Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Love And Danger

     Once in a great while, I’ll write a short romance. On even rarer occasions, I’ll write a romance novel. And when it seems fitting, I’ll incorporate a romantic subplot into a fantasy or science fiction novel. So far, my readers don’t seem to mind. Indeed, many of them have commented approvingly.

     Mind you, I don’t do “bodice rippers.” These are also known as “sweet savages,” in the tradition of the Rosemary Rogers novel that inaugurated that particular subgenre. I prefer greater realism...well, when not writing about anarchist colony worlds, alternate Creation myths, or bizarre developments in biotechnology. I consider love too important to be other than realistic about it, no matter how many young women and middle-aged spinsters dream of being carried off by dashing buccaneers or ravished by devastatingly handsome vampires.

     But there’s this about love, or at least about romance: Danger tends to render us more susceptible to its lure. So there’s a natural place for romantic themes in stories that feature some sort of adventure.

     I see no reason to explore the psychology of the thing. What I have in mind on this 74th anniversary of the Normandy invasion is the gradual infusion of romance into the “dangerous” genres over the past few decades. It’s stirred up a lot of dust, especially among “traditional” aficionados of those genres. Many of them have reacted negatively, as if “their” readers’ habitat were being invaded by something that doesn’t belong there.

     I don’t get it, myself. The yearning for love is one of the most powerful of the human drives. According to Maslow, it comes in just after the quest for security – and I’ve sometimes wondered whether the two drives are really distinct. Why shouldn’t it have a place in stories from the “dangerous” genres?

     The subject has become especially heated in discussions of fantasy and science fiction.

     What constitutes “real” fantasy or “real” science fiction is a debate to which there is no final answer. The arts are like that. (I may not know anything about what I like, but I know art.) Consumer preference is all that matters; if it sells, that’s sufficient least, to the creator thereof. Still, you can encounter a squabble about the issue at any F&SF convention. Sometimes they’re organized as panel discussions. Sometimes they’re “organized” as fist fights.

     I’ll allow that when a genre becomes popular, writers that aren’t selling well will be tempted to try to wedge their stuff into it: square pegs jammed into round holes by main force. I recall a rather humorous story from an agent about a writer of Westerns, a genre that’s been on the skids for some time, trying to rewrite his most recent Western as an SF novel. The protagonist even strove to head off the bad guys at the Horsehead Nebula. This is good for a giggle, and perhaps for the occasional parody, but not for much else.

     But merely to incorporate a romantic element into a novel is no sin. Indeed, many a rather dry story has struck me as demanding an admixture of emotion. It often comes down to the questions “Why does the protagonist (or antagonist) do what he does?” and “What is he looking for?” If these questions aren’t answered adequately, the relevant figure is under-characterized. Under-characterization is almost always a failure by the writer to connect the character to the most important human drives, the ones we all share whether or not we manage to satisfy them.

     (A brief digression: Some drives can be transformed from a constructive and approved form to a destructive and highly disapproved form. I don’t have a word for this. The term for the opposite is sublimation. But consider if you will the character of Tiny from On Broken Wings. I submit that Tiny displaced his yearning for love into a need for dominance. I’ve known real people like that. End of digression.)

     Romantic possibilities can be approached from either of two directions. For example, one of the most striking characters in recent thriller fiction, Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, regularly wrestles with his own yearning for love. It manifests in just about every Reacher novel. He encounters an appealing woman in the course of the action. At some point they connect emotionally (and usually physically as well). However, by the end of the tale Reacher’s determination to keep moving prevails over his need for intimacy. It gives him a strange, anti-romantic dynamism that’s part of his appeal. I keep wondering when he’ll meet the girl whose appeal for him is enough to get him to give up the road life. I’ll bet a lot of Reacher addicts do.

     This is on my mind because of the book I’m currently struggling to write. It’s a sequel to Innocents. It also features several of the characters from my futanari stories (“A Place of Our Own,” “One Small Detail,” and “A Daughter of the County”). The story treats with the current foofaurauw over transgenderism, with particular attention to the sociological and psychological aspects. Inevitably, it must address matters of love and sex...and inevitably, I’ll get a few reviews such as this one:

     Unsatisfying mil action, unrealistic romance. Marty Sue hero who ends up forced to do the thing he wants but knows he shouldn't.

     Let’s just say I’m braced for them.

     I know a few high-octane writers – indeed, some very good ones – who shy back from those subjects. They prefer to concentrate on things they know better: technology, combat, political and social strife, or what-have-you. I appreciate the importance of “writing what you know.” I certainly wouldn’t counsel anyone to write about what he doesn’t know. But I’d suggest to those writers, and to many others who share their aversion, that that doesn’t invalidate romantic themes and motifs as elements in stories such as theirs. They might want to try wetting their feet in those waters. It can do quite a lot for one’s powers of characterization.

     After all, what moves a man to risk his life, his fortune, and his sacred honor more often than love?

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