Romance Is Worldbuilding, Even in Science Fiction

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Science fiction readers often react to a romance angle in their story as something as alien as the future worlds they create, and that include female science fiction readers. Even Hugo Award-Winning Author Lois McMaser Bujold, who dedicated one of her books to romance pioneers Georgette Heyer, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte,  and Dorothy Sayers, has spoken about the resistance science fiction readers have sometimes to even the very mention of romance. (This has not deterred Bujold from adding relationships, however, in her stories.)

Thus, many authors and publishing houses hide the romance angle in science fiction, believing it might hurt their marketability. That’s why I was suprised and thrilled to note that my advance reader copy of Elizabeth Bonesteel’s The Cold Between whole-heartedly embraced the romance at the heart of the story.

To be sure, the story is still solidly in the science fiction category, especially given that the central romance doesn’t include that happily ever after that pure romance readers crave. However, what the focus on the romance and all the relationships in the book did was make me care about the characters a great deal, an aspect of story that some science fiction tales, so focused on concept, sometime forgets. But I’ll let the author of the book explain this further in her own words:

Romance Is Worldbuilding (And It’s Also Great Fun)

The most difficult question I’ve been asked since the book came out is: Where do you get your ideas?

I’ve answered the question in various different ways, but the truth is, I don’t really get “ideas.” I get characters. (Sort of like the flu.) They bounce around in my head, acquiring form and history and life, and eventually a handful of them will start to talk to me. And then, sometimes, they talk to each other. That’s where story is born, and that’s where I start to spin the plot.

A friend of mine recently asked me a variant of the question: Which came first, the mystery or the romance?

That one was easy for me to answer.

The romance. Because from character always comes romance.

This isn’t true for all writers, I know, but no matter what genre I’ve played with, I’ve always had romance in my stories. This is less a deliberate choice than a reflection of the fact that I write what I enjoy reading, and I’m always up for a good love story. No matter what the genre, I always find a sprinkle of romantic complication makes the tale more compelling for me. Stories are built on disruptions, unintended consequences, roads not taken — and romance, like nothing else, throws a wrench into the best-laid plans of any plot you’ve got.

Elizabeth Bonesteel
Elizabeth Bonesteel, author of The Cold Between, image via HarperCollins.

There’s a reason you find romance throughout all types of literature century after century: it’s a huge part of many people’s lives. We seek it, we avoid it, we throw ourselves into it, we curl up and recover from it. Take the strongest, most invulnerable, self-assured character and strike them with infatuation, and they become instantly relatable, weak and fragile and uncertain in a way the reader can really feel. It’s a quick doorway to empathy.

Despite a historical reluctance to embrace the label, science fiction is no stranger to romance. I grew up reading science fiction in the 70s and 80s, and there was no lack of it even then. Most of the stories that have stuck with me over the years use romance to connect the reader with the characters. Frederik Pohl’s iconic Gateway would not have the same tragic impact had the author not written a romance between Bob and Klara. It isn’t a sweet relationship — they’re neither of them particularly appealing people — but including that element makes the story gut-wrenching where it might have been merely thought-provoking. We feel the shattered attachment, the loss and the guilt, because we feel the romance.

Above and beyond my enjoyment of romance as a reader, I find it’s a particularly useful tool in speculative fiction. Romance, courtship, and mating rituals are all fundamental cultural signifiers. How romance and sex happen in a story, and how the characters react, can give a concise and accurate snapshot of a society’s values and gender constructs. It uses familiar, relatable human emotions to orient the reader to a new universe.

And depending on the structure of the story being told, it’s genuinely unrealistic to avoid it.

In my own novel, I’m dealing with a set of characters who spend months at a time confined in a relatively small space, and there’s no way basic human instincts don’t assert themselves in that kind of environment. If you don’t get romance, you get murder (or at least fistfights). Just as in real life, different people handle the situation differently, and their choices have consequences to the story. Elena, my heroine, has been seeking monogamy within her small set of options, but she has not historically chosen wisely. That small character bit is the catalyst for a lot of the events of the story.

I made a deliberate choice to begin the story with what both characters believed would be a one-night stand. I used the scene, at least in part, to reveal a part of my universe to the reader. I wanted to construct a world where brief liaisons, with the full consent and enthusiasm of the participants, were not clandestine or shameful or judged by anyone. That Elena makes a choice that is somewhat against her nature is not because she is ashamed to do such a thing, it’s because she ordinarily does not bond easily with strangers. She’s a person who typically needs familiarity to feel comfortable taking a lover.

And in that, she’s very much the sort of person who might exist today. It’s not an uncommon fantasy — not the sexual aspect in particular, but the idea of walking into an unfamiliar situation and taking a chance you might not otherwise have taken. I wanted her choice to be entirely positive. I wanted it to be healing, after what she had been through. I wanted it to make her stronger. The dangers to her in this story are never because of the choice she makes in that first scene — in fact, it’s quite the opposite. Had she not made that one impulsive choice, the fallout would have been very, very different.

I cannot call The Cold Between a romance novel. There are specific expectations associated with that phrase, and if I co-opted it for this book without qualification, I would get hate mail. (There are already some reviewers who are a bit cranky with me, and I don’t blame them a bit!) But it is a story with strong romantic elements, and I don’t think it could have been the same book without them. There is nascent romance along with unrequited love, broken trusts, and shattered friendships. All of these elements drive the decisions the characters make, and it’s love that most often leads them in the right direction.
And that, indeed, is straight from the romance genre. That much I’m happy to co-opt.

Elizabeth Bonesteel began making up stories at the age of five, in an attempt to battle insomnia. Thanks to a family connection to the space program, she has been reading science fiction since she was a child. She currently works as a software engineer, and lives in central Massachusetts with her husband, her daughter, and various cats. Massachusetts has been her home her whole life, and while she’s sure there are other lovely places to live, she’s quite happy there. You can find her on Twitter and on Facebook.

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