|Are you speaking the right language?|
But if we hope to write science fiction romance, we have to learn to speak another language with equal fluency: the language of love. This is the language of alpha males and wounded heroes, of kick-ass women and plucky heroines. It is a vocabulary of sexual tension that may or may not lead to explosive sex, but in which sex always has emotional meaning and moves the story forward. The words carry us on a tempestuous journey of meet, conflict, declaration, black moment and resolution. But they ultimately bring us back to the comforting home of happily ever after, or at least, happily for now.
In his Crossroads column in the online version of SF’s seminal magazine Amazing Stories (http://amazingstoriesmag.com/2013/02/crossroads-science-fiction-romance-a-niche-before-its-time/), Chris Gerwel argued recently that the conventions familiar to readers of science fiction and readers of romance are quite different. Many of the assumptions that can be made of SF readers simply can’t be made of romance readers and vice versa. We just don’t speak the same “languages”. Romance readers rapidly get bored by all the tech in a straight SF novel not because they don’t understand it, but because they don’t have the cultural “background” of those of us who absorbed Spock’s lectures with their pablum.
One common answer to the problem is to “dumb down” the tech side of the SFR in an attempt to reach out to the romance readers in the audience. Depending on the story, that can prove to be more or less useful. In a military space adventure, it flat-out won’t work. In an Earth-based SF suspense romance like mine, the tech is part of the background, like a telephone. No one expects a character to explain how a phone works, so no one expects to hear a long explanation of how the tech in my story works, either. Plenty of time to spend on the romance.
But here’s where I think many SFR writers go wrong. They don’t speak “romance”, or they refuse to learn the language. They are like Americans who take a vacation in Paris and shout at the waiters in English, expecting them to get it simply because they’re speaking louder. They don’t follow the conventions that are familiar to romance writers—they won’t introduce the hero and heroine until Chapter 15, or they’ll keep them apart for two-thirds of the book, or they’ll kill the hero in the end. They won’t pay attention to the need to build sexual tension from the moment the hero and the heroine appear together. Sex is random, too much or too little and seldom at the right times or for the right reasons (which should be to move the story emotionally). They just seem unaware that there is a clear, separate arc that must be fulfilled for the romance to be complete and satisfying for a romance reader familiar with the conventions of the genre.
In an earlier post in Amazing Stories, Gerwel outlined the success that paranormal romance writers have had, largely because they have been able to draw on much older storytelling traditions in human culture (vampires, werewolves, witches, etc.) and a pop culture that supports them. That is certainly true, but it is also true that the writers at the forefront of the paranormal romance phenomenon—Christine Feehan, Sherrilyn Kenyon, J.R. Ward and others—knowingly used the conventions and language of traditional romance to sell what were once unconventional stories. Wounded alpha males, women with a core of strength who could see the vulnerable heroes inside them, a struggle against overwhelming odds to defeat both an external villain and the internal barriers to their acceptance of each other, hot, emotional sex, and an HEA—these were the conventions romance readers were used to. It just took Feehan and Kenyon to suggest maybe vamps and demons needed love, too—and to write the stories irresistibly—to make it work.
Gerwel suggests that perhaps the relative youth of science fiction culture and storytelling convention works to our disadvantage. After all, vampires and demons have been around for centuries in our storytelling culture. But then, we have had rockets and aliens since the days of Jules Verne, mad scientists since Mary Shelley created Frankenstein over 150 years ago. The popularity of science fiction on television and in movies suggests the pop culture support Gerwel says is behind the paranormal surge could work for us, too. Ask anyone on the street what “warp drive” is and they could approximate an answer.
Science fiction romance will never reach the level of success our sisters in paranormal romance have had, though, if we continue to resist embracing the conventions of romance. We can’t just expect the “others” to learn our language without learning theirs. After all, we’re in the business of communication. The more languages we speak, the better.
Post Script: Gerwel also mentions that perhaps the conventions of the suspense novel or the noir film would be a good meeting ground for science fiction and romance readers. Romantic suspense readers are used to certain “rules” that would be familiar to readers of any Phillip K. Dick or William Gibson story. I’m hoping Gerwel is right, because that’s my style—though maybe not so dark. Let’s call it gris, if not noir. I just seem to imagine every dirtside settlement with dark streets and lots of neon.
For Heather Massey’s excellent take on Chris Gerwel’s post, see “Thoughts on Chris Gerwel’s ‘Science Fiction Romance—A Niche Before It’s Time?’” (http://thegalaxyexpress.net)