Romance Is Science Fiction

Posted on | January 10, 2020

Speculative fiction of the science fiction and fantasy sort has a classical problem: how do you “show, not tell” when it comes to a thing no one has ever seen and likely will never see? Here’s the thing though; I also love reading romance novels, especially ones that make an effort to be fair to both characters and to give both characters an equal amount of agency, and in doing so I’ve come to a conclusion: Romance writers are trying their damnedest to “show, not tell” a thing that many people have never seen, and in doing so science fiction and romance use the exact same tools.

Cecilia Tan, my once-and-who-knows editor, wrote a fantastic essay, Let Me Tell You, in which she decries the “universality” of writing classes that emphasize “show, don’t tell,” and ban genre writing of any kind. She writes, “What they [writing classes – Elf] define as good writing runs counter to the purpose of science fiction and fantasy, which is to displace the reader from the status quo right from the start and never re-establish it.”

Cecilia should have included romance in that list. Romances, at least the best romance, also displace the reader from the status quo. The sort of literary writing that appears in The New Yorker, like the short story Cat Person, or is praised in books like the recently much-lauded Conversations With Friends isn’t meant to ask “What ifs?” about the human condition. They’re meant to illustrate it and show the misery it leads to, but rarely offer any solutions. “What if” stories aren’t just about the wrecks techonology or magic might create, but often about the joys and miracles, the successes and human flourishing they bright about.

More than that, much of romance and science fiction both involve speculation about recognizably human people in recognizably possible situations, and they need to “tell, not show,” a great deal, because they need to establish, through telling, a setting in which the characters show their humanity through their responses to their plights.

This is why men mock romance but defend science fiction. Science fiction shows the reader a place we can only imagine but never explore: another world, another time, another dimension. Such exploration, we’ve been told, is grand and masculine. Romance shows the reader a place men don’t want to imagine, a place they don’t want to access: the human heart. (All right, go ahead, insert a Fantastic Voyage joke here.)

In all the best romance novels, the writer spends time telling us how the characters are feeling, and they do so in compelling, metaphorical language that accurately puts words to things we’ve all felt or wanted to feel, or believe we could feel. They tell us these feelings to put the character in a place relative to his or her beloved, and then these feelings become the setting in which our characters show their humanity through their responses to their plights, both individually and collectively.

Have you ever gotten distracted? Wanted to do some specific task and yet ended up doing something else? Wandered off into a daydream? Psychologists (and Buddhists long before them) tell us that “we” are not in control of ourselves; our mind doesn’t do what we “want” it to do, it does whatever it does and we’re lucky if that aligns with our wants, or if we have the resources necessary to make it align. To-Do lists are a way we treat our future selves as strangers, piling work onto someone we currently… aren’t. There are days that we wake and we feel sad, or happy, or angry, and we can’t really know why. Some people can’t even name the basic emotions, much less understand or describe the differences between “respected” and “esteemed,” or “annoyed” and “infuriated.”

We don’t understand ourselves.

People want to read stories are good people getting into trouble and then earning the solution out of it. They happen in a given place and a given time. Science fiction tells us about strange and wonderful (or awful) things that the people in them don’t understand, and great science fiction then shows us how those strange things affect the lives of people. Romance novels tell us about a strange and wonderful thing going on inside, and how it affects the lives of two people a great story makes us care about. If the depths of the ocean and the vastness of the stars are both mysterious, valid settings for “a speculative story,” then a story where the mysterious setting is our own souls is surely a speculative story.

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