Love in Outer Space: Science fiction romance — the ideal place to explore gender and love

Donna Hanson, University of Canberra
Session 12.1: Love in Other Worlds


Science fiction romance disregards localities in time and space and extends ‘romancelandia’ beyond present human frontiers and cultural norms. Heroines can be spaceship captains, scientists, and explorers and more than a man’s equal. They can have relationships with fellow officers, space barbarians, aliens or more. Gender norms can be bent, reversed, enhanced or removed all together.

Science fictional settings expand the breadth of romance in ways similar to paranormal romance by taking the reader outside the mimetic now or reconstructed historical boundaries. Sometimes science fiction settings allow narratives that appear regressive by depicting social situations outside present cultural norms. Kristina Deffenbacher (2014) argued that paranormal romance and urban fantasy narratives allowed women readers and writers ‘to engage issues of sexual violence and female agency in a space that is at once like and safely beyond their world” and also to use the fantasy of “a woman warrior who not only fights against rape and refuses rapability as an aspect of her being but also finds passionate love” (Deffenbacher, 2014:924). This argument also applies to science fiction romance.

A comparison of a recent example of science fiction romance, On a Barbarian World by Anna Hackett (2017) with Johanna Lindsey’s Warrior’s Woman (1990), reveals stories that feature a futuristic, human woman dealing with alien but humanoid warriors and warrior cultures as well as similar structure, plot and setting. This paper argues that while there are similarities with regard to the representation of female agency and the academic and physical prowess of the female protagonist in these stories, there are differences in the approach to the depiction of sexual consent.


Science fiction romance definition:

  • Has been labeled ‘futuristic’ romance
  • Allocated to a sub category of paranormal romance
  • Donna’s definition: essential elements of a romance as well as science fiction elements, such as the setting, science fiction or real science concepts, and / or discusses the future ramifications of current social or economic issues as part of the narrative
  • Romance with the SF ‘what it’ element
  • 602 respondents to survey
  • Favourite genre after romance was sci fi / fantasy

Sf authors include:

  • Lois McMaster Bujold
  • Catherine Astro
  • Wen Spencer

Romance authors

  • Anna Hackett
  • Caroline Spangler
  • Linnea Sinclair

Warrior’s Woman – Johanna Lindsey (1990)

  • 112,000 words
  • complex story
  • takes 7 chapters before meeting the hero
  • unusually long for the time

On Barbarian World – Anna Hackett (2015)

  • 60,000 words
  • Less complex story
  • We meet the hero in chapter two

The hero

  • Big / tall
  • Really big with muscles
  • Alien (humanoid) and very patriarchal
  • Honourable, courageous, arrogant, capable, in a position of authority
  • Gentle, soft, sexy, in love with the heroine
  • Warrior barbarian trope

The heroine

  • Intelligent, physically fit, attracted to the hero
  • Able to access and use advanced technology
  • Assertive and able to take on the hero on own terms
  • At home with their sexuality


Similar plots between the two books:

  • Hyper-masculine hero
  • Hero dress

Consent is raised as an issue, this has changed over time:

  • What is consent?
  • JL:  No means yes (at times) / No means no
  • AH:  Yes means yes
  • JL assumes the heroine is strong enough to demand consent


Do the books have strong themes?

  • Hackett used more elements of technology and science
  • Lindsey looks more at the social setting, and had stronger feminist themes, negotiating the patriarchal society of the hero

Do the heroes stand out in their own societies?

  • Yes, as they are the strongest, bravest, most skilled etc.
  • But meeting with heroine is opportunistic / chance rather than due to the hero’s positionin society
  • ie he didn’t *win* the heroine because he was the alpha male


3 thoughts on “Love in Outer Space: Science fiction romance — the ideal place to explore gender and love

  1. I read a lot of SFR and at times find myself screaming at the almost extreme heteronormativity of the sub-genre. I also think colonialism is an issue that is always present in SFR. E.g. I read a Hackett story that concluded with the native people’s religious beliefs being de-bunked as misunderstood advanced tech and the temple ‘treasure’ being removed from the native’s care into a big, off planet museum. Or the Susan Grant series that has English as the chief language of a Chinese Empire whose Imperial family are westerners

    A couple of author names in the post are mis spelt; Wen Spencer and Linnea Sinclair

    I still go back and read SFR though and there are new authors writing more reflexively and inclusively.

  2. Thanks for the pickup on the names. Wen Spencer may have been my error, but I’m definitely blaming ‘Linda’ on auto correct.

    i don’t read a lot of SFR myself, what I do is mostly space opera. But I have noted the lack of diversity. I’m trying to be more inclusive in my own writing (Fantasy / romantic elements)

  3. I think there is stuff to think about re why SFR, like SF/Space Opera is so often a neo-feudal fantasy. Have you read K.B, Wager’s Indrannen War series? Still not sure what I think of the world building by borrowing Indian/Hindu culture but protags still read western.

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