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You might think of Planetary Romance as a cross pollination of a number of other literary genres and science fiction ones, these being (mostly but not inclusively) Space Opera, Pulp, Lost Worlds, and Sword and Planet.
Essentially, Planetary Romance are stories where most of the adventures take place on exotic planets that feature distinct, often unique, cultures and a well-defined background. The events and even the planet itself (the cultures, ecology, physical features, etc) play a pivital role in the story, not just as window dressing. Planetary Romance takes great pains to set up alien cultures and often the actual physical settings are highly described.
You can consider any science fiction story which primary takes place on a planet with the plot turning to a significant degree on the events that occur thereon that planet. In a true planetary romance the world and the events on it play pivital role in the story being told. The connection between the venue the events take place and the story threads are highly highly connected. Any story that takes place on a planet can ostensibly be called "Planetary Romance" but that does not necessary make it a true planetary romance.
There's basically two distinct phases of Planetary Romance: The classics of the early 19th and late 18th centuries and contemporary works, with the classics often taking the form of the Sword and Planet style fiction and the contemporary works applying Space Opera transformations to the Pulps along with more Hard Science to imbue more scientific credibility to the settings.
Planetary Romance were the natural extension of both pulp romances of the yesteryears (the early 20th century) and the Lost Worlds genre when the setting is moved into space.
The Impact of Lost Worlds genre on Planetary Romance
The “Lost Worlds” genre featured exotic fictional (secret) locales in known places – The Antarctic, Beneath the Earth, the continent of Africa or South America, Asia – or even mythical places like Atlantis. Have “Earth” stand in for North America or Europe then replace an exotic Alien world with a backwards and primitive Africa or South America (yet sometimes having advanced technology while using primitive forms of transportation), then take the aliens and replace them with the 19th century western notions of “savages” (Indians, etc) and you have the classic Planetary Romance novel for the early 20th century. One of the defining authors in the genre was Edgar Rice Burroughs who wrote a number of novels featuring an Earthmen who gets mysteriously transported to Mars. Indeed, his specific style of fiction embodies the Sword and Planet concept where an Earthman has pulpy sword adventures on alien planets. These days, Sword and Planet refers to pastiche works that consciously reflect Burroughs’ style or to some of the direct imitators from some of Burroughs’ contemporary’s.
The Impact of Sword and Planet genre on Planetary Romance
Sword and Planet is a specific sort of style where you have pulpy adventures on exotic planets, with the main character usually being an Earthman, with the adventures taking place in environment that fuses low tech with some high tech with the weapons usually being of the former (swords, bow and arrow, etc). Thus Sword and Planet can be a Planetary Romance but a Planetary Romance might NOT necessary be a Sword and Planet. One of the classic Sword and Planet writers was Burroughs with his Barsoom series.
As the solar system became more well-explored and science showed our local solar system to not be suitable to life, planetary romance moved from the local solar system (i.e. Barsoom series set on mars) to distant and exotic extra-solar planets.
In planetary romances, future cultures have access to some faster-that-light mode of transportation to travel between planets. The focus is on the adventure on the planet though not on the actual mode of transportation. This transportation between worlds, in the early years of the genre, were explained away as mysterious alien technology, and in contemporary planetary romance, more real-science ideas are used to explain the how’s of interplanetary travel.
Planetary Romance and Space Opera
Planetary Romance is highly related to Space Opera and is usually a significant component of any modern space opera. Indeed there is so much cross-pollination between the two, it’s hard to distinguish one between the other with many modern science fiction writers preferring not to describe their works as Planetary Romance because of the somewhat pejorative connotation it brings (hearkening back to the old Sword and Planet and Pulpy traditions of the early years); in general, a planetary romance focuses more on the adventure taking place on a planet than on events off the planet. The events on the planet often revolve around a set or a single hero who makes a significant difference in the fate of the planet. Pure Space Opera tends to focus more on the full spectrum of events, both planetary, interplanetary, and off planet with greater detail given to means of travel, warfare in space, fleet military, etc).
You can view the crowd-ranked "Popular" Sword and Planet Books list and vote and/submit entries to it.
Other Features of Planetary Romance Science Fiction
- Level of Real Science
Variable. Science is not the focus of classic Planetary Romance which is thin on science and high and adventure. Indeed, the science is more fantasy than reality. For example, there is little to no attention paid to how a human can live in an alien environment or how a human can be transported to an alien world.
However, if it's a modern planetary romance, then fare more detail is given to that actual science aspect, with means of transportation between worlds highly explained and other technology. Again, this depends on the author.
- Level of Grand Ideas/Social Implications
Variable. These stories are usually focused on the action and the adventure, not on any grand ideas. But you do get occasional works that focus on social implications using the planetary romance vehicle to explore these ideas, both the cultural aspects and/or the ecological aspects (Herbert's Dune for example).
- Level of Characterization
Variable. Generally, the characters who appear in Sword and Planet style Sci Fi are stock characters. But contemporary Planetary Romance in the Space Opera tradition can invest a good deal of effort into creating 3 dimensional characters (Miles Vorkosigan saga, for example).
- Level of Plot Complexity
- Level of Violence
Related Science Fiction subgenres
Pulp Science Fiction. Almost all of the classic Planetary Romance, especially the early ones in the Sword and Planet are part of the Pulp Sci Fi tradition, featuring high adventure storylines.
Sword and Planet. "The early Planetary Romances" before the genre fused with the more modern conventions of Space Opera. These tales follow a specific style -- a lone Earthman is transported to an exotic alien world that fuses some advanced (thinly explained) technology with low tech. The adventures often feature the hero wielding some sort of sword and the battles are distinctly medieval in form. Sword and Planet might be a Planetary Romance, but the reverse might not be true.Science Fantasy. If fantasy elements such as magic are introduced to the tale, you have a Science Fantasy.
Lost Worlds. Adventures that take place in a secret location somewhere a known area (South America, Antarctica, Asia, a lost continent, etc). Planetary Romances naturally evolved from Lost Worlds when the locations and adventurous moved to space; this is because when the world grew too small and it became infeasible to feature fiction with a lost world as there were no more "mysterious" places left in the world.
Space Opera. Modern space opera includes Planetary Romances; there is so much overlap and cross-pollination between the two it's hard to distinguish them.