Tuesday, February 2, 2010

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When Science Fiction Romance Is Behind The Times

THE MORCAI BATTALIONI’m of the belief that not all so-called “trunk” manuscripts must languish in oblivion. Sometimes, as in the case of a niche subgenre like science fiction romance, authors simply may have to wait for market conditions to improve before they can successfully land a contract. However, time can wreak havoc with an author’s carefully laid words. I was reminded of this issue when a little birdie tipped me off about a science fiction book with a very interesting history.

The book was THE MORCAI BATTALION by Diana Palmer. I’d originally heard about it from Galaxy Express passenger Anne B., but because it veered toward romantic SF, I put it on my TBR list. That changed when Birdie informed me that while Harlequin’s LUNA imprint released the book in 2007, it was actually written decades prior.

According to the Author’s Note, THE MORCAI BATTALION was “forty-two years in the making.” Ms. Palmer went on to share that when she wrote the story, “…there was no Star Trek, no Star Wars….” She doesn’t reveal the exact year, but STAR TREK the original series debuted in 1966, so that gives you a general idea. Ms. Palmer was seventeen years old at the time.

This book’s origin story prompted me to reflect on the extent to which a science fiction romance has a creative “shelf life.” In other words, can too much time pass between a story’s first draft and the publication release date? How much of an impact do things like culture, the publishing milieu, individual author style, and genre trends have on books? Around this time, I learned about two other authors who wrote science fiction romances in the 1980s, but mainstream print publication eluded them for years—even decades.

I had to know more. I borrowed or bought copies of the books, and embarked upon a little experiment to seek out the answers to my questions. To qualify, what follows are not reviews or qualitative statements about the stories; rather, my goal is to cite specific elements from them and reflect on how strongly I feel these individual elements have stood the test of time—or not.

Here is what I discovered:


Story premise:

The galaxy is on the brink of disaster, the long-awaited truce torn apart by an unprovoked attack. The colony whose residents represented more than a hundred planets has been destroyed, and the new vision for unity in the universe is at risk. Faced with a war that would mean destruction and chaos, one man has stepped forward to lead those fighting for their lives. Undeterred by insurmountable odds, his courage inspires a team—the Morcai Battalion—to battle for the cause of peace…and love.

Ms. Palmer also divulged in the Author’s Note that she first sold it to Manor Books in 1980. Fast forward to 2006 when “LUNA Books offered me the opportunity to rewrite it, and put my original ideas back in.” Of the new version, she writes, “I have tried to mix the old ideas with the new innovations and keep the feel of the published novel of 1980.”

In retrospect, was that a sound idea? THE MORCAI BATTALION reads like a vintage science fiction novel. The countless old skool SF speculative elements, descriptions, and stylistic devices are the kinds I expect to see in pulp SF from the fifties and sixties, not in releases from the past twenty years.

The romance elements are so slight as to be almost negligible. That may change in the next two planned installments for the series, but this story is barely-there romantic SF. But I salute the author for including some romance, especially at a time when “romance” was a dirty word in SF circles (well, dirtier than it is now).

My concern with THE MORCAI BATTALION is not that it reads like a vintage SF novel. It’s that LUNA packaged it to appear as though Ms. Palmer had written the entire story from scratch in the past few years. Some of the revisions, yes, but too many other elements screamed that they’d retained their original form. Here are a few examples:

* “Amazon units” which are “specialized female attack” squads (p. 38). Would anyone really call a unit of soldiers “Amazon” commandos in the future? Maybe as a nickname, but officially?

* Incidentally, “The Amazon units were known even by outworlders like the misogynist Centaurians.” (p.38). So…every single one of the Centaurians is a misogynist. Uh huh.

* This book featured lots and lots of exclamation points. I’m not kidding—there were whole paragraphs with every sentence ending in one. I’ve! Never! Read! A! Book! With! So! Many! Seriously, it was very much like that.

* This story had its share of colorful space battles:

“Just as the Rojok ships stopped in space, their green magnabeams barely visible against the black of space, Stern suddenly realized what Dtimum was doing. Even as he watched, the green of the emerillium scatterbeams pressed closer and closer to the Rojok vessels…As Abermon threw the switch, the green light overtook the Rojok ships like a blinding blur of gaseous emeralds.” (p. 283)

* The story features an alien race of feline humanoids who appear human except for their eyes: “The huge elongated eyelids opened over great black orbs…They were the eyes of some human cat, slit-pupiled, unblinking….” (pg. 16)

I could go on, but to get the true flavor, you really need to read it for yourself.

In retrospect, might it have been more effective if LUNA had decided to go with a retro cover and marketed the book as vintage SF, a la the Harlequin Vintage Collection? I certainly would have had a different set of expectations for it.

Which points to another concern: what about readers unfamiliar with science fiction tales and tropes of decades past? I guarantee THE MORCAI BATTALION was a wallbanger for many of them. The cover promises something entirely different from the story within (a cover, incidentally, that’s pretty nice). I worry that books like THE MORCAI BATTALION will give other recently-released science fiction romance novels a bad reputation. Not because the story totally sucks because it has a unique appeal—that is to say, if one approaches it with a certain set of expectations. Those expectations are crucial as they relate to a reader’s understanding of the stylistic devices and the time in which the author wrote the original story.

I’m concerned because it seems to be a case where the publisher could have been more transparent about what type of story was being sold (the author’s note notwithstanding). TMB was released in hardcover by an author with a successful track record. That’s quite a loss for Harlequin to eat if it wasn’t successful (and I’m hearing that sales tanked). Therefore, this type of failed venture could negatively impact the marketing support other SFR Harlequin authors receive, especially ones who aren’t dusting off vintage decades-old manuscripts.

However, I’m not worried that TMB will turn readers away from SFR. It might turn them away from an SF novel that could have used a serious overhaul in order to be representational of current genre offerings, yes, but not from the subgenre itself.

THE CHALLENGE by Susan Kearney

The Challenge Susan KearneyStory premise:

She was shot protecting the president, and woke up naked, in the arms of a hunk…

...a hunk named Kahn, who told Secret Service agent Tessa Camen an outlandish story about traveling through time, saving the world, and a Challenge only she can accept. Kahn offers her proof she can't refute: Tessa has been brought forward through time to save Earth by winning an intergalactic challenge.

Kahn only has a few weeks to train Tessa to use the psi-abilities he insists she has. He is confident in the success of a time-honored method that uses sexual frustration to bring out her powers, but Tessa is dubious. She's a martial arts expert and can fight her way through anything, but she's never had much luck with emotions.

Luckily for Earth, Kahn can be very convincing...

Ms. Kearney shared in an interview that she wrote THE CHALLENGE “as my very first book. It went unsold for 12 years and ended up being published as my 38th book.” THE CHALLENGE was published by Tor in 2005. In another interview, Ms. Kearney notes that she essentially rewrote the book from scratch:

“The first time, I wrote it in two months. When I sold it, I threw away the first version and took four months to rewrite it. Since 12 years passed between the two versions, I’d learned a lot and started from scratch with the writing. I also changed the ending because after the TV show, Survivor, the original ending had become dated.”

The prose reflects her effort as THE CHALLENGE reads like any current romance novel. In fact, in terms of heat level and structure, it read to me like an erotic science fiction romance minus the explicit language. If you read it with that expectation, it delivers, as much of the story focuses on the sexual journeys of the hero and heroine. However, there were still clues alluding to its earlier origins and roots in both Old Skool SF as well as romance.

* Heroine, who is from present-day Earth, is a virgin. In the future, virginity is a requirement for contestants competing in “The Challenge,” but the story never explained why, at least not in my opinion.

* Zoomorphism alert! “When a creature that looked like a snot-covered octopus approached…” (pg. 181)

* The story contained a worldbuilding shortcut that painted an alien culture with a broad brush: “Our planet is a matriarchy…” (pg. 182)

* Despite the fact that at least one planet was a matriarchy, the book still had a case of patriarchal society overload. Here's one example: Hero reflects on heroine’s warrior skills/psi suit abilities: “What she did not yet realize was that her skill equaled that of most men…but he’d never have thought she could be so mentally tough, and remain so attractive.” (pg. 298) THE CHALLENGE is not the only story guilty of rampant patriarchies in a futuristic setting, but the woman who proclaimed she was a member of the matriarchy was depicted as unsavory whereas the hero, whose hailed from a patriarchy, was placed on the proverbial pedestal.

* Example of the story’s SF B-movie pulp elements: “…the Zenonite floated onto the stage and appeared to be one gigantic brain with two lidless aqua eyes…” (pg. 182)

* Old Skool SF Villains: “Jypeg looked up from his reports and sneered at Trask, his second in command.” (pg. 252) In nearly every scene depicting the Endekian villains, Jypeg, the leader, physically and verbally abuses his men. Appearance is described in terms clearly meant to convey ugliness=evil.

* Scene that would make Russ Myer (SUPERVIXENS) proud: While fighting Endekians, the heroine “...turned her suit transparent…The Endekian goggled, and her naked body was the last thing he ever saw before she shoved his nose straight into his brain.” (pg. 321)

The suit in question is a technological wonder that protects a body even in the vacuum of space. Wearers control its functions via their psi abilities (once that ability is developed). So, for, example, one can change outfits with a single thought. Probably one of its signature accomplishments is that it can eliminate bodily waste (in other words, no need to remove it while…well, you get the picture).

The author does address times when the suit has served as a life saving device or has made a difference for populations on the verge of extinction, but frequently this revolutionary marvel was used to enhance the sexual couplings of the hero and heroine.

My feeling is that THE CHALLENGE contained elements that Ms. Kearney could easily have updated for the current market. As a lifelong SF and fantasy fan, I can smile in amusement when encountering B-movie SF tropes like floating brains because they hold a special appeal for me, even while I frown in concern whenever an author (or filmmaker) recycles them. That’s not to say authors can’t or shouldn’t use them, but I question how effectively these tropes can be reinvented these days. I understand the context in which they originally made their appearances so it’s not a WTF? moment for me. However, readers newer to SFR may have a different reaction, and I worry it may not be a positive one.

It reminded me of this little-known 1988 flick, THE BRAIN:

See what I mean? I wonder if it’s time we laid to rest the ghosts of SF past?

BORN OF NIGHT by Sherrilyn Kenyon

In a fascinating turn of synchronicity, while reading THE MORCAI BATTALION I came across this post at Spacefreighters Lounge wherein Donna S. Frelick noted the following about Sherrilyn Kenyon’s BORN OF NIGHT:

Interesting to note that one of the leading ladies of paranormal romance, Sherrilyn Kenyon, has recently begun an SFR series with her novels BORN OF NIGHT and BORN OF FIRE. Sherrilyn says in the Author’s Note to BORN OF NIGHT that it was written in 1986-87, sold in 1992, and first published in 1996. My copy of FANTASY LOVER, the first in her DARK HUNTER series, lists a publishing date of 2002. So I guess that means she was a Skiffy Rommer BEFORE she was a paranormal phenom!

I immediately moved BORN OF NIGHT up on my reading list. This “experiment” was growing more curious by the minute.

Story premise:

Born of Night Sherrilyn KenyonIn the Ichidian Universe no one was safe people were dragged from their homes and killed in the streets. Victims of a ruthless tyrant who was bent on being the sole ruler. Those who opposed him formed an alliance called The League, which fell under the leadership of the Quorum.

The Quorum realized that the best way to keep trouble from starting was to cut it off at its knees. So a separate group of soldiers was needed, The League Assassins. Highly trained and highly valued, they are the backbone of the government. But not even the League is immune to corruption...

Command Assassin Nykyrian Quikiades was born and trained to slaughter. Refusing to be a pawn, he turned his back on the League and has been hunted by them ever since. Though many have tried, none can kill him. Now his assignment is to protect Kiara Zamir, a woman whose father's political alliance has made her a target. She wants nothing to do with politics, yet she is forced to submit to protection or die.

And as her world becomes even deadlier, Kiara must entrust her life to the same kind of beast who once killed her mother and left her for dead. Old enemies and new threaten them both and the only way they can survive is to overcome their suspicions and learn to trust in the very ones who threaten them most-- each other.

So how much of this early draft survived? In the Author’s Note, Ms. Kenyon states that “Those of you who have read or who own the original Born of Night will notice the size difference. In this version, I was able to return the original scenes to the book that were edited out because they were deemed too harsh for the market at the time it was originally published.”

It appears as though Ms. Kenyon finally had the freedom to tell the story the way she wanted, which I applaud because here’s an author who has paid her dues. And I was looking forward to reading another science fiction romance (especially one that hit the NYT bestseller list). Much of the book has Kenyon’s signature elements. But as I read it, I discovered that some of the science fictional aspects retained the flavor of those conjured up by a young adult.

Here are a few examples that jumped out at me:

* Heroine Kiara is a prima ballerina and daughter of a military commander-turned-president of his planet. Somehow, this translates to her becoming a princess (the hero addresses her as "Princess" numerous times), but exactly how a civilian becomes royalty is never explained. She’s also—wait for it—a virgin.

* Kiara’s dancing is popular throughout several planets in the galaxy. Even now, we have hundreds (thousand?) of multi-media venues competing for our eyeballs. Would one ballerina become so popular across that many global populations—some of which are populated by “aliens”? Who’s to say it couldn’t happen, but it strikes me as a simplistic notion (but one that would appeal immensely to a young adult who might identify with such a character).

* A reference is made to an alien race known as the “Pigarians.” In all honesty, that alone made the book worth reading for me. Now there’s a name for an alien race I will not soon forget! Here’s a sample from a bit of the heroine’s introspection: “Don’t bet on it. For all you know, he’s a Pigarian with three eyes and buck teeth. Or one of the upright reptilian species.” (pg. 27)

* Characters draw conclusions about events outside a space ship by sound/motion alone. In this example, the heroine is being tortured by one of her kidnappers in a cell aboard a space ship: “He drew back to hit her again. A sharp lurch in the ship sent them tumbling. An instant later, a loud warning siren blared. “We’re being attacked.” The tall man ran out of the room at a deadly pace.” (pg. 14)

* Enough money can buy hero Nykyrian the most amazing things: “He’d purchased the planet several years earlier after deciding he was tired of living in cramped flats inside noisy, crime-ridden cities.” And his home “hovered in the upper atmosphere where the outside was coated with reflekakor—a mineral that would keep it from showing up on any scanners.” (pgs. 68-69).

* Zoomorphism strikes again. While at a bar, heroine notices the waiter: “Kiara looked up, slightly startled to find a waiter from an unknown species who’d brought the men drinks…The server appeared to smile, but Kiara couldn’t quite tell with the strangely shaped lips…Kiara watched the creature leave on four tentacled legs.” Uhh…how is walking on “tentacled legs” even possible?

* Colorful space battles—again! Hero is squaring off against the bad guys in his space fighter: “Nykyrian barely had time to dodge the blast of color that skidded past his ship into the darkness of space.” Oh, and what do you think of this bit: “Space fights were always interesting to watch. It seemed like there should be some sound. But there wasn’t.” Okay!

* In the next scene, the heroine is in another fighter and worried about the hero: “Kiara turned in Hauk’s lap as she tried to see what was behind them. She was desperate to see anything of Nykyrian.” Hm, if space is so dark, how could she see anything by looking out the window?

These elements and others lend BORN OF NIGHT a pure escapist fantasy feel, which is fine if that’s what one is looking for. But it also meant the science fictional elements seemed simplistic at times. Simple, say, as in the way a youth might perceive space travel and interplanetary politics. Characters traveled between planets like you or I might take a drive to the local mall.

I’m not sure Ms. Kenyon could have updated the science fictional elements without doing a complete overhaul on the story because certain details, like Kiara being a ballerina, were integral to the romance. BORN OF NIGHT strikes me as a deeply personal and indulgent book, and it helped that I knew about the story’s early origins beforehand. Otherwise, I might have been very frustrated to encounter terms such as “Pigarian” in a recent release.

I find it interesting that all three authors had an opportunity to make revisions to their stories before publication, and all chose to retain elements that harkened back to an earlier era of storytelling in science fiction. All of which made me wonder about authors writing science fiction romance now, and if any of them will have to wait ten, twenty, or even thirty years to see their book reach a wide audience. Gosh, I hope not (especially not with the digital publishing opportunities that exist!).

But what if they do? Will they be doomed to rewrite the story from scratch?

Joyfully yours,