Sunday, July 15, 2018

Planetary Romance Meets Planetary Noir

At one time, science fiction was referred to as “scientific romance.” This was the term applied to the stories of H. G. Wells. “Romance” meant, not love or relationships, but a narrative based mainly on adventure and entertainment, a tale of the “marvelous or uncommon incidents” (the term was first used to describe the long Medieval tales of knights and their fantastic adventures).  So a story with a scientific background or inspiration, like what happens to a traveler on a machine that can move through time, got the label “scientific romance.”  Generalizing away from romance to any story or prose narrative (serious, comic, short, or long) and you get the more familiar “science fiction.” 

Then, a popular sub-genre of science fiction that started in the 1930s and 40s was “planetary romance,” in which, as Wikipedia says (bless its easily accessible heart) “the bulk of the action consists of adventures on one or more exotic alien planets, characterized by distinctive physical and cultural backgrounds.”  And a strong characteristic of this sub-genre is that such “planetside adventures” are more the focus of the story than the mode of travel to get there, or the hard science of the planet, or its technology.

The legacy examples are Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars and Venus novels, and Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon (when he was on Mongo). But these works are more credibly labeled now as “sword and planet,” where cultures use the sword as the basic weapon of force, and any technology included is just there to extend the adventures.

Purer examples of “planetary romance”—adventurous, entertaining, and filled with sense of wonder—were those written by Jack Vance, Leigh Brackett, Poul Anderson (though he does include science), Andre Norton (her SF), David Lindsay (A Voyage to Arcturus), Anne McCaffrey (the Pern books), Frank Herbert (Dune), Dan Simmons (Hyperion), and selections from the old pulp magazine, Planet Stories.

And, my latest novel, In a Suspect Universe.

The novel intentionally fits the planetary romance category, though it does add its own unique twists. I’ve described it—in “high concept” terms—as Adam Strange meets The English Patient meets H. P. Lovecraft. 

The story begins as obvious planetary romance:  a man’s desire for escapist adventure takes him to an exotic alien world where he encounters what he’s always wanted, a planet of wonder and mystery, and a woman he comes to love with whom he can experience it.

But he discovers that this great scenario comes at a very high price, and the story then turns into “planetary noir” (my own term, I believe), a dark and highly emotional confrontation with dangerous surprises, with secrets out of the galactic past, and a realization that even the nature of the universe is not what it seems, that it’s a “suspect” universe. The protagonist—Mykol Ranglen, and this is the second book about him—finds that the world and its people have their hidden stories and frightening enigmas.  Once having experienced his dream, he learns it can never be repeated and never returned to.  Then H. P. Lovecraft encounters Philip K. Dick. 

So the best way to describe the book is “planetary romance meets planetary noir.

And I loved how these differences confronted each other, how they came together and evolved, how the varied traces of pulp fiction and classic SF coupled with the darker narratives of today, how the familiar tale of a space colony met contemporary post-human uncertainties, how the strong space heroes of the past (only male then but also female now) fared in entering today’s dangers and new physics.

It’s a heady brew of romance, adventure, tragedy, and longing. 

I loved writing it. Working on it was my own personal escape.  

And I hope it becomes yours too. 


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