Review: Broadswords & Blasters

Thursday , 11, May 2017 9 Comments

There’s a New Kid in Town!

Broadswords & Blasters is a newly launched magazine under editors Matthew X. Gomez and Cameron Mount that promises “pulp with modern sensibilities” – more on that later, but suffice to say that I found the first issue to be not quite what I thought it was offering, but also not what I feared it would turn out to be.

I am in the process of doing a deep dive on the stories and the ways they either succeed or fail to live up to the pulp standard (not to mention the general standard of being great stories) but having had time to read, and think, and read again from cover to cover let’s take a look at the package and see whether you should pick this one up to see for yourself.

Spoiler: you should – let me tell you why.

Make no mistake, it is incredibly exciting to see a new wave of experimentation when it comes to short form SFF – the field has been languishing largely undeveloped for years now, mainly because of the homogeneity of the primary venues. There has been some amazing quality work produced of course, but the fact is that the markets’ range has been narrowing.

This isn’t really the new phenomenon it seems, though – people were already mourning the deaths of a majority of the big adventure magazines in the 60s and 70s, and in fine fan tradition the complaints were still to be seen in the letters and editorial pages of the Big Three well into the 1980s.

The long-lamented Planet Stories was the first giant to die in 1955, succumbing to the explosion of cheap pocket books that were supplanting pulp magazines in the usual markets. If (Worlds of Science Fiction) followed in 1974, the ancient behemoth Argosy in 1978, and arguably the age of quality SFF adventure fiction magazines ended with the death of Galaxy in 1980.

Well, not quite:

The ancient wellspring of the SFF litmag pantheon Amazing never really recovered from its mid-60s crash, and arguably should have died in the mid-70s along with If, but deep history – and perhaps something else – kept a spark of life glowing: it sputtered back to life in the 80s, reaching a new peak in the early 90s before sliding into obscurity and death at the hands of Paizo in 2005. An effort was made by Steve Davidson starting in 2012 to breathe life into the thing, but it seems to have been hopeless.

Still: that is not dead which can eternal lie, as it were, so perhaps hope is not entirely gone there. [1]

Not that fandom lay back and let their magazines die without any kind of fight: Isaac Asimov[2] lent his name not only to Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, launched in 1977[3] but also to a companion also published by Davis: Asimov’s SF Adventure Magazine, which launched in 1978 and sadly only lasted 4 issues.[4]

As I’ve said before, our current age bears a strong resemblance to both the pulp magazine explosion of the 1930s and 1940s and the long crash that started in the mid-50s and accelerated through to the end of the 1970s: all three eras represent times when new technologies were bubbling forth to drive the cost of publishing down to the point where the tools of production and distribution are available in radical new ways.

Oh yes, #writeit is definitely the watch-word today, but #printit is just as important a piece of the equation. And that’s why it’s as exciting as hell to see how well Cirsova seems to be doing, to see Bryce Beattie’s StoryHack launch with such solid names on the table of contents, and now to discover this new effort at bringing quality pulp adventures back into the light where we can admire them.

Now, I’ll confess: I was sceptical when I saw that Broadswords and Blasters was available over at that giant online bookstore. “Pulp with modern sensibilities” made me imagine some kind of modern slick or literary style with just a few verniers or flashing lights duct-taped on.  From the self-deprecating way in which the editors took especial care to distance themselves from the earlier eras of pulp by explicitly banning racism and misogyny I found myself really wondering: how well do these gentlemen really know the pulps?

 The thing is, yes – it was a different time, and attitudes change. Certainly, there are elements of some of the stories from the 1930s and before that would raise eyebrows today. But the fact is that actual blatant racism and sexism is actually uncommon, and as always the SFF world of the time was considerably more progressive than society at large. Sure, there was often a kind of casually racist or sexist attitude present in the stories, but it’s important to note that that’s what was left over after intelligent and educated authors had taken a step forward toward the equal society they imagined for the future. The kind of blunt, obviously offensive tripe that often gets trotted out in modern pastiches or even as live examples from the times is almost always something that would have shocked the great names of Weird Tales and Argosy as well.

So I was sceptical. But at the same time this effort is especially interesting because of the fact that neither the editors nor the list of authors on the cover are part of my “usual suspects” list – I was fascinated to find out what they had to say.

I’m pleased to say I was favourably impressed.

Oh, it’s not perfect, and it’s fair to say there is a dud or two, but I think it’s important to note that as an experiment the editors were offering what in the publishing world we call by the technical term: “chicken feed”[5] so the quality of the stories varies somewhat, and all are very short (which actually suits me very well).

There is one flub in among the rest, I will admit. The actual technical skill in that one is good enough, but the author seems not to have quite grasped the task in front of him and I personally found the end result actively offensive. But on the whole? Yes, this is an eminently readable first issue.

The star of the show is definitely “The Waters So Dark” by Josh Reynolds, and frankly I think the cover price is justified by this story alone. It’s a very tightly written occult historical piece that makes me think of REH’s weird adventures, and actually cleaves very closely to the pulp aesthetic as I understand it.

Reynolds’ story is followed a couple of steps behind by Dave D’Alessio’s offering “Dead Men Tell Tales” – this one is a gumshoe adventure in space, and although it doesn’t feel finished (specifically: it feels like part of something larger – which is fair considering the pay) what we get is solid noir. Here, I think the pulp aesthetic has been missed, but the writing is good and the story is engaging.

I think I will rank “The Executioner’s Daughter” by R. A. Goli next. This is definitely not pulp by the usual definition, but it is a solid story and the conceit is amusing. That said, it is very much a slick story with some big thinks about gender and professional reputation, and there are some technical flaws which I think come mostly from Ms. Goli being a step outside her usual haunts (she apparently writes horror and dark fantasy, mainly) which may rub some readers the wrong way.

Part 1 of Matt Spencer’s “Island of Skulls” is also a very interesting offering – as it stands, I have difficulty positioning it as pulp per se, but it is adventurous and also makes an effort to get the kind of literary richness that you can see in Merritt era Argosy. Still, there are things about this story – mainly the voice Mr. Spencer uses for the dialogue – that rubbed me the wrong way, so it’s hard for me to rank it too high. That said, I’m eager to see part 2 so it must have had something going for it: and I will be curious to see if what he does in the next installment brings it closer to what I think of as pulp.

So yes, I do think that if you are looking for new authors and new takes on the pulp aesthetic that this magazine has promise. It’s only the first issue of course, so we will have to see how it develops – but I for one will be watching them closely, and with great interest.

So congratulations to the editors!

We might not quite overlap where it comes to the sensibility of stories, but a fine first issue – I look forward to seeing more!

[1] Weird Tales of course succumbed in 1954, just before Planet Stories, though – perhaps appropriately – its revenant has staggered forth a few times since, though a grey shadow of itself each time. But WT might more properly be positioned as the ancestor of the slicks rather than of the pulps – but perhaps that’s another discussion.

[2] Who, with other giants of the 1930s crowd, I think we could see as a kind of ur-fan

[3] Even then, I think this mag would better be classified as a slick

[4] See the fascinating editorials Asimov contributed to this one, transcribed here on the Frisky Pagan’s blog.

[5] In other industries – and in writers’ circles – I believe a more colourful term is applied.

  • John E. Boyle says:

    Thanks for the review, Kevyn. I’ll have to take a look at this.

  • Kevyn Winkless says:

    That Josh Reynolds story is a winner. The others are mainly a matter of taste, except for the one I gave a failing grade to: but every mag is going to have one story that’s at the bottom of the heap, and I might not have been so steamed at it if I’d run across it in another magazine.

  • That reminded me, my uncle just gave me a whole stack of Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine and I just haven’t had the heart to dig in yet.

    • deuce says:

      Yeah, I was in that position at one point. I ended up giving them to a far geekier buddy who thought anything Asimov was cool. Best for both of us.

  • deuce says:

    Thanks for the review, Kevin! For some of the reasons you outlined, I had kind of written this off. Sounds like I need to seriously think about buying it.

    • I think it’s definitely worth a look, if just for Reynolds’ story. The cover price for the ebook version is a deal for his piece if you can find 2 more in there to like. I found myself thinking “not bad” for most of the 8 stories, and only 1 got a failing grade.

  • NARoberts says:

    Sounds like this is better than the subtitle would lead one to suppose.

    Though after reading that and the introduction on the amazon sample I feel: Eeeeeeeh…there will be grrl power stories won’t there?

    • Actually no. Or rather yes but not the way you mean.

      There’s one story which strikes me as a kind of “check box fanfic” and really suffers because of it.

      There’s one story which is spun off a “moral of the story” conceit, and it does stumble but more because of how the author handled it than the conceit itself.

      There’s one story which might be considered a “feminist slick” but it’s well done and like any good message sff the message serves as the “what if” starting point for an actual story.

      Other than that, there’s one story I think any pulp lover would get a kick out of and a few others that while not quite pulp in the classic sense are good enough, and I think anyone will find a couple to their liking.

      I’m doing a closer look at the individual stories over at my own blog by the way.

  • Broadswords & Blasters as a title is a win. Unfortunately they pay less than 1 cent per word and a cap of $15. I wonder how long they can keep up quality on that author payment model.

    I do miss the short stories mixed in with 1 shot adventures, side quests, and gaming articles of Dragon Magazine. Not to mention the comics at the back. I bet good comics would help sales when tacked on to these new imprints of short story magazines too.

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