Thursday, October 24, 2013

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Are Readers Ready For More Inter-species Sci-Fi Romance Like R. Lee Smith's THE LAST HOUR OF GANN?

[Warning: epic post ahead! This might be the longest one I've ever written. Also, an alert for mild story spoilers regarding THE LAST HOUR OF GANN. And if general mentions of rape/torture/sexual peril is a trigger for you, you may want to avoid this post.]
At the All About Romance blog, Wendy Clyde and Dabney Grinnan discussed their impressions of R. Lee Smith's THE LAST HOUR OF GANN. This book, which has been tagged as sci-fi romance, "grimdark" romance, and erotic horror, features a heroine who crash lands on an alien planet and encounters the hero, an alien in the form of a humanoid lizard. 

Here's the blurb:

It was her last chance:

Amber Bierce had nothing left except her sister and two tickets on Earth’s first colony-ship. She entered her Sleeper with a five-year contract and the promise of a better life, but awakened in wreckage on an unknown world. For the survivors, there is no rescue, no way home and no hope until they are found by Meoraq—a holy warrior more deadly than any hungering beast on this hostile new world…but whose eyes show a different sort of hunger when he looks at her.

It was his last year of freedom:

Uyane Meoraq is a Sword of Sheul, God’s own instrument of judgment, victor of hundreds of trials, with a conqueror’s rights over all men. Or at least he was until his father’s death. Now, without divine intervention, he will be forced to assume stewardship over House Uyane and lose the life he has always known. At the legendary temple of Xi’Matezh, Meoraq hopes to find the deliverance he seeks, but the humans he encounters on his pilgrimage may prove too great a test even for him…especially the one called Amber, behind whose monstrous appearance burns a woman’s heart unlike any he has ever known.

To qualify, I've not read Gann (reports that the heroine and other women in the story lack agency stopped me cold), but based on my reading of many reviews, posts, and tweets about it, I learned that the story is epic length--about three books bundled into one--and features dark themes such as rape.

The hero is a warrior priest whose culture condones the sexual subjugation of women. The hero is shown as an active participant in the sexual subjugation. During the course of the story, the heroine is sexually tortured with rape by aliens other than the hero. My understanding is that the sexual peril/rape aspect is a prominent theme. Every review or discussion of the book I've seen refers to this element.

During a routine jaunt around the romance/SF blogospheres, I found the AAR post. One passage in particular jumped out at me:

Wendy: This book was certainly different from any of the other romances I’ve read. Inter-species love has been explored before, of course, but never so successfully and somehow realistically, in my opinion.

I'd like to unpack her observation a bit.

My initial reaction was frustration upon encountering the idea that a sci-fi romance (for those who consider it SFR) featuring inter-species love has never been explored "so successfully."

I began to wonder what she means by "success." Number of sales? Amount of Twitter/blogosphere buzz? Is this the only inter-species SFR that's any good? Is a lizard man hero more compelling than the human-like aliens that dominate this genre? Or does she believe the book's high level of dark, sexual peril content translates to a more successful sci-fi romance? 

If one removes the sexual peril element, plenty of SFR books have covered the same ground as THE LAST HOUR OF GANN. Alien planets. Alien heroes. Survival elements. Characters who belong to a religious culture. Love against the odds. Taming the hero. Etc.

Based on the tags I've seen readers use to describe Gann, I can only conclude that what Gann has done differently has been to employ "extreme romance" elements, particularly in the form of sexual peril, and to package it in a much longer book. Still, that's a significant break from the genre in general, at least in my reading experience. 

Is there a reason other authors of SFR haven't attempted a similar type of story when it can clearly command so much attention from readers? That's the $64,000 dollar question.

Now, if one were to judge success in terms of online buzz, I agree that Gann certainly got readers talking. Readers are sharing how they've convinced other readers to check this book out. Some are willing to take the risk despite ew, reptilian hero. Readalongs are springing up. Readers new to the genre are taking notice. Ones like Roni Loren, who normally don't give SFR the time of day, are willing to take a risk on it:

One of the things I love about being linked into the reading/reviewing/writing community is that I get book recommendations that lead me to stories I never would've picked up on my own. So last week, when I was pouting about having two DNF books in a row, I was on the look out for something good. That's when I saw buzz around Twitter about a book called The Last Hour of Gann by R. Lee Smith. And when I saw reviewers like Jane at Dear Author and Mandi at Smexy Books raving about it, I paid attention.

But I looked at the summary and I'm thinking--meh, I don't really read adult sci-fi. And I'm not really into books where characters have those crazy, hard to pronounce names. And wait--the hero is a lizard man? And it's something like 1500 pages long?! It's like the opposite of what I gravitate to, lol. But the reviews were so effusive and those reviewers don't hand out praise easily. So I decided to give it a shot.

However, the success Wendy seems to be alluding to strikes me as an observation that Gann is an inter-species romance that's inherently more compelling than the books that came before.
The "never so successfully" makes me wonder to what extent folks believe THE WALKING DEAD television show is more successful than all the other zombie movies/books/comics that came before it. TWD certainly helped move zombie stories squarely into the mainstream and has accomplished some innovative storytelling feats.

But can it claim overall success based on story merit alone? After all, the comic book existed for years prior to the show airing. When I scored an autographed copy if issue #1 from co-creator Tony Moore at the San Diego Comic-Con circa 2004, there wasn't a crowd of people at the booth.

I'd argue that TWD is so successful precisely because of all the other zombie stories that came before it. Audiences were primed--probably sometimes without even realizing it--to enjoy the show because other artists--in film, comics, and books--kept persevering and experimenting with ways to tell a zombie story. Plus, technology can open up new markets and storytelling freedom, so timing is a factor as well.

I, personally, can never evaluate the success of something like THE WALKING DEAD without taking into account previous cultural influences and progenitors. In other words, would readers have been inclined to read THE LAST HOUR OF GANN without any other inter-species/alien hero SFR having already existed? (Just the fact that I've seen Gann classified as "sci-fi romance" and not "futuristic romance" tells me how much the label alone is ingrained in romance readers these days.) 

But let's put aside other influences for the moment. It's possible that readers are picking up on the extreme romance elements of Gann, meaning that those elements are the attention-grabbing elements more so than the science fiction romance ones. Maybe THE LAST HOUR OF GANN is simply another example of a successful "extreme romance" and it just happens to have a science fictional setting. In that sense, whatever came before in terms of non-extreme SFR may be inconsequential.

Moving on to another issue: I'm not sure what to make of the idea that Gann is perceived as more "realistic" than other inter-species sci-fi romances. For example, how is Meoraq's romance with Amber in THE LAST HOUR OF GANN more realistic than the one between Genevieve and Duin, the cetacean-based alien hero of J.L. Hilton's STELLARNET REBEL? I thought the romance in Rebel was realistically portrayed in terms of attention to detail in the alien physiology and worldbuilding. Am I missing something?
Reptile from Mortal Kombat needs his own SFR--stat!
Since we're on the topic of truly alien heroes (meaning ones who aren't packaged as human), I'd like to revisit a post I wrote in 2009 called Bug-Eyed Monsters In Love. In that post, I expressed an interest in SFRs featuring a truly alien hero:

Yes, you read that right—I want to read an SFR featuring a romance either between two B.E.M.’s or between a B.E.M. and a human. What the hey-ho, let’s order ‘em both up! I think a story like that could be quite compelling. Although it’s easy for me to express my interest in such a tale, I can definitely imagine how difficult it would be to pull off that kind of feat.

Well, given the existence of THE LAST HOUR OF GANN, perhaps that feat isn't so difficult after all. Yet there was quite a bit of pushback about my proposal in the comment section. No hard feelings here--just pointing out the general resistance readers and authors have had toward the idea of inter-species romance.  

In fact, in a recent post at CONTACT - Infinite Futures, KC Burn advises:

We also discussed the need for aliens to be humanoid, or of human descent, because of course, in my opinion, if you’ve got alien lovin’ in your romance, the aliens need to be relatable and boinkable. Possibly the boink factor is more important, because if your alien is a hot mess of tentacles and eats cat poop for breakfast, you’re going to have a harder time selling the hot sex, never mind the relationship. Tentacle porn has its place, but it’s going to take a more skillful writer than me to sell a love story between a human and an alien from Galaxy Quest.

Given the buzz around THE LAST HOUR OF GANN's reptilian hero, is "relatable" still the case? Seems like he goes against the grain. Makes me wonder what changed about reader perception (other than a reviewer with immense influence discovering a sci-fi romance that's up her alley. :) ) Or is Meoraq just an outlier, a statistical anomaly? 

At various times, I've also encouraged SFR authors to take advantage of the flexibility that comes with digital publishing. Stories can be a few pages long or huge epics. I hope that interest in epic-length SFR isn't limited to extreme romances, though. Many authors would like to incorporate more detailed worldbuilding or complex worlds into their SFRs, but just aren't sure if readers would be receptive. (It doesn't help matters when publishers--even digital ones--insist authors tone down setting details. An argument for indie publishing, perhaps?).

Here's what a commenter had to say about the issue while sharing her initial impressions about THE LAST HOUR OF GANN in response to the AAR post:

It’s so rich and detailed. And it’s slow and epic – I love that Lee doesn’t feel like she has to rush right into the hard action but is willing to take the time to build up some backstory and character development. These days you just don’t get stories that feel they can be leisurely in the storytelling.

It's funny, because I've seen SFRs criticized for that very reason. Some are considered too "slow" because authors go the "rich and detailed" route. Readers reportedly don't want worldbuilding to interfere with the romance plot. Authors are strongly cautioned against featuring too much setting details and character development before the hero and heroine meet.
What's an author to do? Seems like they can't win. Contradictory messages are coming from all over the place. Write an SFR to romance market expectations and it's not going to be successful because it doesn't take enough risks. But if authors take time to introduce the characters and build the world, the story is deemed too slow--and it's not going to be successful.

There are no easy answers, but you know what? I've said it before and I'll say it again: Authors, forget the market. Forget readers, editors, and publishers when you're in create mode. Write the stories *you* want. If we readers can't even agree about what we want, then you ought to write what excites you the most. If you're not entertained by what you write, then readers may not be, either.

In my post about alien heroes in general, I wondered why they weren't more popular (meaning having appeal beyond the core SFR audience). The discussion section of the post covered non-humanoid alien heroes as well. Author J.L. Hilton stated the following:

You may be right, Heather, about aliens still having the stigma of being insects, invaders or monsters. Devils have been seducing women for centuries. Aliens, not so much. They are seen as Other, rather than symbolic of our own dark desires.

If Meoraq, a humanoid with distinct reptilian features, isn't a character who's "symbolic of our own dark desires," I don't know who is. Is THE LAST HOUR OF GANN a turning point in this regard? Are readers now more receptive to truly alien heroes?
I commented:

That's why I've been wondering if they need a reboot of some kind. They've [alien heroes] been safe enough to be a sure bet for publishers, but not enough of a risk to expand the reach of SFR.
If a site like AAR, which rarely reviews SFR, took a chance on THE LAST HOUR OF GANN, is it a sign of increased reader readiness for more risk-taking inter-species romances?
In the same post, Melisse Aires pointed out that "Basically, the alien needs to be sexy." 

Meoraq has lizard like features, which would normally be a hard sell for many romance readers, especially if they're only casual readers of SFR. If he doesn't look the same as a human male, I wonder if his behavior holds the key. Does his cultural allowances for multiple partners (kind of like a harem) make him appear more sexy, virile, and thus more compelling?

Did it take his extreme virility (i.e., his religion allowing him to have multiple sexual partners) to prove that a truly alien hero is worth reading about?

Or will the book have limited influence given the "extreme romance" fantasy being offered? In other words, unless an alien hero is one with unlimited access to women for sex, will the stories hold similar appeal? Some folks have wondered if Gann is merely classic romance tropes dressed in new clothing, for example:

On Monday night, after way too many Gorn vs Sleestak jokes  I tweeted a string of thoughts including “Plantation gave way to Savage gave way to Paranormal gives way to Alien? Rapey patriarchal societies where blood is key to futures? Mmm.”

Still, if THE LAST HOUR OF GANN has wetted the appetites of at least some readers for science fiction romance, then I'd like to offer a few recommendations--but with some caveats. 

* SFR has stories featuring inter-species romance, but not many with B.E.M. style alien heroes in my reading experience. I'm offering a short list because a) these are the only ones I've encountered so far and b) I suspect the actual number is fairly limited anyway. I'm excluding books about heroes with unusual appendages or other features because in those books they pretty much come across as human.

* Except for the first book on the following list (which is the start of a series), none of the stories have the epic reach of THE LAST HOUR OF GANN. 

* These books also lack a focus on sexual peril. In fact, they don't have any at all IIRC.

ON WINGS, RISING - Ann Somerville
KEIR - Pippa Jay
ENDLESS BLUE (romantic SF) - Wen Spencer

I haven't read Morgan Harcourt's SITUATION NORMAL, but word on the street is it falls into lizard hero territory.

Perhaps my passengers know of other titles?

One title of note I'd like to mention: HARD REBOOT by Darren Bloomquist and Angelia Sparrow has a human hero, but has a heroine in extreme sexual peril/exploitation and features "grimdark" themes. This is a story for readers who can embrace the graphic, disturbing content without the distancing effect of a zoomorphic hero. (I tagged the book here.)

I'd also like to present a list of science fiction romances for readers who aren't interested in THE LAST HOUR OF GANN, but want to give SFR a try. This is a list of random titles, but I endeavored to provide a variety of settings, characters, tropes, heat levels, etc. There are few if any triggers such as rape/sexual peril in the following books.

FULL STEAM AHEAD - Nathalie Gray
GAMES OF COMMAND - Linnea Sinclair
GHOST IN THE MACHINE - Barbara J. Hancock
FORTUNE'S HERO - Jenna Bennett
RAGNAR & JULIET - Lucy Woodhull
THE SPIRAL PATH - Lisa Paitz Spindler
HUNTING KAT - P.J. Schnyder

What do you think about the current state of inter-species romance in SFR? Would you like to read books that take more risks with alien heroes? What about inter-species sci-fi romances with alien heroines? If extreme erotic/sexual content isn't for you, what kind of inter-species romance story elements would you find appealing?

Joyfully yours,