Does Sex Make Science Fiction “Soft?”

How much kissing and flirting can a story take before it doesn’t deserve to be called science fiction any more?

Yes, that was a trick question.

Science fiction has often had an uncomfortable relationship with romance. Many readers (and let’s face it, creators) resist the idea of letting love and relationships take up too much narrative in stories that are “supposed” to be about spaceships and robots.

I’ve seen similar observations made, over and over, about SF novels (mostly those with female bylines) that use romance tropes or even dare to include a substantial love story—as if there’s a universal standard of smooch measurement: if you have more than three kissing scenes, the book has to be exiled to the romance section. As if the romance genre doesn’t have its own very firm narrative conventions to which most SF books could never hope to aspire!

It would be easy and completely inaccurate to characterize the Spaceship Love Cooties Thing as a gender issue—it’s certainly more complicated than “Boys don’t want kissing in the clubhouse,” though there are times when it is not more complicated than that at all. In fact, many of the readers who are dismissive about any hint of “romance” in science fiction can be women, especially those of my generation or older who have bought into the idea that “hard” science fiction is the only kind we’re supposed to take seriously.

I like to think that this attitude is changing. For example, the massive popularity among SF readers of the ongoing comic series Saga by Brian K. Vaughan with art by Fiona Staples feels like a cultural shift. The story is a massive, sprawling space opera featuring some of the creepiest and most disturbing science fictional ideas of all time. It’s also a love story about a couple building a family together in the face of war, assassins, and dirty politics. It’s about sex, extended family, childcare, and keeping the romance alive when everyone else wants it shot dead. As a side benefit, Saga also has a lot to say about the Romance genre itself, and how an art form that is seen by many as disposable or frivolous can in fact be the home of subversive thought and an effective call to revolution.

One of the most important things that science fiction can do as a genre is to show how scientific breakthroughs and changes might actually change the way we live as humans, and that includes issues to do with sex, family, and love. Famously, social change is also the thing that science fiction has been least successful about predicting. But that just means it’s an exciting challenge for the future, right?

Maybe science fiction readers and romance readers have more in common than they might think.

It’s not as if explorations of gender, sexuality, or romance in science fiction books are in any way new or unusual. Readers who are interested in that side of science fiction have been finding it for a long time. When I did a shout out on Twitter for favorite science fiction romances, I received a heap of recommendations.

The most common response by far was not connected to movies, TV, or comics, but an outpouring of love for various character pairings in Lois McMaster Bujold’s long running Vorkosigan series. She is the go–to author for romance and science fiction melded together—it’s impossible to have this conversation without someone mentioning Aral and Cordelia, Miles and Ekaterin, or many of her less central couples.

Bujold is also an author I have seen dismissed for writing romances that overpower the science in her stories (surely all that kissing must be pretty intense to overbalance all those spaceships shooting at each other) or for writing “soft” science fiction. 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!”

There are several kinds of technology at the heart of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series, but the ones I find most interesting are those with the more significant social repercussions. The uterine replicator, which allows fetuses to survive and develop outside the biological womb, is hugely significant to the intergalactic family of Aral and Cordelia Vorkosigan. The replicators come from Cordelia’s home planet and are used to save her baby after she is exposed to toxins while pregnant, but the consequences of raising a disabled child on a planet that has become socially conditioned to hate any sign of mutation or weakness are significant and painful, affecting their family life and that of their son Miles as he becomes an adult.

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.

When I started on my great Regency Romance read of 2014, which lasted approximately four months before I came up for air, (I had a lot of time to make up for!) I found to my surprise that many of these books were a lot sharper, funnier, sexier, and more feminist than I had expected. I had previously fallen into the trap of assuming that I knew what the books were like, based on their cover art.

(Again, something that science fiction and romance readers have in common—people who have never read the genre have so many opinions about its value!)

One of the more interesting books I came across was The Countess Conspiracy by Courtney Milan, in which the heroine is a scientist whose controversial work is inspired by Darwin, and the hero is her best friend, who allows her to publish under his name even though it has given him an infamous, scandalous reputation. The book looks at the problematic lack of recognition of many female scientists for the work credited only to their husbands, and the difficulty of publishing science papers that are seen as irreligious in a conservative era, as well as exploring issues to do with sexual incompatibility, recovery from trauma, and other crunchy social matters.

Reading it, I couldn’t help thinking: Why isn’t more science fiction like this? Why don’t we have more fiction about the actual day–to–day process of science and the fallout that it might have on the relationships of those involved?

It later occurred to me that this science fiction may well exist, and I simply haven’t come across it.

So I went looking for some. Science fiction is pretty interesting right now. The standout, most critically–acclaimed SF book of 2014 was Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, which wasn’t about romance or sex, but made a lot of people rethink their preconceptions about gender. Our community has recently come alive with anthologies past, present, and Kickstarted into our future which address issues to do with diversity, alternative sexualities, and all kinds of social themes that are important now, and deserve to be represented in our imagined futures.

I recently had dinner with a bookseller and mentioned that Neuromancer by William Gibson had one of my favorite first lines of a novel ever. He replied by quoting the entire first paragraph of God’s War by Kameron Hurley. (“Nyx sold her womb somewhere between Punjai and Faleen, on the edge of the desert…”) God’s War is a hard–boiled bugpunk novel with a heroine whose open, relaxed–attitude sexuality is essential to the story as she navigates religious conservatism and cultural limitations while forming an intense, non–romantic friendship with her polar opposite.

Some of my favorite takes on romance and sex in science fiction in the last decade have come to us through YA fiction, where there is far less critical pushback about the combination of science and snogging. Megan McCafferty’s Bumped takes on reproductive issues and bodily autonomy in a world where only teenagers can give birth, and looks at how messy that would make personal relationships at that age as well as a new dynamic for parental relationships. Suzanne Collins’ hugely successful Hunger Games trilogy contains a metaplot about how it’s the heroine, and not the men in her life, who is more committed to warfare and survival over love and romantic decisions. Karen Healey’s When We Wake (and its sequel, When We Run), is centered on a cross–cultural romance while also taking on themes of environmentalism, terrorism, and race.

Race is an aspect of representative diversity that needs to be addressed more thoroughly when it comes to science fiction criticism referring to sex, relationships, and romance, because the sexuality of women (and indeed men) of color comes with its own long history of baggage, problematic tropes, and standards, and intersectionality doesn’t work if we assume a shared history that isn’t there. What feels empowering or original to a white, US–based creator or fan is not necessarily going to generate the same reaction in someone of a different racial background, culture, or country of origin.

Nnedi Okorafor’s extraordinary novel Who Fears Death combines magical realism and future dystopia with Igbo (Nigerian) traditional beliefs. The story addresses many different cultural issues around femininity, including the hugely controversial practice of genital mutilation and weaponised rape. But the story is also one about love, desire, and sex as hugely positive forces even when connected to negative associations. The novel is a confronting and challenging read, but also rich with hope, wonder, and a powerful female–centered narrative.

John Chu won the Hugo this year for “The Water That Falls On You From Nowhere,” a touching story about love and culture and language and relationship and family. The science fictional/magical element is a phenomenon that prevents anyone in society from being able to conceal a lie, which is especially problematic for the main character, who is trying to introduce his (same–sex) partner to his family without actually coming out to them.

Many critics and readers suggested that the story wasn’t science fiction, because of the focus on relationships. I’m very pleased that there’s now a Hugo award that says otherwise. But Chu’s acceptance speech was heart–breaking, as he explained how many people had told him that what he wrote was not going to be of interest to readers because of who he was:

“I can’t begin to describe how much this award means to me. When I started writing, so many people told me, the words were literally I’m not racist but…’ or I’m not homophobic but…’ There were so many buts’ and they all told me in polite, civil, and sometimes these exact words that no one was interested in or would ever publish anything that I would ever write. So, to win a Hugo, and for this story, I literally cannot put into words how much that means to me.”

Character–rich science fiction exploring sex, gender, and love, as well as big dumb objects, has always been with us. But my new appreciation of the separate romance genre means that I’m looking a lot harder for those stories that combine romantic hijinks with high–tech futures, space opera, and all the other fun things that the genre has to offer us.

So now it’s down to you: what should I be reading next?


Tansy Rayner Roberts

Tansy Rayner Roberts is the author of the Creature Court trilogy, and a series of cozy gaslamp fantasy novellas including Tea & Sympathetic Magic. She is a co-host on the marvelous Verity! Doctor Who podcast. Find her on Twitter, Instagram and Patreon as @tansyrr

5 Responses to “Does Sex Make Science Fiction “Soft?””

  1. frippet

    Hi Tansy, so glad you mentioned ‘The Water That Falls on You From Nowhere’: such a great story. The other I read at the same time was Mary Robinette Kowal’s ‘The Lady Astronaut of Mars’, which was very much about love while also being about space travel. I also thought the relationship between characters Isaac and Lin in China Mieville’s ‘Perdido Street Station’ was pretty compelling.

  2. aliceberry

    I’m in a “classic Sci Fi” book club, and out definition is anything more that 20 yrs old. I found myself reading Greg Bear’s “Moving Mars” and realized that the first third of the novel is about a relationship, and that the man is the romantic one in the pair. The relationship becomes pivotal to the plot towards the end.
    I wasn’t familiar with Bear’s work, but I suspect there’s a lot out there it we start thinking about it. Ursula Le Guin, Sam Delany, Octavia Butler all have novels about the effects of societal and technological change on their characters and relationships, we just have to look more closely at what has gone before.

  3. baisleac

    The Liaden series, by Sharon Lee & Steve Miller.

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