Tuesday, September 08, 2009

John Carter of Mars and The Queen of the Iron Sands

The 90s were a decade of either no news, or bad news, for fans of Planetary Romance, but during the 00's these fans have been experiencing a roller coaster ride of positive news and worrisome news.

For the uninitiated, Planetary Romance stories are a kind of speculative fiction that straddles the line somewhere between fantasy and science fiction. The stories are fantasy in that they often incorporate magic systems, princesses, and mystical experiences. They are science fiction in that they often take place on other worlds.

The genre was largely created by the Edgar Rice Burroughs novel A Princess of Mars featuring Burroughs' second most famous character John Carter of Mars. In story, readers encounter the Civil War veteran -- who is of indeterminate age and possibly unaging -- John Carter as he mystically transports himself to Mars (or as the Martian natives call it, Barsoom) after being near fatally injured. While on Barsoom, encounters alien races, falls in love with the most beautiful woman in the universe, and participates in large scale war. The book established the basic tropes for the genre, tropes which have been used to great success in literature and film in everything from Leigh Brackett's John Eric Stark stories to George Lucas' Star Wars films. There is a reason that Brackett was selected to write a draft of Empire Strikes Back and that reason is that Star Wars sits firmly in the genre of Planetary Romance -- as does Flash Gordon.

Planetary Romance stories are more about adventure, romance, and the unknown than they are about science or political commentary -- though there are exceptions. There are many wonderfully written novels and stories within the genre, but there is also material some consider to be offensive drivel. I can remember stumbling upon the Gor novels of John Norman because of some basic underlying similarities between it and Burroughs' Martian novels. Traditional Planetary Romance novels advocate Victorian sensibilities about virtue and heroism, much like Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World (an interesting experiment is to read The Lost World and The Heart of Darkness back to back), and love is presented as an ideal akin to Courtly Love. The heroes of Burroughs' novels nearly swoon with affection for their beloved, a beloved who is perfect beyond compare. The Gor novels turned this on their head as Norman's novels were erotica disguised as Planetary Romance. Let's just say that this came as quite a shock to my 8th grade self, and to this day I don't have an appreciation for the Gor novels.

Needless to say, Planetary Romance is a rich and important sub-genre of fiction and one that I highly recommend.

Some of the roller coaster peaks in recent years have included:
  • The University of Nebraska Press editions of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Martian Stories, Moon Stories, and Venus Stories.
  • The Planet Stories line of books by Paizo Press.
  • Chris Roberson's Paragaea
  • Jon Favreau being selected to direct the John Carter movie. Even though he seemed overly influenced by the art of Frank Frazetta, and not enough influenced by the art of Michael Whelan or Frank Schoonover, Favreau was a great choice...before he had to leave the project and make an awesome version of Iron Man.

Some of the roller coaster valleys have included:
  • The selection of Robert Rodriguez to direct the John Carter of Mars movie. I'm a Rodriguez fan, but the thought of his "lowest budget possible" mentality underlying a John Carter film just rubbed me the wrong way. Sure his Harryhausen homage was fun, but...John Carter in DV Cam isn't my idea of cool.
  • The recent three Star Wars films which hinted at how good Planetary Romance can be, while simultaneously showing us how bad it can be.
  • The recent Flash Gordon series. Seriously, WTF?!

As noted above, a lot of the news -- good and bad -- for Planetary Romance fans centers around a John Carter project. One is still slated for production by Disney with Andrew Stanton at the helm, and Michael Chabon attached to the screenplay. So far that seems like good news for the Planetary Romance fan...but there is news about the project that should make fans worry too.

One can easily overlook that Stanton hasn't done a project like this before, Doug Liman hadn't directed a spy movie before Bourne Identity, because Stanton's other film work has been extraordinary. That's not what is worrisome. What is worrisome is the casting.

Taylor Kitsch (Gambit from Wolverine) has been selected to play the title role. Unless his performance in Wolverine was atypical, I cannot imagine him as remotely capable of capturing the charm and power of the Carter character.

I am less worried, but only cautiously optimistic, regarding the casting of Lynn Collins as Dejah Thoris. After all, who can play "the most beautiful woman in the universe?" That's a pretty tough title to live up to, but I like the fact that the casting director didn't equate beauty with "ultra-voluptuous" and try for Scarlett Johansson or someone similar.

Then there's the casting of Willem Defoe -- who has recently become a parody of himself -- and Dominic West -- who I loved in The Wire but who was ridiculous in Punisher: War Zone.

It's gotten to the point that every piece of news I read regarding the upcoming Disney film version of John Carter of Mars has made my inner geek want to run away and hide. Will it be good or will it be awful? The inner 8th grader cannot stand the pressure and needs some new Planetary Romance distraction -- a quality one.

Thankfully, Fantasy author Scott Lynch has recently released a free web-book (at least the first few chapters) of exactly the kind my inner geek needs. A few weeks ago, Lynch began e-publishing Queen of the Iron Sands. He's releasing the story as a "serial novel" and simultaneously paying homage to the classic of Planetary Romance and the serials of the early 20th century.

My inner geek now refuses to hide no matter how bad the news regarding the John Carter film gets and it's all to Scott Lynch's credit. No matter how bad the John Carter film ends up, I know that planetary romance as a genre will live on because talented people are still applying their skills to the genre.


Tulkinghorn said...

Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser? The recent Chabon book based thereon, quasi-historical, true, but in spirit.....

I love your love of Planetary Romance, but need enlightening as to the exact demarcation between P.R. and sword 'n' sorcery.

And thanks for the tip about the new Lynch.

Jeff Doten said...

Drop on by www.barsoomia.org and our forum for your Planetary Romance fix - Jeff

( about he differance between planetary romance and S&S - there is no magic in planetary romance, and it's usually 'off planet' )