Last week, we talked about the nature of love, offering a couple of examples from speculative fiction. Self-sacrifice figured prominently in that discussion, and I argued that love in its most refined form is fundamentally other-focused. Love seeks the best for the loved one, even if that means giving up everything, even life itself, if necessary, to make that happen. On the high road of love, everything is pure and noble and admirable, but…
Where, for the sake of all things blossoming, chocolate-coated, glittery, and pulse-pounding, is the romance? Dying for the sake of love might be romantic under certain circumstances, in a despairing, angsty, Romeo-and-Juliet sort of way, but it’s hard to get too excited about it. People want, to use a term that popped up here last week, kissyface. We’re talking about passion, ardor, desire–a focused attraction that fills the world with adventure, music, and jasmine-scented breezes that blow your hair around in a fetching manner without creating tangles.
I’m not trying to trivialize romance. Romance isn’t merely a diversion–emotionally energizing if you’re involved, and fun to watch if you’re not. It’s important. Romance is about a change in perspective. It’s what happens when a special someone helps you realize that the world doesn’t revolve around you. You experience the world through a new set of eyes, and you begin to notice beauty in places you never before thought to look. You care enough about this other person that you want to spend the rest of your life with them, doing your best to make them happy. You’d catch a bullet for them, if the situation ever came up. It’s a heady feeling, more intoxicating than any artificial mood-enhancer. It’s the spark, the fire, the fireworks.
It’s also an image of a quality of love God wants to share with us, something mentioned briefly in the book of Revelation as the “first love.” We see a vivid portrayal of that kind of intense joy and delight between lovers in the Song of Solomon.
Romance is also hard work. There’s serious conflict mingled with the sunbeams and lollipops as two people begin to smooth out their rough edges against each other. There’s fighting and losing and seeking and finding and winning and fighting again. It’s wonderful, and awful. It can bond people for a lifetime, or if they can’t adjust their priorities and expectations, it can tear them apart. This is gripping stuff. It can yield some incredible stories.
Getting back to speculative fiction, I’ve noted previously that science fiction in particular doesn’t dwell much on romance. Maybe there’s too much methane in the atmosphere. It’s difficult, I think, to come up with a compelling reason to stage a romance in a science fiction setting. It can feel awkward, like putting pants on a duck–a waste of time, and annoying to the duck. Romance, wherever you find it, is perfectly at home in fantasy worlds of courtly love, full of dragons and castles and princes and magic. Or in New York. Or maybe even in Forks, Washington. Romance has an element of fantasy embedded within it, an image of how we wish things could be, a place where dreams come true.
There is a growing niche market for traditional romance novels placed in science fiction settings, not so much different than using any other exotic venue like Monaco or Bali, I suppose. The covers even look the same. Toss a planet or rocket in the background of two semi-clad people embracing, and it’s good to go. My opinion? Pants on a duck. It’s romance, of a sort, but does it ask any speculative questions about humanity or use the speculative element as a metaphor or other key story component? More importantly, does it objectify romance, losing its tranformative magic in the rush to arrive at that climactic cover image?
I’ve had a difficult time trying to pull good examples of romance from my own science fiction reading, which may say more about me than the genre. I know the romance is out there, but I haven’t read much of it. It’s more common as an element of space opera, where it can easily get lost in the sweep of galactic war and power politics, or outshone by creative futuristic gadgetry. Truth be told, science fiction is usually more interested in the mechanics and social rituals of sexual activity in future societies, among aliens, or between humans and aliens.
We’ll grapple with those ideas in Part
3 4, but I’m not quite done with romance yet, so I’ll finish Part 2 continue in Part 3 next week with one example of a science fiction romance I found and enjoyed. Feel free to provide some favorites of your own.