Tuesday, August 10, 2010

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Does Erotic SFR Need To Kick It Up A Notch?*

I read two things recently that made me want to write a post about the state of erotic science fiction romance stories. The first was Kaye Manro’s FORBIDDEN LOVE, an erotic SFR about the sizzling encounter between sexy reptilian humanoid T’Kon and researcher Dr. Maya Belle (read the full blurb here).

FORBIDDEN LOVE is ideal for those who want a fast paced story, but I wouldn’t have minded spending more time with T’Kon and Maya because I found the presentation of his sexuality intriguing. There was a lot of potential for exploring their psychological/cultural differences and how they might have impacted the development of their emotional bond.

I also enjoyed reading about T’kon’s physical description, not so much because I wanted to jump his bones, but because the author included a few nice details that made me believe in such a character. Here are a few examples from a scene in which Maya is checking an unconscious T’Kon for injuries:

Excitement coursed through her as her fingers moved over his chameleon-like skin, hairless and silky under her touch. It felt like cool, wet velvet. Her hand grazed the slightly scaled surface of his muscled chest and a tingle entered her fingertips…

…She touched one of his arms and then the other, examining his slick skin from his shoulder to the carpals and fingertips. What stunning hands, curved and webbed with retractable talons…

…She slid her hands under his torso to check for injuries on his back. Her fingers rubbed along the spiked ridges of his spine, most likely a normal trait given his DNA. She moved further down. Oh my god, he even had a tail. (pgs. 14-15)

Okay, so maybe I do want to jump his bones, but it occurred to me that erotic SFR seems to enjoy the most freedom to explore sexual relationships between aliens and humans (or other exotic pairings) in graphic detail. By graphic, I don’t just mean intensity of the sex scenes, but the level of detail (e.g., type of skin, facial construction, animal-based characteristics, genitalia). It’s a “What if…?” taken to the level of alien sexuality, reproduction, and love.

Erotic romance authors have written about the importance of compelling SF elements, too. Using Kaye Manro as an example, in Setting The Stage: World building in Sci-Fi Romance, she discusses the extensive efforts that go into worldbuilding, using the development of FORBIDDEN LOVE as an example:

Here’s an example from my own world building experience. When I created the premise for the Forbidden series (book one is Forbidden Love, which recently released at Red Rose Publishing) I wanted an astounding species with touches of reptilian DNA. For that, I needed the proper environment for them to exist. Their planet needed to be atmospherically disruptive and wild, a little like Venus but able to sustain life. While in opposition, I wanted the species to be an ancient and peaceful but advanced culture, capable of traveling across galaxies by way of hyper-jumps through invented event horizons.

She also wrote an article about writing science fiction romance, stating at one point that

I’ve always been into science and Sci-Fi so it comes natural for me. But I still do research. If you are interested in writing in this genre, study the relevant science facts and theories as well as reading a lot of both Sci-Fi and SFR books.

So in one sense, erotic SFR is as skiffy as it gets, and many of its authors work hard to create plausible or at least serviceable science fictional elements. But on the other hand, erotic science fiction romance can leave a lot to be desired when it comes to those same factors. That’s not to say that non-erotic SFR couldn’t improve either, but I’ve seen a tendency for authors to be downright lackadaisical with skiffy elements in their erotic SFR stories.

I can be pretty forgiving since I enjoy styles that range from campy to hard SF. Still, I feel disappointed when I encounter a story in which the plot, romance, and erotic elements are entertaining, but the worldbuilding seems an afterthought. I can't quite put my finger on it, but I can tell a difference between a good-faith effort and an author just phoning it in. At the very least, give me a good BS Device.

Which brings me to the second thing that prompted these musings. In response to my earlier post, Where Are All The Science Fiction Romance Loops?, Lizzie Newell shared her thoughts about the focus of the SFR Brigade:

It has romance books set in space but very few science fiction books containing romance. There is too much promotion of what I consider low quality books. These are low quality from a science fiction perspective. No one wants to come out and say they are low quality books because of fear of offending the writers and because SFR Brigade is serving as an advertizing venue for these books.

Let’s discuss it, then, shall we?

Not all of the books featured on the Brigade are erotic SFR, but many are, and I can’t help but wonder if Ms. Newell meant those when she was describing the “low quality books.” I responded to her comment and shared my opinion that comparing erotic SFR to romantic SF is akin to comparing apples and oranges. Apples aren’t low quality just because they’re not oranges. There is high quality erotic SFR and high quality romantic SF, but the expectations are different for each. Some readers enjoy both, some don’t, and power to them all.

But even if Ms. Newell didn’t mean erotic SFR in particular, I still think it’s an important conversation to have. Unfortunately, I’ve encountered previous reader disgruntlement when it comes to worldbuilding (and also plot) in erotic SFR. Even some authors I’ve spoken with have expressed concern about erotic SFR being a throwback to some of the painfully flawed old skool futuristic romances. .

Does the hybrid nature of these stories play a role? After all, when you add an erotic level of heat to an SFR, it’s like mixing three genres. This is especially true if a publisher has expectations for multiple love scenes. Inevitably, something has to be spaced, and it often seems like plot and worldbuilding are the first things to go.

So yes, there are low-quality books in science fiction romance/erotic SFR (for a variety of reasons, not just lame worldbuilding). There will probably *always* be low quality books, but there will also be authors willing to learn and improve their craft. And even if a few low-quality books make it through, some readers may love them, and that's okay.

As Kaye Manro and others have suggested, authors who want to blend SF, romance, and/or erotica would do well to read widely in all of the genres. Because if the “erotic” in erotic SFR is indeed just a heat level (and not erotica in disguise), then readers will have the same expectations for good plot and worldbuilding as they do for non-erotic SFR/romantic SF.

On the same token, let’s not forget that erotic SFR can explore concepts that mainstream SFR or romantic SF can’t or won’t touch—much like the original STAR TREK series explored the issue of interracial romance in Kirk and Uhura’s sultry kiss.

What’s your take? Is erotic SFR just fine as is, or would it gain more readers through better storytelling?

Joyfully yours,


*I readily admit to shamelessly co-opting Emeril Lagasse’s “Kick it up a notch” phrase. Back when I had cable, I was a Food Network junkie. Plus, Emeril’s Favorite Chinese Green Beans is soooo delicious (even despite the silly recipe title. Think: long beans, not your garden variety green beans.).