SWORD AND PLANET Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Alexander Wallace reviews a new anthology of stories in the grand space fantasy tradition.
There’s an old, old genre of science fiction that isn’t given much due nowadays. Genre fiction has drawn a line in the sand between science fiction, the allegedly rational genre, and fantasy, the allegedly romantic (in the literary sense) genre, and according to certain ideologues, never the twain shall meet. As with many things we in the allegedly enlightened twenty-first century take for granted, what seems inherent and quotidian today is in fact a relatively recent invention. Would you believe me when I say that there was a time when magic and spaceships existed in the same stories, and nobody batted an eye? A common name for such stories was ‘planetary romance.’

As with many old genres, there will be people closer to the present who look back on such stories with nostalgia and reverence. Some of those people will be in the halls of power in publishing houses or production studios, and can resurrect those stories for a new audience. Such is the case for old planetary romances in the anthology Sword and Planet, released from Baen Books on February 8th, 2022, edited by Christopher Ruocchio.

In his introduction, Ruocchio makes a bold and daring statement that will rankle many fans: he doesn’t really give a damn about the ‘science’ part of science fiction. The reputation of the genre all too often relies on what John W. Campbell or Isaac Asimov wanted it to be, with long infodumps on scientific minutiae that drag the plot to a halt. Not so in Sword in Planet; Ruocchio makes the point that many great science fiction stories are not particularly plausible or even particularly physically possible, but they are beloved and compelling all the same. This is what makes Star Wars tick, or Guardians of the Galaxy, or even the works of H. G. Wells.

Befitting such an introduction, many of the stories are swashbuckling adventure tales, gleefully taking as many science fiction and fantasy concepts as their authors desire and are thrown into a blender; the authors then cavalierly push the button. The astute (by which I mean ‘even more of a nerd than usual’) reader will likewise notice the diversity of historical influences upon the stories. Planetary romance is a genre in which absolutely anything goes, so long as you can spin a convincing yarn.

Fortunately for the reader, the authors are all master weavers of such threads, and they weave them in ways that subvert what you may think is coming next. One of my favorites takes the traditional story of a hero rescuing a princess and walks around the common trope of them falling in love; in fact, they find each other to be absolutely insufferable. There are daring space-station raids and odd invasions and secret weapons and other fantastic things. My favorite of them all was that written by Ruocchio himself, which is perhaps the most harrowing of all the stories.

Sword and Planet breathes new life into a genre that many understandably felt was left moldering in the grave. It’s old-school wonder with twenty-first century polish - what’s not to like?

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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