Are Alien Abduction Trope Mash-ups on the Rise?
In a previous Scopebox column, I called the alien abduction trope the beans and rice of sci-fi romance. I apologize for touching on the same trope again so soon, but several recent releases have brought me back to it by creating some awesome mash-ups. It shouldn’t be surprising that, as our favorite little-genre-that-could grows, authors would seek to put their own stamp on tried-and-true tropes. The books I want to discuss here are variants of the alien abduction trope that distance the hero from the actual kidnapping, assigning that task to “evil” aliens. This twist often casts the hero as fellow victim-turned rescuer as he helps the heroine escape.
The earliest book of this type I recall reading was Lord of the Dark Sun by Stobe Piel (2002). The heroine is kidnapped and tossed into a pit with primitive humans that are used as slave labor to mine whatever planet they’re on. Here comes an alien abduction-slave planet mash-up, right? Yes, but not for long. Halfway through, they escape. Herein lies my greatest concern with this twist—the second half of the book.
The first half in this mash-up, abduction and escape, has great features that make it well suited to sci-fi romance. There is the appealing idea of a hero that has survived in a lawless place, not only by brute strength but also by cleverness. Then we add in a bit of the hero could have anyone but chooses our heroine above all others. Add a dollop of surviving together while struggling to hold onto their humanity and you have a winning emotional storyline.
The abduction becomes a method of taking the heroine out of her element and adds drama and suspense. However, unlike the original trope, this twist resolves the major conflict at a point where we are not yet convinced the couple will stick together. For the reader to have complete satisfaction, the couple must prove their love will thrive in whatever world they end up on and without the artificial closeness of captivity. With this trope-twist mash-up, there is usually an after part where hero and heroine go off to live on an alien world. We’re talking about a whole new set of conflicts to overcome. When it’s done well, you get double fun. But it’s really, really, really hard to do well.
For me the before and after storyline introduces a bit of a risk to the reader’s enjoyment of the story. With two different sorts of circumstances and character goals, you could end up with two great tastes that taste great together or you can end up with a sour ball of meh in your mouth. Let’s go back to Lord of the Dark Sun. During the escape, the hero and heroine are separated and the hero is thought to have died in the escape attempt. The story takes up after years of separation. The hero is not the same man. The story conflicts are distantly related but the couple conflicts are completely different. Although I love this author, this particular book didn’t work for me. For all the reasons I loved the first half, the second half was only meh.
A slightly less bothersome sour mouth experience happened to me again recently with Venomous by Penelope Fletcher. Loved the first half of the story, but the second have was only okay for me. The book was part of the Kindle Unlimited subscription service and was phenomenally well read. I don’t know how many other readers had the same trouble with the second half. Anecdotally, I can tell you I heard a lot of people say it was “long” which is true. But when a book is awesome-sauce people don’t often worry about length. I did finish the book and overall recommend it with one caveat. It took me twice as long to read the second half as it did the first and the hero lost a bit of his shine for me by the end. It has hundreds of positive reviews and even I will likely read the next book in the series. It doesn’t look to use the same tropes.
The second book I want to talk about from this quarter very clearly illustrates how having an alien abduction story where the hero is not the abductor can really shine. It also solves the escape-is-not-the-end problem by replacing a slave planet with a barely habitable planet and a castaway feel. Ice Planet Barbarians by Ruby Dixon, released as both a serial and a complete novel, seemed to show up in everyone’s read pile. It has tons to love and very little to complain about (for me, I’m sure a few will call an insta-love foul despite the author’s efforts to head that off). This story has a ship full of abducted human women who crash land on a Hoth-like planet, inhabited by what we later learn is a tribe of big blue alien barbarians. The call-it-what-it-is title and unabashedly on the nose cover, featuring a woman in the arms of a big blue alien hero, likely added to this story’s success.
Despite the call-back to the barbarians of the 1990s futuristic romances, Ice Planet Barbarians clearly speaks to modern sensibilities. The heroine does a fare bit of saving herself before meeting the alien barbarian. After the heroine’s earlier wins, it’s hard to gripe about the fact that the hero, who proves to be gentle and caring, has to save her from the weather. She still has to save the other women and keep them all from being recaptured when the bad aliens come looking for their lost ship. I was also entertained by the way the language issues are handled. It worked crazy-good for me. You hear the internal thoughts of each character when in their POV, but the two can’t communicate with language until a third into the story. We get a touch of humorous attempts to communicate without a common language, but switch to better understanding before it becomes laborious.
All in all, it’s a smart bit of writing and a well handled mash-up between alien abduction, barbarian hero, and survival story. Because the hero is not the abductor, he is likable with no reservations. Removing the necessity for an after-escape phase of the story eliminates the dangerous dichotomy of before and after conflicts. It is a much smoother read, with a story that compels you to keep turning the pages from beginning to end.
To wrap things up, I say bring on the twists and mash-ups. I can’t wait to see what the next big sci-fi romance read will be.