Sword & Sorcery means fantasy. It means abandoned ruins, ancient gods, lost races, and, obviously, swords. But does that mean it has to take place in a traditional fantasy world? It almost always has, but does that mean it has to for the genre to do what it does? After all, trappings do not make the genre, so are the trappings of fantasy necessary?
Fantasy is, after all, about magic – that is the defining feature of fantasy fiction. Magic stands in for the idea of power in fantasy, and the questions that power causes us to ask are driven by how magic works in the story, and who has it. If magic is given randomly, then the story becomes one about the effects of power on class and race, on prejudice and control, and how power can be used to change the social order.
If magic is ubiquitous and common, then it essentially stands in for technology, and leads to explorations about what changing technology means for a society and the people who live in it. It asks questions about life and death, mortality and the place of a person within the world now that magic (technology) has changed things.
If magic must be studied and suffered for, then the story is one of sacrifice and the costs of power. We will see both what people will do for power, and the effects this has on them. This kind of story is most likely to show how the quest for power makes people change, and what kinds of people they become after they have given so much to get what they wanted.
These are not the only kinds, but you get the idea. The magic in these tales is not always the Vancian wave-wave-BOOM kind of magic, it can mean a lot of things. It can be an inherent power to detect lies, it can mean the magic of the True Kingship, the power to raise the dead or control the weather. Each different power impacts its environment differently, and allows the writer to tell different kinds of stories.
Magic in Sword & Sorcery is not often under the control of the protagonist, and when it is, it is a dangerous, unreliable force that always demands a terrible price. The wizards in Howard stories often lounge around acting all smug and superior, but when their power turns on them, they gibber and scream for mercy. Magic in an S&S universe can give great power, but it requires very, very careful handling or it will fuck you over.
So does it even have to expressly be “magic”? Well, no, it doesn’t. The Force, in the Star Wars universe, is actually magic, after all. There’s no real science in the supposed “science fiction” of lightsabers and making the Kessel Run. It’s all just magic under another name. Star Wars is actually a high fantasy, because it posits a universe that has declined from a former golden age, and there is a built-in metaphysic of good versus evil. If you took away the “Light Side” and there was just the Dark Side, then you might be talking about an S&S universe. Magic as a consuming, predatory power that tempts and corrupts. You could tell stories about heroes calling on that power to try and do good, only to inevitably fall into darkness and be destroyed. That could be cool as hell.
You would also need a cast of inhuman, ancient gods, and a sense of vast antiquity that stretched far before the age of men. This would be easy to do in an outer-space setting, and could even be done in a post-apocalyptic world. An apocalypse would fit in well with the cataclysmic histories of the Hyborean Age and Moorcock’s ages of chaos, leaving a world of bizarre monsters and people struggling to survive no matter the cost. The required moral ambiguity would abound in a setting like that, leaving characters all in shades of gray, with no built-in idea of good or evil.
Swords? Do I even have to argue that point? Writers have been coming up for excuses for swordplay since forever. Every nominal Sci-Fi franchise from Flash Gordon to Star Wars to Dune has done it, and it would be easy to do it no matter where you set your story.
So while the traditional setting for Sword & Sorcery is mist-shrouded forests and desolate ruins in the lost desert, or jeweled cities in ancient kingdoms beside a deep blue sea, there is no reason why it has to be that way. So long as the essential elements of the genre are present, you can dress them up however you want. You just need to remember what those essentials are, and I will keep getting into that next time.