For the last year and a bit, I’ve been acting as acquiring editor for Venus Ascending, a line of romantic fantasy and science fiction. And during that time I’ve often been asked, “What could possibly be the appeal of combining science fiction or fantasy with romance?”
I must admit that I find that an extraordinary question. Because to me the appeal seems quite obvious.
Speculative fiction is not just about gadgets or magic, alien worlds or fantasy landscapes. To be worth reading, it must principally be about people of one sort or another (not always human people, of course, but people nevertheless, whether they be elves, undead, or extra-terrestrials) and how they react to the gadgets, magic, alien worlds, etc. And one of the things that people tend to do in all times and in all places is fall in love, or wish to fall in love, or get fallen in love with, or . . . well, one way or another, love influences most everyone, sooner or later.
One of the great things that both science fiction and fantasy do is allow us to explore familiar things from an unfamiliar perspective and so see them without the distraction of the context we have come to identify them with much too thoroughly. We, as individuals, exist within a context that influences us in so many ways, but we aren’t that context, and that context isn’t us. When we can see ourselves, and our emotions, our hopes, fears, loves, hates, as divisible from that context we come that much closer to truly knowing ourselves.
The best way to show people true things is from a direction that they had not imagined the truth coming.
And if we see speculative fiction as a way of providing new insights and new perceptions of the things we tend to think we know everything about already (but which in reality are much too complicated for us to ever know everything there is to know about them), why would we neglect to explore one of the greatest motivators of human interactions?
In storytelling terms it makes sense, too.
Fantasy and science fiction plots usually present their protagonists with extraordinary challenges, and not infrequently extraordinary perils. Extraordinary challenges and perils can produce heightened states of emotion, and in a state of heightened emotion one of the things that people are inclined to do is fall in love. And when you have a mixed cast of characters some of whom are single and who match up in terms of their various genders and sexual orientations such that they could fall in love, what would be more natural than that they would fall in love?
Realistically, that love might not long survive the end of the adventure, but then again it might, since shared experiences can form a bond (especially when the experiences are the kind that nobody else but the person you shared them with would ever quite understand). And there is another thing about extraordinary circumstances: they test people in ways that show either their best or their worst sides, qualities that might have stayed hidden forever under ordinary circumstances, which is another great catalyst for people falling in and out of love. If both those things happen (out of love with one person and into love with another), you have the classic love triangle.
Adding that romantic element can also provide some exciting opportunities in plotting a story, because falling in love—and here I mean truly and deeply falling in love—can add to the tensions and the heightened emotions of the challenges that the characters already face.
What if the cause you are committed to, or the great task you have already undertaken, also happens to endanger that person you love so truly and deeply? Or what if you find yourself falling in love with someone on the opposite side of a bitter cultural, political, or religious divide? Which loyalty comes first? How far can you compromise, for their sake, and still retain your integrity—and how can you manage to go on if they might suffer horribly or even die as a result of your choices?
This is the kind of intensity that romance can add to speculative fiction. In turn, the science fiction or fantasy setting can offer the love story new possibilities. In genre romance, there are a great many plot ideas that are endlessly recycled (I will note that they are recycled because they work—I’m a sucker for some of them myself): the marriage of convenience, the fake betrothal, the lovers separated for years by misunderstandings who get a second chance, etc. etc. But fantasy and science fiction settings offer new cultures, new ways of looking at love, new obstacles to overcome in finding it and keeping it, new ways to test it and examine it . . . and maybe come closer to the truth of it, by coming at it from an unexpected direction.