Jul 9 2013 8:30am

Royalty in Space: Science Fiction Princes and Princesses

Leia Organa, the Original Space PrincessSo y'all remember Science Fiction Saiyuki Starzinger, right? The anime show that aired in Japan from 1978-79? It featured a princess who joined forces with three cyborg warriors to restore balance to the universe. Ring a bell? Half a bell? No?

Well, Starzinger, which aired under the name Spacekeeters (ha ha, get it?) in the U.S., was my first introduction to a character of royalty in a space opera setting, namely, Princess Aurora. I'm a longtime fan of anime like Starzinger and Voltron, both of which feature princess characters. Decades later, I'm still very curious about the choice, and even more so the way similar characters make appearances in science fiction romance.

Space opera characters of royal descent are an interesting co-op of fantasy tropes. As a fan of both SF and fantasy, I sometimes experience doublethink regarding such characters. On the one hand, I totally understand the appeal, because I've been swept away by the characters myself (Starzinger seemed positively obsessed with Princess Aurora taming Jesse Dart, a wild warrior Alpha male. Highly entertaining!).

On the other hand, I feel ambivalent about sci-fi princes and princesses because their association with fantasy/fairy tale settings is super glue strong. Sometimes, when reading a book or watching a film/TV show, I get the feeling a sci-fi prince or princess has been displaced, or actually belongs in a fantasy romance. The occurrence isn't always easy to reconcile.

Why are princes and princesses so prevalent in sci-fi romance? Is it an attempt by authors to create stories with cross-over appeal, or are there other reasons?

The Star King by Susan GrantIn sci-fi romance, it's common for the hero to hail from a world ruled by a monarchy, at least in part. And it's often a space faring culture. Quite an interesting juxtaposition. It would be like if Earthlings achieved space travel and the crown prince of Britain met his future bride on another planet. Forget any prime ministers, presidents, premiers, or chancellors. They're out of luck when it comes to romance, I guess! Still, the theme of love happening despite the odds (in this case, distance) is a popular one.

By using royalty titles, authors might be taking advantage of a worldbuilding shortcut. In other words, there's no need to create an alien society with new political titles, roles, etc. because everyone knows what a prince is. In romance stories, “prince” is basically the definition of wealth, power, leader, hero, and sweep-the-heroine-off-her-feet romance. That said, authors can easily create presidents, ministers, etc. who are rich and powerful. But compared to princes, are they considered paupers?

The use could merely be a by-product of cross-genre stories. Meaning, authors use sci-fi princes and princesses just for the fun of it and because they can. The fantasy romance vibe can be strong in some of these stories, but perhaps the pull of the royal-in-love fantasy is so compelling we (readers) want it co-opted all over the place, even in settings where technology reigns supreme.

The terms “prince” and “princess” could also be interpreted as ones used to translate titles/roles that are actually alien in nature (I imagine this would be more a function of reader deduction than author intent, unless the text specifically indicates otherwise).

Despite the general use of royalty titles, the princesses and princes of sci-fi romance aren't all of the cookie-cutter variety. (In this genre, I sometimes suspect the use of a title like “prince” is more of a marketing tag than a direct representation of a character.) Just check out some of the range you'll encounter in SFR:

Susan Grant wrote a few quintessential stories featuring princes and a princess: The Star King, The Star Prince, and The Star Princess. There's some serious tagging going on in those titles because they work hard to convey the type of fantasy one can expect. But during the course of the stories, the characters aren't limited to futuristic castles or a life of luxury. They struggle to reconcile who they're expected to be and who they want to be.

Contrast Michelle M. Pillow The Barbarian Prince (“Mars Needs Women” trope, with dragons) with Jess Granger's Beyond the Shadows, in which the heroine is heir to the throne in a matriarchal society. A prince and princess for every mood, heh!

In Gini Koch's Touched By An Alien series, hero Jeff Martini has ties to royalty, but he's essentially a Men in Black character (albeit one with access to loads of money!).

Stellarnet Prince is the sequel to J.L. Hilton's Stellarnet Rebel (best read in order). Book two may have “prince” in the name, but the prince in question offers a unique spin on this type of character. This is the type of sci-fi romance you read when you're in the mood for complex politics and distinctly alien, humanoid heroes.

MetalMark by Ella DrakeElla Drake's MetalMark features a prince tasked with saving his planet, but only if he makes a deal with the proverbial devil. The setting also delivers a bit of steampunk flair. Nancy J. Cohen's Warrior Prince features a hero who is not just a prince, but the leader of the Drift Lords, a group dedicated to protecting Earth from galactic villains.

The above is but a small sample of prince/princess characters in sci-fi romance. It'll be interesting to see how authors spin this trope in future stories.

In the meantime, tell me what you think about these types of characters. Do you have a favorite sci-fi romance prince/princess? What can authors do to make these characters compelling and believable given the science fictional setting?

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.

Subscribe to this conversation (must be logged in):
Darlene Marshall
1. DarleneMarshall
You can add into the mix the ruling families of Barrayar in Lois McMaster Bujold's excellent SF books. Aral and Miles Vorkosigan are in line for the emperor's throne, and Emperor Gregor is himself a fascinating (and romantic) character. The tension between democratic Betan Cordelia and aristo Aral in Shards of Honor adds to the storyline (and to their subsequent marriage).

You can raise the bar even higher with Accidental Goddess by Linnea Sinclair. It's one thing to fall in love with a princess, but falling in love with the deity you worship? That's a whole new box of complications! Accidental is one of my favorite Sinclair SF romances because of the unusual plot.

Thanks for the article. It's an interesting issue to discuss.
2. Yttar
Also, Sherrilyn Kenyon's League series features royalty and aristos who are also assassins. That's a win-win combo for me.
3. EC Spurlock
I think the use of "prince" or "princess" also signals that the story in question is space fantasy rather than hard science fiction. This is an important distinction in terms of the expectations the reader has for the story.
4. mrsbookmark
I think there is a lot of romance attached to royalty; since few people in the modern world actually live under one. It is possible to have an alien society with a different system of royalty and labels, but that might be too much to cram into one book and keep the reader interested. Plus, it's kind of natural for people to relate something foreign to something they already know.

And for me, as a reader, thinking of finding a real 'prince' has a certain charm.
5. RJones
I'd say the big worldbuilding/character shortcut for princes/princesses is actually about motivation. A prince/princess was born into their situation, and made what they would of that. A President/Chancellor/Minister has to have a "Out of All the Things, I'd like to rule!" moment, which is packed with a certain amount of ego, unless the story is forcefully contrived to avoid the ego. And, as I consider current Earth politicians, that particular drive isn't very sexy. The closest a prince/princess gets is "I'm born to rule, I should be good at it."

Also, a prince/princess has a bit more time to run off and fall in love than a king.
6. Eva Caye
My main characters are royalty first to exemplify the noble virtues (the titles of my books make that obvious), but principally because they can get things done without a lot of bureaucratic b.s. The problems that interest them and the travails they survive focus the attention of an entire planet (or in my case, empire of four planets), and I dearly love the ever-changing interplay of rulers being adored while also being criticized for their policies, mores, or actions. Makes for great science fiction! And no, my work is not fantasy!
7. Pippa Jay
I think it all depends on how you structure authority in your universe/world. I'm not a fan of the Star Wars prequels, but Queen Amidala immediately sprang to mind because in the second film we discover she was elected to the role and acted more like a diplomat/emissary - taking part in debates in the Senate for the good of her home-world but not born into a royal family. By film two she's served her term but has continued to act as a representative of Naboo for the new 'Queen'. So the title is not quite defined as we'd know it on Earth. I was also thinking about the British Royal family (I'm not a monarchist myself) who have no official powers in the government of the UK, but are internationally adored and fulfil a more diplomatic role. They are figureheads, but still represent our island, giving them an authority of sorts. Whether you chose to have a democratically elected representative or a heirachy/royalty, as long as it fits the story and has a clear purpose, does it matter if you refer to them as a prince or a priminister if the role is the same? Or it could just be the closest translation of an alien word for that role, whether that's explained in the story or not. :P
As for a favourite - Dejah Thoris, Princess of Mars. Like old royalty, she was born to the part and expected to marry for reasons of state. But she was a serious scientist and a warrior too - something that fits well with a scifi theme. I don't think a scifi setting should exclude the use of royalty. I think it can be adapted to fit.
8. Cathryn Cade
Heather, Interesting article! I love the sci fi/royal trope, and you've got me thinking about why. For me it's because the royal hero/heroine has the special privileges of their office--they get the good stuff, lol. And because it's sci fi, some of that good stuff is out of this world gadgets, even powers. But they are also bound by the strictures of their lives, hemmed in by expectations and by others who want things from them because of their royalty, not because of who they are as a person. In my PRINCE OF DRAGONS, the hero escapes his identity while searching for a virgin bride on his own terms. Of course this meant I got to make him fall in love with possibly the most inappropriate woman in the galaxy--a famous seductress/warrioress. (Is that a word? I like it, I'm keeping it) It made for a fun writing experience. best, Cathryn Cade
9. Rachel Leigh Smith
The royal falling in love with the person he/she isn't supposed to is one of my favorite romance tropes. When it showed up in my own SFR I was not surprised.

I grew up on the original Disney princesses. The book I've read most as an adult is an arranged royal marriage romance, where the prince had been married before and asks his parents to find him another bride to fulfill the country's legal requirements for his marriage. I'm starting to feel the need to pull it out again because it's been a few years since I read it.

That said, I've given a great deal of thought as to where my royals came from and why they chose a king over other forms of government. They're also a lost culture who have spent the last 2,000 years enslaved and I'm chronicling their efforts to get their freedom back and rebuild their society. In that context there are many reasons why having a king makes political and cultural sense.

He's not all powerful, but he's not a figurehead either. He's just what his people need to have the courage to face their enemies and fight for their right to be a free civilization.
11. Nancy J. Cohen
Sorry for the above. I'm having trouble posting here. Just wrote two posts and lost them. Anyway, this is an interesting discussion and it made me thing. I've always enjoyed reading about royalty. Now I write about it. Warrior Prince, #1 in the Drift Lords Series, features Zohar Thorald, leader of the Drift Lords and Crown Prince of the Star Empire. So I am deploying this trope in my own work. Re movies, watch Spaceballs. Despite the goofy humor, the story at its heart is a romance starring Princess Vespa and a hunky space pilot. Also check out the Skolian Empire series by Catherine Asaro for romantic sci fi stories about the Ruby Dynasty.
12. Cindy aiye
Seconding the nominations for Kenyon and Asaro.
Also, loved Rowena Cherry's God-princes of Tigron series from about 10 years back.--I was so bummed out that there were only 3 of them!
And finally Sharon Lee and Steve Miller's Clan Korval are about as close to royalty as you get (without the exact "title") in the Liaden Universe, an ongoing series with a new book coming out in May. I've heard these described as space opera with the manners of a Regency, and they satisfy on both levels.
Heather Waters
13. HeatherWaters
@Cindy aiye -- Thank you for the suggestions! I still really need to try the Liaden Universe...
Post a comment