By Velvet Belle Tree
Quite recently, I’ve become acquainted with a sub-genre that combines science fiction and romance.
How can one define science fiction romance? According to Linnea Sinclair*, the most quoted definition is by Marilynn Byerly: there are Futuristics, Science Fiction Romance and Romantic Science Fiction novels. In Futuristics, science fiction is merely the backdrop for the romance. In essence, the science fiction elements merely replace those of historical romance. The romance could stand alone without the sf. At the other extreme is Romantic Science Fiction. This is an sf story with a romantic element; take away the romance and you have a typical science fiction novel.
And in the center, is a novel which fully integrates a science fiction plot and a romance plot. Both elements have nearly equal weight and both are necessary to the plot.
One good reason for posting this essay in March 2006, is that it is the 20th anniversary of the novel that started it all: Sweet Starfire by Jayne Ann Krentz. Krentz has claimed* that the science fiction was merely backdrop to the romance. But, to quote the Bard: “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.” The sf elements in the novel are very good. The story takes place in a fully realized universe. The planetary ecologies make sense as do the social and mental developments of humanity. The heroine’s actions and attitudes are affected by the society in which she grew up, which is unlike any on Earth both present and past. The sf definitely cannot be replaced by an historic setting. In addition, after viewing records left by an extinct race, the heroine experiences an epiphany worthy of Heinlein, an author Krentz had read in her formative years.*
Now I’d like to digress to tell you about a romance novel I read last summer before starting to read SFR. This novel gave me a respect for the romance genre. It has a smidgen of sf, but whereas some futuristics can easily be set in the present or the past, this novel which is set in the present can easily be projected into the future.
The novel is Flyboy (1996) by Rosemary Grace (a pen name of Alice Alfonsi). From the title you would guess that the hero is a fighter pilot. He’s a U.S. Air Force officer, but so is the heroine. And she has a Ph.D. in computer science to boot. The sf comes into play because he’s testing the AI pilot assistance system she has developed and for which she is also the voice.
The romance part follows a formula that I’ve read elsewhere: they had an affair years ago, he didn’t want commitment, she’s had his child -- which he doesn’t know about. Now they have to work together and he meets his son. But what Grace does with the plot is wonderful. The relationship is mature and they’ve both grown over the intervening years. The romance, of course, rekindles and is true love. Their estrangement was not because of some silly misunderstanding and he was unable to commit in the past for a reason that makes real sense and tugs at your heart.
One problem with Science Fiction Romance is that some books are found in the science fiction section and some in the romance section. The examples I’d like to give are the 2176 Series which is a Romance series and Linnea Sinclair’s Gabriel’s Ghost which is marketed as science fiction, as are her other books. The 2176 Series is five books, anchored at both ends by Susan Grant, who conceived the idea and wrote the bible for the whole series. The other three authors are Kathleen Nance, Liz Maverick and Patti O’Shea.
The first 2176 book, The Legend of Banzai Maguire, contrary to standard Romance practice, doesn’t introduce the man the heroine falls in love with until fairly far into the story. On the other hand, in Gabriel’s Ghost, the couple meet on page two.
One thing that these books have in common is a strong, independent female lead. These women can take care of themselves, and then some. They do not fall in love because they need a man to take care of them.
The two most important women in the 2176 series are Bree “Banzai” Maguire and Cameron “Scarlet” Tucker. Both women are U.S. Air Force Academy graduates and F-16 Fighter pilots. They appear in the two books by Susan Grant, who knows whereof she speaks, having graduated from USAFA in the third class accepting women and then flying jets herself.
The novel starts in the present but becomes sf when the two women are shot down and wind up in suspended animation only to be revived 170 years later, 400 years after the American Revolution. As you can guess, it is time for another revolution.
The prologue of The Legend of Banzai Maguire is written in the first person and has the most wonderful first sentence: “If you have the chance to live life to the fullest, do it.” And that is what Banzai and Scarlet do. The news of Banzai’s awakening is used by the mysterious Voice of Freedom as a symbolic rallying point and she is the spark that ignites the revolution.
Ty, the love Banzai finds, has adored her since he was ten years old and found a picture of her in front of her F-16 in a history book. This reminds me of one of my favorite novels, Lydia Bailey by Kenneth Roberts (1947). In that novel, the hero sees a portrait of Lydia Bailey and falls for her, not even knowing if she’s still alive. The wonderfully romantic thing is that when he finds her she lives up to his dreams. The same thing happens with Ty and Banzai.
In Gabriel’s Ghost, Sully (Gabriel Ross Sullivan) has also fallen for Chasidah Bergren before they actually meet, when she was a Fleet officer and he was on the other side of the law. Now, he has faked his own death and helps her escape from a prison planet to which she has been condemned after being framed.
Gabriel’s Ghost is a completely integrated science fiction and romance story, which is very effectively written in the first person, Chasidah narrating. The romance is hot, the science fiction is intricate and intriguing. The pace of the plot and the romance never slackens, each element playing off of and supporting the other.
Sully is not what he seems and we see his secrets revealed as Chasidah discovers them. His paranormal powers are reviled in their society, but Chasidah is able to get beyond prejudice and trust and love him. And what a wonderful, deep love there is between them, culminating in his declaration: “All that I am is yours.”
Merchanter’s Luck (1982) by C.J. (Carolyn Janice) Cherryh, starts off sounding like a Romance. The opening sentence is: “Their names were Sandor and Allison … Kreja and Reilly respectively.” The two of them meet in a bar on a space station and have what is euphemistically known as a “sleepover”.
Romance as we know it is not really possible for a member of Allison’s society. Her family makes up the entire crew of a great merchanter ship. They are all related matrilineally. Sexual relations take place when the ship is at a station and resulting children stay with the mother’s ship.
But Sandor is the sole crew of a small freighter and he would like the relationship to be more than a one night stand. And therein lies the impetus for the story. They have an encounter at another station and then she and three of her cousins become his crew.
But the romance goes no further. He was alone on his ship because of a horrible event in his past. There are many reasons for lack of trust between him and the Reillys. And Allison tells him that she does not “sleepover” onboard ship. But at the end of the story, we are left with the feeling that it might be possible for a real romance to develop between them.
So, whereas the futuristic novel uses science fiction to launch the romance, this novel uses the romance to launch the science fiction story.
On March 5, the New York Times Book Review began a new science fiction column called “Across the Universe” by Dave Itzkoff. In this debut column, he laments the lack of emotion in contemporary science fiction, saying “if you were to immerse yourself in most of the sci-fi being published these days, you would probably enjoy it as much as one enjoys reading a biology textbook or a stereo manual…” He picks the novel that was one of his favorite books over the last year and then has very little good to say about it. He says that what is missing is “what you humans call emotion – a reason to care about his characters”.
The one thing that the novels I have discussed have in common, whatever the mixture of science fiction and romance, is that they are about people. The authors involve the reader emotionally. The authors make you understand how the worlds their characters live in have affected them. You are led to care, sometimes deeply, what happens to them. And that is one of their greatest strengths.