If the pulp ethos can be summed into just one thing, it’s this:
There is always a woman.
It’s in everything, really. No matter how outrageous the setting, how dangerous the threat, or how weird the the situation is in the opening hook, honestly… it’s all just prelude for the entrance of a dame. Whether she’s in the classy or mysterious variety, it doesn’t matter: there is always the requisite romantic tension.
This was the norm from A. Merritt to Jack Williamson and on to Stanley Weinbaum. When you see the old Star Trek episodes setting up subplots where Bones gets married to a Space Priestess or Chekhov hooks up with a Wild West saloon girl… it all goes back to the pulps.
C. L. Moore wrote that way, too. Her feminine foils come in right on cue. And unlike a lot of heroes, Northwest Smith is not just upstaged from that point, he is nearly overwhelmed. It’s not what you’d expect! It’s not how anyone would think to tell a Han Solo type story today, really.
Moore’s “Song in a Minor Key” is not even full story, and it even follows the pattern. It’s just about Smith taking a break, lying in the grass. There’s no action. There’s no plot. It’s little more than a single moment, really. Even so, a woman enters into things as soon as the stage is set:
Now he was not Northwest Smith, scarred outlaw of the spaceways. Now he was a boy again with all his life before him. There would be a white-columned house just over the hill, with shaded porches and white curtains blowing in the breeze and the sound of sweet, familiar voices indoors. There would be a girl with hair like poured honey hesitating just inside the door, lifting her eyes to him. Tears in the eyes. He lay very still, remembering.
These sort of romantic elements are among the first things dispensed with by fans of “serious”science fiction. The first pass of this consisted of proponents of “hard” science fiction looking to distance themselves from the fun and style of works in the Edgar Rice Burroughs tradition. A few decades later, feminist critics would pile on with an ideological reason to trash the pulps.
And yet… the classic pulp stories retain their full entertainment value to this day, while the books that were meant to replace them fail to hold up near as well. Both science and the narrative have moved on. The books that were supposed to make science fiction “respectable”…? They simply made satisfying the critics a higher priority than serving the reader.
The old pulp approach really does cover all the bases. The weird and wild components dazzle the mind. The centrality of traditional virtues lend a moral dimension that gives the tale an almost fairy-tale quality. What does the romance add…? Well, the old pulp stories are about human beings with human motivations. Looking back, it’s hard to imagine how sacrificing that could have ever looked like a good idea.
From Isaac Asimov’s Foundation stories all the way through to Star Wars’s “Rey” today, this has been a problem. But it doesn’t have to be that way.