The Time Traveler's Wife
Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife is that rare combination of genres that leaves so many of us wondering why we haven’t read more of it. For those of us who love science fiction, it’s so totally persuasive that you’ll find yourself wondering why you haven’t read more romance. For those who love romance, it’s a strange glimpse into what science fiction can offer the genre.
The book is centred on a woman named Claire and her husband, an unassuming man named Henry who travels through time spasmodically and unpredictably, temporally displaced as though by some kind of seizure. The effect that this has on his life is catastrophic, but it also means that he has had a running relationship with his wife for almost her entire life that only begins when he’s in his twenties.
If that sounds confusing to you, then you’re in good company. The book is largely told from the point of view on Henry himself, shuddering back and forward through time, experiencing large portions of his own life out of order. Effects of his unexpected time travel include meeting his wife for the first time long after she first met him, and attending his own wedding years after the fact, among other oddly touching moments.
It’s extremely difficult to explain, but also unrepentantly lovely and a total tearjerker.
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Naked In Death
If the combination of science fiction and romance is so strong, the next rational step is to ask what happens if you are to add a third genre to the same list. J. D. Robb’s Naked in Death is a sci-fi romance that just happens to also be a noir detective novel.
Naked in Death follows the investigation into the apparent murder of a prostitute by a wealthy businessman named Roarke. The investigation is led by troubled homicide detective, Eve Dallas. Given the premise of this list, you’ve probably already guessed that circumstances conspire to throw Dallas and Roarke together despite the investigation, but it’s the getting there that counts. We won’t tell you any more than that, except to say that for the real whodunnit fans, there’s even a butler, which of course means you can meander your way through the whole book wondering how contrived it would be if the butler had done it all along.
Bad murder-mystery tropes aside, it’s your classic girl-meets-boy, boy-may-be-a-murderer, girl-attempts-to-collect-evidence-but-ends-up-going-on-complicated-date-with-boy story, but it takes place in the year 2058.
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Now that we’ve had a bit of a dalliance with plain old set-in-the-future science fiction, we can get back to books that really muddy their own timelines. Stephen King may be better known for his horror, but his heavy use of aliens, parallel worlds, and time travel mean he’s often stuck squarely in a science fiction space.
11/22/63 differs from the overwhelming majority of time travel fiction in that it focuses on changing specific events to prevent events from unfolding as they have in our own timeline. The novel begins with diner owner Al explaining to his friend Jake Epping that the back of his burger joint’s pantry is somehow connected to 1958. Walking deep into the pantry, an individual suddenly finds themselves emerging into the world as it was almost sixty years ago.
Al has becoming increasingly convinced that the assassination of John F. Kennedy was the point at which our world began to fall apart. Having failed to prevent the assassination himself, he is now too close to death to make another attempt, and charges Epping with going back in his place. Once Jake goes back, he’s forced to live out five years of his life in the 50s and early 60s before he’ll be in place to foil the attempt.
Along the way, Jake gets swept up in a charming 50s romance that fits so perfectly with our impression of the time that it’s difficult to forget. Their relationship is undercut by the fact that he comes from another time and place, as well as his knowledge that he has an ultimate goal that he must fulfil.
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Store Of The Worlds
Robert Sheckley may be one of the finest writers of science fiction short stories ever to have lived. Seeing his work with the benefit of decades of hindsight has only lent it an air of extraordinary prescience, not least for Watchbird, a story in which the skies are patrolled by unmanned law-enforcement drones.
Store of the Worlds is a collection of Sheckley’s short fiction that includes the short story that may be Sheckley’s best, as well as one of his few forays into romance. The Seventh Victim is set on a future Earth in which problems of war have been solved entirely, only to find that man’s instinct toward violence remains unquenchable for a portion of the populace. In an effort to curb overpopulation, a system of state-run legalized murder is put in place. Under “The Big Hunt,” volunteers enter a lottery whereby they are each assigned one victim and one hunter.
The story’s protagonist is Stanton Frelaine, assigned to kill a young actress named Janet-Marie Patzig. Having never killed a woman before, Frelaine panics and somehow ends up utterly smitten with Patzig. The two share something of a whirlwind romance, over the course of which Patzig is entirely unaware that Frelaine’s basis for the relationship is The Big Hunt.
The rest of the stories in the collection are strong, but none reach the same dizzying heights as The Seventh Victim.
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Frederik Pohl’s Gateway isn’t likely to make too many lists of great sci-fi romances, if only because the romance portion of the book doesn’t go particularly well. Instead, we’re treated to a window into a relationship that is often destructive and alienating, one in which both parties seem routinely at odds with one another…
Set largely in an abandoned alien space station built inside an asteroid, Gateway is the story of the human pathfinders desperate enough to volunteer to use alien technology to be shot at random around the galaxy in an effort to find and bring back worthwhile technologies. They do so using equipment pre-programed by a long-vanished intelligence, charting trips with little respect for the hardships involved or the shortcomings of human physiognomy. As a result, many of the ships dispatched return empty, or filled with starved and frozen crew, or never return at all.
As you might expect, the people attracted to an occupation this risky tend to be volatile or even self-destructive. The romances that develop under these conditions are pressurized and necessarily fraught, but somehow that’s part of the pleasure of Gateway. There is little or no idealism here, just the simple pleasure of seeing how two people interact in a dreadful situation.
Given that science fiction so often offers a window into how humanity survives and interacts under less-than-ideal conditions, Gateway's messy entanglement is almost the perfect science fiction romance.
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The Stars My Destination
It is a little difficult to describe Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination without mentioning The Count of Monte Cristo, from which it clearly draws a lot. Both tell the story of a condemned man who has lost everything. Reduced to little more than an animal, he claws his way back into high society, saddled with an all-consuming thirst for revenge. That description alone doesn’t do either justice, but it also does The Stars My Destination a disservice in that it seems derivative.
The Stars My Destination tells the story of Gully Foyle, living in a world in which human beings have unlocked an innate ability to “jaunte” (instantaneously teleport to any familiar location) from place to place, as well as the ability to communicate telepathically. Early in the book, Foyle meets with a woman named Robin Wednesbury, who has the ability to telepathically send her thoughts, but not to receive another’s (a terrible disability in an otherwise wholly telepathic society).
It’s very difficult to elucidate what makes The Stars My Destination feel like a romance. It’s certainly not a romance in any typical sense, but it is inescapably a romance in the rocketships-and-rayguns tradition.
The truth is that Gully Foyle is a frankly horrendous individual, and his treatment of the book’s female characters is almost universally abominable. However, through the characters around him that Foyle is forced to take an honest look at his own character, including fellow convict Jizbella McQueen’s disgust with him for his single-minded drive for revenge.
As in The Count of Monte Cristo, there is an element of redemption-through-romance that is at the same time somehow reductive and oddly compelling.
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Old Man's War
At the risk of repeating a recommendation we’ve made earlier, John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War is a strange combination of military and romantic science fiction. At its core, Old Man’s War is the story of John Perry, a septuagenarian who has submitted his genetic material to the army so he can begin a late-life career as a soldier that will see his body cloned and re-engineered to better suit combat in the far reaches of the galaxy.
The romance aspect is a little difficult to pin down without spoiling anything, but we’ll try to keep things vague enough that they still make sense. Near the book’s beginning, Perry’s wife passes away, leaving him to live out his final years on Earth alone. When he reaches the age of 75, he is drafted and his consciousness transferred to his clone body, at which point he begins his second life as a genetically enhanced super soldier.
From there, everything is business as usual, with Perry enduring the horrors of war as best he can until he encounters a special forces team, one of what the other soldiers refer to as the “ghost brigades.” Amid that group of elite soldiers, he encounters a woman who bears a striking resemblance to his late wife.
It’s an often heartbreaking story, but one that scratches the sci-fi-romantic itch very well indeed.
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