Star Wars Stole Pulp

Monday , 30, January 2017 49 Comments
Star Wars movie poster

Even the poster stole.

Here is the narrative: Science Fiction was a tiny genre, largely ignored by the general public, a niche of a niche, only appealing to teenage boys… until Star Wars. Then, it got big.

Star Wars blew up so big, they had to coin new terms to describe it: summer blockbuster. It was so big, it drove millions and billions in sales of toys and books and dozens of other movies. It was so big, it made Sci-Fi popular for the first time EVER. Men and women, children and adults now loved SF, and the genre EXPLODED.

The narrative is a lie.

Star Wars didn’t make Science Fiction popular. Star Wars made Science Fiction popular AGAIN.

Back in the days of the Pulps, Fantasy & Science Fiction was read nationwide. It was read by teens and adults, by men and women. It was popular.

Then, unexpectedly, something happened. Just after WWII, the pulp magazines that had delivered fun and exciting SF stories to the entire nation began folding up. The audience drifted away, and the F&SF genre plummeted in popularity. Some blame post-WWII cynicism.

According to them, we’re supposed to believe that after World War Two, returning soldiers who had grown up reading stories of adventure and heroism, suddenly decide they hated them, suddenly decided they hated tales of other worlds, suddenly decided they hated heroism*. And so did their children, and so did their spouses. In an era of “Leave it to Beaver” and burgeoning comic book sales, the entire nation became so cynical and nihilistic, it suddenly abandoned all the stories and authors and magazines that made F&SF great.

We’re FURTHER supposed to believe that in an age of Sputnik and the Space Race, of Ham the Astrochimp and Laika the Spacedog, of Gemini and Vostok, that the genre would naturally be shrinking, would naturally be losing readers, that ages-old magazines would naturally be folding. Just when space travel was becoming a reality, the audience naturally would be losing interest in space travel. Naturally.

What really happened is this: The audience didn’t abandon F&SF. F&SF abandoned its audience. Its appeal became more selective.

Post-WWII was the era of the Campbellian Silver Age, the era of “Men with Screwdrivers” SF. Action and adventure were childish and frankly embarrassing, as were purple prose and laser swords. Barsoom? Silly. Buck Rogers? Childish. Northwest Smith? A gunslinger, not a scientist. And this was the age of SCIENCE.

Science was the focus, technology the touchstone. Stories had to be cerebral, intellectual. They had to be REALISTIC. Real science, none of this fuzzy-headed soft science stuff. SF had to shake off the wooly-headed thinking of Fantasy, the embarrassing antics of Space Opera, the adolescent focus on Adventure and Action. SF was serious business. Real Literature. It was time to grow up.

Folks, the audiences didn’t get smaller. The genre did. It threw away what had made it popular in the first place.

So when George Lucas came along, he found all the many various tropes and tools the Silver Age had discarded and derided, the laser swords and swashbuckling space battles, the roguish spaceman and his loyal sidekick, the space princesses and space magicians. The action and adventure and heroism. He found them buried in the dust, picked them up, dusted them off, and made F&SF fun again. Made it thrilling again. Made it inspiring again.

Made it popular again.

George Lucas stole Pulp. He stole its tropes, characters, and settings. He even stole its WRITERS. And people loved Star Wars. They loved it BECAUSE of its pulpiness.

Almost nothing in Star Wars was new. To the audience, though, it seemed new, because SF had buried its past, a past that should never have been buried.

Star Wars is existence proof that the Pulps should never have been forgotten.

(*Why this didn’t happen to other veterans, who not only read F&SF, but write it, veterans like John Ringo, Tom Kratman, Brad Torgerson, Nick Cole, and Sky Hernstrom is left unexplained.)


Jasyn Jones, better known as Daddy Warpig, is a host on the Geek Gab podcast, a regular on the Superversive SF livestreams, and blogs at Daddy Warpig’s House of Geekery. Check him out on Twitter.

49 Comments
  • Nathan says:

    A hardcore segment of NYC-based fandom grew up to be writers and editors in the 1930s and 1940s, wrote the stuff they liked – and drove off the casual audiences. They didn’t like heroism, so they stripped it out of the genre. Since then science fiction fandom has had an adversarial, “filthy casuals” relationship with any other form of weird fiction that they didn’t like.

    Incidentally, pulp died because Street & Smith and other publishers thought ladies’ magazines like Mademoiselle would be more profitable – and that women would stay away if they published pulp adventures as well.

  • Congratulations on producing one of those rare articles that point out something everybody missed for years but in retrospect seems like the only plausible explanation. Truly paradigm-shifting! Well done, my friend.

    The mention of “men with screwdrivers” is also sincerely appreciated.

    Your case for SFF’s prewar popularity is strengthened even more if you consider all the pulp shows on radio, which drew bigger audiences than TV ever has.

  • Daddy Warpig says:

    Full Disclosure: While looking back at my G+ stuff, I noticed a comment by Jeffro that advanced this exact thesis. I didn’t remember it, and I don’t think he does, but he definitely came up with this idea first.

  • K-Bob says:

    I grew up reading the pulps because I could get a stack of them for 75 cents. I loved them more than comics, and some even had a few great illustrations. But I was also a kid when the Mercury 7 program began.

    To me, the screwdriver period was new and exciting. Maybe it’s because I lived on the Space Coast back then and got to see astronauts live a few times. So I shifted to the New Kids because of the general level of excitement for real space exploration and engineering.

    We all (my friends & my cousins) had model rockets and model aircraft with loud Cox motors. We drew rockets in school instead of listening to the teachers. We loved going to the planetarium each year, and to tour NASA’s complex at Canaveral.

    Hard science was like the coming of Led Zepplin & Alice Cooper after the days of 60’s psychedelia and Soul/R&B had crushed Bing Crosby.

    But SF began to compete in the one-man-against-the-void aspect, and reveled in astrophysics instead of swords. It started getting stale, just like when you got stuck in an elevator listening to the Ten Thousand Strings rendition of Yesterday (Beatles).

    But Star Wars rescued more than the adventure spirit of SF. In the 70’s theaters were closing due to lackluster attendance. “Sensurround” helped just a bit. But Star Wars fixed it.

  • Gaiseric says:

    This is also easy to see if you browse through your public libraries books on science fiction authorship; especially if those books were originally published in the 60s or 70s before the release of Star Wars. While there’s a grudging admission that “space opera” can be popular, you are sternly advised to avoid it, because science fiction isn’t science fiction unless the actual resolution of the plot depended on some scientific principle, you see. The contempt for the pulps that oozes from those books was always palpable.

    I guess I had subconsciously developed a talent for suppressing cognitive dissonance, but even when I was first reading some of these books as a kid, I was scratching my head wondering what was supposed to be wrong with good old fashioned swashbuckling fun a la space opera. Of course, by this time, Star Wars had already come out, I’d grown up watching the Filmation Flash Gordon cartoon, and had already devoured much of the Barsoom books.

  • Nathan says:

    Ignored by those books are the continental schools of science fiction. German science fiction, per C. S. Lewis, was planetary romance. French science fiction restarted in the 1950s from American screwdriver fic conventions, then rapidly abandoned them for a more German approach. Yet these science fictions were ignored, passed over for those countries which shared the Campbelline writer’s narrow view of science fiction. (Not so) oddly, most of these were influenced by Marxists…

    • cirsova says:

      What’s interesting to me is that, when he was not writing twee-satirical pieces and stuff to keep the KGB from murdering him, a lot of Stanislaw Lem’s stuff was very much a mix of Leiber and Lovecraft.

      • Kevyn Winkless says:

        Let’s not forget that Lem was highly critical of American SF of the 60s and 70s, to the point that his honourary SFWA membership was jerked out from under. (admittedly, the issue of the Ubik translation played a part too, but it was reputedly a lot to do with Farmer’s objection to Lem’s criticism)

        • PCBushi says:

          Also worth noting that Lewis was critical of action-driven, pulpy SFF.

          Kind of interesting – I think many fans of the old stuff often lump the classics and the pulps together (I often do for expediency), but they were of two different schools.

          • Nathan says:

            C. S. Lewis was fond of the scientific romances of Wells and Clarke, as well as the mix of fantasy, horror, and sf found later in Fantasy & Science Fiction magazine. It was the engineering stories of the Campbelline science fiction magazines that pushed him out of the genre for a time.

          • PCBushi says:

            True, but he also criticized Wells. In “Of This And Other Worlds” Lewis has a whole essay decrying the action-driven pulp SFF style (he doesn’t specifically say “pulp” but he does allude to it). He says that the film version of King Solomon’s Mines ruined the story for him by adding unnecessary excitement.

            Just as Tolkien was a curmudgeony old man, Lewis had some strong opinions, too. It may very well be that he disapproved of the Campbellian stuff, and maybe he called it out somewhere else. But aligning Lewis with the likes of REH, ERB, and their ilk is probably inaccurate, is my point.

            As I’ve said before – I’m not expert; just making observations as I read and learn more. But that essay “On Stories” struck me for that marked criticism.

          • Nathan says:

            “But aligning Lewis with the likes of REH, ERB, and their ilk is probably inaccurate, is my point.”

            I didn’t say that. I said that Lewis said that the *German* idea of science fiction was planetary romance. Incidentally, that is a definition he disagreed with. See: Unreal Estates.

          • PCBushi says:

            Wasn’t saying you did say that. I was just making another observation – that some of the revered classic writers like Tolkien and Lewis were writing different stuff than the pulp grandmasters.

          • Nathan says:

            Ah. In that, we agree.

      • baduin says:

        You know – Lem is really a bit like Lovecraft. Lovecraft loved old New England towns, and Lem loved the old Austro-Hungarian Lemberg.

        Satirical pieces are the best works of Lem, by the way. He has written some soc-realistic books too, but I do not think they have been translated.

        As to the similarity with Leiber – I do not see any, or at least – not very much.

        Stefan Grabinski was a bit similar to Leiber’s Our Lady of Darkness. Grabinski influenced Lem, so there is something similar.

        Yes, now that you have showed it I do see some similarity in such works as Solaris.

        You are quite perceptive, I have to say.

    • “(Not so) oddly, most of these were influenced by Marxists…”

      Every time someone goes digging into the decline of a once thriving aspect of Western culture, the first shovelful always turns up Commies.

      A close friend who’s reading Appendix N remarked how he’s getting angrier every day. I asked if it’s because they stole the pulps from us.

      “No,” he said. “It’s because they stole EVERYTHING.”

  • Andy says:

    It’s telling to me that so many Very Serious Science Fiction fans always love to point out how bad for the genre Star Wars was. Star Wars was a popular gateway to the genre for new fans but instead of embracing them and taking the opportunity to recommend things they might like, the gatekeepers decided to barricade the genre and settle for steadily declining sales figures (low sales means it’s real art, right?). They still haven’t learned their lesson.

    • cirsova says:

      I hear the old “Star Wars is what really ruined the Hugos by making normies interested in sci-fi again” chestnut rather frequently.

    • Nathan says:

      Hardcores always resent casuals. And steadily declining sales is a telltale indicator that the hardcores are being catered to.

    • PCBushi says:

      Indeed, Andy!

      Good article, but I’d say Star Wars revived pulp rather than “stole” it. Are contemporary #PulpRevolution writers “stealing” it? I wouldn’t say so.

      I think it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that while there are deeper, more noble drivers and impacts of speculative fiction beyond being mere entertainment, that’s still an important part of what it is. If it entertains, if it’s fun, then great!

  • Josh Young says:

    I had an interesting revelation about this while poking at the Clone Wars: This is what Lucas was shooting at with his vision of the Old Republic. It didn’t work at all in the prequels, but you can see in the Clone Wars that the Old Republic is meant to evoke the gilded age, art deco and pulp serials. Not surprising given Star Wars origins and Lucas’ frustrated ambition to reboot Buck Rogers (or was it Flash Gordon?), I suppose, but that’s where I first really realized what was going on there.

  • H.P. says:

    Modern space opera is, in my experience, the worst of both worlds. The science has long since passed it by, but it refuses to embrace its more fantastical side. Which leaves a western, a thriller, a romance, what have you, in a space ship. And it will live or die not by the speculative elements but by the non-speculative.

    I greatly prefer the poles, whether hard science like Seveneves or Remembrance of Earth’s Past or planetary romance like Schuyler Hernstrom or the old pulps.

  • cirsova says:

    Maybe someday, the pulps will reclaim light sabers from Star Wars.

    From ray-sabers in Kline’s Maza of the Moon from 1929 to the Starlances in Adrian Cole’s mid-70s Dream Lords books, light sabers were everywhere in SFF. Now, everyone associates them almost exclusively with Star Wars.

    • Andy says:

      I remember reading an old interview quote from Mark Hamill (might have been in The Secret History of Star Wars) in which Hamill asked Lucas where he got his ideas from and Lucas replied, “From about 400 old science fiction books.”

    • PCBushi says:

      For better or worse, I think this is just how things work. Star Trek didn’t invent the “warp drive,” but it has that association now. Alien ripped off a slew of vintage scifi concepts, like the idea of aliens ripping their way out of people.

  • Brian Renninger says:

    One thing I have read but, not seen actual data is that there was a spike in pulp paper prices during 40s and 50s due to the war and its after effects that killed a lot of the pulp magazines. This lead to a consolidation in the marketplace. Fewer titles, and thus the remaining gatekeepers (Campbell, etc.) got more power to set the agenda. Similar to the consolidation in the 1990s.

    • Nathan says:

      Wartime paper shortages forced Campbell to choose between his science fiction pulp Astounding and his fantasy pulp Unknown. Considering that he was trying to do the same transformation in fantasy that he was in science fiction, this may have been a blessing in disguise. (Campbell did publish Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, but he felt it was more appropriate to Weird Tales than his vision.)

  • This is a very good article, and you’re right. This is why a lot of what I write -is- pretty much pulp. I really enjoyed it as a young man, so I decided to see if people still liked it.

    I was rather surprised to see that they do! I even made my leading men, men, and wrote stories with actual men as the heroes. Yeah the purple haired vejay crowd loves to write me some nasty reviews, but that just makes it worth it!

    Again, great article.

  • jccarlton says:

    I think that the great paper crisis killed a lot of pulps, there WAS a big push toward SCIENCE, most men that had been readers of SF were trying to start families after WW2 and be taken SERIOUSLY(by women), so they didn’t want to get caught reading kid stuff and that magazines in general were trying to reflect an attitude of normalcy after the Great Depression and WW2. Add the small bunch of writers feeding content into a primarily NY crowd and there’s the decline. You started to get more action adventure in the 1950’s as the first round of the baby boom entered age ten or so, but a lot of the action adventure went to comics, AKA Stan Lee and Marvel. A lot of the adventure stuff came back in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s as the paperback people created a bunch of cheap reprints. After all the royalties could be low or nonexistent if the books were from forgotten authors. The Ace doubles were a case in point. The fact that all that stuff was available for the likes of Gygax and Lucas just made their lives easier.

    • Nathan says:

      “In 1949, the last of the Street & Smith heirs, Gerald Smith, became president of the firm. The sword-wielder is unknown; it may have been Smith or Chairman of the Board, Allen L. Grammer. In any case, it was the latter who announced in April of that year that Street & Smith was dropping Detective Story, Western Story, Doc Savage, and The Shadow—leaving Astounding Science Fiction the sole survivor of a long line of pulps. Citing television and the fact that readers were tired of the pulp format, Grammer said the company was shifting toward the women’s market.”

      Murray, Will. Writings in Bronze (pp. 49-50). Altus Press. Kindle Edition.

      Oddly, Doc Savage was not canceled because of lagging sales. It was, by all accounts, healthy. But Street & Smith was growing fat and respectable with its women’s magazines like Madmoiselle and decided that its pulps and comic books were not what the company wanted to be all about. It was a classic wrong-headed business move.

      Murray, Will. Writings in Bronze (p. 213). Altus Press. Kindle Edition.

  • celt darnell says:

    Interesting and intelligent article. I’d submit things may have been slightly different in the UK, given the popularity of Dan Dare (in the Eagle comic), the novels of John Wyndham (which were popular), and Doctor Who (started in 1963) among other things which appeared in the period from 1945-1977. I could include the comic 2000 AD (most famous for Judge Dredd) which actually predated Star Wars by a few months.

    Interesting read, though.

  • Sean Phillips says:

    I remember that back when Stars Wars first appeared, authors like Ben Bova and Harlan Ellison slighted it because of this very reason–it wasn’t serious SF.

  • deuce says:

    Very cool that Vox is promoting this post on his blog and his Darkstream periscope.

  • I don’t see any inherent contradiction between hard science and heroism. In fact that’s what I’m writing right now — Men (and some women) With Screwdrivers, who rise to the occasion to achieve heroic status. If, as H.P says, modern space opera is the worst of both worlds — no science and no heroism either — and I’d broadly agree with that, the “best of both worlds” must also exist. I see my job as dragging it out of the Platonic realm and onto the page. SF badly needs heroes, which assumes solid moral underpinnings, but it also needs real scientific speculation; to suggest otherwise would be to fall into the very same nihilistic trap which makes so much of recent trad pub SF a bloody bore to read.

  • Joseph P. martino says:

    I got started on the Buck Rogers comics in the 1930s. I discovered ASTOUNDING when I got to college. A few years later I started selling to ASTOUNDING. Yes, adventure with rivets.

    I enjoyed the first Star Wars movie — space opera writ large. The sequels, not so much. The last one was a waste of my time and money.

    I’m still writing John Campbell stories, but unfortunately he’s no longer buying.

  • Criticas says:

    It’s not clear that you can argue the audience got smaller, at least in the immediately post WWII years. That’s when Heinlein began publishing in the Saturday Evening Post, one of the most popular magazines of the day, with 10% of adult Americans reading it. (Think Norman Rockwell, think The New Yorker, for the Midwest middle class reader).

    If you’re arguing New Wave ca. 1965 was the transition, then hell ya!

    From The SF Encyclopedia (http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/new_wave)
    “y 1965, then, sf was ripe for change. In fact, many of the so-called sf experiments of the period were not experiments at all, but merely an adoption of narrative strategies, and sometimes ironies, that had long been familiar in the Mainstream novel. In the event, some of the sf writers who felt they now had the freedom to experiment, especially Ballard and perhaps (rather later) Moorcock, were to add something new to the protocols of prose fiction generally; the New Wave may have taken from the Mainstream, but it gave something back in return (this is now a truism of Postmodernist criticism, but it was by no means clear at the time), and certainly New-Wave sf did more than any other kind of sf to break down the barriers between sf and mainstream fiction.”

    It’s funny, reading that article, that there’s a long list of authors I read and never liked: Moorcock, Aldiss, Ballard, Delany. Their stories always reminded me of the mainstream stuff my English teachers told me I should like, not the stuff I read eagerly.

  • Gaiseric says:

    The fault lines in time aren’t always exactly as we perceive them after the fact, though. At least SOME pulp stories had revivals in the late 60s and 70s quite a bit BEFORE Star Wars came out—right in time to be very current and popular during the run-up to the release of D&D. Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E Howard were back in print, with new covers by Frazetta, Vallejo and Adams, etc. (Even more obscure pulp writers like Otis Adelbert Kline were in print.) Pastiche’s by guys like Lin Carter were common, but not just him: Mike Resnick wrote a planetary romance set on Ganymede. F. Gardner Fox wrote a small series set on his fictional planet of Llarn. The Dray Prescott stories started in 1972. The Gor series started in the late 60s. The Horseclans series by Robert Adams started in the mid-70s.

    Although it seems to have more impacted the fantasy rather than the science fiction side of the house, there was a pulp revolution well underway BEFORE Star Wars came out.

    I’m not sure, and I haven’t really thought about it until now, but this obviously isn’t a case of a singular attempt to stifle the pulps and their conventions. It’s either a back and forth lunge and riposte where one side is ascendant based on reader taste until the Establishment can reestablish control again, or there were two completely separate attempts to replace the pulp aesthetic. Not sure if the reasons are the same or even similar or not.

    Potential interesting research project there.

    • Nathan says:

      For the death of the pulp influence, I’d actually go with books replacing the magazines in the 1970s, the rise of a generation of book editors who thought science fiction started with Ellison and the New Wave, and the Thor Power case killing the backlists.

      • Gaiseric says:

        Yeah, but the pulp revival of the 60s and 70s that I’m talking about were books. The old serials were serialized as novels or at least collections. ERB, Howard, Kline, Adams, Norman, etc.—they published books, not in magazines.

        • Nathan says:

          A view from 1981 on what ended that pulp revival.

          “The group of editors who have moved to the center of science fiction publishing in the period beginning in 1975 (science fiction is no longer a magazine field, a point which I trust does not have to be argued here) have imposed, collectively and individually, their vision upon science fiction.”

          “…given only a marginal understanding of science fiction and only a superficial grasp of its history (to most contemporary science fiction editors “modern” science fiction began with Harlan Ellison, and they have only the most superficial acquaintance with the work of the forties, fifties, and even nineteen-sixties), these editors tend to publish what looks like science fiction and their view is necessarily parochial and, granted the nature of Conglomeratization, not without fear.

          Malzberg, Barry N.. Breakfast in the Ruins.

          • Gaiseric says:

            That would tend to suggest that the pulp aesthetic was killed TWICE and independently. Although the motivation and personality issues involved were similar I’d wager, they were unrelated events.

            Interesting.

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