The Big Three… Catastrophic Errors

Friday , 24, February 2017 41 Comments

Campbellian Science Fiction stories—alternately “men with screwdrivers” or Blue SF—are provably inferior to the Fantasy & Science Fiction stories of the Pulps. Campbell is the Silver Age, the Pulps the Golden Age.

This is not because the writers and editors of the Silver Age sucked. They had talent, skill, and imagination in abundance. Unfortunately, what they ALSO had was a rigid and idiotic definition of what “good Science Fiction” was.

The Silver Age saw Fantasy and Science Fiction sundered. The two halves of one genre were cleft one from another and a wall erected between them. They were never to meet, never to touch, never to share equal space in the same story (as had so often been the case during the Golden Age), save in the trashiest of fiction.

The best Science Fiction was, of course, Hard SF, whose merits rested (it was claimed) on rigorously scientific principles and technical accuracy. Lesser writers churned out Soft SF, and the worst writers, the Pleistocene throwbacks to the Dark Age of the Pulps, churned out—UGH!—Science Fantasy.

It was the age of realism. And, in the name of realism, the stories of the Silver Age largely rid themselves of the heroics, heroism, and adventure, plus the manly and masculine heroes, of the Pulps. Heroes were bookish, not brawny. Iron thews were out, sliderules in.

These three concepts, rigorously enforced by a tiny clique of editors and writers, hobbled and hampered the fiction of the Silver Age. As a result, Silver Age stories are and were (judged as a body of work, individual tales excepted) inferior to the Pulps. The Pulps (as a body of work) were more imaginative, more visceral, more entertaining.

Three names: Tarzan, Conan, Batman*. Can anyone name SF characters from the Silver Age or later with the same cultural weight, with the same inspirational reach, with the same impact on the entirety of culture, and not just F&SF, as these three? Where are the crossover rockstars of the post-Pulp era?

More, when did Science Fiction gain a reputation for callowness about human beings? When did it become a ghetto genre, thought fit only for young boys and geeky adults? When did it begin to lose its popular appeal, when did the audience begin to shrink? All these started during the Silver Age, and dog SF until today.

I do not say that the Silver Age is garbage (nor do I wish to see Blue SF erased from existence). I grew up reading the Silver Age, and indeed re-read two Heinlein juveniles this very year. (Which, given my notoriously full reading schedule, is the ultimate compliment.)

I say rather that the Pulps are better. I invite anyone interested in testing this assertion to begin reading the Pulps.

Don’t take my word for it—read the stories. See if they’re as good as I assert.

Let the stories stand witness for themselves.

*Yes, Batman (and even Superman) are both Pulp characters given a makeover. See the latest episode of Geek Gab, with John C Wright, Jeffro Johnson, and Razörfist, for more details.

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.

  • Man of the Atom says:

    Rockin’ post, Daddy! Yeah, even the comic book characters and movie heroes of the 21st Century owe much to the Pulps of the Early 20th. Gladiator, Shadow, Zorro, Lensmen, etc — Pulp or influenced by Pulp — had enough inertia to drive a cultural wedge into Today. People need to rediscover this. Jeffro’s “Appendix N” is a great place to start.

  • Nathan says:

    An example of the cost of realism from outside SFF, caused by a writer to Campbell’s Unknown Worlds.

    “In 1946, Babette Rosemund, a woman who soundly disliked the pulp tradition, took over as editor of The Shadow. At this time, Gibson was involved in a contract dispute with Street & Smith, regarding his role as creator of The Shadow. In a moment of absolute corporate near-sightedness, Street & Smith unceremoniously fired him, informing him by letter that they had found a new man to become Maxwell Grant.

    “With that note, the man who had created The Shadow was dropped from the title.

    “Rosemund then recrafted the magazine. The Shadow Magazine of the thirties was replaced with Shadow Mystery which featured cutting edge mystery fiction. While the writing in this new pulp was palatable, the major problem was that The Shadow no longer existed in it. Instead, Lamont Cranston became the hero, solving mysteries with the police. All hints of a secret identity were ignored. The Shadow lost all his superhuman qualities. His guns remained holstered, his laugh rarely pealed across the pages. Removed were the cast of supporting characters and the villains. The agents and the gadgets. The Shadow’s laugh and his blazing 45’s. Fifteen years of Gibson’s creativity, obliterated in a single stroke.

    “In 1947 the magazine fell back to bimonthly and then to quarterly as sales continued to fall. Eventually, William de Grouchy took the editorship away from Rosemund and immediately turned to Gibson to help restore the magazine. Gibson responded with a return to the inspired stories of the early 1930’s, but by then the die had already been cast. In the summer of 1949, The Shadow Magazine folded.”

    • Man of the Atom says:

      Gammas and SJWs — if only the Pulps knew the depth (or is it shallowness) of the enemies arrayed against them.

      Pulp Reconquista. It’s time has come!

  • Kenny Cross says:

    A great post. I still haven’t listened to the newest Geek Gab. Have a great day!

  • How about Dune? Where does it fit, it’s a pulp style space opera with more written by a best friend of Jack Vance and originally published by Campbell?

    • keith says:

      I’m disappointed that nobody tried to address this. One of my first comments on this blog concerned Dune and Campbell, I think. It really is far removed from the sort of SF that is usually associated with him…

    • Alex says:

      I’ll add that Adrian Cole told me that his Sword & Planet Dream Lords trilogy was inspired primarily by a mix of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Dune.

    • deuce says:

      Herbert was friends with Vance AND Poul Anderson. I don’t know if Herbert was a fan of Robert E. Howard, but his two buds certainly were. Some of the decadence vs barbarism themes in DUNE would make one wonder.

      THE ROAD TO DUNE — minus the straight-up pastiche portions — has some very interesting stuff in it:

      There are some interesting letters between Herbert and JWC. I also found Brian Herbert’s and Kevin Anderson’s fleshing out of Frank’s outline for “Spice Planet” — the original DUNE — quite enjoyable. Definitely more Planet Stories-type stuff.

      Despite the fact that I sometimes bash Campbell, I think one could say that he could be a good editor — I think he was on DUNE. It’s that his policies ended up shutting out/marginalized much better writers than some whom the same policies let in. The Darwinian consequences of that were not good for the long-term fitness of SF.

      SF needed more Anderson and Vance and less Asimov and Clarke.

  • deuce says:

    Another good one, Jason!

    This is a decent article that references HL Gold at Galaxy:

    “H.L. Gold of Galaxy Science Fiction. Notably, Gold pushed against the “gee-wiz” pulp stories that had come earlier, and focused on other concerns beyond mere entertainment. According to James Gunn in Galaxy Magazine: The Dark and the Light Years, Gold forged a magazine in which “social science fiction found its true home. Gold wanted stories not about scientists and engineers, but about the ordinary people who were most affected by scientific and technological change.” The emphasis of science fiction shifted from the scientific culture to society itself.”

    • deuce says:

      JASYN, not “Jason”.

      James Gunn was a big Merritt fan, BTW. I’ll bet Gold wasn’t.

    • Nathan says:

      Sounds like Howells and the Futurians.

      • deuce says:

        Exactly. Sounds worse than Men with Screwdrivers. Gold apparently wanted stories about “Washerwomen Taking On the Washing Machine Bourgeoisie”. Or something. Is it any wonder the SF pulps died?

        • Andy says:

          Whenever you see someone talking about how “fun” or “entertainment” must be diminished in favor of “edification” or “enrichment” or whatever, be on guard. That’s when the assault begins.

        • deuce says:

          That’s when you sell off your stock.

          Farnsworth Wright wanted to use Weird Tales’ budget to reprint Shakespeare, FRANKENSTEIN and others. It’s a wonder the magazine survived that. He was extremely lucky in having a fairly captive stable of very talented writers.

          • Nathan says:

            I can understand the urge. The romanticists and gothics were major inspirations for the Weird Tales authors.

          • deuce says:

            Basically, Wright was engaging in expensive virtue-signalling with his company’s money. Meanwhile, he was turning down stories from HPL, CAS and REH while buying anything Seabury Quinn wrote. Wright was incredibly uneven as an editor and, while not horrible, shouldn’t be considered “great”, either. Some taste and a LOT of luck is what carried him as far as he got.

            I love Shakespeare, but putting out public domain stuff that was easily had at the library was not a good plan.

  • Being and Nothingness says:

    Exactly which years are we talking about?
    Surely the golden age of sci-fi was 1931 (Brave New World) to 1949 (1984), with obvious outliers like Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes showing up during the phenomenal Twilight Zone and Outer Limits era.

    • Nathan says:

      I’d instead suggest for American science fiction the time period from 1912 (Under the of Moons of Mars/A Princess of Mars) to 1940 (The Death of Farnsworth Wright and the end of his tenure at Weird Tales). After 1940, the Campbellian influence overwhelmed all.

  • Jon Mollison says:

    Don’t get too caught up in absolutes, B&N. That kind of thinking is far too limiting. Vance wrote pulps later than most, and Hard SF didn’t start with Campbell.

    The layer stuff sounds like New Wave, which mostly sucked. Thrre were a few outliers, sure, but we’re talking trends and generalities here.

    • B&N says:

      So we’re talking about pre-1930? Like Verne and Wells, or after Wells but before Huxley?
      I’m just trying to get a grasp on the specific sci-fi authors that we’re saying (as a whole) are better to mimic than the next group of sci-fi writers.

      • Jasyn Jones says:

        I, for one, applaud people who engage in a spirit of curiosity and honest and open dialogue. Thanks!

        My recommendation is to read “Before the Golden Age”, Isaac Asimoc (ed.), and also Jeffro Johnson’s “Appendix N”.

        Not only will that begin to answer your question, it will also allow you to enjoy MANY great stories!

        Cheers, man! Welcome!

        • B&N says:

          “Progress generally begins in skepticism about accepted truths. Intellectual freedom means the right to reexamine much that has been long taken for granted. A free man must be a reasoning man, and he must dare to doubt what a legislative or electoral majority may most passionately assert. The danger that citizens will think wrongly is serious, but less dangerous than atrophy from not thinking at all. [. . .] Thought control is a copyright of totalitarianism, and we have no claim to it. It is not the function of our Government to keep the citizen from falling into error; it is the function of the citizen to keep the Government from falling into error.”
          Justice Jackson, American Communications Association. v. Douds

      • Nathan says:

        Weird Tales under Farnsworth Wright (1924-1940) and Edgar Rice Burroughs are typical of the blend of genres and the heroism that we would like to return to. This is the group that Campbell reacted against and that inspired New Wave, even as the New Wave tried to kill their inspiration.

        • B&N says:

          Ah yes, Weird Tales and the beginning of cosmic horror with The Call of Cthulhu–the perfect tale of optimism for post-world-war-I America.
          E.R. Burroughs is great.

        • deuce says:

          HPL was actually an outlier in Weird Tales during his lifetime. Also, don’t forget his Dunsanian tales published in WT.

          Wright published A. Merritt, Edmond Hamilton, Otis Adelbert Kline and Jack Williamson in WT and was glad to do so. Merritt’s one story in WT was — according to Wright — the most popular single story during his tenure.

          • Nathan says:

            Part of the spread of the Weird Tales style through pulpdom was Wright’s rather capricious and random acceptance. I think he made HPL or REH do 17 drafts of a story before finally accepting it. For those writers who would grow frustrated with the process, there were packs of pulp editors who would gladly take what Wright decided not to.

      • icewater says:

        I think that you are mistaking the point, perhaps intentionally/maliciously.
        When folks are asked to check out pulp era SFF, it has more to do with combating preconceptions about fiction from that era as well as broadening the idea of what good, enjoyable SF can be, rather than forcing them into mimicking any particular author.

        • keith says:

          I hope so, even though some of these posts make it look as if one strict, limiting guideline is to be superseded by another.
          It is enough to point up at Weird Tales in order to see that speculative fiction produced during the “lowly” pulp era was much more creative, broad and yes, even literary, than much of what directly followed it. Outliers are very much extant, obviously. I don’t like to deal in absolutes…

        • B&N says:

          Assuming that a publishing house blog is about writing advice, I assume this discussion is about the kinds of ways people should write over other kinds of inferior ways—in which case we need models of writing which exemplify what you’re talking about.
          But if you have specific books on writing that you use in workshops to teach style, plotting, characterization— feel free to mention those.

  • Hard SF iconic hero? Sure, I can come up with one:

    James Bond.

    True, Ian Fleming was not considered a Sci Fi author, but Bond was the epitome of what I called “Materialistic Fantasy”. He was perfect amoral rationalist, with all human emotion subsumed into a fanatical loyalty to the State.

    He used technology and cunning to outwit his foes–even his hand to hand combat relied on science and discipline instead of savagery. He thrived in a Darwinian universe. He did not triumph because he was morally superior, he triumphed through a purely cold-blooded fitness to survive.

    • deuce says:

      Fleming was also a big fan of pulpster, Sax Rohmer, and Ian’s stories appeared in men’s adventure pulps and their successors like Playboy.

      Having a hard-boiled protagonist or hard science in a story doesn’t preclude it from being in the pulp tradition. At all.

    • Anthony M says:

      You might say that that if the Campbellian guys ever did make an iconic hero, he would be James Bond.

      • Jasyn Jones says:

        Hard SF is not synonymous with the Silver Age. It existed before them, existed after them.

        Their age is noted not for inventing Hard SF, or even practicing it well, but in insisting on forcing all SF to be Hard SF, which is insanity.

        As for Bond, James Bond: He’s the antithesis of a Silver Age hero. Egon Spengler is more their speed.

  • Mike says:

    Posts like this are what keep me coming back to this site every day.

    All your points are valid, especially your argument that what made pulps so enjoyable was the physicality of its heroes.

    Pulps gave us protagonists who were true men because they were whole men. They exemplified the classic standard of “mens sana in corpore sano” — a sound mind in a healthy body.

    As you implied, the integrity and “wholeness” of pulp heroes inspired stories that were indeed more visceral and more imaginative, and therefore more entertaining.

    It’s a timely lesson in an age populated by wandering iPhone zombies.

    • keith says:

      While I get the idea of ideal archetype one can look up to from the get go, there is nothing wrong with more relatable or, to use one “charged” term, “flawed” protagonists. It opens up possibilities for the element of positive transformation, inner and outer transmutation, which is another thing that is lacking in modern genre fiction.

  • DanH says:

    Exactly. In modern SFF the flaws are the character. They wallow in it and instead of them striving to be triumphant and inspirational we are expected to get down into the mud with them and somehow feel better about ourselves for doing so.

    No redemption only purgatory.

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