Planetary Romance

planet stories

Planetary romance is a type 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.

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 elements 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.

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. Even if Burroughs’ writing was not wholly original, it at least popularized the concept of pulp-style adventures on other planets. Burroughs’ ‘Barsoom’ (the indigenous name for 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 credibility-stretching martial code that justifies it. 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.

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, a mock autobiography of the Roman Emperor Claudius written in 1934; it includes history of the Julio-Claudian Dynasty and Roman Empire, from Julius Caesar’s assassination in 44 BCE to Caligula’s assassination in 41 CE.Van Vogt follows the plot somewhat more closely, concentrating his story on the background of the empire he created 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—possibly due to the term being perceived as a pejorative—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.


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