What Is Best in Storytelling?

Thursday , 23, February 2017 41 Comments

Q: What is the most important thing in storytelling?

A: The storytelling. Period. Any other answer is sheerest nonsense.

On that note…

The Silver Age is responsible for imposing a false and damaging critical frame on the Fantasy & Science Fiction genre (for it was one genre until they enforced an artificial division, splitting F&SF into Fantasy on one hand and Science Fiction on the other). Silver Agers imposed a literary framework where stories were judged not on their ability to move the audience, to entertain and inspire, but on the scientific rigor of their technology. The best stories were Hard Science, the worst Soft Science (or even, Ghu forfend, Science Fantasy).

This critical apparatus, and the wall between F and SF, imposed limitations on authors, limitations which hobbled their imaginations. Gradually the field lost the visceral vitality of the Pulps, and became increasingly cerebral and intellectual. Along the way, it lost the audience, who want to be moved and not lectured.

Elevating a critical frame where the worthiness of a story is determined primarily by the veracity of the science involved is insanity. Normal people, the mass audience who used to read SF, care more about storytelling than minute technical details.

Seventy-nine years of propaganda has obscured that fact, but it cannot erase it. The audience knows. The audience always knows what it likes and does not.

Now, I myself am noted for my ire at technical inaccuracies. Click on this link, and tell me I do not care about getting science or technology right.


I do not object to technical accuracy. I object to that being the primary criteria for judging the worth of a tale.

A story can have diamond-hard science, have an exactingly extrapolated future society, can tick all the checkmarks of what the Silver Age (or any other) considered to be good SF, and still utterly fail in the marketplace, because it didn’t thrill the audience.

The ONLY virtue of a story is if it satisfies the audience. Everything else is frippery.

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.

  • Cambias says:

    I think there were some external, social reasons for the “rejection” of the pulps in the 1950s. The generation born in the Roaring Twenties, who grew up during the Depression, had just come back from fighting Hitler and the Japanese. They had an understandable desire to make their own kids’ lives as sheltered and wholesome as possible. (Remember that the postwar decade was also the era of Frederic Wertham finding sinister undercurrents in comic books.)

    For science fiction it meant severing ties to the racy, trashy, pulp fiction of the prewar era. Ask any fan born before about 1960 or so, and they’ll probably tell you about having SF magazines or paperbacks confiscated and probably destroyed by parents and teachers. That stuff was trash, almost obscene.

    But at the same moment science fiction, as a genre, got its chance to make a bid for respectability, with the dawning of the Space Age. Bradbury and Heinlein were breaking into the high-paying, respectable “slick” magazines. So it’s understandable that SF writers and editors didn’t hesitate to distance themselves from the old-fashioned, unscientific, lowbrow pulp magazines. It wasn’t long afterward that Astounding turned into Analog, a much less pulpy name for a serious scientific magazine.

    The works of Burroughs survived, I suspect because by that point Tarzan was better known as a film “franchise” rather than pulp adventure stories.

    Remember, there wasn’t a rejection of fantasy as such, just the fantasy adventures of the pulps. If you look at old F&SF — or look at episodes of The Twilight Zone — you’ll see plenty of fantasy stories. But not about sword-swinging barbarians; instead they’re about whimsical old men keeping magic shops in Brooklyn, or mean-spirited people getting supernatural comeuppance.

    It’s always easy to look for villains, but I think the broader social context is probably more important.

    • Nathan says:

      Since the Campbellian break with the traditions of science fiction began in 1937, post war social trends aren’t really pertinent to the why of Campbell’s attempts to rewrite the norms of both science fiction and fantasy. Essentially Campbell was the gatekeeper to the most prestigious scifi pulp, and if you wanted to be published, you wrote his way or you hit the highway.

      • Gaiseric says:

        Burroughs was out of print for much of that era, though. He came back into print various times as he was rediscovered and reprinted, and even new authors rushed pastiches into print. The most famous of these episodes was in the mid-60s through the mid 70s where Burroughs was first put into print with Frazetta covers.

        But Burroughs didn’t “survive” unscathed the entire time. For most of the fifties, he was completely out of print.

    • caleb says:

      Are you actually accepting the notions that speculative fiction of that era was trash, worthless, especially compared to what came after? That it objectively had less literary merit?
      I need to know if you are dealing in popular public perception, one that is being combated by some people on this blog, or are you subscribing to this yourself.

      • Alex says:

        I’m pretty sure he meant in regards to the outward appearance of the pulps rather than their content.

        Even in the letters pages of the pulps, there was debate on the outward image of what the pulps projected vs. what they contained. Some people loved that there were gorgeous, half-clothed dames on the covers, while others would prefer less scandalous imagery be associated with the stories they loved. It’s one of the reasons why, even though old Astounding had some stories featuring some great dames, the editorship kept the covers rather bland so as to not offend their more conservative readers.

      • Cambias says:

        Dude, I’ve been reading SF for forty years now, and writing it for twenty. I don’t think it has ever been trash — but I’ve heard fans older than myself (some not much older) talking about how it was viewed by parents and teachers.

        • caleb says:

          I owe you an apology, then.

          Yeah, I can see why good chunk of parents would’ve viewed the usual presentation/”packaging” of various pulp magazines as less than palatable.

    • icewater says:

      But, that manufactured image of fiction published in Astounding (after Campbell became editor) being meant for grown up with PhDs as opposed to other pulp being read by kids and the uneducated was always there, and it was always manufactured.
      It was psychological play that worked really well.

      • deuce says:

        Yeah, it primed young minds with the idea that someday they would “grow up” and finally be able to appreciate “real SF”. The sooner the better. Leave childish things behind, deluded youngling. Climb aboard the starship MISERY.

    • Carrington Dixon says:

      As part of that broader social context, we should remember that this is the decade that the pulps die. Not just the stf pulps — all the pulps. A few magazines survived by morphing into a new format; Amazing became a digest, Cosmopolitan became a slick, Argosy and Adventure became ‘sweats’. Today only Analog and Cosmo survive, and they would hardly be recognizable to their pulp readers.
      Surely, we cannot blame Campbell for all of this?

      • Nathan says:

        The Campbelline split predates the 1950s, with the rejection of pulp tropes by a group of SFF fans who would later dominate the writing and editoral positions started in the early 1930s. Daddy Warpig’s posts have been focusing on what happened in the 1930s to 1940s.

    • Alex says:

      This makes a lot of sense, because a similar thing happened with Sci-fi and Fantasy during the Satanic Panic, which dealt a big blow to the Sword & Sorcery renaissance.

      With “Fantasy” easily smeared as evilsatanbad, “Scifi” took the opportunity to distance itself as a more “serious” genre, severing even more of links to the fantastical that it had been enjoying throughout the 60s and 70s.

    • Good points. I think the shift in society explains why he succeeded when Hugo Gernsback failed while attempting to impose the same limitations on the field.

  • John E. Boyle says:

    Tell me something, Cambias.

    What does your comment have to do with this post?

    • Cambias says:

      Um . . . the post was about the breach between “Campbellian” SF and so is my comment.

      Who peed in your cornflakes this morning?

      • John E. Boyle says:

        No one peed in my cornflakes, I just think that you and I perceive this post in completely different ways.

        I thought Jasyn’s post was about storytelling and satisfying the audience going forward. Campbell never crossed my mind, as he is not mentioned in the post at all. However, you and a number of others saw “Silver Age” mentioned twice and assumed that this was a continuation of another post at the link, looking backwards. You think the post was about Campbellian SF, I think it is about storytelling.

        There are other differences in our perception of this post. I was born during the 50s and I can’t remember ever seeing or hearing anyone calling SF magazines or books “trash”. In my experience, “Broader Social Context” doesn’t just happen, it is started and lead/guided by individuals. And we don’t have to go looking for villains because they tend to come looking for us.

        Mr. Jasyn Jones is an advocate for the Pulp Revolution; I support that movement myself. Your comment (in part because it was the first comment) ended in what seemed to be an attempt to suck the energy out of Jasyn’s post, and reduce any momentum it might have given the Pulp Revolution going forward.

        “It’s always easy to look for villains, but I think the broader social context is probably more important.”

        Was that your intent?

  • PCBushi says:

    “The ONLY virtue of a story is if it satisfies the audience. Everything else is frippery.”

    Well said.

    That division between F and SF has become apparent to me in my journey through Appendix N and related stuff. At first it was surprising to me how much overlap there used to me. The fact that it’s not really the norm anymore…as you say, it seems limiting and kind of sad.

    • Andy says:

      It find it sad when I look at, for instance, modern reviews of classic PC RPGs like Ultima, which mixed sci-fi and fantasy, and the kids get all confused about the introduction of spaceships after you’ve rescued the princess. “What the hell is this peanut butter doing in my chocolate?!”

  • deuce says:

    “Entertainment is fiction’s purpose.”

    — Edgar Rice Burroughs

    • Being and Nothingness says:

      “Originality can come only from what you bring of yourself to your story. In other words, originality is not a function of your novel; it is a quality in you.”
      Donald Maass, The Fire in Fiction

  • deuce says:

    I really appreciate the info from Jasyn, Nathan et al. I was familiar with some of the facts — some from my own reading and some from conversations with Morg — but I was sketchy about other angles on the situation.

    However, are you all aware of the earlier schism in American lit brought on by a socialist? In the course of a decade, William Dean Howells forced American fiction into the channels it still follows to this day:


    Wolverton’s “Serpent Catch” novels are great, BTW. Basically, Pellucidar on a gas giant’s moon. Dinosaurs, Neanderthals and one immortal guy with blue, symbiont skin.

    • Nathan says:

      I do talk about Howells occasionally on my blog, but only from snippets of the article you link to as I’ve never found the whole. Thanks for sharing.

      I agree with the conclusion, Howells did force the ghettoization of fantastic literature into dime novels and pulps, and those parents who force their kids to read a proper literary book for each sff trashy snack are unknowingly following in his footsteps.

      • deuce says:

        That’s not the whole thing. John C. Wright excerpted two big chunks — which I combined — but the link JCW gave was dead. Otherwise I would’ve just linked to it.

        What is the name of your blog, BTW?

        • Nathan says:

          My personal blog is thepulparchivist.blogspot.com .

          As for the Howells article, I used John C. Wright’s excerpts as the source.

          • deuce says:

            Ah! I’ve been checking that out for about a year. Unfortunately, with so many blogs out there, it seems I only stopped by when your newest post wasn’t delving into the dark hhitory of the “Golden” Age. I’ve done some serious scrolling just now. Good stuff! BTW, over on the forum I mod, I linked your site a couple months ago:

  • caleb says:

    On a related note, I tend to think that separation between SF and Fantasy is hard to enforce as long as writer doesn’t subscribe to modern hard-materialist outlook. One who, at a fundamental level, doesn’t view the reality in such a way cannot help but stray into fantasy and supernaturalism even if he is writing something that is meant to be hard SF. Issue here is that very few people are like that nowadays, much less so than even back in early 20th or late 19th century.
    We can be outwardly religious or non materialistic in some way, but we cannot help being what we are, that is products of late Modernity who are molded by it on a deep level.

    • The more I look at the division between SF and Fantasy the more I am convinced that no such thing exists.

      I think a more accurate description of what Campbell called “Hard SF” is “Materialistic Fantasy.”

      Calling some fantastic elements “Science Fiction” and other fantastic elements “Fantasy” keeps the Hard SF crowd from having to discuss stories on their merits on an equal footing.

      It’s the same sort of mental slight of hand that allows Atheists to reject other faiths while claiming that their faith is not a religion.

    • john silence says:

      One way to put it would be that there is no distinction or division in the first place for those who are not materialists. Old “are they space aliens from another planet, or fairies from magical otherworld, and does that distinction really exist or is important within our context” thing.

      So, Gene Wolfe or R. A. Lafferty cannot help but “stray into fantasy” because that distinction would be incompatible and artificial to their worldview.

      • deuce says:

        Kind of like how Poul Anderson kept working “elves” into his SF for 50yrs. Even Lovecraft couldn’t resist having “gods”, whether they were Azathoth at the center of reality or the “old Gods of Earth” in the Dreamlands who were — apparently — constructs/products of a psychic gestalt, but who acted independently and worked outside of the known laws of physics. HPL had a mystic bent, but he ruthlessly repressed it once he was born again into Materialism. In the Middle Ages he would’ve been a monk and probably fairly happy.

        • icewater says:

          Nowadays, I actually prefer Lovecraft’s earlier horror stories, and his Dunsanian fantasies, to his more widely read later stories. Which is interesting, I doubt that 15,16 yrold me could’ve even completed Dream Quest. Stories like “The Festival” or “Music of Erich Zann” or “Nameless City” have this shadowy, uncanny quality that is lacking in his late fiction.
          As for mystic bent, I do wonder to what extent was he familiar with personal backgrounds of Machen and Blackwood, given how much he was attracted to their fiction.

  • Nathan says:

    This is Asimov’s take on Campbell’s impact:

    “Asimov said of Campbell’s influence on the field: “By his own example and by his instruction and by his undeviating and persisting insistence, he forced first Astounding and then all science fiction into his mold. He abandoned the earlier orientation of the field. He demolished the stock characters who had filled it; eradicated the penny dreadful plots; extirpated the Sunday-supplement science. In a phrase, he blotted out the purple of pulp. Instead, he demanded that science-fiction writers understand science and understand people, a hard requirement that many of the established writers of the 1930s could not meet. Campbell did not compromise because of that: those who could not meet his requirements could not sell to him, and the carnage was as great as it had been in Hollywood a decade before, while silent movies had given way to the talkies.”

    So, yes, in the late 1930s and throughout the 1940s, Campbell as the chief visionary of the Silver Age imposed his fascination with plausibility on American science fiction.

  • DanH says:

    I think this may be at least part of the reason for the rise of Japanese Manga in the western culture that began in the 1970’s. In manga science, fantasy and supernatural elements are routinely mixed together and there is no reticence towards heroism.

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