The comedy-drama Orange Is the New Black was a surprise hit few saw coming. The 13-episode Netflix original series is based on a memoir of the same name by Piper Kerman. In Kerman's book, she chronicles her experience as an inmate at the minimum-security prison FCI Danbury. The show itself focuses on the prison “adventures” of protagonist Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) as she navigates the treacherous waters of a fictional federal prison in Litchfield, NY.
Orange Is the New Black (OITNB) features a multicultural, ensemble cast. In fact, the characters surrounding Piper represents the show's greatest strength. My personal favorite is Sophia Burset (Laverne Cox), a transgender woman who runs the hair salon. I about died of happiness when the camera invited me, the viewer, to take the first revelation of her transgender nature seriously (as opposed to it being played for laughs). OITNB is a very female-centric show, but one with immense cross-over appeal.
OITNB is superbly written and acted. It also delves into a subject that's traditionally been explored mainly in film. I use the term “explored” loosely since I'm referring to the history of “women in prison film.”
The show has its share of inmates duking it out before leering guards and T&A titillation, but it presents a far more nuanced—and at times gut-wrenching—portrayal of incarcerated women.
It also features a lesbian love story. Emphasis on story, not romance. The relationship between Piper and her old flame, Alex (Laura Prepon) is complicated, messy, hot, and angst-ridden. The show has elements of romance, but doesn't follow romance genre conventions.
After watching the series, I realized I wanted a science fiction romance version of the show. I love OITNB, ending and all, but also wanted to discover what the romance genre had to offer (SFR is my preferred genre). I wasn't able to find a prison-set futuristic lesbian romance, but at least there's Ann Aguirre's space prison romance, Perdition, which I immediately bought and read. Here's the blurb:
Welcome to Hell.
The prison ship Perdition, a floating city where the Conglomerate’s most dangerous criminals are confined for life, orbits endlessly around a barren asteroid.
Life inside is even more bleak. Hailed as the Dread Queen, inmate Dresdemona “Dred” Devos controls one of Perdition’s six territories, bordered on both sides by would-be kings eager to challenge her claim. Keeping them at bay requires constant vigilance, as well as a steady influx of new recruits to replace the fallen. Survival is a constant battle, and death is the only escape.
Of the newest convicts, only one is worth Dred’s attention. The mercenary Jael, with his deadly gaze and attitude, may be the most dangerous criminal onboard. His combat skill could give her the edge she needs, if he doesn’t betray her first. Unfortunately, that’s what he does best. Winning Jael’s allegiance will be a challenge, but failure could be worse than death…”
Perdition features a thoroughly lawless prison since there are no guards. It's kill or be killed. The story shows how love can bloom even in the bleakest of circumstances.
I went searching for similar books and discovered a Goodreads list of “Prison Romance.” It's a mix of stories ranging from contemporary to fantasy, paranormal, and sci-fi. I have a strong interest in SFR, so I'm going to concentrate on those titles.
I'd already read Melisse Aires's Alien Blood, a story featuring two prisoners who are forced to participate in a deathly reality show. The other books are new to me.
Linda Mooney's Captive Surrender features captivity themes and an erotic relationship between the psy heroine and beast-like alien hero. So not all of the sci-fi romance stories on the list take place inside a government or corporate funded prison.
Of those that do, the blurb for Zannie Adams's Hold indicates a mixed-gender prison and the heroine's best strategy for survival “…is to give herself to the strongest man there in return for protection.” Hold sounds like an erotic treatment of a prison romance.
Perdition also features a mixed-gender prison, but in that story, some—if not most—female characters had enough power that they could negotiate sex on equal terms rather than always rely on an Alpha man to protect them from being raped. At least, that was my impression.
Alianne Donnelly's Blood Moons also features a mixed-gender prison in a futuristic setting and characters with paranormal natures. The heroine is a telepath and the hero is a shapeshifter. They share a cell as well as physical attraction (naturally!).
Mixed-gender futuristic prisons solve the issue of how a heterosexual hero and heroine are going to hook up, but they also represent a plausibility issue. After all, prisons are segregated by gender even now, for obvious reasons.
In a dystopian future or a setting where an evil corporation/government wields enormous power, one could argue that penal colonies would function differently. Such prisons may operate on a shoestring budget in order to maximize profits or minimize costs. Prisoners may very well be considered expendable and not worth the investment, even if that means placing women prisoners in sexual jeopardy. Or perhaps the prison population grew so great that the only choice was to hide them away on a penal colony.
Apart from carefully crafted worldbuilding reasons, however, futuristic mixed-gender prisons stretch the bounds of credulity. Unless a story tells me otherwise, the playing field wouldn't be even. Women prisoners who are genetically enhanced with strength might be one way to increase plausibility, but otherwise I'd be worried in the back of my mind that female characters would be at the mercy of gang rapes and physical abuse.
Hence my particular interest in a futuristic lesbian prison romance. An all-women prison is highly plausible and evens the playing field. I'd really love to read a story that, like Orange Is the New Black, weaves in cultural, racial, and privilege issues as well as prison politics. A lesbian prison romance would also provide an upbeat ending. I'd read a variety of stories in this vein, but I'm most keen to enjoy those written with realism in mind.
While we're waiting for more prison romances to be written, we'll be able to enjoy a second round of Orange Is the New Black. Season 2 will air in 2014!
Do you have an interest in prison romances? What type of stories would you like to read?
Heather Massey is a lifelong fan of science fiction romance. She searches for sci-fi romance adventures aboard her blog, The Galaxy Express. She’s also an author in the subgenre. To learn more about her published work, visit heathermassey.com.