Ship of Ishtar, part nine

Thursday , 16, March 2017 25 Comments

The pulps are supposed to be racist. I mean, if you hear anything about the pulps it generally about how racist they are. Somehow the legions of people that are literally shaking after reading “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” never talk about how the pulpiest of pulp science fiction romances was between an ex-Confederate and a Red Martian, where they even had a son that was racially mixed, and where the hero was best buddies with a Green Martian and even went on adventures with an awesomely heroic Black Martian. And the guy that was the undisputed king of science fiction, fantasy, and horror at the time…? He wrote a letter in to Argosy describing his own race as “the white plague.”

Now imagine my surprise when I’m reading that guy’s signature novel and he introduces a Persian and a Ninevite into the line-up of the hero’s associates and allies. I admit it, I honestly wondered how it could work. Anyone that grows in the West is going to struggle with this and I don’t think it’s accurate at all to reduce this mere racism. I mean, if you found yourself on a blind date with a girl named Delilah, you would probably take pause. If you woke up one day and found yourself betrothed to a “Jezebel”, your heart would stop. That’s not due to you being any variety of “ist” and it’s not due to any ambient “ism” that permeates everything around you. It’s a testament to the inherent power of stories and storytelling. They continue to exert pull even among a people that is doing their darndest to overwrite them.

History matters. When A. Merritt introduces a Norse character named Sigurd, we immediately warm to him. It’s not just that Vikings are inherently awesome. It’s not even that we are half conscious of the fact that there are operas about this sort of character or that Bugs Bunny would have dressed up like the guy’s girlfriend. Guys like Sigurd are us. They didn’t just rape and pillage in what would become England. They settled down. Some sort of understanding was reached between Christian and invader. And this new synthesis was immortalized in the very foundation of English literature via works like Beowulf. If you speak English, you have been primed your entire life to admire characters like Sigurd.

Ninevites, now…? It’s quite the opposite case, isn’t it? These were the decedents of the people that the Israelites were supposed to have wiped out. These were the people that prophets like Jonah did not even want to preach to– and when he did buckle down and go to them, he was distraught when they actually repented because he knew God would sparethem. That kind of outright hatred reverberates in the lumber rooms of our minds of people that don’t even read the old stories. The idea that someone could reduce something like this down to purely racial motivations is baffling. This goes far deeper than that. You’re talking about a culture clash that goes back to Scipio plowing Carthage under and salting the earth.

So what about the Persian…? I hate to say it, but if you roll out a Persian hero in the West you have made a fairly challenging problem for yourself. And it’s not just due to the fact that Persia once (just like Carthage) posed a mortal threat to the West. No, you have to deal with the absolutely humiliating defeat of Darius III at the hands of Alexander. Thanks to our stories and histories, his cowardice is the face of an entire nation.

The way that A. Merritt managed to win his audience over to a Persian character is instructive. He puts him in position to stoically fight the equivalent of The Battle of Thermopylae so that the leading man and his love interest can make a getaway during the climax. There is not one hint of irony there. Not one whit. Pulp fantasy is practically devoid of snark and condescension. You just don’t see that stuff come into the picture until the Campbellian Revolution made fantasy’s survival utterly dependent on a Poindexter like L. Sprague de Camp. People in the pulp era did not actually have that big of a problem with racism. The most revered writers of the period were in fact expert in making people admire heroes of other races and other cultures. Here is how they did it: by showing they living up to the values and ideals of Western culture.

And it really does work. I want to read books about “people like me” as much as anybody. But Nick Cole’s Control-Alt Revolt! is incredibly attractive in spite of the fact that it has a handicapped female protagonist that is nothing at all “like me.” Why is that? She embodies the cultural ideals I identify with and character traits I admire. Contrast that with the sequel to Jurassic Park where the protagonists sneak into the bad guys’ camp, set the captive dinosaurs free, and trigger a rampage that kills dozens of people and leaves “good guys” and “bad guys” alike stranded in a death trap. It’s painful, really. I guess I’m supposed to be rooting for the animal rights activists, but without the cultural touchstones that are the definition of likability in the West, there is no way for me to invest in the characters or get excited by the action.

No amount of CGI can salvage something like that.

This also explains a great many reactions that have occurred in the wake of Appendix N’s rediscovery within the wider book blogging scene. P. Alexander, editor of Cirsova magazine, feels betrayed by the fact that Earthsea Trilogy was what he came up on rather than Vance and Leiber and Brackett. Meanwhile, when new readers take a look at Cugel the Clever after hearing us rave over him, they really have a hard time appreciating him if they have read Tarzan and Conan first. The pulp icons tap into the Western ideals that the New Wave was attempting to undermine. Publishing changed… but at heart, readers were still Westerners at heart. When they see characters that actually tap in to who they are, they have a very hard time getting excited about what they see on television anymore.

The fact is, Martin Luther King’s exhortation to “judge people by the content of their character” was effective rhetoric because that was something his listeners would have taken for granted. And three decades of nonstop cultural programming to the contrary really have failed to change that about us.

25 Comments
  • NARoberts says:

    One of your best pieces.

    Though my ideas of Persia come from the Prince of Persia games and (underrated and not half bad) film, so I think Persia is beautiful, exotic and awesome.

    That and Herodotus’ Histories (I can’t remember if he dissed Persia or not).

    It’s what HR Haggard did so well (and the virtues he showed transcended cultural differences anyway, not racial ones–race was not relevant).

    • deuce says:

      The tales in The Thousand and One Nights are mostly Persian in origin. Scheherazade and Shahryar, the queen and king who are the frame for the stories, are Persian.

      Merritt was a big Haggard fan.

  • deuce says:

    I always thought Zubran the Persian was a great character.

    Historically, the Persian culture was so virile it produced THREE separate empires. They were the “Greece” of the Middle East, looked to as the cultural standard. Nothing could keep them down for good until the Arab supremacist Religion of Peace crushed them in a moment of war-ravaged weakness.

    Even then, the Persian influence was HUGE. Many of the “Arabic” or “Muslim” scholars and artists of the Middle Ages were actually Persian. Omar Khayyam was Persian. The “Arabian” Nights are largely Persian. As Bernard Lewis and many others have pointed out, the Persian influence on the Turks was enormous. Once again, the Persians were looked upon as the cultural standard to aspire to.

    The Old Testament is quite approving of the Persians. The Three Magi were Persians, NOT the multiculti silliness we’ve seen for so long.

    Persians are Indo-Europeans. They share far more linguistic and genetic heritage with an ethnic Russian or Frenchman than they do with say, Osama bin Laden. They are not Arabs nor were they ever.

    That hot chick on JAG was a Persian, BTW. So was Freddie Mercury.

    • Andy says:

      One of my good old friends and a former housemate is Persian. He’s probably the single funniest person I’ve ever known, although I can’t really repeat any of his humor because it’s mostly of the “you have to be there” type and it’s also incredibly raunchy.

    • H.P. says:

      Yes, but Freddie Mercury was well known for living up to the values and ideals of Western culture.

    • Rawle Nyanzi says:

      I remember on the movie Crash, I remember a scene where a Persian family’s shop is vandalized. The Persian wife states that those who damaged her shop can’t tell the difference between Arabs and Persians, since the graffiti called the owners Arabs.

      Apparently, it’s common to lump Persians and Arabs together.

      • Andy says:

        Ha, I still remember the father of my aforementioned friend commenting on the Gulf War: “Why Iraq? We should have invaded Iran – they would know what to do with the great gift of democracy. Not like these dumb $#!%ing Arabs….” So yeah, best not to confuse the two 😉

    • deuce says:

      Did someone say he didn’t?

  • deuce says:

    Back on track… Zubran’s last stand was EPIC. Loved it. Gets me every time.

  • Mark says:

    *Mounts his hobby-horse*

    Although it’s not so much about human races*, I think Doc Smith always handled this well – he goes so far as to say that the (to us, cowardly, dishonourable, compassion-less…) Palainians were basically 2nd best to humans in the Lensman book, and that if they’d been just a bit more like us they’d have been the future Guardians of Civilisation (just think of it: Azathoth on crack – ie Nadreck’s children – as the successors to Mentor & the Arisians… sweet dreams 🙂 ).

    The Skylark books have rather fewer aliens, but even there it’s a case of good vs evil (us vs the Fenachrone), and Richard Seaton says “humanity uber alles” when he talks about saving humans from a distant galaxy from their evil alien overlords.

    = + =

    * There is precisely one human in all 7 Lensman books who is definitely not white – a black car park attendant in “First Lensman”. In the Skylark series there’s Crane’s butler Shiro (and later his girlfriend / wife), who has a poor command of English but is otherwise a sterling, if minor, character. DuQuesne and his love interest may have had some non-northern European ancestry to them, and DuQuesne had a pair of black housekeepers / domestic staff, but… that’s basically it.

    • deuce says:

      Doc Smith was a big Merritt fan. He even quoted a Merritt story in one of his own. Thus, in that timeline, Merritt is still honored and read by men of valor in the far future, which is as it should be.

  • Hooc Ott says:

    “Meanwhile, when new readers take a look at Cugel the Clever after hearing us rave over him, they really have a hard time appreciating him if they have read Tarzan and Conan first.”

    If people are looking for a New Wave descendant of Tarzan and Conan they could do a whole lot worse then reading E.C Tubb’s Dumarest Saga series.

    I have not read Brackett’s Stark stories nor C. L. Moore’s Northwest stories so it is possible that Tubb’s got the Conan and Tarzan vibe via them, but what I am seeing in the Dumarest books (I started Toyman 3rd in his series last night) IS Planetary Conan.

    Jeffro, you obviously got me reading Tubb with your essay in Cirsova issue #1 demonstrating where Traveller got its inspiration from.

    Thing is Traveller has a barbarian class yet so far I see no barbarians in Tubb’s books….

    The only character with barbarian primal instincts, innate chivalrous morality and comes from a gloomy land with a sort of life that fits the bill is Dumarest himself!

    • deuce says:

      Tubb was an admitted Brackett fan.

      • Hooc Ott says:

        We have seen that before though.

        GRRM is a fan of REH’s Conan.

        Ditto Moorcock.

        Heinlein is a fan of ERB.

        Neil Gaiman has a pulp list of inspirations a mile long

        Tubb as far as I can see is not a “fan” like them. Unlike the above, and probably many more could be named, Tubb did not subvert or deconstruct or snark at his pulp inspirations.

      • deuce says:

        Moorcock really wasn’t/isn’t a Conan fan, except in an abstract sense. He’s admitted as much more than once. His attempt to write just ONE chapter of a Howardian hero in “Ghor, Kin_Slayer” was a disaster. He’s a Leiber guy — no offense to Leiber.

        Dumarest is cool, but I’ll take Brackett’s damaged spacers when all is said and done.

  • B&N says:

    Was about to comment, but it looks like that Ship of Ishtar has sailed.

  • A. Nonymous says:

    I’m confused. Is this supposed to be one of those “Dems r the real racist” assays?

    • Jeffro says:

      Hey man. I took a stab at articulating something I observed in the literature and contrasted it with both what people say about that literature and also how things tend to be done now in movies.

      If you have an honest question, I’m happy to answer. But it would help if you actually put forth a little effort here.

    • B&N says:

      I don’t think this was supposed to be one of those “assays” * at all

      *essays where you make an ass out of someone

      But yes, to answer your question, during the Pulp era of the 1920s, the Dems controlled the Jim Crow South–and democrat progressive Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes upheld forced sterilization in Buck v. Bell (1927)

    • “I’m confused. Is this supposed to be one of those “Dems r the real racist” assays?”

      I am even more confused. Why are you and yours always so hair-trigger quick to leap the defense of the Left, and so eager to deflect criticism from them whenever their long and ugly racist past is brought up?

      Or, in this case, when it has not been brought up?

      • Robespierre says:

        This is a few days out, so I don’t know if anyone will see this, but I say that you, Mr. Wright, are guilty of doing exactly what you accuse this other person of doing.

        You trash conservatives and call them racists and then give liberals a free pass.

        The Democrat party was THE conservative party for a hundred years. They were known as “Conservatives” with a capital “C”. Nineteenth century black people referred to them as ‘servatives, meaning “conservatives.” The Democrats of that era were also known as “Republicans” and some of them were quite angry when this new leftist party made up of retread Whigs like Lincoln came along and started calling themselves Republicans.

        The so called Republican party was the big government, crony capitalist, anti-Constitution, pro-immigrant party. Many high ranking Republicans were brutal communists, some of whom tried to overthrow the various governments of Europe in 1848. When they failed to create a socialist Europe, many came to the US and became Union generals and Republican politicians.

        In the nineteenth century it was absolutely common knowledge that the Democrats were the conservatives and the Republicans were the radicals, the liberals. This is easily verifiable and I don’t know why there is so much confusion about it today. The facts are in the primary sources – many of which are sitting right here on my desk – just as plain as day.

        Were the leftist Republicans racists? Are you possibly referring to the “long and ugly racist past” of the Republican party Mr. Wright?

        Abraham Lincoln opposed black suffrage, supported the legislation restricting free blacks from moving into Illinois, publicly declared the superiority of the white race over the negro race, publicly declared his desire to round up ALL black people in the US and deport them to Africa, invited a group of black leaders to the White House and told them that they needed to leave the US and encourage others of their race to do the same, and did in fact manage to deport some of the negroes of Washington City not to Africa but to Haiti.

        Were Lefty Lincoln and his communist buddies racists?

        Who cares?

        Mr. Wright, if you want to call us Southerners racists go right ahead, I don’t care, everybody else does. The television set has been calling me a racist ever since I was old enough to open my eyes and look at it. But for the love of all that is holy, don’t call us Liberals! That truly IS an insult. We left the Union to get away from law-breaking, Constitution violating New England Liberals and socialist Forty-Eighters.

        And yes, we DID try to conserve the Constitution and small government America and we got the absolute hell beaten out of us. By the way, the conservative Democrats living in the North didn’t fare too well either – Lincoln had hundreds of them tossed into prison, shut down their newspapers (Lincoln abolished the First Amendment) and had their printing presses smashed.

        Jeffro: I’ve really enjoyed all of your posts here. I was waiting to buy Appendix N when it comes out in print form, but I don’t know if I can wait much longer – might have to get the e-book.

        And as far as the accusations of racism aimed at the pulp writers I just bought a 2016 Canterbury Classics collection of old SFF and the professor who penned the introduction called one of the stories “savagely racist” but generously opined that Armageddon 2419 A.D. only contained “casual racism.”

        White people have been accused of racism for so long that I don’t think it means much of anything anymore.

        What is a racist anyway??

        • Jeffro says:

          Hey Robespierre,

          I’m not sure when the trade paperback will be out! The ebook may be the way to go at the moment as I just can’t say when it will happen…!

  • John E. Boyle says:

    Merritt’s Magic

    I’d like to give you an example of just how good A. Merritt was. I read the Ship of Ishtar years ago, and then loaned out the paperback to someone, who either moved or loaned it to someone else, and it was gone. This just happens with books, sometimes.

    Then Jeffro began this series, and the old magic of this book cast its spell on me again. I decided to buy a copy the next time I saw it in paperback. That decision became more immediate when I learned of the role Damon Knight and James Blish had in wrecking Merritt’s reputation, and I went on Amazon to buy a copy.

    I lucked out; I managed to snag a copy of the memorial edition put out by Borden, illustrated by Virgil Finlay, autographed by Finlay himself (one of Merritt’s favorite artists). That copy arrived on 2/11/17, and I gave it to my mother to read (being Mater Familias has its perks). She loved it, but I wasn’t home when she finished, so one of my brothers grabbed it; he liked it, his wife liked it, then a sister got it and then another sister…

    I’ve owned that book for 5 weeks and haven’t read a word of the text yet! This is almost as bad the those Rachel Griffin books by that Lamplighter woman. Four generations of the girls in my family are reading those books and I haven’t been able to finish even one of them. It just isn’t fair.

    Oh, and that autograph by Finlay?

    “In Memory of A. Merritt, The Lord of Fantasy, Virgil Finlay.”

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