My apologies. Need moar coffee.
I've been watching the sf romance market since its first novel, the truly horrible MOONDUST & MADNESS, was published in 1986.
I wasn't very surprised that the market didn't take off because, back then, science fiction wasn't mainstream, particularly for women, and the few novels published in this genre were dreck from a science fiction point of view with everything from info dumping to poor science to "Mars needs women" plots unworthy of a bad B movie.
Most of the novels were what we called "futuristic" novels which were historical romances set in space, and the science fiction worldbuilding, etc., were just window dressing.
A few authors like Jayne Anne Krentz, aka Jayne Castle, really knew what they were doing and had read science fiction, not just watched a few episodes of STAR TREK. Unfortunately, not even Krentz' constant presence on the NEW YORK TIMES bestseller list with her other contemporary, romantic suspense, and historical romances, didn't improve the popularity of the science fiction romance.
About every seven years, a few futuristics would appear, then the market would disappear.
Surprisingly, although science fiction media became mainstream and adult readers who had grown up watching STAR WARS were big readers, the market for these books still didn't improve.
Then, in the early 2000's, writers like Susan Grant and Linnea Sinclair began to write science fiction romances set in the present day where sexy aliens live among us. These books were as close to finally creating a viable genre as we've ever had.
My STAR-CROSSED was published about the same time, and it became the seed for not only showing that traditional action/adventure science fiction and romance could exist in the same books, but also that the digital market was the new home for this kind of niche market.
In the last five years, those writers who were so popular have about disappeared, and the market is about gone.
These days, science fiction romance mainly appears in erotica as window dressing for the sex, and there's still no real market for these books.
The use of SFnal themes as window-dressing is a subject that all of the comments keep coming back to, and I think that it is the key to unlocking SFR's sales potential. Which isn't to say that I advocate using SF as window-dressing: getting the SF elements right is just as important as getting the romance elements. But the key difference, I think, is that PNR utilized (a) a stable and developed set of psychosexual metaphors (vampires, werewolves, etc.), (b) a familiar plot and aesthetic structure (noir/hard-boiled detective fiction), and (c) massively popular support from non-literary pop culture (Buffy, The Vampire Diaries, True Blood, etc.). By combining those three elements, PNR was able to become incredibly accessible, which is a prerequisite to popularity (and the commercial success which follows).
SFR hasn't quite found the mix that would let it develop similar popularity, and I think that's because (a) its metaphors are still too new culturally, and so unstable, (b) it hasn't embraced familiar plot/aesthetic structures, and (c) it hasn't had the non-literary pop culture support that PNR got. I think that figuring out a good mix of these three elements would go a long way to breaking SFR out of the erotica aisles and into more mainstream consumption.
>(a) its metaphors are still too new culturally, and so unstable, (b) it hasn’t embraced familiar plot/aesthetic structures,
I agree with those observations. One of the reasons SFR hasn’t embraced familiar plot/aesthetic structures is because it’s carving out new ones. That approach creates a learning curve for readers, sometimes a steep one when you take into context which kind of stories (on the romance side) are selling the most currently.
Take the idea of virginal heroines. Unless an author is creating a specific culture to make a virgin heroine in the year 3050 plausible, in the case of futuristic settings it’s actually more plausible to develop a romance where the sexual journey takes place when a heroine is sexually experienced.
What if the characters lived in a society where technology made birth control 100% effective and risk free for both men and women? How might that affect how heroines approach sex? What would heroines do with that kind of freedom? Would sex cease to become a forbidden fruit?
In some ways, it’s similar to the idea of a historical romance wherein a virgin heroine is able to have sex with the hero in some way, e.g., forced seduction, marriage, being a widow, etc. In the eyes of the reader, a heroine has freedom to have sex without repercussions or judgment.
But if technology levels the playing field and empowers female characters, it introduces a whole new set of dynamics. A heroine isn’t dependent on marriage (if that’s part of her belief system) to have a fulfilling sex life with the hero. Slut shaming becomes a thing of the past. Legislation that blames victims of rape becomes unheard of. Etc.
The sexual journey aspect of the romance then shifts from “I’m having a great first sexual experience/sexual awakening” to something along the lines of “sex is great and wow, I love how my romance with this particular partner enhances it in a new, exciting way.” Those are two different fantasies.
But it goes beyond virginal heroines. People of color. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, & queer characters. Heavyset heroes and heroines. Characters with disabilities. Marginalized people/beings of any kind—SFR offers a chance for readers to engage in a host of new fantasies. Fantasies that are divorced from, say, a Christian world view. Or a Westernized view. Or a patriarchal view.
So yes, in terms of the fantasies being offered (not necessarily sexual ones), SFR may be ahead of its time.
Yet some authors of SFR *have* been embracing familiar plots/aesthetics/characters. Nina Croft, for example, is writing a series featuring a vampire hero in a space opera setting. Tina Christopher as well. Melisse Aires has a story with a shapeshifter heroine. My guess is that authors who incorporate paranormal characters in a futuristic/alternate tech based setting are attempting to ease the learning curve for romance readers for whom SFR is a new frontier.
For all I know those stories and other like them are selling like hotcakes, but are the paranormal-based characters helping SFR break out in terms of mainstream success? Are fans of Nalini Singh flocking to science fiction romance because she mixes telepaths and shifters in a near future setting? To what extent does SFR need to emulate paranormal romance on a more regular basis in order to stay viable vs embrace its own unique aspects? I’d wager there are pros and cons to both strategies.
This is a really interesting question. I don't necessarily think SFR should emulate PNR's devices, rather I think SFR could instead learn from PNR's methods. Yes, vampires, werewolves, etc. are stable metaphors that are culturally accessible with fairly well-defined dynamics. But rather than lift them wholesale from PNR and stick them in futurustic / alternate settings, I think SFR would do better to find its own set of accessible metaphors and plot devices.
Doing so would help differentiate it from PNR, while simultaneously establishing a set of conventions for SFR to build from. Of course, that is much easier said than done. 😉 Dragging PNR devices into an SFR environment may help make a story accessible, yet I think it introduces a variety of tensions into the story (almost all centered around the challenge of plausible world-building). As you say, there are pros and cons to both strategies, but for SFR's long-term health I think it needs to develop its own set of accessible conventions.
I think that one of the ways for SFR writers to do this is to separate the plot devices from the underlying metaphors. One can make the plot arc recognizable and accessible even while working with "new" metaphors: I think one of the secrets to PNR's success is the degree to which it leaned heavily on noir/suspense devices in its plot constructions. I'm not saying necessarily that SFR should use noir/suspense (though I think it's notable that Robb's In Death series does), but that plotting conventions can be just as important to accessibility as metaphor and theme.
>it needs to develop its own set of accessible conventions
Agreed. This is an area where strategic risk-taking and experimentation come in. One of the advantages of SFR being so niche is authors have lots of freedom and the opportunity to pioneer that "set of accessible conventions." I would love to see more authors take advantage of the creative tools at their disposal. They can't control the market or reader taste, but they can decide which stories to write. That's where their power and influence lie.
Heather, I'm so excited you joined in the discussion! Your and Chris's observations about the metaphors of SFR being new and unstable in comparison to those of PR/UF are bang on and this is a very important point IMO. But here is where we wander outside of the aesthetic frame into the tangled weeds of morality, don't we?
As many have pointed out, although I can't think who right now, the sexual morality of PR tends to be conventional–even retrograde. All those virginal heroines forced to have sex against their will. Happy endings generally taking the form of marriage outright or by any other name. TWILIGHT e.g. is about as reactionary as it gets–and this I think goes a long way to explain its broad cultural appeal. As you observe, most of the public still hasn't caught up with the leading edge of post-Christian morality. At least in their fantasy lives, most romance readers dream of getting happily married, full stop–or so I assume, given that that's what sells.
So how does SFR increase buy-in to post-Christian, post-patriarchal, post-Western fantasies that, rather than amplifying readers' dream lives, echo the realities of their actual lives (promiscuity, contraception, family breakdown, globalization, shift from status system to contract system cf. Henry Sumner Maine etc. etc.)? Seems to me that it would be hard to avoid striking a note of Nietszchean despair. I would not like to attempt it myself but I would like to read an SFR that in your opinion succeeds at presenting this type of fantasy as desirable. Any recommendations?
Given these hurdles it does seem that the writers you reference (Croft, Christopher, Singh) may be onto the best way to ease readers gently along the learning curve into the future. But THE HUNGER GAMES suggests another perhaps equally winning approach–embrace dystopia and pit old-fashioned morals and mores against the future in all its post-everything pomp.
My heart goes out to authors who have worked extremely hard–decades in some cases–to entertain readers with SF-romance hybrids/futuristics/SFR. I salute their efforts and perseverance and am glad of the opportunity, through my blog and other forums, to keep their titles circulating in any way possible.
It's not been easy for them, and the frustration level must be astronomical at times. No wonder some authors have disappeared or gone in other directions.
>In the last five years, those writers who were so popular have about disappeared, and the market is about gone.
If by market you mean mainstream print, then yes, it's pretty much non-existent. However, SFR is picking up speed in the digital realm. Baby step speed, but the momentum is there. Ebooks have been great for SFR, yet the transition period–still ongoing–created other obstacles (lack of wide distribution and marketing being the two most significant).
>These days, science fiction romance mainly appears in erotica as window dressing for the sex, and there’s still no real market for these books.
Even so, there are more options today than just a few years ago for authors who want to write and submit non-erotic SFR. More publishers are creating digital-first lines (or expanding them, in the case of Grand Central's Forever Yours), and many epublishers will consider non-erotic stories in this subgenre. I know–publishers accepting them is a whole 'nother can of beans. But the opportunities exist.
Of course, even with more digital-first options on the scene, there are still the issues of distribution and marketing. The ebook market is fractured and the onus of marketing has shifted to authors, who of course don't have the budget of a Big Six publisher. Those two alone are huge obstacles and have very little to do with story content. Lots of things can sell well if they're marketed effectively. Crack those nuts and SFR might have a fighting chance.
Persevere. Adapt. Cross our fingers!