Sunday, April 11, 2010

The (Shifting) Line Between Romantic SF and Science Fiction Romance

Sometimes it’s easy to spot the difference between romantic science fiction and science fiction romance. If you can remove the romance without affecting the plot, then it’s romantic SF. It even boils down to the physical word count, in the sense that the majority of text is devoted to the external plot or worldbuilding, and the story doesn’t spend nearly as much time on the development of the romance.

Other times, it’s not as easy to measure when romantic SF crosses over into science fiction romance territory. In this case, reader subjectivity plays a significant role. I, for one, am highly guilty of interpreting the presence of a romance in romantic SF as much more predominant in a story than it actually is, if one measures it based on the ratio of romance to external plot. The issue is important when it comes to both defining science fiction romance as well as making reading recommendations. There are some SFR books on which we can all agree; others might lead to a healthy debate over where to draw the line.

Saranne Dawson GreenfireI’ve been mulling over this issue after two conversations I had recently, one with a reader and one with an author. The reader observed that some books seem to be romantic SF stories masquerading as romances (Saranne Dawson’s GREENFIRE was cited as one example). In part, that had to do with the book’s physical package (e.g., its spine read “romance,” and it had a clinch cover with futuristic motifs). GREENFIRE was packaged as SFR but the story didn’t meet the reader’s expectations for a romance.

My conversation with the author involved a discussion about worldbuilding, and it made me wonder about the prose differences between SFR released by SF imprints and those released by romance imprints. In other words, do SFR stories with “SF” on the spine contain “code” (meaning descriptive language) that differs from the “code” found in books with “romance” on the spine? And is it the code differences that make it more challenging to spot an SFR from science fiction publishers? Does it seem as though some books are masquerading as SFR because the code is different? Do there have to be code differences across the board, all of the time, as long as the romance isn’t merely a subplot?

So there are several issues afoot: packaging, descriptive language, reader expectation, and reader perception.

Blade DancerI’d like to briefly discuss two books that prompted me to reflect further on the topic. The first is BLADE DANCER by S.L. Viehl. Ms. Viehl alerted me about her book when I ran my feature In Search of…Handicapped Heroines. She was also kind enough to send me a copy. I enjoyed it very much, and not just for the fact that the heroine dealt with a physical disability. But having read it, I feel that it falls firmly under the romantic SF category. In large part, this is because the story features an ensemble of characters, one of whom is the hero, who join the heroine on her quest. That aspect alone dictated that less “screen time” be allotted to the development of the romance. So with BLADE DANCER, it was easy to make the distinction. (For what it’s worth, the romance has a clear beginning, middle, and HEA).

The second book I read was DARKSHIP THIEVES by Sarah H. Hoyt (who was also kind enough to send me her book. I tell you, it was a very good month!). DARKSHIP THIEVES is a very entertaining book and I consider it a science fiction romance. Your mileage may vary, but here’s what led me to that conclusion:

One factor is the story’s structure: Girl meets boy; girl loses boy; girl gets boy back. I’ll let you read it yourself for the details, but suffice it to say that I’ve seen the particular plot structure of DARKSHIP THIEVES in SFR stories released by romance publishers. Not only that, but the hero and heroine have their first encounter on page 21 and are together for much of the story. Even though they are separated for a time, the heroine’s subsequent actions are all about her love for the hero.

However, there were a few differences between this book and SFR released by romance publishers. One is that much more space was allotted to worldbuilding than sex scenes and sexual tension. The sexual tension existed, but not as much as there was in, say, C.J. Barry’s UNMASKED. In fact, the bedroom door is closed in DARKSHIP THIEVES.

Another difference was how Ms. Hoyt executed the romance development. I found it to be more action oriented than introspective, especially since the hero and heroine engage in both verbal and physical conflict right off the bat. Given their personalities, background, and ages (both are young adults), I felt that I couldn’t possibly have expected them to express romantic feelings or process them like their older adult counterparts (say, heroes and heroines in their thirties). So the romance was there, but it was executed differently. For example, the hero and heroine perform various actions to help/save each other, and that is where you experience the romance. Another, non-spoiler example is the violin scenes involving the heroine, but that’s all I’m going to say about that.

Where do you think the line is between romantic SF and SFR? What about descriptive language—is there room in science fiction romance for a variety of approaches? Does a lack of periodic introspection, overt sexual tension, or multiple sex scenes make it difficult to spot the romance aspects? Have you read any books that defy a distinct categorization?

Joyfully yours,