Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Cozy Science Fiction Part 1 by Jacqueline Lichtenberg

Cozy Science Fiction
Part 1
Jacqueline Lichtenberg

You all know the genre sub-division called Cozy Mystery.  I've been reading a lot of those lately, and enjoying the amateur detective/Romance genre blend. 

Here is a gorgeous example of a Cozy Romantic Mystery series.  

This is by the justly famous writer, Debra Burroughs.  

And boy are these great novels!  Fabulous series. Highly recommended.

The Paradise Mystery series starts with the lead Character, Emily Parker, facing life after her husband is murdered.  Beset by financial ruin and major trauma, she takes over her late husband's private detective business -- and begins to unfold, unwrap, delve into, and discover layer upon layer of "my world was never what it seemed to be."  She deemed herself "happy" -- and now finds what she thought her life was actually was only a thin, brittle facade.  She becomes a scientist of sorts, insistently researching the truth of the matter of her husband's death (and many other mysteries).  

So this series starts with a life catastrophe of the main character, but the world around her is stable.  The world is not what she thought it was, but it holds still while she figures out what is really going on.

"What is really going on..." is the main theme of the Alien Series by Gini Koch.  I've just finished reading her ALIEN NATION:

I find these two series, while very different, have a similar feel to them.
In the Paradise Valley Mysteries, the main Character's world has fallen apart leaving a shattered mess of apparently disconnected mysteries preventing her from building a new life.
In Gini Koch's Alien Series, the main Character Kitty finds "love at first sight" practically on the first page of book 1, and that love sucks her into situation after situation that is not what it seems, though the catastrophe she must avert each time is very real, and very destructive.  
Story is always about the point in a life's arc where things go wrong, go badly, go strangely, or just go to pieces.  Take Bilbo Baggins -- nice, stable, safe life until magical adventure comes calling.  Where the conflicting elements meet is where the story and the plot begin.  And sometimes your biggest conflict is with an ally.
So science fiction, often about combat or war, very commonly starts or contains a catastrophe.  

Here is a quote from a website page about Cozy Catastrophe Science Fiction:

What is Cosy Catastrophe Science Fiction?

The Cosy Catastrophe, or Cozy Catastrophe depending on where you learned English, is a narrowly defined sub-genre that was hugely popular in the 1950s and 60s, especially in Britain. The term was first used by Brian Aldiss in Billion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction, describing John Wyndham's books: “The essence of cosy catastrophe is that the hero should have a pretty good time (a girl, free suites at the Savoy, automobiles for the taking) while everyone else is dying off.”

More generally, Cosy Catastrophe features an upheaval that significantly changes the world, usually many many people die, but the event itself is rather short lived and the characters in the story don't dwell on it. The world itself is an everyday sort of world, it's familiar (and therefore “cosy”), it's even sometimes a bit of a retreat—a new life where you get to quit your day job and steal luxury cars. The world may be falling apart, but you can still enjoy a cup of tea and rejoice in the fact that you don't have to deal with your boss on Monday.

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I cheerfully disagree with Brian Aldiss whose scholarship and fiction writing are impeccably British and unquestionably the foundation of the science fiction field.

I also disliked John Wyndham's novels -- not because they were badly done, but because they do not depict the essential realities of the world that I see.  

My disagreements with the 1940's founders of science fiction are mostly a matter of taste.  I see Aliens as potential Romantic Interest -- and maybe more than just interest.

And so while these great men have established the field of science fiction, and while I grew up reading their work, I see the world as energized by love, and driven toward union and family.  A stable world arises from stable love.  

"Happily Ever After" is one form of stability.  

So I see a market for science fiction where the Characters are fully engaged in their world, as Debra Burroughs and Gini Koch both depict.  Catastrophe may come to a Character's personal life, or to the world they live in, but in every instance the real story happens when the Character dives into the Catastrophe and sets things right again by doing the Impossible, thus changing the definition of Possible.

Where the Characters' actions affect their world, and where love conquers all (not where love retreats from all)  is where Science Fiction, Mystery, and Romance genres come together.

Not all science fiction plots contain a catastrophe - though that is a sub-genre that becomes popular in bleak times - but all science fiction contains a mystery and a voyage of discovery, an adventure outside ordinary life or what the Character has considered to be ordinary even if it is not.  Kitty, Gini Koch's main character, is always greeting the bizarre, unreal, monstrous challenges as "routine."  That is the attitude of the Science Fiction Character -- strange is normal.

This Brian Aldiss definition of Cozy Catastrophe Science Fiction does describe a popular, extant genre.  But here, on Alien Romance, we can explore the Literature of Ideas where the Idea we write about is Love Conquers All and the Idea that Happily Ever After is possible, even perhaps inevitable.

Mystery has always been a sister-genre to science fiction aiming at the same target audience.  Mystery and Science Fiction both appeal to people who love to think, puzzle, analyze, and play games with the writer to see if they can figure out the solution to the question the writer is posing before the Characters do.

In Mystery, it may be "who-dun-it" or maybe "why-dun-it" or a jousting match between detective (professional or amateur) and a criminal (mastermind or less).  Gini Koch does create marvelous Criminal Masterminds! 

In Science Fiction, it may be "how can we do this" or "how did "they" do that?" or "that's impossible -- unless..."

Science is all about mystery - about following clues and unraveling the tangle of Natural Law to make sense of reality.  And Mystery solving uses the scientific method.  

Fiction is all about people -- human or not -- who have problems they regard as formidable.  

The writer's job in fiction is to convince the reader that the Character's problems actually are formidable -- and pose the question, "What would you do in her place?"

In Romance, the question the writer poses is narrower, but because of the narrow focus (this guy or that one? This woman or that one? This spouse or none? Where is the path to happily ever after, behind door one or door two?) the issues Romance deals with are vastly more complicated, more complex, more nebulous and more urgent.  

Mystery, Science Fiction, Westerns, and Fantasy or Paranormal Romance are all "fiction" first.  

To have a story, you must have a Character who is living through events that impact the Character's sense of identity.  As the Character changes Identity to adapt to his/her new reality, the Character is said to "Arc."  Traits mature, but don't change or disappear.  A Nag will continue to Nag -- but about different things.  A Complainer will continue to Complain - but more effectively and efficiently.  

The "genre" label appropriate for any given Character's story depends in large part on the target market - on the group of Readers who buy that story, enjoy it, and look for more like it.  Remember, Hollywood and Publishing are always looking for "the same but different."  That's how genre develops.

Right across all the genres, Mystery, Science Fiction, Westerns, Thrillers, International Intrigue, and Fantasy/Paranormal, we see how the Character's initial idea of their identity changes under the impact of discovering that what they thought was so is in fact not-so. 

This discombobulation, consternation, cognitive dissonance element does not appear in all Best Sellers, or Literature that is not considered "genre."  A lot of people do not find it fun or amusing to be confused or disabused of their certainties.  Science Fiction readers love that feeling - "Oh, was I wrong, or what!"  Or they love to watch other people be astonished.  You see this in the Romance genre, too.  

For example, the "confirmed bachelor" who is convinced Romance is imaginary and he'll never marry is ripe for a "Love At First Sight" experience.  And the woman he "sees" is very likely also self-sufficient and settled into a career that has no place for "him."  The two collide with fireworks.  

As they re-arrange their self-images, they must re-arrange their lives, create a "we" out of "me."  

The thing with Romance is that it deals with Happiness -- or maybe just the pursuit of happiness.  The Romance master theme is "Bonding With Your Soul-Mate Leads To Happily Ever After."  

In the favorite, best selling theme structures of Romance genre you find implicit assumptions that The Soul is real -- that humans are more than animal bodies -- and that "Happiness" has to include some satisfaction on the Soul Level Of Existence as well as physical comfort.  When you leave the Soul Mate element out of the worldbuilding, you end up with soft porn, not Romance.  

One theme is that a woman must have a fulfilling career -- a sequence of positions in life which, when traveled through, produce Soul Satisfaction.  That's a "theme" as we have discussed exhaustively.  

An alternative theme would be that female humans do not have souls.  Or that if they do, being female means careers can not satisfy their souls.  Any anti-feminist statement you find outrageous enough to write about will do for a theme. 

If you're writing Science Fiction Romance, the worldbuilding would then include Aliens who a) have no souls, b)have souls and don't know it, c) have different sorts of souls, d) are reincarnated human souls either rewarded or punished for behavior when human by being reincarnated as this type of Alien.  

"What if ...?" Souls are real?  The reality of Souls is a thematic premise. It can be treated as Paranormal Romance, or nuts and bolts science fiction.

"What if ...?"  Souls are created by God, creates one branch of themes -- and another "Souls are not created by God because there is no God," creates another branch of themes.  

We saw "Souls Exist But Not Created By God" handled very well in The Flicker Men, which I reviewed here. 
 I reviewed this is some depth here:
THE FLICKER MEN is a brilliant science based presentation of the concept "soul is real,"  a must read for Romance writers - mostly because it is not Romance.
Another way to find a readership to target is to study TV Series that flash to popularity then disappear without being copied.  Usually, several such TV Series will appear and vanish before one genre-bender like Star Trek comes along.  

Watching TV for the presentation of what you might term The Romance Problem (how do you sell the Happily Ever After premise to those who can't accept it?) can be instructive.

I stumbled upon such an odd TV Series on Amazon Prime last year.  Puzzling over why I liked it, I decided it was Cozy Science Fiction (not catastrophic).  

It is about a group of unmarried twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings who have substantial education and careers -- men and women alike, formidable people.  These are the sorts of people who make great Science Fiction heroes.  

Their adventures are "cozy" in that they don't involve space battles, explosions, destruction derbies, or fight-for-your-life situations at the core of their adventures.

Their trying, angst-focusing adventures are into the land of speed dating, coffee dating, dress up dating, or just trying to find someone to date.  At first, they are not looking so much for Romance as they are for someone to marry and settle down with.  

The TV Series is called Srugim, a Hebrew word meaning crochet or knit, the kind of stitching used to make an Israeli yarmulke.  The show is in Hebrew with English subtitles.  
When I was in college, I used to spend a lot of time in the campus theater where they showed foreign films in various languages, often without subtitles.  I loved it.  Today I watch streaming!  

So we in the USA have this foreign made TV Series, aimed at a foreign audience. Can you imagine a richer research environment for the Alien Romance writer?

You've seen the Cozy Mystery burst onto the scene, and decades ago Brian Aldiss defined the Cozy Catastrophe Science Fiction as being about people ignoring a catastrophe around them.  Romance often does that -- vanquishes the real world for a time.  

Maybe it is time for the Cozy Science Fiction genre to blossom, and I think the documented popularity of this TV Series import, Srugim, is indicative of how ripe the USA audience is for this type of show.  Yet, there aren't that many imitators easily found.

Here is an article about this HIT TV SERIES - that just vanished without spawning a genre (yet).

... Accurate portrayals of Orthodox Jews in American films or on television are hard to come by. Good female characters are especially rare, usually appearing onscreen as either oppressed or unnaturally saintly (see “A Price Above Rubies,” “A Stranger Among Us”.)

But “Srugim” (written and directed by Laizy Shapira, himself an observant Jew) comes with complex female characters who have commitment issues, religious struggles, and romantic baggage (a lot of romantic baggage). Modern Orthodox young, single professionals can finally see themselves on onscreen. Although created by a man, the show is especially good at portraying the female characters’ complicated relationships with their tradition.

In the first episode of the series, Reut, the high-powered accountant, is seen both dumping a suitor who is uncomfortable with her salary and reciting Friday night Kiddush to the amazement of the men at the Shabbat table. While openly feminist, Reut is constantly being drawn to what she sees as a more normative Orthodox lifestyle. When she pretends to be married to another character in order to help him keep his job, she outwardly mocks her “fake homemaker” identity but inwardly is wistful.
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Do read this article with an eye to how it portrays the life and struggles of a human woman swept away to an Alien Planet, trying to find a stable identity.

Srugim is a TV Series about contemporary human beings in their workaday world, but illustrates just how to create an Alien Romance novel.  Still, it was a surprise "hit" and even bigger surprise that it is popular in the USA, too.  "They," the professional purveyors of entertainment, have no idea what they are dealing with when they touch our field.  

You may still be able to find this TV Series on Amazon Prime:

Jacqueline Lichtenberg


  1. Connie Willis's latest novel, CROSSTALK, could be labeled cozy near-future SF romance, with elements of screwball comedy. The heroine discovers telepathy is real, but NOT mostly a Good Thing. And of course she finds love with the last man she would have expected. It's wonderfully witty like almost all of Willis's fiction.

    Re souls: I've been reading an early 20th-century work, THE FAIRY-FAITH IN CELTIC COUNTRIES. The author advances for serious consideration the hypothesis that fairies are reincarnated human souls. He also brings in Atlantis somehow. (I haven't gotten to that chapter yet.) He's what most people nowadays would consider a bit of a crackpot, but the book is a valuable source of an exhaustive collection of fairy legends from all the Celtic nations.

    1. Yes, reading old non-fiction is a good way to find the archetypes you can work with to create futuristic fiction. What changes -- what does not! -- defines what it is to be human.