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What is Planetary Adventure?
One of the first worlds explored
Strange new worlds, in depth
If space opera is the most recognizable type of science fiction then planetary adventure is probably a close second. Where space opera invites the audience to join the characters on a trip across the cosmos planetary adventure joins it's protagonist on an in depth exploration of a single world. Some claim that space opera goes back to stories like The Struggle for Empire: A Story of the Year 2236 in the 1850s. Planetary adventure is slightly younger dating to the beginning of the twentieth century with The First Men in the Moon and the "John Carter of Mars" series. Both offer the audience a look at alien worlds.
A side trip for space opera
- The Inner Light (episode) - Memory Alpha, the Star Trek Wiki
Real World article (written from a Production point of view) An alien probe controls and...
Some stories do both
The dividing line between planetary adventure and space opera isn't a hard boundary. Space opera can, after all, always pause for a time to explore a single world in more depth. On the other hand most planetary adventure relies on an interplanetary society that has the technology to permit characters to leave their world at some point. One example of the former can be found in David Weber's "Honor Harrington" series. While the series heroine spends most of her time commanding star-ships (or entire fleets) several volumes have had her pause in her travels to explore the culture and environment of Grayson in some detail. The iconic space opera “Star Trek: The Next Generation” did much the same in the episode “The Inner Light,” where Picard experienced the life of a native of the planet Kataan. Most planetary adventure though is not just a simple side journey for space opera. The "John Carter" series used some form of astral projection as it's means for the title character to go from Earth to Mars leaving no means for the characters to go to any other world. Even when characters in a planetary adventure can go to other worlds, they might have come to see the alien environment they live in as home and not want to leave, as with the protagonist of Four Day Planet and many other stories.
A whole world but we only get to see one culture
Differences in depth
Curiously not every planetary adventure uses the increased time spent on it's given world to increase the depth of that worlds portrayal. In the Barsoom of Burroughs "John Carter" series for example despite having multiple intelligent species the world has one language and culture. Likewise in Avatar only one Navii language and culture and language is depicted. These stand in stark contrast to the “geek” and kargan cultures in H. Beam Pipers Uller Uprising where a single species spawned multiple societies. Sometimes a storyteller may give some justification for a lack of depth. Barsoom was depicted as a dying world that had once had a planet-wide culture. Pandora had the collective mind of the neural net of plants that linked Navii tribes over a wide area. In Spacepaw though despite two different space faring civilizations trying to curry favor with the ursine Dilbans both of them did so with the same culture in the same geographic area.
One race multiple cultures
What are the aliens for?
In many cases the amount of depth that is given to an alien civilization in planetary adventure depends on their narrative purpose. In the "John Carter" stories the Tharks served to introduce the hero to the savage Barsoomian way of life. Having Carter need to learn a new language and culture with Deja Thoris would have been redundant to the action the story was trying to establish. The differing cultures of Uller Uprising on the other hand were part of the stories historical parallels. In some cases the aliens in a planetary adventure are a deliberate parallel to historic aboriginal peoples. In other cases, they serve to help analyze aspects of human psychology.
A whole world we see all the time
No intelligent aliens
Not that every planetary adventure requires aliens. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress was set in a Lunar penal colony. In that work Heinlein explored the evolution of human society in ways that made the “loonies” more foreign than some extra terrestrials. Stories set on less desolate worlds may relegate any alien life depicted to exotic animals. In stories like Tunnel in the Sky or the aforementioned Four Day Planet the struggle of the characters against the alien environment is a backdrop for the human drama at the center of the story. On the other hand in stories like the 2000 film Red Planet the struggle for survival against a harsh alien environment forms the core of the story. The Heinlein novel of the same title however featured an intelligent martian race that served a significant function in the story.
Here be dragons!
Whether a planetary adventure is exploring an alien civilization or the evolution of a human culture in a new environment. Whether it depicts a struggle for survival against a strange environment or an exotic backdrop for more conventional drama. This genre provides fiction with the sort of environments that mythology set across the ocean or in the distant corners of the Earth. Both space opera and planetary adventure explore the corners of the map where the ancients wrote “Here be Dragons.” While space opera takes the audience around the borders of the continents in these corners of the map, planetary adventure journeys into the interior of those lands.