In planetary romance, the bulk of the action consists of adventures on one or more exotic alien planets, which usually have distinctive physical and cultural backgrounds. Many planetary romance stories are a little goofy and pulpy, but some take their characters a little more seriously. Note that the “romance” part of the term doesn’t refer to romantic love, but to the old-timey definition of romances as a kind of adventure tale (science fiction itself used to be called “scientific romance”).
After a strange interstellar journey, Maskull, a man from Earth, awakens alone in a desert on the planet Tormance, seared by the suns of the binary star Arcturus. As he journeys northward, guided by a drumbeat, he encounters a world and its inhabitants like no other, where gender is a victory won at dear cost; where landscape and emotion are drawn into an accursed dance; where heroes are killed, reborn, and renamed; and where the cosmological lures of Shaping, who may be God, torment Maskull in his astonishing pilgrimage. At the end of his arduous and increasingly mystical quest waits a dark secret and an unforgettable revelation.
Author Michael Moorcock is a well-known writer, and Kane of Old Mars is his tribute to A Princess of Mars, the most famous planetary romance story (also on this list).
John Daker is taken from his ordinary life in the modern world and incarnated in the form of Erekosë, a long-dead hero. He learns that he has been summoned to lead the human race in a fight against the alien Eldren, as he once did in the legendary past. He must balance his 20th-century consciousness with his patchy memories of a past life as a sword and sorcery-type warrior. He also must learn to distinguish the truth, since the rules of his new world are not necessarily the rules of Earth, and he cannot decide whether reports of magical events are real.
“Moorcock is a major novelist of enormous ambition.”
—The Washington Post
Tour guide Fergus Reith arrives on the backward world of Krishna with a gaggle of tourists, the first such group to visit the planet. Though he is woefully unprepared and his charges are deeply unpleasant, he readies for his task as best he can and squires his flock off on their grand circuit of the planet. Their misadventures include bandits, kidnapping, and lusty cult members.
“[A] cheerfully bloody and bawdy adventure, which will strike home to anyone who’s experienced conducted travel.”
Set on the Earth-like planet Helliconia, this is an epic chronicling the rise and fall of a civilization over more than a thousand years.
The great drama of life on Helliconia is shaped by its cosmic limitations. In fierce contrasts of climate, whole seasons last for centuries and civilizations rise and fall as the planet orbits the giant sun Freyr every 3000 years.
“Propels the reader headlong into marvel. A trilogy which has acquired monumental nobility.”
—The Times (London)
Callisto, a moon of Jupiter, is a world of black and crimson jungles where the hand of every man is lifted in eternal enmity against every other… a savage, hostile world on which he is first held prisoner by the fearsome insect-men, only to be freed for a more binding slavery in the deadly clutches of the insidious Sky Pirates… and in the incalculable aura of the beautiful princess Darloona who elicits love almost beyond the limits of his mortal soul.
Over a millennium ago, Erna, a seismically active yet beautiful world, was settled by colonists from far-distant Earth. But the seemingly habitable planet was fraught with perils no one could have foretold. The colonists found themselves caught in a desperate battle for survival against the fae, a terrifying natural force with the power to prey upon the human mind itself, drawing forth a person’s worst nightmare images or most treasured dreams and indiscriminately giving them life.
Twelve centuries after fate first stranded the colonists on Erna, mankind has achieved an uneasy stalemate, and human sorcerers manipulate the fae for their own profit, little realizing that demonic forces, which feed upon such efforts, are rapidly gaining in strength.
Now, as the hordes of the dark fae multiply, four people—Priest, Adept, Apprentice, and Sorcerer—are about to be drawn inexorably together for a mission that will force them to confront an evil beyond their imagining, in a conflict which will put not only their own lives but the very fate of humankind in jeopardy.
“Hauntingly memorable protagonists, high drama, and vivid world-building.”
Eric John Stark, Outlaw of Mars, travels beyond the solar system for exciting science fantasy adventures on the planet of Skaith, a lawless sphere at the edge of the known universe.
Raised as a savage on the hostile planet of Mercury and honed into a fearless warrior in the low canals of the Red Planet, Stark is one of science fiction’s greatest adventurers and is Leigh Brackett’s most famous character.
Foreigner is the first of a thirteen-book series, so if you like it, you’re in luck. It’s a little slow-moving and introspective; if you’re looking for a rapid-fire page-turner, this isn’t it.
Survivors of a lost spacecraft crash-land on a planet inhabited by a hostile, sentient alien race. The humans are relegated to second-class citizen status, and it remains that way for generations, until a human survives an assault by the aliens.
“Three-time Hugo-winner Cherryh’s gift for conjuring believable alien cultures is in full force here, and her characters, including the fascinatingly unpredictable atevi, are brought to life with a sure and convincing hand.”
In the far future, humans have colonized a distant planet, home to the enigmatic Ariekei, sentient beings famed for a language unique in the universe, one that only a few altered human ambassadors can speak. Avice Benner Cho, a human colonist, has returned to Embassytown after years of deep-space adventure. She cannot speak the Ariekei tongue, but she is an indelible part of it, having long ago been made a figure of speech, a living simile in their language. When distant political machinations deliver a new ambassador to Arieka, the fragile equilibrium between humans and aliens is violently upset. Catastrophe looms, and Avice is torn between competing loyalties: to a husband she no longer loves, to a system she no longer trusts, and to her place in a language she cannot speak—but which speaks through her, whether she likes it or not.
“A fully achieved work of art.”
—Ursula K. Le Guin
Marc Vitrac was born in Louisiana in the early 1960’s, about the time the first interplanetary probes delivered the news that Mars and Venus were teeming with life—even human life. At that point, the “Space Race” became the central preoccupation of the great powers of the world.
Now, in 1988, Marc has been assigned to Jamestown, the US-Commonwealth base on Venus, near the great Venusian city of Kartahown. Set in a countryside swarming with sabertooths and dinosaurs, Jamestown is home to a small band of American and allied scientist-adventurers.
But there are flies in this ointment—and not only the Venusian dragonflies, with their yard-wide wings. The biologists studying Venus’s life are puzzled by the way it not only resembles that on Earth, but is virtually identical to it. The EastBloc has its own base at Cosmograd, in the highlands to the south, and relations are frosty. And attractive young geologist Cynthia Whitlock seems impervious to Marc’s Cajun charm.
Meanwhile, at the western end of the continent, Teesa of the Cloud Mountain People leads her tribe in a conflict with the Neanderthal-like beastmen who have seized her folk’s sacred caves. Then an EastBloc shuttle crashes nearby, and the beastmen acquire new knowledge… and AK47s.
Jamestown sends its long-range blimp to rescue the downed EastBloc cosmonauts, little suspecting that the answer to the jungle planet’s mysteries may lie there, among tribal conflicts and traces of a power that made Earth’s science seem as primitive as the tribefolk’s blowguns. As if that weren’t enough, there’s an enemy agent on board the airship…
On a long-colonized planet with no usable animals, two priest-clans, the Kaiel and the Mnankrei, attempt to expand into territory controlled by the Stgal. Ultimately, all the priest-clans try to attain dominance of the planet through the use of new technology, propaganda, treachery, and “war,” a new concept in this world. Previously, killing was done merely in order to provide food, but no more.
To Your Scattered Bodies Go won the Hugo Award for Best Novel in 1972. It’s a little pulpy, but it’s fun.
The title is derived from the “Holy Sonnets” by English poet John Donne:
At the round earth’s imagin’d corners, blow
Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise
From death, you numberless infinities
Of souls, and to your scattered bodies go.
All those who ever lived on Earth have found themselves resurrected—healthy, young, and naked as newborns—on the grassy banks of a mighty river, in a world unknown. Miraculously provided with food, but with no clues to the meaning of their strange new afterlife, billions of people from every period of Earth’s history—and prehistory—must start again.
Sir Richard Francis Burton was the first to glimpse the incredible way-station, a link between worlds. This forbidden sight spurred the renowned 19th-century explorer to uncover the truth. Now he must confront humankind’s mysterious benefactors, and learn the true purpose of the Riverworld.
As a lapsed marine zoologist, I couldn’t help but love A Darkling Sea. It has aliens, intrigue, desperate missions, and it all happens underwater.
On a moon orbiting a gas giant, a human science station sits in pitch-black water. They’re studying a semi-primitive alien species, but when a dumb-ass scientist gets himself killed by the curious aliens, another alien species visits the science station and tries to take over. Chaos ensues.
“An exceptionally thoughtful, searching and intriguing debut.”
―Kirkus, starred review
Sandoz is a Jesuit priest and linguist, part of the crew sent to explore a new planet. What they find is a civilization so alien and incomprehensible that they feel compelled to wonder what it means to be human.
Sandoz is the only surviving member of the crew and upon his return he is confronted by public inquisition and accusations of the most heinous crimes imaginable. His faith utterly destroyed, crippled and defenseless, his only hope is to tell his tale. But the truth may be more than Earth is willing to accept.
Some readers find this book provocative and compelling, while others seem to be a little let down by the ending.
Author Robert E. Howard is a pulp writer best known for creating Conan the Barbarian (aka Conan the Cimmerian).
Almuric is a savage planet of crumbling ruins and near humans. Into this strange world comes Esau Cairn, Earthman, swordsman, murderer. Only he can overthrow the terrible devils that enslave Almuric, but to do so he must first defeat the inner demons that forced him to abandon Earth.
Kirth Gersen carries in his pocket a slip of paper with a list of five names written on it. These are the names of the five Demon Princes who led the historic Mount Pleasant Massacre, which destroyed not only Kirth’s family but his entire world as well. He roams the universe, searching the endless galaxies of space, hunting down the Demon Princes and exacting his revenge. Three princes will fall before Kirth’s work is done, and two more await their doom…
“Jack Vance is one of the truly important science fiction writers of our day.”
―Los Angeles Times Book Review
Packed with wall-to-wall swordplay, daring feats, beasts, battles, and beauties, A Princess of Mars is a classic of 20th-century pulp fiction.
Its original title was Under the Moons of Mars, and is also known for introducing interplanetary romance, which became popular in the following decades and is still seen today in the Star Trek movies.
Do not expect hard science here. It was written in 1912, when there were more horses on streets than cars.
On a beautiful world called Pern, an ancient way of life is about to come under attack from a myth that is all too real. Lessa is an outcast survivor—her parents murdered, her birthright stolen—a strong young woman who has never stopped dreaming of revenge. But when an ancient threat to Pern reemerges, Lessa will rise—upon the back of a great dragon with whom she shares a telepathic bond more intimate than any human connection. Together, dragon and rider will fly . . . and Pern will be changed forever.
“Read Dragonflight and you’re confronted with McCaffrey the storyteller in her prime, staking a claim for being one of the influential fantasy and SF novelists of her generation—and doing it, remarkably, in the same novel.”
Le Guin is a wonderful anomaly, a writer with grand philosophical attitudes who can communicate these attitudes while still writing a gripping tale. The Left Hand of Darkness examines sexless androgyny in a fascinating way (and this is from a guy that loves exploding spaceships).
When I first read this book, the androgyny felt entirely alien, since our language had “he” and “she” but no human-specific pronoun for “it” or “unknown.” However, the use of “they” as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun has increased in recent years. It’s interesting how language evolves.
“A jewel of a story.”
—Frank Herbert, author of Dune
As a straight white middle-aged male, I’ve often felt like science fiction’s target demographic. Most SF feels like it’s aimed right at me.
Midnight Robber is definitely not aimed at me. Which, honestly, made it a lot more interesting. Being extremely well written helped a lot, too.
A privileged but innocent child living on the planet Toussaint (essentially The Planet of the Caribbean) is taken by her corrupt father to another world they can’t return from. In this new world, the monsters of Caribbean folklore are real, and humans scrape together whatever they can in the wild.
“Deeply satisfying…succeeds on a grand scale…best of all is the language… Hopkinson’s narrative voice has a way of getting under the skin.”
—The New York Times Book Review
Set on the desert planet Arrakis, Dune is the story of the boy Paul Atreides, heir to a noble family tasked with ruling an inhospitable world where the only thing of value is the “spice” melange, a drug capable of extending life and enhancing consciousness. Coveted across the known universe, melange is a prize worth killing for…
When House Atreides is betrayed, the destruction of Paul’s family will set the boy on a journey toward a destiny greater than he could ever have imagined. And as he evolves into the mysterious man known as Muad’Dib, he will bring to fruition humankind’s most ancient and unattainable dream.
“One of the monuments of modern science fiction.”