Science Fiction Romance: A Male Authors View by Robert Appleton
A soccer-mad friend of mine told me about a book he’d read recently, the first book he’d ever read cover to cover. We were in a boisterous pub, but I managed to pick out the words “tragic”, “stars”, and “an action-packed ride”. My eyes lit up. Had he…could he possibly have read…science fiction? It was the last thing I expected, and I’d had no intention of telling him about my latest project. A space opera romance. I mean seriously—it’s dodgy to even mutter the words “science-fiction” in a pub on a Saturday afternoon, let alone tie a pink ribbon round them with “romance.” That’s worse than running in stark naked, waving a scarf for the wrong team, shouting “Drinks are on me!” and expecting not to take an instant beer bath.
Yep, it’s a tricky thing for a thirty-year-old guy to explain—why I write romantic science fiction.
And yes, my friend wholeheartedly recommended his book. Tragic, an action-packed ride, stars. He said it was a great autobiography of a professional wrestler.
So here I am (online), to tell you of my newest passion. Sci-fi romance.
The Mythmakers marks my first real foray into space opera, a sub-genre of science fiction characterized by a predominance of space flight, cliffhangers, and romance. Think Firefly, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica. And though I’ve written science fiction from a female POV before—my Eleven Hour Fall trilogy featured a feisty female survivalist, Kate Borrowdale—this is the first time I’ve put romance front and centre, on an equal footing with the action and the “science”.
Here’s the blurb:
For Captain Steffi Savannah and her crew of deep space smugglers, life has become little more than a dogged exercise in mere survival. Their latest disastrous heist ended with another dead crew member—and no place left to hide. She’s even finding it hard to dredge up any excitement over the giant, crippled ship that appears on their radar, even though it’s the salvage opportunity of a lifetime.
They find that it’s no ordinary alien vessel. It’s a ship of dreams, populated with the last remnants of Earth’s mythical creatures. Including the blond, built, mysterious Arne, one of a race blessed with extraordinary beauty—and few inhibitions. Though he won’t tell her exactly what he is, in his arms Steffi rediscovers something she thought she’d never feel again. Wonder, love…and hope.
It isn’t long, though, before the Royal guard tracks them down, and Steffi and her crew are faced with a terrible decision. Cut and run. Or risk everything to tow the Albatross and her precious cargo to safety.
Sci-fi romance is a genre almost exclusively written by women, about women, and for women. So why do I like it? Well for one thing, it’s a refreshing change from the hero-centric sci-fi books I was brought up with. Don’t get me wrong, John Carter of Mars, H.G. Wells and Jules Verne will always take pride of place on my bookshelf. But the women in those are ornamental at best, not to mention tied to the past.
To me, it’s fascinating to see how women view themselves in situations that call for the type of heroism traditionally expected of male heroes. Take today’s archetypal sf romance heroine—independent, resourceful, good in a fight, aggressively sexual, but also wounded, conflicted, lonely. I look at the book covers and see a woman’s idea of the perfect woman. Sexy, take charge, equal to any man of the future. These books aren’t marketed to men, but the cover models are still hot. The heroine’s sexuality is a potent draw for female readers. Just as the muscular, impossibly handsome Conan and John Carter are to boys and men. This kind of fantasy wish-fulfilment, or hero worship, traditionally a crucial part of male-centric science fiction and fantasy, now has its flipside in science fiction romance.
Unfortunately, most male readers don’t want to read a story told from a woman’s POV. And even less want any truck with the romance label, in any genre. Yet, romance has always been an integral part of pulp sf and fantasy. Every single Edgar Rice Burroughs novel features a man and a woman falling in love. From Flash Gordon to Avatar, romance has helped define the genre.
So why do male readers shy away from modern sf romance? Is it because they’re written by women? Is it because we feel threatened on some level by the tough female protagonists who can beat the snot out of us? Is there too much emphasis on romance, whereas those pulp sci-fi tales of the past, though romantic, never bore the “romance” label?
Sales demographics answer all those questions. Most publishers won’t even consider a sf romance, or any type of romance, unless it’s told from a woman’s POV. It just won’t sell. Women are every bit as protective of their own genres as men. But I wonder how many male readers have given sci-fi romance a real chance? I’ll bet hardly any. They might be surprised, as I was, to find just how brilliant a lot of these female space authors can be. Lois McMaster Bujold, Isabo Kelly, Sherrilyn Kenyon, etc. create fascinating universes and people them with heroines and heroes to rival the top male sf authors. The action is great, the science intriguing, the stories fast-paced and unpredictable. What’s not to like?
Oh, I forgot, they have love scenes. Okay, no way round that then. How about if male authors started getting in on the act? Sci-fi romances with slightly less lovin’, slightly more blowin’ shit up? Then again, male readers don’t like stories written from the heroine’s POV. So I guess we’re basically stuck in the good ol’ days of John Carter saving the planet on his own.
It’s funny, though, that female sf readers aren’t averse to sf with a male POV.
So what kind of protagonist is popular in sci-fi romance?
Personally, I’d rather end up with one of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ princesses—Dejah Thoris, oh yeah!—than a butt-kicking, gun-toting space babe who knows more about warp drives than me. But I’d much rather read about the latter, learn who she is, where she comes from, what she wants from the universe. Women in science fiction romances are much harder to fathom. They’re all the things guys don’t get about women, only twisted around and shoved back in our faces, at light speed.
They’re also funny. They act like pirates and train like GI Jane and fly a ship better than all the blokes. And they’re not always funny intentionally. How many women do you know could trade blows with a man, an average sized man, and beat ten bells out of him? I don’t know a single one. Well in the future, guys have lost their edge, see? Sci-fi romance babes are the next generation badasses. We don’t stand a chance. I’ve always loved Ripley in the Alien films because she’s a survivor first and a woman second. She was kind of revolutionary in the sci-fi genre (at least in movies), but now that character, or elements of her, are everywhere in popular SFF culture. She was a springboard for the tough, larger-than-life space heroines of today, such as Starbuck in BSG.
Steffi Savannah in The Mythmakers falls under that category, though she’s more feminine than either Ripley or Starbuck. She started life on her home world as an optimistic farmer’s daughter, steeped in tradition, and she’d accepted her role in life—to marry, raise a family. But disaster struck, leaving her homeless, an off-world drifter. To make ends meet, she turned to smuggling, and eventually made enough to buy her own ship, the Albatross, and hand-pick its crew. Her love life is confined to one-night stands in space ports and a no-strings sexual relationship with Bo, her loyal-but-not-too-bright cargo chief.
I wanted to strike a balance in Steffi between toughness—to captain her own smuggling ship, she has to be—and vulnerability. She gives orders and listens to advice. She can be cynical, but she also longs to be that wide-eyed girl on the farm again. When she discovers a crippled alien ship in deep space, she’s at her lowest ebb. What she finds on board, however, and who she finds on board, gradually reopens doors in her heart she’d long-since closed.
Some might see it as unusual for a male author to dabble in a female-oriented market, but for me, the best ideas have always come from unusual endeavours. I enjoy the challenge of writing a female POV. And to prove it, I have several more sf romances in the works, including one steampunk mystery I’ve almost completed. Just don’t tell anyone down at the pub, okay?
The Mythmakers is available Feb 23 at Samhain Publishing, priced $3.50 (ebook). Later in the year, it will appear in paperback as part of Samhain’s Impulse Power space opera anthology.
Click here to read the first chapter of The Mythmakers.
To read more from author Robert Appleton, head on over to his website: