Of Hard SF and Messy Emotions

At the newly launched Uncanny Magazine, Tansy Rayner Roberts asks “Does sex make science fiction ‘soft’?” Found via Pretty Terrible, the site formerly known as The Radish.

Now the debate about whether romance subplots water down science fiction is nothing new. It rears its ugly head every couple of months. Here is one example from last year.

Nonetheless, this article is a good addition to the ongoing debate, because Tansy Rayner Roberts raises several important points such as that SF by female authors is far more likely to be dismissed as “soft” or “not really SF at all” for romantic subplots than similar works by male authors. Hence Lois McMaster Bujold or Catherine Asaro or Ann Aguirre are dismissed for writing romance, while Simon R. Green is not, even if Green has romantic subplots in his SF novels and Bujold’s or Asaro’s SF is a lot harder than Green’s, whose space opera series has vampires, werewolves, zombies and swordfights. Meanwhile, Robert A. Heinlein, Poul Anderson, Alfred Bester, Frank Herbert, Edmund Hamilton and plenty of other classic SF writers can have sex and relationships in their books and yet the hardness of their fiction is never in question.

Indeed, I’m finding the term “hard science fiction” increasingly problematic, especially since it often seems to refer to something other than “science fiction that is scientifically plausible when written”. And I love Tansy Rayner Roberts’ definition of what is considered “hard SF” and why for example Lois McMaster Bujold’s work is not normally considered “hard SF”, even though it contains a lot of science and speculates about scientific breakthroughs might impact society, including human relationships:

I’ve been around science fiction a long time now, and I’ve yet to hear a really good definition of “hard” science fiction that doesn’t come down to “Science is more interesting than people, yes really, look at that giant piece of machinery!”

This attitude is surprisingly common in the SF community, as this recent post at SciFi Ideas shows. The author clearly prizes scientific accuracy and the possibility of inspiring generations of future scientists above all else. Which is his prerogative, only that the reason that Star Trek or Asimov’s robot stories and novels inspired so many scientists is not just because the science was good for the time, but also because they told cracking good stories about worlds you wanted to live in with characters you wanted to meet.

Tansy Rayner Roberts also points out that it’s not necessarily men who do the dismissing, even though they make up a significant percentage of the dismissers, but women as well. I discuss an example of a woman writer dismissing romantic urban fantasy in this post from 2011. Here is an excerpt from that post:

It seems a lot of women have internalized the prejudices against women’s writing and female dominated genres and react by rejecting those labels for themselves, because they want to belong to the “right sort of club”. But while tearing down other women to gain acceptance from a usually male-dominated establishment may be seductive (I’ve done it myself, when I was younger and stupider), it doesn’t work. Because your status as “one of the guys” will only be at risk again next week, when you dare to like something they don’t like or reject something they do. Really, it’s better not to play that particular game, but call others (mostly men, but some women as well) out on their prejudices against certain genres and subgenres.

This explains why some of the most vehement bashing of romantic elements in speculative fiction comes from women. And indeed Tansy Rayner Roberts describes a similar experience:

Like many geek women, I grew up thinking of romance fiction as being a thing over there, while science fiction was this completely different thing over here. I gravitated towards science fiction and fantasy precisely because the works teenage girls were “supposed” to read had lost my interest.

I started reading romance fiction this year, for the first time, at the age of thirty–five. It’s not that I hadn’t read the occasional romance before, but this is the year that I actually Got It.

Between the ages of twelve and thirteen I put aside the several tons of Sweet Valley High and Sweet Dreams novels I had been inhaling and started on David Eddings, Jennifer Roberson, Terry Pratchett, Raymond E Feist, and Janny Wurts instead. I didn’t look back.

If I read more fantasy than science fiction, I don’t think I noticed that I found the stories more compelling because I was more likely to find a focus on friendships, sex, and relationships in between the magical adventure. I also don’t think I noticed that the science fiction I loved best did the same thing.

With a very few changes (I didn’t discover Terry Pratchett and Jennifer Roberson until later), this could have been me. I also devoured the Sweet Valley High teen romances, until I grew out of them and lost interest. For a year or two, I drifted between genres, unsure what to read next. I tried romances and family sagas, because they were available (My Mom had a lot of them) and because they were what grown-ups were supposed to read, at least if they were female.

So I read Catherine Cookson and Catherine Coulter and Judith Krantz and Shirley Conran and Victoria Holt and French writers Anne Golon and Elisabeth Barbier and German writers Uta Danella and Marie Louise Fischer.

I enjoyed some of these books such as Victoris Holt’s gothics, Anne Golon’s Angelique series as well as Elisabeth Barbier for a while, until her People of Mogador series went on and on and on and all the characters I liked were killed off (somehow it was not unlike the experience of reading A Song of Ice and Fire). Meanwhile, I bounced hard of the Anglo-American “bodicerippers” and glitzy romances of the era. I bounced even harder off German writers Uta Danella and Marie Louise Fischer and their genteel upper middle class tales of unhappy women living in big villas in Munich suburbs that might as well have been on Mars for all they had to do with my life. I suspect remembering the nasty conservative undertones of Marie Louise Fischer’s YA novels* certainly contributed to my rejection of her adult fiction, which actually contains a few genuinely interesting works like the Senta quartet, which chronicles the life of a young Berlin woman in the first half of the 20th century and does tackle tough subjects like the holocaust (Senta marries a Jewish lawyer). And I credit Uta Danella’s Alles Töchter aus guter Familie (All girls from good families), which was originally published in 1958, with teaching me that women sometimes bled during first time sex (“All that ickiness and then it hurts and you even bleed, too. No, no way, I’m never doing that!”)

Then, at the age of 15, I discovered science fiction and fantasy and never looked back. I also decided that I didn’t like romance novels, because romance novels were for those stupid girls in my class who cared for nothing but boys and make-up and dance classes. Oddly enough, I don’t recall that a single of those “stupid girls” actually read romances – they either read problem books about starving children in Third World countries (very popular in the 1980s) or problem books about the holocaust or Stephen King like everybody else.

Nonetheless, the idea that romance was a stupid genre for girly women stuck in my head, unexamined until I decided to give romance another try in my late 20s and found that I liked quite a lot of it. In the meantime, I also found that the SFF I enjoyed most usually included strong interpersonal relationships, whether romantic, family relationships or friendships, among all the speculative stuff. I also noticed that I didn’t like a lot of SFF novels that were highly praised and even won awards, because the characters were flat, relationships unbelievable, if they existed at all, and women just an interchangeable prize for our male hero. But romance? Nope, I don’t read that.

Of course, it didn’t help that my first exposure to the romance genre came via rapey “bodicerippers” (I have particularly shudder-inducing memories of a Catherine Coulter historical with a graphic whipping scene as well as Valentina by Fern Michaels), i.e. books I would no more like today than I liked them back then. I’m not actually sure how I would react to Marie Louise Fischer or Uta Danella, if I were to try to read them today (though I could, cause my Mom has a massive collection).

Nonetheless, when I came back to romance in my late 20s, I found that the genre had moved on, away from the “bodicerippers” or genteel marriage dramas of lonely women in Munich suburbs I remembered. I also found that I liked this new romance genre quite a bit. Even better, I discovered the wide spectrum of hybrid romance subgenres such as romantic suspense, paranormal romance, fantasy romance, science fiction romance, etc… and never looked back.

At the root of the anti-romance and anti-sex prejudice in large parts of the SFF community lies a deep discomfort with emotion. I’ve blogged about this before in 2011.

And indeed accusations of “This isn’t SFF” often broil down to “This story contains more emotion than I’m comfortable with”, since for some reason no one ever accuses stories about characters standing around in an SFF landscape and endlessly philosophizing about something or other of being “not SFF”. But if there’s a story that deals with relationships and emotions, even if the context is clearly speculative, then suddenly that story is accused of being not speculative enough. Bonus points if the author and/or POV characters are something other than straight white cis- and heterosexual men.

Here is a fairly recent example, in which a critic complains that some highly regarded and awards nominated short stories aren’t speculative enough for his tastes, because the speculative element takes a backseat to the inner lives of the characters. In short, they’re stories about emotions rather than ideas and such stories should be told in realist rather than speculative fiction.

Now I read and enjoyed all stories listed, and so it seems, did many others, because of the four stories mentioned, three ended up on this year’s Hugo ballot (the third is a 2014 story). I actually agree with the author that these stories are representative of a taste shift in short and maybe soon novel length fiction, a shift away from ideas and “Look, isn’t this big dumb object/alien world cool” towards stories about characters and relationships that just happen to be set in a speculative setting. Because there certainly are more stories of this kind to be found in short fiction venues and there have been for a couple of years now. It’s a shift I welcome, because while I like big SFnal ideas like the next girl, I also want to see believable characters and relationships with the cool genre furniture.

I also wonder whether this shift in reading tastes isn’t related to a shift in the broader demographics of the speculative fiction community. Because the SFF community has become a lot more diverse in recent years and so have its tastes.

Besides, it’s not as if big idea fiction and object porn is in danger of dying out. It’s still around, though it’s no longer as dominant as it once was.

*Marie Louise Fischer’s YA books were mostly about uppity teenagers being broken and turned into good little model housewives. I have particularly bad memories of Ist das wirklich Isabell? (Is this really Isabell?), first published in 1962. Years later I learned that Fischer also used to pen the sex and relationship advice column of the popular German teen magazine Bravo in the 1950s and 60s und used it to tell youn readers that same sex longings were sinful. Thankfully, she was replaced by the much more liberal Dr. Martin Sommer a.k.a. Dr. Martin Goldstein in 1969.

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7 Responses to Of Hard SF and Messy Emotions

  1. Good question.

    Growing up in Australia, my early exposure to romance was via my mother’s endless and mountainous collection of Mills & Boon category romances. Like you, I soon found myself jumping to hard and soft science fiction, which in Australia included the best of British, Australian and US writers, including John Wyndham, Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert (I fell for him, big time), Robert A. Heinlein, Ann McCaffery, Joe Haldeman, and more.

    The big bodice ripper epic romances of the 80s weren’t easily accessible in Australia. But when I started writing fiction, I wrote romance because 1) I like the high emotional tension that comes from a well-told romance and 2) I thought I wasn’t smart enough or educated enough to write Science Fiction, which I leaned heavily toward as reading material. (This belief came from, I know, the culture of the SF world, in which I was deeply immersed.)

    When I moved to Canada in 1996 I was exposed to American romance in all its glorious sub-genres, and began writing heavy duty stories that just happened to have fully developed romances in them, too. I ended up being branded a romance writer and have owned the title since.

    But I still want to write science fiction, but hesitate for exactly the reasons you outline. When (not if) I do write SF, I *will* include relationships and character development. All my favourite SF writers do (did), all my keeper SF novels do — hell, Asimov’s BICENTENNIAL MAN makes me cry at the end! It’s been a long time since a romance did that.

    But because I am a woman, and because of my romance backlist, I just know that I will be pilloried as “soft” and “not SF”. I am seriously considering using a male pen name, but in this day and age, that’s not the protection it might once have been, and besides, I want everyone to know who really wrote the SF they’re reading. My credentials are as distinguished as the next SF author’s, possibly better.

  2. Boy. run one (or two) problematic articles and guess what everyone links to for years to come!

    Yes, Amazing published Paul Cook’s piece. No, it does not express the views of Amazing, nor necessarily anyone else contributing to Amazing. Yes, the response to criticism was handled poorly for reasons too complicated and not on subject enough to go into here.

    My personal understanding of ‘hard’ versus ‘soft’ SF has always been that the descriptor referred to the kind of science(s) involved and not to the presence or absence of squishy emotion or its NSFW status. If the story dealt primarily with astronomy, physics, engineering, archaeology, chemistry, biology – it was hard. If it dealt with sociology, psychology, linguistics, it was soft.
    I guess like many definitions in the field, the usage is now changing.

    I also find it interesting that Asimov is cited as an example of good sf with characters one wants to read about, since he is also almost always included in the list of ‘golden age’/Campbellian authors whose characters are considered to be under developed and whose prose is considered to be ‘clunky’.

    Speaking of Campbell; ‘hard’ SF was usually what one found in Astounding/analog, while ‘less hard’ sf was to be found in the pages of Galaxy, Amazing, Wonder Stories, F&SF, etc. Strict Campbellian SF equates to hard, works less so to soft.

    So there’s two somewhat definitions that don’t even address, or at least make no judgments on the absence or presence of romance and/or deep emotion.

  3. Mark says:

    I want characterization in my SF. Absolutely. An that includes relationships, romantic relationships as well as family relationships etc. It is both a cliché and a fact that particularly female writers introduced these qualities into the genre. Ideal SF to me are, for instance, Aliette de Bodard’s short stories (especially good with writing about family relationships) or Maureen F. Hugh’s China Mountain Zhang, but I could also easily list a couple of dozen novels by male authors that feature 3-dimensional characters.

    But these discussions, at least to me, too quickly drift into a discussion about the perception of Urban Fantasy. And that’s a completely different story. What you have there is a genre with a lot of established common parameters, the romantic element included, and two or three bestseller novels that are used as a template for sort of spin-off novels. By clearly associating yourself to a romantic sub-genre, you are not dismissed as a writer of SF romance, you are a writer of SF romance. That’s neither a bad thing or a good thing (and I understand that narrow-minded SF fans don’t agree). At least I find the label useful, because I don’t like novels that are too grounded in a particular genre or follow too much certain templates, so I avoid Urban Fantasy for the same reason I avoid Hard SF, Westerns in Space and many other things…

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