SHORT FICTION: The Teenage Girl’s Robot Army by Rawle Nyanzi

Monday , 2, January 2017 26 Comments

I’d put it off for a long time, but when I found out that Sci Phi Journal had purchased a story from top book blogger Rawle Nyanzi I finally bit the bullet and figured out how to become a Patron over there. (It’s a relatively painless process.) It’s a very short piece and I admit, I’m rather jealous. I’ve never buckled down and written any fiction for publication, so I really do salute somebody that can throw their hat into the ring like this.

It’s a neat story that paints a picture of what things would be like if the whole world was sort of a non-stop game of Starcraft. Commenting on it in any detail would spoil it, so instead I’m going just offer a few reflections on some of the dynamics aspiring pulp authors are liable to face as they delve into their first efforts. (How this ties in to Rawle’s story should be immediately obvious once you’ve read it.)

We are a long ways from the pulp era in countless ways: culturally, spiritually, intellectually. It’s astonishing, really. And the thing about that distance is that it only becomes more obvious when you look at the people that have dropped out of the publishing establishment and to strike off on their own. They have unlimited freedom to pursue any creative vision imaginable. But the thing is… there are things about the old style of fantasy and science fiction that the old masters took for granted that most people just can’t even imagine doing.

Granted, not everyone agrees on what pulp even is. And there’s certainly more than one way to do things. In my view, the pulp ethos was initiated by Edgar Rice Burroughs. It was developed by A. Merritt, C. L. Moore, and Robert E. Howard and continued to thrive through the work of Leigh Brackett, Jack Vance, and E. C. Tubb. The fact that their work was synonymous with science fiction and fantasy well into the seventies is evident in the inspirations and creations of the first wave of role-playing game designers. When people first sat down to through dice and pretend to be heroic adventurers, it was the characters created by these authors that set the tone more than anything else.

What is the common thread running through the work of all these authors…? Strong leading men. Feminine romantic interests that demonstrate their virtue. Kissing tends to take on a much greater significance due to standards of “cleanliness.” There is often a tacit assumption that the ultimate goal of romance is a lifelong marriage and non-heterosexual relationships do not even enter the picture.

There’s more to it than that, sure: an emphasis on wonder and action in place of overt political ideology, for instance. Not that there aren’t big ideas and deep thoughts to explore. It’s just that such things are dealt with more on a metaphorical level with real world applicability often left to the imagination. This is something that authors spend a lot of time fretting over. It’s well trod ground. In contrast, the matter of old school pulp style romance only comes up as a subject of satire.

Consider the works of luminaries from the burgeoning pulp revolution scene. Karl Gallagher’s Torchship features an (almost) modern day style strong female character. Nick Cole’s Ctrl Alt Revolt! features a thoroughly likable disabled female lead. John C. Wright’s Swan Knight’s Son features an adolescent boy. Jon Mollison’s The King’s Dragon features an unusually well realized father character that (alas) seems to lack anything like a love interest. In Schuyler Hernstrom’s Thune’s Vision, Athan comes close to the old heroic ideal, but breaks the old “cleanliness” restrictions. And it’s Adalwolf’s bad luck in matters of love is the root cause of his ultimate downfall.

Now… I’ve written rave reviews for all of these guys. I really enjoy their work a great deal. But my point here is that every last one of them departs from the old pulp ethos in a significant way. Pulp style romance energized the key emotional beats of science fiction and fantasy for over half a century. And then it just evaporated. And even the guys that are closest to producing the old style of adventure fiction don’t  go all the way on this.

Nobody’s asked me for my advice on how to make it as an author. Honestly, I don’t know much about that. But if you want to write stuff that evokes the old pulp ethos, the reality is you are attempting to go against decades worth of cultural programming. It’s not natural. It won’t come easy. You’re going to end up pulling your punches in ways you take for granted. You’ll have countless rationalizations to justify what you think you’re trying to convey on an artistic level. But you’ll make any number of compromises that cause your work to be noticeably inferior to that of the old pulp masters.

That’s just how it is. Even for the people that are really “out there” and making lots of waves. So my advice is to think of the most unflinchingly pulpy things you can possibly imagine, set aside all of your snark and condescension, let go of the desire to be seen as “serious”… and then go do something even pulpier than you ever dared to try. It’s the only way to recapitulate the sort of emotional beats that define the style.

26 Comments
  • Rawle Nyanzi says:

    We are a long ways from the pulp era in countless ways: culturally, spiritually, intellectually.

    Quite true. It is my belief that any revival of the pulps should live in our current time, rather than aping the old masters. Yes, read the older works — it’s a good foundation to work from, and it opens your eyes to a type of fantasy you normally don’t see. However, when writing your own, there is absolutely no need to imitate the 1930s and 40s slavishly; there are many modern influences that would fit a revived pulp well (and I don’t mean social-justice pandering), and it is important to remember that you are writing for people alive today, not the audiences of the WWII era and its immediate aftermath.

    Now… I’ve written rave reviews for all of these guys. I really enjoy their work a great deal. But my point here is that every last one of them departs from the old pulp ethos in a significant way. Pulp style romance energized the key emotional beats of science fiction and fantasy for over half a century. And then it just evaporated. And even the guys that are closest to producing the old style of adventure fiction don’t go all the way on this.

    A perfect demonstration of what I mean; they live in this current time and write for today’s audiences, so they’ve found some level of success. The revival would not do well if all we did was write stories for each other; we have to reach out beyond those that study Appendix N in great detail.

    Don’t get me wrong — I’m not dumping on the older pulps; I strongly encourage people to read them. However, we can’t evoke the old ethos because we don’t live in the 1940s, but the 2010s. We will have to forge a new path, one informed by the imagination and boldness of the older works, but also incorporating modern influences and aimed at modern readers. After all, ghosts and zombies don’t buy anything.

    • Nathan says:

      The 30s pulps were heavily influenced by current events and the culture of Chicago, especially the hero pulps. Doc Savage had his own version of the Untouchables, and the Shadow was the voice for those who were sick of crime and corruption and wanted stronger, more violent measures to fight it. Likewise, the Campbell pulps reflected the current events and culture of the New York of its time.

      What city or culture might ground today’s works? I can’t say which ones will, but it won’t be New York, San Francisco, or Austin.

      • Rawle Nyanzi says:

        What city or culture might ground today’s works?

        Not so much a specific city, but the current visual culture will certainly ground any modern work, since so much of current sci-fi and fantasy is experienced on the screen, not the page.

        As for current events influencing works, those of a politically incorrect bent have plenty to write about if they want to make allegories and allusions. 🙂

      • Anthony says:

        Ever heard of Camden, NJ? One of the most dangerous cities in the country. It got so bad they literally gave up on it and shrank the police force down to bare essentials. The city has been abandoned to die.

        Can you imagine the potential of a hero fighting in Camden, NJ?

        Of course there are modern settings that can be used.

  • Sky says:

    In “The Gift of the Ob-Men” Sounnu gets the girl and they become a new Adam and Eve. Not quite the same thing you are after. But when you read “The First American” in the next Cirsova you will be pleased.

  • Hooc Ott says:

    Monster Hunter International.

  • Anthony says:

    . You’ll have countless rationalizations to justify what you think you’re trying to convey on an artistic level. But you’ll make any number of compromises that cause your work to be noticeably inferior to that of the old pulp masters.

    I absolutely promise you I don’t mean to sound snarky, this is a serious question and I’m not really sure how else to word it. And so:

    Why should we be trying to do something identical in all respects to the old pulp masters?

    That was THEIR stuff. If we want to write like them, great! But not wanting to hit *every single pulp beat exactly* doesn’t automatically make modern work inferior to theirs. Indeed, Nick Cole and John C. Wright really AREN’T inferior (I haven’t read “Ctrl Alt Revolt” but his Wasteland Saga is among the best post-apocalyptic fiction I’ve ever read).

    I think you’re making the exact opposite mistake here. You’re trying to put authors into a different box – a “pulp” box. Well, just because John C. Wright wanted to write a story starring a young man as opposed to a more mature hero doesn’t mean it’s because he’s fighting against his modernist instincts. Maybe he wanted to write a (great) book starring that sort of hero.

    And what’s wrong with that?

    For once, I actually disagree with you, or I’m misunderstanding you.

  • Anthony says:

    For that matter, I don’t really care if a work is classed as pulp, as such. I think you’re taking the whole thing too seriously, for lack of a better word; more important is the idea that we’ve been totally ignoring the old masters and forgot what made them great.

    Now we’re bringing them back and learning their lessons again. That’s fantastic, but it doesn’t mean we should be replicating them down to the dots on their i’s.

    • Jeffro says:

      I reread the post just to be sure… but this:

      “Why should we be trying to do something identical in all respects to the old pulp masters?”

      That’s not what I said.

      I don’t think I told anyone what to do.

      What I’m doing is pointing out a trend… that there seems to be something that’s off limits to peoples’ imaginations and/or creative palettes. I’m talking about expanding the range of creative options…. And questioning why what I think of as a defining element of the pulp sff classics is anathema to guys in the “bad” crowd…!

      Now it’s other people that brought this up, but… the guys that originally did this were insanely successful. And the guy that’s closest to doing this right now… well, last I heard he bought a mountain.

      • Anthony says:

        Well, you are heavily implying that the reason people aren’t writing stuff a certain way (a way that bears more similarities to the old pulp way) is that there’s some sort of modernist thing causing the idea to be off limits in their heads. But why does that have to be? What if they just have different ideas?

        You know who else is extremely successful and makes a living off of his writing? Nick Cole. You mentioned him.

        You know who wrote a book with a Strong Female Lead (a trope I DON’T like) but was insanely successful? Suzanne Collins, author of the Hunger Games.

        So I’m just not buying, I guess, that the reason the modern pulp guys aren’t using those sorts of characters – except for the ones who are, like Larry Correia – is because there’s some mental block, nor do I think it means those works are somehow inferior to to the old pulp guys.

        I guess I’m not really sure what your point is if it’s not “Hey, the new pulp guys should have heroes that are nearly identical to the old pulp guys, and that they don’t is a result of a block in their mindset”.

        Because I just don’t agree with that. I’m imagining John C. Wright giving a hearty chuckle right about now.

      • Daddy Warpig says:

        Specifically, Jeffro’s talking about the chastity-driven man/woman dynamic of the pre-Sexual Revolution, which was predicated on mystery and innocence. I’m talking Casablanca, Tracy and Hepburn, and even, yes, The Music Man.

        Without going into the specifics of when and where we finally lost that era of innocence (Haight-Ashbury, 1965), its absence is striking and telling.

        • Jeffro says:

          Jon Mollison has a post on that here.

        • Anthony says:

          I don’t disagree with this, really. I just think you’re pointing out a bunch of people – really not that many yet who are actually writing, honestly – that DON’T actually have a problem with this sort of thing and just decided not to write a book like that…but it didn’t make their books worse.

          Larry Correia is super-successful, sure, and he deserves it. But so is Nick Cole, and his books are just as good as Larry’s, maybe even better.

          And then there’s John C. Wright. I GUARANTEE the only reason you haven’t seen this sort of thing in his work is because it wasn’t the story he wanted to tell yet. If there was ever a man who successfully had the modernist block surgically removed – or perhaps was born without it – John C. Wright was that man.

          • Jeffro says:

            Hey, I just referenced several authors that I have reviewed in the past year in order to make a point about a wider trend.

            I did this in order to explain something to an aspiring pulp author that specifically asked for this sort of feedback on his blog.

            Finally, if I criticize contemporary sff, it is always in terms of how it stacks up against the canon. If you don’t agree with that standard… then the criticism is basically meaningless. And yep… mine is very much a minority opinion even within Puppydom.

  • Hooc Ott says:

    Jeffro wrote: “Finally, if I criticize contemporary sff, it is always in terms of how it stacks up against the canon.”

    I can’t emphasis how vital this it.

    Right now all criticism that you read from media is framed around Marxist critical theory.

    If you do not know what that is then look it up.

    When you read about racist storm troopers or colonialism Tarzan or sexist Zelda and you think “wow that is crazy random BS” it is not.

    It is a well established criticism frame designed, and yes this part is going make rebel and fling names and say “No Hooc”, to first destroy culture and then to replace it with a converged Marxist grand utopia.

    We can argue about how effective it has been in meeting those goals.

    Whatever.

    But it cannot be denied how god awful the the actual works that have sprung from it are.

    Now you don’t have to come to Jeffro for his new canon based critical frame. You can make your own or find someone else’s.

    But I am telling you, as of today, it is colonialism sexist Tarzan turtles all the way down.

    And that is why it is vital. It is a place where a billion and one stories can be told and a billion and one more that can straddle it and it very much does have a track record of success.

    So please stop taking it personal and stop trying to break it. Straddle it if you must but don’t destroy a thing simply cuz your story doesn’t fit it and you want it to.

    That is exactly what the Marxist Critical Theorists want.

    A weak feckless alternative that is everything to nobody and nothing to anybody.

    • Anthony says:

      I want to emphasize I’m not taking anything remotely personal here. I’m not mad or annoyed at Jeffro, nor do I disagree with you. I just thought Jeffro was using as examples people it probably didn’t apply to.

      Now, he said he just used them because he’d been reading them the past year and he thought they helped illustrate a trend. Fair enough.

    • Anthony says:

      I’ll put my point this way: John C. Wright’s “Green Knights Squire” trilogy was about a young man because he was writing for an audience roughly around that age.

      I don’t think the series would have been improved at all if he changed that.

      • Nathan says:

        But Gil and Nerea do fit Jeffro’s observations.

        “Strong leading men. Feminine romantic interests that demonstrate their virtue. Kissing tends to take on a much greater significance due to standards of “cleanliness.” There is often a tacit assumption that the ultimate goal of romance is a lifelong marriage and non-heterosexual relationships do not even enter the picture.”

        Honestly, had Castalia House chosen to add a few illustrations, Green Knight’s Squire could have become a light novel, a modern descendant of the pulps. Perhaps they might consider it with Yumiko Moth’s adventures.

    • Rawle Nyanzi says:

      So please stop taking it personal and stop trying to break it. Straddle it if you must but don’t destroy a thing simply cuz your story doesn’t fit it and you want it to.

      I agree with most of your comment — writing according to political dictates makes no sense. As for the quoted part above, I would say that a “modern pulp” will inevitably look different from a classic pulp, even if the writer incorporates the lessons of the older writers and avoids social justice politics. This is because, as Jeffro said, we are a long way from the culture of the original pulp era.

  • Jon Mollison says:

    Brian K. Lowes’ “The Invisible City” might be the home run you’re looking for. It’s got the ‘man out of time on an alien planet’, ‘man fighting to free subjugated peoples’, and ‘man falls in love with alien princess’. It’s the closest thing to ERB that I’ve read in a long time.

    Of course, at this point I’m just waving my hands at the exception that proves the Jeffro rule.

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