What do romance readers think of science fiction romance?

A few posts have appeared lately about science fiction romance as a genre. Stuart Sharp took a swipe at the scientific credentials of SFR in this article. His post attracted some spirited response and this post at Tracing the Stars. Reading the comments is always such fun, isn’t it?

Mind you, I’ve taken a swipe at the scientific credentials of some SFR writers, too. Heavy on the romance, light on the science. Rest assured I’m not the only one to roll my eyes at yet another story about the tall, handsome, well-endowed alien men who need to kidnap Human women to replace the females they have inadvertently misplaced. But then again (and I’ve said this so often) if Star Wars gets a guernsey as science fiction, it seems all you need is a few planets and a space ship.

However, the purpose of this post is not to gripe about the science, but to look at the issue from the opposite point of view. What do romance readers think of science fiction romance?

I confess I don’t read romance much. I’m too interested in action and adventure to find a love story absorbing. Which probably tells you a fair bit about my writing. Some little while ago I wrote a blog post for a mainly romance audience at Keith Publications. I think it’s worth repeating.


Does the very idea of science in a romance scare your little cotton socks off? I guess for some people it would. It’s that word ‘science’, isn’t it, conjuring up visions of test tubes and physics and math.

But there’s much more to science fiction than that. Think about this. The difference between fantasy and science fiction is that in fantasy, magic is allowed. In a fantasy, the author doesn’t have to explain how the great warrior suddenly disappeared – she’s got a magic ring. But in science fiction, the author would explain that the ring is a crystal which excites the warrior’s aura, increasing the wavelength of light given off to a wavelength undetectable to the human eye. The warrior is therefore rendered invisible to those looking at her. (Or some such plausible rigmarole). There now. That’s wasn’t so bad, was it?

Let’s consider a piece of science fiction everyone has heard of – Star Wars. Some die-hard science fiction fans (like me) will say it includes a lot of fantasy and even more dodgy science. Which, as it happens, is true, but who cares? It has spaceships, princesses, ray guns, aliens and a whole heap of fun. And a little bit of romance.

Not much romance, I grant you. On the flame scale, it might score half a flame. Maybe a glowing coal? But a romance for all that. Remember the rather chaste kiss between Han Solo and Princess Leia in ‘The Empire Strikes Back’? I’ll bet I wasn’t the only one hoping they’d get it on a bit better than that. Soooo disappointing. But… Star Wars is a family show, not suitable for any hot stuff.

Enter science fiction romance. It’s a growing sub-genre catering for folk who like their spaceships, aliens and rayguns mixed with a little bit of hanky-panky. Or maybe rather a lot of hanky-panky. It’s what I write and this next bit is going to look a lot like self promotion. Okay, yes, it is. But it also proves the point.

Here are a few reviews for my ‘Iron Admiral’ SF romance books, all Amazon reviews. (You won’t find them on Amazon because the book was re-published and the reviews didn’t transfer) Click on the covers to link to Amazon.

Picture of cover Iron Admiral: ConspiracyPicture of the Irona Admiral Deception cover

‘I had heard of this book quite a while ago and read some glowing reviews, but had delayed purchasing it because it isn’t my usual style. I like pure romance and when I deviate from that, I typically read fantasy or some variant of that. However, I bought this one, thinking that I would have it on my kindle for a back-up read, when I wasn’t reading something else. Once I started, though, I was hooked and didn’t really put the kindle down for more than a few minutes until I had finished both books the next afternoon. … I highly recommend this for people who love science fiction and romance together or separately.’

‘There is sufficient SF detail to satisfy the Geek in me with an emotionally adept character led story line that has enough erotic flavour to get me hot under the collar… TOH never knew what hit him after I read [this book]… Romance readers will love this. SF readers will love it as well, though. The worlds and the technology are well thought out, enhancing the space opera feel. The whole package is beautifully presented and I can highly recommend this book.’

‘I loved this book. I loved Allysha, I loved Saahren, I loved the main plot and all of the little subplots, I loved the science, I loved the politics, and I absolutely loved the ptorix. If you’re a fan of Star Wars or Star Trek or Battlestar Gallactica, you will probably really enjoy this book. It is so, so good.’

I could add a few reviews of a similar nature for my other books – Morgan’s Choice, Morgan’s Return and Starheart. Sure, I have abs on my covers. They sell books to red-blooded women (and a few blokes). But I also try to make my science plausible.

So you see, the bias goes both ways. And that, folks, is a shame.

If you’re a lover of romance, I would love you to leave a comment and tell me what you think.


About Greta van der Rol

I'm an author of fast-paced, action-adventure novels, mainly space opera - although I've been known to write in other genres. I live not far from the coast in Queensland, Australia and enjoy photography and cooking when I'm not bent over the computer. I have a degree in history and a background in building information systems, both of which go a long way toward helping me in my writing endeavours.

Posted on 31 May 2013, in Science fiction and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 32 Comments.

  1. juliabarrett

    Good question. I’ve asked it myself on a number of occasions. Scify readers aren’t all that fond of romance. Romance readers don’t generally get scify. We’re sorta damned if we do and damned if we don’t.

  2. My SFR is more closely akin to Space Opera, a “accepted” sub genre of Sci-Fi (though some do treat it like Sci-Fi’s crazy aunt who is only invited to the part because she brings great desserts.) and I have received reviews from Sci-Fi readers (males included) who were surprised they actually enjoyed the romance, as well as romance readers who were surprised they enjoyed the sci-fi. Greta, your own works seem to fall within that fine line as well. I think the biggest hurdle is bridging the preconceptions about what Science Fiction does to Romance and what Romance does to Science Fiction in the genre title.

    I read all types of SFR – from Space Opera Romance to Erotica and everything in between, and there really is a very wide spectrum. I am of the firm belief that – to each his own, and you shouldn’t hark on another genre just because it is different from your own. There is an audience for everything thing these days.

  3. I was telling my coworker the other day Star Wars wasn’t sci-fi! I’m curious about this genre (which I admit I have never read), how do you get around the fact that most romances (that I know of at least) have happy endings, and most (ok, again, stuff I’ve read) sci-fi does not? Which way do you lean? And are you aware of any sci-fi romances out there that lean more sci-fi in a kind of horrific way, like a robot falling in love with a human and accidentally killing them sort of a thing?

  4. Greta already knows where I’m coming from, but for those commenters and readers who don’t, here we go.

    I’m a romance writer. It’s what I’ve studied, it’s what I devour, it’s what I gravitate to. When there’s no romance I feel like a crucial part of the plot is missing. I’m also a Captain Picard fangirl, a Whovian, a Scaper, a Browncoat, an X-Files fan, a new Fringe convert, and a confirmed geek who went to the midnight showing of Into Darkness with my siblings and dad and is very sad and very excited over today’s Doctor Who news. Before last spring it had never occurred to me that it was possible to make my geek side and romance side happy AT THE SAME TIME.

    I *know* there are other geeky romance devourers like me who have no idea we can have both in the same book. The problem is not finding them, but getting them to put two and two together and get alien instead of four. There are thousands of romance readers like me who have no idea the two things can even go together, much less that it’s a whole sub-genre now. I’m even a newcomer to paranormal! Read my first one back in March. Of this year. Seriously!

    That said, to a point I agree with some of the detractors of SFR. Right now the literary perception of SFR is erotica. Erotica does not always equal romance, and as a romance writer I HATE being compared to erotica writers. They’re cousins. Barely. In my opinion anyway. Erotica *is* all about the sex, and unfortunately that’s what most SFR representation is right now. Romance is all about the relationship. Sex scenes are the whipped cream and cherry atop a hot fudge sundae. For some people it’s essential to enjoying the sundae. For others, including me, whipped cream and a cherry ruins a hot fudge sundae.

    Whether we like it or not the cultural perception of “romance novel” is sex scenes. My 56-year-old father, a super geek who reads 95% science fiction, 5% non-fiction, really struggles with the idea of his daughter being a romance writer and combining it with science fiction. Because in his mind romance still means bodice ripper. He is not okay with “sex in his science”. And neither am I.

    Rather than condemning people who still have this perception of what romance is, we should be educating these people on what romance really is. Erotica should NOT be the first thing people think of when they hear “science fiction romance”. Yet that is what most people think. On that point I agree with the “I don’t want sex in my science” camp.

    As long as the majority of SFR books qualify as erotica we’re going nowhere at 80 mph. That only reinforces the cultural perception we should be trying to break. There is more to romance than sex, and I find it very sad that we live in a world where the fastest-growing “romance” sub-genre reinforces the idea (though not explicitly in most cases, I’m sure) that romance and sex have the same definition. This applies across the romance spectrum, from paranormal to historical to our treasured little sub-genre.

    I want to end by saying I’m not intentionally dissing erotica SF writers. I know there are many Brigade members who write that. Personally, I really have a hard time finding SFR that appeals to me and is not erotica, because I hate the stuff personally and refuse to read it. All I’m saying is that erotica SF being the majority of what’s out there is part of the problem we’re dealing with. Rather than pinning all the blame on the other side, we should be looking at what we’re doing to reinforce the stereotype. Frankly, there’s a lot of reinforcing going on. And it’s to our detriment when it comes to being taken seriously.

    • Thanks for your long, thoughtful reply. I hope some others will engage with this. As you know, my books lean more to the science adventure side, and less to the romance. They are not by any stretch of the imagination erotic (unless one not very explicit sex scene in a book meets anyone’s definition of erotic). But love is a powerful emotion. The Taj Mahal was built for love. So that’s how I use ‘romance’ in my books. As you say, erotica is a perfectly acceptable genre which has its place but it doesn’t define what SFR is all about.

    • I agree with you Rachel. As an [unpublished] SFR writer I feel under pressure to put sex scenes into my work. Something I am definitely not comfortable doing. The prevalence of erotica almost made me bow out of the SFR Brigade before I’d even joined it, as I dislike being associated with erotica personally. Only getting to know authors like Greta, who do not write erotica, encouraged me to stay. If you need some recommendations of reads, let me know – I’ve read a few good SFR books.

      • Thanks for stopping by, Laurel. Personally, I think if you’re not comfortable with writing sex scenes – don’t. Romance doesn’t need explicit sex (not written in a book, anyway) 🙂

      • I agree with you totally – and that is the decision I [keep making]. It’s an ongoing question for me – due to the peer pressure, you see – but one that I’m beginning to formulate an answer to. I can say that I don’t have any planned sex scenes in any of my planned (pantsed?) books, and it’s going to stay that way 🙂

      • Laurel, don’t let any perception of “pressure” get to you. I keep coming back to saying this one thing, in every single writer circle I hang out in. And I’m all over the map when it comes to groups of writers! Write the story the way it tells you it must be written.

        I’m a HUGE fan of sexual tension. For me it’s all about the timing of the first kiss. It has to be perfect and at the point where the tension is about to make me scream, and the point where it will actually make things *worse* for the couple. Not better. It’s a bit of an odd take, but it works for me. I do read stuff with sex scenes, but I draw the line at anything getting explicit. I skip it.

        I don’t write sex scenes either, exactly. I will allude to what’s going on and I have no problems following them into the bed and then, to use a cinematic phrase, the lights fade out. It works for me, but it has taken trial and error to figure out how to do what I want to do without crossing any personal lines. We are friends on Facebook already and I happen to be a Christian too. I’m six hours behind you in US Central, but if you ever want to holler at me feel free! Sounds like we have a lot in common about how we’re approaching this somewhat strange (on the surface anyway) mix of genres.

  5. I have so many responses to this, I don’t even know where to start. I’ll start with this, in response to comments.
    Romance is a story about a romantic relationship that has a happy ending or a happy for now. The sexual content can range from none to extremely explicit.
    Erotica is the story of a sexual journey. It does not need to include relationships nor a happy ending. It can have a sad ending. It’s more a literary genre than a romance genre. In fact, it doesn’t necessarily need to include explicit content–though of course that’s the norm. Let me say again: Erotica is not in the Romance genre no matter where you might find them on the bookstore shelves. In my local store, they’re actually shelved with literary, not Romance.
    Erotic Romance is a Romance that includes a sex plot. The sex should in some way add to the conflict and help the relationship develop and resolve.

    Erotica does not equal erotic romance. The terms aren’t interchangeable. If we’re going to discuss genres in an academic way, we as authors touching on that genre in some way, or denigrating it, actually, should try to understand that. If we’re frustrated by the misunderstanding of SFR, then we shouldn’t in the meantime frustrate erotica and erotic romance authors. And to suggest that a story is less because it contains a lot of sexual content is also denigrating to the authors. How can it not be?

    From there, let me say that this discussion still separates Romance as lesser. From the general discussion of the health of this little niche genre, how is that divisiveness any different from some of the general “girl cooties” type of mess you see from *some* SF authors?

    In the end, I think we’re writing for ourselves first and readers second. No author should feel pressure to add sex scenes for seeming marketability. First, sex scenes shouldn’t be an afterthought. They should add to the evolution of the relationship. Second, sex scenes require as much craft as all other writing.

    I write everything from SF with no Romance to Romance with no SF. And when I do write SFR, I tend to write hot. I tend to write erotic Science Fiction Romance. And I didn’t write the heat for the market, I wrote it because it was part of the story. I wrote it because I love to read it and love to write it. Does that make me some kind of lesser SFR author? Absolutely not.

    • I don’t think this discussion suggests romance is lesser. I think the mainstream SF community probably does. What we seem to be discussing within our niche is shades of meaning. Within SFR we can go from erotic to no sex. I, for one, see no problem with that. Whatever floats your boat. That said, I think there’s a perception that more sex means more sales. The recent remarks by one writer that her slapped up erotic ‘crap’ (her words) sold squillions is an indicator that that perception has some credence.

      • I read the blog post by that author and found it disingenuous. She wrote a parody. It was so over the top riddled with purple that it really isn’t the same thing as erotic romance. She as well as her readers have called it a parody. For what it’s worth, I also thought her blog post denigrated romance. And yes, saying it’s crap, I thought was insulting to erotic romance authors. Also. It’s not SF.

        Loaded language can give a perception that maybe you didn’t intend. Rolling eyes, deciding some SFR isn’t SF enough, etc. (which is EXACTLY what the guy said in his post we’re responding to here.) I enjoy Romance of a light futuristic setting all the way to heavily fortified SFR. You’re saying my tastes on the one side of the scale are something you would roll your eyes at. If a futuristic doesn’t explore science tech in-depth but has a plot heavily dedicated to a future sex bot, does it make it not SF? How is this different from Sharp’s questioning science fiction credentials?

      • To me, what defines science fiction – whatever sub-genre you wish to read or write – is science. I’m not saying the science has to be limited to what we know now – it isn’t anyway, given FTL, artificial gravity and the like. But if it doesn’t have plausible science, it isn’t SF, so in that respect, I agree with Mister Sharp. A future sex bot that makes sense in the context of a story is fine by me. What I object to about Sharp’s article is that the introduction of romance into an SF story suddenly renders it in some way not science fiction.

    • Ella, thanks for the clarification. For those of us who don’t pay much attention to erotica as a genre it’s easy to blur lines and make assumptions. I personally find reading it borderline offensive. I also always always always tell fellow writers who are struggling with a story to write the story the way it tells you it needs to be written.

      It’s hard for me to write something without a romance in it. No matter what genre I may explore, I’m always a romance writer first.

      • Not sure you understood the clarification or my point since you immediately used the term “erotica”. If you find sexual content offensive, don’t read it. As you so clearly are not doing, but I do find that if you’re going to have a discussion about assumptions in a genre you write in, perhaps you shouldn’t make assumptions of your own.

  6. I don’t write sex scenes either, in fact I recently “outed” myself (on my blog – my shocking secret revealed) for it. (grin) For me, it is a concern about reader expectation (and how sad is that?) and I had an inner chuckle at how much things had changed.

    Having barely survived the savaging we romance writers gave each other over ebooks back at the turn of the century, I would ditto the “let’s not divide and savage.”

    It is a simple fact that women authors get less respect from (some) in just about every area of publishing, including from some other women authors. Not long ago I read about how bad it is for women in the online gaming community, so bad that women often hide their sex when playing online games.

    In some ways, this is just a blog post story, but…I’ve seen the same rolled eyed reluctance at many of the SF cons. We all pay the same fee to participate but that where “same” stops, or so it seems to be. I was recently offered participation in a panel that was pretty much all about sex. I laughed (and yes, I rolled my eyes) about it, but I also sighed at the ready assumption that I was a women, so I wrote sex scenes.

    If publishing really was a physical club, with actual barred doors, well, boys have been trying to keep girls out of their clubhouses as long as I can recollect. (grin) But it’s not. We’re not actually in their “club.” We’re in a business. And the boys still trying to keep us out are pretty pathetic, IMHO.

    • There’s a boy’s club everywhere in the public eye, I think. As with everything else, the only way we can change the perception is to produce good work. By that I mean if you want to write science fiction, make sure your science makes sense. I’ll roll my eyes at ANY SF that’s hiding behind fantasy – even if I enjoy the story. Star Wars is the most obvious example. It can be done. Elizabeth Moon’s ‘Serrano’ series has several romance elements, without explicit sex. That’s just one example. Moon is a best seller.

  7. One factor that has really challenged authors is the incredibly low number of publishers who accept SFR–specifically digital ones and/or those that accept unagented submissions. That factor has greatly reduced the opportunities for authors to submit stories that vary widely in heat levels. It’s been changing, but slowly.

    So while there shouldn’t be pressure for authors to add sex scenes, some view it as a way to get their feet in the door. Otherwise they might never be published (of course, there’s self-publishing…!).

    Unfortunately, even if 100 authors were ready to submit SFRs with a non-erotic heat level, the available slots have been limited. Not only that, but they’re pretty much shut out of the SF market as well, in large part because the SF digital-first market isn’t all there yet. Go figure!

    Then there’s the challenge of marketing the books. Unless one has a boatload of cash or other resources, digital-first authors are pretty much on their own. Sex *can* be easier to market, but that’s not the determining factor. Just look at Hugh Howey.

    Find a way to successfully market non-erotic romance and it can gain an audience. Much easier said than done, naturally.

    That said, there’s a cultural factor to consider as well. Millions of women are enjoying unprecedented access to erotic romance/steamy romance. Technology has made it much more accessible and the ones who enjoy it are snapping it up right and left. It’s kind of like a free, never-ending buffet opened, courtesy of the Internet and ebooks. IMHO many readers are making up for lost time (meaning the time when the bedroom door was unilaterally closed), hence the boon in erotica and erotic romance.

    The publishing industry is in a time of transition, and that plays a lot into the issues everyone here has raised. My hope is that once the publishing market evolves further, it won’t be an either-or choice. More authors will have equal shots with whatever stories they like to write.

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