Sword & Planet Fiction


In 1977, two events made an indelible impact on my impressionable young brain; the release of Star Wars: A New Hope, and my sister’s gifting me with three paperbacks.  These were, in the order I read them, Conan the Swordsman, edited by Bjorn Nyberg and L. Sprague de Camp, A Fighting Man of Mars, and Llana of Gathol, both by Edgar Rice Burroughs.  I didn’t know the terms sword-and-planet and sword-and-sorcery yet, but I was incurably hooked on them both from that magical moment onward, with a slightly stronger leaning toward sword-and-planet.

John Carter & Dejah Thoris vs. a Martian White Ape: art by Boris Vallejo & Julie Bell

‘What’s so great about a genre with such blatantly unrealistic settings?’ you might ask.  Or, ‘What’s so great about a genre that’s so juvenile?’

First and most important to me, sword-and-planet fiction awakened my mind to a world of imagination.  I’m a professional photographer and writer; I don’t think I would’ve become either, specially the latter, without that spark.  In a time when we’re so jaded by negative messages from mass media, sense of wonder is still a great way to refresh both mind and soul. Sense of wonder stretches the mind and sparks curiosity, prompting exploration and learning.  I’m sure my interest in science was in no small part due to my yearning to discover something as cool as Barsoom’s Eighth Ray so I, too, could fly!

A fighting Man of Mars: cover by Gino d'Achille

The other great thing I picked up from sword-and-planet fiction was its heroic theme.  Every child needs heroes, and we carry our childhood heroes with us into our adult lives.  I was specially influenced by Tan Hadron of Hastor, the hero in A Fighting Man of Mars.

Even as a ten-year-old, I liked Tan Hadron much more than I did John Carter.  Somehow John Carter’s always pulling some kind of superiority on the Martians because he was an Earthman never appealed to me that much.  But Tan Hadron made for a great learning story. 

A poor padwar, or under-officer, in Helium’s army, Tan Hadron falls in love with a woman who later turns out to be shallow and self-serving, finds love through the path of friendship, and in his quests to rescue first one then the other, is forced to rely on his ‘normal-human’ courage and wits all the way.  While captive in the city of Ghasta, Tan Hadron had to make a difficult choice – how difficult, I realized only some years later when my hormones started surging – between a beautiful woman willing to do anything he wished, at the cost of losing his honor, and a painful end. 

There’s a lot to pick up from this tale: the value of self-reliance, of choosing what is right over what’s just easy, of thinking your actions through, and that external beauty is not the only thing we should look for in the opposite sex. And yes, I found my own Tavia: my dear Cat was my friend almost ten years before we became an item.

5543507-LAs I matured, I found myself looking for the same flavor, the same sense of wonder, as Burroughs’ stories, but with grittier and more complex themes.  I found it in the stories of Leigh Brackett, a science fiction author who wove the themes and styles of  film noir into her fantastic visions of Mercury, Mars and Venus. 

I thrilled to the adventures of outlaw Eric John Stark, the lone wolf whose deeds decided the fates of planets, even as I made my way through college as a loner-geek.  Brackett’s work resonated so strongly with me because her protagonists were scarred misfits, loners, and frustrated dreamers like myself.  There was another reason I resonated so well with Brackett’s work; her tackling of the themes of colonialism.

5543542-LI found Brackett’s anthology, The Coming of the Terrans, in a second-hand bookstore during my first year of college – the very years when just about every Filipino youth was burning with renewed, outraged nationalism. 

Brackett perfectly captured, to my mind, the rage and pain of Asia and Africa under the colonial yoke – the tragedy, the well-intentioned yet wholly stupid mistakes made under the banner of White Man’s Burden, the costs of failing to understand a foreign culture. 

Deep themes, eh, from ‘juvenile fiction?’

Other authors who’ve made enjoyable forays into the field of sword-and-planet fiction include: Robert E. Howard with Almuric, L. Sprague de Camp’s very human and witty Krishna series, Lin Carter with his Callisto series, Kenneth Bulmer with his sprawling Dray Prescott series (writing as Alan Burt Akers), Michael Moorcock, and Otis Adelbert Kline, to name but a few.  David J. Lake lovingly parodied the conventions of the genre and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Barsoom with his Xuma series, and recently, S.M. Stirling did a homage to the genre with In The Courts of the Crimson Kings.  (I posted a review of the latter here.)  The genre has also made it into comics, with Mike Grell’s The Warlord being the best-known and probably one of the best-drawn.

Reposted from my old blog.

Operation Speak Out With Your Geek Out is an initiative to raise awareness of who “geeks” really are, and to destroy some hurtful negative stereotypes, by getting people to talk about the things we enjoy and why we enjoy them, in the hopes that others may learn to appreciate them too.