Thursday, October 05, 2006

'Green is the new red': the sci-fi romance subgenres

According to Deidre Knight, romance author and literary agent:
the fact that aliens are the new vampires hasn’t quite hit the telegraph wires just yet. Trust me: Green is the new red. Translation? Aliens (green) are the new vampires (red/blood.)
I'm certain that Deidre Knight knows far, far more about current and forthcoming trends in romance sales than I ever will, but even I've begun to notice that science fiction romance seems to be gaining popularity. AAR, for example, recently published an interview with Susan Grant, who's been writing 'alien romantic comedy'. It isn't just about aliens, though. According to Linnea Sinclair
there are three subdivisions: science fiction romance, romantic science fiction and futuristics. Some books cleanly and clearly fit in one category; others straddle the fence. To make matters worse, many readers don't even realize there are subdivisions. Futuristics is the term most commonly used by readers.

Technically — and pun intended — futuristics are the least technical of the three types. Futuristics — as I've seen them defined — are books in which the science fiction setting is the least stringent requirement. I've seen futuristics referred to as historicals in spacesuits, in the sense that the story could as easily be placed on a pirate ship sailing the Atlantic as on a starship cruising the space lanes. You could probably relocate the action to a different "era" or remove the science fiction elements and the story would still stand. [...]

Romantic Science Fiction is the opposite end of the spectrum. There, the romance plot is very much a sub plot and the HEA (Happily Ever After) requirement may not apply. You could also remove the romance element and the story would still stand.

Science Fiction Romance (which is where I think my books fall) is the middle ground: it's a novel in which the balance of the science fiction elements and the romance elements are nearly equal. If you were to remove either the romance element or the science fiction element, the story would fall apart.
Corinna Lawson's interview with Linnea Sinclair was a follow-up to Corinna's original article on 'Science Fiction and Romance: A Very Uneasy Marriage'.

I'm rather behind the times: I've only recently come across a couple of Dorchester's Love Spell Futuristic Romances from the early 1990s, but I see that they're currently acquiring futuristics:
FUTURISTIC - Futuristic Romances are set in lavish lands on distant worlds but must be believable to today's reader without an overabundance of explanation. Avoid science-fiction-type hardware, technology, etc.
'Believable' isn't the first adjective that would spring to my mind if I was trying to describe 'lavish lands on distant worlds', but suspension of disbelief isn't difficult for a reader to achieve, if the author's world-building is consistent.

The science fiction romance sub-genre would seem to me to offer the opportunity to explore some of the issues arising from current scientific knowledge in a way similar to that in which, in the early nineteenth century,
British drama reflects its linkage with the culture's preoccupations with science and medicine. Science did, in fact, take form in the theatre, where production strategies were shaped by the machinery of staging enhanced and encoded with scientific discoveries. [...] Techno-gothic is an ideologically charged and melodramatic structure in which disturbing issues and forbidden experiences characteristic of gothic are recontextualized by the period's pursuit of science. Techno-gothic drama is, in fact, a product of the Romantic revolution in science. A hybrid genre, techno-gothic drama constitutes an incipient "science fiction"—theatrical, and therefore fictive, representations of science. While we often think of the period's fiction writers as originators of science fiction, and some scholars point specifically to Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein, I argue that roots of Romantic science fiction are also located in its techno-gothic drama written by women before 1818. (Marjean D. Purinton, 2001)
Of course, Purinton is writing about 'Romantic' in terms of the Romantics, not 'romance fiction', but it seems to me that there may be parallels here, because science fiction romance offers authors the opportunity to explore the boundaries of modern science, along with the threats it may pose, and the opportunities it may offer, in the future. In addition, as Purinton observes of these nineteenth-century dramas, authors were able to
appropriate staged science as techno-gothic drama, specifically charged with scientific ideology, to challenge the roles and afflictions assigned to women by medical and scientific discourses that sought to keep them subordinate to men.
In a futuristic or science fiction setting, the author is set free to create alternative societies, bound by different rules from our own, perhaps with different gender roles and different marriage structures.

So, how do you feel about futuristics and science fiction romance? Tired of vampires and ready for new frontiers? Wary of gadgets and characters which unusual names and habits? Appalled or thrilled at the thought of what an alien might be able to do with strange powers and unique appendages? And what does a romance between different species mean in terms of the traditional happy ending which features the happy couple surrounded by plenty of off-spring?


  1. Well, I've got a erotic science fiction romantic comedy looking for a publisher, so I'm pretty happy that green is the new red.

  2. I think this is an example of where epublishing is far ahead of what's happening in print. Epublishing pretty much started with Jaid Black's futuristic series over at Ellora's Cave.

  3. Is part of the attraction of a futuristic/science fiction setting the freedom it gives the author of an erotic romance to create a society without the taboos that exist in our own contemporary societies? I'm not saying that all futuristics/ science fiction romances would do that, of course. But I do remember reading some science fiction (not romance) when I was a teenager and one novel I recall in particular was about a society where certain people were genetically perfect and, with the help of spare parts which were grown for them, they could live extremely long lives. So the writer then broke through the taboo barrier and had a father/daughter relationship. Because of the set-up there were no negative genetic consequences of incest. I think it was shortly after that that I put the book down, because the plot suddenly vanished and instead of travelling around in a spaceship, all the characters became involved in complicated relationships and orgies.

    Asimov's robot novels were interesting in that respect too - there were the robots that humans fell in love with and/or had sex with, but in the cases where the robots weren't much more than machines, it did ask some interesting questions about what the minimum qualities a person/object would have to have for a human to fall in love with them. Where the robots did have consciousness, the novels raised questions about why certain sexual relationships are considered taboo. It's also rather like the Pygmalion myth, but set in the future.

  4. Is part of the attraction of a futuristic/science fiction setting the freedom it gives the author of an erotic romance to create a society without the taboos that exist in our own contemporary societies?

    Sci/fi romances are interesting because they do allow a variety of plots and issues that just aren't covered very often by "modern" romances. Racism, classism, sexism, racial purity, "psychic" purity can all be dealt with by science fiction so we readers won't feel preached to and asked to deal with our own prejudices. We can view them from a distance. Perhaps it would be acceptable for a white woman to fall for a black (or blue) man if they came from different planets in space.

    Plus, the characters can have super abilities which make them cool.

    There are erotic possibilities, as well, as a civilized heroine from Planet A can meet barbarian hero from Planet B and realize that civilization isn't all it's cracked up to be, while the hero can learn to relate to a woman other than by dragging her by the hair. Johanna Lindsey's "Warrior's Woman" is a good example of this. She basically took her Arabian sheik abduction plot and set it in space, but in an engaging way.

    Asimov's robot novels were interesting in that respect too - there were the robots that humans fell in love with and/or had sex with...

    This is another intriguing aspect of the science fiction romance. Susan Grant does have a futuristic novel about a computer program that built herself a humanoid body so she could be with the man she loved. It was an interesting concept, but failed in the execution because the man she was in love with wasn't very interesting and not much more personable than a robot himself. (Maybe that was the point? I don't know.) But there are women out there who had crushes on Spock of "Star Trek" and Data of "STNG" precisely because they are logical, unemotional and explore the meaning of what it is to be human. It is a powerful affirmation of one's womanhood if she can get even an android to feel passion for her, I suppose. Susan Krinard's "Kinsman's Oath" was a pretty good approach on this theme, though the hero wasn't an android, just taught to be very controlled.

  5. Perhaps it would be acceptable for a white woman to fall for a black (or blue) man if they came from different planets in space.

    Ah, all the science fiction stories are flooding back to me now. I remember reading a one where aliens were abducting people from various different planets and the heroine is in a group which escape. She falls in love with someone who's a different species and he's grey. As in, his skin is grey (but with huge grey muscles, and immense strength and very intelligent. And now I've made him sound like an elephant ;-( ). It takes her a while to get used to his greyness. And she has a brief fling with another human, so she ends up pregnant, but the grey man still loves her, so they don't split up. In fact, they both rationalise it as her biological clock talking or something like that, and the grey man is delighted he's going to be a father. I can't remember the title, but sadly it wasn't My human's secret non-grey baby.

    barbarian hero from Planet B [...] there are women out there who had crushes on Spock of "Star Trek" and Data of "STNG" precisely because they are logical, unemotional and explore the meaning of what it is to be human

    These are two very contradictory expressions of masculinity, aren't they? On the one hand there's the 'men are aggressive, disorganised, lust-crazed brutes - women are organised, good at multitasking, have high emotional intelligence and only have sex when they're in love' set of gender stereotypes, and on the other there's the 'men are powerful, emotionless, logical beings - unlike women who are soft, emotional, intuitive beings' set of stereotypes.

  6. Have any of you read Catherine Asaro's science fiction romances (or maybe they're "romantic science fiction")? They play some interesting changes on those gender stereotypes, or at least the one or two that I have read have done so. The heroine of "Primary Inversion," for example, is a kick-ass military cyborg whose telepathic powers let her interface mentally with similarly equipped Skolian men--but the man she falls for is not a fellow Skolian, but rather an Aristo of the rival Trader empire: a man who ought by genetic rights to be a heartless, congenital sadist like the rest of his caste, but (luckily) isn't.

    My recollection is that there's a LOT of technology in Asaro's work; she may herself be a physicist, come to think of it. Memory getting fuzzy in middle age. I recall tuning out periodically, whenever the prefix "nano-" appeared.

    Any Asaro fans out there who can say more?

  7. According to Catherine Asaro's biography page she:

    received her Ph.D. in Chemical Physics and MA in Physics, both from Harvard, and a BS with Highest Honors in Chemistry from UCLA. Among the places she has done research are the University of Toronto in Canada, the Max Planck Institut für Astrophysik in Germany, and the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. Her research involved using quantum theory to describe the behavior of atoms and molecules. Catherine was a physics professor until 1990, when she established Molecudyne Research, which she currently runs.

  8. Ah! Thanks, Laura. That explains the nano-tech, even if it does make my eyes glaze over. (It always seems a roundabout way to explain what would simply happen by magic in a paranormal, and since I'm more than happy to let it happen by magic, the effort and ingenuity are mostly wasted on me.)

  9. It might be interesting to look at Anne McCaffrey's work in this context. Her fantasy novels (particularly some of the early Dragon books and the Ship books) have a strong vein of romance running through them, among other things. And Laura, I think the human/grey alien relationship you are talking about might be from the Freedom series by McCaffrey.

    Her plotting and characterisation can be weak, and got very repetitive over the course of her writing career, but I think it's interesting in the way a fantasy setting, as others have remarked, can open up possibilities that can't be present in a 'real world' novel. In the Dragon books, for instance, there is the additional bond of dragons as well as humans, and the Ship books deal with the concept of romance for people who have no body, but have become another kind of entity (a spaceship, perhaps, as in Helga, 'the ship who sang".

    Perhaps I'll start looking at this myself...

  10. I've read quite a few of the Dragon books. Those are very interesting relationships - between dragons and riders, with the dragon-rider relationship at the core, but non-sexual, and then the relationships that the rider has with their dragon's partner's rider etc. And I can remember reading a book about a ship that was the 'body' for a very severely disabled person. I think she was the 'brain' and she was paired with a 'brawn'. And they fell in love. It had a happy ending, too. Was that Helga?

    Seems to me that they do open up interesting possibilities for exploring all sorts of aspects of relationships in ways which might not be possible/credible if set in the real world, and they can also do this in a way which bypasses (or sort-of-bypasses) many of the taboos/prejudices held by the reader, because of the distance created by the setting.