Showing posts with label Leigh Brackett. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Leigh Brackett. Show all posts

Monday, December 09, 2019

Geekerati Monday Geekosphere Snapshot 12/9

Back when I started this blog, the trend among bloggers was to share interesting stories that other people had written on their websites. Over time, with the rise of social media, this seems to have faded into the background with few bloggers doing "blogcircles" or "blogrolls." Since I'm a big fan of #FF (Follow Friday) on Twitter and think that one of the purposes blogs exist is to create community, I've decided to launch a weekly (I hope) "Geekerati Geekosphere Snapshot." It will contain blog posts and news stories I've found interesting over the past week. There will be a small excerpt of the other post and a link. I hope you enjoy.

Geekosphere Snapshot for the Week of 12/9/2019

Infinity RPG (Bundle of Holding): Agent! This Infinity RPG Bundle features the Modiphius Entertainment tabletop roleplaying game of spacefaring adventure in the Human Sphere and beyond. Based on Corvus Belli's popular Infinity miniatures skirmish game, the Infinity RPG casts you as Bureau Noir law enforcement agents undertaking missions on a dozen worlds. Track pirates amid the shattered planetoids of Human Edge; delve the oceans of Varuna; duck gunfire in the twisted emerald jungles of Paradiso; pursue rogue AIs through Nomad motherships. Meanwhile, from beyond the Human Sphere, the alien Combined Army has invaded, threatening to destroy humanity

One Page Dungeon Generator (watabou):

Watabou's One Page Dungeon Generator is a wonderful free resource for DMs of all experience levels. It can be used for any fantasy role playing game and generates some wonderful maps.

Why We Write: Rogue Blades Foundation and the Future of Heroic Literature (Black Gate):

Fantasy readers, like those who dwell together here at Black Gate, are long familiar with notions of heroes and the heroic. Each of us might have our own ideas about what makes a hero, but we would likely find common ground in a discussion of the matter.

That being said, is there any doubt our world today is in need of heroes? Heroes do continue to exist in our entertainment, but often enough they are flawed or irrelevant or humorous to the point of being more pastiche than worthy of admiration. Obviously there are examples of the upstanding hero, yet they seem few and far between compared to our increasing occupation with the deranged or the out-and-out vile. It seems we are more often rooting for the fellow behind the hockey mask or clown makeup than we are for the character who boldly steps forward to set things right in a dark world. Too often our heroes seem to stand alone, if they stand at all.

Adventures in Fiction: Leigh Brackett (Goodman Games):

The sad truth is that Appendix N is overwhelmingly a boys’ club. Much of the blame can be assigned to the fact that science-fiction and fantasy writers prior to 1960s were by and large white men. It was a tough club for a woman to break into, resulting in many female authors with an interest in writing science-fiction and fantasy to work under either pen names (such as Andre Norton) or their initials (like C.L. Moore). A few managed to find success and publication without obscuring their femininity, proving that gender is meaningless when it comes to writing rollicking good sci-fi and fantasy. Leigh Brackett was one of these women who earned her place in the club without needing to hide her identity.

Ghostbusters Afterlife Trailer (Sony Pictures):


That's just a glimpse of what's out there this week. What have you seen lately that has you Geeking Out?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

What's the Difference Between Sword 'n' Sorcery and Planetary Romance

A couple of weeks ago, Cinerati featured a post discussing some of the peaks and valleys in quality that fans of Planetary Romance have suffered through/enjoyed over the past few years. In response to the post, our good friend -- and sinister barrister -- Tulkinghorn asked, "what is the difference between Planetary Romance and Sword and Sorcery fiction?"

He received a brief response in the comments from a non-Cinerati member fan of Planetary Romance named Venusian that summarized the difference as, "there is no magic in planetary romance, and it's usually 'off planet.'" This definition is useful, as far as it goes, but it doesn't go deep enough to truly differentiate the two sub-genre from each other. It's also only half true. Add to this lack of specificity the particular -- and perculiar -- skepticism of a person like Tulkinghorn and it makes for a perfect topic for a longer post.

So...what is the difference between Planetary Romance and Sword and Sorcery fiction?

To begin, we must start by acknowledging that both of these sub-genre of fiction lie within the scope of Heroic Fantasy -- and sometimes Heroic Science Fiction -- which is itself a sub-genre of Fantasy literature.

[One could use this as an opportunity to advance the argument that in "speculative fiction" it is Fantasy that is the primary genre and all other classifications are sub-genre of Fantasy, but that is a discussion for another post. Let it merely be stated that I dislike the term "speculative fiction" as it seems to a) have an anti-fantasy bias, b) exhibit "embarrassment" with association with Fantasy, c)has a pro-Science Fiction bias (SF is the abbreviation for both), and is guilty of a litany of other sins including the theft of candy apples from small children at county fairs.]

Heroic Fantasy can be simply defined for the purposes of this discussion, it deserves a thorough examination itself, as narratives in which a heroic figure struggles against antagonists within an imagined setting which contains "impossible" or "improbable" elements. These elements can be magic, monsters, imagined science, or gobbledygook. Most of the fiction in modern Fantasy, epic or otherwise, is some form of Heroic Fantasy though some stories contain "mundane" protagonists or "anti-heroes." To be truly Heroic Fantasy, the protagonist must be larger than life; and this is even more true in the sub-genres of Planetary Romance and Sword and Sorcery.

To really discuss the differences between Planetary Romance and Sword and Sorcery, it is helpful to see how prior science fiction critics have defined the subject.

According to David Pringle (in John Clute and John Grant's Encyclopedia of Fantasy) Planetary Romance stories,

are stories of adventure set almost entirely on the surface of some alien world, with an emphasis on swordplay (or similar), monsters, telepathy or other under-explained "magic," and near-human alien civilizations which often resemble those of Earth's pre-technological past...The hero is usually from Earth, but the means of his or her "translation" to the far planet is often supernatural rather than technological, involving flying carpets, astral projection, angel-power and kindred devices. Spaceships are sometimes mentioned, but the complete lack of interest shown in the mechanics of space travel is one of the principal features distinguishing PR from space opera...; super-scientific spacecraft and other mighty machines are central to space opera, but rarely feature in planetary romance.

The same volume includes a definition of Sword and Sorcery written by John Clute, David Langford, and Roz Kaveney which claims,
In 1961 Michael Moorcock requested a term to describe the fantasy subgenre featuring muscular Heroes in violent conflict with a variety of Villains, chiefly Wizards, Witches, evil Spirits, and other creatures whose powers are -- unlike the hero's -- supernatural in origin. Fritz Leiber suggested "Sword and Sorcery", and this term stuck.

I think these two definitions are extremely useful and one might argue that the Pringle and Clute definitions provide us with sufficient data to provide us with a clear understanding of these two genre, but I am not quite satisfied with Clute's definition of Sword and Sorcery. Certainly, the Pringle definition of Planetary Romance gives us a strong sense of the kind of story one might expect if one were to call it Planetary Romance. It also provides ammunition against Venusian's claim that Planetary Romance doesn't feature magic. This is important because one of the things that makes Planetary Romance so special is that way that it walks the tightrope between Fantasy and Science Fiction. It is a wonderful crossover genre.

Some brief examples of the "magic" featured in tales of Planetary Romance include the telepathic language of the Martians of Barsoom, the psychic hounds of Leigh Brackett's Skaith novels, and the "Force" in the Star Wars films. The Star Wars films being a wonderful filmic example of Planetary Romance. Planetary Romance tales feature magic, but it is not a necessary condition for the tale and is often merely a means to an ends. What is fairly universal is the inclusion of fallen empires, dying worlds, and the ruins of once great civilizations.

The obsession with fallen empires, dying worlds, and ruins of once great civilizations is one shared with the Sword and Sorcery genre. The dying planet of Barsoom shares a great deal with Robert E. Howard's presentation of Hyperborea. Though one should note that the empires of Sword and Sorcery are dead empires for the reader, they are usually living (though dying) empires for the characters within the tale. In Planetary Romance, the fallen civilizations are often artifacts from a "more noble" time. In Sword and Sorcery, civilization itself must fall as it corrupts the natural man with its decadence. This is one distinction between the genre, the 19th century moral clarity of Planetary Romance is often in direct opposition to the 20th century pessimism (almost nihilism) of Sword and Sorcery fiction.

But it is more than a pessimistic world view that separates the two genres. Sword and Sorcery tales contain within them elements of the Weird Horror tale. When Michael Moorcock, a master of Sword and Sorcery whose Elric character perfectly embodies the Sword and Sorcery obsessions with cultural decadence and Weird Supernatural Horror, describes Conan's relation to his world (and to prior Heroic Fantasy characters) he writes, "If the form of Howard's stories was borrowed at third and fourth hand from Scott and Fenimore Cooper, the supernatural element from Poe and others, the barbarian hero of the Conan stories owed a great deal to Tarzan and other Burroughs primatives. Given to impulsive violent action, sudden rough affection and bouts of melancholy...Conan mistrusted civilization. He was forever at odds both with the respectable world and the occult world; forever detecting plots to seduce him." [emphasis mine]

In Heroic Fantasy magic can be a tool that is neutral in its use. The "Force" has both a light side and a dark side, the telepathy of Martians isn't in itself corrupting. In Sword and Sorcery tales magic is by its nature a corrupting force. Conan fears and opposes magic, even the anti-Conan Elric eschews its use whenever possible and the use of magic rituals often comes with a great cost.

Notice the use of the word "fear" when describing Conan's reaction to magic and the supernatural. Howard's invincible barbarian is sometimes as deathly afraid as the most frail Lovecraftian protagonist when it comes to things that lurk in the spaces between. Though the supernatural beast, "neither a hound nor a baboon," that attacks him in The Phoenix and the Sword "rouse[s] in the Cimmerian a frenzied fury akin to madness," a creature similar to Tsathaggua leaves him "frozen with nauseated horror." What is this creature that so frightens Conan, the man beyond fear? It is an "amorphous bulk...Its unstable outlines somewhat suggested an octopus, but its malformed tentacles were too short for its size, and its substance was a quaking, jelly-like stuff which made him physically sick to look at... among this loathsome gelid mass reared up a frog-like head." The creature is either Shoggoth or Tsathaggua (the fact that the creature's summoner is named Tsotha hints at the second), but it is certainly beyond the abilities of our champion to defeat this "blasphemy agains the eternal laws of nature." This is the kind of creature one would not expect to find in the Planetary Romance fiction of Brackett or Burroughs, but that is perfectly at home in the "dreams" of Lovecraftian horror. Horrific creatures abound in the Conan fiction, and in Sword and Sorcery generally. Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar stories have the "Gods of Lankhmar," Michael Moorcock's Elric tales feature all kinds of Weird Horror from the gods of chaos to much smaller beings.

Planetary Romance is a hopeful fantasy where heroes strive valiantly and where the hero chooses good over evil -- even at personal expense. Sword and Sorcery is a dark and nihilistic genre with a dark view of human nature where the hero often chooses self-interest over the Good. It is his firm command of this single feature distinguishing Sword and Sorcery from other Heroic Fantasy (that of the incorporation of the Weird Horror tale into Heroic Fantasy) that makes Michael Moorcock's anti-Conan stories about the tragic albino Elric so ingenious. Moorcock simultaneously deconstructs the character of Conan while writing a story that embodies the conventions -- even while it expands them -- of the Sword and Sorcery tale.

The first words readers of Howard's Conan read as a description of the archetypal character are, "Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen-eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet."

The first words readers read as a description of Michael Moorcock's Elric are, "His name was Elric of Melnibone king of ruins, lord of a scattered race that had once ruled the ancient world. Elric, sorcerer and swordsman, slayer of kin, despoiler of his homeland, white-faced albino, last of his line."

Both quotes are from the first published stories of the respective character, and both stories take place toward the end of the character's life. It is exquisite the way that Moorcock inverts almost every aspect of the Conan character in the creation of his anti-hero. He inverts every aspect save one, both men are prone to gigantic melancholies. One might think due to the fact that Moorcock's Elric tales are a deconstruction of the Conan character, or possibly an adult version of an adolescent character, that Moorcock would use the deconstruction as an opportunity to attack the genre itself. Moorcock doesn't. He uses it as an opportunity to refine the genre and expand it. By removing the aspects of the genre that are adolescent wish fulfillment and focusing on the central concepts of Sword and Sorcery, Moorcock allows us to see the literary merit of the conventions of the genre free from the constraints of whimsy. The young reader, seeing the power of Conan, might miss the criticisms of society and the dark presentation of human nature. The reader of Elric's stories cannot avoid them for their terror and their beauty. In writing fiction that is a negative image of the original, possibly to criticize the original, Moorcock created a lens that allows readers to more greatly appreciate what Robert E. Howard has done with his Conan tales -- something that the Lin Carter and L Sprague deCamp pastiches missed -- the demonstration of how fiery human nature reacts when faced with supernatural horror. Conan often fights against the darkness, but he often flees as well.

John Carter would never flee from the giant white ape of Barsoom. He might feel some twinge of fear before he grapples with the beast and defeats it. When translucent skinned invaders from Jupiter attack, horrifying visage and all, it is John Carter who flies of to their home world to defeat them -- fearless in the face of the unnatural or the evil. Luke, when captured by Vader in Return of the Jedi, doesn't succumb to despair. Instead he sees "the good" in his father and fights to redeem a lost father. In Planetary Romance Evil can be defeated. In Sword and Sorcery some Evil is best left in the pit where you found it.

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.