Science fiction romance – caught between a rock and a hard place

Talking about what constitutes ‘romance’ seems to be a bit like climbing over the fence into the lions’ compound knowing they haven’t been fed for a while. But I have to say I find the debate a little bit perplexing when it comes to the genre I mostly write – science fiction romance.

couple on the beach silhouetteOn the one hand, the born-again romance readers insist that without a HEA (happily ever after ending, for those not in the know) or at the very least a HFN (Happy For Now) then the story doesn’t qualify as ‘romance’. On the other hand there’s more than a suggestion from the science fiction fraternity (I use the word deliberately) that all that soppy love stuff doesn’t belong in science fiction.canstockphoto19778842

I’m not really a romance reader and I’d be the first to say that my stories are SF action/adventure with a strong romance arc. Mostly. I think. And we get back to the old question of genre.

Back in the very recent past we didn’t have a science fiction romance genre. You had a choice: science fiction or romance. So you took your chances. Have your book panned by the hard-line SFers who didn’t want any of the smulchy squishy stuff, or have your book panned by the romance die-hards who protested your story wasn’t a romance because it wasn’t the raison d’etre of the plot.

Let’s consider my latest effort, Crisis at Validor, because… just because.

Is it a romance?Picture of cover for Crisis at Validor

I’ve included the Romance Writers of America definition of romance.

Two basic elements comprise every romance novel: a central love story and an emotionally satisfying and optimistic ending.

  • A Central Love Story: The main plot centers around individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work. A writer can include as many subplots as he/she wants as long as the love story is the main focus of the novel.
  • An Emotionally Satisfying and Optimistic Ending: In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love.

Romance novels may have any tone or style, be set in any place or time, and have varying levels of sensuality—ranging from sweet to extremely hot. These settings and distinctions of plot create specific subgenres within romance fiction. Click here to better understand the subgenres within romance.

Is it a love story? Yes. Two people who had been in ‘love’ in their teens meet up and find the ember still glows

Is it the main plot arc? I believe you can tell this by asking the question – if you take out the romance would you still have a story? And the answer to that (IMO) is also yes. (But the romance raises the stakes for both parties)

So it’s not a romance, it just has a romantic arc with a couple of non-specific squishy scenes. I think.

Is it science fiction?

Is it SF? When we’re discussing speculative fiction (which we are) Orson Scott Card gives a very interesting definition of the difference between science fiction and fantasy. “If the story is set in a universe that follows the same rules as ours, it’s science fiction. If it’s set in a universe that doesn’t follow our rules, it’s fantasy.” “How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy” p22. On that definition Crisis at Validor certainly is SF.

Is it hard SF? No, it’s not. It’s space opera which the purists consider to be ‘soft’ SF. But it is SF, with non-humanoid aliens with their own politics and their own problems, space ships, inter-planetary travel and the like. There’s no magic, even if inter-planetary travel is pretty slick. If you want an explanation, see my post on planet hopping.

But I’m sure as hell certain that with that cover and that romance arc, it won’t be popular with the ‘straight’ SF community. I recently saw a request by a prominent SF writer (female) who is collecting data for a degree. She wanted the names of women who have published in science fiction since 2000. That’s fine – but she very specifically states that she doesn’t want straight science fiction romance.

And that, folks, sums it up for me. Pick your cliché

  • rock and a hard place
  • devil and the deep blue sea
  • out of the frying pan into the fire

The fact is, we have to pick a genre when we publish. I’ve opted for the soft and squishy SFR option – and I firmly believe that if you can classify Romeo and Juliet, Gone with the Wind and Doctor Zhivago as ‘romances’ then there’s room for romance arcs that don’t necessarily end up as HEA or HFN. I’ve said before I see the SFR genre as a continuum, and I hold to that view. There’s room for all kinds of nuances on that line.

I’d love to hear your take on this debate.

Posted on January 20, 2015, in On writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. I agree that you label clearly, Greta.

    There are some readers who don’t want to read away from their most enjoyed genre but I’m sure there are also heaps of readers who don’t mind having a little SciFi in their Romance or vice versa.

    Of course, you can try to only write Romance or only SciFi just to see if you like that too. I say write what you want.

  2. You label, appropriately, Greta. I’m not going into the Morgan Selwood books I have expecting the romance to be front and center. You’re very clear about what you write.

    My issue is when the author is NOT clear on what they’re writing and fails to set expectations accordingly. Don’t lie to me about what I’m about to read just so you can make a sale to a romance reader. And likewise, don’t lie to the SF fan so you can make a sale to them.

    • Thanks for stopping in Rachel. I’m glad I label clearly. But I still think the labelling can be problematic. Simply because it is a combination of two genres. And I’ve always had a problem with the RWA’s definition of romance. I also have a problem with the SF community’s definition of ‘hard SF’.

  3. I’m a huge science fiction fan and I enjoy writing romance so it’s the perfect combination for me- but the occasional reader does have an issue.

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