Sunday, December 12, 2010

Will The Real Fantasy Romance Please Stand Up?

I like alternating between new releases and older titles. And by older, I mean science fiction romances from the mid-eighties to 2000, give or take a few years. Recently, I read CRYSTAL FIRE (1992) by Kathleen Morgan and LORD OF THE DARK SUN by Stobie Piel.

Now, both of these books have “Futuristic Romance” on the spine. Both were released by Dorchester Publishing, historically a big supporter of SFR. Both contain abundant material about which we could converse for hours, but I’m burning to discuss an issue that these books made particularly salient for me.

As I read the stories, I encountered the typical space opera elements like star ships and laser guns and galactic adventure. But then—BAM!—something odd happened on the way to the science fiction romance story.

In short, I got a distinct fantasy genre vibe while reading them. A lot of fantasy tropes kept popping up. The “quest’ story structure. Psychic abilities bordering on magic. Elevated dialogue that seemed straight out of a Tolkienesque saga. Humanoid characters that were basically human, but with pointy ears. Sentient gorillas and bat-like creatures (sorry, “lingbats”—and the creatures could speak!). Plus, an Elrond wannabe.

The list goes on. All the while, the characters are traveling in space ships and using futuristic technology. Frankly, I found it really difficult to reconcile the mash up of fantasy and SF styles. I went in with the expectation of a science fiction romance, and ultimately that is what the stories delivered, but on the way they shifted back and forth. LORD OF THE DARK SUN in particular seemed to want to be both fantasy romance and science fiction romance (and the author’s forward is very telling, because she shares that as a teenager, she read LORD OF THE RINGS “twenty-two times”).

As for the context in which these stories were published, my understanding is that at the time, the door was pretty firmly closed on fantasy romance (such a shame, too). How odd that the chance of getting an SFR published was better than that for fantasy romance! I would have thought it’d be the other way around. So it could be that the authors wrote an SFR when what they *really* wanted to write was fantasy romance. Fantasy romance undercover, as it were.

To clarify, I have no problem with stories that blend SF and fantasy. But I enjoy them most when it’s clear which genre is driving the story. Or when the worldbuilding accounts for certain elements. With CRYSTAL FIRE and LORD OF THE DARK SUN, that aspect was muddled. The combination was more of a stylistic, execution type thing as opposed to a hybrid genre. Also, I didn’t get the sense that the “fantasy” elements were organic to the setting. Talking bats is fine, but how did they get that way? Were they genetically engineered? The only information we’re given is that one of the human characters taught one of them to speak. Come again?

I’ve also been encountering this tendency in a few more recent releases. Not many, but the hint of a fantasy-steeped writing style crops up now and then. Sometimes it’s just in the dialogue; other times it’s a worldbuilding element. While I've not read RAVISHED BY A VIKING (Berkley Heat, January 2011) by Delilah Devlin (described as an erotic futuristic romance by RT Book Reviews), the excerpt I read gave me that fantasy romance vibe.

In the past, authors might have been denied publication of fantasy romances so strongly that the only way they could satisfy their Muses was by layering beloved tropes into science fiction romances. And I grieve for them if that’s the case, because it goes without saying that fantasy romance is a perfectly valid subgenre—and definitely worthy of publication. Unfortunately, at the time, the limits of mainstream print publishing and distribution all but squashed those authors’ dreams.

Luckily, today is a different story. Fantasy romance and science fiction romance both have pretty much guaranteed homes among digital/small press publishers. I doubt authors need to resort to subterfuge to tell their fantasy romances anymore. But if they do, I at least hope they can make the effort invisible to me, especially as a reader steeped in both fantasy and science fiction.

By the way, if you’re interested in reading a true fantasy romance from back in the day, check out SILVERSWORD (1990) by Lindsay Randall. (Thanks to Jody Wallace for the link.)

Have you ever noticed this particular strain of fantasy-science fiction romance mash up? If so, what was your reaction?

Joyfully yours,