One of these things is not like the other

After getting a few reviews of Scaling the Rim that graded it as a romance, not a science fiction book, I got curious. So, the past few months I’ve been reading several Romances, subcategory SF to try to figure out the difference between Science Fiction, subcategory romance and Romance, subcategory science fiction. At first glance, you’d think they’d be the same thing, but they’re very, very different – the reader cookies (what makes readers happy) aren’t even on the same page.

In the Romance genre, not only is the emphasis completely and totally on the couple’s relationship (duh, it’s romance), but the worlds have an extremely limited amount of worldbuilding, and a huge amount of handwavium, with far higher tolerance for psychic this or psionic that. (In that way, it reminds me a lot of the old scientifiction, speculative fiction, and pocket books of barely 40-50K words that were one step removed from collected issues of pulps – or were pulp stories fleshed out into books. Jack Vance had no problem with magic in his far-future dying earth!)

It reminded me a lot of Adam Sandler or Jim Carrey movies – in that the movie is always a setup for Adam Sandler to play himself by any other name, and the world just goes along with it. Similarly, the romance reader’s tolerance for more worldbuilding is only in relation to how it affects the couple involved.

Romance genre reader cookies involve not only the standard plot points: meet cute, first kiss, etc, as well as more up-front description of steam level in the blurb, but also things like: heroine gets made over, becomes beautiful. Heroine gets to wear lots of awesome clothes and/or jewelry. At the base, I think some of it boils down to wish fulfillment and escapism from rent, bills, or budget. Or less-than-perfect partners, or the wear and tear of years on the body and the beauty. For a list of tropes that have little in common with scifi, here’s the TV Tropes page. (Is TVTropes. Is Timesuck. You’ve been warned.)

Science fiction and fantasy, on the other hand, really love in-depth worldbuilding, and the feeling that there’s a much broader universe out there to play in. Science fiction series are very forgiving of setting something on a new planet, or a hundred years after the fact, or in the opposing empire… romances that are in a series tend to be “these well-rounded minor characters we saw in the background, they now get their chance for a happily ever after!”

Then I tried several Romance, subcategory fantasy, and vice versa. Some pretty cool stuff in there… and I suspect there’s more overlap between the reader demographics and reader pools, because the fantasy worlds (though not magic systems) were much more fleshed out in the romances than the SF ones. They seemed to draw pretty heavily on fantasy movies (and Disney) instead of fantasy books or original fairy tales, but there’s a wide enough range of common tropes that they escaped the feel of “My research? Oh, I watched a star wars movie once, while babysitting my nerdy little brother.”

Then again, given Outlander, I shouldn’t be surprised by that – you’ve got not only a very highly successful book series, but it’s now drawing in the tv-watching audiences, and some significant percentage of that (often tiny compared to the total television viewership, but that’s huge compared to the standard sales in fantasy) are going to go looking for “more like that”.

The fantasy genre books with a romance plot were fully fleshed out and feathered on both genres, for the most part – although I was surprised at how few I found.

General conclusion:

This is most definitely not a case of “You’ve got chocolate in my peanut butter / you’ve got peanut butter in my chocolate.” Which genre you put your book in affects what your readers expect, and each genre has very different reader cookies to keep their readers happy despite similarities in setting and plot. The trope is the thing wherein you’ll catch the conscience of the king… or the dollars and recommendations of the readers!

So if you truly want to market a book as cross-genre, make sure you are well-read in the other genre, and will keep those readers happy. And, personally, while I’m pleased the readers enjoyed it, after all this research? Nope, not going to market my book as romance, subcategory scifi, because the reader cookies are all in scifi, and I wouldn’t be able to satisfy many of the romance genre readers.

For Science Fiction that has a lot less romance and ships the size of a moon (turns out Pluto doesn’t have a moon. Especially not after the drive is reactivated), Sabrina Chase has just released Soul Code, the third in her awesome trilogy. I have to giggle, because I’m in the acknowledgements along with several other members of the North Texas Writers, Shooters, & Pilots Association. You see, she asked a couple pilots, an Old NFO, and LawDog how to evac a colony in a hurry… you’ll have to read it yourself, to see what we came up with!


  1. Oh you hit one of my pet peeves (A Romance peddled as SciFi/Fantasy especially Urban Fantasy) that with the advent of electronic readers I can’t vent properly by throwing said fraud against the wall.

    I once got into a verbal argument with someone on this where I finally blurted out that if the main character spends over half the book worrying more about the “mysterious bad boy” and her relationship with said character, than with the coming end of the world as we know it, it is romance.

    1. I’ve been burned quite a bit by the romances being peddled as mysteries. The back plays up “murder/mayhem/run for your life”, and it isn’t until I start reading that I realize the romance tropes are being hit pretty much note for note. I might finish the book, depending on other factors, but I’ll never trust the author again.

      (Yeah, I know that’s not totally fair, if trad published the author likely didn’t get any say in the misleading blurb, but none the less, it’s true).

        1. I’m sure that Is the reason. Someone is trying to distinguish a book by taking it out of a bigger pile and putting it in the smaller one.

          When I sent kids to larger Science Fairs I tried very hard to avoid calling their projects “Physics” because that category was always three times as big as anything else and the competition was much stiffer

          1. Well, I have also heard that you publish an SF romance as SF because romance readers read outside their genre and SF ones don’t.

            1. The problem is that a Romance set in a Sci Fi setting is not even close to Sci Fi with some Romance in it and imo is nothing but fraud to market the former as the latter. Basically it is nothing more than bait and switch and you have taken my money under false pretenses.

            2. @Mary: Not sure if I agree, because truth is I don’t know that the statement is true. I would even go so far as to state it the other way round: SF readers will read outside their genre, but romance readers won’t read SF.

              Does that sound reasonable? I’m not sure it does. I suspect this is one of those soundbites that’s meant to convey great wisdom.

              What I do know is that as an SF reader, I want to read SF, not some romance that has trappings of SF to try and sell it to me.

              Oh and just in case you think I’m closed minded about this, I avidly watch Outlander, which is romance.

              1. This information was based on analysis of reading patterns using a bookstore’s loyalty cards.

                1. And trying not to start an argument, the analysis suffers from selection bias; as in the data comes from a self-selected group, rather than being representative of the general population of each genre’s readership.

                  I would need a better standard of proof provided than that for the truth; assuming that there is any, because data mining to find correlation doesn’t prove causation. I would refer you to Nassim Nicholas Taleb to unravel the science of statistics.

    1. The audience was willing to let him get away with it because they loved John Wayne. He could still play an actual character when he wanted to, though.

    2. See also: Jack Nicholson, Samuel Jackson, Meryl Streep, Harrison Ford, Matt Damon, ad naseum.

      Or going the other way…
      Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Douglas Fairbanks, Errol Flynn, James Cagney, etc.

      “I wonder what role Peter Lorre will play in this movie?” said no one. Ever.

    3. Katherine Hepburn was pretty much that way, too. Mostly it worked for them, except for roles like Genghis Khan…

      1. I think I didn’t communicate my point clearly enough. The difference between some of these actors and the two I picked is the difference between “Here is a story. I need a loveable rogue in this story, so I’ll cast Harrison Ford”, and “This is an Adam Sandler movie. No matter how stupid or outrageous Adam Sandler is, the rest of the characters, plot, and world will carry the idiot ball or reshape themselves, including when it provides giant plotholes or completely non-normal decisions and total lack of consequences, in order for Adam Sandler to be the hero, make the punchline, and carry the day.”

        Romance set in science fiction pays about as much attention to the conventions of science fiction, and the things that makes its readers happy as… Happy Gilmore does to people who seriously like and follow golf.

    4. There were a lot of B-western stars from that era that did not even bother with another name: Roy Rogers and Gene Autry are the best remember today, but the list was long.

  2. This is my main problem with the traditional genre system of labeling stories–it can refer to several things. Some genres describe the setting–like Western or Regency. Others refer to what sort of story it is. Mystery or Romance, for example.

    But then you have Science Fiction and Fantasy, which are ambiguous. Sometimes a Science Fiction story is a Mystery or Romance that happens to be set in the future or in space. Sometimes it’s a story in which the Science Fiction aspect–the impact of a new technology, for example, is the main theme of the story.

    And it’s the same with Fantasy. It doesn’t really tell you what kind of story it is because it’s a term that can refer to so many different aspects of fiction.

  3. Actually, I think Scaling was well within the lines of, say, a 1970’s adventure romance that was not actually a Gothic or a saga of heroine suffering. Like an early Mary Stewart or an Elizabeth Michaels art mystery. Or Anne McCaffrey in a good mood. Or a spy story with romance. Or one of those romances that was just marketed as exciting fiction.

    I mean, you have travel in exciting places, you meet interesting people and learn interesting customs, and love occurs as well as fighting evil. All good stuff.

    1. You and several other readers think that – and to be fair, what I was reading was all recently-published stuff, all indie, so I clearly am missing a great deal of depth in the field. The reviews that were grading it by romance didn’t all seem to quite be corresponding to the current standards, and this would explain why. Guess I’ll have more reading to do… I wonder if said subgenre will make a comeback, with indie?

      I was amused that I got dinged for a “low steam factor.” That was just… um… okay, this is me blushing over here, throwing up my hands, and going to make myself a nice calming cuppa.

      …I should know better than to read my all reviews and try to understand them, eh? I certainly can’t make everybody happy. But I try to figure out what other people like about it, so I can do it again, better.

      1. Not all romance is about the sex scenes, and logically one has no complaint if one is a romance fan.

        I imagine you were encountering the people who think sweet romance is an exception and a trigger warning, or that blizzards automatically equal hawt snowbound survival sex. These are people who do not go outside much.

    2. I must disagree. Perhaps it appears that way because the world-building is so subtle (and excellently done, btw). Is there such a thing as “character driven world building”? I definitely thought it was SciFi with a romance subplot.

      As a contrast, see Mercenary Instinct. (not a link) I liked the series, but it is definitely Romance with a sci-fi subplot.

      Both sets of covers signal well, imho.

  4. Can we just have a new genre called “exciting fiction” because that’s really what I’m trying to write, both with my shepherdess and my science teacher.

    1. Nope.

      “The Cool Stuff Theory of Literature is as follows: All literature consists of whatever the writer thinks is cool. The reader will like the book to the degree that he agrees with the writer about what’s cool. And that works all the way from the external trappings to the level of metaphor, subtext, and the way one uses words. In other words, I happen not to think that full-plate armor and great big honking greatswords are cool. I don’t like ’em. I like cloaks and rapiers. So I write stories with a lot of cloaks and rapiers in ’em, ’cause that’s cool. Guys who like military hardware, who think advanced military hardware is cool, are not gonna jump all over my books, because they have other ideas about what’s cool.

      “The novel should be understood as a structure built to accommodate the greatest possible amount of cool stuff.”

      ― Steven Brust

      We use genre to sort out the third sentence.

  5. Also in response to the original point, I believe Ms. Grant was making, I am fascinated by the idea that world building is part of the distinction between romance and other genres. It’s a very helpful idea even for non SF writing…

  6. Funny that you should quote Brust because he is one author that has written two series of books in the same universe where one is a Fantasy/Adventure series (Vlad Taltos) and the other is a Romance series (The Khaavren Romances) and he successfully imo blends the latter with the fantasy setting.

        1. Yes, before mid-20th Century the word “Romance” on a book cover meant something very different from what it does today.

  7. i’ve seen entire elaborate ‘discussions’ on review sites of things being misgenred… that aren’t.

  8. TV Tropes is less a “time suck” these days than it is “That weird place where adults claim that cartoons aimed at 4 year old children are full of “nightmare fuel” and eroticism.” The place that used to be a goofy spot to remember obscure old shows and waste time thinking about their cheesy plot twists is now a semi-disturbing catalog curated by people who give the impression they -really- need a break from all that escapism.

    1. Depends on which parts you end up on. Most of it is still okay, but sometimes you have to wonder what the people there are smoking.

  9. The problem with genres is that one you have constructed one complete orderly list of classification, then you have writers and readers like me that like more than one genre and mixed them up so your classification becomes just a general guide and someone is going to disagree with you on how you classify a mixed-genre book, so as Dorothy says, she has her idea on how the book should be classified, but the reviews will help to guide other readers on how they can classify the book or if they are going to be interested. As an avid reader, when I’m in doubt I prefer looking for reviews in Goodreads, because you can see how other people are shelving the books, so you get a more complete idea on their tastes and if we have common ground.
    I love the Liaden series which are generally classified as SF/Space Opera, but there’s so much mix in there that it’s interesting reading reviews because some books are more into SF, while others are mostly romance.

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