SF/F Genre Glossary

What Is Sword and Planet?

This is a continuation of the Speculative Fiction Genre Glossary Project posts. For the complete genre index click here.

Grey Render Fight
Grey Render Fight by nJoo

What is Sword and Planet?

A genre that is closely related to sword and sorcery, and planetary romance. However, unlike sword and sorcery, adventures take place on another planet, and unlike planetary romance, the alien world is primitive. An ailen society may posess some advanced technology, but its use is not central to the plot. Often the hero is the lone human survivor or castaway, and swords are preferred as means of warfare.

Literary Examples:

  • John Carter of Mars Series by Edgar Rice Burroughs
  • Gor Series by John Norman
  • Callisto Series by Lin Carter

If anyone asked me what this genre was, I’d probably say: It’s sword and sorcery… in space! Most of these books were published pre 1980’s, but a John Carter movie is slated to come out in 2012. Hmm! I wonder if we’ll suddenly start seeing more books in this genre…


  1. I can honestly say I have never read a book in this subgenre – and given that my real-world Mars is barren and lifeless, it’s hard for me to have any interest in John Carter of Mars.

    But I do think that maybe this is a subgenre that is ripe for some new works…

    1. I haven’t read any either. From my lack of success with sword and sorcery, I doubt it would be one of my favorites, but hey maybe someone will come along and update the formula 😉

  2. In the early 1960s, with the space program starting, Roger Zelazny said he knew that science fiction writers could no longer write about life on Mars and Venus, because we knew enough about them to know that there was no life there (and certainly no humanoid life).

    So, he sat down to write the best Mars story he could, and the best Venus story he could, knowing he’d never get another chance. And the two stories he wrote, “A Rose for Ecclesiastes” and “The Doors of His Face, The Lamps of His Mouth,” are really great.

    I’ve heard that there’s a John Carter movie coming, but it seems like a dubious idea. Movies based on properties from the pulp era have not done well recently (The Shadow, The Spirit, The Phantom).

    (Further research has reminded me that Burroughs was actually earlier than that. I’m not seeing this as an advantage in terms of having a built-in audience for the movie.)

    1. On the plus side, although the Shadow movie wasn’t terribly good… I was later able to get into the old Shadow radio dramas, in part because of my exposure to the movie, which were pretty fun!

    2. Those movies really weren’t that great and I have my expectations set low for this one. I wonder if it’s the movie making, or the stories themselves at fault for the lack of success…

  3. Oh my… You come across the wildest things, Theresa, haha.

    At the risk of sounding sexist, this just seems like one of those things that only a guy could have come up with… Kind of like Cowboys and Aliens, heh. (And yet strangely, I do want to see that one. But only because it has the most unusual holy triad of Harrison Ford, Daniel Craig and the lovely Olivia Wilde.)

    Like really, I would never think to put any of those things (heck, even those people) together. It just seems aesthetically sinful, yet at the same time it’s undeniably intriguing.

    Hmm… I wonder if you have aliens invade earth during a time where swords were a usual choice of weaponry…would that just be a reverse Swords & Planet? lol (Kind of like the movie Outlander?)

    1. I was a bit surprised to see that a couple of female writers wrote in the genre, though, I’m not 100% sure they are female, I’m just guessing from the names. The first time I heard about Cowboys and Aliens, I laughed, it sounded like such a dumb idea… but then, yes like you, the actors in it made me do a double take.

      Hmm, if aliens invaded earth, I think that would be more like straight up sci-fi or time travel fiction (outlander)?

      1. Theresa, there are probably more women on that list than it appears, rather than less. Quite a few women have written (and continue to write) genre fiction under male or neutral names. J.K. Rowling is an obvious example. Leigh Brackett, C. L. Moore, P. D. James. S. E. Hinton, Andre Norton. There are more. Jay Presson Allen in the movies.

        Somebody blogged about this recently, about how publishers are _still_ pressuring writers to do this, but I’m not remembering who…

  4. Tiyana, I felt the same way about The Shadow. Ian McKellan, Jonathan Winters, Peter Boyle, Tim Curry and Andre Gregory in the same picture? Really? It didn’t make the movie any better, though it did have its moments. I think they tried to modernize it too much, examining the Shadow’s inner conflicts. Who care about his inner conflicts! He should be laughing that laugh and scaring the crap out of the bad guys! It’s like in the Lord of the Rings movies where they gave Aragorn a bunch of self-doubt that he certainly didn’t have in the books.

    Anyway, I don’t think I’ll be rushing out to see that movie. Of course, if it starred Johnny Depp, directed by Tim Burton, with Helena Bonham-Carter as Dejah Thoris…

  5. Sword and sorcery in space..well that brings up an odd picture in my brain. It’d be an interesting challenge to write something in that genre though I doubt I could pull it off. 🙂 Maybe Zombies in love on a far distant planet sometime in the future…okay now I’m being silly. 😉

  6. Yet another genre I’m not familiar with (other than JCM) yet now find myself compelled to start reading!

    Regarding the JCM movie, I’ve been intrigued by it for awhile but having seen the trailer I’m feeling a bit “meh”… it’s just some guy running around in the desert.

    Cowboys and Aliens on the other hand – I’ve been adamant for sometime that that’s going to be amazing. You can read the original comic for free online: http://www.drunkduck.com/CowboysAndAliens/4823277/ although the plot’s almost certainly changed beyond recognition (not seeing any Native Americans in the trailers).

    1. I haven’t watched the trailer but I don’t have great faith that the movie will be so great. Thank for the link to the comic! Yeah I’m sure it’s different, but I think I’d still watch it 😉

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