Wednesday, May 26, 2010
Fantasy by Definition: Part 2
2). The second category of Heroic Fantasy is Sword and Planet (S and P) fiction, which is often called Interplanetary Adventure. My Talera novels fall largely into this category, although there is only one poem in Bitter Steel that is S and P. In S and P, the basic story is about an Earthman (never an Earth woman as far as I can tell) who is transported to another world where he must use his wits, his muscles, and his edged weapons (almost always a sword) against a host of human and nonhuman foes.
Unlike with Sword and Sorcery, any supernatural forces present in Sword and Planet fiction play only a minor role, and when they do appear they usually turn out to be examples of super science rather than truly supernatural. Also, the S and P hero is generally not a barbarian, but, in fact, is most often quite chivalrous. The setting for S and P is not earth but an exotic alien world, often with multiple suns or multiple moons, and is populated by a variety of strange plants, animals, and intelligent beings. The intelligent aliens are usually humanoid (the better to sword fight with), but they will have some exotic elements such as extra limbs, beaks, feathers, etc. (Not unlike Star Trek come to think of it.)
Another difference between these two subgenres is that Sword and Sorcery often works best at short story length, while that is seldom true for Sword and Planet fiction. S and P short stories are pretty rare, although I’ve recently tried my hand at one. I think the reason is that S and P typically has a larger scale plot. The problem to be dealt with may even be world spanning, while with S & S the story often takes place in a relatively isolated valley or ruined city against a more local evil. This may, in part, be due to the different technologies seen in the two subgenres. In S and P, there is some form of air travel in open craft, sort of like sky-going yachts, while S and S is most often limited to the area that can be covered by horses and sea-going vessels.
Edgar Rice Burroughs, who was an influence on Robert E. Howard, is the father of Sword and Planet fiction. His John Carter of Mars books established the basic pattern. (Today’s illustration is borrowed from Frank Frazetta and shows John Carter and Dejah Thoris.) A contemporary of ERB, Otis Adelbert Kline, also wrote some good early S & P stories, and he was the agent for Robert E. Howard. Kline apparently persuaded Howard to try an S and P novel, and the result was Almuric, which broke the mold in a number of ways, particularly by adding anti-hero characteristics to the protagonist.
Some other examples of S & P fiction include the Michael Kane books by Michael Moorcock, the Alan Morgan books by Gardner F. Fox, and the Kaldar stories of Edmond Hamilton. Lin Carter wrote a lot of these books in his Green Star and Callisto series’. To my mind, however, the best post-ERB practitioner of S & P was Kenneth Bulmer, who wrote a long series about a character named Dray Prescot under the pseudonym Alan Burt Akers.
My first Talera novel, Swords of Talera is pure S and P, but the sequels, Wings Over Talera and Witch of Talera brought, I believe, some of the characteristics of Sword and Sorcery into the S & P format. I also added some horror elements, particularly to the third book.
Unfortunately, Sword and Planet fiction is even rarer today than Sword & Sorcery. There are writers who labor in the S and P vineyards, but they are, like me, relatively unknown. Yet, I know of quite a few readers who still pine for such grand adventures. To end part 2 of my Heroic Fantasy series of posts, here’s a sample from Swords of Talera that I hopes illustrates the basic themes I’ve been discussing.
“The gates started to open. I did not see the massive counterweights and pulleys that must have been necessary to move those tons of bronze. Nor did I hear them. In eerie silence the great doors opened outward, like some monstrous raptor spreading its wings.
Then the hair crawled to life on my neck. Something black, of awesome size, moved amidst the darkness behind the gates. Shadows billowed. The shape came forward, as black as a night on which all the moons had fallen.”