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?