Clean Rooms, Messy Bodies: The Intersection of SF and Romance

Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice.
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June 10, 2013

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Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
“Sailing to Byzantium”, William Butler Yeats

There’s been a lot of discussion about the tension between science fiction and science fiction romance lately–which has been interesting for me because I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about this issue from a slightly different perspective.

So much of science fiction is about transcending or defeating one’s body–from the singularity to technology-based solutions to enhance baseline functionality. I am mostly excluding assistive devices from this discussion because that’s generally not the point of these solutions in science fiction–except, of course, when it is.

I would actually argue that many of the assistive devices in SF are used in an able-ist way to erase disability–look at McCaffrey’s Ship Who Sang series: we’re never told specifics about the disabilities of the shell-people, just that their disabilities were so horrifying to the non-disabled that their parents were given a choice: euthanasia or eternal confinement in a titanium shell and enslaved but only if they were smart enough.

The series is obviously more complicated than that–Helva is a fantastic character and one who is ultimately able to decide her own fate and choose her own partners–but the basic premise is something I find extremely troubling. It can be argued that McCaffrey was subverting the idea at the time that the severely disabled were incapable of making decisions about their own lives, I’m not convinced she was fully successful.

Bodies are complicated. They’re messy and unruly and rarely conform to standards (assuming there are standards–which I don’t).  They are destructible and often weak. There is a certain appeal to not having to deal with  bodies and their complications. I can definitely see why the idea of a “rapture of the nerds” is so popular. Instead of slipping the surly bonds of earth and touching the face of God, through the singularity we will become gods.  It’s a great science fictional conceit and one that pops up repeatedly–from Herbert’s thinking machines to Baker’s cyborgs. Sometimes it’s a positive development and many other times it isn’t.  There aren’t many artificial intelligences that choose to travel in the other direction–I know there’s Minerva in Heinlein’s Time Enough for Love but I’m pretty sure she decided to get a body mainly so she could get boinked by Lazarus Long (it’s been 15 years since I’ve read the book and there isn’t enough money in the world to make me read Heinlein ever again).

Romance, on the other hand, is very much about bodies. It’s about the emotional connections that we create not only with our minds but with our bodies. Romance embraces the body–unfortunately, the bodies it embraces are usually idealized ones (which is interesting when thought about in context of the “placeholder” heroine and the wide range of people who read romance)–but still, the body is embraced. There is a physicality and a realness to even the most cardboard characters in romance that is often missing from many science fiction novels that address “big ideas”. The physical and emotional connection is an integral part of romance–you cannot have a romance without either of these (even in romances without explicit sex scenes, physical desire is present).

And I think this is why the prospect of SF romance is often so divisive. I think some people see SF as a purely cerebral literature–liberated minds, free of that pesky physicality–being invaded by bodies and feelings. And instead of investigating their discomfort they choose to take the easy (and often misogynistic) way out: calling writers of SF romance fake geeks who don’t know how to write SF correctly and who are unaware of decades-long arguments within SF fandom. Which, naturally delegitimizes their place in the genre.

And while I have listened to writers of SFR openly dismiss the need for any knowledge of science because they believe that their readers find that sort of thing unnecessary or intimidating–I do not think the claims that they’re fake geeks or that their lack of knowledge of decades of fanwank are particularly valid.  To be completely honest, I’m not even sure that detailed knowledge of science is a requirement–since when is being a scientist a pre-requisite for science fiction? As long as there’s internal consistency, who the hell cares? Consistent worldbuilding is integral to a book, but to me the characters and story are so much more important–unless there are egregious errors, I can often overlook scientific improbabilities. And I’m pretty sure that most people can–insisting that SF be scientifically accurate is a way of putting up boundaries and gates in order to keep some people out. And that’s not okay.

I keep thinking about N.K. Jemisin’s absolutely amazing Continuum GOH speech about Reconciliation. She makes a lot of important points, but especially this:

It is time that we all recognized the real history of this genre, and acknowledged the breadth and diversity of its contributors. It’s time we acknowledged the debt we owe to those who got us here — all of them. It’s time we made note of what ground we’ve trodden upon, and the wrongs we’ve done to those who trod it first. And it’s time we took steps — some symbolic, some substantive — to try and correct those errors. I do not mean a simple removal of the barriers that currently exist within the genre and its fandom, though doing that’s certainly the first step. I mean we must now make an active, conscious effort to establish a literature of the imagination which truly belongs to everyone.

And then I read Mary Ann Rivers’s post about access, Glass Keys:

Can you appreciate how access is so much a kind of glass key, invisible to everyone but who is holding it? Even when doors are left open, they may not be actually unlocked, and if they are unlocked, you may have been told to knock, even while you watch others walk through, their transparent keys palmed.

These seem connected. Science fiction is, as Jemisin quite rightly points out, a literature of the imagination and, as such, should be open to everyone–and we need to recognize all those who came before, not just those with the loudest voices or biggest presences. What is so frightening about the prospect of an imaginative literature that fully embraces all of human experience?

And part of the human experience is the emotional and physical connections we have with others–by fully accepting SF romance as part of the SF community not only do we remove barriers new readers and writers, we actively invite them in. To use Rivers’s analogy–how many people already have keys but can’t use them? How can we be explicitly and openly welcoming to their voices and experiences?

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2 Comments

  1. sharonlfisher

    Really enjoyed this piece, thanks Natalie! I have read a lot of posts on SFR, and this is the first time I’ve really thought about the physicality of it (as compared to SF). You make some excellent points.

    And I love this:
    “What is so frightening about the prospect of an imaginative literature that fully embraces all of human experience?”

  2. Natalie

    @sharonlfisher: Even in romance in general there’s an emphasis on physicality and on bodies that is distinct from other genres–and I suspect that’s what a lot of people object to about romance. As a culture, we have an uneasy relationship with our bodies, so a literature that embraces bodies is going to be suspect–even if only bodies of a “socially acceptable” type (i.e., able-bodied, thin, mostly-white) are written about. Especially when that literature intersects with another that has a long tradition of purposeful disembodiment.

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