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Planetary Romance

Entry updated 4 December 2013. Tagged: Theme.

Any sf tale whose primary venue (excluding contemporary or Near-Future versions of Earth) is a planet, and whose plot turns to a significant degree upon the nature of that venue, can be described as a planetary romance. For the term to apply properly, however, it is not enough that a tale simply be set on a world: James Blish's A Case of Conscience (September 1953 If; exp 1958), for instance, has a planet as a primary venue yet cannot be called a planetary romance because the nature or description of this world has little bearing on the story being told. Nor can the term profitably be used for a tale set upon a planet whose mysteries are solvable in Hard-SF terms: Hal Clement's Mission of Gravity (April-July 1953 Astounding; cut 1954; text restored with additions and one added story, as coll 1978) and Robert L Forward's Rocheworld (1990), for instance, are typical hard-sf novels in that the worlds on which they are set amount to little more than the sum of the problems which they illustrate, and in that their protagonists successfully explain (or solve) those worlds. In the true planetary romance, the world itself encompasses – and generally survives – the tale which fitfully illuminates it.

Though the term is recent, the form is largely coeval with Space Opera, although Edwin L Arnold's Lieut. Gullivar Jones: His Vacation (1905; vt Gulliver of Mars 1964) is surely a significant precursor and influence. Most of Edgar Rice Burroughs's sf sequences – like the John Carter tales set on a Mars called Barsoom – fit the description, and were soon being referred to as "interplanetary romances", a term Gary K Wolfe defines in his useful Critical Terms for Science Fiction and Fantasy (1986) as "broadly, an adventure tale set on another, usually primitive, planet". Wolfe, properly restricting the use of the term to work done before World War Two, considers other important contributors to the form to include Ralph Milne Farley, Homer Eon Flint and Otis Adelbert Kline. Robert E Howard's Almuric (May-August 1939 Weird Tales; 1964) is in similar vein. Unfortunately, however, few of the tales described as interplanetary romances show more than minimal interest in interplanetary travel, and the term is used only occasionally in this encyclopedia, generally within Wolfe's critical context.

When we come to more sophisticated writers, for whom the Sword-and-Sorcery simplicities of Burroughs seemed inadequate to exploit the venue he had created, we must abandon the earlier formulation. The ornate and decadent tales of Clark Ashton Smith – which were also instrumental in the creation of the subgenre Science Fantasy – are the first planetary romances (if one puts aside the work of E R Eddison as being entirely fantasy, and David Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus [1920] as being too confusing in its use of various genres to work as a clear example). By substituting temporal displacements for the early (and inconsequential) spatial shifts of Burroughs and his followers, Smith created the venue most favourable for the growth of the form: a Far-Future-style planet on which magic and science intertwine, inhabited by richly variegated races whose re-creation of the feudalisms and baroque rituals of our own history is generally knowing and often a form of art. Though her work for Planet Stories tended to be ostensibly set on Mars or Venus, the superb planetary romances of Leigh Brackett dwelt in versions of those planets so displaced from our common history that they seem natural descendants of Smith's work.

Brackett held back, however, from a complete exploitation of the venues hinted at by Smith, and the first full-fledged modern planetary romance is therefore probably Jack Vance's The Dying Earth (coll of linked stories 1950), a book which successfully incorporates into the subgenre our own planet – but sufficiently near the end of time for magic to seem plausible. Vance's treatment of his far-future Earth as a kind of entranced, doomed, topiary paradise, in which primitivism and decadence mix and merge, soon became a trademark for his work and influenced a large number of writers, including Gene Wolfe, whose The Book of the New Sun (1980-1983 4vols) is of course in part a planetary romance. But The Dying Earth lacks any very convincing sf rationale, and it was another Vance title that supplied sf writers with a model to exploit. Big Planet (September 1952 Startling; cut 1957; further cut 1958; full text restored 1978), together with its sequel, Showboat World (1975; vt The Magnificent Showboats of the Lower Vissel River Lune XXIII South, Big Planet 1983), is set in a Space-Opera Galaxy on a huge though Earthlike world whose landmass is vast enough to provide realistic venues for a wide range of social systems, and which is significantly low in heavy-metal resources (this both explains its relatively low gravity and permits a wide range of low-tech societies to flourish). Into this rich environment – in a fashion not dissimilar to the entrance of visitors to the typical Utopia – Vance introduces off-world protagonists whose need to travel across the planet provides a quest plot and a rationale for the lessons in Anthropology and Sociology so common to the form. The pattern would be repeated often over the next several decades, and remains one of the central models for romantic sf.

In his cogent introduction to a 1978 reprint of Philip José Farmer's The Green Odyssey (1957) Russell Letson argues strongly for the use of the term "planetary romance" – he should be credited for establishing it – to describe novels whose basic settings derive from Burroughs, whose plots often make use of the chase-and-quest conventions of adventure fiction, and whose protagonists frequently turn out to be high-tech men (or women) "stranded among pretechnological natives". Old Mars (anth 2013) edited by Gardner Dozois and George R R Martin assembles new stories that homage such traditional models. Because Farmer is a more active plotter than Vance, The Green Odyssey itself might well serve as a model for the transformation of the Big Planet into story: its sophisticated play with anachronisms, and its active use of contrasts between different levels of Technology (reminiscent in this of the work of Poul Anderson) begins to demonstrate the range of uses to which the basic model might be put. From these three models – The Dying Earth, Big Planet and The Green Odyssey – can be seen to derive, after the fashion of sf at its creative best, most of the numerous planetary romances of recent decades. (Although J R R Tolkien might be seen, through his creation of Middle-earth, to have granted an oceanic imprimatur for the building of heavily mapped world-sized venues, it is probable that fantasy and science fantasy should be distinguished from one another precisely by the fact that, while the latter are usually set on planets, the former are usually set in landscapes, which may well be interminable. Middle-earth is a landscape.)

Authors early and importantly associated with the planetary romance include Marion Zimmer Bradley, with her Darkover novels, L Sprague de Camp, some of the volumes of whose Viagens Interplanetarias sequence are crossovers from fantasy, and Frank Herbert, whose Dune sequence incorporates some features from the planetary romance into its complex mix. More recently, examples have appeared from a very large number of authors: the Helliconia trilogy by Brian W Aldiss, A Woman of the Iron People (1991) by Eleanor Arnason, Hegira (1979) by Greg Bear, many of the novels of C J Cherryh, the Song of Earth novels by Michael G Coney, The Warriors of Dawn (1975) by M A Foster, Golden Witchbreed (1983) and Ancient Light (1987) by Mary Gentle, Saraband of Lost Time (1985) and its sequels by Richard Grant, Courtship Rite (1982) by Donald Kingsbury, the Pern novels by Anne McCaffrey, Pennterra (1987) by Judith Moffett, the Starbridge Chronicles by Paul Park, Lord Valentine's Castle (November 1979-February 1980 F&SF; 1980) and its sequels and The Face of the Waters (1991) by Robert Silverberg, and parts of Neverness (1988) by David Zindell. There are many more. [JC/DRL]

see also: Anarchy Online; Septerra Core: Legacy of the Creator.

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