This is admittedly a genre I’m not very familiar with as I wrote it off as a kid after reading “From the Earth to the Moon” by Jules Verne. That has to be my absolute favorite science fiction book and was what cemented my love for science fiction. I saw sword and planet fiction as bad science fiction authors trying to combine “Lost World” type stories (which I hated) with science fiction and capitalize on that without calling it ‘fantasy’. So, sadly, I never read any of it. Until recently when that “John Carter” movie came out and I said, “Heck yes! Edgar Rice Burroughs! Why have I never read anything by him except two Tarzan novels?”.
Here’s the Wikipedia quote that I think sums it up what this genre is all about.
Sword and Planet is a subgenre of science fantasy that features rousing adventure stories set on other planets, and usually featuring Earthmen as protagonists. The name derives from the heroes of the genre engaging their adversaries in hand to hand combat primarily with simple melee weapons such as swords, even in a setting that often has advanced technology.
This type of fiction fits squarely in my made up category of “Person gets magically transported to a distant land, high adventure follows”. In the case of Sword and Planet, what you have is a protagonist that gets transported to another planet through presumably technological means and then proceeds to fight things with a sword, then usually gets the girl. A lot of this type of fiction is very old, if you look on the Wikipedia page you’ll see most of it in their selected works section is pre-1960, a good deal of it is pre-World War Two. With the exception of the Gor series by John Norman, it seems like most of it stops being published around 1960, and then resumes about 1972.
To call this fantasy wouldn’t really be fair due to the age of some of the books. When most of the early stuff was published we hadn’t even begun to put things into space yet, much less landed on the Moon, so no one really knew the ins and outs of it. Even Jules Verne who got so much of it right with no possible way of knowing was really a mixture of luck and intuition.
The stories are usually stories of high adventure where the protagonist is either out to rescue the damsel in distress, get back home, defend the defenseless or some combination of the three. One novel which is sadly missing from the list on Wikipedia is “Glory Road” by Robert Heinlein. This book is technically fantasy, but because it’s Heinlein and he couldn’t resist putting science fiction elements in his book, it really should be classified as Sword and Planet as it fits the description of, “Guy gets transported to distant world, fights stuff with sword.” Oscar was charged with recovering the “Phoenix Egg” for Star, who would soon become his lover. There is a lot of swordplay and punching, and folding things in on themselves involved.
Another element is the fantastic technology on the planet the protagonist finds himself on. It’s usually far more advanced than what is on Earth in many ways, but at the same time it is more primitive even considering when the book was written. The prototypical “A Princess of Mars” by Edgar Rice Burroughs finds John Carter on Mars. The red men of Mars have flying ships, an atmospheric generator, telescopes that can see blades of grass on Earth from Mars, and other fantastic pieces of technology, yet the green men basically ride around on beasts of burden to get from point A to point B. There are guns that use radium based technology to fire projectiles, but most of the fighting is done with either bare hands, or swords.
Culture shock is a big part of the narrative. In almost all of these books the earth human that is transported must learn to not only speak the language, but navigate the alien culture he’s been thrust into. Sometimes the language barrier is fixed rather quickly. John Carter learned the Martian language because he could use telepathy on Mars, but also because the language was so simple. On the other hand in “A Tarnsman of Gor”, Tarl Cabot learns the language through training and help of a translating machine if I recall correctly. Other stories have the protagonist using a sort of Universal Translator as a way of hand-waving the problem away. By no means is the culture shock presented as a minor issue, though. In fact it’s usually the thing that gets the story moving once the protagonist is transported. One common device in these stories is for the protagonist to commit a cultural faux-pas and then have to remedy it.
One book I’m reading at the moment is called “Stray” by Andrea K Höst is a pretty good example of more modern Sword and Planet culture shock. It features a girl who gets transported to an alien world, has to survive on her own for a while, then gets rescued by some human-like aliens. The alien culture is fairly shocking to her, but most shocking are some of the things forced on her by law. She doesn’t particularly resist but does resent not having a say. One particularly odd thing about the alien race is they’ve forgotten how to write by hand, and find her handwritten journal amusing. While I’m not sure that swords are ever used, super powers are, and survival is a key part at least in the beginning so I think it counts. I haven’t finished this book yet but it’s definitely going to be reviewed.
There’s not much more to be said about Sword and Planet except what’s been mentioned above. It’s classic sci-fi, so classic it’s almost science fantasy. There are tons of this type of story out there and I’d definitely recommend reading “A Princess of Mars” before giving the rest a try. Also pick up “Glory Road” as it’s a good intermediary between this type of sci-fi and fantasy.
Brief Note on the Gor Books
The first few Gor books are pretty typical Sword and Planet books, but I would not recommend anyone read them without knowing what you’re getting into. I don’t want to be accused of recommending them without saying what they are about as other sites do occasionally. These books are definitely polarizing, people either love them, or hate them a lot. They were recently banned from WorldCon. They’ve inspired a BDSM subculture and do suggest that women like to be beat. I have only read the first one, and it seems fairly tame. The movie is also fairly tame, if B-grade. So, perhaps those are fine, but the later books are mostly erotica of the dominance/submission type. In other words, don’t give these to your son on his thirteenth birthday if he’s into old sci-fi, he might get some mixed messages.
I didn’t find the first book entertaining enough to move on to the second, and what with all I’ve read about them I probably won’t pick it them up again for a while. I can’t bring myself to agree or even really stomach the author’s philosophy though I do respect him as an educator and a writer.