Monday, February 19, 2007

Speculating on Speculative Fiction

Something spurred my brain into thought-mode the other day. In a review of Alien Communion over at Dear Author.com, Jayne made a remark that she couldn't envision a heroine leaving her own planet, never to return, for a strange, alien culture, all on account of great sex.

For whatever reason, it made me think of my first SF/Fantasy Con (Marcon 28). As a wide-eyed college freshman who'd led a very mundane life up to that point (the only RPG group I knew about refused to let girls play, and the local department stores carried only Jackie Collins books and Sweet Valley High serials--I didn't even know about cons until college opened my eyes. Hooray for higher education!), seeing a gathering of people who wore pointy ears, bumpy foreheads, carried lightsabers, wore weird clothes (my own thrift-store weird suddenly looked horridly mundane) made me feel like coming home. I sat in on my first Mars Society panel, listened to a real physicist talk about faster than light technology--seriously, to an audience who listened seriously, ear jewelry and headgear notwithstanding.

But one thing stood out to me. Back then, I lugged around a kit bag with just about everything I could stuff into it for living. I had a change of clothes, extra toiletries, notebooks, emergency snacks, enough contact lens stuff for a month, a towel (because I'd read the Hitchhiker's Guide by then), and a first-aid kit. I did this because I spent half my time functionally homeless--my roommate had a boyfriend, and the room was way too small for three of us, even if two were stuck together half the time. So I spent much of my time as a couch-dweller, sleeping on other people's couches and enjoying semi-private showers when I could.

But there was also a part of me--the outcast part--who'd been nursing a small teenage fantasy of being "found" by my tribe. If you're an outcast, or have ever been an outcast, you know what I'm talking about. The place where you fit in, the secret door leading to somewhere fantastic, or the visit from a stranger who holds out his hand and says, "Come with me, we've been waiting for you all along." And you know in a heartbeat, that you'd go without hesitation, whether you had that kit bag or not. Because that place beat the hell out of anywhere here, hands down, and without trying.

At that first Con, I met people who walked around with kit bags like mine, and who did so expressly because they dared to hope and dream that today would be The Day, when the aliens arrived, when the Door in the Hedge opened up, or the Stranger appeared and held out his hand.

My long, drawn-out point to all this is that, at the Con, no one would bat an eyelash--glittered or otherwise--at a heroine leaving for Parts Unknown with nothing but the skin on her back. But I could see how an entire segment of the population would need to be sold on this idea. And that's what got me to thinkin'. Speculative romance fiction, especially SF romance, arrives at an intersection of audiences and with that, comes the intersection of expectations. For example, it's not-unheard of for me to have to read a William Gibson or a Tim Powers two or three times. Once for the story, and others to go back and understand the terms, language, and concepts introduced. I remember reading Count Zero about four times, just because I couldn't take in all the tech, the African mysticism, and the action all at once.

Now, I'm not about to class myself anywhere near the Greats--I write my little stories because they're fun to write and because the characters won't leave me alone until I do. But I wonder sometimes, at the differences between audiences of Romance and of SF, if their expectations aren't divergent enough to sometimes cross wires completely. A lot of the SF I read has conventions that are understood by the target audience. The SF story presents the story in a framework where the outlandish is somewhat expected. The reader expects to have to stretch his or her imagination into the gray area between what is realistic versus what is believable via the setting and circumstance.

Romance, too, has conventions that are understood by its target audience, but those conventions are vastly different. Romance contains emotional cues that provide a terrain map of sorts to the story, and which form a contract with the reader, so to speak, that says within the genre framework, certain elements will produce certain outcomes falling within a specified and expected range. The reader stretches his or her imagination into the same gray area between realistic and believable, only through the emotional circumstances, rather than the setting.

Without being familiar with the genre conventions, does a reader miss out on enjoyment of the story? Should a writer attempt to introduce the conventions in the story, hand-feeding the reader through expectations? What do you think?

6 comments:

Bernadette Gardner and Jennifer Colgan said...

a small teenage fantasy of being "found" by my tribe.

I know exactly how you felt, Xandra. I didn't have a kit bag, but I remember walking into my first Star Trek convention and feeling for the first time like I wasn't the 'weirdo' anymore. I think that feeling, that desire to find a place where you are the norm is what drove me to write science fiction. I never found it at all strange that someone would want to leave everything behind for parts unknown.

MK Mancos/Kathleen Scott said...

I remember listening to Catherine Asaro speak at the PhilCon back in 2oo1, she said that most people in the science fiction community couldn't believe that her books were romances because of the hard science in them.

-Kat

Jayne said...

Xandra, thanks for explaining your POV on this issue. The heroine's actions in "Alien Communion" make a little bit more sense to me now but I would still have reservations since the author specifically stated that the aliens would tend to view the heroine as "lesser" and that she would not have all the rights and privileges of someone from that society. She would be totally dependant on the hero for her place in that world. To me that makes for an uneven playing field from the get-go. So it wasn't really that these people opened their hearts to her and said, "join us, we want you as a member." It was more like, "if the hero vouches for you, we'll tolerate you."

Skylar Masey said...

You had me going from the first paragraph of this post, because pretty much that sums up a huge chunk of TIES OF VALOR. Though duty is also a factor Zara seems impossible to resist. Sex by itself isn't the greatest thing to get from turning your back on your society. However, if it is a physical connection that strengthens and illuminates your hero and heroine's emotional bond, then it would be worth such a voyage. Who wouldn't want to go to the ends of the Earth (or any other planet in the Galaxy) to find true unrequited and soul-searing passion if that's what you felt in your heart? Then again, maybe I'm biased by having a book that contains this premise.

Xandra Gregory said...

Jayne, thank you for taking the time to thoughtfully review AC, as well as taking the time to post here! FWIW, my poor heroine was also choosing to enter the society at a time of generational upheaval, but that's a story for another day. ;)

Kat - I've heard Catherine Asaro speak as well--she's a great example of those two divergent audiences.and how widely diverse they can be.

Skylar - I love the whole mood of adventure into the unknown. I can still remember Arthur C. Clarke's "Rendezvous With Rama" and how the three explorers stepped aboard the habitat, their desires for unlocking the secrets of the great unknown greater than the ties holding them to the Earth. When you add great sex and emotional compatibility to the mix, it just gets better!

Jayne said...

Xandra, after I posted the comment yesterday, I thought back and remembered the fact that the society into which she was going was in flux. But, please correct me if I'm wrong, hadn't she already made the decision to go before that was obvious? Of course, the way the story ended, I have a feeling that she would have been more welcomed into her new world than would have been normal. I don't want to say more than that round-about sentence for fear of giving a spoiler.

I remember waaaaaay back in high school when our English class read a sci-fi short story. In it a man has a chance to go to a new world. It was all hush-hush and he is instructed to be at a barn outside of town at a certain time one night. He arrives to discover some other people are also waiting. They wait and wait and he begins to feel that he's been taken advantage of and that it's all a joke, so he walks out. And it's at that point that the passageway to the new world opens up and he realizes he's missed his one and only chance to go. All because his fears got the better of him. I've often wondered if I would be able to leave all I know, everyone I know and all I have if I ever had this sort of chance. I'm afraid that I would turn out to be a "stayer" instead of an adventurer. But it's nice to know that there are some who would boldly step out into new worlds. Just remember to send back a postcard letting the rest of us know what's out there, OK? ;)