The Gradual Vanishing of the Planetary Romance

At File 770, Mike Glyer linked to this list of the “top ten space opera books of all time”, as chosen by the visitors of a site called Discover Sci-Fi.

The list is rather idiosyncratic, to say the least, and the longlist is just as idiosyncratic. The heavy presence of indie authors who are little known outside the Amazon/Kindle Unlimited eco-system can be explained by the fact that Discover Sci-Fi is a promo site for indie science fiction. Nonetheless, it is hard to imagine someone conducting a poll for the best all-time space opera in 2019 and failing to include the Imperial Radch trilogy by Ann Leckie or the Machineries of Empire trilogy by Yoon Ha Lee or Becky Chambers’ Wayfarer novels or Vatta’s War by Elizabeth Moon or the Binti trilogy by Nnedi Okorafor or the Xuya Universe stories by Aliette de Bodard, etc…

So of course, there is plenty of quibbling with this top ten list in the comments at File 770, including people pointing out that Dune is not really a space opera at all, but planetary romance.

This led to a debate about the differences between space opera and planetary romance, including this comment by Paul Weimer, which I’ll quote below in its entirety:

RE: Space Opera.

I saw JJ’s comment above about Space Opera and wonder just how much space is required to make a Space Opera a Space Opera, as opposed to being something more akin to Planetary Romance. We do get intrigue and the like on a variety of planets, we get a Crossing, and off-planet concerns. But Dune (as opposed to its sequels) is much more bound and Dune itself is tied to the planet Arrakis in a way that, say, a chunk of the Vorkosigan verse is not. Or Harrington. Or The Expanse.

Velocity Weapon (which I reviewed today and also have podcasted with the author about) takes place on a planet, but also a space ship, and has scenes on a different alien planet. But those planets feel much less “place” than Arrakis does for Dune

Paul is correct, for while the boundaries between space opera and planetary romance are fluid, in planetary romance the focus is on one world, even if there are others in the background, and the geography and ecology of the planet in question play a much bigger role in the plot than for space opera. Meanwhile, how to get to the planet in question doesn’t particularly matter to planetary romance, but usually matters a whole lot to space opera. Not that there aren’t a lot of edge cases. Dune is one, because it’s essentially a planetary romance set in a space opera universe. Provenance by Ann Leckie is usually classified as space opera and is definitely set in a space opera universe, but much of the book takes place on a single planet, which not only has its own unique culture, but also ancient alien artefacts/ruins which is a classic planetary romance trope. And while the Vorkosigan series by Lois McMaster Bujold is unambiguously space opera (as well as half a dozen other genres), individual books veer towards planetary romance and the first third or so of Shards of Honor is pretty much pure planetary romance with Cordelia and Aral marooned and evading the hostile environment of the planet that will eventually be known as Sergyar.

Nor are these edge cases a new phenomenon, for while Leigh Brackett is known as the “queen of space opera”, much of what she wrote is actually planetary romance. Meanwhile, Planet Stories, the pulp magazine which published many of Leigh Brackett’s stories in the 1940s and 1950s, is a wild hodgepodge of planetary romance and space opera. So in short, space opera and planetary romance were sister subgenres from the start.

However, while space opera is still going strong and is actually having a moment in the cultural limelight right now, planetary romance has much faded since its heyday in the first half of the 20th century. There are several works that might be classified as planetary romance on the 1944 Retro Hugo ballot, either outright (Perelandra) or edge cases (“The Citadel of Lost Ships” by Leigh Brackett, “Symbiotica” by Eric Frank Russell, “Clash by Night” by Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore). Meanwhile, there is only one story on the 2019 Hugo ballot that seems to start out as planetary romance, but turns into a completely different subgenre about a quarter in.

The question now is why did planetary romance decline, while space opera remained as popular a subgenre (with periods of waxing and waning) as ever? Part of the reason may be that, as I wrote in this post about the golden age, a lot of planetary romance was set in a version of the solar system that doesn’t exist, where Mars is a desert world full of haunted ruins, Venus is a fog-shrouded swamp and jungle world and pretty much every other place in the solar system is not just habitable, but has its own native life. Space probes pretty much eliminated these settings except for deliberately retro projects like the Old Mars and Old Venus anthologies of a few years back (which are of course pure planetary romance). But then, the inhabited Mars and Venus stories were largely gone by the 1950s, while planetary romance moved further afield into wholly imaginary worlds.

For while planetary romance was having its heyday in the first half of the 20th century, it was still going strong well into the 1970s and 1980s. Dune, the example that inspired this post, dates from 1965 and still has sequels, now written by Frank Herbert’s son Brian and Kevin J. Anderson, coming out. Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hainish Cycle started out in the 1960s and continued up until the turn of the millennium. Andre Norton’s Witch World and Forerunner series started in the 1960s and also continued into the 21st century. Ditto for the Pern books by Anne McCaffrey, which continued – later co-written by Anne McCaffrey and her son Todd – until 2012. The Gor books by John Norman (hey, I never said that planetary romance was necessarily good) also started in the 1960s and continue to this day, though the heyday of the series was in the 1960s through 1980s. The Helliconia trilogy by Brian Aldiss dates from the early 1980s. Ditto for the Majipoor books by Robert Silverberg, a series which still had books and stories coming out well into the new millennium. C.J. Cherryh is still writing as well and a lot of her books are planetary romance.

Of course, those authors are either gone by now or getting on in years, so maybe the fading of planetary romance is simply the result of a generational shift in science fiction. However, there are still books being written and published which would have been called planetary romance once upon a time. Two of the most noted science fiction releases of 2019, The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders and A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine, are planetary romance. Planetfall by Emma Newman is another planetary romance, though several of the sequels are not. One could even make a case for the Broken Earth trilogy by N.K. Jemisin, which is after all one of the most highly acclaimed SFF series of all time, as planetary romance. So planetary romance is still around and successful, winning awards and accolades. It’s just no longer called that.

When I started reading SFF in the 1980s, the term “planetary romance” was still commonly used for planet-bound science fiction with a strong sense of place. I don’t know where or when I first encountered the term. I acquired a lot of SFF knowledge via osmosis, because the critical and non-fiction books about the genre were usually too expensive for me to buy, so I read them in any bookstore that was kind enough to let me and retained as much information as I could. In fact, I strongly suspect I first came across the term “planetary romance” in the venerable Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, which I used to browse in the comfortable leather chairs of Donner Boeken in Rotterdam in their awesome flagship store designed by what has to be time lords. At any rate, I already knew by the late 1980s that Star Wars, Star Trek, Captain Future, Dominic Flandry and the Foundation series were space opera, while the Pern books, Dune, the Skaith trilogy or the Barsoom and Amtor novels were planetary romance.

However, the term “planetary romance” seems to have fallen out of favour sometime in the past twenty years. I’m not sure why this happened, especially since it’s a really useful term to describe a certain type of SFF story. Maybe it’s because the “romance” in “planetary romance” – though it’s “romance” in the older sense of “adventure story” rather than in the newer sense of “love story with an optimistic ending” – puts off people or causes them to assume that it’s a romance subgenre.

In recent years, I increasingly see the term “sword and planet” used instead of “planetary romance”. Now “sword and planet” isn’t a new term, but dates to the 1960s just like its analogues “sword and sorcery” and “sword and sandal”. But until fairly recently, sword and planet was much less frequently used than planetary romance. But if you look at the Wikipedia entries for “planetary romance” and “sword and planet”, you’ll find that the latter is much longer and more detailed than the former. Now I actually like the term “sword and planet”. But while it is certainly a subgenre of planetary romance, there are plenty of planetary romances that are not sword and planet stories, e.g. Dune or Helliconia or the Hainish Cycle or C.J. Cherryh’s works are not.

In additional problem is that while “space opera” has its own BISAC category and is a separate subgenre category at most online booksellers, “planetary romance” or “sword and planet” doesn’t have their own category (but Cyberpunk, which would be easy to subsume under “dytopian fiction, has its own category). As a result, a lot of planetary romance ends up classified as space opera, because that is often the closest possible category. The rather nebulous “action and adventure science fiction” category would fit as well and indeed, I’d be very happy if “action and adventure science fiction” were renamed/reclassified as “planetary romance”.

And if more and more newer readers and writers see books which would once have been called planetary romance called space opera instead, they’ll eventually start referring to e.g. Dune or the Barsoom books as space opera. What is more, particularly self-published SFF authors often don’t have a whole lot of knowledge about the history of the science fiction genre and have never encountered older subgenre terms that don’t have their own category in the Kindle store. And so, books which actually are planetary romance or science fantasy (all of those dragon and mages in space books that were popular approx. a year ago) are instead classified as space opera, while space opera becomes conflated with military science fiction. Indeed, I have seen indie SFF authors insist that e.g. Becky Chambers books are not space opera, because they have no space battles and comparatively little action.

Of course, genre terms and definitions are always in flux, but I’d hate to see the good old planetary romance gradually vanish altogether, because it is a useful term to describe a certain type of story. And since we don’t have a better term, sticking with planetary romance seems like the best bet.

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12 Responses to The Gradual Vanishing of the Planetary Romance

  1. Thank you for another interesting essay, I’ve read fairy tales and sf&f since I was a child in the 70s (started reading in English in the mid80s) but never really analysed tropes and genres until I went online – clearly you also did your historical research of your genres of interest, so I always learn new nuggets and it’s much appreciated.

    I’m pleased to say I can point out another late 80s/early 90s planetary romance series which I only discovered when Book View Cafe was founded, Katharine Eliska Kimbriel’s https://www.goodreads.com/series/54229-the-chronicles-of-nuala

    Good stuff ^^

    • Cora says:

      Well, there is a reason I studied English, focus on literature, because I’m fascinated by this sort of thing. But then, I also got lucky that I had access to friendly bookstores which had non-fiction books about SFF and related subjects, so I could browse to my heart’s content and jot down any book or film that sounded interesting and terms I liked. Whenever I’m in the Netherlands, I usually buy a book or a comic at one of the stores who let me browse and read their books as a belated thank you.

      Thanks for the rec regarding Katherine Eliska Kimbriel. I’ve seen her posts at the Book View Café, but haven’t actually read her books. There was a lot of great SFF, including planetary romance, by women writers in the 1980s/early 1990s, much of it sadly forgotten.

  2. The Broken Earth Trilogy being Planetary Romance is a really good answer to the otherwise hard to resolve issue of whether it was sci-fi or fantasy. It has elements of both but then Planetary Romance has always had elements of both (especially Pern and Marjipoor)

    • Cora says:

      I tended to classify The Broken Earth trilogy as science fantasy, but when I wrote this post, I realised, “Hey, planetary romance actually fits the Broken Earth trilogy much better, especially since the world and its specific characteristics are so important to the story.” And calling it planetary romance also solves that pesky, “Is it SF or fantasy?” issue. Never mind that the abilities of the Orogones would have been considered science fiction in the 1940s or 1950s anyway.

  3. Hampus Eckerman says:

    To be honest, I had never even heard, or at least never enough to remember, the term before.

    • Cora says:

      I think the term was already fading by the 1980s or so and mainly showed up in secondary literature. But you wouldn’t have found something like “The new planetary romance by Anne McCafffrey” on the cover of a book.

  4. Jessica says:

    I think that another good candidate for planetary romance is Christopher Stasheff’s Warlock books. They’re mostly set on one planet, which as the story develops is eventually revealed to be a purposely lost colony, and the population is revealed to have a large minority of psychically-inclined people who can interact with a local fungus known as ‘witch moss’ to make all sorts of improbable things happen. Throw in some time-travelling Marxists and one Marty-Stu and serve.

    • Cora says:

      I totally missed those books, but then access to English language books in Germany/continental Europe was spotty in the pre-Internet era and some books just never made it to our shores. But from your description, that sounds spot on for a planetary romance. Also hurray for time-travelling Marxists.

      • Jessica says:

        Then you’re in for a treat. They’re fun, swashbuckling and filled with some subtle humour. The first book is the best, but they’re all good brain candy 🙂
        My Grandfather, who preferred Westerns and thought my SF reading was ruining my mind, thoroughly enjoyed it.

  5. Chuck Litka says:

    I think you pretty much nailed the reasons for the fading of planetary romances. However, I might suggest one more possible reason; pure planetary romances are often straight up adventure stories — an off-worlder stranded on a strange planet — a stranger in a strange land. Today’s SF writers often write more sophisticated stories, that, even if they use the basic premise, have a more ambitious focus taking them out of the simpler realm of planetary romances.

  6. Al Jackson says:

    I remember back in the 1950’s ‘space opera’ not being ubiquitous in science fiction… Asimov’s Foundation or Heinlein’s Double Star was just called science fiction! There was ,in Astounding 1940-1960 a ton of prose SF that could be labeled sophisticated space opera , well till the present, no one ever came up with a better name for it,or maybe they did?

  7. Aaron Grunfeld says:

    Your generational list of edge cases seems to suggest that ‘space opera’ absorbed ‘planetary romance’ as an SF sub-genre from the 1960s to 1990s (?). I’d add Banks’ early Culture novels to that process. Phlebas has the cannibal island & the battle on Sharr’s World. Player of Games could have been titled Planet of Games, for although it takes place on a few planets, it’s essentially set ‘on’ Azad. And Use of Weapons deconstructs the warrior-hero of planetary romances, while its several planetary settings seem to merge into one indistinguishable military campaign.

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