Showing posts with label Planetary Romance. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Planetary Romance. Show all posts

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

[Blogging Northwest Smith] -- Shambleau (A Reprise)

Almost two years ago, Cinerati featured a post discussing the differences between Sword and Sorcery tales and stories of Planetary Romance. According to the post, a couple of the key differences were the moral clarity of Planetary Romance tales and the inclusion of "Weird Supernatural" elements in Sword and Sorcery tales. In response to the post, Blue Tyson, posited that I had left a "Northwest Smith" sized hole in my argument. The implication being that these tales contained "Weird Supernatural" while falling squarely into the Planetary Romance genre.

At the time I had only read Catherine Lucille Moore's Jirel of Joiry tales, and not her Northwest Smith stories. Blue Tyson's comment deeply intrigued me, and I decided to read C.L. Moore's Northwest Smith stories and to do one blog entry per story as I read them. For the exercise, I used Paizo Publishing's excellent Planet Stories edition of Northwest of Earth, which contains the complete stories of Northwest Smith (including "Nymph of Darkness" a collaboration with Forrest J Ackerman and "Quest for the Starstone" a collaboration with Henry Kuttner), as my reference during the discussion.

Eventually, life caught up with my ambitious attempt -- in the form of twin daughters, graduate school, and work related stresses -- and I was unable to complete the experiment.

I think of it as one of my failings as a blogger. I think of it as my biggest failure, just above not being able to continue my Geekerati podcast with Bill Cunningham and Shawna Benson -- a podcast that I still think is among the best done. Just skip the last couple of episodes, which were recorded as the podcast was in its twilight.

Now that it is summer, and Gen Con approaches rapidly, I would like to re-ignite my series. To that end, I will be re-posting the earlier blog posts for the next few days, after which I will complete my Northwest Smith journey. If you want to skip ahead, you can read the originals by going to the Blogging SF/F page, but I'd rather you stuck around for the ride and commented on the new pages.


For those of you who are unfamiliar with Northwest Smith, he is often discussed as the fictional character who is the inspiration for George Lucas' character Han Solo. Any need to point out similarities between Northwest Smith and Indiana Jones seems unnecessary, as the names themselves speak volumes about that connection. According to John Clute's Encyclopedia of Fantasy, "Through Smith, CLM helped revamp the formulae of both space opera and heroic fantasy. Smith's introspection and fallibility give him a more human dimension than his predecessors in heroic fantasy, and the depiction of his sexual vulnerability represented a psychological maturity uncommon in the field."

I think it bears mentioning that Stephan Dziemianowicz, who wrote the entry in the Encyclopedia, makes no mention of Planetary Romance in the Northwest Smith section and focuses on Smith's importance in space opera and heroic fantasy. I mentioned in the prior post that Planetary Romance was a sub-genre of heroic fantasy, but then again so is a great deal of fiction that no one would ever imagine being classified as Planetary Romance.

If "Shambleau" is any indication of the direction that future Northwest Smith tales will wander, Moore's tales of Smith belong firmly in the genre of space opera and completely outside the bounds of Planetary Romance. Though the Smith tales' inclusion of imagery associated with "Weird Fiction" marks them as stories that extend the boundaries of the traditional space opera tale.

In support of the Smith stories falling into the sub-genre of space opera -- a genre that some argue includes the Planet Stories tales of Leigh Brackett, though I believe that classification lacks specificity and makes space opera too broad a category -- I looked to David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer's The Space Opera Renaissance for a working definition of space opera. They offer two early definitions of the genre. These early definitions are most useful given the publication dates of the Smith tales, newer definitions bring to mind epic tales like Iain Bank's "Culture" stories or Asimov's "Foundation" due to the expansion of the use of the term space opera.

According to Hartwell and Cramer, the Fancyclopedia II had the following definition:
Space Opera ([coined by Wilson] Tucker) A hack science-fiction story, a dressed-up Western; so called by analogy with "horse opera" for Western bangbangshootemup movies and "soap opera" for radio and video yellowdrama.


Hartwell and Cramer are quick to point out that this definition is actually a watered-down version of what Tucker actually said in his fanzine, which wasn't to actually equate Westerns and Space Opera as telling similar tales. But the connection had been made and by the early 1950s, Galaxy magazine was firm in its use of space opera as "any hackneyed SF filled with stereotypes borrowed from Westerns." The definition of what constitutes space opera has since expanded significantly since the 50s -- it has come to be so broad as to include both Planetary Romance and the "Culture" stories which is almost too broad -- but the connection between the Western and space opera seems particularly significant in the case of Northwest Smith. I would not call Moore's writing hackneyed, but "Shambleau" could easily be rewritten as a Western with only minor cosmetic changes.

"Shambleau," which was Moore's first published story, was published in 1933 during the height of the pulp era. The shelves were filled with a wide array of writing of various qualities, but it is easy to see why Moore's piece was selected for publication in the November 1933 edition of Weird Tales. The piece could also be used as a demonstration for how to mold a work of writing to suit a particular publication. It isn't hard to believe that Moore actually started this as a Western and then adapted it to better suit the tastes of Weird Tales.

"Shambleau" opens with a prefatory paragraph which sets the tone of the tale, establishes a sense of history and place, and gives readers some foreshadowing regarding the turn the tale will take. The paragraph is reminiscent of the paragraphs Robert E. Howard used to open his Conan tales. Where his paragraphs represented excerpts from the fictional Nemedian Chronicles, Moore's resemble the careful tone of a campfire tale. The paragraph is different in tone from Howard's, but serves much the same purpose.

It begins:
MAN HAS CONQUERED Space before. You may be sure of that. Somewhere beyond the Egyptians, in that dimness out of which come echoes of half-mythical names -- Atlantis, Mu -- somewhere back of history's first beginnings there must have been an age when mankind, like us today, built cities of steel to house its star-roving ships and knew the names of the planets in their own native tongues--


One might believe after reading this paragraph -- especially since the place names for Mars and Venus used later in the story are those used in this paragraph -- that he or she is about to read about Space travel in this time before time. This is not the case. References to "New York roast beef" and a "Chino-Aryan war" leave any speculation that this tale takes place in a forgotten time behind. No...this tale takes place in our future, after mankind has once again conquered Space. The sense of the mythical is used in order to make the twist of the story plausible and ensures that the twist falls well within a reader's suspension of disbelief.

We know that our tale take place at some time during mankind's Space conquering future, but what kind of future is it and what kind of man is our protagonist? Apparently, the Mars of the future is a lot like Virginia City.

"Shambleau! Ha...Shambleau!" The wild hysteria of the mob rocketed from wall to wall of Lakkdarol's narrow streets and the storming of heavy boots over the slag-red pavement made an ominous undertone to that swelling bay...

Northwest Smith heard it coming and stepped into the nearest doorway, laying a wary hand on his heat-gun's grip, and his colorless eyes narrowed. Strange sounds were common enough in the streets of Earth's latest colony on Mars -- a raw, red little down where anything might happen, and very often did.


Moore gets us into the action quickly. After a prefatory paragraph that sets the tone and place, she launches us straight into a dangerous situation. It's like reading the scrolling preface before a Star Wars film and then being thrust right into the action. In this case, the action of the tale is simple enough. A wild mob is shouting for the death of a woman, whether "Shambleau" is her name or the name of her people has not yet been made clear, and Northwest Smith takes it upon himself to calm the mob and save the girl. It is only after saving the girl that Northwest Smith comes to understand why the mob was after the woman in the first place -- to tell you more about the girl would be spoiling the fun, but it would also be unfair to leave out further discussion of our protagonist.

We know by his introduction, and his hand on his heat gun, that Northwest Smith is a dangerous man. We come to find out that his saving of the woman probably had little to do with chivalry, but more to do with "that chord of sympathy for the underdog that stirs in every Earthman." This chord of sympathy must stir strong in Smith, because the mob is pretty persistent and Smith -- like Han Solo after him -- isn't the kind who wants to get too involved in this kind of action. Smith's business is usually of a different sort:
Smith's errand in Lakkdarol, like most of his errands, is better not spoken of. Man lives as he must, and Smith's living was a perilous affair outside the law and ruled by the ray-gun only. It is enough to say that the shipping-port and its cargoes outbound interested him deeply just now...

Apparently, Smith is a blaggard whose day to day business is so unseemly that Moore refrains from sharing it, likely because the audience would lose sympathy with our protagonist. It is easy to see how Smith became the archetype that anti-heroes would be based upon for decades to come. He's a cautious man, who pulls for the underdog, but who participates in business best left unspoken. Sounds like Han Solo to me...or Wolverine.

"Shambleau" is a fun tale with a nice twist, a twist that is fairly obvious after the prefatory paragraph. One can see illustrations of "Shambleau" by Barbarella creator Jean-Claude Forest at this fairly NSFW link if you don't want to wait to find out the surprise. I recommend waiting. Read Moore's prose first. Moore incorporates classic mythology into the Science Fiction narrative smoothly and dramatically. Her writing is addictive and she manages to take a classic monster and turn it into something really weird.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Hulu Recommendation Friday (on the following Tuesday): Steel Dawn



The 70s, 80s, and 90s were the heyday of the Post-Apocalyptic narrative. From movies to video games to role playing games there was an explosion of Post-Apocalyptic entertainment available.

One the movie front, we had quite a variety in quality to choose from. My favorite Post Apocalyptic film lies somewhere between Logan's Run, Escape from New York, and The Planet of the Apes. Mad Max, The Road Warrior, and The Quiet Earth were some of the shining stars of the film releases. Zardoz and Tank Girl were two of the weirder and less coherent entries. Jean Claude Van Damme's Cyborg fell somewhere in the middle of entertaining and mind-numbingly horrible.

On the gaming front, the post-apocalyptic role playing games varied from the systemically complex Aftermath to the wildly imaginative Gamma World. Aftermath always seemed to me to be a simulation of "what would happen if," which meant that most characters die in horrible fashion -- at least they did after some complex mathematical equations were applied to a couple of die rolls. Twilight 2000 was a representation of "what was going to happen." T2000, like Aftermath, featured complex rules systems with realistic representations of radiation poisoning. Nothing more fun that calculating "rads" and their very real affects on your character. Gamma World was a pure "what if" that included everything from serious speculation to mutant plant/rabbit fusions. Gamma World was the most intriguing of the games, but it also had the disadvantage of multiple editions with incompatible rules sets. I would be remiss if I left out the ultra-enjoyable Car Wars game by Steve Jackson Games...cars with machine guns and rocket launchers...mmm...fun.

As for video games...Wasteland is one of the classic computer role playing games and the ancestor of the excellent Fallout series of games.

In the middle of this Cold War inspired Post-Apocalyptomania, in 1987, came a film starring one of Hollywood's biggest stars. Fresh out of successful films like Red Dawn (itself a Post Apocalyptic movie in its own way), Youngblood, and Dirty Dancing, Patrick Swayze entered the medium with an entry that fused narrative elements from the Post Apocalyptic, Western, Sword and Sorcery, and Planetary Romance genres. Steel Dawn was directed by Lance Hool (Missing in Action 2) with a screenplay by Doug Lefler (director of The Last Legion). In addition to Swayze, the film stars Lisa Niemi (Swayze's real world wife) in the "romantic" role of Kasha and b-movie stalwart Brion James as Tark "the romantic rival."

The outline of the story is essentially Shane. A wanderer comes to town and helps a family who is being pressured by a land baron to give up their water to the land baron. Like most adaptations of Shane, the film understates the dangerous nature of the wanderer and overstates the relationship between Shane and the mother of the family under "siege." Alan Ladd's Shane is too friendly, the book's character is more akin to the Jack Palance character. Jean Claude Van Damme's Shane clone encounters a single mother and can thus become the romantic interest. Clint Eastwood's Shane translation is the hand of god working vengeance against an unjust man. Swayze's Shane is a former soldier who wanders into town with the goal of, temporarily at least, taking the place of a "Peacekeeper" who is murdered at the beginning of the film.

Swayze's arrival throws a wrench into the plans of the land baron, and into a burgeoning romance between Tark and Kasha. His skills with a sword spark the imagination of Kasha's son Jux and are what eventually allow Swayze to challenge the local land baron and avenge the death of the prior "Peacekeeper."

The swordplay, use of meditation, and moral clarity of the hero echo the narrative tropes of Planetary Romance -- the reason this film was recommended this week. The inclusion, at the beginning of the film, of weird horror in the form of sand-dwelling mutants, the aforementioned swordplay, and the lone walker nature of Swayze's character fall nicely in the Sword and Sorcery genre. The setting is definitely Post-Apocalyptic with a nuclear blasted landscape with enough history that their have even been Post-Holocaust wars that resulted in the creation of Post Apocalyptic super swordsman like Swayze and Sho -- the warrior hired by the land baron to defeat Swayze. And the story is a pure translation of Shane, but lacking in Shane's adulation of the father figure.

I have always found it interesting that the father, who is so strong in Schaefer's book Shane, is emasculated in favor of the Shane figure in film representations of the tale. Shane is a dangerous man, a gambler and murderer akin to Doc Holliday. Shane is a villain who becomes a hero when he encounters the civilizing influence of a family. Had Shane stopped in town, instead of the farm, he would have quickly become the villain of the story. A key scene, in most representations, demonstrating the difference in focus from father worship to rogue worship is the scene where the father gets into a fight in the local tavern. The book makes it clear how powerful the father is and how he is holding back to save his son, the movies make no such concessions and Steel Dawn is no different. Tark is not the young boy's father, but he is a capable farmhand who has been in the father role for some time. He is quickly displaced by Swayze, even when he is a fairly competent defender in his own right -- he's just not a sword jedi who meditates while standing on his head like Swayze.

The film is enjoyable, though very campy, and it is largely due to Swayze's extraordinary charisma.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Blogging Northwest Smith: "Shambleau"

Cinerati recently featured a post discussing the differences between Sword and Sorcery tales and stories of Planetary Romance. According to the post, a couple of the key differences were the moral clarity of Planetary Romance tales and the inclusion of "Weird Supernatural" elements in Sword and Sorcery tales. In response to the post, Blue Tyson, posited that I had left a "Northwest Smith" sized hole in my argument.

Having read Catherine Lucille Moore's Jirel of Joiry tales, but not her Northwest Smith stories, I was intrigued by the statement. I have decided to read C.L. Moore's Northwest Smith stories and to do one blog entry per story as I read them. I will be using Paizo Publishing's excellent Planet Stories edition of Northwest of Earth, which contains the complete stories of Northwest Smith (including "Nymph of Darkness" a collaboration with Forrest J Ackerman and "Quest for the Starstone" a collaboration with Henry Kuttner), as my reference during the discussion.


For those of you who are unfamiliar with Northwest Smith, he is often discussed as the fictional character who is the inspiration for George Lucas' character Han Solo. Any need to point out similarities between Northwest Smith and Indiana Jones seems unnecessary, as the names themselves speak volumes about that connection. According to John Clute's Encyclopedia of Fantasy, "Through Smith, CLM helped revamp the formulae of both space opera and heroic fantasy. Smith's introspection and fallibility give him a more human dimension than his predecessors in heroic fantasy, and the depiction of his sexual vulnerability represented a psychological maturity uncommon in the field."

I think it bears mentioning that Stephan Dziemianowicz, who wrote the entry in the Encyclopedia, makes no mention of Planetary Romance in the Northwest Smith section and focuses on Smith's importance in space opera and heroic fantasy. I mentioned in the prior post that Planetary Romance was a sub-genre of heroic fantasy, but then again so is a great deal of fiction that no one would ever imagine being classified as Planetary Romance.

If "Shambleau" is any indication of the direction that future Northwest Smith tales will wander, Moore's tales of Smith belong firmly in the genre of space opera and completely outside the bounds of Planetary Romance. Though the Smith tales' inclusion of imagery associated with "Weird Fiction" marks them as stories that extend the boundaries of the traditional space opera tale.

In support of the Smith stories falling into the sub-genre of space opera -- a genre that some argue includes the Planet Stories tales of Leigh Brackett, though I believe that classification lacks specificity and makes space opera too broad a category -- I looked to David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer's The Space Opera Renaissance for a working definition of space opera. They offer two early definitions of the genre. These early definitions are most useful given the publication dates of the Smith tales, newer definitions bring to mind epic tales like Iain Bank's "Culture" stories or Asimov's "Foundation" due to the expansion of the use of the term space opera.

According to Hartwell and Cramer, the Fancyclopedia II had the following definition:
Space Opera ([coined by Wilson] Tucker) A hack science-fiction story, a dressed-up Western; so called by analogy with "horse opera" for Western bangbangshootemup movies and "soap opera" for radio and video yellowdrama.


Hartwell and Cramer are quick to point out that this definition is actually a watered-down version of what Tucker actually said in his fanzine, which wasn't to actually equate Westerns and Space Opera as telling similar tales. But the connection had been made and by the early 1950s, Galaxy magazine was firm in its use of space opera as "any hackneyed SF filled with stereotypes borrowed from Westerns." The definition of what constitutes space opera has since expanded significantly since the 50s -- it has come to be so broad as to include both Planetary Romance and the "Culture" stories which is almost too broad -- but the connection between the Western and space opera seems particularly significant in the case of Northwest Smith. I would not call Moore's writing hackneyed, but "Shambleau" could easily be rewritten as a Western with only minor cosmetic changes.

"Shambleau," which was Moore's first published story, was published in 1933 during the height of the pulp era. The shelves were filled with a wide array of writing of various qualities, but it is easy to see why Moore's piece was selected for publication in the November 1933 edition of Weird Tales. The piece could also be used as a demonstration for how to mold a work of writing to suit a particular publication. It isn't hard to believe that Moore actually started this as a Western and then adapted it to better suit the tastes of Weird Tales.

"Shambleau" opens with a prefatory paragraph which sets the tone of the tale, establishes a sense of history and place, and gives readers some foreshadowing regarding the turn the tale will take. The paragraph is reminiscent of the paragraphs Robert E. Howard used to open his Conan tales. Where his paragraphs represented excerpts from the fictional Nemedian Chronicles, Moore's resemble the careful tone of a campfire tale. The paragraph is different in tone from Howard's, but serves much the same purpose.

It begins:
MAN HAS CONQUERED Space before. You may be sure of that. Somewhere beyond the Egyptians, in that dimness out of which come echoes of half-mythical names -- Atlantis, Mu -- somewhere back of history's first beginnings there must have been an age when mankind, like us today, built cities of steel to house its star-roving ships and knew the names of the planets in their own native tongues--


One might believe after reading this paragraph -- especially since the place names for Mars and Venus used later in the story are those used in this paragraph -- that he or she is about to read about Space travel in this time before time. This is not the case. References to "New York roast beef" and a "Chino-Aryan war" leave any speculation that this tale takes place in a forgotten time behind. No...this tale takes place in our future, after mankind has once again conquered Space. The sense of the mythical is used in order to make the twist of the story plausible and ensures that the twist falls well within a reader's suspension of disbelief.

We know that our tale take place at some time during mankind's Space conquering future, but what kind of future is it and what kind of man is our protagonist? Apparently, the Mars of the future is a lot like Virginia City.

"Shambleau! Ha...Shambleau!" The wild hysteria of the mob rocketed from wall to wall of Lakkdarol's narrow streets and the storming of heavy boots over the slag-red pavement made an ominous undertone to that swelling bay...

Northwest Smith heard it coming and stepped into the nearest doorway, laying a wary hand on his heat-gun's grip, and his colorless eyes narrowed. Strange sounds were common enough in the streets of Earth's latest colony on Mars -- a raw, red little down where anything might happen, and very often did.


Moore gets us into the action quickly. After a prefatory paragraph that sets the tone and place, she launches us straight into a dangerous situation. It's like reading the scrolling preface before a Star Wars film and then being thrust right into the action. In this case, the action of the tale is simple enough. A wild mob is shouting for the death of a woman, whether "Shambleau" is her name or the name of her people has not yet been made clear, and Northwest Smith takes it upon himself to calm the mob and save the girl. It is only after saving the girl that Northwest Smith comes to understand why the mob was after the woman in the first place -- to tell you more about the girl would be spoiling the fun, but it would also be unfair to leave out further discussion of our protagonist.

We know by his introduction, and his hand on his heat gun, that Northwest Smith is a dangerous man. We come to find out that his saving of the woman probably had little to do with chivalry, but more to do with "that chord of sympathy for the underdog that stirs in every Earthman." This chord of sympathy must stir strong in Smith, because the mob is pretty persistent and Smith -- like Han Solo after him -- isn't the kind who wants to get too involved in this kind of action. Smith's business is usually of a different sort:
Smith's errand in Lakkdarol, like most of his errands, is better not spoken of. Man lives as he must, and Smith's living was a perilous affair outside the law and ruled by the ray-gun only. It is enough to say that the shipping-port and its cargoes outbound interested him deeply just now...

Apparently, Smith is a blaggard whose day to day business is so unseemly that Moore refrains from sharing it, likely because the audience would lose sympathy with our protagonist. It is easy to see how Smith became the archetype that anti-heroes would be based upon for decades to come. He's a cautious man, who pulls for the underdog, but who participates in business best left unspoken. Sounds like Han Solo to me...or Wolverine.

"Shambleau" is a fun tale with a nice twist, a twist that is fairly obvious after the prefatory paragraph. One can see illustrations of "Shambleau" by Barbarella creator Jean-Claude Forest at this fairly NSFW link if you don't want to wait to find out the surprise. I recommend waiting. Read Moore's prose first. Moore incorporates classic mythology into the Science Fiction narrative smoothly and dramatically. Her writing is addictive and she manages to take a classic monster and turn it into something really weird.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Hulu Recommendation Friday: Buck Rogers

Given the recent discussions of Planetary Romance, it is natural to recommend the 1979 Buck Roger's television show starring Gil Gerard. The TV series falls somewhere between Space Opera and Planetary Romance. I'll leave it for you to decide exactly where. Many of the plots in Buck Rogers are similar to PR stories, but the emphasis on space fighter battles makes a good case for Space Opera. Regardless, the show's first season had a two part storyline entitled "Planet of the Slave Girls." The episodes aired back to back, if Hulu's airing dates are to be trusted, on September 27, 1979 and Buster Crabbe (the original Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon) made a cameo appearance.

And no one would argue that Buster Crabbe, who played both Flash Gordon (a Planetary Romance classic) and Tarzan (a character created by the father of the field) doesn't belong in a discussion of the genre.

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.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Paizo to Publish Backlisted SF in Planet Stories Line of Books

Magazine and game publisher Paizo Publishing has announced that they will start publishing a line of books featuring backlisted SF and Fantasy titles. The line of books will be published under the heading Planet Stories, and given the nature of the initial catalogue of texts this seems appropriate. Paizo has decided to enter the arena of book publishing in response to the current resistance of larger publishers have to keeping strong backlists. Paizo wants to introduce a new generation of readers to older books which have influenced modern SF and Fantasy, at least that is their claim.

Let's have a look at the validity of that claim by looking at their choices of backlisted books featured in their first wave of publications.

Almuric, by Robert E. Howard, is a savage planet of crumbling stone ruins and debased, near-human inhabitants. Into this world comes Esau Cairn, Earthman, swordsman, murderer. Only he can overthrow the terrible devils that enslave Almuric, but to do so he must first defeat the inner demons that forced him to abandon Earth. Filled with vile beasts and thrilling adventure in the tradition of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Almuric is one of Howard’s few novels, and an excellent yarn from one of America’s most distinct literary voices. Robert E. Howard is most known for creating the fictional character, Conan the Cimmerian (a.k.a. Conan the Barbarian), who has been featured in comic books, short stories, novels, and feature films for over 70 years. Howard's work is often credited as the source of the sword-and-sorcery genre and influenced everyone from J.R.R. Tolkien to George R.R. Martin.

The Anubis Murders, by Gary Gygax, weaves a fantastic tale of warring wizards that spans the world from the pyramids of ancient Egypt to the mist-shrouded towns of medieval England. Someone is murdering the world’s most powerful sorcerers, and the trail of blood leads straight to Anubis, the solemn god known by most as the Master of Jackals. Can Magister Setne Inhetep, personal philosopher-wizard to the Pharaoh, reach the distant kingdom of Avillonia and put an end to the Anubis Murders, or will he be claimed as the latest victim? Gary Gygax co-created the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game over 30 years ago and has watched it grow to become one of the largest entertainment sources in the hobby gaming industry. Dungeons & Dragons has been played by tens of millions worldwide and the name Gygax is instantly recognizable to any fans of the game, past or present.

City of the Beast/Warriors of Mars, by Michael Moorcock, features the return of Moorcock's Eternal Champion, Kane of Old Mars, a brilliant American physicist whose strange experiments in matter transmission catapult him across space and time to the Red Planet. Kane’s is a Mars of the distant past, a place of romantic civilizations, fabulous many-spired cities, and the gorgeous princess Shizala. To win her hand and bring peace to Mars, Kane must defeat the terrible Blue Giants of the Argzoon, whose ravaging hordes threaten the whole planet! Adventure in the Edgar Rice Burroughs tradition from the creator of Elric of Melnibon√©. The first stand-alone American printing since 1979, City of the Beast/Warrior of Mars will be available this September.

Black God's Kiss, by C.L. Moore, was first published in the pages of Weird Tales in 1934. C.L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry is the first significant female sword-and-sorcery protagonist and one of the most exciting and evocative characters the genre has ever known. Published alongside seminal works by H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, the five classic fantasy tales included in this volume easily stand the test of time and often overshadow the storytelling power and emotional impact of stories by Moore’s more famous contemporaries. A seminal work from one of fantasy’s most important authors, Black God’s Kiss is an essential addition to any fantasy library and will be available this October.

Elak of Atlantis, by Henry Kuttner. Published in Weird Tales to satisfy fans of Conan the Barbarian in the wake of Robert E. Howard’s death, the four long stories depict a brutal world of flashing swords and primal magic, touched by a hint of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos. Never collected in a mass market edition since their publication in the late 1930s, these exciting tales helped to establish a genre and are a critical part of any fantasy library. Included as a bonus are Kuttner’s two Prince Raynor stories from 1939’s Strange Tales.

With seminal, thrilling adventure tales from one of the most important writers in science fiction and fantasy, Elak of Atlantis is not to be missed! Available in November 2007.

The Secret of Sinharat, by Leigh Brackett. Enter Eric John Stark, adventurer, rebel, wildman. Raised on the sun-soaked, savage world of Mercury, Stark lives among the people of the civilized solar system, but his veneer of calm masks a warrior’s spirit. In the murderous Martian Drylands the greatest criminals in the galaxy hatch a conspiracy of red revolution. Stark’s involvement leads to the forgotten ruins of the Martian Low Canals, an unlikely romance, and a secret so potent it could shake the Red Planet to its core.

In a special bonus novel, People of the Talisman, Stark ventures to the treacherous polar icecap of Mars to return a stolen talisman to an oppressed people.

The Secret of Sinharat and People of the Talisman make an excellent introduction to the work of Leigh Brackett, a pillar of science fantasy and one of the greatest writers to work in the genre. Talented enough to co-write The Big Sleep with William Faulkner and influential enough to write the original screenplay for The Empire Strikes Back, Brackett’s fiction is no less distinguished than her movie work and never fails to deliver thrills and wry smiles.


One is struck by a few things when looking at the list. First is the fact that three of these novels fall squarely into the genre known as "Planetary Romance" and one of the authors is a seminal figure in that genre, Leigh Brackett. The focus on Planetary Romance makes it a natural that the line of books should be titled Planet Stories. Incidentally, Planet Stories was the name of a magazine in which Leigh Brackett and Ray Bradbury, among others, were frequently featured.

They even feature Robert E. Howard's (creator of Conan) singular foray into the genre, his novel Almuric. Almuric is an unusual Howard story, so unusual that David Drake, who edited a line of Howard books, speculated that the book might have been written by Otis Adelbert Kline and not Howard. The fact that Kline wrote a number of Planetary Romance novels, in playful competition with Edgar Rice Burroughs, makes the case all the more interesting to imagine even if it is mere speculation.

In addition to the focus on Planetary Romance, one other fact strikes me as particular to the selection of novels. The Anubis Murders is far from a seminal work of SF or Fantasy as far as its influence on modern authors goes, but it is written by a figure seminal in the creation of a genre of game very close at heart to Paizo Publishing's heart. Gary Gygax may not be an SF/F legend, but he is a Founding Father of the Roleplaying Game hobby, which is the focus of Paizo Publishing's two magazines.

What concerns me about the list of chosen novels is how much they ignore the truly overlooked backlisted novel. Sure the Moorcock pastiches to Burroughs are fun and overlooked, but the true inspiration are the Burroughs Mars books which are currently being published by the University of Nebraska Press.. The inclusion of Leigh Brackett is a necessary one, but her works are currently being published by Haffner Press. Yes the editions are more expensive than the $13.00 that Paizo will be charging, but they are hardback and include more stories.

I will certainly be purchasing Paizo's catalogue, but I would like to see the publication list expand from the current list.

Tomorrow, I will likely discuss what I think is a large hole in the current gamer/pulp-nostalgia movement.