I’ve been reading a few interesting posts lately about science fiction romance, and whether it will gain the same popularity that paranormal romance has recently. (Such as this one at Smart Girls Love Sci-Fi.) It’s a fascinating topic.
It’s hard to imagine two genre’s more different.
Science fiction writers are looking for something to make them think, to challenge their brain, and importantly, they like their science within the realms of believable. In the scheme of books, science fiction is a relatively new genre, with a perception of being technical, and hard to understand. It is also traditionally a genre written and read by men.
Romance readers, on the other hand, want something light, enjoyable, and with a guaranteed happy ending. People choose a romance book to read when they don’t want to be challenged. Unsurprisingly, it’s a much larger category than science fiction, with many sub-genres. Romances are traditionally seen as written and read by women.
This doesn’t mean they can’t be combined.
There are many sci-fi romances out there. But currently, it remains a niche market. It doesn’t even have it’s own clear cut category on Amazon, making it rather hard to find.
A large number of general readers avoid science fiction. Many romance blogs say they won’t read it. When I was asking friends if they’d have a read through Reckless Rescue and let me know what they thought, I had several responses of people saying “I don’t read science fiction.”
So how do we bridge that gap?
In my opinion, the best place to start is making sci-fi romance more like romance than sci-fi.
Soft v’s hard – soft sci-fi, with less emphasis on the technical story, and more focus on the people, is more likely to be accepted in mainstream fiction. Reckless Rescue is very much soft science fiction. There aren’t any techinical details, faster than light travel is just there. It explores the social issues rather than the technology.
Worldbuilding – Sci-fi excels at creating vivid and detailed worlds, were everything works differently. This can be quite jarring for a general reader. There is so much to learn, so much they don’t understand, that it can be quite hard to see the romance within the world. The more world elements that you can keep the same, the more comfortable the experience will be for your reader.
Blurbs – Sci-fi worlds are different to the one we know, and thus a lot of sci-fi romance blurbs focus on explaining the world and how it works. The more focus there is on the romance elements, the characters and who they are, the more likely they are to be picked up by a general reader.
Covers – If you look at a science fiction novel next to a romance novel, there is a clear difference in the covers. Most sci-fi romance borrows more from sci-fi than romance in their covers. This appeals to the sci-fi readers, but reinforces the idea that sci-fi is a technical and hard to read genre. I’ve gone the other way. The cover of Reckless Rescue is clearly romance, both in the colours used (soft pinks and blues), and the images. The only clue to it’s science fiction setting is the spaceship crashed in the snow.
Time – Of course, one of the biggest factors is beyond our control. As science fiction continues to be more popular in movies and TV, more people will come to see it as normal, and consider it as an option in reading as well.
Isn’t this compromising what Sci-fi is?
In my opinion, no. Sci-fi is about fiction involving science as it’s basis. There are, and will be, a variety of levels of science fiction, from soft to hard, and everything in between. I’m NOT proposing that all science fiction should be soft science fiction, just that it offers a comfortable starting point for someone wanting to dip their toes into the genre.
Once they see how nice and warm the water is, they might feel more comfortable wading in.
What do you think? How do you see the blending of sci-fi and romance?
>This doesn’t mean they can’t be combined.
> just that it offers a comfortable starting point for someone wanting to dip their toes into the genre.
Accessibility is a very strategic move for SFR. And also great storytelling!
>Romance readers, on the other hand, want something light, enjoyable, and with a guaranteed happy ending.
I agree that an HEA is a solid romance genre convention, but I’m not sure one can generalize about all romance readers wanting only light stories. There are plenty of dark, angsty romances available. Many readers, myself included, enjoy both.
>Most sci-fi romance borrows more from sci-fi than romance in their covers.
They do? I’m surprised to hear that because many of the covers I’ve been featuring in my monthly SFR roundups are usually of the sensual-couple-against-a-starry-background variety (http://www.thegalaxyexpress.net/2013/03/sfr-news-links-for-april-2013.html#more). The cover of RECKLESS RESCUE falls in line with the couple trend I’ve been noticing in the past couple of years.
That said, I agree that if an author is gearing her/his sci-fi romance to romance readers, a romance-themed cover is a good call.
True Heather. I should have said that there is a ‘perception’ of romance readeres wanting light stories. I’ve definitely gotten the impression that many people look down on romance as not being ‘literary’ because of the guaranteed HEA. But I think that also is changing.
A couple on the cover of a novel indicates that there is a romantic element, but I still notice that nearly all sci-fi romance covers are quite dark in colour (often because of those beautiful stary pictures!), which I don’t think I’ve ever seen in romance novels. (Unless, again, there is another major element, like suspence.) Personally, I tend to look by covers that are dark overall for some reason. Might be just me though.
Hmm, I see what you mean with the color although I’d wager there’s a fair amount of paranormal romances that edge toward the darkish side–lots of blue tones and shadows on the covers in that subgenre.
It certainly couldn’t hurt to experiment with lighter-toned covers as long as it connects with the content. Meaning, the darker stories have more somber/darker covers and the more lighthearted stories can play with white tones, pinks, yellows, etc. One thing to try among many…!
Yes, I think that’s my problem, I see the darker covers as indicating darker stories (which isn’t my style). Possibly that is true for many of them (in which case, the darker cover suits), as I suspect it is of many paranormal stories. But if the story isn’t dark, then I think a lighter cover would help it find it’s audience more effectively.
I don’t think there’s a simple answer to this, because it is not a simple issue. What is the balance between the SF and the romance? I’d say there’s a wide range from one end to the other, a mainly romance story which would not stand up with the romance taken away (Avatar), right through to a mainly SF story where the romance is a contributing element (Star Wars). And all points between. If the intent is to hit the enormous romance market then I’d suggest, as you have, that the SF has to take second place, and that emphasis has to be made clear in your marketing.
That said, there are plenty of readers who want good, hard SF with the romance. Maybe that will remain a niche market for a long time. More’s the pity.
There is definitely a range of balance between sci-fi and romance, as their should be, because everyone is wanting something different from their reading.
As you said, I’m focused on the romance end of the market. (Sadlly, not because of any great marketting strategy, but because that’s where my book lies!) I would hate to see the other end of the spectrum be compromised, just as much as I would hate to see the romance end be condemed as ‘not really sci-fi’.
How to make science fiction romance more mainstream… water it down?
How about using the SFR subgenre to redefine modern fiction instead of making it a mashup of old, tired conventions? How many times have we read monotonous sci fi that’s about an Everyman vanquishing his enemies through violent adventures? Or a romance where the heroine is Too Dumb To Live who must decide between Authoritarian Figure or Dashing Stranger?
Most science fiction usually sets up a FUTURE world that deals with current issues. Romance focuses on the relationship between two people. How about combining the BEST of each genre — progressive social & technological ideas plus an intelligent woman with agency meeting a man who’s equal to her developing awesomeness?
I couldn’t agree more. So many of the themes explored in modern fiction (romance and otherwise), can be explored even better with the chance to tweak the social setting to make them a little more extreme and interesting. That’s what I’ve done with my novel.
And I agree that we need strong women in sci-fi romance (as in any romance and any genre!) Getting away from some of the conventions that have existed in sci-fi in the past is a good idea.
Great post! Lots to think about here. I agree that not all romance is light and we should have room in SFR for a broad spectrum of stories. @campyspornshack I think you may be thinking too narrowly about both Romance and SciFi, but you are right on track with combining the best of both. On the other hand, what is ‘the best’ varies by reader. LOL
Yep, it does come down to the reader I think. And luckily, there are as many different kinds of readers as their are writers. I’m loving the freedom in self publishing to write something that isn’t a guaranteed sell, and see if it can find it’s place in the world.
Interesting post. You make a lot of good points, but I’m not sure I totally agree. I’ve got a sci-fi romance series, but I’m coming at it more from the sci-fi side, and if I were to tone down the world building or go too soft on the science, that would alienate a lot of my current readers. And yet, even though the romance is definitely a fundamental part of the story, most of the sci fi readers who enjoy my non-sf romance stuff also seem to like it.
I think there are a lot of straight sci-fi fans who would really find a lot of satisfaction from a romance story, but they’re turned off by a lot of SFR because it’s “too Twilighty,” ie packaged in a very specific way for women. When I look at most of the SFR out there, I don’t feel like any of my books belong. The sexy covers all say “women, this book will fulfill your fantasies,” but that leaves out all the shy, bookish guys (and a few shy bookish girls as well) who have yet to really explore that part of their lives and are still trying to figure out what it’s all about.
I think it’s a myth that men aren’t as interested in love or relationships as women. I also think it’s a myth that women talk or think about romance more than men. We certainly approach it in a much different way, but we’re both human, and the romantic side of life is a huge part of what it means to be human. And isn’t that what science fiction, at it’s core, is all about? Exploring what it means to be human?
While packaging and repurposing SFR to look more like genre romance might bring in a handful of genre romance readers, I don’t think it’s a good way to tap into the natural hunger for romance that science fiction readers already have. And just from what I know about myself and my friends, many of whom are avid sci-fi fans, I can tell that there really is a hunger that’s not being satisfied.
So what would I suggest?
First and foremost, be true to the story you have to tell. No matter how small the potential audience, if it’s written well and feels genuine, someone is going to love it. You can always figure out how to sell it later.
Second, don’t do anything to alienate readers on either side of the genre divide. Instead of saying “this is a SCIENCE FICTION (romance)!” or “this is a (science fiction) ROMANCE!” say “this is a book about people yearning for xyz on a world outside our own.” People on the romance side will look at that and think “ooh, romance!” while people on the science fiction side will think “ooh, science fiction!”
The goal is to get them to meet in the middle, and enrich their reading experience by giving them something they didn’t even know they wanted but can’t get enough of once they’ve started. At some point, the genre labels actually become counterproductive toward that end.
If the genre is struggling to define itself, then that probably means it’s still in its adolescent phase. But when we were teenagers, it only caused a lot of grief and suffering when we tried to be something we weren’t. Instead of trying to dress our books up and make them pretty for the popular crowd, we should embrace what makes us unique and be as open and welcoming to readers of all types, no matter their sex, gender, or other reading preferences.
At least, that’s what I’m trying to do. I haven’t broken out in a huge way yet–and maybe I never will–but I am building a readership that really loves what I write.
Thanks for commenting Joe. Lots of great thoughts in this post. I’m loving hearing so many other views on the subject, and each post is really giving me a lot to think about.
I agree with you about the sexy covers, they don’t appeal to me at all. But I guess, like any other, they give you a clue what the story is focused on, and being representative of the story inside is a covers main purpose.
It’s great to hear a mans perspective on Sci-fi romance. I really hope men are interested in romance too! My husband has read my book, and enjoyed it, though I was interested to see that he was far more interested in the Sci-fi aspects than I was. (Which helped me improve some of them!)
Genre is one of those interesting topics, maybe I should do a whole post on it? As more and more people are writing cross genre, it’s becoming harder and harder to pigeonhole books. But genre is still a really useful category to help people find the sort of books they’re looking for.
I think most men are just as interested in romance as much as women are, but few of them consciously realize it. Also, we tend to think about and consume it in very different ways. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World did a really good job telling a romance story in a way that appeals to men, at least within the younger demographic.
Genre has its uses: it’s one of the primary ways to signal to the right readers “this is a book you’re going to like,” and to the wrong readers “you probably aren’t going to be too thrilled this one.” Both signals are important. The trouble with SFR, like you point out, is that there’s so little overlap between the two parent genres. That’s what I mean by saying that the genre labels (in this case, genre science fiction and genre romance) can be counterproductive. The trick, then, is probably to find a way to signal “this is neither science fiction nor romance, but something new and different that you’ll like because you like one or the other.”
Is SFR nothing more than the sum of its parts? Is it 50% romance (ie 50% of the story works without it) and 50% science fiction, or is it 100% romance and 100% science fiction at the same time? If the latter, then on some level it’s completely different from both genres, and I think we should do our best to own that.
Hmm. I’m going to guess that the percentages vary depending on the story. Reckless Rescue, for example, I would say is maybe 70% romance, 30% Sci-fi. But – neither would work without the other. The stories are meshed in a way that I don’t think you could separate them and still have a plot. So in that way, perhaps they are a genre that borrows from both?
I’ve also heard Sci-fi romance described as futuristic romance, but I’m not sure that that title is any better. Speculative fiction?
Describing your story based on what it’s about is definitely the way to go, but in the end, when you put it out there in the world, you have to categorise it somehow.
True. I guess the best you can do is put your books in both categories and make sure the blurb has something to entice readers of either genre.
I understand what you’re saying and in that context your choice of book cover makes total sense, but I’d say the image you use at the top of this post (the hands held in starry relief) sort of shows you can mix the two more evenly, I think. That image says both romance and scifi to me (even if it didn’t literally say so also).
Yes, I do think you can mix the two (as the image, which is new, indicates). But I’m not sure I’ve seen a cover that effectively does this yet. I’d love links if anyone knows of any? Most of the ones I’ve seen look like sci-fi covers, with a couple somewhere indicating that romance is a part of the story.
Which is great if that is what your story is. What it comes down to is that you want your cover to be indicative of the story inside. If your story is mostly sci-fi with a romance element, then the above covers work fine. If (like mine), it’s mostly romance with some sci-fi elements, then your cover needs to show that. If you’ve managed to mix the two roughly 50-50, then make sure your cover shows that.
To me, the real issue is a matter of story conflict. In science fiction, the conflict is usually external: Jedi against Empire, human against alien, etc. In romance, the conflict is between the hero and heroine. It can’t be just a matter of bickering, it needs to be a true conflict that keeps the reader feeling these two need to overcome tremendous adversity in order to come together.
Most of the futurist romance tends to center on external conflict, and there’s no real romantic conflict. Romantic conflict is what makes the book hot and spicy. It’s not enough to write explicit love scenes; if there’s no romantic tension, then there’s no heat.
Also, I think too much of the genre is simply poorly written and unoriginal. (I’ve just checked out your book, and you do seem to have an original plot, so I’ll be getting a copy as soon.) I just finished one that started out as a Star Wars rip off, switched to the old “Mars Needs Women” scenario mid-book, and then threw in a few “Edward Scissorhands” elements. The heroine had no clear motivation, and though the love scenes were explicit, the characters seemed more like puppets the author moved around than real people. Half the book consisted of the hero explaining to the heroine how his society worked, which was just plain boring. The most exciting part of the beginning was never even shown; we just learned about it when the hero told the heroine what happened. And this book won a rather prestigious award, which I believe just underscores the lack of care so many of us are putting into our writing.
To me, books like “The Time Traveler’s Wife” prove there’s an audience out there just waiting for this type of story, but unwilling to waste their time with sloppy writing. We as writers need to master ALL the elements of good writing: conflict, strong plot, and characters with motivation. If a book is well written, anybody can read and enjoy it–and they will. If we write it, they will come!
I really like the idea of looking where the conflict is. I like to write where the external conflict causes conflict between the hero and heroine. Thanks for commenting.
Robin D. Owens does it well with her Celta series and Jayne Castle does it well with her Harmony series and Catherine Asaro won both a Nebula and a RITA for Quantum Rose from the Skolian Empire series. It’s not easy to satisfy both sides of an audience that asks for such different writing skills from an author but a good story and great characters set in a kick-ass world will always get readers.
There are definitely some writers who have managed it, you’re right. And hopefully there will be more in the future!
This actually makes me feel awesome about my work. I set out in my series, Home in the stars, to create a world that just was. It’s future us. The end. Simple action. Sexy love story. Oh, and space ships. My elements are primarily the romance, but I don’t shy from the tech jargon or military parlance. Sometimes, I play with it. The result has been scifi guys give me a three on Goodreads. lol And a part of me is thinking…teehee. I got you to read a romance novel. Haha, pretty awesome, right fella? They’ll never cop to it. To me Scifi is also a setting. It’s a setting that can result in epic love story.
A three from sci-fi guys on Goodreads is pretty good! Yes, I love that the setting gives you so much to play with. So many possibilities.