I've been thinking about this article for some time, never quite committing to writing it, but as Pippa has been generous enough to give me blog space I decided to bite the bullet.
There have been rumblings of late in the romance genre of late and I've been disturbed by what I've read. The novels in question haven't been sci fi romance, but occasionally I have seen the problem surface here. What problem? That of character power balance.
Now I love a redemptive hero. Seriously, the bad-guy-turned-good is my favourite trope ever. He doesn't need to start out badder than bad, or end up a goody two shoes, but seeing him go from self-reliant loner to a guy who's willing to share his life and heart with another makes mine grow three sizes. The problem starts when his power is greater than that of the love interest.
There are pairings that can never, ever work. A WWII story about a Nazi officer having a relationship with a Jew is so wrong that I honestly don't know where to start dissecting it. But at the heart of it there is a huge power imbalance that can't be readdressed. The woman, a Jew in a concentration camp, cannot make a choice that is wholly her own. The officer literally has her life in his hands, and she must watch every word, every look, every reaction – or face the consequences.
It's the same problem faced by the millionaire and the virgin. The kidnapper and the victim. The owner and the slave. Where all the power is with one character over the other, you cannot have a true romance.
Of course sci fi romance has plenty of alien abductions that turn into a love story. It's a trope as old as the genre. I've written a play on it myself. However, that story, along with most of the SFRs I've read touching on the trope have made sure that the heroine (because it usually is the female character) either keeps or regains her own power. She has agency in her own story, with her choices and actions not being dictated by the hero.
A character can believe there is a power imbalance. Taking the most famous sci fi romance of Han Solo and Princess Leia, Han believes Leia is a spoilt brat, while Leia thinks Han is a selfish good-for-nothing. They both think they're better than the other, but yet also aren't convinced they're good enough either. Those misconceptions don't exist outside of their heads, and this is what makes the audience buy into the relationship.
When the power imbalance exists in actually is when the problems begin. And it can be a tricky line to walk – some view Beauty and the Beast as a love story, others as a case of Stockholm Syndrome. Both points are valid. It comes down to the audience's interpretation.
Sci fi romance is a fabulous genre for independent heroines who can be both tough and gentle, who can kick ass one minute and care for someone the next, and who remain the mistresses of their fate even when that throws them a curve ball. It's up to us authors to ensure they retain this agency and that the balance of character power remains equal.
Misa Buckley grew up watching Doctor Who and Star Trek, so when she undertook NaNoWriMo in 2007, it seemed obvious to her to write science fiction. However, a teenage obsession with her sister’s Harlequin books meant she liked adding a little spice to her stories. This blend of genres continues to this day.