Tuesday, May 5, 2015
Cataloging Raygun Fantasy - An Initial Foray
What I'd like to do in this post is begin cataloging the works that constitute raygun fantasy to some extent or another. It can't be complete, and I would certainly appreciate suggestions from my readers to help expand the list. I'm specifically going to avoid mentioning roleplaying games, as I intend to examine those individually in future posts. All of that said, here we go:
"Shambleau", and she went on to write a total of twelve stories plus a short vignette, all collected in Northwest of Earth.
The Flash Gordon newspaper strips and movie serials - Especially the Sunday strips written by the creator of the character, Alex Raymond. Flash's trips to Mongo were clearly inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs's tales of John Carter, and include the requisite swordfights and inhabitants of Mongo who are differentiated by their skin color (though that latter distinction lessens and eventually vanishes from the strip by the end of Raymond's run). In one sequence, Flash fights against the "Witch-Queen", whose arcane - and unique - technology gives her powers that resemble magic. The inventions of Dr. Zarkov occasionally resemble magic, as well, such as one sequence in which the doctor invents a booth that can make a man invisible for a few hours. The 1980 film version draws on ideas from the SF New Wave that were current at the time, such as chemical enhancements, and added an element of deliberate camp.
After those three, which I consider to be the central, defining works of raygun fantasy, there are many others.
Lensmen series of stories by E.E. "Doc" Smith - While Smith tried to make plausible explanations for the devices of his Galactic Patrol, the telepathic powers of the Lensmen themselves, as well as the instrumentality of the Lens and the "Ascended Masters" manifest in the Arisians (who are fighting the demonic Eddorians that are breaking into our reality from another), force the series deeper into human, spiritual concerns. Some of the fans of the series only consider the four books Galactic Patrol, Grey Lensman, Second-Stage Lensmen, and Children of the Lens to be truly canonical, and to be best read in that order.
"Queen of the Martian Catacombs") to the mystical, titular talisman of "People of the Talisman" (a revision and expansion of "Black Amazon of Mars"), not to mention the very title of "Enchantress of Venus". Many of her other stories are set in the same background as the Stark ones, and so are well worth reading (see, for instance, the collection The Best of Leigh Brackett, edited by her husband, Edmond Hamilton).
Speaking of Hamilton, The Star Kings and other stories of his fit well into the realm of raygun fantasy. The Star Kings, in fact, are the subject of the only official collaboration between Hamilton and his wife, "Stark and the Star Kings", connecting Eric John Stark to that series.
Buck Rogers is certainly influential on raygun fantasy, but it is itself pretty solidly scientifiction as I've defined it, being more concerned with developing the implications of the gadgetry than exploring the mental and spiritual natures of the characters. The late-'70s television series included more raygun fantasy elements than the original newspaper strips or the novella Armageddon 2419 AD.
John Carter - Edgar Rice Burroughs nearly singlehandedly invented the planetary romance when he wrote "Under the Moons of Mars", serialized in The All-Story starting in February 1912. When the serial was finished, it was collected as the novel, A Princess of Mars. Deeply influenced by Theosophy, Burroughs's adventure tale went on to influence sci-fi deeply, and may be the original source of the frequent mysticism infusing raygun fantasy.
Barbarella - Starting out as a comic book of "erotic SF" in 1964 in France (though you can almost find more racy material on television for children these days), written by Jean-Claude Forest, Barbarella took the images and tropes of sci-fi and married them to European concerns about humanity, sexuality, and liberation. Famously made into a movie starring Jane Fonda in 1968 (though it didn't really succeed until its re-release in 1977 as Barbarella, Queen of the Galaxy, with the nudity toned down - not that there was much to begin with!), this is one of the places where the SF New Wave joined closely to retro SF and explored raygun fantasy.
Battlestar Galactica - Not so much the "reimagined" series of the early 2000s, which developed its own (related) concerns, but the original television series touched frequently on spiritual and religious issues, leaving it pretty firmly in the area of raygun fantasy. The reimagined series is pretty well in raygun fantasy territory, but seems to have dropped a lot of the fun in favor of existential dread, which I think disqualifies it to some extent, in the sense that such existential concerns are nearly the opposite of the spiritual ones of raygun fantasy. As a case study in what it is about Modernism and Postmodernism that opposes Romanticism and Enlightenment concerns, the reimagined series is probably an excellent example - but that isn't really my concern here. There is little to recommend the "sequel" series, Galactica 1980, excepting only the final episode of that mercifully short-run series, which dealt with the fate of Starbuck.
Guardians of the Galaxy - I have not, unfortunately, read the comic on which it is based, but the 2014 film includes the mystical pseudo-technology characteristic of raygun fantasy and updates it for modern audiences, as well as the physical and personal fighting to be found in it. I'm particularly happy, from a gaming perspective, to see the theme of treasure hunting included.
collection from Nuelow Games (though missing the first, origin, story which was apparently presented in Wonder Comics #15; the collection features a prose short story intended as an origin which does not draw on the original). Originally a fairly obscure and short series found in Wonder Comics in the late 1940s, mostly known now because it passed into the Public Domain. That said, it is a lovely, quirky example of raygun fantasy, though it tends toward the more pure adventure elements than the spiritual and psychological concerns of most raygun fantasy. In that way, it resembles Flash Gordon to some extent, though the art and writing are not nearly as good. Tara's Atom Sword is obviously one of the precursors of the lightsabers of Star Wars.
Edited 12/30/2016: I have since learned a great deal more about this story. There were seven comic and four or five two-page prose stories about Tara published. All six of the issues from 15-20 of Wonder Comics had comic stories, and issues 16, 17, 18, 20, and maybe 19 (I haven't seen a copy of that issue yet) had two-page prose stories. In addition, a final episode, "Satellite of the Moon Spiders", was published in Thrilling Comic #71. I am trying to find the story or stories from Wonder Comics #19 (I have been able to find all of the rest, but not that issue so far; as it seems that only 26 copies are known to still exist, that's perhaps not surprising), at which time I hope to publish an edition of the complete Tara stories with some editorial commentary since they are all out of copyright at this time.
I'll stop there for now. What are some more that you think would fit the idea?
* This is purely my own theory. I do not know for certain if Gene Roddenberry and D.C. Fontana were directly influenced by Heinlein's novel.