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WHEN GENRES COLLIDE: ROMANCE IN SF

Starry HeartsIt had to happen one of these days.  My two genre blogs ("Care to Speculate," on Speculative Fiction, and "Romance In The Air," on Romance) are meeting head-on this month and, well... I'm afraid they're falling ridiculously in love with each other.  I'm scheduled to blog on SF (and so I shall!), but with Valentine's Day so close, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to sneak in a little romance.  So for this month, I'm focusing on romance found in speculative fiction.

First, a little clarification, because the "border" (such as it is) between these two genres is particularly squishy.  There are such things as science fiction romance, fantasy romance, and paranormal romance.  In the grand constellation of genre, while an SF reader might enjoy them, all three are subgenres of Romance.  That's not what I'll be talking about today.  What's the difference between an SF romance and romance in SF?  The first and most important difference is the focus of the story.  No matter what other interesting things are going on in the plot, Romance's primary focus will always be on the relationship between the main characters.  Not so, with SF.  The romantic storyline may be one thread in a whole tapestry of plot and world-building and character loyalties; if the title is part of a series, that thread may be subtle and slow-burning indeed.

Also, an important caveat for romance readers: the "happily every after" that defines romance is not always assured in SF.  Lovers can die, nobly sacrificing themselves for the other (or dying at the hands of the villain to fuel a revenge storyline).  Circumstances can keep couples apart, sometimes for years, sometimes forever.  (Consider Henry's "Chrono-Displacement Disorder" in Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife.)  Romances in SF aren't always doomed (we have Nicholas Sparks for that), but neither do they guarantee a good end for the lovers.  (Wash in Firefly.  I will say no more.)

Personally, I like it better that way.  It's comforting to be able to pick up a book with a feel-good ending, but sometimes you want the suspense of not knowing how it will turn out for them.  I find the lack of a "required" HEA offers speculative fiction a broader emotional range than the romance genre usually has to play with.  (Consider: works like The Time-Traveler's Wife, Romeo & Juliet, Remains of the Day, and Cyrano de Bergerac would all be excluded from the genre of romance because of the lack of an HEA.)  I don't find speculative fiction any less romantic because of this.  It does, however, reinforce the differences between the genres.

To be perfectly honest, SF was part of the reason it took me a long time to warm up to genre romance as a reader... not because I didn't like "kissing books," but because I was getting all the deep, emotional, relationship "feels" I needed out of the genre I was already reading.  And unlike the boooooring serial romances my elder sisters consumed,* my spec fic reads had great worldbuilding, action, intriguing plots, and female leads I could admire.  The heroines of SF didn't obsess over their looks-- they were too busy mastering the magical arts, expanding the reach of knowledge, or saving the world.  And yet... they, too, found love, often in a place they never expected it.  And what can be more romantic than that?

Without further ado... here are five of my favorite romances in Speculative Fiction.

Cordelia's Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold (SF Bujold)
Technically, this is two books, Shards of Honor and Barrayar, prequels to a lengthy series about the lead couple's son; the author originally wrote it as one book and chopped it in half for publication.  In Shards of Honor, Commander Cordelia Naismith, leader of a Betan scientific expedition, is stranded on a planet when her team is attacked by an enemy squad of militaristic Barrayarans.  Commander Aral Vorkosigan, a Barrayaran, is also marooned, betrayed by someone in his squad.  The only chance they have to make it off the planet alive is by cooperating with each other.

In Barrayar, the war is over, and Cordelia chooses to give up the peaceful, enlightened world she knows to make a home on militaristic, feudal Barrayar with Aral.  But Cordelia isn't the only one going through a life-change-- the wily old Emperor of Barrayar is on his deathbed, and he wants to appoint the honorable Aral as Regent to the infant heir.  But regime change on a world like Barrayar is never that smooth.... 

I like to think of Shards of Honor as the "how they met" book and Barrayar as the "building the relationship" book that carries their romance full circle-- you can't really read the first without the second.  (Not to mention, you'd be missing out on a spectacular plot rife with suspense and political intrigue, and a charming secondary romance.)

The Blue Sword by Robin McKinley (J McKinley)
Don't let the "J" label fool you-- this is a book for all ages, one I've enjoyed repeatedly as an adult.  While it has several close contenders, I think it still tops my list of all-time favorite fantasies.

Impoverished, too-tall, tomboyish Harry Crewe has always felt like an outsider.  With her parents dead, her brother has brought her to live in the tiny desert outpost of Istan, last bastion of the Homeland at the edge of the hilly desert country they call Daria-- Damar, to the natives-- where the aloof and magic-ridden Hillfolk dwell.   Harry is resigned to a quiet life in Istan.  Her prospects are limited, and she is not the sort of person to whom spectacular things happen.  That is, until golden-eyed Corlath, king of the Hillfolk, kidnaps Harry from her bed in the dead of night. 

Corlath is preparing his people for war, and has no time to waste on distractions.  But he is driven by his magical kelar, which tells him this girl is important to the future of his people-- but not how she is important.  Harry, knowing nothing of why she was taken, is suddenly thrust into a culture both utterly foreign to her and strangely familiar.  She is offered glimpses of a destiny she's scarcely dreamed of, a destiny that couldn't possibly be meant for one not of the Hills... could it?  And Corlath?  He must trust his unpredictable gift, and place his people's fate into the hands of an unknown woman who could save them from extermination... the woman he may have made into an enemy, by stealing her away from everything she has known and loved.

The Best of All Possible Worlds
by Karen Lord (SF Lord)
The Sadiri's world is gone, destroyed in an instant in an unprovoked act of genocide.  The cool, cerebral lawgivers and judges of the galaxy have been nearly wiped out by one supreme act of lawlessness.  Desperate to preserve their culture, the few Sadiri who remain-- mostly men-- have no choice but to seek out the taSadiri, distant relatives who settled all over the galaxy, whose genetic material and psionic potential may be compatible enough to help them rebuild their society.

Councillor Dllenahkh leads one such delegation, which has settled on the backwater planet of Cygnus-Beta, home to a veritable melting pot of pioneers and refugees.  Second Assistant Biotechnician and translator Grace Delarua, tempermental and impulsive, hardly seems like a good match for the reserved Sadiri, but she goes where her boss tells her, and she has been assigned as their liaison to guide them in their search through Cygnus-Beta's many settlements.  Together Delarua and Dllenahkh must find a new way for the Sadiri to exist, or risk seeing them wiped out for good.

There are your broad, sweeping, passionate romances, the kind that light up the galaxy and inspire love poetry for the ages.  And then there are your quiet, subtle romances, the kind that grow out of friendship and shared experiences until one day over coffee you look up and your heart says oh, of course... this one.  This book is more like that second kind.  (Without the coffee.)  I strongly recommend reading Lord's acknowledgements at the end of the book before you start, as it offers some intriguing background on her inspiration for this novel.

The Shape-Changer's Wife
by Sharon Shinn (Fantasy Shinn)
Aubrey, a promising apprentice magician, has learned all he can from his former teacher and has been sent to study under a new master: the learned and feared Glyrendon, greatest shape-changer in the kingdom, who lives in a dark fortress deep within the forest.  The wizard is not at home when Aubrey arrives.  Instead, Aubrey is met by the beautiful and aloof Lilith, wife of Glyrendon, and falls instantly in love.  As Aubrey spends time among the keep's strange inhabitants and begins to learn the art of transmogrification, he becomes more and more obsessed with Lilith and the mystery she represents.  But when he learns Lilith's secret, will Aubrey have the courage to do what he must to prove his love?

This book was Sharon Shinn's first novel, and it's a doozy.  The ending will simultaneously break your heart to pieces and renew your faith in humanity, and it will stay with you long after you've finished it.  Will you figure out the mystery of Lilith before Aubrey does?  Almost definitely-- for a smart boy, Aubrey's pretty slow on the uptake when it comes to Lilith.  Will it matter?  No, because it's not the secret that matters so much as what Aubrey chooses to do with it.  This book is relatively slow-moving at first, but stick with it-- once it hooks you, it hooks you hard.

To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis (SF Willis)
Looking back at my other choices for this list, I see I've got a lot of people facing difficult choices in desperate times.  Don't worry-- except for a small violation of the time continuum that may threaten all of history, this book is nothing at all like that.

In 2057, Oxford University's Temporal Physics Department (time-travel, to the layfolk) has become a boon to historians, allowing them to study England's past by witnessing it personally.  For Lady Schrapnell, a woman of iron will and far too much money, it is a means of achieving her dream: the complete and authentic restoration of Coventry Cathedral, the place her beloved many-times-great-grandmother experienced a Life-Changing Event.  Lady Schrapnell's personal byword is "God is in the details," and she dragoons every last member in the department to check all the details, down to the precise location of the bishop's bird-stump (whatever it may be-- its ugliness defies description) during the Nazi air raid that destroyed the original cathedral. 

Temporal historians Ned Henry and Verity Kindle have been sent to Victorian England on separate assignments (technically, Ned is there to return a stolen object to the Victorian era; his true purpose is to take a really long nap free of Lady Schrapnell, as he hasn't slept in several centuries).   The two wind up joining forces in a masterfully orchestrated comedy of errors to return the stolen object that is threatening the time stream and prevent Lady Schrapnell's ancestor from accidentally changing history by falling in love with the wrong man.  Along the way are evil cats, exotic goldfish, tenacious bulldogs, jumble sales, Oxford dons, angry swans, three men in a boat, and-- yes-- true love.


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* (To be fair to the romance genre, it was the '80s-- big hair and formulaic Harlequin serials-- and my representative sample was "what my mother and sisters brought home."  I'm sure there were decently-written romances out there at the time, but most of them never reached our bookshelves.) [back to top]

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