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Sword and Planet Fantasy

What is Sword and Planet Fantasy?

Sword and Planet Fantasy is another sub-genre of speculative fiction that has a bit of Fantasy and a bit of Science Fiction. The Sword and Planet sub-genre was popular and writers were prolific until the 1990s, when higher Fantasy stories became more popular. You can read about the sword and planet science fiction subgenre for the science fiction take on it

These are romantic stories of high adventure. The sub-genre has its roots in the pulps, but has seen a small revival. A significant number of books belonging to this sub-genre are dated. While the books may have once been Sci Fi, the outdated technology seems more Fantasy now.

Sword and Planet stories take place on alien worlds. These worlds all have differences, but there is almost always a contradiction. For example, in Edgar Rice Burroughs' classic A Princess of Mars, the Martians have flying ships, but use beasts for transportation, they have advanced weaponry, but generally engage in hand to hand combat with melee weapons. The alien cultures are simultaneously more advanced and more primitive than Earth cultures.

The typical Sword and Planet story takes place on an alien world where a strong male character has been magically transported. The hero must fight monsters, he must navigate the strange alien cultures, escape, save the pretty lady, and fight some more.

The people of these stories may have such Sci Fi staples as ray guns, but they generally prefer the use of a sword. Sorcery and/or religious mysticism isn't uncommon, but is rarely the focus. The Star Wars movies and books are a great pop culture example of this sub-genre: the force, the mystical religious nature of the Jedi and the dark side, the light saber battles (basically a sword), there are weird monsters, there are many intelligent races, and don't forget all that sexual tension.

 

Characteristics of Sword and Planet Fantasy

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  • Level of Magic

    Low. Much like the science side of Sword and Planet is unrealistic, any magic that exists on these world is similarly impractical. Magic is not usually what's used in the action sequence, which tend to be physical.

  • Level of Grand Ideas and Social Implications

    Low. For the most part, Sword and Planet Fantasy does not engage in the exploration of ideas. This is a sub-genre about swashbuckling heroes and romantic adventures—it is not meant to make you reexamine the nature of any social structures. However, occasionally the hero will engage in a philosophical dialogue.

  • Level of Characterization

    Low-Moderate. Sword and Planet stories utilize stock characters. Heroes are predominately male, have a strong will to survive, they are honorable, they are on some quest to save their family or town. However, they can also be a kind of anti-hero; for example a thief or pirate. Female characters have a tendency to be two-dimensional.

  • Level of Plot Complexity

    Moderate. Plots are the driving force of the Sword and Planet sub-genre. They are high adventure stories, and even though plots are the driving force of story, plots have become stereotypical (i.e. rescue the damsel in distress, get back home, etc.).

  • Level of Violence

    High. The hero may not go looking for a fight, but one (or more!) will inevitably come to him. Readers can expect the hero to have amazing physical prowess in these battles.

Related Fantasy Subgenres

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    Pulp Fantasy. Sword and Planet is rooted in the pulp side of literature and its adventurous stories play well in both sub-genres.

  • Sword and Sorcery. Sword and Planet, in name, references Sword and Sorcery. Both sub-genres share a penchant for exoticism and adventure.

  • Science Fantasy. Sword and Planet is, more broadly, Science Fantasy because it draws elements from Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Sword and Planet Fantasy Isn’t For You If...

If you're a socially conscious person. The worlds of Sword and Planet can sometimes be misogynistic and sometimes present uncomfortable race relations. These tendencies, either because the story is subscribing to them or trying to fight against them, can limit the genre.

Popular Sword and Planet Fantasy Books
  • 1 The Morgaine Saga


    By C.J. Cherryh. Noteworthy because of its female protagonist and that the gate system used for interplanetary and time travel was inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs and Andre Norton. The series has plenty of advanced technology, but has fantasy tropes like medieval settings with low levels of technology, feudal-like relationship among main characters, and medieval-style weapons and battles.

  • 2 Glory Road


    By Robert Heinlein. Swordplay, transportation to a different world, a quest for a relic, and the leading female character becomes the hero's lover—this novel has all the earmarks of Sword and Planet, but with a bit more Sci Fi in the mix.

  • 3 Barsoom series


    By Edgar Rice Burroughs. The prototypical example of Sword and Planet, these stories are about John Carter who is transported from Confederate America to Mars

  • 4 Stray


    By Andrea K. Höst. A modern example of the Sword and Planet sub-genre that features a female protagonist who experiences culture shock on an alien world.

  • 5 The Book of Skaith series


    By Leigh Brackett. Eric John Stark is a well-known character and in this series is journeys to the lawless edge of the known universe. In this series there are dark gods, prophecy, swordplay, aliens, starships, and adventure.

  • 6 Tschai, Planet of Adventures series


    By Jack Vance. Reith crash lands on an alien planet where he is rescued by a group of primitive humans. Lots of adventure, rescuing of leading ladies, vitality, and the desire to go home.

  • 7 Swordsmen in the Sky


    By Donald A. Wollheim ed. A collection of stories by various authors telling adventure stories out among the stars.

  • 8 Transit to Scorpio


    By Alan Burt Akers. The first in the Dray Prescot series, this novel is a typical Sword and Planet story about an Earthman transported to another world where he swashbuckles his way through barbarian humans and non-humans and resuces a princess.

  • 9 Almuric


    By Robert E. Howard. Just one example from the prolific Robert E. Howard, this novel features plenty of fight scenes with some strange monsters and a hero who must continually escape.

  • 10 Swords of Talera


    By Charles Allen Gramlich. The first of the Talera Cycle, this is a more modern series that is inspired by the originals, like Edgar Rice Burroughs. A quest to find his brother on an unknown world, love interest, learning to fight with sword and spear, a little sorcery, monsters, aliens, this book has a bit of all Sword and Planet tropes.

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