One of the features of the sword-and-planet genre that wins my interest (and even loyalty) is its low-culture approach to high-concept issues. Perhaps the chief of these is gender. From the very outset — if we can take Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars as an inaugurating work — these often apparently unreflective adventure stories have been almost obsessively concerned with the ways in which gender can viewed and performed in profoundly differing cultures. The 19th-century American southerner John Carter is shocked (though hardly repelled) by the martial prowess and lack of physical modesty of the princess Dejah Thoris, while she is put off by his efforts to behave like a “gentleman” toward her. That being the case, it is hardly surprising that some of the most effective sword-and-planet authors have been women like Leigh Brackett and Catherine Moore.
This gender-challenging salience may account for the popularity of the genre among authors in the 1970s. Curiously, the vanguard of this group were the Gor books of “John Norman,” which are, on the whole, beyond reactionary in their insistence on a masculinist gender ideology. These were followed quickly, however, by two other highly notable cases that continue the work of interplanetary gender exploration. David J. Lake’s Xuma books may be the extreme instance of thought-experiment in gender, by introducing a humanoid race with a different sexual biology and assortment of corresponding genders. And Janet Morris’ Silistra series seems to continue the conversation begun on Barsoom and further argued in Gor, adding some new perspective.
Unlike Burroughs and Norman, Morris does not have any earthlings to help clarify the Silistran gender dynamic by contrasting reaction. Her protagonist and narrator is Silistran, and although an alien race called the M’ksakkans seems to be a little more “human” in their traits and culture, the books don’t really invite readers to identify with the M’ksakkans who figure in the story.
Wind from the Abyss is the third volume in the series, and it obliterates and then recreates the core relationship of the books: the protagonist Estri’s connections to two men, themselves sometime lovers with one another. The story becomes more explicit, yet still somehow incoherent, about the nature of its gender ideals:
“But therein lies perhaps the difference between the male and the female conception, that difference that was made once and for all understood to me in what was to follow. But not then did I know it, except in the way that all things, if only to themselves, admit their singularity to be dependent upon the effluence of their sex.” (235)
Also, and perhaps not irrelevantly to the sexual component of these books, they present sword-and-planet with substantial magic. This is not the lightly mystical “Force” of Star Wars; it’s more like the prophetic destiny-shaping consciousness of Dune, but with more thaumaturgy. Estri’s accounts of her own sorcery (the books are all told from her point of view) are more psychedelic than most sfnal supernaturalisms.
Still recognizable as part of the genre, Morris’s contributions occupy a very distinctive niche within it. [via]