Science Fiction Romance

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…

15 thoughts on “Science Fiction Romance

  1. Well, my antispam word is animal. ;-)

    Okay, glad you did this, Deb. Actually this also ties in to the discussion at Goodreads, where we’re not only kicking around where SFR belongs, we’re seeing readers log in who don’t even know it exists. ::sigh::

    IMHO a lot of this is caused by lack of/improper/confused marketing on the part of publishers and a lack of support elsewhere for the subgenre because of the lack of marketing support.

    **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. **

    It goes back to Mary Jo Putney’s “limited real estate” analogy. Any given author has, say, 110,000 words in which to complete a novel. The more sub-genre expectations you throw in there, the less each part of the story gets in terms of space allotment.

    However, if you recognize that you’re doing a character-based novel–and they’re not restricted to romance anymore–then you simply have to figure a way to integrate those other reader expectations–world building, historical accuracy, whatever–into characterization (assuming characterization is your focus).

    When you think that in real life we are–to a great extent–products of our environments, integrating characterization and world building is not all that odd.

    But you’re going to risk writing fat books. :-)

    And yes, I do prefer politics and religion and cultural issues in my historicals.

    Swain* writes (about story worlds):
    a. your reader has never been there
    b. it’s a sensory world
    c. it’s a subjective world

    What that means to me is that even if you’re writing about Naples, Florida, USA in 2009, and even it that’s where I live, seeing Naples through a character’s eyes/viewpoint (subjective) will likely show me some element of Naples I’ve never seen. And the only way you can do that is by giving me details.

    (*Dwight Swain “Techniques of the Selling Writer”)

    **the distinctions between SF and fantasy are less critical if the whole she-bang is under the romance umbrella.** It can be but it can also skew reader expectations. Some romance readers have a hard time with the possibility of “science” and IMHO misinterpert just what that means (again, because SFR isn’t marketed properly).

    LOVED FALLEN. But you know that. ;-) ~Linnea

  2. Superb article! Brain exploding with excitement!

    My antispam is “pray” and that’s highly appropriate given that I am praying SFR gets the break it deserves.

    Can’t respond at length momentarily but I will return tonight. I also will link to this post and Linnea’s Goodreads discussion asap since it ties in with this.

    Thanks, Deborah, and well said!

  3. Linnea! How wonderful that you dropped by – and thanks for the long and insightful comment. (Don’t you have a deadline, girl? One way to build more support for SFR is to write more of it, and yes, I’m looking at you. LOL!)

    A couple of distinctions. Selling a book is a two-step process, even though we use the same verb for both. Let’s simplify by talking about “placing” a book in terms of selling it to a publisher, and “marketing” when we mean presenting it to readers. The two are linked, because publishers acquire works that they believe readers will pay to read, but the concerns are slightly different. And this is because publisher demand follows reader demand – essentially publishers need to see that a genre works (i.e. generates cash) in order to not only acquire work in that genre or subgenre, but to spend money on marketing it to consumers.

    So, SFR needs a big fat #1 NYT success in order to prove its viability as a niche – and also to provide an example of what works, just as Kathleen Woodiwiss’s THE FLAME AND THE FLOWER started a publishing phenomenon in historical romance. And just like Woodiwiss’s TFATF, it won’t be immediately clear what elements of the book or of the marketing ensured success – first we need the success, then the marketing will be refined over time.

    So, Linnea, #1 on the NYT. You first or me? :-D

    I think though that there is coming to be less resistance to fat books, courtesy of the popularity of paranormal romance. Those books in linked series keep getting longer – each one is fatter than that last, and that’s true of mine, too – but I’m not hearing any protest from the houses on that. “It’s what readers want” is what I hear, and the house is prepared to make it work. So I don’t believe that a fat book is a problem, although maybe the first one in the series should come in a bit slimmer.

    You don’t have to sell me on detailed worldbuilding. It’s what I love as a reader, no matter what the setting is. Naples 2009? How does that breeze off the sea taste? I want to know.

    Hi Heather! Thanks for stopping by, as well. I’m looking forward to your thoughts.

    SFR is a new subgenre – it’ll take time to get established, but I think it’s going to come on really big. I used to work with an editor who always accused me of being 5 years too early – so, I wrote FALLEN the first time in 2005. We’re coming into the window of opportunity…ooo, that was so Arthur C. Clarke, don’t you think?

    d

  4. **So, Linnea, #1 on the NYT. You first or me? **

    You, my dear. I don’t have the print runs for it.

    Bantam’s mantra is “we print low but we reprint often.” Honest. That’s a quote. And you know without a certain numerical print run–which I don’t have–you can’t make the “lists” which don’t award spots based on longevity or total sales overall but sales that first week (or two).

    So I’m not even in contention.

    A nice fat Hollywood SFR movie would do it too, IMHO. I know Star Trek’s new version is out in May, I think? I’m hoping that spurs some interest. ~Linnea

  5. This is a fascinating discussion. As a long time reader of science fiction I can only lean in the direction of ‘future-set’ not ‘futuristic’. If the world-building doesn’t have some semblance of scientific accuracy it just takes me out of the story. I can’t speak for anyone but myself but in the past few years my reading choices have shifted to urban fantasy and paranormal, both with and without romance because they are character driven and I had become bored with the ‘big idea’ story that still so much dominates the SF genre (at the risk of over-simplification), usually lacking in sufficient characterization to engage my interest. There are too few books like Fallen which to me is a successful mashup of SF, urban fantasy and romance. It has elements of everything I like. I have also read several of Ms Sinclairs SFR novels and thoroughly enjoyed them because they are also carefully blended SF and Romance. I still love my SF but I want more of what the UF and PNR writers are doing with their characters. World-building is essential and big fat books are just fine with me.

  6. Just jumping in, no particular order.

    Looking back, paranormal romance benefited from Buffy + Anita Blake + more mainstream acceptance of graphic sex scenes + Alpha males (and to my knowledge Christine Feehan’s work had a significant amount of influence, being on the market when the other elements had had time to cook). No one could have predicted all of those elements coming together. Sex scenes aren’t going to help sell SFR or propel it to the top of bestseller lists (or fantasy romance, for that matter). It’s already been done—it’s not new/fresh anymore.

    I agree that large print runs, a break out book, and a move/television show would help. But on the other hand, SFR has the potential to have such variety in the stories that it almost defies any kind of breakdown.

    I love SF most for the sense of wonder factor. With SFR, I experience emotional satisfaction from reading about how the hero and heroine fall in love against all odds (Linnea had described it in those terms, I think).

    No matter what book I read, I get a different universe or a different world each time. I feel like I’ve been transported somewhere unique for a time, and the romance anchors that experience and offers me a filter through which to experience the strange new worlds.

    Regardless of whether one comes from an SF or a romance background, a reader has to on some level want the unexpected in order to enjoy these types of stories. I think the paranormal romance & urban fantasy booms have shown that some readers had a disposition for something adventurous even if they weren’t aware of it.

    Because of that, SFR has the potential to appeal to adventurous romance readers, jaded romance readers, and from the SF side, readers who enjoy character driven stories. The core SFR fans are those who have been reading/watching and gravitating toward these types of stories even before there was a name for them.

    But it’s not just the setting that’s unexpected. The story structure in SFR is often unexpected. So are the worldbuilding, the characters, and the source(s) of conflict. This is a genre that at its best, takes risks with those elements (this a mere echo of Claire’s wonderful post). But trying to market “risk”? Oy! Clearly, all the authors have been down that tumultuous road.

    >worldbuilding diminishes the focus on the characters.

    This is an area where I think readers will either adjust their expectations or they won’t. It’s not a plot structure that will appeal to every romance reader, which I perfectly understand.

    Although one pet peeve of mine is when a romance is focused on the relationship but there’s wasted space allotted to repetitious passages or scenes that don’t move the story/romance forward. Talk about focus of diminishing returns…!

    >those sorts of settings have become tougher to sell in the romance genre.

    And if those are the main types of stories being submitted to publishers, I can understand the resistance. There’ve been several online articles/posts over the past six months about even SF being skewed toward grim futures.

    But that’s an area where SFR could distinguish itself, if writers were of a mind to really explore the depths of the SF subgenres. I love starships and space battles, but I enjoy other settings as well and would read a non-space based/non dystopian SFR in a second.

    >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.

    Hm, you’ve hit upon a reason I really enjoy a romance with SF. I realized I enjoy reading about a physically/socially challenging setting, and the romance serves as an oasis for me. A respite. A reason to hope that the external conflict will be resolved so the hero and heroine can live happily ever after. So for me, I’ve inverted that basic structure, at least when it comes to SFR. When I read a historical, though, it’s different: I *do* have the expectation of the “emotional minefield between the hero and heroine.” Interesting. Will have to ponder this further.

    Thanks for the insight about historical romances. I sure hope the unspoken rule against history and religion elements in those stories changes or at least softens.

    >Some romance readers have a hard time with the possibility of “science” and IMHO misinterpert just what that means (again, because SFR isn’t marketed properly).

    I agree. I think many readers sell themselves short on what they can comprehend, but also the larger shadow of hard SF lingers to intimidate readers as well. Other than say “SFR is accessible in a way some straight SF is not” I’m still contemplating how to convince potential readers of this aspect.

    Because of word limits, for example, there just isn’t space to worry about tons of nitty gritty hard sf details, not if an author wants to give sufficient real estate (!) to the romance. So the inclusion of a romance, to me, is a big indication that SFR can be enjoyed without having to worry (much) that there will be long passages of technobabble. There just isn’t room for it. That’s not to say the science is dumbed down—it’s just presented with a certain economy of style and straightforward prose. That’s been my experience, anyway.

  7. Wow. Aren’t we having fun with this!

    First off, Linnea, I don’t buy your argument. Your sales have to be building over time or the house would stop publishing you. (big hard truth about publishing there.) And when your cumulative support is built to the point that the house believes you can make a run for the lists, they will move the pieces into position and push for it. And that may be a question of visibility for the subgenre or for you, but you must believe it’s possible or even likely — or it isn’t. We truly can shape our own realities.

    Thanks Doug for stopping to comment, and thanks for the kind words about FALLEN. Sounds like you and I are on the same page with worldbuilding!

    Ah, Heather, readers needing to want the unexpected. Hmm. That’s an interesting comment, and you may have found the crux of the issue. I’ll point you to another one of my theories, posted here as Literary Vs. Commercial. The notion of some genres being about reassurance might also be linked to the difficulty of generating interest in a dystopia. Hmm.

    I’m not entirely sure, btw, that big fat books are the inevitable fall-out from intricate worldbuilding. We can look at short story authors, with the ability to transport us to really different places and tell a story in a short word count, for ideas about economy of language. I’m thinking specifically about Neil Gaiman, who is a masterful short story teller – SMOKE AND MIRRORS is a fave antho of mine – and Ted Chiang – STORIES OF YOUR LIFE AND OTHERS – who I think only published that one volume of brilliance. There’s a lot of work there that is concise but vividly realized.

    Another possibility for presenting the details of a world beyond what’s in the book (or series of books) itself is the guidebook. I have a guidebook to the Republic, for example, for my own reference, with a list of presidents and law codes and a history of nuclear activity, policy, etc. It’s been traditional in publishing that a successful series spawns a printed guidebook – like Diana Gabaldon’s guide to the world of OUTLANDER – or even an online one – like the one to J.K.Rowling’s world that spawned a lawsuit. That kind of material could be made available sooner to readers through the author’s website. I’ve started to put out-take scenes from Dragonfire onto the Cooke-site, but maybe that would be a fun thing to do for the Republic, as well. Hmmm.

    d/c

  8. Since everyone else is admitting to their spam word, mine is climb. So I will just have to help climb the mountain of SFR acceptance. I know, it is a terrible pun, but I just couldn’t resist.

    The comments here have been awesome and educational. Just by accident, I ran across a blog discussing SFR. No one there seemed to know what was really going on in the SFR world. The only SFR writer which they had heard of was Bujold. She’s great, but we know not the only SFR writer. Perhaps some of you would like to take a quick look and enlighten these people. We might even get some new SFR readers. I know that the host blogger would love the attention.

    http://jimvanpelt.livejournal.com/188604.html

  9. Hey Claire,

    I love this post. I’m very interested in the perceptions of SFR, since I’ve got one coming out in August. I think my editor at some point described the world building as “massive.”

    That stopped me a bit short, because I’ve made no bones about the fact I’ve written a romance. It is at its core a very traditional boy meets girl, girl finds out the fate of her people is in her hands and must give up boy, but that would lead to the boy’s death, story.

    Okay, maybe that isn’t so traditional in the traditional sense. :)

    I wrote a blog post about why I chose SFR. And while people describe it as “futuristic,” that’s fine with me, but I don’t think my world building takes a back seat in the story. It’s the backdrop, but not in the back seat. I’ve got reams of information about my worlds based on cultural anthropology and evolutionary biology. It affects the story because it is the foundation of the characters and their conflict.

    I want to see good world building in SFR, whether it’s leaning toward the SF side or the R side. For me, good world building is about thinking through the details, then using the significant ones.

    Great discussion, Claire.

    Jess

  10. DebClaire said: **First off, Linnea, I don’t buy your argument. Your sales have to be building over time or the house would stop publishing you. (big hard truth about publishing there.) And when your cumulative support is built to the point that the house believes you can make a run for the lists, they will move the pieces into position and push for it. And that may be a question of visibility for the subgenre or for you, but you must believe it’s possible or even likely — or it isn’t. We truly can shape our own realities.**

    Thanks for the unbridled optimism, dear one. But I KNOW my print run figures. They. Are. Not. There. I get them in writing, yuuno? Unless the NYT requirements changed recently, you need an opening run of 35,000 +/- to even START to make the botton of the list. I don’t have that. So there’s no way I can make the list. Fact. Not optimism or pessimism. Fact. Figures don’t lie.

    Sales building…well… sadly… we can discuss this off a public venue.

    I’m sure if it ever comes that Bantam believes I can make a run for the lists, they will. Don’t get me wrong. I love my editor. Bantam has treated me wonderfully well in many areas. I’m happy there. But I know my numbers. I know what’s being done and not. The rose colored glasses came off a few years ago. SFR does not pull the numbers FOR ME or rather I’m not FOR THEM. It’s not a matter of optimism or shaping one’s realities. It’s numbers on a page and they’re not what needs to be done to get to X, Y, Z. It’s a funky genre. But I’m very happy with Bantam, my editor is a total peach, and in spite of the (lack of) numbers, they treat me well and I’m so grateful for that.

    I give all my books 125% and my readers 125%. But it’s a funky, fickle genre.

    JESS: Having read you–and you knew my reservations up front–what sold me on you WAS your world building. I don’t think it took a back seat to the story at all. But futuristic to me means the focus is more on the relationship than other parts of the plot, and the book’s resolution is based on relationship issues moreso than other parts of the plot. And that’s fine. It’s a matter of the balance of peanut butter to chocolate in the ol’ peanut butter cup. Doesn’t make one wrong and one right. It just defines preference. Kinda like the spice ratings on the menu in a Thai restaurant.

    Why do I always talk about food? ;-) ~Linnea

  11. Ah, got it. When I hear the term “futuristic” I tend to think of fantasy in space, as in there is some element to the story that is magical or treated as if there is no scientific basis for the phenomenon, and it doesn’t really matter. Futuristics to me have say, alien shape-shifters, alien sorcerers that cast spells, alien vampires, etc.

    I won’t argue your point. I could make two people fall in love in four hundred pages, I couldn’t solve all the ills of the universe. LOL

    Jess

  12. Great post and great discussion. This is my first comment here and thanks to Heather for sending me over from her blog.

    **it couldn’t be sold as SF because of the angels, and couldn’t be sold as fantasy because of the radiation.**

    I definitely understand this sentiment considering I ripped the shapeshifters out of one novel to make it less Fantasy and more SF. I’m finally starting to get traction on that manuscript as a result.

    **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.**

    I just want to echo that my favorite SFR has the interpersonal conflict grow out of the external conflict. I love it when the two can’t easily be separated because it also means the story problem can’t easily be solved. When it is solved well it’s quite emotionally satisfying. IOW, all of the conflict grows out of who the characters are and who the characters are is intimately tied to the world they live in. In my mind, a lot of “Futuristic Romance” is missing this component: you could just as easily plop the characters and basic interpersonal conflict down in another setting, often Historical, and nothing much would change. In that kind of story the characters haven’t been fundamentally shaped by their environment.

    **Some romance readers have a hard time with the possibility of “science” and IMHO misinterpert just what that means (again, because SFR isn’t marketed properly).**

    I adore love in space (hi Linnea!), but I also love the non-space varieties of SF. Sadly, for most consumers who aren’t avid SF readers the only exposure they have to SF is through space opera movies/TV shows like Star Wars and Star Trek. Blade Runner is out there, but it’s a cult favorite, not a mainstream consumer favorite.

    **The notion of some genres being about reassurance might also be linked to the difficulty of generating interest in a dystopia.**

    I do think you hit on a particular challenge to SFR in that Romance affirms traditional values about love and cosmic justice whereas the purpose of SF is to comment on present society, therefore tearing down these expectations. In that respect they’re diametrically opposed. However, I, for one, am tired of dystopian futures and would welcome stories that ponder societal issues without being a big old downer.

  13. Hi Frances and Jess and Lisa -

    Thanks for adding your opinions to the discussion. I don’t know that a dystopia is always a downer, Lisa – usually the structure is that the characters overcome the constraints somehow, or change their own future, esp in a romance. (And the social mores serve to make them wary and perhaps distrustful, giving them each a conflict to overcome.) It’s a more typical SF ending (Orwell etc.) to have the characters be overwhelmed by the society’s expectations or mores, and ultimately be defeated or compelled to conform.

    Thanks Linnea for stopping back. I still don’t believe you (!) but we can argue that over drinks one day.

    d/c

  14. Claire — I guess I should have been more clear. What you just said what my point: that the dystopian ending is very SF while a happy ending is very Romance. It’s challenging to reconcile the two.

  15. Came across this post doing a google query and was quite fascinated by the definitions. Mine is definately space science fiction, with some science, so maybe future-set, but more people. I’m more sure of that than I am that it fits the romantic. I was aiming for romantic, but I think it is more a spectrum of people interactions, among which the romance may be a bit lost. Mostly I’ve written young adult, so writing for a more mature audience is still new to me and I’d love feedback.
    –EnE

Comments are closed.