The only way I know how to talk about something is by talking about something else. Contrast — or shyness!
You might be familiar with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, a re-imagining of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice that included, yes, zombies. The original work is a famous example of a comedy of manners, with the two titular vices pertaining to the heroine and romantic interest's view of one another, causing them to misjudge each other as unsuitable life partners before reconciling and marrying. #spoilers There's a double entendre in the term ‘comedy of manners’: manners refers to etiquette and expectations for behavior; manner is also a description one's way of being, and in the plural suggests different people's differing ways of of being, likely in conflict. In a comedy of manners social comportment is satirized, through its importance to the characters or through how they flout it, with the wit of the dialogue being more important than the actual plot of these stories. Pride and Prejudice involves a young woman able to view a great deal of etiquette satirically, though not all, and with a certain particular social hope held in earnest: to marry someone she loves.
Throwing zombies into a story about the dilated importance of social behavior sharpens one kind of joke. There's an incongruity in throwing something familiar in the context of horror films, zombies, into a much older story, making the incongruity between the various concerns of the characters and what really matters that much more apparent than in the original — the punchline being that social institutions don't matter at all in the face of survival. Pride and Prejudice mocks certain behaviors (such as Mister Collins' self-importance and how it combines with his worship of Lady Catherine de Bourgh), but it plays straight the importance of marriage, both as a financial necessity to young women without means and as something worth wanting with the right partner. Desiring marriage looks less clear in the face of a zombie apocalypse. It's a social institution, a recognition of your partnership between each other by others generally, making certain kinds of behavior acceptable and children 'legitimate', according to the mores of the time period. And yet, why would that matter, with the curtain about to fall on the human race? Like studying for a test before the end of the world — who cares about your score?
The Iron Seas is a series of steampunk romance books that play zombies and romance straight. By that I mean that zombies really have deeply affected the world, and that threat they present isn't resolved without yet being treated as hopeless — and that the characters do hope for romance and the narrative treats that hope as reasonable. It always seems to me that Meljean Brook noticed certain spices thrown into steampunk, such as zombies and sea monsters and gear-studded prostheses, and tried to find an elegant universe that might feature all of these things. The mechanism for that elegance is nanotechnology, putting the Iron in Iron Seas, but not in their actual seas, as it were. That makes it a different book than Pride and Prejudice and Zombies in two senses: the latter's zombies arise from a mysterious plague, while the former dedicates a significant amount of world building to both the consequences of zombies and an explanation of their origin, hence the elegance of universe I alluded to earlier; and the motivations and actions of the characters are played as responding appropriately to that world.
Furthermore, I think Brook wrote with an ear to certain criticisms about steampunk as a genre, and some historical romance: that even in a world where 19th-century scientific inventions have been elaborated with real imagination, the world and the characters are largely white, wealthy, European, unimaginative choices in a fiction where more is supposed to be possible.
Every pairing is heterosexual and biracial in an imperfect social world, with one partner augmented genetically in some fortunate way. That makes their romances fundamentally regard negotiation across differences in power and culture. This negotiation is Brook's version of romance novels' most beloved trope, THE BIG MISUNDERSTANDING. Typically THE BIG MIS is the friction that allows for there to be an actual story about people clearly attracted to one another and interested in each other romantically. It can be heavy handed. Years ago an article claimed that the failure of recent romantic comedies was that mordern life simply lacks the obstacles that once made romances so compelling.
Among the most fundamental obligations of romantic comedy is that there must be an obstacle to nuptial bliss for the budding couple to overcome. And, put simply, such obstacles are getting harder and harder to come by. They used to lie thick on the ground: parental disapproval, difference in social class, a promise made to another. But society has spent decades busily uprooting any impediment to the marriage of true minds. Love is increasingly presumed—perhaps in Hollywood most of all—to transcend class, profession, faith, age, race, gender, and (on occasion) marital status.
Why Are Romantic Comedies So Bad?
If the dark universe of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies asks why marriage? in a world with so many obstacles, then Christopher Orr suggests that our world now says why not. This is not a view I find compelling. Romance remains a risk, even as the world progresses towards greater equality, if only because other people are always a risk. Life and livelihood remain important questions, but so does that silly old refrain, will I love you tomorrow? Do I love you today? Do I love you? Do I know what that means? Do we have shared understandings of what that means? I don't think Tindr has solved that.
What I appreciate most about the Iron Seas is that the obstacles to understanding one another are still real features of our world, even if they play out with fictional flair. Yasmeen is an absolute authority on her airship and cannot find a partner willing to travel with her and accept that authority. Mina's first sexual experience was traumatic, and the world generally mocks and reviles people with her racial features such that she feels she cannot be taken as a real individual on her terms, that she cannot even be safe. Zenobia is homely, independent, independently wealthy, and deeply suspicious about the motivations of others; she doesn't have to trust anyone, and isn't sure if that's worth wanting.
Even in a world with fucking zombies, these are familiar problems.