Eros, Phileo, Agape, Storge: Love and Romance in Science Fiction
The romance and science fiction genres have often been at odds, yet science fiction, on page and on screen, has given us some of the most iconic love stories of all time. Romance serves many purposes in fiction in general, and these functions certainly apply to science fiction. Additionally, romance in science fiction helps us explore our current challenges, plumb interesting emotional questions, and offers hope for the future in a unique way.
In some cases, romantic love serves the same irreplaceable storytelling in any genre, highlighting character traits and motivations. For instance, in Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, the very lack of romantic urgency on Victor’s part towards his beautiful fiancée is an indication of his unhealthy obsession with his scientific project. Meanwhile, Frankenstein’s nameless creation longs for a romantic partner and does not fully commit to violence until he is denied this.
Romance can also give the characters’ actions weight, making the reader emotionally invested as well as intellectually interested. Many science fiction stories have big stakes, like the fate of a planet, or the fate of humanity. However, humans have a hard time conceptualizing large, abstract values like “The Universe.” Including love stories in science fiction can create relatable, emotional stakes for the reader or viewer. When the planet Alderaan is destroyed in A New Hope, we wince, but when in The Empire Strikes Back Leia says “I love you” to Han, who then gets dropped in carbonite, we cry.
A love story can reinforce character themes, as in The Hunger Games trilogy, by Suzanne Collins. The compassionate Peeta and the hard-nosed Gale represent the story’s heroine, Katniss’ battle to become ruthless enough to survive without losing her empathy and her larger vision. The romance is simplistic, but it is so sufficiently compelling that years later readers are still arguing over who Katniss should have ended up with or whether she should have explored other options.
Of course, the most disastrous use of romance in any story is when it’s shoehorned in for no reason other than marketing and perceived audience expectations. A movie which successfully avoided such an artificial and arbitrary romance was Mad Max: Fury Road. In this film, Max, the antihero of several preceding movies, is so traumatized by his past that he can barely talk, let alone have any meaningful connection with another person. Furiosa, the protagonist of the movie, is also traumatized due to unspoken and everyday horrors in this postapocalyptic world. Perhaps in another movie, these two characters would have at some point kissed or declared a romantic love for each other. Instead, they develop a powerful bond, but there’s no indication that it’s romantic. Avoiding a cliché of romance that doesn’t fit the characters makes the bond they do share, and the story itself, more powerful.
Meanwhile, the love between other characters in the same movie—Capable and Nux—does make sense, since Capable is more emotionally demonstrative and open to such overtures than Furiosa or Max. She is notably nurturing and empathetic throughout, while Nux is consistently motivated by a desire to be loved. By shifting that desire from the movie’s villain, Immortan Joe, to Capable, Nux finally finds both acceptance and tenderness and is able to shed the toxic masculinity that Immortan Joe demanded and took regardless of compliance. The Capable/Nux romance is a natural development between characters that furthers the story and the characters’ development—not an artificial attempt to meet a perceived demand.
These uses of romance are important, and are certainly not unique to science fiction. Yet, due to science fiction’s ability to use metaphor to explore otherwise taboo or challenging topics, it sets the stage and allows these two genres to meet.
An example of this can be found in Star Trek: The Original Series, in which interracial romance and the challenges of being biracial are explored through the metaphor of alien romance. In this series, Sarek, a Vulcan, marries Amanda, a human, and Spock, their son, struggles with his dual heritage and its social implications and cultural expectations. During a time when interracial marriages were still rare and, in some cases, punishable, the series was able to allegorically explore these difficult issues. Discussing such issues this way continues to be problematic and invites rightful criticism, but it can ultimately offer another opportunity to start what can be uncomfortable discourse. Moreover, the result was so compelling that the J. J. Abrams Star Trek reboot in 2009, almost fifty years after the original, still featured Spock’s struggle with his dual nature as a central theme, and explored it in new ways through his romance with Uhura.
While discussion of interracial marriage was more common by the time Star Trek: The Next Generation came around, it was still sufficiently rare that storylines involving Worf (half-Klingon, half-human) and his family continued to challenge common ideas about interracial love and growing up multiracial and multicultural.
Other episodes used alien biology and culture to address gender roles and expectations, gender fluidity, and same-sex relationships. Seen by some critics and viewers as heavy-handed, they were also groundbreaking for “family-friendly” television of the period.
One of the most interesting ways that Star Trek: The Next Generation explored romantic love, including gender identity and attraction, was by introducing a new alien race, the Trill. A small portion of the Trill species include symbionts that live within a humanoid host. In this subset, symbiont and host share a personality, becoming a unique being, with the memories and personality of the symbiont remaining as the symbiont moves to each new host.
In Deep Space 9, a main Trill character, Jadzia Dax, was able to explore the ramifications of such a melding on relationships. The Trill have no taboos about same-sex relationships, but they do have taboos about rekindling love affairs between symbionts. An episode in which Dax considers a forbidden relationship with one of their exes, who now happens to be in a female body, featured one of the first kisses between women on television. Deep Space 9 also uses the Trill to explore how romantic love differs from friendship. When Jadzia dies and the Dax symbiont is placed into Ezri, the deep romantic relationship and marriage that Worf had with Jadzia Dax ends, despite an attempt to rekindle the relationship. It turns out that the love that Worf and Jadzia Dax had was with the whole person—emotional, physical and intellectual, and it falls apart when the whole person becomes someone else. In contrast, Sisko’s friendship with Dax survives as the Dax symbiont moves from Curzon to Jadzia to Ezri.
In the 1960s and 1970s, writers such as Ursula K. Le Guin used science fiction to explore gender roles and sexuality. In 1969’s The Left Hand of Darkness, Le Guin was able to escape the bonds of human biology by setting her story on an alien world. The people of Gethen are sexually neutral except for brief periods of time, called ‘kemmer’ in which they manifest either male or female sex characteristics and sex drive in order to reproduce. During kemmer, each Gethen may be either male or female, and may be attracted to either males or females with no permanent distinction or preference.
Using the relationship between a Terran and a Gethen as a “thought experiment,” Le Guin was free to explore gender roles and gender fluidity decades before terms like “genderqueer,” “nonbinary gender,” and “gender fluid” were used in common vernacular. Her point of view character, Genly Ai, a Terran, is so used to thinking of jobs and qualities as male or female that he struggles to function in a world without gender. It is only through his alliance with and eventual love for a Gethen that he is able to survive.
Any genre can explore themes of regret, commitment, and memory, but because science fiction can use devices such as time travel, teleportation, and memory alteration, it can explore these themes in particularly inventive and challenging ways. In sub-genres as varied as romantic comedy (To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis), tragedy (The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger), action (The Terminator), and drama (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), readers and viewers can explore questions of destiny and sacrifice. What are we willing to do for love? How persistent can we, and should we, be? What sacrifices will we make? Is it really better to have loved and lost than never loved at all?
The movies Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Arrival (based on The Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang) use nonlinear structures to explore themes of memory, love, and loss. In Eternal Sunshine, the protagonist, Josh, hires a company to erase his memories of a relationship with Clementine, which had a painful ending as the two fell out of love. As the memories are erased backwards, he starts to forget why he wanted to lose them. Both Josh and Clementine (or Josh’s idea of Clementine) consider their relationship patterns while trying to preserve the relationship as it’s ending. The conclusion of the movie is ambiguous.
Meanwhile, Arrival appears to be linear but isn’t. As the protagonist, Louise, begins to decode an alien language, she realizes that the language is circular, not linear. The longer she studies the language, the more she thinks in the language. Eventually she develops the ability to “remember” the future. She still chooses to marry and have a child even though she can remember that the marriage will end in recrimination and sadness, and that their child will die.
The author Dorothy Parker said, “In all history, which has held billions and billions of human beings, not a single one has had a happy ending.” The cyclical nature of Eternal Sunshine and Arrival reminds us that all love stories end, while at the same time suggesting that regardless of why people in a relationship part, the relationship never actually stops. It continues in the memories and futures of those who experienced it. Even the death of a partner is more of a shift in a relationship than an ending.
Conversely, every society grapples with issues of who is granted personhood either explicitly (in New Zealand, the Whanganui River has legal personhood rights as of 2017), or implicitly, through denial of equal rights. Science fiction has explored this in many ways, particularly through stories about AI.
While not all AI stories include romance, including some kind of love, and particularly romantic love, it is still a powerful way to establish reader empathy; to explore what it means to be alive; and in some stories, to convince the reader that the AI can feel emotion.
AI stories have existed in some form or other for a long time, but they are going through a boom period as our society is shifting norms about equality and acceptance. Television shows such as Westworld and Humans and movies like Ex Machina explore relationships between humans and AIs, and between AIs and other AIs. These stories frequently involve AIs having to fight, often with violence, for the right to exist. But as viewers experienced in Westworld, it can mean one AI fighting for freedom and autonomy, only to give it up and return to danger to rescue a child—a call-back to a mother-daughter bond that was both relatable and powerful. And while Maeve, who has lived many different storylines, finds that her daughter is no longer programmed to think of her as mother, she ultimately sacrifices herself so that her daughter and many other AIs can run to safety. It is a story of evolution, of revelation, and the acceptance that love can come in many different forms.
A literary example of AI romance can be found in The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers. This book features multiple unconventional relationships aboard a starship, one of which is between the ship’s AI (Lovey) and ship’s mechanic (Jenks). One of the nice things about this story is that although it’s considered unusual for an AI to reach this level of sentience, and the romance is certainly unusual, it’s not shocking to anyone and no one doubts Lovey’s ability to feel emotion. It’s this very lack of controversy amongst the characters that makes this book stand out. The matter-of-fact acceptance of the unusual relationship makes real-world discrimination seem particularly ridiculous. The love story also serves as an example of body positivity, as Jenks refuses treatments that would make him closer to average height for his species, and Lovey decides not to be uploaded into a robot body.
When done properly in any genre, a good love story speaks to a universal quality. Whether platonically, romantically, or any of the definitions that come with the word, many of us want to love and be loved. Stories that extend this craving for emotional connection into the far reaches of space and time promise us that the human spirit can endure regardless of location and condition. Stories that extend this quality to aliens and robots promise us that everyone has a place in the world, and that we all deserve dignity, respect, and happiness—that we are all capable of, and deserving of, connection with at least one other being. As is stated in Babylon 5, “What is loved, endures.”
Above all, humans are wired to like a love story—whether it’s the main component of a story or a smaller part of a different narrative. When a love story ends happily, it fills us with a sense that all is right with the world. When a love story ends in tragedy, we cry in a way that no fall of planets can make us feel. And while romance and science fiction can work in synergy to tackle the challenges of today, perhaps more importantly, romances or depictions of love in science fiction can oftentimes be just plain satisfying.