Romantic Subplots in Speculative Fiction, Yes or No?

Does it Distract From the Story?

Buck Rogers and Wilma Deering

Romance is the world’s most popular genre. Readers love to fall in love alongside those characters and live all sorts of fantasies. People still believe in love.

In speculative fiction, love as a theme is complicated. Some fans think it does not belong or distracts from the main story.

Furthermore, feminists have decried for centuries how women in science fiction and fantasy lack agency beyond being the love interest of the hero.

Moreover, early science fiction stories made an effort to keep love and romance out of it. Those writers and readers were not looking for that sort of fiction. They wanted aliens, spaceships, technological wonders, robots…

And yet, there are those fans who do not mind it.

The Tenth Doctor and Rose Tyler ©BBC

To experience love is human, and speculative fiction is ultimately about experiencing the human condition. And the human condition is incomplete without love (and sex).

Still, outside specific genres such as fantasy romance, steampunk, paranormal romance, epic fantasy, urban fantasy, and maybe space opera, you won’t find much kissing and courting. Too bad.

I remember how many fans loved The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal, but complained about the “sex scenes”. Personally, I enjoyed reading about a loving married couple for a change.

Love belongs in speculative fiction. Or does it?

Since it is Valentine‘s month, what better time to debate this?

Does it Feel Forced?

Rey and Kylo Ren, Star Wars’ most controversial couple. ©LucasFilm/Dysney

A common complaint of fans is that the love subplot feels shoehorned. In effect, some authors have no business writing romance.

Also, there is no other way to phrase this, some romantic relationships in speculative fiction are so problematic. Dracula, anyone? Heinlein‘s Lazarus Long stories?

Even my beloved Alastair Reynolds classic novel, A House of Suns, as great a story as it is, two clones of the same person falling in love seems kind of incestuous, no? Problematic indeed.

Granted, interspecies romantic pairings are a staple of speculative fiction. Opposites attract, they say. Urban fantasy is full of these pairings.

Fans love these stories for the same reason they are attracted to paranormal romance, they are a metaphor for people of different races or cultural backgrounds. The forbidden

Still, do we need to sexualize horror creatures? Or fantasy creatures?

Daenerys Targaryen and Khal Drogo ©HBO/Max

And yet, without romance and sex, how can the species continue? How can life be meaningful?

If love subplots feel forced, it is because the author does not take the time to develop the attraction and courtship. We need to believe in it.

Furthermore, the protagonist falling in love with the princess seems so predictable. Can we have the protagonist fall in love with the handmaid, the janitor, or the ugly one? The villain? Someone else?

By the way, kudos to J.K. Rowling for resisting making Harry and Hermione a couple. That would have been predictable. Instead, we got Luna, Cho Chang, Romilda, and ultimately, Ginny.

Now, that was unpredictable. (By the way, I was team Cho Chang).

Does Romance Belong in Speculative Fiction?

Outlander’s Claire and Jaime ©Starz Entertaining

The question should not be if romance belongs in speculative fiction. Obviously, in literature where anything goes, we should not impose such limits.

The question should be if romance belongs in every subgenre or every story. It does not.

In horror, for instance, it is hard to fall in love when there is a monster chasing you.

Likewise, military science fiction is about warfare and combat; dark fantasy is about dark magic and suffering, hardly either one conducting to romance.

Oh, I guess you can have a romantic subplot. Yet, it should never take over the main plot. Otherwise, the readers will be confused.

Nevertheless, modern readers are more open to romantic love in their speculative fiction stories–even queer love stories. (About time).

The Expanse’s Holden and Naomi ©Amazon Prime

For example, the award-winning Broken Earth trilogy by N. K. Jemisin has Innon and Alabaster (also Essun in a non-threeway sort of pansexual relationship).

Speculative fiction without love is still speculative fiction, but also less human-centered. Love is a powerful motivation and a source of character conflict.

In effect, two of my most popular posts are about the love story of Agnieszka and Sarkan and the love story of Gideon and Harrow.

Again, some authors have a knack for writing romantic plots (I am looking at you, Naomi Novik, and you, Steve Miller, and Sharon Lee). They make it look easy. It is not.

In conclusion, romance does belong in speculative fiction. We just need authors who make it believable and unpredictable–like love itself.

Reader, do you like romance in your science fiction and fantasy? Who is your favorite romantic pair? Share in the comments.

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March 2023