Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Cataloging Raygun Fantasy - An Initial Foray

In the last post, I discussed my basic thoughts on what constitutes "raygun fantasy", and how that subgenre of retro SF differs from "scientifiction". It's also different than other retro SF genres such as steampunk or dieselpunk, but those others aren't really relevant to the current discussion. For now, I'll limit myself to the continuum between scientifiction and raygun fantasy. I did note elsewhere that one could call the blending of the two poles "sword & blaster". There is one other subgenre that is relevant, though, which is the "planetary romance". Most raygun fantasy falls within the bounds of planetary romance, which is a subgenre concerned with adventure across the varying environments of an alien world. Planetary romance dates back to the earliest era of SF, being the category one could place such works as A Princess of Mars by Burroughs and its sequels, or even the Flash Gordon newspaper strips that I consider definitive to raygun fantasy.

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:

The stories about Northwest Smith by C.L. Moore - These were the stories that gave me the realization that there was a subgenre to identify in the first place. The repeated theme of powerful, incorporeal aliens which were interacted with in manners that resembled magic or religion are definitive to raygun fantasy. Moore's first story about Smith was "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.

Star Wars and sequels (and prequels, etc.) - Originally, George Lucas wanted to make a Flash Gordon movie, but couldn't get the rights. This resulted, happily, in the excellent idea of making his own sci-fi pseudo-serial. The story of Star Wars centers on the action of the Force, a mystical, all-encompassing energy field which directs the fates of the central characters to varying degrees. I don't think I even need to discuss this one further, as probably everyone reading this is intimately familiar with the details of Lucas's stories.

After those three, which I consider to be the central, defining works of raygun fantasy, there are many others.

The 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.

Eric John Stark and other stories by Leigh Brackett - I haven't actually read the Skaith books that change the setting from the planets of the Solar System (mainly Mars, Venus, and Mercury) to a broad range of stellar systems, but I hear that they are basically the same in tone as the original three novellas. Brackett gives a noir edge to retro SF, and Stark runs into mystical forces masquerading as technology, from the soul-transfer crown of "The Secret of Sinharat" (a revised and expanded version of "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.

Tara, Marauder of the Spacelanes - Available in a 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.

He-Man and the Masters of the Universe - Starting as a line of plastic toys and the show-length advertisements for them masquerading as entertainment, these quickly developed into some serious stories. While perhaps not the best, they were nonetheless very well-received. The live-action movie, while not a classic, isn't terrible. Again, I doubt that I really need to go into detail about this.

Thundarr the Barbarian - Probably the last Saturday-morning cartoon that wasn't either slapstick or a toy advertisement, Thundarr is more post-apocalyptic, but deserves mention as sharing many of the concepts of raygun fantasy, such as swordplay, magical technologies, and even straightforward magic.

Star Trek - While it has a reputation as being relatively "hard" SF, the original series and its animated followup actually follow raygun fantasy ideas much more often than the technogadgetry that typified the later Generation or even Enterprise. Starting in the two pilot episodes, "The Cage" and "Where No Man Has Gone Before", the series immediately laid out a concern about the spiritual elements of being human as being pre-eminent over the validity of the science. This was quickly reinforced by episodes such as "Charlie X", which re-wrote* Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land as a tragedy of adolescence (a necessary change due to the show's basic conceit, which could not support the messianic message inherent in Heinlein's story). The exploration of raygun fantasy themes would last all the way to the last episode of the original series, "Turnabout Intruder", which presented a machine that transferred the "essence" of two people between each other, just as the Crowns of the Ramas in Leigh Brackett's "The Secret of Sinharat". The animated series continued to explore those themes, as well, to varying success. While The Next Generation did occasionally (especially early on) touch on such matters, mostly they were dealt with dismissively or ham-fistedly. Compare Q to Squire Trelane for example. Despite being similar enough that the former's first appearance in "Encounter at Farpoint" seems at times almost to be a direct remake of "The Squire of Gothos", the latter is pretty well handled while the former quickly becomes tiresome. Perhaps this due to his frequent employment in the series, or to the fact that Trelane is presented as a child while Q is merely an annoying and frequent interloper.

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.


  1. I've long called this sort of thing "space fantasy", but "raygun fantasy" is a great term for it.

    1. You remind me that much of H.P. Lovecraft is also on the borders of the realm of raygun fantasy, though the lack of space travel keeps it from being fully involved. I intend to discuss Carcosa when I get to discussing the roleplaying approaches, although it's more planetary romance than raygun fantasy.

    2. I look forward to it. Carcosa has probably more types of rayguns than any other book of which I am aware:
      ultraviolet ray pistols
      cosmic ray rifles
      gadolinium ray bazookas
      praseodymium ray pistols
      astatine ray cannons

  2. How about Frank Herbert's Dune novels?

    1. Dune is certainly part of the intersection between the New Wave and raygun fantasy, yes. Herbert was explicit that some of his technologies were specifically designed to allow and encourage classic sci-fi images like swordfights, which he felt would otherwise not make much sense in his setting.

    2. (I'm actually not sure how that one slipped off the list, since I mentioned it in the previous post on the subject.)

  3. I think that may have been the target Jack Vance was aiming for with his Demon Princes series. Huge, exotic backgrounds, morally challenged protagonist and outré planetary environments. Although a bit short on the ray guns.

    1. I've never actually read the Demon Prince books, though I have intended to do so since learning about them in the notes to Traveller Supplement 4: Citizens of the Imperium. I should move those up my priority queue (not an actual queue, more a general sense of what I should be looking for next).

  4. I think that may have been the target Jack Vance was aiming for with his Demon Princes series. Huge, exotic backgrounds, morally challenged protagonist and outré planetary environments. Although a bit short on the ray guns.

  5. So I would summarize this as follows: Basically, the Rationalist/Romanticist schism so common in Modern culture also exists in Scifi. The romanticist scifi, "wears the clothes" of rationalist scifi, but is thematically quite a bit closer to fantasy.

    Does that sum-up what "Raygun Fantasy" is or are you saying something different?

    1. Substantially, yes, though I have long disliked the specific terms used, as both can be "rational" or not in the classic sense of "according to reason or logic". They are the ones that have come to be used for the purpose, so we have to live with them.

  6. That Flash Gordon piece by Al Williamson is one of the most beautiful fantasy pieces I've seen.

    1. Yeah, I was originally going to use that to illustrate the Flash Gordon paragraph and use another for the main post, but obviously it worked better up there.