Planetary romance

Cover of Imagination, August 1953

Planetary romance is a subgenre of science fiction or science fantasy story in which the bulk of the action consists of adventures on one or more exotic alien planets, characterized by distinctive physical and cultural backgrounds. Some planetary romances take place against the background of a future culture where travel between worlds by spaceship is commonplace; others, particularly the earliest examples of the genre, do not, and invoke flying carpets, astral projection, or other methods of getting between planets. In either case, it is the planetside adventures which are the focus of the story, not the mode of travel.[1]

Prototypes and characteristics

As the name of the genre suggests, the planetary romance is an extension of late 19th and early 20th century adventure novels and pulp romances to a planetary setting. The pulp romance (of writers like H. Rider Haggard and Talbot Mundy) featured bold characters in exotic settings and "lost worlds" such as South America, Africa, the Middle or Far East; a variant type took place in real or fictional countries of ancient and medieval times, and eventually contributed to the modern fantasy genre.

In the planetary romance, space opera transformations are applied to the pulp romance genre: the bold adventurer becomes a space traveler, often from Earth, which itself stands in for modern Europe and North America (understood as centers of technology and colonialism). Other planets (often, in the earlier history of the genre, Mars and Venus) replace Asia and Africa as exotic locales; while hostile tribes of aliens and their decadent monarchies substitute for Western stereotypes of "savage races" and "oriental despotisms". While the planetary romance has been used as a mode for expressing a very wide variety of political and philosophical thought, an enduring subject is the encounter of civilizations alien to each other, their difficulties in communicating, and the frequently disastrous results that follow.

Edgar Rice Burroughs and "sword and planet" stories

The first author to achieve a large market for this type of story was Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose Barsoom series' first installments appeared in the pulp All-Story in 1912. Burroughs' writing popularized the concept of pulp-style adventures on other planets. Burroughs' "Barsoom" (Mars) manifested a chaotic melange of cultural and technological styles, combining futuristic devices such as "radium pistols" and flying machines suspended by a mysterious levitating ray, with anachronistic Martian cavalry charges, a feudal system with emperors and princesses, much sword-fighting, and a martial code used by the planet's inhabitants. Frank Herbert's Dune and George Lucas' Star Wars are direct inheritors of this tradition of welding the futuristic to the medieval. The content of the Barsoom stories is pure swashbuckler, being a series of imprisonments, forced gladiatorial combat, daring escapes, monster-killings, and duels with villains. Fantasy elements are minimal; other than telepathy, most instances of "magic" are dismissed or exposed as humbuggery.

Burroughs' stories spawned a large number of imitators. Some, like Otis Adelbert Kline, were exploiting the new market that Burroughs had created; even Burroughs imitated himself in his Venus series, starting in 1934. After the genre had been out of fashion for a few decades, the 1960s saw a renewed interest in Burroughs and the production of nostalgic Burroughsian pastiche by authors like Lin Carter and Michael Moorcock. This consciously imitative genre, influenced also by such sword and sorcery authors as Robert E. Howard, goes by the name of "Sword and Planet" fiction; it is an essentially static, "retro" genre, aiming at reproducing more of the same type of story, with slender variations on a set formula. Perhaps for this reason, many "Sword and Planet" authors have written staggeringly long series sequences, the extreme example being Kenneth Bulmer's Dray Prescot saga, composed of fifty-three novels.

Science fiction

Cover of Planet Stories, Fall 1947

The publication of pulp science fiction magazines starting in 1926 (and becoming especially prolific in the 1930s) created a new market for planetary romances, and had a strong effect on later incarnations of the genre. Some pulps, such as Planet Stories and Startling Stories, were primarily dedicated to publishing planetary romances, while existing fantasy pulps like Weird Tales began to publish science fiction romances next to their usual horror and sword and sorcery fare. One of the most outstanding writers in this vein was C. L. Moore, the author of the Northwest Smith stories (1933–1947), featuring a rugged spaceman who finds himself continually entangled with quasi-sorcerous alien powers. There is very little swashbuckling adventure in Moore's stories, which focus instead on psychological stresses, especially the fear and fascination of the unknown, which appears in Moore as both dangerous and erotic.

In the 1940s and 1950s, one of the most significant contributors to the planetary romance genre was Leigh Brackett, whose stories combined complex, roguish (sometimes criminal) heroes, high adventure, the occasional love story, richly detailed physical settings with a depth and weight unusual for the pulps, and a style that bridged space opera and fantasy. Brackett was a regular contributor to Planet Stories and Thrilling Wonder Stories, for which she produced an interlocking series of tales set in the same universe, but—with the exception of the Eric John Stark stories—with wholly different protagonists. Brackett's stories are primarily adventure fiction, but also contain reflections on the themes of cultural and corporate imperialism and colonialism.

There is an instructive comparison between The Enchantress of Venus, one of Brackett's Stark stories, and A. E. van Vogt's Empire of the Atom. Both take as their starting point the plot and situation of I, Claudius by Robert Graves. Van Vogt follows the plot somewhat more closely, concentrating his invention on the background of his empire while emphasizing the hero's vulnerability. Brackett introduces an Earthman who is struck by the romantic allure of the women involved in these intrigues. While both stories are space operas, only Brackett's is a planetary romance.

From the mid-1960s on, the traditional type of planetary romance set in the Solar System fell out of favor; as technological advances revealed most local worlds to be hostile to life, new planetary stories have usually been set on extrasolar planets, generally through the assumption of some form of faster-than-light travel. One exception is the Gor series, published from 1967 to the present. Gor is a Counter-Earth planet in a symmetrical orbit to Earth on the other side of the Sun (not at Earth’s L3 point). Gravitational effects and detection by terrestrial probes are explained away by “superior alien science”, a common conceit in planetary romances.

The planetary romance has become a significant component of current science fiction, though few writers use the term self-descriptively. Given the cross-pollination between planetary romance and space opera, many stories are difficult to classify as being wholly one or the other.

Frank Herbert's Dune series, particularly the earlier books which are largely set on the desert planet of Arrakis, has all the characteristics of planetary romance (and some of "sword and planet" fiction), though they are used in support of Herbert's meditations on philosophy, ecology, and the politics of power.

Marion Zimmer Bradley's Darkover novels can also be classified as planetary romance, since the focus remains firmly on the planet Darkover, though the galactic setting is never entirely limited to background. Similarly, L. Sprague de Camp's Krishna series of rationalized planetary romances are a subseries of his space opera Viagens Interplanetarias series.

Ursula K. Le Guin's earliest works, such as Rocannon's World and Planet of Exile are recognizably planetary romances; arguably most of her Hainish Cycle can be classified as such, though in later works fantasy elements are submerged, and social and anthropological themes come to the fore.

In Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels (1985), editor and critic David Pringle named Bradley and Anne McCaffrey two "leading practitioners nowadays" for the planetary romance type of science fiction.[2] McCaffrey's Pern novels generally limit the galactic setting to very short prologues. The reader's scientific world-view is important but the Pernese society has lost that.

Examples of planetary romance worlds and works

In fiction

In comics

In film and television

See also


  1. See Science Fiction Citations: Planetary Romance; and John Clute, "Planetary Romance", in Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, ed. John Clute and Peter Nicholls, 1995, ISBN 0-312-13486-X.
  2. David Pringle, Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels, An English-language selection, 1949–1984, London: Xanadu Publ, 1985. Page 17. Pringle does not include any Bradley or McCaffrey novels. Introducing his selections, he says, "I admit to blind spots—for example, I have little affection for the type of sf story which has been called 'planetary romance'".
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