Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Technowank vs. Character Drama: Which One is King?

Hello hello!

So, along with the massive inequality issues heating up the field, a new subgenre of sci fi has emerged to stir the pot further. Meet science fiction romance, or sci-fi romance: it's exactly what it sounds like. And honestly, it's the only kind of romance I can read, on the rare occasions that I do read romance.

 If you think about it, it was a natural progression. It's not like we haven't had a history of romance in sci fi before. Ursula Le Guin, Orwell, and Zamyetin all had romance in their books. In We, the first dystopian book, the romance drives the plot--as it does in 1984. And do we need to mention the frequent romances in television?  Movies aren't short on it either. "I love you. I know." Of course, Farscape has a fantastic romance--more than one of them--and Doctor Who has, too. The Trek was never short on romances either. So why are people compulsively vomiting and complaining about icky girl germs with sci-fi romance?


I don't like romance.


Well, okay, that's not entirely true. I like love stories a lot. I like a bit of bittersweetness or tragedy in there, too, because I think it's more interesting, but there's no getting away from the fact that I didn't cry my way though The Fault in Our Stars just because of kids with cancer. And I edit a lot of romances, and sometimes, I do really enjoy them. A good human story is always appealing, and that's where the hook comes from, for me at least. Other people like the escapism and the heady feelings and the 'happily ever after' thing, and I can't complain about those, really. But for some reason, female-coded escapism (romance, etc, etc) is seen as 'worse' or 'icky' compared to male-coded escapism, such as technowank and space ships and that sort of thing.


A brief digression on technowank


I also don't have a ton of patience for books where the author inserts a technical manual in the middle of the action. I've ranted and raved about exposition dumps on many occasions, and so I'll try to keep this short.
As much as I like sci fi, the hard stuff can turn into a very technical description of nuts and bolts and can actually lose sight of the plot. Some people love it when authors get carried away, others fall asleep.

Robots are awesome, but what makes them interesting is all the transhumanist arguments and the 'where does humanity lie', ghost in the machine stuff. It's not about the titano-carboridium alloys. We don't like C-3P0 because of his blank expression or the six thousand known languages in his database, we like him because he flies off the handle and acts as straight man to R2D2. Moya is a great ship, but as much fun as it is to run around her corridors with Dutch-angled camera work, it's the stuff that happens on her and to her that keeps our attention.


Shiny is good. 


I think visual formats do have an easier time of it because they can get away with just showing, rather than telling us too much--the 'show/tell' thing can be a bit tricky when it comes to the description end of things. We do need to know what things look like and have some idea of how they work, but finding the balance can be hard. And there is room for those lovely sweeping descriptions of xeno panoramas, big shiny ships, and all that good stuff. And, yeah, I rarely tire of reading about a well-written, gritty spaceport and the delicious food in it. One of the things I loved about the short Star Wars anthologies that came out was that they described Tatooine and the new Jedi Academy in fine detail. It was nice to hear about the little things and the students' person effects and the bacta tanks and 'shimmersilk' robes of dignitaries. The 'shiny' stuff and the worldbuilding are fun for both readers and writers.


Why do we need to fuss about characters?


Now that you know I'm not an opponent of worldbuilding or lyrical digressions, listen carefully when I say: it's all worthless with crappy characters. I've seen it mentioned in a few writing guides, and it's true--characters are what a reader remembers. Sure, Giger is amazing and the alien is gorgeous, but we remember Ripley and Ash and even that cat. That's why Prometheus sucked compared to Alien (s). It's also why many fans bemoan the Dune sequels and Star Wars prequels--all the king's gorgeous visuals and all the king's men couldn't make up for weird, constrained acting from most of the performers and characters that most of us just didn't like. (Phantom Menace, apart from the horrible racist caricatures, was the strongest of the three because it had the best portrayals of the characters, and I will fight you on that.)  The classics of sci fi have endured because they have fantastic human stories, not because of their settings alone. Sure, settings spark the imagination, but it's the people we relate to, cheer for, scream at, and develop messy childish crushes on that keep us going.


So, what does this have to do with sci fi romance again?


Well, sci-fi romance is ultimately only as strong as its characters. It's why diversity is so important in media, and it's why those of us defending that get pretty up in arms about it. Some sci fi romance is probably not that well-written, but the same is true of the 'old-fashioned', 'traditional' technowank stuff that relies on shiny bits rather than character development. Ultimately, one or two or even ten bad books do not merit discarding an entire genre. Sci-fi romance needs a little more time to grow up and branch out, sure, but it's a very new subgenre. Ultimately, the potential of more explicitly character-driven sci-fi is really exciting. We can take the settings and the shiny stuff for granted, because sci-fi is established as a genre. It knows what its doing now.We don't have to set up and describe every damn space ship because readers know what they are. That means we can push some boundaries. And ultimately, pushing boundaries while we envision the future is the heart of gold that drives this genre forward.


*****
Thanks for dropping by the nest once again. Don't miss any of the phuquerie. Find Michelle on TwitterFacebook, and on Tumblr, and find her work on Amazon. Check back on the blog to see when one of the irregular posts has careened onto your feed. This is the one and only SciFiMagpie, over and out! 

15 comments:

  1. Michelle, I LOVE this post! You've summed it up for me perfectly. I'd give you smoochies, but we all know about those damn girl cooties. :P

    ReplyDelete
  2. FANTASTIC post, Michelle. One of the best summaries of what makes SFR work that I've read.

    I'm going to run off and tweet it now!

    ReplyDelete
  3. Great post, Michelle!

    Character driven stories are nothing new to SciFi, though I do think historically SciFi has dropped the ball in exploring the unique challenges of meeting what Carl Jung considered a basic human need, the need for love, in a technologically advanced, or spacefaring setting.

    You really hit the nail on the head.

    ReplyDelete
  4. You say, "I don't like romance."
    This comes across in several areas of this post. I can't overlook that element even while I think we're all in agreement in saying stop with the girl cooties & bring on the diversity. But as an author who loves BOTH science fiction and romance, I get a distinct Romance cooties vibe which I think undermines the idea of supporting female-coded escapism. It comes across as calling Romance icky and does the same thing as the girl-cooties attitude.

    I think that this subgenre has a lot of divisiveness within it. I don't think it helps the authors. It leads authors like me to eventually back away from discussions that hint (or not even hint) at Romance being lesser. Because I don't think I'll be heard. I can speak, say the same things over and over, but I'm not actually heard. Romance is a vital part of SFR (to me, that's obvious since SFR is a subgenre of Rom). And it's a valid genre. It's an important genre. That genre has had some pretty phenomenal diverse books. I'm proud to be both a Romance author and an SFF author. You can't have SFR without Romance as much as you can't have it without Science Fiction.

    While I don't think the readers necessarily see this divisiveness within SFR, I'm pretty sure the vast majority of those readers are women who like their Romance.

    So, is this a labeling issue? Are we really talking about Romantic Science Fiction? Or Science Fiction Romance? Or both? Either way, I'm as tired of the Romance cooties as the girl cooties that I see within the genre I usually love.

    ReplyDelete
  5. When I read this, I felt like I did when I was younger, trying to get boys to realize that I was a girl, I liked SFF and climbing trees and ew, Barbie, because I was a girl, but not GIRLY. This "I like SF with characters, but not ROMANCE" feels the same. We're breaking into an Old Boy's Club, and we're girls, but not too girly! because look, we don't like romance, and that's the girliest thing ever!

    SF has always been about the human condition. A way of looking at the world, where we are with regard to scientific discovery, and where we're headed if we continue the route we're on. If there's no room for love and romance in that, it should be because that's a consequence of the worldbuilding, not because 'ew, cooties', romance is too girly.

    ReplyDelete
  6. When I read this, I felt like I did when I was younger, trying to get boys to realize that I was a girl, I liked SFF and climbing trees and ew, Barbie, because I was a girl, but not GIRLY. This "I like SF with characters, but not ROMANCE" feels the same. We're breaking into an Old Boy's Club, and we're girls, but not too girly! because look, we don't like romance, and that's the girliest thing ever!

    SF has always been about the human condition. A way of looking at the world, where we are with regard to scientific discovery, and where we're headed if we continue the route we're on. If there's no room for love and romance in that, it should be because that's a consequence of the worldbuilding, not because 'ew, cooties', romance is too girly.

    *My apologies if this posts twice -- I was signed into a google account, tried to change it, and got booted.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Ella Drake said: You say, "I don't like romance."
    This comes across in several areas of this post.

    It'd be helpful, Michelle, if you could expand upon that a bit more.

    As Ella said, and I'm guessing Michelle already knows, romance doesn't have to prove anything to anyone since it's as worthy a genre as any other.

    That said, is every romance for every reader? Not by a long shot. Is it sometimes a challenge to find the particular types of SFRs that fit our personal tastes? Yes, but that's a marketing issue, not an issue with the genre itself. And the potential of SFR to also offer a wider variety of romances is also a separate issue, although IMHO it somewhat plays into the concept of expanding the genre (maybe I'll blog about this aspect!).

    I saw this post as a call for SFR to use its strengths (i.e., character-driven elements) to make a valuable contribution, especially to science fiction given that genre's marginalization of character-driven stories, women, and diverse characters.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Heather, I agree with you.
    But I see Romance as one of SFR's strengths. To make a valuable contribution to the discussion of SFR, I would hope anyone discussing it wouldn't try to marginalize all of the authors and readers who enjoy Romance.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Ella, I'm glad I'm not the only one who got the Romance cooties vibe.

    I'm a romance reader FIRST. It's 98% of what I read. It's what I write FIRST. Everything else is second to the romance.

    Saying "I only like certain kinds of romance but I'm not comfortable calling it a romance" is just as dangerous, in some ways, as saying "romance is bad because it's covered with girl cooties."

    Calls for diversity are fine. But don't let a perceived lack of diversity become an excuse to make us dyed in the wool romance readers feel even more marginalized. We already have a hard time getting people to take us seriously. The fire doesn't need any more fuel.

    Alluding to being too high-brow and intellectual for romance, or not taking it seriously as a valid genre, is just as damaging as the so-called lack of diversity. We've been dealing with that attitude for DECADES, and there's been very little progress in getting rid of it. We don't need it popping up within our amazing genre.

    ReplyDelete
  10. I had a very different take on this. To me, Michelle was simply stating her personal preference that she doesn't really care for traditional romance but also poking a bit of fun at the "no girl cooties" crowd, not at romance readers.

    She goes on to say why science fiction romance works for her when "regular" romance doesn't always. I don't see that as marginalizing readers who enjoy romance (and I'm one of them).

    I also believe Science Fiction Romance isn't a subgenre of Romance OR of Science Fiction. I truly believe it is it's own genre. When we have talented SFR writers who can't get accepted by publishing houses of either main genre, that seems to make an argument that SFR is an emerging independent genre all its own. Of course, it's a very small, emerging genre to this point, but that's how most of them got started. :)

    ReplyDelete
  11. Sorry, I'm not picking up an anti-romance message here, only pro-SFR.

    ReplyDelete
  12. Amen! I'm all about character-driven sci-fi. It's why Star Trek fans are so loyal. And this is true for any genre--give them great characters and readers will try anything.
    I think that's why SFR is so exciting! the romantic element suggests humanity (whether it be alien or not) and that's what readers identify with. Doesn't have to mean sappy love stories, as you mentioned.
    Awesome post Michelle!

    ReplyDelete
  13. I totally agree with Michelle's final paragraph. She and I have a history of strong disagreement on what is and is not a romance and why it's important. I'm sure she's not surprised at my take on the post overall. :)

    As much as we're all trying to come together and raise visibility of our genre, Ella's right in that there is a very strong component of divisiveness. My own SFR is almost more of a futustic romance than SF, because the way I write ends up with a softer approach to the SF elements. It's all about the romance for me, and SF elements are secondary. There are times and places and the occasional blog post somewhere that can be interpreted as saying my take on SFR isn't worthy of the title. Those instances are few and far between, but they do happen.

    I focus on writing the best book I can with the story and characters that come to me. It's all about the people for me, so on that point I completely agree with Michelle. Everything else is secondary to creating great characters.

    But we can do that without giving the impression that some things are more worthy than others.

    ReplyDelete

We love to hear from you! Comments must pass moderation to be published - spammers will be zapped.

SFR Brigade Bases of Operation