The Female Reader
In my reading world, good ideas rock. This personality quirk may be why I’ve always been a speculative fiction floozy; I don’t fit the genre’s perceived gender profile, which is largely male. For a long time, guys seemed to own the SF/F side of the aisle, what with all of the rocket ships and time machines that chicks just couldn’t wrap their brains around or were too intimidated to admit that they enjoyed, too. Convention floors -- both fan and writer alike -- used to be largely of the XY sort. While this may have provided a certain amount of comfort to those already feeling a bit marginalized by their less-geeky peers, it’s not a good idea if you want the genre to grow in both popularity and respect.
And we all know that science fiction and fantasy is about the gee-whiz factor, the sexy new idea that will make our mouths water with the tasty possibilities. Unfortunately, characters, for some writers, exists only to tinker with the cool stuff and gear through the plot. This was doubly true if your character happens to be female and you were one of the inventors of the form.
I’ve always found it hard to remember the details about the women that the Grand Masters wrote about. Now -- Hazel Stone was the feisty red-head who had all of those kids and slept with her own son, yes? Or was that Deety Burroughs? No, wait, she was the one with the big boobs... it must have been Maureen Long... how massive were her tits?
You can see where I’m going with this. And that’s just one author. Don’t get me wrong -- I’m a huge Heinlein fan (and of early 20th century sci-fi in general). But it’s not a body of literature known for its distinctive women characters. The notable ones who do turn up tend to be exceptions rather than rules. Largely, it is a textual land populated by sketches who service both plot and hero.
The situation has improved, of course. More women writers and editors than ever are entering the field, which can’t help but change its interior landscape. There is a small kernel of truth to the whole Men/Mars and Women/Venus dichotomy, one you strip away all of the feel-good language and wacky analogies. Men and women communicate -- speak, write, sign, whatever -- differently. That can’t help but show up in our fiction as well.
Which isn’t to say that men can’t draw memorable women and that women can’t come up with neat ideas. The best of modern sci-fi is penned by those who’ve mastered both. Iain M. Banks leaps to mind, as does Ursula LeGuin, Dan Simmons and Maureen McHugh. Their stories are miles apart from each other in terms of voice and style, yet almost all of them have well-fleshed characters working hand-in-hand with the ideas that drive the plot.
Keep that in mind for a minute.
For a brief period of time in junior high many moons ago -- I seem to recall that REO Speedwagon had just had their first big hit -- I spent a summer reading nothing but romance novels. It must have had something to do with hormones or the heat -- or mostly because I was too young to drive to the library and bodice-rippers were easy to find in the house. The real reasons are lost to time.
On a good day, I could plow through a Harlequin or one of its clones. A Danielle Steele took a little more time. As much as the SF/F reader can be pigeonholed as male, the romance reader is undeniably female. After my immersion in star-crossed loves, by the end of the summer, I was completely over romance, both in real life and in my choice of fiction. There just weren’t any ideas that made my heart pound, nor did the characters have much to say. I don’t know that I’ve picked one up since those sweaty months.
Now, however, speculative fiction and romance are breeding. During the last ten years or so, seemingly driven by the number of women wrote write in both fields, speculative fiction and romance have found themselves in bed together. In 1995, this sub-sub-genre launched its own award -- the Sapphire -- and newsletter. More publishers are making a point to target these readers and at least one major SF/F house is looking for manuscripts to fill out a "paranormal romance" imprint.
This marriage doesn’t seem to be one of equals. While romantic SF/F does serve to bring more female readers into the fold, the books themselves don’t serve always serve either the idea-master or the character-developer well. Instead of explorations of how nifty humans and their ingenuity can be, a lot of these speculative romances merely makes the heroine a vampire or an elf, adds a splash of appropriate color and tells the same old story. Rather than pick the best traits that this coupling could offer -- like smart, detailed worlds meshed with characters that act from their hearts rather than by cold logic -- most of these spliced tales only capture the trite and the vapid.
There are some writers, of course, for whom this new category is a sales-boon, like the Hugo-award winning Lois McMaster Bujold. Her finely-wrought space operas have always seemed to not quite fit the mold. They are certainly interstellar adventures, full of both colorful construction and breathless battles, but they also have a gentle romance to them. It’s that hint of wistfulness and yearning that keeps her books from sitting comfortably next to those by similar writers, like David Drake or David Weber.
For Bujold, the new classification will give readers a new way to find books like hers, that are rich in ideas and deep in character. Problem is, however, that there aren’t many to chose from right now. The collection Irresistible Forces, which has the sugary tease "sometimes love is out of this world," throws the relative lack of works that highlight the strengths of the genres they bridge in sharp relief. Bujold’s contribution "Winterfair Gifts" gets it right, teasing both the plight of a lovestruck bodyguard while driving his story with a gee-whiz idea. But a lot of the rest are lackluster and weigh too much on the romance to really make a SF/F’s fan’s heart pound. Even Catherine Asaro, who won a Nebula for The Quantum Rose and edited Forces, can’t quite hit the right note with her entry "Stained Glass Heart."
Still, this current union of genres may prove to bear useful fruit. But I still remain unconvinced that it is a great idea, one that will improve the lot of either genre and the people who love them.