A meaty topic today. I sauntered over to Heather’s blog, The Galaxy Express, where she’s been talking about science fiction romance this week. She talks about publishers here, and about categories of SFR here, and gave me lots to think about.
Maybe I’ll give her something more to think about here!
Once upon a time, I had a long chat with Anna Genoese, who at that point in time was just launching the paranormal romance line at Tor. The first three books were still in ARC’s and she was chatting me up. We ended up having this fabulous long discussion about publishing and books, and even though it was in the bar and got late, I do recall several interesting things she said.
The most important to today’s discussion was her distinction between futuristic romance and future-set romance. Futuristic romance, to Anna, was space operas and stories set in the future with space ships and laser guns. This is the genre that evolved out of Star Trek to my thinking, where the human stories are gripping and we don’t worry about gravity and hard science too much. The examples of romances she gave in this niche were Justine Dare’s LORD OF THE STORM, and a Jayne Castle (aka Jayne Ann Krentz) title that was current. She said she loved these books but couldn’t buy them because of Tor’s history and position as a science fiction house. (Interesting, isn’t it?)
Future-set, in her suite of definitions, was different because it included hard science. We talked about the science fiction authors in that category, because there wasn’t any romance falling into that subgenre at that point in time – Robert Heinlein’s THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS, anything by Arthur C. Clarke or Isaac Asimov, and of course, Philip K. Dick (whose DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP became the basis for the movie, BLADERUNNER). We talked about William Gibson, too, because I think JOHNNY MNEMONIC was out. A lot of those works were being made into movies, it seemed, which was an interesting trend, but their premises were based on hard science.
At the time, Anna was buying a lot of what she – and I – called fantasy romance. These were time travels and shapeshifter romances, vampire romances. I consider Dragonfire, for example, to be fantasy romance because the heroes are not just shape shifters but dragons, and dragons are permanent fixtures in the fantasy genre. We had a talk about a book I had been thinking of writing, but was as yet a glimmer in my eye, and part of the reason that my fallen angels finally got on the page was that chat with Anna.
No surprise then that she loved even the first version of FALLEN. The first version of this book that went out to editors was structured differently than the version that was printed – originally, it was a mystery with a romance subplot, as well as both those fantasy and science fiction elements. Anna was crazy in love with the book, while others were spooked by the combination of radiation poisoning and angels. It was a question of marketing – it couldn’t be sold as SF because of the angels, and couldn’t be sold as fantasy because of the radiation. Anna wanted to sell it as mainstream SF but couldn’t build the necessary support to make the deal. I had thought that it was in the lineage of Laurel K. Hamilton and even J.D. Robb, but we had a long discussion about the intricacy of my worldbuilding and how that was different from those two authors. It was a really interesting discussion. (The worldbuilding was much more prevalent in that version, btw.)
In the end, I suggested to Anna that I invert the story, making it a romance with a mystery subplot and she offered for it immediately. (Then she quit. I try not to take that personally! LOL) Evidently the distinctions between SF and fantasy are less critical if the whole she-bang is under the romance umbrella. I also believed that from a marketing perspective, Tor would be the most at ease with marketing science fiction elements. (Bingo. The covers, I think, say it all. Wow.)
Markets morph and change all the time, and categories of fiction are fluid. They change based on what’s popular and what’s selling, and they change to reflect popular culture (because popular fiction is a facet of popular culture.) And so it is that Anna’s definition of future-set romance has pretty much been lost in the wash – I’ve only ever heard the distinction made by her – and that all romance set in the future, whether SF or fantasy or space opera, is labelled “Futuristic”.
And I, of course, have a Theory about this. It’s hard to place a romance including hard science elements, but the stumbling blocks, in a way, are familiar ones. One of the things I find frustrating as a reader with a great deal of paranormal and fantasy romance, independent of the setting, is the simplicity of the world-building. Having read science fiction and fantasy for years, I’m expecting quite an intricate and well-conceived world, if the world is not my own. I expect the author to have figured out where the leather jackets and the steaks come from, if the society in question is vegetarian and is only capable of raising vegetables hydroponically. That kind of thing.
But I believe that there is a resistance to this level of detail in romance (mostly from editors and publishers, because there hasn’t been enough published in this subgenre for the reaction to be from readers) because this level of worldbuilding diminishes the focus on the characters. That’s what it’s believed the reader is reading the book for, after all. There is the ghost of that old adage of writing to a grade eight reading level in romance and also the injunction in historical romance – which wasn’t originally the case but became the case in the 1990′s – against the inclusion of history religion and politics. When you think about it, these are facets of the same concern: history religion and politics in an historical period are the same kind of worldbuilding details, which again, can detract from the focus on the characters and their conflict.
(And those of you who visit here often already know my Theory that the whole historical fiction with a female protagonist genre, which is chock full of history religion and politics, as well as passion and even sex, and which didn’t exist really as a genre 15 years ago, is bought by those historical romance readers who WANTED history religion and politics with their human stories, thank you very much.)
I suspect that the other issue in placing science fiction romance is that future-set societies based on hard science often depict dystopias – i.e. societies that are gritty and a bit depressing – and that those sorts of settings have become tougher to sell in the romance genre. Over the last twenty years, romances have moved from more challenging settings (Africa in contemporary settings, or wartorn locales in historical settings) to safer locales and situations closer to home. This is probably a reflection of contemporary concerns in some way, but the fact remains that a dim view of the future is less palatable in a genre that celebrates the positive and the optimistic view. The rough terrain in a romance is more likely to be the emotional minefield between the hero and heroine, than a physically or socially challenging setting.
Phew. More of a rant than I’d expected. So, what do you think? Do you read science fiction romance? What do you consider to be science fiction romance? Futuristic romance? What do you like about science fiction or future-set romance? What do you dislike about it?
Next week we’ll talk about urban fantasy romance a bit…