David T. Wilbanks asked me the other day to list my top ten Sword and Planet books. Since the genre is ever close to my heart, I always love getting a chance to talk about it. For those who aren’t familiar with Sword and Planet (S & P) fiction, here’s a quick description of the genre.
The basic story is about an Earthman (seemingly never an Earth woman) who is transported to an exotic alien world where he must use his wits, his muscles, and a sword against a host of human and nonhuman foes. Any apparent supernatural force usually turns out to be “super science” instead of truly supernatural. The S & P hero is generally not a barbarian, but is most often quite chivalrous. Edgar Rice Burroughs is considered the father of this type of fiction, and his John Carter of Mars books established the pattern.
Here’s my list for top ten Sword and Planet books of all time.
1. A Princess of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs. This one started it all. It’s the first in the John Carter of Mars series. The recent movie, John Carter, is based on this story and used a lot of elements of it, including Carter’s capture by the Green Men, and his relationship with Dejah Thoris. However, the movie introduced the Thern aspects of the plot and the moving city of Zodanga stuff. The book had a lot of high octane action mixed with all kinds of exotic scenery.
2. The Gods of Mars & The Warlord of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs. These are the next two books in the John Carter series, but I’m considering them as one book because they really are one large story cut into two segments. These were even better than “Princess” and mark the height of the John Carter series. I only rank “Princess” higher because it was the first. ERB wrote eleven books in the series, although the last one was left as a partial when he died.
3. Almuric, by Robert E. Howard. Howard is known more for Sword & Sorcery than S & P, but he did write this one entry in the genre and it’s a doozy. It shows that even when Howard was being imitative, he couldn’t help but bring his own immense creativity and imagination to bear. It’s certainly a unique entry in the genre in many ways. The only problem with this book is that the ending seems to have a very different tone and there are many who think that Howard did not actually write the last chapter of the book. That last chapter is much more standard S & P than what came before.
4. Outlaw of Mars, by Leigh Brackett. This is actually a compilation of two Eric John Stark tales, “The Secret of Sinharat,” and “People of the Talisman.” Brackett’s work also blurs the lines of the S & P novel slightly but the Stark stories still fall within the borders of that genre. Stark is a kind of mixture of ERB’s Tarzan and C. L. Moore’s Northwest Smith. Brackett was a great stylist as well, at least in my opinion.
5. A Sword for Kregen, by Dray Prescot, as told to Alan Burt Akers, who was really the British author Kenneth Bulmer. The Dray Prescot series is the longest running S & P series ever. Thirty-seven volumes were published originally in English, and quite a few more in German. The German ones are just now being published in English finally, after a lot of begging from the fans. A Sword for Kregen is number 20 in the series and the first that I read. It’s still my favorite, although a number of others come close, including Renegade of Kregen and Krozair of Kregen. The first in the series is Transit to Scorpio. The main character is Dray Prescot, a sailor from Earth who mixes some of the characteristics of John Carter and Howard’s Conan.
6. In the Courts of the Crimson Kings, by S. M. Stirling. This is a modernized version of the S & P tale and it works beautifully. Stirling captured the excitement of the S & P story but added a level of scientific plausibility that many other entries into the genre have lacked. I would love to see more stories from Stirling in this setting but that doesn’t look like it’s going to happen.
7. Nomads of Gor, by John Norman. Norman has a bad rep these days and much of it is deserved. In his Gor series, and in other books he’s written as well, he has generally depicted women as natural slaves to men, and he’s gone to great lengths in describing the conditions of that slavery. What isn’t well known is that there was very little of this in the first books in his Gorean series. Yes, there were female slaves, but also free females. And there were male slaves as well. This is not unusual in fantasy fiction. The later books in the Gor series began to emphasize female slavery more and more, and eventually just became unreadable to me. The first six books of the series, however, are quite good S & P tales, and quite traditional in most ways. “Nomads” is my favorite and is #4 in the series. The first is Tarnsman of Gor.
8. Planet of Peril, by Otis Adelbert Kline. Kline was a contemporary of ERB’s and also wrote series of S & P novels set on both Mars and Venus. Planet of Peril is the first in his Venus series and is pretty good, although it feels much more dated than ERB’s stuff to me. Kline does get credit for being there at the very beginning though. Notably, Kline was also Robert E. Howard’s agent and his encouragement is probably the reason why Howard wrote Almuric in the first place. Some people believe that Kline is the guy who wrote the last chapter of Almuric, although a friend of mine named Morgan Holmes has evidence to suspect Otto Binder as the culprit. Binder worked with Kline and knew much about Howard’s work.
9. Thief of Llarn, by Gardner F. Fox. This is the second and last in the Llarn series from Fox, the first being Warrior of Llarn. “Thief” is the first one I read. The main character is an Earthman named Alan Morgan, who is very similar in many ways to John Carter. The Llarn stories don’t really break any new ground but I thought this one was a lot of fun.
10. Kaldar – World of Antares, by Edmond Hamilton. This is actually a collection of three short stories about a character named Stuart Merrick, who is transported to the planet of Kaldar in the Antares system. I read the individual stories in other sources long before this volume was published and much enjoyed them. I’ve always thought it interesting that Hamilton’s “Kaldar” preceded Ken Bulmer’s “Kregen,” which was also set in the Antares system. The only real similarities are in the names and settings, and I have no idea if Bulmer knew about the Kaldar stories. He probably did but whether it was a conscious influence or not is unknown.
So there you have it, my top ten S & P works. Of course, many other writers have played in the S & P genre, including Michael Moorcock, Lin Carter, and Jack Vance. This is also the genre my Talera series falls in, and I’ve written other individual S & P stories, including The Machineries of Mars, which I self-published on Amazon. For a longer examination of the genre, see the article by myself and Stephen Servello over at ERBzine.