A recent post over on The Galaxy Express ("Does Science Fiction Romance Need a Gene Roddenberry?") got me to thinking. Science fiction romance (SFR), as a sub-genre, has been around for awhile. Science fiction on TV has been a popular genre for many years (Star Trek: TNG, how I miss you). I know a ton of women read sci-fi/fantasy. So why hasn't SFR taken off in popularity like paranormal romance?

Disclaimer: I wouldn't call myself an avid SFR reader. I lean more toward the paranormal side of things. But I've read a few. I've read the backs of even more and put them back on the shelf at the bookstore. Why?

They seem too fluffy.

I'm not saying that the authors didn't put a lot of time and effort into writing the books. That's not what I mean. I think what it comes down to is world-building. Science fiction, to me, is all about the world the writer has created and what's happening in that world. That's what the focus is of the best sci-fi I've read.

DRAGONSDAWN by Anne McCaffrey is the science fiction prequel that tells the origins of the Dragonriders of Pern. It is hands-down my favourite Pern novel. The entire book is about the colonization of the planet and the incredible challenges the colonists encounter. You've got space travel, genetic engineering, exploring an alien planet, dealing with an alien threat—a sci-fi cornucopia. All that and a smidgen of romance.

If you were to turn it around and focus on the romance, it wouldn't be the same book. It couldn't be. Something would have to be sacrificed from the story. By definition, a romance is the story of two people meeting, overcoming obstacles, and falling in love. You can have other plots (hence the various sub-genres of romance) but the main storyline is always the romance. Following this definition, the main conflicts in DRAGONSDAWN would have to take a back seat to the romance plot. The world couldn't be as rich because it wouldn't be the focus of the book.

In a lot of the SFRs I've picked up, the world-building has been diminished to focus on the romance. And that's okay, because (like I said above) the romance is the main focus of the story. But this doesn't work for me all that well. I can't speak for any other readers, but when I read sci-fi, I want an intricately planned world and odd, interesting characters to be the focus. When I read romance, I want characters I can fall in love with so that, when they fall in love, I can experience their happiness. Stitching those two genres together is incredibly difficult. (For an example of how not to do it, look at Defying Gravity. Ugh.) I'm not saying there aren't SFR books out there that do that; I, unfortunately, haven't read them.

Now, let's look at the success of paranormal romance. Most of the most popular authors set their stories in the modern world, with a twist. So, except for the proliferation of vampires, witches, werewolves, etc., the world in the book is the same one we live in. I think this is a important factor in the popularity of paranormal romance versus SFR. The reader doesn't have to learn all about a new planet, new cities, new technology, new cultures, new creatures, and so on. The reader knows the world already; all they need is a crash course in what's different. It makes it much easier to relate to the characters, to put ourselves in the heroine's shoes, because the reader sees a version of the character's world every day.

Can SFR match the popularity of paranormal romance? Eventually. But I think that the breakthrough novels that start the shockwave of success will be novels set in the modern world with a sci-fi twist. That's what worked for paranormals.

Happy writing!