Tuesday, May 3, 2011

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A Questionnaire For The Sci-Fi Romance Community

Recently, author Sharon Lynn Fisher forwarded me a request for information from a Danish student—for privacy purposes I’ll call him S.—who was interested in learning more about science fiction romance for a school project. S. sent Sharon a questionnaire, and asked if she knew of anyone else who could help him out.

After Sharon contacted me, I answered the questions. Once I realized how I involved I’d gotten in my responses (and believe me, I could have easily written a few more pages!), I asked S. for permission to share both his questions and my answers on The Galaxy Express. I thought S.’s questions were good food for thought and figured we could have a stimulating discussion/debate about them.

As S. is seeking upwards of 20-30 responses from a mix of authors and readers, I also thought there’d be a few folks who would be piqued enough to answer some or all of the questions right here in the comment section. Alternately, if you’d like to send S. your answers directly, contact me at sfrgalaxy “at” gmail.com (subject line: questionnaire) and I’ll send you his email.

Below are my responses to the questionnaire. Whether you agree or disagree, I’d love to hear your thoughts and I’m sure S. would, too! Thanks in advance to anyone who participates.

Do you think SFR is primarily a subgenre of science fiction or of romance, an independent genre of its own, or another option I haven’t mentioned?


SFR can be either a subgenre of science fiction or romance, but three factors dictate its placement at any given time: genre conventions, the story’s focus, and reader expectation.

I should first clarify that many science fiction stories contain romance subplots, however not all of the romances have happy endings for the couple. Those lacking a happy ending are better characterized as romantic SF and fall squarely under the science fiction umbrella.

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?

One of the main—and most important—genre conventions in romance is the concept of the “Happily Ever After,” meaning that the story ends with the couple’s relationship and happiness firmly established, or at least the promise of such. Therefore, science fiction romance stories wherein the plot explores a scientific concept (the “what if…” element) and the romance has a Happily Every After are what readers have come to expect from the science fiction romance subgenre.

Because the genre convention of a “Happily Ever After” is most often found in books categorized as a romance, and a significant number of SFR stories are driven by the romance, there tend to be a larger number of science fiction romances released under the romance umbrella. Meaning that if you say SFR is a subgenre of romance, you would be mostly correct and probably most readers would agree with you.

On a more subjective level, regardless of the romance to SF ratio in any given story, science fiction romance stories with a happy ending for the couple are considered SFR if the reader in question reaches that conclusion about the story. Regarding story focus, some readers prefer more romance and less external plot in a story while others prefer the opposite. Or maybe something in between. All of these preferences are valid.

Another factor to consider is that both SF and romance publishers release science fiction romance titles. This means that there is a difference between a marketing label (e.g., categorizing a book as “SF” or “Romance”) and genre labels. For example, an SF publisher may release a book labeled as “SF” for marketing purposes even though the story itself is clearly a mix of both science fiction and a romance with a Happily Ever After.

“Science fiction romance” is a reader generated term used to describe a certain type of story. You won’t find it on a book spine; however, as the ebook market expands, more and more publishers are tagging books according to content (e.g., an SFR might be tagged as “science fiction,” “romance,” and “cyberpunk” to denote the elements unique to that book).

Mainstream romance tends to feature independent and at least in some aspects heroines, though it still seems to have some empathies [sic] on traditional gender roles. Do you think SFR goes further than mainstream romance in distancing itself from old gender roles?

I think your question is more about what kind of romance fantasies readers seek. Regardless of subgenre, romances offer a variety of heroines in a variety of fantasies. Some want heroines featured in traditional gender roles while others don’t. Science fiction romance is no different.

I will venture to say, though, that because of its speculative nature, science fiction romance has enormous potential to explore even more types of independent heroines than it already does, and perhaps more than other subgenres (e.g., historical romance). SFR isn’t limited to a particular time period or cultural mindset. Authors can and do experiment with all kinds of gender roles for their characters. 

For readers who want the fantasy of independent heroines who don’t ascribe to traditional gender roles, science fiction romance is certainly a great place to start. The subgenre is still evolving, and it will be interesting to discover how authors experiment with their heroines in the future.

In my initial research I have been surprised by the well established online community around SFR – a genre that otherwise doesn’t seem to get much attention. What do you think is the reason for this tightly knitted community?

There are several reasons, actually.

Longevity, for one thing. The online science fiction romance community has a number of devoted fans whose interest in the subgenre goes back decades. For example, before the Internet made social networking the breeze it is today, there were newsletters run by devoted fans and authors such as the Science Fiction Romance Newsletter, which I blogged about in “The History of the Science Fiction Romance Newsletter (I-IV):

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV.

Even before then, SFR-themed fan fiction paved the way for the subgenre and had a fandom of its own. Star Trek was one of the most popular subjects, and a person who played a big role there was author and SF/SFR guru Jacqueline Lichtenberg. Ms. Lichtenberg is blogging about SFR at Alien Romances to this day and still going strong.

Which brings me to perseverance. SFR fans are madly in love with the subgenre and are determined to find the stories they want no matter the obstacle. When they find like-minded readers, they tend to stick together.

A new generation of SFR bloggers has continued to carry the torch lit by previous readers/authors, but now we don’t just blog about SFR—we tap into an extensive social network to help spread the word. The active SFR bloggers I’m aware of include Spacefreighters Lounge, Alien Romances, Smart Girls Love SciFi & Paranormal Romance, Lisa Paitz Spindler, SFR Brigade, CONTACT – Infinite Futures, and my own blog, The Galaxy Express.

There are also a number of epublishers whose editorial staff include very devoted SFR fans (the most well-known being Samhain Publishing, Red Sage Publishing, and Carina Press). Some of these folks are very involved in online forums and help support the SFR community as well.

How big a part does being a reader/writer of SFR (or “skiffy rommer”) play in defining your identity, and do you think there are connections between your fandom and other aspects of your life besides reading and writing?

Science fiction romance has been a part of my life for a long time, so my exposure to the subgenre at an early age definitely impacted my view of the world. For example, I developed a romanticized view of space/space exploration as a result. Same goes for the idea of sentient life on other planets—SF/SFR made me a believer. Subjects such as astronomy took on a whole new meaning when viewed through the lens of my favorite SFR films/shows/books.

Upon further reflection, my general interest in science (outside of school) stemmed from watching and reading SF/SFR even more than agencies like science classes and parental influence. Few things can make math and science cool like a rousing cosmic adventure!

My involvement in fandom over the years has made me a more aware person in general. My horizons have broadened considerably about a multitude of subjects. Most importantly, now that I’m a parent, I hope to stimulate a similar excitement about science, culture, and the future in my daughter (and any other young person around whom I can exert a positive influence).

So for me, SFR is a way of life.

Anything else you’d like to share?

Thanks for the opportunity to share my thoughts!

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Joyfully yours,

Heather