Monday, October 31, 2011

Who R We Really?--The SF vs. Romance vs. SFR Debate


There have been several discussions recently on Skiffy Rommer blogs and sites about SF merging into the mainstream and where does that leave SFR?  Is SFR really a different species than SF, or will SFR be pulled into the slipstream along with the general genre?

I used to think of SFR as it's own distinct hybrid. Lately, I've been rethinking the whole SF/SFR differential.

What is SFR? 

It's character-driven SF with equal parts relational elements and plausible--or at least basic physics with liberal imagination applied--science.

Often the relational elements are interwoven with, affected or influenced by the tech or cultural elements. How does that make it different than Star Trek, Star Wars, Avatar or other popular SF fair?  Well....the simple answer is SFR always has to meet the romance rule--a happy resolution to the relationship. Not so in mainstream SF, although SF certainly can have a HEA.

So the question is, is there really a boundary? Have we created an invisible line that doesn't really exist for most readers? Are there fundamental differences between SFR and mainstream SF that relegate it to a different sector of the universe? 

I don't think so, Tim.

I think the only difference is the appeal to the audience, and let's face it the SF fan base now has a healthy dose of romance-friendly readers (thank you, Avatar). So maybe we've been wrong.  Maybe it's not a whole 'nother animal?

If SF is growing more R-acceptable, then edges of the genre have begun to blurr.

What if we simply erase the theoretical line in the sand? 

But...Then What do we Call it?

Does it need a label or have we outgrown the need?

Several years ago, members of the community had a lengthy discussion on The Galaxy Express about what we should call our fave reading and writing matter (you can read the discussions here and again here). At that time, the community was splintered between many nomikers including science fiction romance, speculative romance, futuristic romance, space opera, romantic sci-fi, plain ol' Sci Fi, etc., etc., etc. We made a more or less collective decision to name it, call it, and label it as Science Fiction Romance/Sci-Fi Romance/SFR to consolidate the many tags and help avoid confusion. It made absolute sense at the time.

That was then. This is now.

With the new standing of SF and high tech in modern culture (Have you heard? Geek is the new black), maybe it's time to throw the splinter-group idea to the solar winds.

SFR is SF. The only distinction is the sector of the audience we're targeting.
A subspecies is still part of the collective gene pool, so a subgenre is still a part of the collective genre pool. Right?

I rest my case.  :)  Do we have any rebuttals?


  1. I have to confess I'm leaning this way myself.

    But some sci-fi readers do prefer romantic stories (me!), and I do still believe there's value in calling out those books for that audience. When I speak to a general audience, I refer to my book as sci-fi. But if I'm doing an interview on The Galaxy Express, for example, I certainly want that audience to know there is a romantic relationship at the core of my story.

    What it comes down to for me is this - I don't want someone prejudging my book based on what they believe they know about the ending. I'd much rather they actually read it and decide whether they like it as a whole.

    As much as I enjoy a romantic story - and prefer a happy ending - I never make a decision about whether I enjoyed a book based solely on the ending. That is just one aspect. (How about you?)

  2. BTW, just a question...have you read much popular heroic fantasy that didn't also have an HEA? I don't know that romantic stories are unique in that aspect.

  3. Great point, Sharon.

    I think the majority of readers/audience prefer a story that has a happy or satisfying ending, no matter the genre or medium.

  4. Well, I have to play devil's advocate here, for a number of reasons. For one thing, I don't think we can assume that SF has gone mainstream in LITERATURE like it has in film. SFR has great onscreen appeal for both men and women watching a film like AVATAR, but when those couples go home, he is likely to settle in with a high-tech thriller, while she will go for the latest Nicholas Sparks or Nora Roberts.

    When was the last time you saw a pure SF title on the bestseller list? There's a reason agent after agent will say they take submissions of all kinds--ANYTHING BUT SCIENCE FICTION. For the most part the publishing industry considers SF to be at best a niche market and at worst something for kids--SF is big for the YA market.

    SF has just emerged from a decades-long marketing battle with fantasy for the hearts and minds of readers that has now begun to wane only because the battlefield--bookstore shelves--has disappeared.
    The long war has left many SF readers closed to trying new things--like stories with romantic elements.

    The romance market, on the other hand, is the liveliest segment of the publishing industry, with more readers, more new titles, more new ebooks, more new epublishers every year. Romance authors make up a large part of the bestseller list every week, in hardback and in paperback. Who wouldn't want to be part of that?

    Not so many years ago, writers like Sherrilyn Kenyon and Christine Feehan were submitting stories to agents and editors that broke the mold and challenged the conventions of the time. They were told vampires and demons weren't sexy, that the stories would never sell. Those agents and editors were wrong. I believe SFR is where paranormal romance was once upon a time. One day, our own Kenyon or Feehan will break through with an agent or an editor who has vision enough to see the future. I just hope I'm still around to see it.

  5. Great points, Donna. Completely agree with you about the film success of SF/SFR. It's the "date night" phenomenon. Same reason the new Battlestar Galactica was so successful.

    I'm not sure I agree about the unpalatability of sci-fi in general, though. It is a huge category with diverse offerings, from Scalzi to Doctorow, just to name a couple bestseller guys with different styles. (Scalzi even includes romance in his stories, and received a Romantic Times Reviewer’s Choice Award.)

    Would you agree a genre novel's best chance at success is its ability to cross - at least to some degree - into the mainstream? If so, here is what I'm wondering: does positioning the novel in one genre v. the other impact crossover potential? Or is it more a result of the content of the book? Or marketing efforts? Or timing and luck?

  6. A really interesting question, Sharon, because what is the mainstream these days? We can look at literary fiction (or as Stephen King calls it books about "extraordinary people in ordinary circumstances"; I call it books about dysfunctional families) and know we're not going to fit in there. Otherwise the bestseller lists are dominated by techno-thrillers, romance and George R.R. Martin.

    I'm just not sure what we'd be crossing over to. I think literature is just as fractured in terms of market as music is. In the old days, we had one Top 40 station and we heard everything from the Beatles to Motown to Frank Sinatra. Now you pick your own playlist on iTunes.

    It's frustrating from the POV of someone facing that crazy patchwork of buyers, trying to think of a way to attract their attention. And, truly, if I had the answer, I wouldn't be writing the books, I'd be selling other people's books. I don't have a clue.

  7. Ha, precisely. Me neither. :)

    I should clarify that when I said mainstream I was thinking more of popular commercial fiction, such as The Time Traveler's Wife. It's not what I'd call literary, and has broad appeal. Cold Mountain would be a non-speculative example. I'll cite Outlander again because it's an example of what I was talking about - it was originally labeled sf/f, but became popular across many audiences.

    Love those descriptions of literary!

  8. Donna, you bring up some great points. My take is no matter how a publisher chooses to market a novel, and what label they slap on the cover, how we promote our work could have more impact.

    We have to go where the audience is, and I think the audience is the SF fans...a good majority of whom are also romance fans. I think we may have created a monster in pigeon-holing our work as SFR (which I was all for when it was coinec, but have since observed the science fiction vs. romance connotation seems to have a negative effect for readers) and start selling it as character-driven SF.

    I believe SFR, er...what we finding a foothold in the e-publishing world right now, but agents and their primary targets, the editors at the big print houses, aren't on board with the trend yet. Yet being the operative word.

    The question is can we, as authors, writers and fans, change public perception by changing our promotion strategy?


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