Thursday, August 18, 2016

We need our own genre

In the years that I've been writing my space operas I've witnessed many, many discussions about 'what is science fiction romance'. People can get quite hot under the collar about many aspects of the genre – especially that romance part. And that, folks, is where I come unstuck.

Not too many years ago we writers had a choice of whether to classify our books in BISAC as romance, or a subset of science fiction (which did not, and does not, include a romance sub-category). This meant we had a choice of whether to upset Romance readers (note the capital R), or the Science Fiction fraternity (note choice of word). When BISAC included a science fiction subgenre under Romance we rejoiced. Hurrah! We've made it! Yep, me, too.

But now, a year or two down the track, I've had a re-think. Because I don't write Romance -> science fiction, I write science fiction -> romance. I don't believe they are the same thing.

In any system of classification, the wider category dictates the basic characteristics. Thus in the case of cats Felidae is the family of cats. A member of this family is also called a felid. (From Wikipedia)
Living cats belong to the subfamilies:
  •        Pantherinae – comprising the tiger, lion, jaguar, leopard, snow leopard and clouded leopards
  •        Felinae – including all the non-pantherine cats
And while all those felids are a little bit different they MUST all have the basic characteristics of a the family as a whole.

Similarly, under Romance there are no less than thirty-two subfamilies, one of which is science fiction. (see BISAC listing). And all of them must adhere to the basic requirements of Romance.

Quoting from the Romance Writers of America website Romance novels must have:
·         A Central Love Story: The main plot centers around individuals falling in love and struggling to make the relationship work. A writer can include as many subplots as he/she wants as long as the love story is the main focus of the novel.
·         An Emotionally Satisfying and Optimistic Ending: In a romance, the lovers who risk and struggle for each other and their relationship are rewarded with emotional justice and unconditional love.

Certainly some writers can deliver a Romance in a sufficiently "science" science fiction setting to satisfy the Romance requirements. Linnea Sinclair's Hope's Folly is one such. But even there, if you read the 'reviews' on Amazon, you'll find that not everyone loved the 'agonising over feelings' mixed up with the action. I received similar 'reviews' for The Iron Admiral: Deception. Too much romance and not enough science fiction.

But while, as far as I know, Linnea Sinclair didn't break any of the undeclared rules of Romance, I did. The female MC in the Iron Admiral books is a married woman, committing adultery, even if her estranged husband is a philandering asshole. When I wrote Morgan's Choice, Ravindra was married when he met Morgan. I saw that as an opportunity to highlight the differences in culture between the two societies, and add a degree of conflict. But my editor told me Romance readers wouldn't be pleased, so I killed Mrs Ravindra off.

I've several times received a shot across the bows for not adhering to the expectations of Romance readers, most recently with Ella and the Admiral, where both the protagonists are married to someone else when they meet. I'm sure many of my fellow authors have grappled with similar issues, where they want to write about something real that happens to real people, but they need to decide whether they must modify their approach to give Romance readers what they expect.

Having said all that, I have no quarrel with Romance or any other genre. The categories are there for a reason, which is to help readers choose a book to their taste. I get it. Romance readers expect positive, upbeat stories with an HEA or an HFN, where the plot is all about the romance and anything else is a subplot. If the story happens inside a spaceship, that's enough to earn the label Romance->science fiction.

And there, I feel, is the rub. I was never a Romance reader. Sure, I've read a couple of Mills and Boon titles in my time. But I stress, only a couple, which were truly forgettable. For me, a romance by itself was never enough of a story to hold my interest. I preferred – still do – science fiction, fantasy, and crime. However, while you'll find love interest in fantasy, human interaction is very often missing from science fiction books.  That's why I decided to write books with that element included, in much the same way that modern crime novels tend to show a character study of the detective, along with the murder investigation. Toby Neal's Lei crime series is an example. I could cite others.

For me as an author, romance is a subplot of a science fiction story. I've never made a secret of it. My by-line says it all – fast-paced action adventure with a dollop of romance. And if you asked me, I would tell you that I view Hope's Folly in the same way. Would the story stand up without the romance? Yes, I think it would – but it wouldn't have been as much fun. Another example is Anne McCaffrey's Dragonflight. Unlike some people, I'm happy to accept it's an SF story. The relationship between Lessa and F'lar is a very important part of the plot, but I'd hesitate to call it a Romance.

I would love to see a new BISAC subcategory for Science Fiction -> romance, which would signal to potential readers that while they can expect a science fiction story with the futuristic aspect they would expect, there will also be messy, squishy bits and talk of feelings. But the romance, while an integral part of the plot, need not be the main story arc. That way the hard SF aficionados, and the die-hard Romance readers, could be warned off, and I could write about adulterers and other real people on a battle cruiser without offending anybody.


  1. I think people tend to refer to sci fi as 'character-driven' vs. 'plot-driven', which I consider inadequate, too. However, I do think there should be some kind of phrase or word that refers to 'full-life' stories, the exposition of which entails the other messy real-life stuff that is concurrent to the hard-core action/adventure plot.

    I've always detested the term 'space opera', too. WTH is that, exactly? I guess it's because I've always detested soap operas, so 'space opera' seems to imply the same overdramatic, over-the-top behaviors. I simply don't know what word would represent the entire fullness of life in a story in addition to the science fiction. Maybe some kind of 'gestalt' term?

  2. The problem comes not in the writing of the stories, but in the marketing of them. Romance is a huge and, generally, welcoming market. Thus you CAN have a category called romance>science fiction in that market and be accepted. Science fiction has been and continues to be a very small niche market, where, as you describe it, even a dollop of romance is roundly criticized by its predominantly male and narrowly focused readership.

    The hard truth of the matter, I believe, is that the potential readership for something that neither meets the conventions of romance or of science fiction as they are currently defined is vanishingly small, no matter what we choose to call it. I've chosen to chase the romance market, not because I know that's where the readers are, but because my heart is truly in the romantic arc and HEA.

  3. I've been struggling with and against this for almost sixteen years. (Thanks for the shout-out on my HOPE'S FOLLY!). I've yet to come up with an answer--and neither have my agents or editors. It's like that old Reese's Pieces commercial--you've got chocolate on my peanut butter. No, you've got peanut butter on my chocolate!

    Eva, I think to SF readers, "space opera" defines character-drive stories, where things such as military SF is more plot driven. I agree, though--it's rather an odd descriptive. Likely it means more to industry types than readers. I know that when I was "just a reader" (and as an author, I adore just-readers) I didn't know any of the sub-terms. I read SF voraciously and chose what I liked from the back cover blurb. Sometimes that served me well, sometimes not.

    As Donna notes, romance as a genre is more open and welcoming than hard-line SF (though that has changed and is still changing). For that reason, a lot of SFR writers court the romance platform. I think it's also because a lot of RSF/SFR and futuristics were originally lumped under (and often still are lumped under) the PNR (paranormal) umbrella. As clunky as that can be, I have gotten readers who've been willing to try SFR because it has some common elements with PNR (huge suspension of disbelief, for one).

    The whole point, for me, in the romance angle of my books is not that I set out to write Romance as a genre. I set out to write a story and--because of who I am and what makes me me--I can't separate the relationship angle from characterization. Who we are as people (characters) to me is affected by and defined by those we love and hate, and why we love and hate, and what drives us to to seek out friends and lovers. My stories contain just as many friendship-based subplots and romance-based. (IE: In FOLLY, the whole story of Philip and his second-in-command and longtime friend, Con Welford, and Spark's effect on the other characters and the plot.)

    Yes, things like loyalty and patriotism and sacrifice do drive people/characters, but "loyalty" (etc.) is a vague term UNTIL it's paired with a character. Any kind of belief system is impersonal--and hence less effective--until it's made personal in a story. And to make it personal, you need a person/character. Which means there's a relationship. Which means there are emotions.

    Much of the problem stems from the "S" in SF/SFR. Science deletes emotions. Science is fact. Emotions are... messy and not fact-happy. The term SCIENCE fiction ROMANCE becomes then a bit of a whiplash thing.

    Over a decade ago, author Susan Grant ::genuflect genuflect:: and I debated this exact same topic on some other blog or site, and probably at a few conference bars. Noted author Jacqueline Lichtenberg, arguably one of the grandmothers of SFR/RSF, has addressed this many times. So has Catherine Asaro (another grande-dame). We've all kicked around the "Genre of Our Own" idea. We've not yet found a workable answer.

    But hey, if you all have the time, I've got the beer...(or wine). I'm open to suggestions.

  4. Thanks for popping in, Linnea,and, yes, I agree that this seems to be one of those topics we just seem to return to every few years. You're right, I think, that the term SFR gives people a kind of definitional "whiplash." But the break is at SF and Romance, for most readers. Like you said, they just can't figure out that the two things are good together until you remind them of Classic STAR TREK or AVATAR or New Age SF from the Sixties. But we've been in search of a new name (and a new identity), as you point out, for decades now, and I don't think one is likely to present itself.

    What complicates matters even more, "SFR" encompasses a universe of diverse stories, from space opera to weird contemporaries to dystopian tales, from sweet romances to erotica, from scenes that slam the door on sex to scenes that invite the crew in. How to present this conglomeration to a reading world that views us with distrust already?

    Maybe--and I'm only half-kidding here--we should consider a sliding scale for all our back covers: from science fiction to romance, where does this story fit? Mine would be smack-dab in the middle. You can't take out either part of the story and have it work. (Of course, that's the way any subgenre of romance is supposed to work--romantic suspense, paranormal romance, historical romance, all of them.) But a writer like Greta might be closer to the SF end of the scale, while a writer of "futuristics" like, say, Sherrilyn Kenyon, would be at the Romance end.

    1. Thanks to everyone for their well-considered comments. When this topic came up several years ago I wrote a blog post about it which included a graphic of just such a sliding scale as you mention. On two dimensions, actually - the sex, which like any Romance, can be at any heat level; and the science, which can also vary from fluffy to hard core. I accept there's no easy answer. Maybe the REAL answer is to persuade our brothers in arms who dominate SF that there is room for romance - AVATAR is a great example.

      Things are changing in the SF world, and I have high hopes that the Star Wars franchise in particular will make strong heroines with the associated messy feeling bits, more acceptable.

    2. I agree that persuading more SF fans that romance is not antithetical to their reading experience is an avenue worth pursuing. I'm getting my husband to read some SFR and some RomSF, and I'm recommending books with science fiction and romance to my friends who are more traditional genre fans. That's all I know how and what to do to start.

  5. Huh. I wrote this in 2013. What goes around, comes around. Here it is, complete with THREE sliding scales.

  6. For me romance is simply part of any realistic story, whether it is told in the past, current era or future. I don't sit down and say "i'm going to write a romance!" I just write a story and if, when I finish it seems like a romance, I'll declare it a romance. It It also is in outerspace, or has sci fi parts, I'll call it Sci-fi rom. I even have a serious I declare to be a Disaster Romance. If we pigeon hole novels, forcing them to fit the strictest terms of a genre, we'll all write the same trope over and over and over. Some peeps do this beautifully, but I like to to be unique and different. So my response to all this worrying is: Write what you want. Call it what you want. and Be happy with what your wrote.

  7. This is why it took me so long to sell Atrophy. All the feedback I got said it didn't adhere to any "industry standards." It had too much romance for the sci-fi readers, and too much sci-fi for the romance readers, so no one wanted to touch it. When I finally sold it to Entangled - who I realized and accepted were a "romance" publisher - I was also accepting the fact that I would need to beef up the romance side of things to appease the romance readers. So I guess to get it published, my decision ended up being to cater more for the romance crowd because I was (hopefully) likely to capture more readers. But I will admit I've been left feeling like I've completely cut myself out of getting any sci-fi readers, especially men. As Linnea said, I set out to write a story, it just so happens that the story and situations my characters go through can't happen without the relationship side of things developing.

    The thing is, people are so eager to put things in boxes and neatly label them. And they seem to completely forget things like Star Wars (with an undeniable romantic thread running through it) exists as Donna said. But no one wants to label that as anything other than classic sci fi.

    And then there's TV shows. John and Aeryn on Farscape. Apollo and Starbuck on BSG. Jack and Sam on Stargate, Clarke and Bellamy on The 100 and SO MANY others. They all have on-going romance arcs in their story lines, in many cases, the relationship is what draws the viewers back week after week. But no one is pigeon-holing them. If they were books, would people want to label them and decide they're not going to read them because "EW icky romance stuff!" or "omg boring sci-fi technical jargon"?

    Sorry, this rant probably isn't saying anything that people already haven't. Its just so frustrating! I understand the need for labels so books can be "shelved" on places like Amazon so readers can find them more easily. As Linnea said, the term "science fiction romance" doesn't gel for a number of reasons. My own onion being that if you think of the old cliche views or romance (mills and boons, dramatic, overly emotional, TSTL heroines etc) then think of the old cliche of sci-fi novels (male dominated, often dry exposition, sometimes lots of technical jargon, read mostly by nerds and socially awkward people) then those two elements just do not fit together in people's minds.

    A new label would be great. But what? Space Romance? Romantic Futuristic Speculative Fiction?
    Ambiguously Prospective Sexy Times?
    And how do we get the word out, how do we get the industry (publishers, amazon, etc) to take it on?

    What we really need is a break-out title or series, like PNR had Twilight (shudder... let's hope the SFR breakout title is a little better than that) and Dystopian had Hunger Games. Something that goes mainstream so people finally see there is an amazing subset of books here just waiting to be discovered.

    1. Yep, you're right. Thanks for sharing. If nothing else, it's nice to know I'm not alone.

  8. Well, I wrote a blog piece called "Science Fiction Romance: The Ultimate Fusion!" a few years ago. Maybe we can use the word 'fusion' with 'science fiction' somehow, kinda like mash-ups in music or whatever. Fusion sci fi? Sci fi fusion? The idea is that "JUST" sci fi isn't realistic, that there are other parts of life that drive people to their goals instead of mere scientific curiosity. So we fuse all the messy parts of life into the sci fi. Just a suggestion.

    1. Here's the blog post: Science Fiction Romance, the Ultimate Fusion

  9. Good input, all of you. ::Linnea hands around some cold beers and a bottle of wine...::

    I get and understand the issue with labels--and because we don't neatly fit, our in-grown dislike of same. But restaurants have labels. If hubby and I go out for Italian, he--trust me on this--does NOT want sushi on his plate.

    Readers want to know what they're getting. Once an author is established, and there's the reader-author trust going, I think a writer has more wiggle-room. But initially, if a reader craves lasagna, she's not going to be thrilled with sliced marinated eel on her plate. So we need to accurately call our genre something that's clear.

    My issue with "futuristic"-anything is that many of our stories are not future-Earth but our characters' present day in their own unique universes. (IE: Star Wars is not "future Chicago..." and Tatooine is not future-Florida.) Yes, we have a ton of Earth in the year 3000+ type stories, but not ALL are that way.

    So one of the problems I see is that SFR/RSF/Futs are a broader genre or sub-genre than most people realize. And yes, there is a difference between SFR and RSF, and it's that sliding scale thing so wonderfully done and mentioned in earlier posts here.

    I don't know if that would help snag readers though because I think the whole issue is wider than that. We have devoted SFR/RSF fans who don't know where to find us. Then we have readers--both romance and spec fic--who don't know we exist. It's both a marketing problem and an identity problem.

    The mystery genre seems to bump along quite well with Cozies and Police Procedurals all being shelved as Mystery, right along with Noir and Amateur Sleuth. What are they grasping that we're not?

    ::Linnea pulls the cork on other bottle of wine... red or white, anyone?::

  10. Going by the definitions listed, I write Romantic sci fi, and do not have a problem with this.

    I do understand the frustrations mentioned though. I'm at where Jess was - romance publishers find too much sci fi in my novel while sci fi ones don't like the romance being so central.

    It'd be lovely to have a publisher happy with taking the middle road, but we're not there yet. But do we opt for one lane or the other and possibly never have a genre of our own, or push SFR and hope someone eventually twigs?


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