Sword and sorcery, planetary romance, and Dying Earth: Appendix N fiction and beyond
You could be forgiven for thinking that the title of this list is just a random string of words, and that the books on it are a chaotic jumble of disparate genres.
My first response would be that I learned my taxonomy from Borges and thus feel free to define the categories for my lists however I see fit. My second response would be that all of the books listed here are in fact deeply related, but only in the sense of family resemblance. Think of them as forming a network or a tree structure rather than a simple set or a series.
A brief introduction to a list like this one is not the best place to engage in definitional exercises and the distinctions and controversies that go with them. If you’re not sure what the subgenres of speculative fiction discussed here entail, I refer you to the Wikipedia articles for sword and sorcery, planetary romance (and sword and planet while we’re at it), and Dying Earth. There are many common threads running through the representative works of all these genres, but one feature that stands out is their collective difference from the now-dominant types of fantastic literature: the post-Tolkienian epic high fantasy and the sort of science fiction in which every aspect of the world is explained and accounted for in rational terms.
Leaving generic classifications aside, I’d like to point out that the titles included on the list form three large groups, roughly corresponding to their publication dates:
- The original pulp adventure tales of the early decades of the 20th century, focused on fast-paced action, simple morals, and exotic locales. They are exemplified by authors such as Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, and Leigh Brackett. (Of course, while this mode of writing is now significantly less popular, it has never died out, and many talented authors continue to write some honest-to-God fantasy action-adventure yarns to this day.)
- The pastiches and deconstructions of the classic pulps that became particularly popular in the 1960s. Frank Herbert’s Dune plays on themes of planetary romances while being something completely new and distinct, and Michael Moorcock’s Elric was deliberately intended as an “anti-Conan”.
- More contemporary works that draw on some of the classic tropes to create something truly unique. Ambitious series like Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun or M. John Harrison’s Viriconium are far from the foundations of the sword and sorcery, but connoisseurs of the genre will undoubtedly recognize its influences (even if their expectations will be consistently frustrated).
But there is yet another reason for bringing all of these books together, which will be immediately recognizable to fans of tabletop roleplaying games. Many of the books on my list formed the core of Gary Gygax’s Appendix N (“Inspirational and Educational Reading”) to his Dungeon Masters Guide for the first edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Many contemporary players consult them to gain a better understanding of the origins of D&D concepts and assumptions, as well as to find inspiration for their campaigns. This became especially relevant for OSR enthusiasts (see my list of OSR games for an explanation). But the significance of this brand of fiction in the RPG world extends beyond old-school D&D; most notably, Monte Cook’s Numenera setting attributes its inspiration to the central works of the Dying Earth genre. For more examples, you can take a look at my lists of sword and sorcery RPGs and science fantasy RPGs.