It’s Valentine’s Day, and love is in the air. I took the occasion to tell some of my favorite authors how much I’d love to co-write with them on Twitter, but the day also spurs thoughts as to what romance is within the context of Science Fiction, and whether it has a place being central to the story. The late-great, and my personal favorite, Anne McCaffrey once responded to criticism of romance in her work with “everything I write is romance,” which is an interesting perspective to think about in the context of SF.
I’ve gotten a couple of reader critiques over the last several months regarding my novel, Star Realms: Rescue Run about romance being central to the plot. The problem that those readers had with the work is that the characters seem to fall in love too quickly and act a little silly because of it. These are two characters from two competing worlds, with two different cultures attached to them. Both are steeped in propaganda that the other is evil, and yet they almost immediately completely trust each other and rely upon one another to solve their own personal problems. How could they?
Love is a dangerous and crazy thing. In our own normal lives, we see our friends go head over heels for someone, completely disappear, no longer talk to their friends, and they may not poke their head up at all for two or three years to say hello. It changes lives completely. In the heroic adventure, those lives will change in a different capacity than they do in ordinary situations. I had an intentional mind about considering that with Joan and Dario’s relationship in Rescue Run.
Consider Lois Bujold, another incredible Sci-Fi author who delves into romance with her work. I re-read over her Denvention 3 Guest of Honor speech from 2008 this morning, which addressed this very topic with her Sharing Knife series:
In fact, if romances are fantasies of love, and mysteries are fantasies of justice, I would now describe much SF as fantasies of political agency. All three genres also may embody themes of personal psychological empowerment, of course, though often very different in the details, as contrasted by the way the heroines “win” in romances, the way detectives “win” in mysteries, and the way, say, young male characters “win” in adventure tales. But now that I’ve noticed the politics in SF, they seem to be everywhere, like packs of little yapping dogs trying to savage your ankles. Not universally, thank heavens— there are wonderful lyrical books such as The Last Unicorn or other idiosyncratic tales that escape the trend. But certainly in the majority of books, to give the characters significance in the readers’ eyes means to give them political actions, with “military” read here as a sub-set of political.
So the two genres— Romance and SF— would seem to be arm-wrestling about the relative importance of the personal and the political. My solution for The Sharing Knife was to align the two levels by making the central characters be each a representative of their respective and conflicting cultures.
She defines the tug of war between Romance and Sci-Fi as genres, and what necessarily has to happen in a blend of the two quite well with this. I, like Lois, chose to have the two main characters represent their competing cultures, which created and resolved the greater political conflict within the realm of science fiction, their fears overcome by their love.
Romance is central to the human condition. We all fall prey to it far more than we would like, and it’s nearly impossible to notice at the time it’s happening. It sweeps us up within its grasp. The title of this post comes from one my favorite songwriters, Aaron Marsh, who posited: “Love is a drink that goes straight to my head / and time is a lover and I’m caught her stead / and the sentiment there follows me straight to my bed through the night.” When writing realistic and multi-dimensional characters in SF, one has to consider the power of love and romance and how it can sway the course of single human lives as such, which in turn can sway the course of worlds.
A contrary criticism to the above has been directed at the recent two Star Wars movies for sanitizing and removing that element, and I believe rightly so. Missed opportunities lead to characters being forgettable, stale or pointless in those films, whereas the original movie with Luke and Leia had a charge to it that, despite the creepy retcon of brother/sister in sequels, made for its greatness.
Look at Finn/Rey. There is a clear chemistry there between the actors, but it’s never moved upon. This impacts The Force Awakens negatively in a couple ways: 1. The “friend” motivation isn’t strong enough to justify a lot of their actions if you look from the outside and slow down to think about the plot during the frenzied pace. 2. Finn’s character is reduced to comic relief and nothing else. Seriously, watch it again. He’s worse than Jar Jar in that regard, and it’s sad because he had such potential as a concept and as an actor.
Rogue One had similar issues with two main characters I don’t even remember their names they were so bland. They had many opportunities to bud a romance between the two, and it was clearly edited out and sanitized. If only they had stopped for a moment to reflect on human emotion instead of driving plot pace 100% of the time, their deaths at the end of the movie would have had such a bigger impact.
Contrast that to perhaps the greatest science fiction work of all time, A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs:
“I have done many strange things in my life, many things that wiser men would not have dared, but never in my wildest fancies have I dreamed of winning a Dejah Thoris for myself— for never had I dreamed that in all the universe dwelt such a woman as the Princess of Helium. That you are a princess does not abash me, but that you are you is enough to make me doubt my sanity as I ask you, my princess, to be mine.” “He does not need to be abashed who so well knew the answer to his plea before the plea were made,” she replied, rising and placing her dear hands upon my shoulders, and so I took her in my arms and kissed her.
Wow, now that’s some passion that makes me feel for both the characters (and a big thanks to Jeffro Johnson in his Appendix N analysis for bringing this quote to light). It’s so important and integral to the story, even though the book is primarily about John Carter leaping around Mars, that it’s impossible to imagine how Princess of Mars would have been without that element. I posit it would have been just another adventure serial that would have had little impact.
At the end of the day, we as artists are here to emotionally impact our readers. The best way we can do that is to connect our readers with human elements, especially when we’re exploring alien worlds that are by nature detached from them. Almost all of the SF greats force readers to bond with the characters over romance. McCaffrey being obvious, Bujold as well in my favorite work of hers A Civil Campaign. Elizabeth Moon you see it throughout her work. Robert Jordan’s series had heavy focus, though it got a little absurd when Rand got three girls (the relationship of Mat and Tuon probably was the best, and though Perrin and Faile could be annoying, it did exemplify my point of people doing crazy things in the name of love). ERB and Star Wars had their moments as mentioned. Babylon 5 had one of the best romances ever between Sheridan and Delenn, another merging of two cultures storyline.
The list goes on. It’s something to think about as you read some of your favorites on this day of romantic reflection.