About four or five months ago, I became interested in the planetary romance genre of sci-fi. Actually,this is a bit of a lie. It was actually Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter series I was interested in, primarily due to my stupid desire to understand the history of the genres I aspire to write in. For the record, I like writing science fiction and fantasy. Not sure you could determine that from the contents of this blog.
So I read John Carter, and found it kinda entertaining. For me, I have this thing with older sci-fi and fantasy. I like the ideas, but the characters all feel the same to me. Robert Howard’s Conan stories at least have the courtesy of being short. Edgar Rice Burrough incorporated all the characters in sci-fi that would become cliche. If I read this when I was thirteen or fourteen, I’d love the shit out of it. But I read it as a twenty-three year old man. I need more from a story than just action.
…yet, somehow, I also love the Drizzt novels. That’s a weird contradiction…
Anyway, none of it was bad. It still was pretty enjoyable. I knew prior to reading the book that the Planetary Romance genre that John Carter started was one of sci-fi’s main pillars in the early years. The genre usually goes like this: ordinary man goes to another planet, kills evil people, gets the girl, etc. It’s cool, badass, and wish-fulfillment for boys.
I don’t know about anyone else, but this always struck me as really misogynistic. You don’t have to be a social justice warrior to realize that the Planetary Romance genre is basically just a masturbatory fantasy. Boys go to a world where they are respected for being awesome, beat up all the bad guys, and have sex with hot aliens.
There is no way this can be taken seriously in today’s age.
Now, primarily, when looking at the planetary romance, I spotted that Flash Gordon, Buck Rodgers, and other stories cut from that same cloth were the most popular ones I could find. They were mostly harmless. Just dumb action and adventure that would go on to inspire better works of fiction.
But then I discovered Gor.
Dear Christ almighty, Gor
My hatred for this long-running novel series will not be contained by this one post. I doubt I can ever contain my contempt for such a sexist, disgusting piece of trash series. It is inept on all levels, from the writing to the plots to the characters to the–
The reason why I bring up Gor is because I feel this series demonstrates why Planetary Romance will never regain mainstream success again. Gor is what everyone interprets Planetary Romance written nowadays to be: trashy garbage that you might find in a used book store–seriously, my Barnes and Nobles has a whole shelf of used Gor novels that keeps expanding because on one freaking wants them. The Dungeons and Dragons spin-offs get more love than Gor, and those too are essentially the same thing in essence: wish fulfillment for boys.
Still, I think the real reason why Planetary Romance is on the out and out is because sophisticated sci-fi writers, like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clark, showed that there is so much more that can be done with the genre than just babes and guns. The other nail in the coffin is the space opera, a genre that sweeps over many worlds and systems, offering a far more nuanced cosmology. Why settle for one planet when you can linger on twenty? Why follow one wimp around when you have a whole cast of characters? Why prove your value with punches alone when we see heroes use their brains to escape situations?
A good counter-point to the Planetary Romance is Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy. Written in the same magazines that pulp stories were written, Asimov, for one, is a superior writer to Burroughs. Love them both for their contributions to literature, but Asimov is the superior writer. Asimov’s trilogy–especially the first one–feels a lot like the Planetary Romance. Loser scientists go to a foreign world, deal with conflicts, and become heroes to their people. Only difference is that most of these problems are dealt with intellect and wit.
Another novel that killed Planetary Romance? One of my personal favorite sci-fi novels, Frank Herbert’s Dune. This novel also has all the trappings of planetary romance, but goes into such depth with the lore–seriously, look back at all the old novels and serials. None of them have this deep a sense of lore. The worlds all feel the same.
Also important about Dune…the ladies are badass and awesome.
That leads me to another thing that killed Planetary Romance: feminism. And thank God for that. Women don’t want to read science fiction where they are literal prizes to be won. They don’t want to read books that tell them they ought to be enslaved by their superior male counterparts. Why should they? Such bullshit is really, REALLY screwed up. Hell, A Princess of Mars, the first John Carter novel, is actually pretty progressive for its time. Nowadays, sure, it’s problematic, but, at the time it was written, this book was pretty progressive for showing multiple female characters who have active roles in the story, who do things, and have personalities and goals. Sure, ultimately, they need to be saved by the dashing hero, but that’s besides the point.
Also odd, John Carter is a former Confederate soldier. That’s a tidbit that hasn’t aged well.
Ultimately, the planetary romance novel died because better stories were being written. That’s the truth of it.
But don’t worry. I’m sure John Norman’s pumping out the next Gor book for all you guys who want to keep reading the same story about women being enslaved.