An amazing painting by Frank Frazetta

In this installment of Exploring New Worlds, I’d like to take a look at one of my favorite genres from the early days of science fiction and fantasy.  In-fact, some of the very first science fiction stories fall under this sub-genre.  It was popularized by the pulps that I so adore, and later cemented into popular culture by Edgar Rice Burroughs with his ongoing Barsoom Series.  This was collected and published as A Princess of Mars in 1917, and followed-up over the next thirty years by ten more novels!

If you haven’t figured out what sub-genre I’m talking about (and got here by blindly clicking links without reading them), I’m going to be talking about Planetary Romance!

The “Romance” in Planetary Romance has caused some confusion among modern readers. When the genre was in its infancy in the late 1800’s, the idea of a “Romance” was still very much based on the old ideals of Chivalric traditions. The romance was more about the ‘knight in shining armor’ concept and less about an actual romantic relationship between two people. This is not to say that this sub-genre cannot include a character-driven romantic plot – it often does! Again looking at our iconic example with the Barsoom Series by Burroughs, there is definitely a romance going on here!

So, we have the ‘Romance’ in Planetary Romance figured out, but what about the ‘Planetary’? You guessed it, the story should take place on some sort of exotic alien planet! Back when our solar system was largely unexplored, Mars and Venus were commonly used as the settings for these stories. Now that we are pretty sure that there are no sprawling cities covering our closest cosmic neighbors, modern Planetary Romance stories often take place on some distant ball of dust that the author invented themselves. The story could, also, take place on a future Earth.

How is this not a Space Opera?

Good question! So, a Space Opera is – briefly – a sci-fi story that involves space travel and may include exotic locations. The story is often more character-driven and while a hard sci-fi setting may exist it is not necessarily a defining factor.

Planetary Romance is a story set in an exotic location – usually an alien planet reached via space travel – where the planet has its own well developed ecology and culture(s) which play a central role in how the story develops. In addition, the story will include elements of Chivalric Romance (such as the hero saving the damsel in distress or serving a noble lord.) The tone of these stories very much mimics the old 19th century romantic tales such as those told of King Arthur and his knights, even if the knight in question walks around with a laser pistol.

The difference is that in a Space Opera the characters are the most important feature of the story, but in a Planetary Romance the setting is the single most important defining factor. The setting in these stories is a character itself! From exotic landscapes to unusual creatures and sprawling cities; the setting that the author creates for a planetary romance sits in center stage instead of acting as a backdrop.

And then there’s the question of Sword and Planet, another sub-genre that is often blended with Planetary Romance. Sword and Planet almost always falls under the same definitions as Planetary Romance, with the additional caveat that the culture of the planet in question is always similar to a feudal-era society. Melee weapons, as the name implies, are often a big part of this. There might be flying cars and airships, but the soldiers on the airships are going to have spears and/or swords. Conversely, not all Planetary Romance stories have to be Sword and Planet.  The alien society could very well have advanced technology. Sword and Planet is almost always Planetary Romance, but Planetary Romance need not include elements of Sword and Planet.

Now that we have a better idea of what Planetary Romance is, I proudly present my own take on the sub-genre:  Marooned.

Marooned

by B.K. Bass

An alarm buzzed loudly over the steady hiss of air being cycled through the chamber. Tobias tried to open his eyes, but they were caked over with dried rheum. Weak, trembling hands rose to his face and rubbed away the obstacle to sight. A blinding light greeted his next attempt to open his eyes. He blinked slowly, taking in the piercing illumination a moment at a time as his long-unused irises found the strength to contract again. He felt blindly for the button that would shut off the alarm droning in his ears.

Then there was silence. He let his eyes flutter closed. A sigh of relief escaped chapped lips. The alarm meant a problem, but Tobias would worry about that after he had a moment to gather his senses. The training had not prepared him for this kind of lethargy following reanimation. Instructors at the project had said that the five-year hibernation would not feel like much more than a good night’s sleep. They launched in August of 2084, so it should be 2089 if they had reached Borialis Theta; the exo-planet they were supposed to be scouting.

Tobias once again opened his eyes. Intense light again assailed him. The hibernation bay lights were never this bright. He shielded his eyes and focused on a small monitor on the side of the pod with a status readout. 

Dr. Wagner, Tobias J. – Biologist – Austria – Condition: Stable – Disposition: Evacuated on 2256/04/18.

“Wait,” Tobias croaked out. 2256? That can’t be right, he thought. How had they overshot a five-year voyage by one hundred and sixty-seven years? More concerning, what did the display mean by ‘evacuated’? He peered past his hand out of the glass view-port of the hibernation chamber and was greeted with the red glow of a strange star. Looking around, the rose-tinted sky above him was anything but the cold and sterile walls he expected from the hibernation bay. He tapped some icons on the screen of the status monitor and brought up the most recent log entry:

2256/04/18 – gravitational anomaly encountered. UNSS Clark projected damage: 100%. Life-sustaining exo-planet detected nearby. All hibernation pods evacuated.

Doctor Tobias Wagner let his head fall back to the cushion beneath it. Not only had they missed their destination and been lost in space for over a century and a half, now their ship was gone and they had been cast-away on an unknown planet. The pods were designed to be used as lifeboats in the case of a catastrophic failure aboard the Clark, and were even equipped for atmospheric entry and landing. The emergency training had warned of a remote possibility of such an event. The actual probability of a catastrophic failure happening close enough to a survivable planet was so astronomically small that the number itself made little sense to the average mind. On one hand, the entire mission had been a failure. On the other, they had won the galactic lottery.

The steady hiss of air cycling through the pod’s ventilation system informed Tobias that the air outside was breathable. In-fact, he had been breathing it for some time now. Reaching up with a trembling arm, he pulled the levers to unlock the pod and pushed open the hatch. The cylindrical dome above his head and torso pivoted away. A warm breeze wafted over Tobias’ face. A sour smell filled the air; not pungent enough to be unpleasant, but unusual enough take notice of. His long-unused muscles strained as he pulled himself upright. Wired pads covered his body, and though they had continuously stimulated his muscles with electric shock to prevent atrophy the sudden movement was a strain on every part of his body.

Tobias worked on removing the pads and an assortment of other leads connected to monitors and the life support system of the pod. As he did this, he looked around his surroundings. As far as he could see there was an unbroken prairie of yellow moss sporadically dotted by spindly trees barren of any sort of foliage. Tall spires of stone rose to sharp points in the distance. The horizon was lined with cloud-shrouded mountains in every direction. The pod itself was at the base of one of the leafless trees, which was upturned from the collision. Small roots broke the ground the slender trunk was laying on. He could see the occasional flutter of movement. There was animal life out there. Small creatures ran between the barbed bushes that specked the landscape. They moved too fast to see more than a blur.

Joints popped as Tobias pulled himself up to sit on the edge of the pod and swung his legs over the side. He carefully slid down to the ground and his feet sunk into the thick yellow moss. It felt as if he were standing on a bed of sponges. The odd foliage covered almost every inch of ground here, but he could see that it grew in patches and solid ground was visible between them in a haphazard network of criss-crossing paths. He opened a panel on the side of the pod to reveal a survival pack, a belt lined with pouches, and a single rifle. Tobias fastened the belt around his waist, noticing that among the assorted tools and supplies there was a large utility knife sheathed on one side and a canteen filled with 175-year-old water on the other. Even with the safety seal on it, he wasn’t sure he wanted to see what that tasted like. He slid a magazine into the rifle, checked the safety, and slung it over his shoulder alongside the survival pack. He knew from his training he would have two weeks worth of rations, an extra uniform, first-aid supplies, and a poncho that could double as an improvised shelter inside. There was an aluminum water bottle strapped to the side, also filled with centuries-old water from the now-distant Earth. He considered dumping both of the vessels out to lighten his load, but not seeing a source of water nearby; he thought better of it.

Tobias looked about once more, this time scanning the horizon with a small pair of binoculars from the belt. Every direction seemed to hold the same promise of long days of hiking across the flat valley until he reached a featureless mountainside. The red star this planet orbited was just rising to one side of the valley, so he decided to set his path in that direction. He would at least ensure he knew which way he was going with that decision made.

Leaving behind the empty pod – his last ties to the UNSS Clark and the Earth – Tobias set out towards the distant mountains. He struggled over the spongy moss for several yards before stepping down onto the dusty ground between patches. The path lead towards the sun, winding and twisting as it went. Resigned to his fate, and hoping to discover signs of other survivors from the Clark, Doctor Tobias J. Wagner set out to explore his new home.

TO BE CONTINUED…

As I wrote this, i realized that the story was setting itself up for something far more than just a flash fiction genre exercise.  Expect to see more of the adventures of Doctor Tobias J Wagner soon!

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