Thursday, April 22, 2010

World-building to the Edge of the Page

I want to continue last week's discussion of the gap between science fiction and romance. Lois McMaster Bujold spoke eloquently on this subject at the 2008 Denvention Worldcon.

I was at this convention but, unfortunately, did not hear her speak. In the great wisdom of convention organization, a panel discussion on SFR was scheduled at the same time, and I chose the panel discussion. I thoroughly enjoyed both the panelists and the audience and was pleased to be part of the RSF movement. This gathering was science fiction people moving into romance or borrowing from romance.

Last year, Worldcon organizes in Montreal scheduled a panel discussion on cross genre at the same time as the Hugo Awards ceremony. I'm beginning to wonder if Worldcon organizers have something against romance/science-fiction cross genre. I again chose the panel discussion. Few others did, not even the panelists showed up, but several of Linnea Sinclair's fans were there. I'm struggling to remember names. I think one of them was Paula who in on the SFR Brigade.

I offered to moderate an audience discussion. What a kick! I enjoyed being on the panelist end of things and to make it more fun I was still wearing the regency era costume I'd made for the masquerade contest. Very fun discussing hard science-fiction romance cross while dressed like Elizabeth Bennet.

For those of us interested in combining romance with science fiction, I think it worthwhile to check out the text of Bujold's Denvention speech. She has some great insights into the challenges of this type of writing.

About SFR written from the romance side of things she said;

Anyway, with some of the Romance-SF crossover novels from the Romance side that I read early in my survey, I found a curious effect. The central plot delivered the emotional goods its readers wanted, but the SFnal world-building often failed to go all the way to the edge of the page. I began to wonder if one could in fact write a fantasy or SF book in which a romance plot was its central spine, but which equally delivered the world-building and other explorations so important to SF readers. Were the two genres intrinsically immiscible, or not? After all, what were romances but tales of the promulgation of human evolution through sexual selection, and what could be more skiffy than that? Especially, as now convincingly theorized by some evolutionary biologists, if human intelligence itself is a result of sexual selection.
The full text of her speech is on her blog.

I'd like to rephrase her question for romance writers: is it possible to write Romance in a way that satisfies the worldbuilding and explorations of ideas required by SF? Can Romance be written with world-building that goes "all the way to the edge of the page?"


  1. Ah, yes, I believe it can and has been done, but it's not easy, is it? Its challenging to combine a satisfying--if not soaring--romance with jump off the page worldbuilding. It takes research, feedback, and understanding what works for both genres. I believe that's what most of us strive for, but market or target audience of the publisher may dictate either the romance or the SF world-building be more prominent in the final draft.

    Recently, I was discussing some contest comments with another writer. We'd both seen some version of "What are you trying to accomplish here? Is this a romance or is it science fiction? You need to decide." Although the statement set me back on my heels, I realized the question was a summary of what SFR writers are up against in attempting to blend two genres effectively.

  2. It's not just an issue for sci fi rom but it seems MORE of an issue in this genre. Maybe it's because the technology and world building is more challenging that its easy to get carried away and pay less attention to the romantic elements. I do know one thing - I'd rather have too much of the romance side than the technical detail side but the best authors are going to be the ones who get the balance just right.

  3. Sure it can. Lois's Shards of Honor/Barrayar novels did it for me. The romanctic plot can't be removed (in my opinion) and neither can the SF. Me, I like the tech over the Romance.

    Personally, though, I think as a genre-blending group, we need to think more along the lines of a genre rainbow with degrees of blending rather than have anyone get upset that they can't achieve a perfect blend. I'd hate to think someone wouldn't submit a story because they think they don't have the blend perfect.

    I doubt there'll be any one book that'll please even the majority of readers from each genre-background because the "feel" of each genre is so different.

    I think there's room for all of them and if anyone acheives a perfect blend, good for them! The other degrees of blending will gradually draw readers to the other stories and maybe they'll open up to all types of SFR.

    All that said, I do think Linnea's books come very close to the middle for me too.

  4. AnnaM. beat me to bringing up Bujold. The romance is very well blended.

    Other books, maybe Price of the Stars, could lose the romance and still have a solid book. But there are strong romantic elements there which complete the series, if not the book.

    I think it's harder for SFR because you start with a completely blank slate. The reader has no point of reference for your universe. When you write a historical romance must people are familiar enough with England or the Old West that there is limited amounts of world-building needed.

    On the other hand, I have to fully describe Dock 27 at Port Kara or no one will have a clue what's going on or why it's a big deal that there's a Rus at Port Kara. If I spend to much time world-building, the romance aspects are lost. If I spend to much time describing the romance, the world is lost.

    This isn't a genre where you can waste words.

  5. Liana, exactly. That's exactly how I'd describe Bujold's two books also. Not a word is wasted. If it's mentioned, it's important in some way, even the tiny things that seem inconsequential.

  6. Liana, I think you raise an extremely interesting point. We have to create our own points of reference going into an SFR and that takes words. The parallel you drew with historicals, for example, is completely apt and one that I hadn't considered before, in terms of assumptions. The problem is, we all know the trap of pages and pages of introspection in between dialogue. Or the huge info-dumps that marks the amateur.

    And yet, we are there, trying to build that world. It's not enough that we have to do that, we have to do that in a transparent manner, and yet combine enough sf and romance to suit individual readers, and then have to portray the romance with reality and sensitivity, and then have to fill in details that are comprehensive and cohesive yet not too heavy on the detail, and then build a conflict that draws all these factors together, and then.... Why are we doing this again? We must be masochists. Maybe we should rename SFR Brigade to SFR Masochists! :)

    Going off to read Bujold's speech now. Thanks for the link, Lizzie!

  7. I loved Cordelia's Honor (which was actually the compilation of two novels--Shards of Honor and Barrayan). Bujold's characters, world-building, politics and military elements were fabulous. I did find myself craving more on the romance side of the scale though. I wanted to experience the connection between Cordelia and Vorkosigan at the deeper level the story hinted at but never 'showed.' On the other hand, I know others prefered the novel because it didn't include the more intimate moments.

    One of my favorite scenes was when they were discussing the "Taboo Sexual Topics" list in bed. Highly entertaining, though again, I wished it had been more 'fleshed out.' (excuse the pun). *smirk*


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