Planetary Romance kicks ass. John Carter of Mars is fucking awesome. Ursula K LeGuin and her 1960s-1970s contemporaries brought nuance and real cultural exploration to the genre, and now? Well, it still exists. We just don’t call it planetary romance anymore.
Planetary Romance in the simplest terms is a subgenre of science-fiction that focuses on a singular planet, its locals, and its cultures. The progenitor of this genre is often considered to be John Carter of Mars. The story is simple: a Civil War veteran enters a mysterious cave, gets teleported to Mars, and engages in an epic struggle across the city-states of a dilapidated Martian society where people for some reason walk around bare ass or in loincloths. Again, it was the late 1910s/early 1920s, so the reference point was ancient Greece/whatever what was popular with Great Man Theory at the time. But in between the constant captures, pew pew and clang clang battles, was the clash/crossing of different civilizations. The Reds, the Greens, and other peoples of the Sol system were all fighting, falling in love, and doing what humans do best: making drama. John Carter is very outdated with its concepts of race, gender, etc, but it did have Dejah Thoris, who is not a “damsel in distress”, despite often being depicted as the Ur-SFF slave princess. Honestly, Carter would be screwed without her expertise and often saving his ass when he got captured by a rival city-state queen. Burroughs really liked his characters to get captured.
Star Trek was the next big adventure. Most of the planets were thinly veiled analogous real world periods that were explored and then forgotten quickly. Flash-forward to Dune, and you have the beginning of the modern conception of soft-science fiction and then space wizard knights like Star Wars, etc. Then came The Left Hand of Darkness by Ms. Ursula K LeGuin. There’s really no reason to get super detailed. An earth man visits a planet where people are neither male or female but choose to become either or. It deals with hermaphroditism, sexuality, cultural transmission, what it means to be human, in a very grounded setting and rejection of the violent/swash-buckling adventures of Buck Rodgers and Burroughs styles. And it was amazing.
In the past twenty years or so, Planetary Romance has lost its subgenre. We don’t call it PR anymore, it’s soft-science fiction or biopunk or even culture of manners SF. The perfect example of this is The Mirror Empire. Despite its fantasy label, the Mirror Empire trilogy has the all markings of PF: alien world, the environment as character, clash/exchange of civilizations, parallel universes. While it does have magic, witches, etc, it falls in line with that classic LeGuin and Burroughs style worlds. Even the Imperial Radch series is more PF than space opera. It focuses on Breq’s culture, her own feelings on her life, her past, and what it means to be detached from her AI superform. It’s not all that hard in terms of the tech or science, but that’s not the point. Planetary Romance is more a vehicle to explore cultural and historical scenarios than tech like hard SFF. And I think that’s why I still love Planetary Romance. The days of John Carter are nearly a century old. You can still have people fighting with swords and relic tech while exploring the clash of cultures/meeting of them. It doesn’t have to be either or. PF still has a lot to say even if it doesn’t appear to.