Beth has asked me to fill in for her for a while, so I’ve decided to shift gears a bit and do the tour of “favorite CBA SF/F moments” for a later post.
Some time back, I conducted an informal survey on two of my email lists on whether long-time fans read “Christian” SF/F and why or why not. I eventually posted a summary of the results at my personal blog, now listed under the May archives. (“What the Fans Want, parts 1 and 2, May 18-19, 2006)
The resulting conversation on the Christian Fandom list sparked a separate discussion about romance within science fiction. It was an entertaining one—as usual, I wanted to take part but was far too busy to do so—and in my opinion, it’s well worth the time to check out the whole discussion at the Christian Fandom archives, starting on April 5. In fact, I’d recommend anyone who wants to write—or dare I say, publish—“real” SF/F for the CBA to read it.
But I’ll attempt a summary of the portion where romance was being discussed, although to do it justice, I think one would have to examine the attitudes toward the romance genre in general. And it’s important to distinguish between true romance and “erotica”—the former focuses on the process of the romantic relationship between a man and a woman, while the latter focuses mainly on sexual encounters, with a great deal of detail given to the mechanics of the act. (A new subgenre, romantica, tries to blend the two.)
True romance, then, is mostly about the attraction and emotional bond between a couple, whether or not it includes the physical consummation thereof. It’s really no wonder, then, that those who object most strenuously to “science fiction masquerading as romance” (and there’s plenty of sci-fi, fantasy, and paranormal romance out there) are often those who don’t have the benefit of a satisfying romantic relationship in real life, for whatever reason. I say that with the utmost compassion and understanding, having been there myself. Even a mild romantic subplot can at best be considered annoying fluff, irrelevant to one’s own life, or at worst a too-painful reminder of a love lost or never won at all.
Yet, interestingly enough, one of the men who complained most about romance within SF/F highly praised one author in particular, Lois McMaster Bujold, whose stories have very strong romantic elements. Which only strengthens my opinion that a romantic plot of subplot is not nearly as obtrusive if it’s well done. I personally would rather read a story with no romance at all than one in which a relationship is portrayed unrealistically, or merely a device for either male or female fantasies—the buff, ruggedly handsome but sensitive and romantic hero for the feminine readers, or the curvaceous bimbo type (or Amazon Barbie) for male readers. Fiction for men is just as replete with extramarital sexual encounters as fiction for women—but it’s the romances for women that get lambasted as “trashy,” even though modern westerns, suspense, and spy novels, including good old James Bond, contain lots of commitment-free steam.
But again—sexual encounters do not equal romance, and I would contend that those who are satisfied with reading about sex without relationship are most likely those who don’t have the blessing of a happy romance of their own. Conversely, those who do, often find the most enjoyment in a well-done romantic plot or subplot. I observed that those who spoke up strenuously in favor of romance within SF/F were women with strong marriages. Furthermore, men who I presume are reasonably happy in their marriages as well have often said that they didn’t mind the romance, or even—gasp!—enjoyed it because of the stability in their own life.
It was also pointed out that some of the debate over romance-or-not is partially due to gender differences. Women tend to be more relationally-oriented, while men are more logic- and action-oriented. (I’m not sure where politics and intrigue falls into that—for much of my early life I found them deadly boring, and only as I’ve come back to my writing have I realized how crucial an understanding of politics is to an understanding of history and worldbuilding. Ick. The things we do for our stories.) In general, then, women most often are the ones who like stories that cover all the minutiae of romance, while men prefer a story where romance is treated more matter-of-factly, an almost incidental but intrinsic part of life that flows naturally with the rest of the story rather than interrupting it.
Really, as in many other things, it’s a matter of individual taste. And rather reminds me of how some view the spiritual elements of a story, come to think of it. What one might view as intrusive or preachy, another finds a natural part of the story—and it may depend upon how a person views their own relationship with God. Is it something that’s a vital, necessary part of everyday life, or compartmentalized into a particular day of the week? Is it something that person finds it easy to share with others, or is it intensely private?
Not every story is going to appeal to every reader, in the area of spirituality—and not every one will appeal to all in the matter of romance, either. But it’s interesting hearing the views of those along both ends of the spectrum in the matter.