Can Romance and Sci-Fi Co-exist?


There’s been a lot of discourse around whether or not romance and sci-fi can exist within the same novel. A lot of the discussion looks like the work of trolls, purposefully ignoring the existence of subgenres within sci-fi like planetary romance. Other points, however, are much more valid. When SFF books feature romance as a major part of the plot, we tend to slot them into YA. “Adult” SFF tends to put romance on the back burner, allowing it to exist but rarely focusing on it. We force books that have an SFF flavor but predicate romance into the larger “romance” category.

An astronaut floats in space with a spaceship and the Earth in the background.
Looks like a giant dick from up here. (Pixabay / Pexels.com)

What gives? Personally, I can see the issue from space: it’s misogyny, plain and simple.

Ew, Feelings

We might just point at the historical dominance of white cisgender men in SFF, but the issue actually goes deeper. It strikes right at the core of the masculinity/femininity divide.

Feelings and emotions are feminine.

Logic and reason are masculine.

Romance, with its focus on relationships and emotions, is a highly feminized space. We see that borne out in real life: romance has traditionally been the domain of cisgender women, writing for an audience speculated to be largely feminine. We also malign romance as being “less worthy” literature—trashy pleasure, escapist nonsense for the barely literate. Yet we know that’s not true, but the stigma persists.

The cover of Aurora Floyd, a Victorian sensation novel, features a woman in Victorian dress and a man walking behind her.
Victorians invented “trashy” literature.

Science fiction, on the other hand, deals with science. And science aligns with the masculine side of things. It’s logical. It’s rational. It doesn’t give a shit about your feelings.

Sci-fi Has Fought Against “Feminization”

Now, that doesn’t mean sci-fi has always been perceived as an ultra-masculine space. In fact, many have viewed it as quite the opposite. Science fiction, when it first started out, was known as “scientific romance” because of the high degree of imagination involved in it. That imaginative streak—the flights of fancy—has been enough to have sci-fi pegged as “feminine.”

We can witness the legacy of this in the push for “legitimating” science fiction (and genre literature more generally). We tend to write sci-fi off the same way we write romance off. Because it’s a male-dominated space, however, there’s much more push to argue that sci-fi is highbrow literature (masculine), not trashy touchy-feely stuff (feminine).

Drawing a Line between “Hard” and “Soft” SF

This is best reflected in the separation of “hard” SF and “soft” SF. Hard SF focuses on technological and scientific aspects of the world. It demands rigour, much like the scientific method itself; it wants reality, it wants verisimilitude. Worldbuilding must be grounded in “real” science. Writers cannot just make it up as they go along. The tech must be realistic.

Hard SF is thus highly masculine, because it adheres to science, logic, and reason. It eschews flights of fancy and reflects “reality.”

Know what else that sounds like? The artificial, arbitrary divide between “real literature” and everything else. We see Hemingway and Steinbeck as “real writers,” as “real literature” because they unflinchingly approach the real world. They employ logic and reason. Their prose is stark and precise, eschewing the purple prose and “overwrought” stylistic of earlier generations, particularly the Romantics.

Much the same as this divide in literature at large is the divide between hard/soft SF. Soft SF does not ask us to hold tight to verisimilitude; we’re allowed flights of fancy and “what ifs.”

Hard SF wants to focus on calculating the precise amount of gravity on a planet at this distance from the star with this type of core and atmosphere, spinning at this particular speed.

Soft SF asks, “What if there was no gravity at all?” And then it plays, without calculations or “realism.” Soft SF is imaginative and, very often, it reflects more about emotion or the human condition than it does about the actual scientific possibilities of our universe.

Hey—That Sounds Familiar

Did you know there’s also a hard/soft divide in science itself? The “hard” sciences are chemistry, biology, and physics. These are the sciences of proof, logic and reasoning. You do an experiment; you test your hypothesis. Then you gather data and results. Then you prove or disprove your theory.

The “soft” sciences are those that deal with emotions: sociology, anthropology, psychology. These disciplines have historically had a much harder time testing and proving any theory, which makes them highly subjective.

The hard sciences are thought to deal in the arena of fact; the soft sciences are all about “bias” and “opinion,” because you can theorize something but not necessarily prove it.

A posted for a 1950s B-film, "Attack of the 50-foot Woman," shows a giant woman straddling a freeway while she picks up a car.
This is definitely soft SF, because no woman in her right mind would wear that get-up while straddling an interstate.

Thus, the soft sciences—which, again, deal largely in the realm of emotion and the human condition, relationships and social bonds—are highly feminine in the Western binary paradigm. The soft sciences are irrational and emotional, biased and subjective—like “women” have historically been constructed.

The hard sciences, by contrast, are highly masculine. They deal with objective reasoning, logic and fact—they’re “rational.”

We can even, to some degree, divide “hard” SF and “soft” SF along these lines: hard SF tends to focus on the hard sciences; soft SF prefers the soft sciences.

Thus, we can end up at the position that hard SF aligns itself with logic, reason, rationality, fact, objectivity, and masculinity. Soft SF, by turn, aligns with emotion, feeling, irrationality, bias, subjectivity, and femininity.

What “Counts” as SF?

Hard SF fans and advocates sometimes discount soft SF as not being real or true SF. (This ignores the idea that “science fiction” is, by and large, fiction that deals with any sort of scientific imagination.)

This is an attempt to legitimate SF as “real” literature. It also subsequently tries to play up the “masculine” qualities of SF, while simultaneously discounting the “feminized” side of SF.

By this token, hard SF fans tend to argue that “soft” SF titles don’t really “count” as SF. If the story features any sort of focus on relationships, we automatically bill it as a romance. If its science is too loose or ill-defined, then we might lump it in with “fantasy” (which has had a much harder time shaking accusations of “femininity,” owing, by and large, to its lack of rationality and the highly romantic nostalgia in it).

This effort also tends to drive away female SF fans, who are seen as enjoying and contributing to the “softer” side of the genre. By focusing on the “harder” aspects of science and technology, male SF fans discourage female fans.

I’ve Been Reluctant to Call Myself a Sci-Fi Fan

I admit this has made me reluctant to brand my own work as SF or myself as a fan of the genre. This is unfortunate and strange, but I’ve always seen it as a male-dominated space where I, a lowly female with a female brain, could not possibly write because I don’t “get” science or technology or engineering. (Indeed, I didn’t follow through on interests in biology or computer engineering when I was in school. Those were “masculine” areas I was discouraged from pursuing, both subtly and overtly.)

Yet here’s the catch: I read Ender’s Game in one day, enthralled by the story. I grew up watching Star Trek. (Don’t talk to me about Star Wars; I hate it.) I had to read Neuromancer when I was in university, and I absolutely loved this story. (We read a bunch of SF in that class, including Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) Even manga and anime with a “space” angle—like Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball Z, Gundam Wing, and Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagan are my jam.

One thing you’ll notice: most of these titles are, by and large, by men, centering the exploits of male characters. (I bet there’s a lot of debate about whether Sailor Moon could ever count as SF, although the characters are reincarnated aliens from different planets across the solar system, fighting aliens, by and large.)

Sailor Moon, pictured here, is arguably an alien, which would make the entire series sci-fi.
An alien princess!

I did not read anything by Urusula K. Le Guin or Anne McCaffrey. These writers, although they were firmly writing in SF, didn’t make the cut.

Ignoring Subgenres

As I noted, there’s probably a good amount of debate about whether or not Sailor Moon would count as sci-fi, despite most of the main cast and their enemies being … pretty much literal aliens. Dragon Ball Z would likely have similar issues, again, despite its main character being a pretty literal alien.

Yet we have a harder time classifying these titles as “sci-fi” versus something like Star Wars which, it’s arguable, has every character as an alien. Most of the main characters appear to be human and most of us assume Luke, Leia, and Han Solo are, in fact, human. They look human, certainly, and we’re never told otherwise.

But Star Wars is a prime example of “soft” sci-fi: the science here is really, really soft. In fact, it’s better classified as a “space opera.” It’s action-adventure.

This takes us into the realm of subgenres within sci-fi. Moving beyond the divide between “hard” and “soft” (which is more about the focal lens), there are dozens and dozens of subgenres within the broader category of “science fiction.” There’s planetary romance, which I’d mentioned before. Space opera is another. Neuromancer is seminal in what’s known as cyberpunk. Hopepunk and solarpunk are emerging subgenres. There’s even a “space Western” subgenre.

So, what the “romance doesn’t exist in SF” narrative does is collapse the rich diversity of subgenre within SF. It positions anything dealing with romance—such as planetary romance or “soft” SF—as being outside of the SF umbrella, because it somehow erodes the “legitimacy” of SF. People think counting planetary romance or science fantasy as “science fiction” contributes to a feminization of the genre. That then undermines its tentative position as “real” literature.

A Lot of Sci-Fi Still Has Romance

Despite this resistance to the “feminizing” influence of “soft” SF and romance being under the SF umbrella, a lot of sci-fi still has a romantic component. Star Wars focuses, by and large, on romances; Luke and Leia is the first “romance,” which is then followed by Leia and Han Solo. The prequel trilogy moved the focus more firmly to the romance between Anakin and Padme Amidala.

Star Trek is sometimes positioned as being “harder” SF than Star Wars, although it’s still very “soft.” It looks at discovering new peoples and planets, as well as the relationships between the Federation and even among those other peoples.

Romance also threads through Star Trek; it’s rare to encounter a series without a romantic subplot. The original series doesn’t always focus on “relationships,” per se, although it lets playboy Kirk romance quite a few aliens. Relationships become somewhat more of a focus as the cast incorporates more female characters, although romance isn’t always front and center—sometimes, the focus is simply on relationships between the crew members. In Deep Space Nine and Voyager, though, we see romantic entanglements coming more and more to the fore.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? centers relationships between people—and people and androids in particular. What we start getting at here is one of the most common preoccupations of SFF: what does it mean to be human?

We can only answer this by exploring the human conditions, which focuses on—you guessed it—the “softer” sciences, emotions and the mind. In such, sci-fi often concludes that to be human is to be emotional, to be irrational (and thus unpredictable)—and by extension, to be feminine.

Where Does YA Fit in This Mess?

One keen observation made during this debate was that a lot of SF which puts romance front and center gets the YA label. There seems to be a divide here—YA SF can focus on romance and relationships, while SF written for “adults” will contemplate other concerns.

What’s up with that?

It isn’t much of a surprise, because this also connects to the divide between masculine and feminine. Children, in Western culture, are incapable of controlling their emotions. They are completely incapable of self regulation, which is the big task for children to learn as they grow up. Children have to be taught how to regulate their needs (hunger, using the bathroom), their wants (learning self-denial, patience), and so on. We teach children to put themselves in others’ shoes, to understand other people, which allows them to empathize and regulate their own needs in order to compromise with others.

An older woman, presumably a grandmother, checks on an infant in an older man's arms.
“No, we don’t bite Grandma!” (Pixabay / Pexels.com)

Thus we can see that, within the Western paradigm, children exist in a highly feminized space: they are irrational and emotional. In addition to that, they’re immature and often presented as not being able o care for themselves; we need to protect and care for them. Feminized individuals are also “emotional” and “irrational,” and thus they’re also worthy of protection.

The Positioning of Children Contributes to Oppression of Women

This is, of course, how Western society infantilizes women. Like children, they are incompetent, incapable of regulating their emotions and achieving rational thought. They thus need the protection and guidance of a man. Women thus move from being controlled by fathers to being controlled by husbands.

Thus the feminine maintains a constant state of “immaturity.” It’s little wonder that early scientists posited some parts of female genitalia as being “immature” male genitalia (the clitoris as a kind of under-developed penis), and female human beings as a kind of permanently immature male.

If we accept this—that the feminine is immature and marked by a focus on emotion—then it makes perfect sense that science fiction aimed at younger (immature) readers focuses on relationships and romances.

This, of course, continues to mark such emotional exploration, “soft” SF, as being somehow immature—something you “grow out of” as you age, rather than a constant preoccupation of the human condition. The argument would seem to be that concerns about the human condition are not “worthy” subjects of exploration by the mature (masculine) mind, which is perfectly logical and rational.

Thus, “soft” SF should be relegated to the children’s section, dismissed, or otherwise not considered “real” SF at all.

Aren’t Emotions What Make Us Human?

Yet, as I’ve presented here, most SF is concerned with the questions about the human condition to some degree. And most often, these works conclude “the human condition” is one marked by emotion and irrational action. That’s precisely the opposite of the masculinity construct to which Western SF so desperately wants to cling.

Much as romance has moved to embrace its designation as “trashy” in recent years, I’d suggest SF might wish to do the same. Rather than attempting to prove it is “real literature,” SF might trouble the entire notion of what constitutes “real” literature and in doing so break down the desire to cleave so tightly to the Western construct of masculinity. In eschewing that, SF could move closer to its roots as “scientific romance”—and embrace the conclusion that so many, many seminal SF titles have reached: that emotion is human, and that is what gives us strength.

Thus, the sci-fi romance is not an anomaly or a newcomer; it is not an outlier or an impossibility. Rather, it is hopelessly entangled in the history of SF as a whole. And we should embrace the messy spillover between genres instead of drawing arbitrary lines about what is and isn’t possible in literature.

About the author

By Cherry

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