Monday, September 27, 2010

What is the role of Sex in Science Fiction and Science Fiction Romance?

This week’s insightful SF Signal Podcast examines the sometimes controversial issue of what the proper role of sex is in Science Fiction:

What is the role of sex in science fiction?

Authors Philip Jose Farmer, Robert Heinlein and Ursula K. Le Guin, to name just a few, have all had sex and sexuality in their stories in one way or another. Science fiction and fantasy is full of examples of blurred gender roles, cross-species sex, virtual sex - are these legitimate points to move the story forward or are they simply there to sensationalize the prose? What are some examples of sex in science fiction that, good or bad, still stick in your mind? What are some examples where you felt it was completely out of place?

As an SF Signal Irregular, I had intended to take part in this discussion, but a scheduling conflict precluded me from joining in. Still, I left a comment where I noted that:

I think sex in any novel should, like any other element, either move the plot forward or develop/reveal character. How explicit a particular scene is or should be, IMO, depends on the voice of the author and also what needs to be revealed about plot or character. If a sex scene seems to occur out of nowhere, sometimes it’s because the author didn’t set up sexual tension between the two characters. I think this is one of the areas where the Romance genre excels. In Romance, the tension between the characters builds to an obvious physical and emotional crescendo. A love scene between the heroine and hero fundamentally changes the characters as it forces them to confront intimate details about themselves or their partner. This is why, IMO, Romance sex isn’t porn -- no matter how graphic a scene it is, in Romance the sex has a purpose that can’t be extracted from the rest of the story.

In preparation for the podcast, I talked to a handful of my fellow SFR writers and readers to help me articulate the general attitude of SFR toward sex in the genre. SFR often has to maintain a delicate balance between too much and too little detail when writing sex or love scenes.

While there is certainly a spectrum of preferences, it’s true that in many Romance novels the bedroom door is open and the sex takes place “on-screen,” but this isn’t so often the case in Science Fiction. Also, when sex takes place “on-screen” in Science Fiction often it’s classified as “erotic Science Fiction.”

Science Fiction Romance blends these two genres and sometimes it can be a tough call as to how much intimacy and steam to include in a story. So much of this, I think, depends on the author’s voice, but also what the story needs – how intimately does the rest of the story depict the psycho-social inner world of the protagonist?

Along this latter point, Science Fiction Romance has grown as a subgenre due to the popularity of character-driven Science Fiction. As readers become more comfortable reading about the deep emotional landscape of protagonists, it’s logical that the bedroom door will at times remain open if intimate scenes build on that character’s emotional arc. The Galaxy Express’ Heather Massey made the following observation in our e-mail conversation on this topic:

. . . [T]he main question posed to the [podcast] panelists begs the question of "what is the role of relationships in SF." Because sex happens within a relationship, however brief. Sometimes the relationships are romantic in nature, sometimes not. So I would be interested in hearing a discussion about does the inclusion of sex mean that some SF authors were interested in including a romance, but felt they had to disguise it as a sex scene? In other words, could sex scenes in SF be a type of code for "romance"?

The exploration of gender roles, sexual relations, sexual orientation, etc. is a perfectly valid application of SF. If anything, sometimes it's the injection of a *romance* (regardless of heat level) that may be used to "sensationalize" the prose.

This begs the question – does the Romance side of Science Fiction Romance allow writers to explore the sexual side of characters that isn’t so accepted in mainstream Science Fiction?

Author Jess Granger made the excellent point that the sexual lives of Science Fiction characters are vital to world-building both in terms of biology and cultural expectations:

Sex can be something a race doesn't need at all, or needs desperately to survive. The world building plays an intricate part in that, and consequently, in Science Fiction you can push the biological need to breed much further than you can with a realistic portrayal of any culture here on Earth. Plus, you can do it without the "human" baggage. There is huge opportunity to play with biology, and that's really the point of Science Fiction in my mind, to use science to push the boundaries of what we understand about ourselves.

As far as cultural expectations go, again, your canvas is wide open. With alien cultures, you can push acceptance and taboos to the extremes without blinking an eye. Sex is so integrated into all cultures throughout history. Whether it's encouraging, hindering, or controlling, sex and culture go hand in hand. To say sex shouldn't be a part of Science Fiction is like saying food shouldn't be a part of Science Fiction. It is an integral part of all life. An alien's got to eat, and he's got to create a new generation somehow. If you're building alien cultures, how they view and approach sex has the potential to reveal a lot about that culture. So once again, sex is an essential part of world building.

A few of the more common indictments of depicting the sex lives of Science Fiction characters have been along the lines of (1) SF readers are only interested in intellectual/scientific concepts and political intrigue, and (2) reading intimate details makes some readers feel like voyeurs.

Well, to the first notion, I’d say that the intellectualism of Star Trek’s Spock is only compelling because we occasionally see his walls disintegrate and understand what the stakes are. Make all the “pon farr” jokes you want, but it’s only through seeing Vulcans in that visceral light that we understand just how powerful their intellect really is. Then, the tension grows out of a sense of restraint, a technique used from “Jane Eyre” to “Twilight.” The brain really is the largest and most important sexual organ. When it comes to political commentary, character relationships provide dimension. Like the Spock example, the fates of relationships show what’s at stake and humanizes vast intellectual concepts. If a character has to choose between political duty and a life-long love, that’s a prime opportunity for the kind of internal conflict that makes stories memorable.

For those who are uncomfortable with too many sexual details, SFR, like so much of Romance in general, offers quite a spectrum of “heat” levels from the sensual to the explicit. Read reviews and listen to other readers to figure out which authors are writing the types of SFR stories that appeal to you. They are out there. However, I do think that the deeply personal point of view in character-driven stories lessens the sense of voyeurism since it makes it easier for the reader to feel the emotional arc along with the characters. In other words, it breaks down the “fourth wall” in ways more distant writing styles cannot.

Sometimes, an author’s voice is naturally sensual and to close the bedroom door on character’s intimate moments can seem forced. The reverse is true of naturally technical voices. Some readers just do not like character-driven novels. We all have our preferences.

Having said that, delving deep into a character’s emotions can offer a unique perspective on an intellectual idea and can take the “what if” Science Fiction question to a new level. Jess Granger made this point well when she told me that:

So, as Science Fiction writers, and human beings, sometimes I think we need to take our own cultural blinders off and see the sex act as something with the potential to illuminate some of the larger themes of a story instead of something that is merely titillating, pornographic, stupid, self-gratifying, or unnecessary.
Sex is important, and it deserves to be.

What do you think? What are some of your favorite examples of the intimate lives of characters that you’ve read? Do you prefer highly sensual stories – or not?

I personally very much enjoyed the inner journey back to humanity Linnea Sinclair's hero Admiral Branden Kel-Paten makes in "Games of Command." His journey deeply affects the heroine, Captain Tasha “Sass” Sebastian, and enables her to rediscover that part of herself along with him. Another stand out for me was Sandra McDonald's "The Outback Stars" because the emotional risks the characters take enable them to take other risks that impact the rest of the universe.


  1. From what I've read it seem anything goes in science fiction. It's more open than romance or even erotica in what is allowed. The top romance science fiction books have relationships between partners with one underage and the other over fifty. They also have bondage,S&M scenes, and multiple partners.
    These are accepted and allowed because science fiction explores the implications of these relationships. It's not wish fulfillment but logical exploration of what if. I trade criticism with romance writers and have found they mark some of my science fiction sex scenes and situation unacceptable.
    If the sexual situation fits the world and the characters it's right within science fiction even if it's against conventional values.
    With that said science fiction does tend to pull the curtain on the love scenes. This is because science fiction has to cover more ground. It almost always has a political arc that has greater or equal emphasis to the romantic arc. There just isn't enough ink space to get everything in. So the love scenes get abbreviated. Science fiction readers like it that way. They don't want deep exploration of emotions and sensuality slowing down the plot.
    Now SFR is a combination of the two genres but each book is housed on one shelf or the other. So SFR book is either clearly Romance or clearly Science Fiction. The ones that are truly in between are housed with Science Fiction. That means a book that is in between the genres has the wide open rules about what can be done but it may be best to pull the curtain on the details.

    My favorites with dealing with sex and sexuality are: Ann McCaffrey's Pern(dragon sex and those homosexual green riders), Bujold's Ethan of Athos (homosexual society), Robin Hobb's Farsear series (androgynous romance), Asaro's Skolian series (homosexual/bisexual romance, extreme December May relationships, incest, bondage, S&M). The difference that makes all this allowable and acceptable in SF is that SF gets into the social and biological ramifications of sex more than it gets into the eroticism of these situations.

    Lizzie Newell

  2. I personally like the fact that SFR covers a broad range of books, because my tastes trend to more tame stuff. LOL It's what I read and write. While I can read and enjoy books w/o romance, I do miss it and tend to spend my time with the romantic books. I'm totally there with relationships needing to be in there. I haven't had a chance to listen to the podcast yet, but plan to. Sorry you weren't able to be on it!

  3. Straight SF, I can take or leave the sex scenes. All lit is about relationships, so it's the author's choice to get graphic.

    As a writer of SF, I have found a bigger market with a little sumpin-sumpin going on.

    I'm still trying to get used to the idea. I (at this point in time) would be hesitant to have anything too kinky in my books. I had a little lite fem/fem, but that is probably as far as I'll go.

    Other SF? Sex, yes. Futuristic sexual mores, okay. Erotica for erotica's sake, not so sure. Porn, fuggetaboutit.

  4. Splendid article, Lisa! I missed hearing you on the podcast, but so glad you could do this post and share your thoughts.

    The moderator of the podcast asked an interesting question, namely, is sex in SF targeted toward a specific demographic?

    I think many authors explored sex and sexuality simply because they could, and understood the inherent skiffyness of these topics. Although undoubtedly some books included a titillating sex scene or two for the fanboys.

    Seems to me that the early Spock-in-love fan fiction stories made an attempt to target readers who enjoyed romance-SF blends (of varying heat level). In other words, the idea of targeting romance readers and female SF fans who liked SF-romance blends came from *outside* mainstream print publishing. On top of that, they bundled the sex with the romance, recognizing the integral nature of the two.

  5. Erotica for erotica's sake, not so sure. Porn, fuggetaboutit.

    I think the panelists did a good job of emphasizing that gratuitous sex/erotica/pornographic scenes are detrimental to the plot. Some of them provided examples of scenes that gave them the "squick" factor, but was that because the scenes were gratuitous or genuinely boundary pushing scenes? Difficult to say in some cases, but a totally subjective thing also.

  6. How much R is needed in the SFR? Great discussion.

    Personally, I like to see the relationships fully developed (no shutting the hatch or drawing the curtain) but that said, I agree the level of intimacy has to advance the character development, the characters' bond, the plot or the culture-building.

    For me, it's all about the intimacy. Once a scene or succession of scenes is only there to show sexual variety and not the deepening of emotion, increasing of the stakes, or illustrating differences/blending of the characters' cultures, I lose interest.

    The Outback Stars is a good example of minimal sex scenes that work. Though I would have liked to see the scenes more fully developed, the connection between the characters--in spite of the fact their future seemed doomed--made for a compelling and tortured romance.

    Another popular SFR (which I won't name) built an intriguing conflict-driven relationship between the H/H only to have the heroine abandon the hero to die when he had life-threatening injuries. The betrayal of their bond at this crucial point in the story ruined the romance for me, causing me to lose respect for the heroine and discount her emotional investment as "just sex." Though probably perfectly acceptable in straight SF, I felt it didn't work for a SFR.

  7. Great comments, everyone.

    Marva said: "Straight SF, I can take or leave the sex scenes. All lit is about relationships, so it's the author's choice to get graphic."

    I personally agree with you, but I think it would be easy to find some hard SF readers who think sex and relationships don't really belong in science fiction. That mindset sees science fiction as about a higher intellect. There are even those who think biology is a softer science and only those books dealing with cosmology warrant serious consideration.

    I don't think that's where Science Fiction is headed. Rather, we're using Science Fiction to examine how our relationship with technologies changes us and our relationships with others.

  8. Seems like there's sex on the brain in genre fiction land this week. Dear Author has a post up called Sexual Force and Reader Consent in Romance.

    The article brings up several ideas that jibe well with what we're discussing here. Do readers here think that Science Fiction Romance heroines are mostly post-feminist in that they rarely seem to have the problem so many historical heroines do: saying yes to pleasure?

  9. Fabulous article! I wish I'd heard the podcast. SFR is a tough genre to write. I am a science fiction/fantasy fanatic, but I also love romance with a passion - no pun intended. It's hard for romantic scenes, or open-door sex, to resonate with strict science fiction fans - as far as I can tell, it seems to make them deeply uncomfortable. On the other hand, romance readers do not get the science fiction.
    My SFR, Captured, has done very well because the relationship is the focus. Romance readers are all about the relationship. My Daughters of Persephone series is much more sci-fi-ish, and romance readers are struggling to get into it.
    As an author, there is a fine line I must walk, and I'm not quite sure I've got both feet on it yet.
    Great topic.

  10. You're right, Julia,

    It is a very fine line. My comments were aimed mostly at the attitude I've encountered in some SF circles that view sex as pedestrian. I don't think it's pedestrian at all. I tend to view sex as fundamental and something interesting to explore from all angles.

    That said, do I set out to illuminate the science of sex? No, I've got my anchor thrown on the romance side of the ship, I'm interested in sex as an expression of culture, character, and conflict. I do like to toy with the biology of it though. After all, we've got a virtual playground of alien DNA to work with.

    I love that Science Fiction can explore these things. I think that so long as Science Fiction stays open to new science and new ideas, it will grow and evolve and stay viable as a genre.

  11. One of the most interesting aspects of science fiction romance is that most of the writers in the genre are women, whereas in science fiction, most of the featured writers are men. It's a fascinating dichotomy and somebody should write an article...hint hint.
    It's sort of a backdoor means for women to break into the science fiction genre.

  12. Great article, Lisa, and a lively discussion, too. Sorry to come into it so late. Coming to SFR from both science fiction and fan fiction, I know we have a lot of resistance to overcome in the SF world to the idea of sex as anything but an abstract construct. Hardcore SF fans are happy to read about other worlds where the psycho-social-sexual context is completely bizarre, but they spit nails when Captain Hero falls in love with alien Commander X, no matter what that context is. And yet, there MUST be an audience out there for SF,romance AND sex at all heat levels, given the years, websites and reams of paper devoted to fan fiction.

    My feeling about it is this. In a science fiction romance, the romance is HALF THE STORY. If the characters in that romance are adults and fully dimensional, you are inevitably going to be writing about sex. Why? Because sex advances and reflects the relationship. How can you truncate half of your story by avoiding that? It's as if you said, "And then they got in the spaceship and went to Planet X." Not fair to your characters or your readers. Now whether the trip is spicy, sweet, tender, bumpy, kinky, or missionary-style is up to your characters and your story. But you still have to show how we get from point A to point B. Show, not tell. Just like every other element of your story. I think it's just as vital and necessary.


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