Elements of awesome
In the world of literature, the two genres most persistently maligned are science fiction/fantasy and romance. In all fairness, there is some truly terrible science fiction/fantasy out there, there’s some truly terrible romance out there, and there’s some science fiction romance that is so terrible that it rivals the poetry of The Vogons in its awfulness. But there is also science fiction romance that combines the greatest of both worlds – the vision of science fiction with the emotional drama of romance. At its best, speculative fiction (science fiction, fantasy, steampunk, and alternate histories) combined with romance can truly transport us to new realms, engage our emotions to the fullest, and make us think, marvel, and feel deeply.
There are formulas in romance, and a writer would do well to be aware of them if she or he wants to make the readers happy. Above all, there must be a happy ending that is believable, earned, and satisfying. But you can’t just read a bunch of romances, decide you know the formula, and start plugging in nouns and verbs, and throw in a space ship and some alien sex to make it sci-fi. ANY good book, in any genre, must do a great job with these elements:
- World-building. Every writer creates a setting for the reader. Some use a lot of detail and some use a little, but we must have an idea of where and when we are, and know enough about how things work that we can follow the story. The only thing about this that sets speculative fiction apart from any other genre is that the speculative fiction author must create their world (complete with culture and customs) from scratch. The more original and detailed the world, the better!
- Character. Whether you are reading Charles Dickens or Lois McMaster Bujold, there must be characters to care about. In romance, characters and their emotions take center stage, but they are important in any genre. Characters must seem like actual, layered, interesting people, not just placeholders in a formula.
- Dialogue. People have to talk like people, unless they are computers or robots or aliens, and then they should talk in a way that shows us their differences. Every character has to have their own unique voice.
- Plot. Maybe the plot is: “Some guy and his friend whose name is ‘Andre’ have dinner and talk a lot while eating pretentious food”. Maybe the plot is: “Man and woman fall in love on alien planet, become the leaders of a vast interplanetary power, intrigue ensues”. But the reader has to constantly be wondering, “What happens next?”
In speculative fiction, it’s especially important that we believe in the world created by the author, because we can’t fill in the blanks based on our own experience. In romance, it’s especially important that we are deeply invested in the romance—it should be the primary thing we care about. Other than that, the same thing that makes a speculative fiction romance good are the same things that make any book good—strong, inventive writing about interesting people and places. When it’s done right, nothing is more delightful!
Here’s just a few examples of the genre at its best:
- A Civil Campaign, by Lois McMaster Bujold (science fiction regency-style romance)
- Riveted, by Meljean Brook (steampunk romance)
- Collision Course, by Zoe Archer (science fiction romance)
- The Stolen Luck, by Shawna Reppert (m/m fantasy romance)
These books vary enormously in tone, in level of explicit sexuality, in subject matter, in length and in style, but they have what every book needs: fluid use of language, compelling characters, and interesting plots. On top of that, they have what every work of speculative fiction needs: finely rendered, imaginative, detailed world-building and interesting ideas. Above all they include relationships that the reader believes in. Speculative fiction romance of this caliber teaches us to think hard, dream big, and love as though the universe was counting on it!