- Veronica Scott. Wreck of the Nebula Dream
- Kris Rusch (writing as Kris DeLake). Assassins in Love
- Lois McMaster Bujold. A Civil Campaign
For better for worse, or: nothing is more romantic than a shipwreck
A long time ago in a galaxy far far away, a protegee of mine loaned me the film ‘Titanic’ to watch (on VHS, which tells you how long ago this was).
My partner and I watched it together; the part we replayed was actually the ship rats splashing down the corridor. My partner commented in the persona of young rats watching at home: “Hey, there’s Uncle Lennie! Yeah! He really did make it big in Hollywood!” Tape number 2, in which things get real, elicited from me the comment, “That’s got to be the worst day at work ever.”
At the end of the film, my partner said, “I believed that love story because they stood up for each other.”
The story of the Titanic contains many stories inside it, ringing changes on the themes of technical hubris, Belle Epoque class divisions (borne out by the mortality data for passengers in 3rd vs 1st class, frequently assigned as a data analysis exercise for regression and analysis of variance), selfishness, selflessness, and every human variety in between.
Including love stories.
Now I will add that my partner and I also trade books back and forth, nonfiction especially, and our particular intellectual passion is how things can go wrong, and how people cope when they do. Technical hubris is a particular theme in science fiction, from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein on down, so the tale of the Titanic fits right in there. Veronica Scott adapts it to space with surprising ease in her SF romance Wreck of the Nebula Dream, in which special forces veteran Nick falls in love with scrappy business traveler Mara on a space cruiser headed for hell. It’s told from Nick’s point of view, and we watch his estimate of his opposite number change from “attractive candidate for shipboard romance” to “foxhole buddy” to “life partner who’s already passed the ‘for better or for worse’ screening with flying colors.”
I find that relationship arc particularly compelling because I’ve been through it in real life. Two or three times my life has burned to the ground, health and career and previous relationships going up in a fireball, and I’ve watched the fallout: who disappears, who hangs on, and who surprisingly comes to the fore as ally, friend, and support. Anyone who’s lived long enough has been through this.
Scott’s SF romance has a few flaws of world-building that are tied to its roots in traditional romance: the military in this world is nominally includes all genders, but we only see men in the immediate picture. The married title “Mrs” and the accompanying loss of birth surname are part of the happy ending. There’s also a tendency to romanticize soldiers and warriors; that’s not by any means restricted to SF romance, but stretches throughout the SF genre so that even works that side-eye militarism (in the course of depicting its actual operation) get classified as “military SF.”
If I were writing a story starting from Scott’s world and constraints, I’d lean very hard on the corporate malfeasance angle, and take a hard look at the social consequences of a society under siege. (Probably not a spoiler: there are aliens, hella scary carnivorous aliens with honorable lineage both from the horror tradition of Lovecraft et al and the tentacled bugaboos of space opera original flavor going all the way back to H.G.Wells. Said aliens add another notch to the tension, as they like to pry open wrecks and eat the yummy canned goods inside, so our heroes are racing not just against the engineering issue of a disintegrating craft but Yo The Beasties are On Their Way).
I’m not a romance reader, except I am
Now in days of yore, I’d say “I’m not a romance reader.” Not that I didn’t want to read stories about developing relationships, but said stories did not appeal to me: they featured asshole male leads, romanticized abuse, and happy endings that frequently involved the heroine giving up everything. (Reminder: I go WAY back, having first sampled the genre back in the 70s bodice ripper days, when rapetastic plotlines were everywhere.) In Scott’s story, the protagonists are equals: he has one skill set, she has another,they pick up a ragtag band of fellow survivors and put their collective head together to solve the problem of getting out alive. Said ragtag band also includes some plucky orphans (OK, I’m a sucker for plucky orphans) and at the end, that which has been smashed apart has been reconstituted out of other ingredients: new lives, new families, etc.
The foxhole romance is my personal stock in trade: people learn things about each other in crisis situations, and grow either closer or further apart. The recent coinage “bromance” captures the appeal of this to heterosexual men of the dude persuasion; everybody loves stories of relationship. When I went to see Interstellar with my nephew, more than one man in the audience was audibly sniffling at the Sad Part.
Kris Rusch’s Assassins in Love, on the other hand, is a Romp. Not gonna lie, the cover and the blurb sold it to me. Space assassins! Rayguns! Sexytimes! This one’s definitely in Erotic Romance territory, and the conflict is “straight arrow certified assassin hunts down the free-style rogue agent who’s been making things hot for him, and she makes things hot for him in a totally unanticipated fashion.” Catnip.
Equally matched, highly skilled partners with very different skills — that’s another kink of mine. There’s too much het romance out there where the dramatic conflict is based on him acting like a jerk and her having to come to terms with it, rather than the two of them solving some significant external problem together, and just having differences of opinion on how that’s done.
Rusch’s tale is sweet, sweet relief, providing sexytimes, likable protagonists, and an interesting political universe. On the world-building front, I will say that the whole concept of certified assassins (the series is called “Assassins Guild”) is disturbing, but frankly no more so than galactic empires. St. Augustine’s quip about the difference between pirates and emperors, loosely translated as “emperors have a budget,” would apply here.
Assassins in Love is the book that gave me the courage to write my Romance with Rayguns and to step up the verbal byplay between the romantic leads. Wreck of the Nebula Dream” reminded me of my own love of foxhole romance/friendship, disaster stories, and the technical issues in accident prevention.
One of the things I enjoyed most about Assassins in Love was Rikki, the female lead, who was all about rebellion against constituted authority, occasional poor impulse control, wild improvisation, and general Bad Attitude. This juicy stuff traditionally belongs to the male leads in space opera. Rikki doesn’t have the same scope as some space-opera leads, being neither an aristocrat nor a super-soldier. But she sure enough tries, with everything at her fingertips. She has fire and determination enough to rock strait-laced, by-the-book Misha back on his heels–and not only in bed. Rusch twists the angsty-backstory trope to interesting effect with both protagonists. The happy ending to which they arm-wrestle, while taking on political conspiracy at the heart of the Assassins’ Guild, is well-earned.
Oh yeah, and the cover rocks. Did I mention how it rocks? Truth in advertising.
This brings us to our third selection, featuring one of my favorite male SF characters, Bujold’s Miles Vorkosigan. Over and over, Miles makes stuff up on the fly and then has to back it up, frequently with copious bloodshed as a side-effect. Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga sprawls over many, many novels; I learned from her that it was okay to start wherever I liked in writing a grand arc. The individual novels all work as stand-alones, a creative choice that Bujold originally made for practical reasons.
Miles gets his initiation to chastened adulthood and romantic happy ending in the three-novel arc that begins with Memory (a grim meditation on ability, disability, and self in the context of a political whodunit), proceeds through Komarr (techno-thriller and romance, or the beginning of one), and A Civil Campaign (which features romance! thrills! basement bio-tech startup! ugly fight scenes! political reform! slapstick! royal wedding! all in the same yummy package). I think that SF/F needs a KITCHEN SINK & TORCH JUGGLING AWARD, with special mention for genre bending and trope-twisting. Bujold would get Emerita status as Grandmaster, and it would give the rest of us kitchen-sink folk something to aspire to.
Bujold writes the kind of big fat SF that I want to write. It’s got everything (future biotech! family dysfunction! welding! romance! space battles! bureaucratic infighting!) Did I mention the welding? The Bacon Torch I’m going to deploy at some point in my Romance with Rayguns is a conscious hommage.
We need diverse romance: how much do we get here?
All three of the main couples in the works reviewed here are opposite-sex. The side-relationships in these stories are by and large heterosexual, and in the requisite late 20s-30s age range for adult romance.
There’s a fair sprinkling of hidden disability (PTSD in the case of Nikki, Misha, Miles, and Nick, and Miles’s love interest Ekaterin), physical disability (Miles).
A Civil Campaign features among its many subplots the transition (both surgically and socially) of a transgender character, who’s a formidable and courageous political player. Bujold, true to form, also gives us an older couple, one of whom has a physical/mental disability, and plays with wry humor on the younger generation’s dismay at learning that their elders still have sex lives.
Last but not least, the far-future cultures in foreground are visibly European-derived, and the main couples of mostly European heritage. (Misha and Miles both have Russian ancestors, and either might also have Central Asian ancestors.)
So how did these three works inspire me?
First, in showing het romances between formidable equals. Queer romance has been a lot better about this, though F/F romance is fairly thin on the ground both in the SF romance world and mainstream romance. As I was contemplating how to notch up the cultural conflict in Inside the Jump, I had the inspiration, “Let’s make the starship captain and the interstellar archaeologist old flames.” That’s where it took off, because of course both of their kinship networks had Opinions about that, based on several centuries of rather fraught history.
Bujold was up front about playing with and against Regency romance in A Civil Campaign (the title is a Georgette Heyer tribute). So when I came to write my het Romance with Rayguns, I realized I had a huge box of toys to play with–or rather, expectations to mess with. I have a younger Plucky Orphan (male) with an overbearing guardian (nongendered) who pesters him to make an appopriate marriage alliance to advance their collective class standing. Then I have the world-weary wise-cracking alleged Space Pirate (female), on the run from Plucky Orphan’s evil uncle (to simplify the relationship).
In the spirit of the Kitchen Sink and Torch Juggling Award for Science Fiction, I also include:
- polyamorous space-dwelling bomb squads
- an intrepid and rebellious 12-year-old gamer-girl who’s the object of a rescue operation (but by no means a damsel in distress–there are no damsels of any gender in this story)
- a wise-and-cynical old captain (female) who’s been patched back together with ingenious prosthetics and the cyborg remains of her lover (male) and one-time starship
- a wise-cracking multi-processing sentient starship who’s a human-and-AI anarchist committee.
Bujold’s world-building assumption, mentioned in one of her commentary essays/speeches [citation] assumes an 80% European/American presence in the star-faring future.
I flipped that ratio. The generation ship that landed on the Mother of Worlds was carrying Everybody Else. Based on some historical background and a whole lot of throwing-stuff-in-the-pot (and the ever-popular World Building by Tripping Over Things) I wove together, incident by incident, allusion by allusion, a syncretic culture mostly inhabited by people in the middle range of brown. Somebody decided back there that green eyes were cool (by way of tribute to Holy Photosynthesis), so they stitched them into the genome as dominant. Several centuries later, there are lots of green-eyed, dark-skinned people walking around. Starship captain Jehen and her siblings have characteristic African hair (and do the expectably imaginative things with it), but they also have pretty discernible North American Indigenous and East Asian heritage. Jehen’s love interest Martisset is light skinned and pale-haired, and would read as European/Central Asian.
And now, your after-dinner mint
If you’re writing romance of any flavor, read Sam Kasse’s post about diverse romance. It’s full of prompts: take an exciting SF/adventure plot, then mix and match genders, orientations, races, religions, and personal styles.
If you read romance, go check it out and then clamor in the streets for these stories. It will encourage the writers. 🙂