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Romance Cooties: Women and Science Fiction

06/03/2013 01:20 pm ET | Updated Aug 03, 2013
  • Foz Meadows Author, blogger, bipedal mammal with delusions of immortality and carbon-based lifeform extraordinaire.

When I was five or six, the must-have toys of the minute for girls were the Cupcake Dolls -- a range of little plastic princesses with chunky hats whose legless torsos melted seamlessly into their voluminous rubber skirts. The big twist, as the name suggests, was that the dolls converted into toy cupcakes: their hats were designed in the shape of icing, and their upflipped skirts resembled cupcake wrappers. They were pink and pastel and saccharine, and they were also scented: each doll exuded a different sickly perfume, which lead to the rather bizarre practise of sticking your nose up their dresses and sniffing. The girls in my class all had some, and once we discovered how much the boys hated them, we took to chasing them around the playground at lunchtime, trying to shove the perfumed dollbits in their faces while they shrieked and moaned about girl germs.

That's the image I think of now, whenever I hear male literary figures bemoaning the evils of romance, or otherwise making negative, gendered assessments about romance as a Female Thing: a flock of six-year-old boys fleeing our plastic cupcakes and scrubbing their hands to get the cooties off.

And lately, I seem to be finding it everywhere. A post of mine was linked on Reddit; cue an obnoxious commenter expressing his distaste of "feminist whining", because "not every book has to appeal to females and you have the entire romance genre if you want to read from a females [sic] point of view". Two old SF writers endorsed the cover image of a chainmail bikini-clad swordswoman on a recent issue of the SFWA Bulletin and responded to the backlash by, among other things, comparing their oversexualized fantasy maiden to the half-naked men on the covers of romance novels.

And now we have author Stuart Sharp bemoaning the fact that "when people talk about sci-fi as being the next big thing, they're actually talking about sci-fi romance," in a tone so condescendingly pejorative that it damn near manifests his smugness as a disembodied Cheshire cat grin.

He goes on:

Yes, sci-fi geeks of the world, the romance writers are coming to a genre near you. They're here to write intrepid tales of aliens and androids, big corporations controlling cyber-enhancements and sentient AIs that think of humanity as a virus. All of that, with perhaps a little boy meets alien somewhere in there too.

Except, does it really work like that? I have a little experience of this, having written "real" sci-fi... and the romance sort, and as a result of that, I can say pretty confidently that we're not generally talking about sci-fi novels with a little romance here. We're talking about romance novels with a few new sets and ideas thrown in to keep them interesting.

It's a difference in approach, in the essence of the plot. In sci-fi, the consequences of the future are often the heart of the plot. There may or may not be a romantic element... In sci-fi romance, the romantic entanglement (or triangle. You have to love a triangle. No, really, you have to, or the romance authors will send assassin droids after you) is at the heart of the action. The worlds, the issues, all of it, are secondary.

Momentarily setting aside the rather inaccurate suggestion that romance is only just now working its way into SFnal contexts, when anyone who grew up reading Anne McCaffrey or Lois McMaster Bujold could tell you it had been there for decades - and rather successfully, I might add, given the number of major awards collected between just those two women - there's a serious issue with Sharp's approach. While there's certainly some utility in distinguishing the differing roles that romance can play in various stories, it's grossly inaccurate to say that, if the romance has primary status, then nothing else really matters to the narrative -- and especially not when you've already made the distinction between "real" sci-fi and the romantic kind. This sort of sloppy generalisation helps nobody.

Then there's a question of understanding the field. Sci fi is reasonable well defined by this point. Most people who write in the genre know what it is about. They have their favourite authors, but they've probably all read at least some of the same stuff... it's a big soup of shared cultural references that we all get, right?

Except that the new authors coming into the field don't necessarily get them. Their references are all to do with The Formula, grand gestures, love triangles, the tropes of romance or chick lit or YA. They don't understand the reasoning behind some of the arguments that have been bubbling for years. They certainly don't get that Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep reference you made in chapter three.

OK. Let's put some cards on the table. Despite the fact that Sharp is doing everything in his power not to say so explicitly, it's blindingly obvious that the authors he's talking about, the ones who don't get all the right references and instead are polluting SF with their chick lit tropes? Those authors are women, whose failings, according to him, are one with their femininity. His entire article is a thinly veiled sexist tract that can pretty much be summarised as Fake Geek Girl Panic: The Author Edition. Because really, isn't this the next logical thing for insecure male nerds to fret about -- the idea that, having graduated from cosplaying skimpily-clad characters at conventions to writing homoerotic Avengers fanfics on tumblr, we ladies will now be bringing our romance-addled ignorance to the Published Authors table? The fact that every single "real" SF author Sharp mentions  is male (Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Douglas Adams, Toby Frost, Zane Grey, Arran Gimba, Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick) while the SF romance authors he uses to illustrate his disparagement are all female (Gini Koch, Lucy Woodhull, Joss Ware, Audrey Niffenegger, Ann Aguirre, Zoe Archer) is a perfect summation of the problem. Whether this was done intentionally or simply as the result of unexamined subconscious bias, the result is the same. Sharp has observed an influx of ladies into his field. Because they are ladies - or, more specifically, because they are ladies who like romance - he has decided they must know nothing about real SF, which is clearly antithetical to romance as a primary plot device. And then, in a linguistic slip which as telling of his real concern, he laments the inability of such women to understand that Philip K. Dick reference "you made in chapter three" - meaning, in essence, that if women start writing SF in droves, then presumably, they'll start reading it in similar numbers, thereby undermining the entire fanbase with their inability to tell good writing from bad. (Though how this would prevent Sharp's original audience from reading his work is unclear. Perhaps he's afraid that differing SFFnal audiences are like Highlanders: there can only be one, the loser destroyed in a dull extravaganza of bad acting amidst the Scottish heather.)

The downsides of all this come in a number of forms. The classic involves a romance author thinking they're being stunningly original while in fact an idea has been given a pretty thorough going-over by the sci-fi world already. There's the part where they often don't get the details right. And yes, you can be wrong about the details. Or at least, you can go against everything legions of sci-fi fans have decided over the decades.

The level of self-contradiction here is risible. In one breath, Sharp is criticising female authors for being too traditional; in the next, he's complaining that they aren't traditional enough. In the final paragraph, however, he backpedals, offering up one of the most awkwardly backhanded compliments I've seen in a while: "they have no problems whatsoever trampling over the most beloved elements of the genre, with the result that there's actually half a chance that they might do something original." Such a vote of confidence! I wish I still had my Cupcake Doll, so I could wave it at him.

The fact of the matter is that, regardless of whether or not there's a new wave of female SF authors incorporating romance into their novels, arguing that "real" SF, or classic SF, or whatever you'd like to call it, is inimical to foregrounded romance only shows how little attention you've been paying. The centrality of romance to both Anne McCaffrey's big series, the Pern novels and The Tower and the Hive sequence, doesn't detract from their SF credentials. The formation of romantic attachments in the aftermath of catastrophe is a central theme of both Octavia E. Butler's breathtaking Xenogensis trilogy and Karen Lord's The Best of All Possible Worlds. The significance of the relationship between Tess and Ilya in Kate Elliot's Jaran no more diminishes the worldbuilding than does the romance between Cordelia Naismith and Aral Vorkosigan in Lois McMaster Bujold's Shards of Honour and Barrayar.

I could go on, but the fact that I can list umpteen well-regarded SF works with prominent romantic elements doesn't address Sharp's real problem: a deep-seated uneasiness with female-oriented pulp. Note that I'm not using pulp as a negative: pulp stories are fun, fast, enjoyable and uncomplicated, and while the act of determining which novels fit the category is largely a matter of individual taste, I can't escape the feeling that, underneath all his complaints about poor worldbuilding and formulaic plots, Sharp is really just dismayed by the prospect of women reading his genre for pleasure. But why should that be a problem? SF has a long and noble history of producing pulp novels, many of which followed the exploits of handsome male space-adventurers who routinely went about rescuing beautiful women from the clutches of evil aliens, then sleeping with them (the women, not the aliens; though admittedly, the two were sometimes synonymous). Playing with fun, pulpy tropes - and some rather more problematic ones -- in SFFnal settings was a big part of how the genre got started. Arguably, in fact, it still continues that way: there are plenty of immensely popular SF franchises rife with shoddy logic and naff ideas, but we still love them, because what really matters is the pure, unbridled joy of it - the escapism, the dialogue, the characters, and, yes, the romance. (Where would Star Wars be without it?)

It's normal. It's what the genre does. Overwhelmingly, however, it does it for the amusement, edification and titillation of men, who are presumed (despite increasing evidence to the contrary) to be either the sole or primary audience for this stuff - and as such, while you might see lots of commentary on J. J. Abrams missing the point of Star Trek, you won't see anyone arguing that his reboot of the franchise isn't "real" SF. But when women start doing exactly the same thing - writing fun, lively, sexy SF stories for the sheer pulpy joy of it, and when yet more women are pegged as their intended audience -- then all of a sudden, out come the genre qualifiers. It's only romantic SF, not real SF. They're getting it wrong! They're breaking all the conventions we love! They're not doing it properly! They're not catering to a straight male audience! 

Science fiction is a sandbox, and for most of its history, men have been hogging it. Now that women are well and truly getting a turn, it's like the boys are sitting on the sidelines, wailing at how we're using their toys wrong and don't know how to play their games, which of course we don't, because they did everything possible to exclude us. Some of the games are even predicated on our absence - what else can we do but make up new ones? If Sharp really cares about the evolution of SF as a genre, he'd do better to hop in the sandbox and share his trucks than to run off crying about girl germs.

I could even bring my Cupcake Dolls.