Monday, October 22, 2007

Walking a Mile in Another’s Gravity Boots

I've spent a fair amount of time lately thinking about science fiction romance and why I (and others) write it. Partly this is because that topic is simply something I normally think about. I'm a ruminator, if there is such a critter. I love to mull things over, play with ideas in my mind. I don't know if I was one of those annoying children who continually asked "why?" but I certainly do that a lot now.

The other reason is that on this blog and elsewhere, the topic of science fiction romance (what it is, where it's going, why it does what it does) is hot. To get a recent sampling beyond this blog, go here and here and here. And the one from last year which I still get emails on, here. This doesn't include the four-day Science Fiction Romance/Futuristic Workshop at Romance Divas two weeks ago. (You have to register to read the forum posts but it's worth it.)

So why do I write it? If you've been following any of these discussions you know that the genre is still experiencing growing pains, it gets dissed from various camps for things the other camp loves, no one's really sure where to shelve us and publishers aren't sure how to market us. So why write for a genre with so many inherent issues when I could write something already defined, established and easily available everywhere paperbacks are sold?

Because of something Jacqueline Lichtenberg noted in an upcoming column (yeah, a bit of time travel here—she sent me an advanced copy of her monthly column because my book, The Down Home Zombie Blues, is mentioned in it). The esteemed Jacqueline wrote: Reading SF or Paranormal romance is good exercise for learning to judge character – and learning to trust.

And that just smacked me right in between the eyes with a gosh-golly-dang it all with the absolute truthfulness of that statement. Reading SF Romance is a good exercise for learning to judge character.

We're not talking literary characters here, although that's how that's achieved. We're talking the everyday attributes of those within your sphere.


But doesn't reading any kind of fiction accomplish that? you ask.


Good question. My goodness, you're bright. Yes, it does. Reading fiction puts you in the driver's seat of someone else's feelings and experiences and—if you've half a brain and even a quarter of a heart—builds empathy and compassion.

I just think SFR—because of its very otherness—does it better.

Sometimes we don't want to specifically face how unsympathetic we are. How we lack compassion. And if the characters we're reading about are like us in thought, actions, deeds and experiences, that lesson might be a bit too much "in your face" and not be accepted as easily. Or it might be more easily overlooked. "Hey, stockbrokers (or gym teachers or real estate agents or soccer moms) don't act that way here in (fill in the blank with your locale)." So the vicarious experience goes flat. We reject the experience because we all know some gym teacher or veterinarian or store clerk who wouldn't feel that way or say those things. So we don't. The lesson cut too close to the bone for us to comfortably assimilate it.

But ah, science fiction and more so science fiction romance. Since none of us are Stolorth or Wookiie or Kif or furzels or fam, there's just enough of a disconnect, of a distance that we can step into the "other's" skin and accept the experience without feeling that it's, well, really a lesson in compassion aimed at us. Because, well, we really don't need one, right?

Once a lot of the hard-SF purists stopped dissing "media SF" like Star Wars, the realization surfaced that issues of racism, cultural taboos and ethnic diversity were at the heart of many of the shows. When Kirk kissed Uhura, viewers sat back and said, wow! He's handsome, she's gorgeous… was there a message about interracial relationships there? Maybe. If you wanted to see it. But Star Trek also taught us (well, those of us who were listening) to see beyond skin color and country of origin. It was hot dude kissing sexy gal. Wow.

I often get asked if there are "messages" in my books. I occasionally (well, more than occasionally) get emails from readers who've noticed certain messages. Are they there?

My answer is always the same: if you want to see them, they are. Lightly layered in, sometimes more heavily layered in.

In science fiction romance, you can do that. In Gabriel's Ghost, there's the reaction of humans to Stolorths. The treatment of Takas. In An Accidental Goddess, there's the problem Gillie faces when confronting her own image enshrined in a temple. And in my upcoming The Down Home Zombie Blues, watch how Commander Jorie Mikkalah views us here on Earth.

I'm not the only author who plays with this. Read Robin D. Owens fantasy series for Luna, read Susan Grant's Otherworldly Men books. Read Colby Hodge and Stacey Klemstein—the latter especially for dealing with "the other," especially if the other is us. Rowena Cherry couches her messages in humor. Then there's Catherine Asaro, Patti O'Shea, S.L. Viehl, Susan Kearney, Lisanne Norman… all authors who certainly could write to easier plotlines and markets (and some, like Kearney and Viehl, already do, branching out to non-SF genres). But here we are for the most part, hip-deep in SFR.

Science fiction permits an author a palette of far more intense and diverse colors than contemporary fiction does. It also permits a buffer called "other" than does make lessons or messages feel so much less like lessons or messages. It's a larger than life venue. Exaggeration doesn't feel quite so much out of place. So the experience is deeper, richer, more intense and yet, in many ways, less confrontationally obvious.

Yet it makes us think, makes us feel. The very vividness with which we create our worlds and characters stays in the brain and the heart. They are often so different. So we, readers, think about them a little more. It's fun to explore that difference. Even if in the process, we learn something about ourselves.

~Linnea

PS: that pencil sketch above was done in the early 1980s. Just shows you how long I've been thinking about these things...

24 comments:

  1. Linnea, here is yet another place SFR and RSF is being discussed. http://dearauthor.com/wordpress/2007/09/13/review-your-planet-or-mine-by-susan-grant/
    I believe my Star series isn't being mentioned because Jayne has already read and enjoyed the books but if I have time later, I'm going to pop over and mention the Star books for any readers considering trying one of our kinds of books. I really do need to try Stacey's after seeing so many great comments on them. What book do you suggest I start with?

    Oh, again, here is the link for the additional discussion: http://dearauthor.com/wordpress/2007/09/13/review-your-planet-or-mine-by-susan-grant/

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  2. PS--I loved your pencil sketch!

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  3. Hey Sue, I thought you were in the Wild Blue Yonder! ;-) Thanks for the extra links...at some point we need to make a page, eh?

    Stacey's Zara Mitchell Series starts with THE SILVER SPOON. Nothing to do with drugs. ;-) That's the name of the diner the female protagonist owns and where it all begins... TSS is out already with Echelon Press. The sequel, EYE OF THE BEHOLDER, will be out Feb 2008. It's awesome. Both are awesome. Stacey has a huge Roswell-fandom following. Because it's a series, there's not an immediate HEA but there will be. The books are fully satisfying though and her insights are just top notch.

    Why don't you drop Stacey a note? As a sister-author, she might be able to unearth (pardon the pun) a copy of SPOON for you.

    I think you'll adore her writing and more than a few of her plot twists will pull the rug out from under... ;-)

    And if you like SPOON, I know she'd love a quote on EYE if you have time to read it pre-pub.


    ~Linnea

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  4. Point well made and thank you so much for linking to my recent Danger Gal article. I have several more SFR profiles in mind for the next few weeks.

    One reason I often think about when reading or writing SFR is that wanting/needing to be loved is a fundamental component of human nature -- and that's not going to disappear out in space or in some trans-human future. In fact, in those environments that need might just increase.

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  5. Lisa, absolutely, the need for love, acceptance, companionship increases as danger increases. That's why military friendships often outlast marriages and why people who work in law enforcement or similiar professions are said to have a 'code' of their own.

    I think the need for acceptance also transcends species, in many cases. Not all, obviously. But I watch my own cats, and the ducks who have adopted our back yard and pond. The mottleds and mallards mate for life. The muscovies...well, they're the swingers of the ducky set. But they too have their devotions.

    That's why to me, SF without the R seems so unnatural and lacking. The desire to connect is a strong motivator in many species. ~Linnea

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  6. This is all true of Fantasy with one exception which sets SFR apart, in my humble opinion. In Fantasy, there is magic. You can only do magic if you're born with it or it's given to you. In Science Fiction, the extrordinary things are ordinary. Anyone can learn how to lock and load a compression rifle. I think this makes the fantastic feel more real. Instead of "I wish I could do that," the reader can think, "I WILL do that!"

    So, a little girl watching Lieutenant Uhura on the Bridge of the Enterprise grew up to be Whoopie Goldberg. Another little girl grew up to be Dr. Mae Jemeson, first African American woman in space.

    I like Fantasy too, but this is the dimension which really sets any sub-genre of Science Fiction apart for me.

    As for bringing in more readers to SFR, I have one other suggestion. Get together and decide who is going to write what. Your potential readers span a wide spectrum. They don't all read Space Opera. Or Time Travel. Or Near Future. Some want more heavy Science Fiction while others want more Romance. Most of the readers I know want both elements equally.

    For example, if you all write Highly Sensual or Erotica, we hear, "Oh, SFR's all Erotica," and the reader walks away and tells all her friends that. These are readers who are sick of skipping *those* parts. They all head down to the used bookstore for the regular Science Fiction aisle or, hopefully, Ann McGaffrey and the other greats. In other words, they're not buying new. These are readers who certainly *would buy new* if they found something for them in SFR.

    I know younger readers who could get into SFR, but I can't recommend any novels I know of to them in good conscious because of the Heat Level. Meanwhile, they're being socially pressured away from Science and Math so when they are ready for hotter books they're no longer interested in SFR.

    I know there is variety, but if ya'll got together and organized yourselves with that in mind it might help. Pull together as a team. Just a thought as someone outside the loop who probably doesn't have all your facts.

    Meanwhile, if you need a good laugh today, pop over to my blog to check out what a traffic jam in Alaska is like.
    ;)

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  7. Kimber An said: 'In Fantasy, there is magic. You can only do magic if you're born with it or it's given to you. In Science Fiction, the extrordinary things are ordinary. Anyone can learn how to lock and load a compression rifle. I think this makes the fantastic feel more real. Instead of "I wish I could do that," the reader can think, "I WILL do that!"'

    There is that, but I'm not sure how that applies to something like cyberpunk and some its variations. Think about a character altered by nanites that enable her to interact with computers. When she can put her hand out and unlock a door with a verbal command -- in my mind that has a lot in common with magic, just the source of the power is different.

    "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

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  8. >"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

    That's what is so cool about SF. It's like those old cartoons on Saturday mornings, "cars of the future" or whatever they used to feature. There's so many exciting ways technology can be developed.

    Plus, it's just hot. I may not be a whiz at math or science, but I love me some sexy technology. Then you add in a romance, and va-va-voom! It's money, baby.

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  9. Hey kids,
    Hmm, well while I understand basically what you suggest about us all getting together and deciding who writes what, I don't think practically that would work. I'd hate to see Sue Grant mud-wrestling with Colby Hodge over a plotline.

    Plus, that's assuming all of us a good enough friends to work things like that out. I simply don't personally know every SFR/Fut author and I don't know a number of them well enough to ask they not "write what I do." At least, not without getting popped in the mouth.

    I do think readers can pretty much take as a certainty that some of us well write hotter than others. I get late teeners reading my books because I don't write hot/graphic (I probably lose their mums because I don't, though--LOL!). I would also say that by and large RSF found in the SF aisles would be lighter on the sex scenes but that's not always true anymore. Plus I've read some violence in SF I've found far more objectionable than sex.

    Tech is sexy! Yeah, I like that. Part of the appeal of James Bond (PART of the appeal, okay?) has always been the cars and weapons and watches and neato tech stuff.

    People in command, making decisions that affect a broad spectrum are also sexy. Power is sexy. A lot of SFR goes that route (mine tries to).

    It's the tech is scary issue that has to be overcome.

    And Kimber, if I could write YA SFR I would. It's just not in me to do so. Believe me, I've thought of it. But now, Stacey Klemstein, there's a gal who could and could very well. ::nudges Stace:: ~Linnea

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  10. "And Kimber, if I could write YA SFR I would. It's just not in me to do so. Believe me, I've thought of it. But now, Stacey Klemstein, there's a gal who could and could very well."

    On YA: In the book I'm writing next, the Warlord's Daughter, #2 in my new Borderlands series, Ellen, the teenage daughter from How to Lose an Extraterrestrial in 10 Days, will be a major secondary character. I'm curious to see how that goes for me, and how it feels, and then reader reaction. Who knows, I may do a YA!

    Linnea, I think Kimber was joking a little about us getting together on what we're allowed to write BUT can I still mud wrestle with Cindy? ;D Seriously on that issue, I believe the more you cater to what you think readers want, the less your stories will resonate with those very readers, because they lose the sponteneity (sp?), the freshness. Second-guessing had also stopped many good writers from writing. I know I've suffered temporary writer blockage from time to time when taking a risk (such as adding humor to my SF). If I were to write my stories to my best guess of readers' expectations, they'd lose something I am sure of it. Besides, we only hear of a few of the hundreds of thousands of readers. The tastes are so varied and so diverse, who are we to predict what exactly they like or don't?

    Loved reading the conversation so far, you guys. Brain is dead from having returned from Down Undah yesterday or I'd contribute more, but excellent points, especially on the tech being "magic."

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  11. "I simply don't personally know every SFR/Fut author and I don't know a number of them well enough to ask they not "write what I do."

    Meant to add, we give the impression here that there are just a few of us, because me, Linnea and a few others are so accessible online, but there are so, so many SFR writers like Susan Kearney, Susan Squires, Patricia Waddell, CJ Barry, etc, etc, who you don't usually see on these boards and blogs. It's a far bigger group than you may think, and the fact all of us are being bought tells me we are providing a good cross-section of books for the fans to read.

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  12. Maybe you all need a website with all the SFR novels sorted by author, theme, Heat Level, whatever. That way Bloggers who do book reviews, like me, can say, "Well, I'm not really into alien vampires, but if you pop over too www...com you can probably find something."

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  13. I've long thought of doing just that, Kimber, a reference page on my website (perhaps not as detailed as you suggest unless someone wants to design it for me). I just have had either back to back deadlines or emergencies this year.

    In the meantime, the Paranormal Romance site that awards the PEARL is a great reference.
    http://paranormalromance.org/PNRpearl.htm

    There's SpecRom Online:
    http://www.specrom.blogspot.com/
    http://www.specromonline.com/

    and maybe others can suggest more. ~Linnea

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  14. The Paranormal Romance site IS good. I was thinking of something set up similar, except that it would include all the backlists of only SFR authors. The books could be separated under theme headings like they have - Time Travel, Space Opera, whatever. Borrowing from the Romance Readers' site and the movie ratings system, the Heat Level could be indicated next to each title. So, a reader says, "Kimber, I like space opera, but graphic discriptions of naked body parts makes me gag since I gave birth to twins." I can send her to the site where she can find the Space Opera heading, scroll down to GAMES OF COMMAND in the S authors. She sees the R rating and thinks, "Oh, I can handle that." She scrolls down to the Amazon.com icon and orders.

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  15. "And Kimber, if I could write YA SFR I would. It's just not in me to do so. Believe me, I've thought of it. But now, Stacey Klemstein, there's a gal who could and could very well. ::nudges Stace:: ~Linnea"

    I'm working on it! ;) Rather, I'm trying. I LOVE YA. LOVE IT. And I think there's a dearth of SFR for the younger set. Lots of vampires (which can be SF, but usually not in the ones I've read--love Stephenie Meyer's books, though), but not so many aliens or robots or nanites.

    Plus, there's something so inherently SF about struggling with who you are and how you fit into this universe (or any other). I think it's a natural fit.

    I just have to find the time to sit down and write it...or finish it, as the case may be! But thanks, Linnea, for the vote of confidence!

    Oh, and also for the compliments on my Zara Mitchell series--thank you! I have so much fun with those characters and that world. Evil aliens, secret human/alien hybrids...really hot human/alien hybrids who believe in you and are sensitive to your every need and...where was I? *big grin*

    Sue, a copy of TSS is yours if you want it. Just let me know. : ) I'm stacey (at) staceyklemstein.com (Take the spaces out and use @ symbol instead of the word, obviously).

    Love this discussion, btw! And awesome pencil sketch, Linnea!!

    Okay, I'm done blathering now...back to work.

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  16. kimber an - Have you read Linnea's Wintertide? IIRC, it doesn't have any more sex than Anne McCaffrey's books, though it's been a while since I've read McCaffrey.

    Stacey - I loved The Silver Spoon. Can't wait for Eye of the Beholder!

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  17. Thanks, maryk, I'm so glad to hear that! Did you see that the cover for EOB is now up on my site? I love it!!!

    : ) Stacey

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  18. Oooh, Stacey, writing you right now!

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  19. I love the idea of a SFR site, and there are already several out there, but one problem I see with a site for SFR that is ratings as they can be subjective. You know that site The Romance Reader? Half the time I do not agree with their ratings. And I would not agree with an R rating for Linnea's book. I would say that if a reader liked less heat/amount of sex scenes in books than say I do, what I might call a PG-13 that person might call a strong R. That is why I prefer detailed reviews to hard and fast categories or ratings. Then the reader/potential buyer has more to work with in making their choice.

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  20. Me, rated R? Yeah, Sue, I'd disagree with that. Except, yunno, my mother would rate me R. And I'm sure my take on some borderline eroticas--being I'm, uh, more mature, is more stringent than someone younger than me.

    So yeah, it's subjective.

    Okay, kimber, go to my links page on my site. I'm reworking it. It's not AT ALL yet what you want. But I'm getting there, being I'm on deadline and in the midst of other things (which you know,okay?).

    I'm trying. It's a work in progress. Bear with me.

    PLUS we're going to need all you kids on a super duper fun special project to help Susan Grant when her next book comes out. The awesome Borderlands Moonstruck one. FUN!!!! And CHANGE THE WORLD kind of thing, I promise! HELP SUE AND CHANGE THE SFR WORLD!

    Are you salivating? You should be. Stay tuned. ;-) ~Linnea

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  21. Thanks, Linnea. It may require more powers than we collectively hold, but you never know, power in numbers, yes?

    Oy, that cover. Oy.

    Anyone want to do cybershots of vamilla vodka with me until i fall unconscious and forget the pain? (wink)

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  22. Susan, it certainly is subjective because it all depends on how the story engages the reader. I haven't visited Romance Reader in a long time. I just did and read their definitions and now I agree with you that GAMES OF COMMAND is PG-13.

    In fact, I gave THE STAR KING a 'Sensual' rating at Enduring Romance, which I believe is less hot than Romance Reader did. 'Course, they gave it only four hearts too. So, who's more right? Me, of course. If I had a rating system for quality too, I would have given it FIVE hearts. As it is, I simply review books I like or love and NOT books that I don't, and I leave it at that.
    ;)
    Linnea, you might want to hold off on setting up a site if it's really taking too much time. A little birdie (not me) told me she's working on something already. I won't name names though, because she should have the privacy to decide how and if she really wants to do this. It is a lot of work, yanno.
    ;)
    I do think it's an excellent idea for all the authors to list authors' links with books similar to their own on your websites. When someone reads your books and loves them, she wants more and that's a very good thing. But, you probably already knew that.
    :o)

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  23. Thank you, Kimber An!

    In other news, I have posted my new cover on my blog.

    http://susangrant.blogspot.com/2007/10/new-cover.html

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  24. Was it KimberAn wanted a YA author?

    I adore Vivian Vande Valde (though I don't always spell her name correctly). The first YA of hers that I picked up years ago was DRAGON'S BAIT.

    Another was THE RUMPELSTILTSKIN problem... mmmm. I suppose they sound more like fantasy than SF.

    Alan Garner's THE WEIRDSTONE OF BRISINGAMEN struck me as LOTR lite, but it is on my keeper shelf.

    Carrie Masek's UNDER A BEAR MOON is YA (teen shapeshifters).

    The ARTEMIS FOWL books are YA, fairies and mystery. Terry Pratchett is probably YA-suitable.

    Best wishes,
    Rowena Cherry

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