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.