Romancing the Future

When I first saw Star Wars, I fell in love with R2D2 and Han Solo's furry sidekick, Chewbacca. Where to find fascinating off-planet creatures in textual form? In the romance genre sometimes called Futuristic Romance. Not to be confused with sci-fi romance, this genre does the Stars without the Wars. If Sci-fi is generally concerned with advanced, high-tech civilizations, Futuristic Romance is where the cowboys went when the west was won.

World building here involves creating a civilization in which humans interact with other species in a society that frequently mirrors earlier forms of American culture, back when men protected "their women" from danger. Heroes are studly men with the muscle and know-how to fight off aliens -- and the heroine often finds herself in need of help.

Jayne Castle (a pseudonym for the author Jayne Ann Krentz) has built a series of novels around Harmony, a planet settled by humans but then cut off from Earth. In the intervening 200 years, the colonists developed psychic abilities. And (to return to Chewbacca, not to mention the Ewoks), the planet comes with dust bunnies, small furry creatures who like glittering accessories and have mysterious but powerful psychic abilities.

Castle opens her newest Harmony novel, Dark Light, with a dust bunny, which says something about the popularity of these creatures. The heroine, Sierra, has a bunny who resembles a large ball of dryer lint, but Elvis does the best with what he's got, accessorizing with a rhinestone laden cape, sunglasses and a guitar. I'm an admitted Harmony junkie. I want my own dust bunny, preferably one like Araminta in Castle's Silver Master, who not only identifies a priceless artifact lying around in a junk store but is happy to deck herself out with gleaming paper clips.

But there's another reason for my pleasure in these novels: because the world is set in a re-primitized future, Castle is free to create non-PC, unabashedly alpha men. The hero, Fontana, is a guild boss: "The heads of the were traditionally men of power, both physical and psychical, men who had clawed their way to the top." Fontana rose to the top of the guild due to his singularly powerful abilities, after a one-on-one duel to prove his strength. As Sierra says, with a roll of the eyes, "talk about primitive, testosterone-driven behavior." Sierra is a journalist from an Enquirer clone, writing a series of investigative articles about Fontana's guild. After one look at her, Fontana surprises himself by maneuvering her into "convenient" marriage in order to protect her. Sure enough, Sierra's investigating does get her in trouble, and Fontana rescues her from a sticky situation involving a raving madman and an alien catacomb, a classic situation for a Castle heroine.

Convenient marriage plots are hard to pull off in contemporary romance, but they work brilliantly in the future, right along with the über-alpha hero. An arranged marriage forces the hero and heroine into proximity before the heroine can assess the hero's marriageability. The tripwire here is that while the hero may be John Wayne, the heroines tend to be feisty, modern women who don't consider themselves in need of saving. The convenient marriage removes her responsibility to make a sensible choice: nice guy over bold warrior.

In Heart Fate, Robin Owens creates a very different kind of story using similar elements: non-human sidekicks, a muscled hero, and a convenient marriage, albeit of a specialized type. Her planet is Celta, where colonists have developed psychic powers and sentient creatures abound. The hero and heroine both chatter with their pets (the heroine, Lahsin, has a scruffy dog, and the hero, Tinne, has a cheetah). But the more interesting sentient creatures are Residences, houses with personalities. This has the effect of giving the whole planet the exotic flare of a Chewbacca.

Lahsin escapes from an abusive marriage by fleeing into a secret garden, which opens its gates only to those in desperate circumstances. Inside the garden she finds a very grumpy Residence, whom she gradually wins over. Tinne's Residence is a chatty adolescent who spends its time trying out different voices, such as a girl with a lisp or a Laurence Olivier–like actor.

As in Castle's novel, the primitive nature of the planet leads the author to emphasize the protective side of the hero. Tinne is a powerful aristocrat who teaches hand-to-hand combat skills. He finds himself in the secret garden with Lahsin, whom he knows to be his "HeartMate" or fated partner. Due to this fated bond, the hero and heroine are tied together without conscious volition, although Lahsin later decides to accept the bond. This novel focuses on psychic danger rather than physical; as well as teaching Lahsin defensive skills, Tinne protects Lahsin from the danger of her own developing powers.

One final example comes from a book that doesn't qualify as Futuristic Romance, though it does have a love story. Terry Pratchett writes hysterically funny satirical novels set on Discworld, a planet going through space on the back of a giant turtle. My favorite, Men at Arms, follows a police force that is being forcibly integrated to include trolls, vampires, and werewolves. Sure enough, the werewolf heroine, Angua, acquires a shaggy talking dog, Gaspode, as a sidekick. Gaspode is no dust bunny -- more like a male Mae West, given to raunchy advice.

The romance involves Carrot Ironfoundersson, a corporal who's actually a king, although he repudiates the throne. When Carrot and Angua fall in love, they face a myriad of problems, the greatest of which is that he doesn't know she's a werewolf. Even in a novel where the romance is only a sliver of the plot, the off-world context pairs a powerful male (Carrot's effortless leadership hints at his ability to become a despot, should he wish) and a feisty, intelligent female.

Now that I think about it, Star Wars did the same thing. Putting aside R2D2, the delicious tension between Princess Leia and Han Solo drove women's interest in that series. Hans Solo was a good deal more sexist and scruffier than the heroes of most Futuristic Romances, but he was indubitably an alpha warrior who may have protested but ended up fighting the bad guys, not to mention rescuing his princess from the Deathstar.

If you'd like to discuss alpha warriors, dust bunnies, or anything else otherworldly, please stop in to chat with Eloisa in the Romantic Reads Book Club, where she'll be joined by Jayne Castle and Robin Owens. You can check out Eloisa's past columns in the Archives.

About the Columnist
Eloisa James is a New York Times–bestselling author of historical romances, as well as a memoirist (Paris in Love) and professor of English literature teaching Shakespeare at Fordham University. Her latest novel is Three Weeks with Lady X.

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