Friday, February 21, 2014

Strange Love

Love is Strange: Outdoor park sculpture in concrete and rebar by artist Seth Goddard (2005), Willow Park, Iowa City, IA.
Photo by Heather Paul via Flickr
 Last Friday was Valentine’s Day.  The occasion set me mulling on the subject of “romance” from a slightly unorthodox, but hopefully interesting perspective.

Fairy tales like Cinderella and Snow White exemplify the “traditional” narrative pattern of a romance.  We all know how it goes: hero and heroine meet and fall in love, only to have their love frustrated by some hostile external agency (an unscrupulous guardian, a jealous rival; a stroke of ill fortune, etc.).  There follows a period of adversity during which both lovers are put to the test. Eventually, however, they are reunited and live “happily ever after.”

This pattern has been the norm in romantic fiction for a very long time, (Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre utilizes the pattern to perfection.)  But with the emergence of Science Fiction and Fantasy as popular literary genres, writers began to challenge convention and explore the concept of romance from new perspectives under the heading of bonding with the other.

One significant development in SF/F literature has been to expand the parameters of romance by exploring forms of sexual and emotional attraction at variance with the conventional male/female paradigm.  For instance, Ursula LeGuin’s celebrated novel The Left Hand of Darkness features a race of humanoids whose gender identity is not fixed.  LeGuin’s first person narrator, a heterosexual male, provides a vehicle for examining the ethics of love detached from traditional gender roles.

Fantasy literature, by contrast, takes up the theme of bonding with the other in the form of interspecies romance.  Romances between men and elves, as envisioned by Tolkien, are only one possibility amongst many.  Another bold example of interspecies romance lies at the heart of in Elizabeth Kerner’s first novel, Song in the Silence, in which the love partners are a human woman and a male dragon.

One of the most extreme – and, surprisingly, most moving – alternative love stories is Blood Child by SF writer Octavia Butler.  In the space of 30 pages, Butler presents us with a futuristic romance that subverts all traditional romantic conventions.  In the first instance, the love partners belong to radically different species:  one is a human being, the other an insectoid alien.  In the second instance, there is a radical age disparity between the two:  the human partner is an adolescent male, his alien lover an adult female.  In the third instance, their love bonding will result in a radical role-reversal:  it is the boy, and not the female, who will bear the children conceived as a result of their sexual union.  Although this story violates all traditional romantic conventions, the emotional resonance of romance remains intact – a fact which represents a triumph of the imagination on behalf of the author.

If you’re interested in new “takes” on romance, SF and F is a good place to look.

Debby Harris is an independent editor living in Scotland. Please visit her website for more information about her editing services and fees.


  1. Another good example is Schild's Ladder by Greg Egan, about a long-lived futuristic society who switch genders several times in their lifetimes, and they know when they have met the right person because their genitals take the matching shape of their mate's.

  2. F and SF give writers opportunities to boldly go where romance has not gone before. In some sense, it is even bolder to set the controversial or unconventional couple in contemporary reality. The mystery/love story The Four-Color Puzzle is one fresh example.

  3. I love the way fiction lets us explore and expand the confines of society's boundaries.

  4. Hey, did anyone happen to see that PBS special on the strange inter-species relationships that seem to occur all the time? The one about the goat and the blind horse was especially moving ... no, seriously, a goat and a blind horse ... had me reaching for the Kleenex box ... secretly, of course.

  5. The key - whatever form the bonding takes in your story - is to make the reader care enough about the central character to buy into the premise. It might be interesting for a future post,Debby, if you explore that a little bit and show how a writer can make all the strange couplings acceptable to a reader.

    1. I agree, Maryann. Caring about the character is key!

  6. Romance has so many subcategories now. SciFi and Fantasy aren't the only genres exploring new worlds.

  7. Yes, charismatic character is key, and writers' imaginations seem limitless. Going for the gripping and the unique is the goal in nearly all genres; SF and F are no exception.

  8. Sorry to pop in late here - I love this post, Debby! I can't say I understand inter-species love (and sex) in Sci-Fi, but the love scenarios in Dragonriders of Pern are certainly intriguing.


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