Wednesday, 25 April 2012

In Science Fiction, love is a dish best left to simmer...

There is a famous Klingon quote in Star Trek that “revenge is a dish best served cold.” Equally, I’d hold that love – in science fiction at any rate – is a dish best left to simmer, and is rarely savoured. Why? Here are seven reasons to chew on:

  1. Love in Scifi is not what the reader is looking for
  2. Fulfilled love kills tension
  3. When the girl gets the guy it’s the end of the story, and Scifi writers love trilogies/series
  4. Romanticism is a fairly recent phenomenon in literature; Scifi looks aeons into the future (or the past)
  5. Scifi writers are poor at writing ‘love’ – maybe also why they often stay ‘poor’ as well (romantic fiction makes much more money)
  6. Aliens and robotic forms may not be capable of love: As Spock would say, “That is illogical, Captain!”
  7. Sadly, there’s no scientific basis for love…

It’s hard to think of a science fiction book or film where love is the central premise; it usually plays second fiddle at best. Readers of SciFi are looking for spaceships, aliens, new worlds, and cunning plots. Think of Star Wars, probably the best-known Scifi film – Luke initially is drawn to Princess Leia, but it doesn’t work out, and in fact she turns out to be his sister. In any case she is more interested (who wouldn’t be?) in Han Solo. But such threads are secondary to the vast sweep of The Empire, Darth Vader, the Force, Obi Wan Kenobe, light sabre fights and the Death Star.

Similarly, all of the Star Trek series played down love. Jim Kirk ‘got around’ quite a bit, but the girl would be gone by the next episode. In the Next Generation, Picard never had anyone steady (almost never had anyone, period!), whereas Riker and Troy had an on-off (mainly off) relationship that didn’t tie the knot until after the entire seven seasons were finished, and we were into one of the later films. In Star Trek Voyager, Janeway and Chakotay had a long term unrequited interest, Chakotay finally falling for Seven-of-Nine (again, who wouldn’t?) at the end. Star Trek Deep Space Nine’s Benjamin Sisko fell in love after several seasons, and overlooked his lover’s illegal trade, only to lose her at the end.

The long-drawn-out slow-cook love trope is also found in many other series, e.g. Stargate, between Jack O’Neill and Sam Carter. Whenever they get close to kissing, dastardly aliens interrupt, reminding us it’s science fiction and what we’re here to watch.

In books it’s similar. Scifi classics such as Asimov’s Foundation, Herbert’s Dune, or Clarke’s Rama series, don’t have love as a central premise – it’s not what we remember about these works, although Dan Simmons’ Hyperion has one of its pilgrims’ stories recounting a love story that is one of the most powerful I’ve ever read. Alistair Reynolds’ Revelation Space is also a rare, exceptional mixture of galaxy-spanning space opera and ‘love at any cost’. But generally, from Larry Niven’s Ringworld to Iain Banks’ Culture novels, love is in the background. If readers want to read romance novels, these are available by the bucket-full in mainstream or romance fiction. Occasional cross-overs (the Time-Travellers’ Wife) may look like science fiction, but for most Scifi fans they belong more in the romance genre.

Requited love kills tension. It works best – if at all – at the end of a book or film. This is true in any fiction. Think of Gone with the Wind, possibly the greatest romance film of all time. When Rhett Butler and Scarlet O’Hara finally get it together (just for one night), the film ends a few minutes later, which was a really good call, because if it hadn’t, we’d have got up to do something else. In fiction it is the chase that is interesting.

Maybe we’re trained as children, since most fairy tales end with the words “and they lived happily ever after.” As we grow up and watch our parents, we know that at the very least that statement is a gross simplification. But it is as if we’re trained to switch off at that point. Taking a very successful non-Scifi TV series as an example, House, the two central characters (Greg House and Lisa Cuddy) obviously love each other, and at several points in the later seasons they not only ‘do it’, but become an item. The series writers immediately realise their mistake, and at first it turns out to have been Greg’s drug-induced hallucination, and then it becomes ‘reality’ but ‘real life’ isn’t happily ever after and they break up, and then… well, to cut a long series short, each time Greg and Lisa get together the writers go to increasingly desperate measures to break them up in order to regain the tension which keeps viewers watching.

Back in science fiction land, the series Farscape had such strong love tension that the writers allowed the hero (John Crichton) to be cloned so that one of him could fall in love and be loved, only to have that version of him killed off, and for his lover Aeryn Sun to reject the surviving ‘copy’. This was a brilliant plot development, where there was some requited love which actually ended up increasing the tension.

If you study literature, the whole romanticism thing is relatively recent (nineteenth century onwards). I’m sure we loved before then, but, well, life expectancy was a lot lower, and there were wars, plagues, marriages of convenience and poverty-a-plenty, so it wasn’t top of most people’s agendas. Stephen Baxter’s novel Coalescence paints a bleak picture of life in the middle ages and its hardships, showing why the protagonist has ‘no time for love’. The point is, however, that this current fascination with love (pronounced ‘lurve’) may be a passing phase in humanity’s projected history, most brilliantly portrayed in the Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, where people are not allowed to love in our current understanding of the concept, and sleeping with the same person more than once is frowned upon.

Of course, Scifi writers might just be geeks who don’t get much ‘luvvin’, and well, as the saying goes, you ‘write what you know’, the implication being that the converse also holds. Well, I’d have to disagree (I would, right?), and there are some notable ‘proofs’, such as Orson Scott Card who writes great Scifi (Ender’s Game, etc.), and also writes romance [thanks Orson, for shielding our collective reputation!]. Iain Banks is another eminent Scifi author who writes in other genres. I also remember, when producing my fist Scifi book, having professional editors asking me to tone down the ‘love’ angle, as it didn’t fit the genre, and downright remove some of the more exotic sex scenes: simply not done, old chap!

Of course when it comes to aliens, they might not love at all. Geneticists would tell us that love is all about procreation, and in fact is a myth we’ve woven onto a biological need to further the species. This possible truth is easier seen when mapped onto fictional alien species, especially when the method of procreation can be rendered less human (e.g. insectoid species laying eggs). But good Scifi writers don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, and for example I always found a strong part of the film Alien to be that the alien in question was fiercely protective of her offspring, which makes sense for any species, and we don’t have to call it ‘love’.

What does annoy me, however, is ‘love colonialism’ [Star Trek is guilty of this over and over] wherein humans convince non-loving aliens that they are really missing out, and that love is some universal truth. It might be, but let’s not get carried away with ourselves; bacteria do pretty well in terms of survival without it.

Aliens in my books don’t normally exhibit strong love tendencies, though they ‘care’ in particular for their own, although in my third book I do have a very advanced species (called the Kalarash) who seem to have some depressingly familiar love issues: e.g. a couple of them have not been talking to each other for half a million years after a tiff. Beneath this seemingly flippant situation is a deeper hypothesis – that love might be a product of civilisation. Very advanced cultures might eschew love and go beyond it (as in Stargate’s idea of ‘ascension’), or else it might be the ultimate goal. 

I have to confess that in my second book (Eden’s Trial), I have a couple of drones (artificial intelligences) fall ‘in love’ (they experience ‘perfect electronic resonance’), though it is brief, and in keeping with Scifi tradition, it doesn’t end well… More seriously I’m exploring the effects of genetically-engineered advancement on the ability to love, in all three books of the Eden trilogy, most strongly portrayed in Eden’s Trial between the characters Kat and Pierre.

Which brings me to the seventh premise, that (regrettably?) there is no scientific basis for love. Love may simply be an inferred (learned) experience that we map onto natural hormonal responses: we feel something (endorphins), and we learn to call it love. Certainly as any of us who experienced teenage love and then fell out of it, it feels like drug withdrawal, doesn’t it? Endorphins are a natural drug we can secrete in our heads (when I was a kid I misheard this word, and thought we had dolphins in our heads, which is not such a bad image).

At a more basic level, a very young baby smiles, and we respond (this is an instinctive response) and learn to love the baby, though we know if we think about it logically that the baby in question has no concept at that age of who or even what we are, or of caring or loving, or pretty much anything beyond being hungry or comfortable or in pain or needing to do certain bodily functions. Is this analysis a bit brutal? Sorry. Follow this logic, though, and you end up with ‘love is just something we make up’; it’s not real. It’s the blue pill (I’m referring of course to the film Matrix, not Viagra).

Alternatively, science and science fiction have to accept the possibility that love is real (phenomenologically speaking, this is ‘true’), but science is too dumb (yet) to be able to measure it. I hinted at this, and the importance of love for an alien species, in my short story The Sylvian Gambit, which is essentially a Scifi love story (a little violent, I’m afraid), wherein the protagonist says near the end: “Love: wrap an equation around that.”

So, where does this all end up? Well, love may be second fiddle in science fiction, but since science fiction is essentially the exploration of human nature in possible futures (or pasts), to have no love interest whatsoever weakens it both as fiction and as an honest exploration of our nature and possible evolutionary pathways. Love can enable us to do terrible things, but also great things, including advancing ourselves individually and collectively. That's something worth writing about!

So, in both the fictional and science fiction sense, love creates possibilities. 

Rock on, humanity!

The Eden Paradox available ebook& paperback from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Amichellis, and Waterstones.

Eden's Trial available in ebook from Amazon, paperback Fall 2012

Eden's Revenge due out Xmas 2012

Free short stories (Scifi & Fiction) online here.


  1. Great post. I entirely agree with you, particularly your conclusion. Stories begin and end with the human endeavor. Otherwise, we've got nothing but George Lucas movies (entertaining, yes, but he's gotta be the worst writer when it comes to the human element). :)

    1. Thanks David, I agree entirely, though I'm always happy to go watch another George Lucas movie!


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