Hey! Someone Got Romance In My Sci Fi!

Published on May 30th, 2011 in: Action Movies, Books, Climb Onto The Nearest Star, Feminism, Issues, Science and Technology, Science Fiction |

By Lisa Anderson

For me, it all started with a gift bag.

An acquaintance of mine runs a paranormal romance* book club. Last year, she gave me a goody bag she had obtained, a reusable tote containing books, bookmarks, pencils, and other gifts. One of the ad fliers included had a starry background (indicating the book’s location in outer space) and featured a sexy embrace between a tough-looking woman in a black tank top . . . and a man wearing glasses.

It took my breath away. I couldn’t recall having ever seen a hero with glasses on the cover of a romance novel before. I’d been intrigued by the concept of Sci-Fi Romance (SFR), but had been burned by my first attempt, putting the book down after the third time the hero threatened the heroine’s life. I decided to give it another try, though, and bought the book from the flier—Rebels and Lovers, by Linnea Sinclair. Now SFR is my favorite romance subgenre!

rebels and lovers

What makes a science fiction story a romance? This is a reasonable question, since all sci-fi fans can recall stories that involve couples. SFR writer and blogger Heather Massey points to three factors on her SFR blog, The Galaxy Express: the story’s focus, genre conventions, and reader expectation.

As she writes, “The main question to ask when evaluating whether a story is SFR is this: What drives the story, the romance or the science fictional elements?” The next question to ask is: Does the story end with the couple’s happiness either established or promised? If not, the story may be romantic SF, but it belongs completely in the SF camp. Finally, does the reader consider it SFR? Massey explains that both sci-fi and romance publishers put out SFR titles, but it’s still more of a “reader-generated term” than an official designation. The e-book market is making SFR easier to identify, however, as books are tagged according to content.

Sci-fi romance is not something that’s only just now being defined, however. The Science Fiction Romance Newsletter was founded in 1993, literally as a cut-paste-and-copy publication, and quickly segued into the electronic age. It was eventually re-invented as Speculative Romance Online as the paranormal romance subgenre exploded. The Newsletter even awarded the Sapphire (as in “SFR”) award in Novels and Short Stories from 1996 to 2006.

It is telling that in its last two years, before being changed to the SpecRom Award, the award was given to paranormal titans Charlaine Harris and J.R. Ward. Neither SpecRom Online nor its award still seem to be around, but there is a movement afoot to bring back a dedicated SFR award.

Even in the face of the burgeoning paranormal romance subgenre, however, science fiction romance is far from on the run. The e-book revolution has been a boon to SFR, not surprisingly considering its tech-savvy target audience. As already pointed out, the classification systems of e-retailers make SFR titles easier for fans to identify. The Galaxy Express has listed a healthy crop of sci-fi romance for the past three years, and reports that most of the titles due out this year are coming out as e-books first. Even Sherrilyn Kenyon and Stephenie Meyer, those queens of “fur and fang” paranormal, have science fiction works in their bibliographies.

Nor are fans the only ones taking notice. Works of science fiction are getting recognition from the romance industry, even in the face of the paranormal romance boom. Three of Linnea Sinclair’s futuristic romances have been nominated for the RITA award, given by the Romance Writers of America, in the category of paranormal romance. Gabriel’s Ghost, book one of the Dock Five Universe series of which Rebels and Lovers was a part, won the RITA in that category in 2005. In this year, one of the RITA nominees in paranormal romance is Rebel by Zoe Archer, part of her Blades of the Rose series, a historical romance with strong steampunk and paranormal elements. (Archer also released Collision Course, a futuristic sci-fi title, this year, and has contracted with Avon Impulse for three steampunk novels)

The things that draw authors to science fiction romance are the same things that draw readers. “What I love best about sci-fi romance is the fact that the heroines can kick as much ass as the heroes,” says Zoe Archer. “In fact, it’s almost expected that the heroines be strong, resilient, and capable, and nothing could be sexier.” And it’s true.

While traditional gender roles and relationship dynamics can be found in any subgenre, speculative fiction offers a lot of freedom to think outside the usual boxes. Sci-fi romance writers seem to be taking great advantage of this, and while it’s particularly easy in futuristic settings, it’s being done with stories set in the present and the past, too.

SFR readers are also looking for stories that appeal to their sense of wonder, both on an intellectual and emotional level. Says Linnea Sinclair:

“If adages about love often state that ‘opposites attract,’ there could likely be no greater opposing forces than science fiction, the literature of the mind and technological possibilities, and romance, the literature of the heart and all the illogical things it does. So, yes, SFR is a small and funky genre, but it’s also one with a devoted following that understands and even perhaps craves the sparks this dichotomy creates. SFR readers want the contrast; they demand the science fiction be as riveting and real as the romance. SFR readers also aren’t interested in boundaries. They seek a limitless future; they embrace the unknown ‘other’ of alien worlds and perhaps-not-human beings. As an author, it’s the depth and richness of this tapestry that draws me. I like the grander scope and the life ‘not as we know it’ situations. I like dealing with the intimacy of love slammed up against the roar of an alien star system, recalcitrant hyperspace drives, and ‘what ifs’ (that’s where all novels start, with a ‘what if’) that truly challenge the imagination. And yet it all feels so familiar.”

Thanks to both Linnea Sinclair and Zoe Archer for discussing this exciting subgenre with me for this article. Thanks also to Erin Fry and Judy Scott of the Romance Writers of America for their encouragement and help, and to Heather Massey of The Galaxy Express for her hard work in compiling a tremendously useful clearing house of information.

*For purposes of this article, “Paranormal Romance” refers to stories with supernatural elements such as vampires, werewolves, witches, ghosts, demons, angels, and so on.

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