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.