Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Parallel Univere: Sci, Meet Fi by Robert Appleton

What if...? is the ultimate science fiction question.

The hazy space between hard science and fantasy is a SF writer’s playground. That stellar place where conjecture meets the impossible and everything is somehow exciting and plausible. A place that renders cynicism impotent. A cosmic cloud in which nothing and no one can “get to you” if you don’t want it to.

It’s the Mutara Nebula!

For every Rendezvous with Rama (Arthur C. Clarke), we have a John Carter of Mars (Edgar Rice Burroughs). The two couldn’t be more different—plausible SF and space swashbuckler—yet both have inspired generations of scientists, and command a preternatural excitement in readers to this day.

Romantic elements have existed in SF since the early pulp adventures. It’s an easy pairing—romance provides the human face for what can at times be a cold and sterile genre. There’s something inherently romantic and grandiose about trekking through the stars anyway. As a reader, the further we go from what we know, the more comforting the romance becomes. Why not just go one step further and give it a name—SFR.

For me, one of the great things about science fiction romance is its versatility. Fringe stories that may lean further toward one genre are embraced by SFR readers precisely because a balance between the two genres is so difficult to achieve. But this inclusivity is also a factor in SFR’s identity crisis; those fringe stories are automatically absorbed by either Romance or SF, or other misleading labels such as paranormal romance, in terms of cover art, genre classification, promotion, etc. SFR therefore becomes a cherished sub-genre without ever convincing “outsiders” it isn’t having its cake and eating it.

Is it cold, hard science with a splash of romance? Or lovey-dovey shenanigans in a starry setting?

But Science Fiction Romance is one of the most cutting edge genres in fiction precisely because it has the potential to depolarize two traditionally opposite readerships without compromising either of its component parts.

Anyone who doubts that, please consider these Top 100 Must-Read SFR Books posted on The Galaxy Express.

In The Promise of Kierna’Rhoan, Isabo Kelly blends action, politics, xenophobia, espionage, and a human love triangle, and the effect is seamless. Her unique world-building, particularly with the alien “shifters”, is proof that romance need not soften SF; and vice-versa, as Kira Farseaker’s passionate affair with David Cario is never diluted by the technology and out-of-this-world elements.

It’s a tricky balance to strike, though. Many writers are skilled at SF or Romance but not both (I’m still working at the latter), and a great many fringe stories don’t necessarily require equal footing be given both genres. The plausibility of the “science”, however, is as variable and subject to taste as it ever was, with equally successful SFR being written in everything from solid, speculative science (Manda Benson’s Dark Tempest) to giddy, Star Wars type space opera.

No one can say warp drives won’t be invented, or that humans won’t evolve with all sorts of outlandish traits (ESP, two heads, brotherly love, maybe all three at the same time!). And what was silly science way back when—walking on the moon, the micro-world, evolution—is now taught in schools. Anyone who states categorically that a SF concept will never become reality because it doesn’t fit with what we know has misunderstood science fiction.

“As I gazed at it on that far-gone night it seemed to call across the unthinkable void, to lure me to it, draw me as the lodestone attracts a particle of iron.” – A Princess of Mars

First comes the dream, then its capture.

Romance, too, need not preclude the highly unlikely—alien species being humanoid—any more than a good old-fashioned human love triangle. If the story is working and the characters compelling, SFR has an infinite canvas.

Consider Heather Massey’s article on Defining the Genre: Science Fiction Romance for an overview of the main categories of story type and labelling.

Personally, I dislike a HEA or HFN requirement in any science fiction. It strikes at the speculative heart of the genre. But I also understand why romance readers insist on them—that comfort is one of their primary reading joys. And at the end of the day, what if...? applies equally to any kind of ending.

SF and R. It’s a fascinating marriage.


Robert Appleton writes in a variety of genres, mainly science fiction and historical. His publishers include Samhain, Carina Press, and Uncial Press. He lives in Bolton, NW England, and enjoys kayaking and Victorian adventure novels (wishes he could do both together).

Visit his website at http://www.robertappleton.co.uk
or visit his blog at http://robertbappleton.blogspot.com