Monday, June 23, 2008

Written on

State of the Science Fiction And Romance Union

Now that The Galaxy Express is a little over a month old, I decided it was prudent to present you, my devoted passengers, with a time capsule post. As the title indicates, today we’ll hold a colloquium on the current state of science fiction romance. Then we’ll continue on with our reading adventures and meet again in the future to revisit the position of the genre.

Foremost on our itinerary are these two questions: How did science fiction romance evolve, and what is its present status? For the answers, I consulted a guru of the highest prestige. An expert among experts. A master of the maestros...well, you get the picture.

The Galaxy Express is proud to welcome Sime~Gen universe grande dame Jacqueline Lichtenberg!

Ms. Lichtenberg graciously took time from her busy schedule to answer questions about SFR and its profoundly illustrious history. Hurry now and read on, because you won’t believe your eyes!

The Galaxy Express: In terms of craft, what makes a strong science fiction romance story?

Jacqueline Lichtenberg: The best SF is an amalgam of "What if ..." and "If only ...." and "If this goes on ..." Using rigorous futurology, based in all the known sciences from the physical to the mystical, bracketing the "soft" sciences such as sociology, psychology, cultural anthropology, etc. one has to build a world that reflects a science fiction postulate.

The "romance" is not in the worldbuilding and usually not in the science itself. Romance writers who first fumbled their way into the "futuristic" category made such a horrid mess that the Science Fiction Writers of America members basically just sneered at them and dismissed their efforts.

That changed rapidly as SF Romance writers began to take the SF backgrounding more seriously. They are good writers and know how to research historical backgrounds to a fair thee well, and nail say Egypt in the 1920's creating marvelous atmosphere, and so it was just a matter of learning not to "fake" the science.

Now, given a solid SF style worldbuilding exercise, the writer must tell a whopping good Romance story. Not necessarily involving sex, but today's trends are more toward long, explicit sex scenes.

What makes a good SF Romance is a co-operative melding between the Science and the Romance so that the sex scenes carry the science of the story forward at a good, adventurous clip, and the Science scenes carry the Romance forward at a blistering hot-sweaty clip without ending up as huge expository lumps thinly disguised as dialogue.

So what makes a good SFRomance is what makes any sort of story good -- a plot that whizzes along at just the right pace.

I often define plot for my writing students as "the rate of change of situation" -- and if each and every scene changes the Situation of all the main characters, increasing the suspense, foreshadowing and building anticipation toward an event that satisfies that anticipation -- then you have a good "strong" plot. With that, you can build any kind of novel in any genre.

TGE: When did science fiction romance/futuristics emerge as a distinct genre?

JL: Ah, a history lesson. Let me...start at the beginning and sketch the developments as I saw them.

I started selling SF in 1968 with my first short story, OPERATION HIGH TIME, set in my Sime~Gen Universe. OPERATION HIGH TIME is posted online for free reading [here].

The /sgfandom/ section of contains millions upon millions of words of Sime~Gen fan fiction much of which is professional quality work. Like my Star Trek itself and my Star Trek fanzine Kraith Series (also posted for free reading on, Sime~Gen has attracted a lot of very talented writers.

The best introduction to Sime~Gen is the Omnibus Reprint; the Unity Trilogy [is] currently available on

When I sold Operation High Time to Fred Pohl for WORLD[S] OF IF MAGAZINE OF SCIENCE FICTION, I didn't know that what I was trying to write was Science Fiction Romance. I hated Romance for the same reason I hated Soap Opera (my mother was a fan of Soaps and I watched hundreds of hours of it). I crafted the story in an SFR universe in such a way as to hide the SFR nature of the universe premise because I deliberately aimed the story to tickle Fred Pohl's interest—and it worked.

(More on that at

At that time, Romance seemed to me to be nothing but stupid stories about stupid people doing stupid things for stupid reasons.

In Science Fiction you had stories about smart people doing smart things for smart reasons—and that to me was the very definition of pure entertainment.

That view was crystalized before the 1970's and the women's movement made it clear how nefarious use of language denudes women of the natural heroic attitudes and reliance on female intelligence.

Star Trek fanzines of the late 1970's and 1980's explored the female hero and the feminine side of the male hero and most of those fanzine characters were very smart. Women wrote stories about Spock because he was smart. Then they wrote stories about what kind of really smart woman he might be attracted to.

Kirk & UhuraAnd quietly, in the dark corners of a fandom of a stupid thing like a TV show (you have no idea how fans of Star Trek were derided during those years), SFR was born. True SFR.

Alien Romance...deep, committed intimate relationships (and yes, even sex) between a human woman and an alien male.

For the first Christian SFR I know of – see

SpockSpock's alien sexuality was actually invented, or sparked off by, Theodore Sturgeon. I have an essay on that [here].

Then fans couldn't stop writing about it—women fans. "Get Spock" stories formed a whole sub-category and are, I believe, the earliest real SFR. Writers had the SF part of the worldbuilding done for them and could concentrate on the R part.

Alexis Fagan Black who wrote and published the writings of others in Star Trek fanzines attempted to sell some really great original SFR novels (using a different byline) to the mass market press and basically failed to break through the barrier.

Editors were convinced that combining genres limited the audience.

At that time I was writing Sime~Gen and novels in other universes very quickly, always driving plots with the explosive energy of increasing intimacy among the characters. And I was studying the Star Trek fanzines for what they were doing that the Mass Market so firmly rejected.

I finally defined the illusive quality that Star Trek fanzine writers strove for that Mass Market editors rejected out of hand.

I called it the HIDDEN GENRE and named it INTIMATE ADVENTURE.

Intimate Adventure is what you get when you replace the "action" of Action Adventure (which editors insisted all SF must be) with Intimacy. The action takes place on the field of intimacy, not battle, and that drives the plot to a resolution.

For a full definition with examples see:

It turned out a few years ago when I was discussing this with my some time collaborator Jean Lorrah (a Professor of English) that what I was attempting to define is not actually a "genre" but rather a "plot archetype" and we believe we're the first to identify it.

Yesterday I discovered a new group on Amazon identifying some of my books as Intimate Adventure. And they are that.

In the late 1980s and 1990's, Romance mass market began to explore what would happen to romances if one of the characters was a vampire. That sub-genre exploded because it allowed Romance writers to explore the same material that Star Trek fanzine writers discovered in Spock and that I was mining for material in Sime~Gen and other universes.

I then set out to write my own SF Vampire novel, THOSE OF MY BLOOD—still available on Amazon. And followed that with DREAMSPY. Intimate Adventure with vampires in space. But published as Science Fiction in hardcover—but not Mass Market.


So then the question, "When did science fiction romance/futuristics emerge as a distinct genre?" basically comes down to the question, "What do you mean by emerge?" The distinct genre was founded, I believe, in Star Trek fandom's early Get Spock stories. At least one generation of writers (20 years worth of career effort) [emphasis mine] tried and failed to establish that genre in Mass Market SF. Then a new generation of editors came on the scene and a new generation of readers and the constant beating on that stone wall paid off.

In the late 1980's and early 1990's, that stone wall funneled that story-telling pressure aside into the Romance genre, emerging as the FANTASY offshoot Vampire Romance. I turned fantasy Vampire Romance into SF Vampire Romance with THOSE OF MY BLOOD 1988 (for the publication timeline, see my bibliography).

I don't know what publisher first used Futuristic Romance or SF Romance as a label on a book spine, but by the time that happened, the genre was well established.

TGE: How has the science fiction romance market changed over the years?

JL: Soon the Vampire Romance craze had peaked and began to fall off. There came a point when they were most popular when writers couldn't sell them to editors at all and they started to turn up as e-books and I followed them into the e-book market. But the Romance market had gotten the message. You can sell more books when you mix genres—not less!

So the "changes" have subsequently been explorations of various kinds of mixtures of genres and even SF/F has things like the Anita Blake series and all its imitators. TV has Buffy and all its imitators.

My theory is that genre is defined not by what is present in the story, but rather by what is absent—by what is prohibited.

"Literature" is what you get when you combine all genres. And I think that's where SF/F/R is headed—to a combination which is mainstream, academically lauded Literature.

I believe we have won the battle we fought when they cancelled Star Trek with a sneer. We have won mainstream status for Science Fiction. It is respectable and taken seriously as Literature. And that's largely because of the combining of other genres under that label until what you have is INTIMATE ADVENTURE.

TGE: Thank you, Ms. Lichtenberg, for your time and hard-won insights.


Ms. Lichtenberg’s comments are very enlightening. Science fiction romance has been striving for years decades to gain recognition within both the SF and Romance arenas. Isn’t it ironic, considering the parent genres have sought validation for so long themselves?

Of note is the inevitable comparison to the paranormal market, when publishers/agents once told authors there was no market. But serendipity (BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER), persistence, and artistic vision (ANITA BLAKE: VAMPIRE HUNTER) won out, resulting in a blitzkrieg of paranormal romances. Well, the sex helped, too.

Science fiction romance books, in my most humble opinion, is currently holding the baton that paranormal romance gripped in the 1990’s (Film and television are slightly ahead of the curve with series like BATTLESTAR GALACTICA and FIREFLY, fare such as SERENITY and basically any of the new superhero films, which more often than not feature a romance). Of course, genres cycle, but what I find fascinating are the reinventions of genres that accompany each rise in the market. This particular phase is definitely one to watch—or read, as the case may be.

What’s on the shelves now is great, but too few. SFR fans are loyal almost to a fault, but even we crave variety as much as the next reader. I think one reason (SFR) fan fiction is so popular is that it fulfills a need for these stories, a need that for a number of reasons mainstream publishing can’t (or at times won’t) satisfy. I’m eager to devour more of the current renditions of SFR, as are others.

So when I had a chance to make my voice known, I did. Recently, I approached one editor to chat about the science fiction romances she had worked on (this happened at Comic-Con ‘07, where quite a few NY publishers were shilling their wares). I asked if she had any more in the pipeline. My inquiry was met with a perplexed, almost fearful expression, whereupon I was directed to a number of paranormal romances spread out on the table. I have nothing against paranormal romances. I enjoy paranormal romances. But that’s not what I wanted to learn about at the moment.

I know I shouldn’t have been surprised by the editor’s response, but I was.

I also wonder why some industry insiders discourage certain ideas by established authors. In my mind, very few (non-sexual, non-violent) concepts would be considered too bizarre or strange for readers of science fiction romance. That is to say, speculative fiction. Don’t mix the genres, some said then—and apparently now as well. This despite the popularity of fan fiction, films, and television shows over the years that blend SF and romance in some fashion.

Clearly, SFR is a genre that refuses to go away.

Of course, there are editors, agents, marketing departments, and booksellers who champion the genre. In addition to the folks on the teams of established authors such as Linnea Sinclair, Susan Grant, Colby Hodge, and Susan Kearney, Dorchester devoted an entire line to it. Agent Laura Bradford and Anne Sowards of Ace/Rock opened the door for Ann Aguirre. Angela James, Executive Editor of Samhain Publishing has been particularly vocal about her interest in acquiring science fiction romance stories.

To be realistic, I don’t expect SFR to reach the same level as paranormal romance. Certainly not overnight (although it’d be nice. Reminds me of the early days of anime, when one practically had to sell her soul for even a poor quality copy of CHÔJIKÛ YÔSAI MACROSS. Now anime is a mainstay of American culture). However, I can hope.

We fans have waited nearly half a century, perhaps longer. We can wait a few more years. Romantic suspense, fantasy and historical romances—they are wonderful genres and deserve to flourish. But don’t be surprised by the growing number of SFR fans gathering on the sidelines, watching.


I see....

Now it’s time for a few SFR predictions:

* Short-term, the market may slow because of the weakened economy, but will rebound later
* One or more established authors will move on to other genres, leaving a vacuum
* There will be rise in SFR submissions by aspiring authors
* A breakout smash will come, but it will likely hail from an e-publisher(s)
* Josh Whedon, or someone like him, will create the next Buffy science fiction romance television show—or even R-rated film (in other words, SFR strictly for adults)
* Books responsible for launching a trend after the economic slump, or in spite of it, will feature high concept stories, accessible technological wonders, and iconic characters that will give Han Solo and Princess Leia a run for their money
* Explicit sexual content will play a part, but it won’t be a requisite component

So there you have it. Naturally, I’d love to hear what everyone else thinks as well. Come forth and comment!

As Ms. Lichtenberg noted, many, many writers, both published and not, strove endlessly during this past century to break down the barrier so that we can enjoy science fiction romance today in all of its glorious forms. I say it’s time for a new generation to take up the torch. Twenty years is a long wait. Let’s not waste even a second more.

Skiffy Rommers, unite!

Joyfully yours,