Friday, June 15, 2018

Street & Smith Sales Figures

I recently came across a article covering the 1949 death of the pulps, where Street & Smith axed all their pulps except for Astounding. It parroted the popular wisdom of the time, where changing tastes among the audience doomed the medium. However, what caught my eye was the sales figures included.

Ignore the average circulation in this, as it fails to note that two titles, Doc Savage and The Shadow, combined for 400,000 to 600,000 and more of said circulation. But there are noticeable trends in the totals. Prior to the slapdown pulp received for the excesses of weird menace, S&S had a floor of around 950,000 issues sold per month, even with the high title churn as everyone tried to create the next The Shadow.

1941 saw a dip as pulp recovered from the legislation affecting the medium, while 1942 saw a banner year for S&S. claims that S&S benefited from the paper shortage and the ensuing shrinking of titles. Even then, S&S began to shift to digest format instead of pulp to cover costs.

1943 saw the contraction hit Street & Smith, as the company started to shed titles like Unknown, and ushered in new management.

But it was in 1945 when S&S pulps started to die. Among the many incidents that lead to this doldrums was Babette Rosemund's editorship of  Doc Savage and The Shadow. Her fascination with the literary trends of academia torpedoed the sales of those two books, as she pushed hero pulps without any trace of heroism at all. As both shifted from twice a month, to monthly, and finally bimonthly, the loss of sales was felt sharply by the company.

In 1948 and 1949, Street & Smith attempted to revive interest and sales in the pulps, and actually started to turn the decline around. However, with depressingly low composite sales, it is understandable why Street & Smith focused instead on the half-a-million a month sales of Mademoiselle.

Monday, June 11, 2018

A Second Opinion on Light Novels

Benjamin Cheah talks Japanese light novels over at his site:
Light novels are short, inexpensive books on fast release schedules. Running to about 50,000 characters, they are small and lightweight, able to be carried about and read anywhere. This mirrors the pulp practice of publishing compact, fast-paced stories on equally compressed schedules. Well-loved in Japan and around the world, many LNs have been translated and exported across the world. But how do modern LNs compare to the pulps?
Consider light novels the Young Adult version of the pulps, where Japanese pulps shifted audience and added manga-inspired art to court an audience. They are very much direct descendants of the pulps, and in that peculiarly Japanese manner, freely steal and give homage to their forebears, both Japanese and American. But Cheah takes these pulps descendants to task:
Japanese light novels may mimic the format and publishing schedules of the pulps, but they do not necessarily live up to the standards established by the pulps. While some concepts and nuance may be lost in translation, if the base material is little more than dross, a translation won't produce diamonds. 
To be clear, there are light novels worthy of your time and money. JimFear138 recommended Vampire Hunter D. But by and large, even the most popular LNs today tend to have subpar writing, so much so that by Western standards they would be considered amateurish or even unpublishable. 
Why, then, are they so well-loved?
In a word, escapism. And there's an emotional need being filled, whether its adolescent power fantasies, salarymen looking back at happier and freer times, or the heady mix of spicy writing and adventure. 

Check out Cheah's article for a more in-depth contrast of LN writing to the pulp masters.

It's funny that this article should pop up while I was trudging through a selection of current LNs. I do have my favorites, but those, strangely enough, have more literary aspirations (Bakemonogatari, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, and Legend of the Galactic Heroes). A few thoughts to add:

1. LNs and English YA appear to currently be playgrounds for immature 20 and 30-something adults instead of teen-oriented writing.

2. If D&D-cloned fantasy is Pink Slime, much of isekai is Blue Slime. Not because of VD's Pink vs. Blue audience mechanic, but because much of isekai patterns itself after video games such as Dragon Quest, down to the very bestiary--including the mascot blue slimes of DQ.

3. Translation matters more than Benjamin Cheah touched upon. It won't turn lead into gold, but it sure does turn gold into lead. Worse, thirty years of fan translations of anime, manga, and LNs have conditioned English-speaking fans to demand lead instead of gold. Whether poor writing or poor translations, I've learned more about what doesn't work in writing and story from light novels than other types of story.

That said, some classic anime were adapted from light novels, such as Slayers, so they're doing something right...

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

The Phantom, Arifureta, and Ignition!

The Ghost Who Walks returns in Hermes Press’s reprinting of the Phantom’s classic novels. In the second, The Slave Markets of Mucar, the Phantom leaves his jungle stronghold for the deserts of Arabia. Prisoners have been escaping from a legendary impenetrable fortress. So when one of the Phantom’s Jungle Patrol agents investigating the prison goes missing, the Phantom must break inside, root out the corrupt officials, and trace the “escaped” prisoners before they are sold in Mucar. To stop this slavery, the Phantom dishes out two-fisted justice with the wisdom of Solomon, accompanied by his wolf, Devil.
The Slave Markets of Mucar is a straightforward adventure through exotic settings. If it seems a little quaint today, it is because our world is sedentary and unacquainted with danger. While the Phantom as a character is a contemporary of pulp heroes such as the Shadow, his novels do not rely on the lurid descriptions of the hero pulps. Instead, the novels update the classic Argosy general adventure to the pacing of the men’s adventure stories. However, the Phantom is more force than character here, as he pulls off impossible treks across the desert to appear where no man expects him. This means that The Slave Markets of Mucar is a bit scant on characterization, but the novel is a short read designed to fill a span of idle time instead of the better part of a weekend.

At first glance, the translated light novel Arifureta, by Ryo Shirakome, follows the well-worn tracks of the isekai otherworld genre. (English language examples of which include A Princess of Mars, The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Song of Albion.) Typically, the light novel isekai tale takes a loser, throws him into another world, and through abuse of a special skill, watches him rise in power, prestige, and responsibility until he saves the new world. Arifureta instead takes a normal guy ostracized by his classmates for the continued attention of the class beauty, throws him into a new world, abandons him in the middle of a lethal mega-dungeon, and watches as his drive to survive turns him into a monster, physically and morally.
Like the rest of his class, Hajime is summoned to a new world to be pressed into fighting the local supreme dark lord. But when a skulking rival for the class beauty’s attention manipulates a training exercise to trap him in the nearest dungeon, Hajime is forced to munchkin his new skills to ensure his survival. It is here where Arifureta begins to lose its way, replacing the expected heroic struggle against the dark lord with that of an underdog gone rabid. Part of this is due to the kishotenketsu structure, where the familiar pattern of rising action-climax-falling action is replaced by an episodic series of cause and effect. Unmoored from any plot arc, Arifureta wanders through a series of digressions that distance the story from the expectations of the first cause and effect cycle. Unlikable characters, intrusive litRPG mechanics, failed attempts at grimdark, and the use of hoary cliches like the blonde child vampire love interest turn reading this popular translated light novel into a grind.

Rutgers University has finally rereleased John Drury Clark’s classic Ignition!, an informal history of the chemical rocket propulsion race that fueled the Space Race and the Cold War. Clark offers views into both American and Soviet scientific efforts, as well as his own personal research anecdotes, grouped together by chemical family. Care is taken in each chapter to explain which compounds worked, which compounds were abandoned, and which compounds blew the test bench up spectacularly. By the time readers finish Ignition!, they will understand just how chemical propulsion became a mature technology so quickly.
By this point, many of you might be asking just what such an account of dangerous chemistry has to do with science fiction. Clark was one of many scientists and engineers that wrote stories for Astounding during the heady days of 1937-1943, when the physical sciences helped propel the Campbelline Revolution to the forefront of science fiction. Like many of his contemporaries, the demands of war and the laboratory diverted Clark from writing, but he remained a fan and a friend of Campbell’s clique of writers. Isaac Asimov pens the introduction, using humor to reveal Clark’s personality–and the dangers inherent in mixing volatile and reactive chemicals.
However, the true impact of Campbell and Astounding upon Ignition! remains its readability. Clark should be recognized among the early popularizing science writers. Like Feynman in physics, Clark is able to distill the complexities of his field, chemistry, into easily understandable essentials for the layman while preserving substance for the expert. A healthy mixture of firsthand anecdote and dramatic failures elevate this analysis of chemical alternatives into an engaging account of one of the few times where chemistry held the same glamour as physics.
Those interested in following Clark’s footsteps should be aware of a key piece of safety equipment–a good pair of running shoes.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

From the Editor: Broadswords & Blasters

Broadswords & Blasters posted a list of what graced their last submissions pile--and what got rejected. Good lessons here in story and submission guidelines. While they are quick to point out that these guidelines are for their journal alone, their advice for potential writers for any publication is sound. Pick up an issue and read through it, and tailor your stories accordingly.

The Guidelines Are There For a Reason (Part I)
We have guidelines on our website. They detail, in what we hope is clear and concise language, what we are looking for. They can be broken down in two parts. The first is the genres we are looking for:
  • sword and sorcery;
  • westerns (Weird or otherwise);
  • horror (Cosmic, Southern Gothic, visceral, and psychological);
  • detective tales;
  • two-fisted action;
  • retro science fiction
If you can squint real hard and fit your story into one of those buckets, yeah, we’ll read it and give it due consideration. Mash-ups of the above are also great. Here’s what we see too much of:
  1. Epic or high fantasy.
  2. Fantasy that is a reskin of a Dungeons and Dragons game.
  3. Engineering science-fiction where the hero can solve the problem with a calculator and wrench.
  4. Stories where talking about the problem somehow solves the problem.
  5. Slice of life stories that would fit better in a literary magazine. No speculative gloss at all which made both editors scratch their heads and ask “Why did they send this to us?”
  6. Urban fantasy.
  7. Allegories (religious or otherwise) where a solid chunk of the story relies on telling some sort of moral.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Trends: Trigger Warnings

In the short time since I have been posting Castalia House's weekly New Release Roundups, I have seen many authors try to stand out from an increasingly crowded pack. Marketing gimmicks abound. Sometimes these turn into trends with some staying power, such as the resurgence of the mailing list. Others last only for a season. Hopefully, this next trend falls in the latter set.
WARNING: This novel contains explicit sexuality, nudity, violence, bad language, attempted murder, actual murder, self-defense, pro-active self-defense, destruction of private property, arson, tantric magic, polyamory, mayhem, gratuitous sex and violence, littering, jay-walking, firearms, a racist goblin, an honest lawyer, and a kindly old gossip who likes to give cookies to kids.
Fresh from Tumblr and other disreputable parts of the Internet and education, the trigger warning has now made it into science fiction and fantasy marketing. To be fair, the first few times I saw it appear, the writers were winking to potential readers of books with a comedic slant. Call it more a type of content signaling instead of an actual warning. But these warnings started to spread to more serious works.
This book contains no profanity and no embarrassing sex scenes. However, if you're offended by conservative principles and references to Scripture, this book might not be for you.
Note the serious tone.

I wouldn't think that such warnings would be needed, as many of the bookjacket blurbs already inform a reader what to expect. However, a recent blog comment from Jan Stryvant, best-selling author of the Valens Legacy, disabused me of that notion. His book warnings are cheeky, to be certain, but they also reflect a somber truth, for even with the explicit description and bold warning, reviewers have protested that his magical harem adventures have harems in them.

Some people just live to be offended. Hopefully, the current versions of the Red Scare, White Fright, and Yellow Peril subside long enough that these warnings are no longer necessary. But as long as there is a review mob crying to a sensationalist media, I expect we'll see more authors resort to them.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Pulp Era Writing Tips

Those who enjoy the classic articles by pulp writers need to read Bryce Beattie's Pulp Era Writing Tips, a collection of 17 columns from the pulp masters, with commentary from the editor of Storyhack. Not only has Beattie collected a wealth of classic story advice, he's tapped a seam of writing tips outside the more popular articles that get passed around, such as Lester Dent's Master Plot. At $0.99, Pulp Era Writing Tips will introduce you to a new set of pulp wordsmiths practicing their trade for all to see.

Learn from some of the fiction writing greats of yesteryear! This book contains 17 articles on writing, written by pulp era authors, helping you learn:

- Several methods of plotting a story
- How to make your characters memorable
- How to study your genre
- How to write a fight sequence
- Tips for revising your novel
- And much more...

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

The Destroyer: Dr. Quake

There is a secret passed down from one sitting President to his successor. Whenever the fight against crime or foreign meddling endangers the very Constitution itself, each new President is instructed to dial a secret number and ask for the services of a special man. Then hang up the phone and know that the threat will be dispatched. But never ask the voice on the other end about the man who makes crime lords and foreign agents disappear.

His name is Remo, and he was a former cop sent to Death Row for a crime he did not commit. Instead of execution, Remo Williams was given the chance to serve his country in a new manner.  Under the tutelage of Chuin, master of the sun source of all martial arts known as Sinanju, Remo has become America's greatest assassin: The Destroyer.

For more than 45 years and 150 novels, Remo Williams and Chuin have irreverently faced the nation's foes, foreign and domestic, in the men's adventure series The Destroyer. Along the way, the Master of Sinanju and his apprentice have faced power mad business tycoons, Russian agents, gangs of street thugs, Mafia hitmen, African slavers, neo-Nazis and Black Panthers, Mayan gods, and even the odd alien or two, reaping a terrible harvest along the way. If a group has shouted "Death to America" or smashed a window in protest, Remo has been set upon a thinly veiled version in the books. But in Dr. Quake, Remo is sent to investigate that old standard of pulp and men's adventure, the mad scientist. Someone in California has demonstrated the ability to control earthquakes, and is blackmailing a small town. When this master of science's ambitions for extortion grow more audacious ("Hello, Mr. President"), Remo and Chuin must race the Mafia to find and destroy the earthquake machine.

The fifth book is admittedly an odd place for an introduction to a series. But it took time for Warren Murphy and Richard Sapir to develop the key relationship in The Destroyer. The first book, Created, the Destroyer, was originally written in the early 1960s, with Remo studying the then exotic art of karate. But as martial arts grew more widespread in America, Remo's martial arts needed to grow more exotic. Thus Chuin and the House and martial art of Sinanju was created, intended to be one of many instructors that would hone Remo's killing skills. It wasn't until the third book, The Chinese Puzzle, that the cantankerous scenery-chewing old coot from Best Korea took his place as Remo's only instructor and assistant on his missions. Over time, Remo's grudging respect for his little father grows, and Chuin is forced to admit that Remo isn't that bad for a white devil. By Slave Safari (book 12), Chuin is kvetching like the Jewish grandmothers he watches soap operas with, both to Remo and to anyone around who would listen to a wizened old master. In Dr. Quake, Murphy and Sapir are still putting the polish on Remo and Chuin's relationship. The begrudging respect on both parties is present, but the bickering that the two are known for has yet to fully appear. The satirical elements, however, are more developed.

Like many men's adventure series, The Destroyer takes inspiration from the headlines of its day. Murphy and Sapir mix the mad scientist's plot with the growing fears surrounding California's San Andreas Fault, with a dash of the mob and a swipe at women's liberation protesters. Police corruption and the concerns of migrant workers (back in the days before illegal immigration concerns) round out the evils afflicting the California town that Remo conducts his investigation. With a mix like this, it is impossible to avoid a political slant. While Murphy and Sapir take on all parties, there is a distinct rightward tilt to Remo's adventures. This series was politically incorrect before the term existed, and it is no surprise that The Destroyer is published independently these days. Chuin's raging case of Korean chauvinism is reason enough to keep it from an established publisher, and a lot of sacred cows get gored when the logical conclusions of the beliefs of certain groups are revealed to be ridiculous. (The most recent novel tackles Black Lives Matter and gun control.) And there is enough criminal stupidity taken from headlines and video clip shows to contrast with the masterminds.

With all the mayhem in action, satire, and wordplay, The Destroyer never loses its moral compass. The innocent victims of the various criminal schemes are always treated with compassion by the story, evil is always an action instead of a vague impersonal force of history or identity, criminals who have yet to kill are shown mercy, greed and evil are always shown to be corrosive to the wrongdoer, and evil is always avenged. Finally, Murphy and Sapir decided not to glamorize the violence in fighting. Remo and Chuin often kill with a single blow. Depictions of violence are unavoidable in a martial-arts based story. But The Destroyer refuses to revel in the inevitable gore. Descriptions of killing are quick and to the point, with more care to the description of how Remo approached the criminal instead of the effects of the blow. Little effort is spent on depicting technique either. This decision forced the authors to focus instead on satire, characterization, and wordplay, which created hooks that allowed readers to continue to enjoy the adventures of Remo and Chuin long after the duo proved to be unstoppable.

Dr. Quake is a decent but average adventure, overshadowed by The Chinese Puzzle and the excellent run of the second dozen novels. However, it is a brisk and enjoyable read, filling the vacuum of adventures caused by the decline of the pulps. It's escapist adventure done right, a perfect beach or airplane read. And Dr. Quake has one of the most memorable opening lines I've read since Monster Hunter International:

"Every man owes God a life. California owes Him a disaster, payable about twice a century."

For that alone, Dr. Quake earns a reread.