25 August 2013

Is it Sci-Fi Romance or Romantic Sci-Fi? (I'll never tell.)

When I first awoke to life, I checked out books of science-fiction stories from the library: Ben Bova, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Andre Norton, Clifford Simak, Ray Bradbury, and Robert Silverberg's multi-author anthologies--and through them pursuing other stories by the authors in them. Mostly they involved space exploration, the problems of spacecraft in space or the dangers or delights of the surface of newly discovered worlds beyond Earth. (My first sci-fi story was called "Pseudospace"--basically a rip-off of the psychedelic ending of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey--two astronauts go insane because of their stressful experience in deep space.)

Nothing I read in those days dealt much with Earth or its future and certainly not much with the psychological and sociological impacts on the characters because of their line of work. (Some dealt with political issues by using a non-contemporary setting, I know; hence the point of the story was to illustrate a political conundrum, a what-if situation as warning not to go down that path, rather than a story, say, purely as entertainment.) There was seldom a romantic angle to the stories, and if even a hint of romance were to be detected by me, it was something innocent like the love of one scientist for the work of another scientist who happened to be of the opposite sex. I was, of course, an adolescent.

Then came the second awakening: Michael Moorcock, Roger Zelazny, Damon Knight, Robert Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, Frank Herbert, and more serious Robert Silverberg. These authors wrote more along the traditional line of what might be called fantasy rather than the more science-oriented sci-fi genre (in my opinion; don't get feisty now). They still evoked for me worlds of fascinating possibilities. I also liked sci-fi's ancient cousin: the Conan the Barbarian subgenre, as well as "sword and sorcery" books and films in general. Sure, they rescued the girl, but not really for love in most cases but simply to get a reward from her father, the king.

My own writing began as imitations of these authors. My protagonists were copies of Zelazny's Prince Corwin from Nine Princes in Amber and the rest of the Amber series, or with not much redressing Sam from Lord of Light. Little by little, I injected some of my own personality. (And still later, well into adulthood and hammered into submission in an MFA program, I allowed my protagonists to diverge from being mere clones of myself, acting as I would, speaking and thinking and moralizing as I would, to be their own independent entities.)

One thing that these later stories and novels had was more of what I might call here "romance," for lack of a better word. Romance is a problematic word because of its multiple uses. With a capital R it properly refers to those geographical areas of Europe (mostly) that were influenced by Roman civilization, including the language of Latin. Romance languages are those which emerged from Latin. In common parlance, if we speak of "romance" or something being "romantic" most of us will be meaning that it has aspects of or connections to something amorous, something of the heart, something related to relationships between people. A "romance" is a love affair, right?

Actually "romance" in the literary sense is a type of story in which a hero goes on a journey of some kind, seeking the ever unobtainable treasure (whether gold or wisdom)--sometimes intending to bring it back to impress his love-interest, sometimes keeping it for himself, for its own intrinsic worth. It's easy to see how this form lent itself to "modern" romance by the way the hero sacrifices himself for his lady, brings her something of value, and receives for it her love or other precious things [sexy details omitted]. Chivalry!

The Romance genre is one that celebrates stories about relationships. Boy meets girl, stuff happens, more stuff happens and, as the genre goes, they live happily ever after. (I've been told that if they do not live happily ever after, it cannot be Romance, as far as the genre is concerned; hence, I have coined the term, or am trying to, anti-romance: just like a romance but things do not work out in the end. In that sense of not working out, we have the Classic definition of a tragedy: the hero falls...or at least fails to get the treasure. In one of my favorite anti-romances, A Beautiful Chill, the girl grows throughout the novel and moves on to a better life, leaving the guy back where he started with not so much as a lesson learned.)

In my so-called MFA program, a university curriculum I entered with the idea of becoming a better writer (and, in a practical sense, to become "licensed" to teach creative writing), characterization trumped plot. In my reading of science-fiction and fantasy, the story line was most important, the characters secondary, just fleshy bits to carry along the action--and I wrote my stories that way: cardboard characters whose purpose was not to be interesting in themselves but to move the interesting sequence of action along. The one thing I did learn in this program was the significance of creating and developing interesting characters; that is, fully-fleshed out people with their own quirks and foibles, ambitions and fears, motivations based on psychological complexes and subject to the vagaries of their environment; in other words, a virtual person as real as you or me. A well-crafted character will often disagree with the author and sometimes refuse to go on with what the character might deem a silly plot turn.

Yes, I am coming full circle. There is method to my madness. I wrote stories that developed characters. I wrote novels of relationships. None of them had settings of other worlds or outer space or the far future. Then I did. Because I thought to myself one day, feet up, sipping a mint julep, pondering the meaning of fictional life: why can't there be serious relationships banging around inside a story of people traveling to another planet? or living in the future? or acting in a utopian or dystopian setting? I was intrigued by the relationship in 1984 as much as the political memes. What would it be like if I were Winston Smith and I met Julia? In Lord of Light, Sam has several affairs, an aspect of his persona which impacts what he does or what he tries to do. Especially in films, the recent John Carter ["Princess of Mars"] film being a handy example, producers must have a relationship in the story to attract viewers. If John Carter, Earthman, were saving an old king instead of a beautiful princess, I dare say the film wouldn't have been made.

Perhaps this is a simplistic explanation, but it is only a blog-length dissertation, after all. I do not intend to cover the whole of the history of the genre. Plenty of those out there already. However, I am about to argue for acceptance of good ol' relationship stories within the settings of good ol' sci-fi or fantasy stories--rather than the separation of the two. It's already occurred, some may rebut. And yet, it still seems to me that "science-fiction" and "fantasy" mean the story is about the strange, unusual, or exotic setting and all the wondrous things that happen as a result of the story being set there, more so than what the people there are doing with each other.

So...here it comes...the advertisement.... Not really, but it makes a convenient example with which to close this commentary:

In THE DREAM LAND trilogy, the relationship between high school sweethearts Sebastian and Gina, a couple of science geeks who discover an invisible doorway to another world, is always front and center. They cross paths often, keeping tabs on each other, discussing relationships each has with third parties, yet they still remain "soul mates" throughout their lives. Oh, did I mention much of these novels are set on another planet accessed through an interdimensional doorway located in an abandoned quarry on the east side of Kansas City, Missouri, USA? Probably not; but did I need to? The story is, after all, what happens to these two people--not so much how wonderful this other world is.

So is this trilogy a romance set in a strange locale or a sci-fi story with a central romance? Does it matter? I think it matters--but only for marketing purposes because, like it or not, readers will choose it based on this question: Is it a sci-fi tale or a romance story? Readers need clarity, it seems, godlove'em.

That is the "beauty" of The Dream Land trilogy: it works equally well as either, and yet genre-mashing makes it better! Thanks for reading to the end. I wish you a fabulous rest of the day and a better than average week ahead. Read something out of your usual genre this week; an author somewhere will thank you.

I. Long Distance Voyager - available now as ebook; coming soon in paperback
II. Dreams of Future's Past - available now as ebook; will be in paperback 
III. Diaspora - completed; coming soon as ebook, later as paperback

(C) Copyright 2010-2013 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.


  1. I too read great quantities of Zelazney and the other masters of Sci-fi, and love the concept of a good, old-fashioned Space-Opera. Corwin was a great character, drawn with simple strokes, mysterious, in some ways unlikable, and yet you always wanted him to win.

  2. Space Opera? SPACE OPERA? What're you callin' Space Opera? It's real fiction--or fictional reality.
    (I liked Corwin because he seemed like the me I wanted to be.)