The 3 hardest things about writing sci-fi romance

I’ve lost count of how many times I curse my choice of story genre. It tends to happen when I hit particular writing challenges, and end up walking away from my computer in a huff. After a little sulking on the couch, I reflect on the fact that I do love writing sci-fi romance (or romantic sci-fi). I love exploring how people and societies cope in a futuristic setting.

But there are things I definitely find difficult. I consider myself at between the “advanced beginner” and “competent” skill level when it comes to writing, with these three major bugbears that frustrate the hell out of me:

Economies and power structures

In my early days of writing fiction, I read something along the lines of how every exciting space battle is ultimately driven by economy. While love, culture, religion and politics may spark conflict, it takes economic incentive to fuel an all-out war. After all, you need something to make it worth the huge risks, the sacrifices and expense. Learning this secret blew my mind and I’ve never been able to un-see it.

It changed the way I approach my writing. For example, I couldn’t just have characters playing Cops & Bounty Hunters in Chasing Sisyphus. I need to consider the societal structures and economic forces that shaped the circumstances in which the characters find themselves.

Adria isn’t just a bounty hunter, she’s a tiny cog in a dynastic capitalist machine (ie. Basilica City) that’s beholden to an external authority (ie. the Alliance). There are wheels in motion within the city that empower and hinder the police, making it easy for bad cops to abuse their power and hard for good cops to keep the streets safe. That’s what drives Rhys’s frustration and, in many ways, gets him so caught between what he thinks he should do and what the situation calls for him to do.

Beyond my neon-washed room is a Pollock’s shitshow that may never make it into the story, but it’s all necessary for creating a richer world and a more interesting romance.

The technological landscape

Some writers and readers are offended by anachronism. Not me. I find it charming and remarkably relatable as a quirk of futuristic fiction. Looking around my home, my neighbourhood, colleagues and social circles, I see a diverse spread of technology in use. Not everyone can afford the latest hardware, and some devices are capable of surviving many generations of technological advancement.

There’s a lot of scifi out there that only shows a single era of tech as the norm. Or maybe the latest tech + whatever bleeding edge innovation (or ancient artifact) that eventually serves as the inciting incident/MacGuffin of the story. Nothing wrong with this, of course, but I wanted to base my future tech on the diversity of today’s tech.

The world I see today is full of cassette players in petrol-guzzling cars that refuse to die, Android fragmentation across millions of handsets, previous-gen iPhones struggling to keep up with iOS 14.6, tablet cases that mimic typewriters, printed publications that thrive because they’re charming, mechanical keyboards, mechanical watches, and other such affectations.

Technology influences and is influenced by policy and society. Sometimes we keep loving old toys because we are human. This what makes my world.

Culture & society

This is the part that causes me the most stress. It’s actually the least complicated aspect of world building, but one that stands to cause the most upset for contemporary readers. For me, a world that’s enjoyable to write about is colourful and multicultural. But what does culture look like hundreds of years from now when you’ve sent humans into space?

I see a lot of cultural blending where say, two cultures spawn a new intermingled culture in a space colony. My favourite example from big-name scifi is the blending you see on Mars and in the Belt in The Expanse universe, with accents and writing and language from different Earth roots all fused together.

Confession: I’m not that smart or skilled or detailed. My cultural blending for the Alliance Worlds is rudimentary at best. So I’m forever wondering whether my readers will pick up on it, or if they’ll view it like the racist cultural conflations you come to see in monoculture societies today. If a Chinese-named character demonstrates Japanese customs, how can you convey the backstory of a futuristic Sino-Japanese society? And you’d have to, somehow, wouldn’t you—so XYZ reader doesn’t mistake you for some QED rando chump who thinks that all Asians look the same.

Growing up in Southeast Asia and Australia, I’ve gotten to see cultural blending in action, and it occurs to me that this isn’t a typical experience for everyone. If you had never lived in a multicultural society, what would it take for you to recognise one when you see it? And how would you work that seamlessly into a story?

No answers, just work

If you were hoping for answers at this point, I am sorry. I have none.

These challenges plague me throughout the entire creative process, and the only way I can think of to address them is to keep learning and keep writing.

Improving one’s writing skill means increasing how fluently one can express ideas and intentions without jarring the reader out of the story. I imagine this is a worthwhile approach for any writer at every level.

Can we please overhaul the “alpha bitch” trope?

Take your typical setting involving teenagers—say, a High School—wait an establishing scene or two or three, and there she is. See that attractive blonde cheerleader looking down her nose (often literally) and sneering at the frumpy girl in glasses? That’s her.

Alpha Bitch, tvtropes.org

Also known as the “Queen Bee”, the Alpha Bitch is a fairly well-known trope in many books and romantic movies, particularly teen movies and office romantic comedies—the heroine needs a rival, after all.

And don’t get me wrong, the drama and scandal can be a good laugh from time to time, but I worry about how this portrayal can undermine women, and the friendships and relationships we make. Especially in the eyes of impressionable audiences who haven’t yet got the life experience to tell the difference between caricature and reality.

When a real-life Alpha Bitch stresses us out, it’s far too easy to lump them into the “they’re being a bitch” category as a way to emotionally distance and defend ourselves. We have every right to do this, of course, but it does little to improve the space we must share with the person in question when we can’t get away.

Perhaps as well, it’s a microaggression of sorts, dehumanising and dismissing someone who may feel they have no other option but to preemptively attack or lash out.

I once shared an office with a lady who brought her own special brand of Queen Bee to work everyday. While I can’t say I based Eleanor on her, she was definitely the reason I wanted to re-visit the Alpha Bitch stereotype. After spending a year confused by the surprise sting of her barbs, I learned all about how the higher-ups in our company treated her. And I learned what things were like for her outside of work; how her husband’s hereditary lung disorder shaped their lifestyle.

The Alpha Bitch of our little department wasn’t a bitch at all. She was reacting to every moment the way she felt she needed to, given all the forces in her life. Maybe she was more a diamond than a hardarse, and those barbs were just the sheer, sharp edges that life had cut into her. Seeing this made her words hurt less, because I finally understood they weren’t about me.

As a writer, I often feel some responsibility to show the sides of things not acknowledged enough day to day—the pain behind the anger, the beauty behind the misery, the vulnerability behind the bitch. To show another side without playing devil’s advocate, and without taking away from the experience of being on the receiving end. An aggressor’s pain should never invalidate ours, but perhaps understanding it can offer a way out—at the very least by letting us know we’re not completely powerless against it.

I feel there’s still a place for the Alpha Bitch these days, but it’s time for that tired trope to grow up. Everyone’s fighting their own private battle. The most interesting stories make efforts to give us hints of how. And anything that contributes to a softer, more understanding world is a good thing in my book.