Thursday, January 9, 2020

Weird Revisited: The Planetary Picaresque

This post is of relatively recent vintage (2017), but I've been thinking about this sort of thing again...

We're all familiar with the Planetary Romance or Sword and Planet stories of the Burroughsian ilk, where a stranger (typically a person of earth) has adventures of a lost world or derring-do sort of variety on an alien world. I'd like to suggest that their is a subgenre or closely related genre that could be termed the Planetary Picaresque.

The idea came to me while revisiting the novels in Vance's Planet of Adventure sequence. The first novel, City of the Chasch, is pretty typical of the Planetary Romance form, albeit more science fiction-ish than Burroughs and wittier than most of his imitators. By the second novel, Servant of the Wankh (or Wanek), however, Vance's hero is spending more time getting the better of would be swindlers or out maneuvering his social superiors amid the risible and baroque societies of Tschai than engaging in acts of swordplay or derring-do. One could argue the stalwart Adam Reith is not himself a picaro, but the ways he is forced to get by on Tschai certainly resemble the sort of situations a genuine picaro might get into.

These sort of elements are not wholly absent from Vance's sword and planet progenitors (Burroughs has some of that, probably borrowed from Dumas), but Vance makes it the centerpiece rather than the comedy relief. Some of L. Sprague de Camp's Krishna seem to be in a similar vein.

The roleplaying applications of this ought to be obvious. You get to combine the best parts of Burroughs with the best parts of Leiber. I think that's a pretty appealing combination.


Gothridge Manor said...

You can't go wrong with combining Burroughs and Leiber. And then the kinda reverse would work also. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land where a alien human type person adventures in a known land. But being science fiction 'known' is relative. And you could explore a strange human society through the eyes of an alien. It might get a bit didactic, but an interesting way to explore a society.

JB said...

Would you throw Harry Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat in this category?

Trey said...

I haven't read the original Stainless Steel Rat (only the sequel, A Stainless Steel Rat is born), but there isn't any Planetary Romance in that, he's just a sci-fi rogue.