Friday, December 30, 2016

A Simple Measure of Pulp

The following is a quick listing of the reading metrics for the first thousand words of eight different pulp era writers.  The stories were chosen by what I had readily available, filtered for works written in the 1920s-1930s.  Thus Silver John was not used for Manly Wade Wellman, as most of those stories were written in the 1960s. 

Lord Dunsany; "The Bride of the Man Horse"

SMOG: 10.4 grade
Flesch-Kincaid: 10.3 grade
Lexical Density: 43%

Hamilton, Edmund; "The Door into Infinity"

SMOG: 10.4 grade
Flesch-Kincaid: 7.5 grade
Lexical Density: 40%

Hammett, Dashiell; "Night Shade"

SMOG: 6.3 grade
Flesch-Kincaid: 3.8 grade
Lexical Density: 40%

Howard, R. E.; "The Phoenix on the Sword"

SMOG: 10.4 grade
Flesch-Kincaid: 7.5 grade
Lexical Density: 49%

Kuttner, Henry; "The Graveyard Rats"

SMOG: 11.5 grade
Flesch-Kincaid: 9.4 grade
Lexical Density: 47%

Lovecraft, H. P.; "At the Mountains of Madness"

SMOG: 16.7 grade
Flesch-Kincaid: 16.2 grade
Lexical Density: 52%

Merritt, Abraham; The Moon Pool

SMOG: 10.4 grade
Flesch-Kincaid: 8.0 grade
Lexical Density: 48%

Wellman, Manly Wade; "The Half-Haunted"

SMOG: 8.3 grade
Flesch-Kincaid: 4.9 grade
Lexical Density: 48%

I need more samples to really draw true conclusions about the golden age of pulp, much less an individual writer - with the exception of Lovecraft as a striking outlier. There does appear to be two distinct aggregations of language usage in the pulps so far, a 10th grade level at conventional fiction levels of lexical density (content words to grammar words) and a 6th grade level at a less formal, conversational speech level. Perhaps that will hold true as this continues. Right now, however, this is consistent with the writer's observation that fiction is more formal than speech. Perhaps this says more about the English of the time than pulp.

Monday, December 26, 2016

The Lost Musketeer

In compiling the list of pulp-influencing works I've taken to calling Appendix M, one observation leaped off the page.  French writers influenced English language fiction, and vice versa.  A Great Conversation of popular fiction was underway in the 1800s and early 1900s between America, Britian and her Dominions, and France.  This should have been obvious as, even today, the stories of Jules Verne, Alexandre Dumas, and The Phantom of the Opera still are celebrated and remade.  The French influence in detective pulps in unmistakable, as American hardboiled detective stories drew greedily from the well of noir.   But upon reading Appendix N, the list of fantasy works that influenced Dungeons and Dragons, French contributions are absent.  Nor can French writers be found in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series.  With minor exceptions such as The Planet of the Apes and the Metal Hurlant comics, the French post-pulp contribution to English language science fiction has been minimal.

Unfortunately, the French abandoned science fiction after suffering the great civilization wound of World War One.  From a vantage point 100 years in the future, it is not always readily apparent the damage done to the cultures of Europe by the Great War.  World War Two is more recent, and is portrayed as the Great Crusade and the Last Good War.  Further, America was on the winning side of both wars and managed to be relatively untouched by the ravages of war, both in casualties and collateral damages.  But where World War Two invigorated America, World War One disillusioned and demoralized Europe as their best and brightest men died by the millions in a nightmare of technology, pride, and idealism.  This still haunts European cultures to this day, as writer Sarah Hoyt, a Portuguese immigrant, points out.  And, as French men died defending their country, so did hope and the desire to write science fiction.

Only in the 1950s did science fiction rekindle in France, using Campbelline and Golden Age ideas as a starting point.  But, instead of rejoining the Great Conversation of the Gilded Age with American and English writers, French writers took their science fiction in different directions, conversing instead with Germany, Italian, and Japanese writers.* (However, since French, Continental, and Japanese science fiction retain elements of the pulps expunged from the English speaking tradition, perhaps it is the English speaking tradition that is out of step with the times?)  While the reasons for the French abandonment of science fiction and fantasy are clear, the reasons for the divorce from the prior English speaking traditions are not yet clear. 

*A potential generalization about a European reception to Campbelline works might be made, as C. S. Lewis was bored by the Campbelline period, Michael Moorcock led New Wave in rebellion against it, and the French abandoned it wholesale.  However, this will require additional reading to properly prove.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

On the Hills and Everywhere, by Manly Wade Wellman

A Christmas story from Weird Tales author Manly Wade Wellman, as told by John the Balladeer:


"John, the children have opened their presents, and I want them to have some hot rations inside them before they start in on that store-bought candy you fetched them. So why don't you tell us a Christmas story while Mother's putting dinner on the table?" 

"Be proud to do so. And this won't be any far-away tale—it happened to neighbor-folks you know." 

You all and I and everybody worried our minds about Mr. Absalom Cowand and his fall-out with Mr. Troy Holcomb who neighbors with him in the hills above Rebel Creek. Too bad when old friends aren't friends my more. Especially the kind of friend Mr. Absalom can be.

You've been up to his place, I reckon. Only a man with thought in his head and bone in his back would build and work where Mr. Absalom Cowand does in those high hills up the winding road beyond those lazy creek-bottom patches. He's terraced his fields up and up behind his house on the slope, growing some of the best-looking corn in this day and time. And nice cow-brutes in his barns, and good hogs and chickens in his pens, and money in the bank down yonder at the county seat. Mr. Absalom will feed any hungry neighbor, or tend any sick one, saving he's had a quarrel with them, like the quarrel with Mr. Troy Holcomb.

"What for did they quarrel, John?"   

"Over something Mr. Troy said wasn't so, and Mr. Absalom said was. I'll come to that." 

(John the Balladeer continues his story at this link...)

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Appendix M: A First Draft

The pulps, even driven by entertainment instead of literary accomplishment, were written in conversation with the existing corpus of popular and literary works.  Hero pulps such as Doc Savage and the Shadow drew from Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes, and even the anti-heros of A. J, Raffles, Fantomas, and Arsene Lupin (the first, not the grandson).  Science fiction drew from the works of Edgar Allan Poe, H. G. Wells, and Jules Verne.  Even Lovecraftian horror was built on the edifice of Ambrose Bierce and Guy de Maupassant.  And popular fiction throughout the world, from English penny dreadfuls, to Depression era American pulps to Japanese light novels, owes an unpayable debt  to Edgar Allan Poe.

In an attempt to piece together the century old roots of today's genre fiction, I have compiled a first pass at a list of works written prior to 1920 that inspired the Golden Age of the Pulps.  As this is an ongoing investigation, the list is incomplete and open to suggestions.  In the spirit of Dungeons & Dragons' Appendix N, let's call this Appendix M until a better name arises.


Marcel Allain and Pierre Souvestre - the Fantomas stories

Ambrose Bierce - "An Inhabitant in Carcosa"

Edgar Rice Burroughs - the Barsoom stories, the Tarzan stories, and the Pellucidar stories

Robert W. Chambers - The King in Yellow

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle - the Sherlock Holmes stories, The Lost World

Alexandre Dumas - The Three Musketeers serials, The Count of Monte Cristo

Lord Dunsany - The Gods of Pegana, Tales of Wonder, The Book of Wonder, The King of Elfland's Daughter

E. W. Hornung - the A. J. Raffles stories

Maurice Leblanc - the Arsene Lupin stories

Gaston Leroux - The Phantom of the Opera

Guy de Maupassant - "Le Horla",  "The Necklace"

Edgar Allan Poe - "Mellonta Tauta", "The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall", "The Pit and the Pendulum", "The Tell-Tale Heart", "The Purloined Letter", "The Cask of Amontillado", The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket

Robert Louis Stevenson - Treasure Island, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Jules Verne - Journey to the Center of the Earth, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Around the World in Eighty Days, From the Earth to the Moon

H. G. Wells - The Time Machine, War of the Worlds, The Island of Dr. Moreau

Monday, December 19, 2016

A View of The Crazy Years

A recently republished Poul Anderson interview from 1975 sheds some light on the state of publishing in the 1970s:
TANGENT: What do you think of the pulps, now that they are all but dead?

ANDERSON: Well, the pulp magazines are dead, and the magazine field generally is in a bad way. But I’d say that the old-fashioned pulp novel at least is flourishing as well as ever. It seems they’ve moved over into the paperback books.

But, now, obviously the more markets there are from a writer’s viewpoint the better, not only from a pecuniary viewpoint, but the more activity there is going on, the more vitality there will be in any given field, and the more chance for people to experiment and find new directions and so on. So, yes, I certainly regret the shrinkage of the short story market on such grounds.

TANGENT: What about the short story anthology as a replacement?

ANDERSON: To some extent they’re stepping in to fill that need, but the fact is though, that for whatever reason, by and large, short story collections don’t sell as well as novels. Evidently fewer readers wish to buy a short story collection.

TANGENT: What do you think of the cycles and trends in science fiction, if they exist at all?

ANDERSON: Well, I think Algis Budrys put it very well once—a passing remark in a review or something: ‘Trends are for second-raters.’ There seems to be an occasional bandwagon, but what really happens is somebody has come along and broken new ground, done something original, and it’s worth exploring, you know, so naturally we all get interested—a lot of us try ourselves out in it too. But as far as making that an all-time direction or something, that is only what people incapable of originality would do. The originators, the ground breakers, they’ve gone on to something else.

I think, basically, that Jim Baen is right in his new direction. Not that there should be any declared moratorium on down-beat stories, but it does look as if that theme has been pretty well worked out, for the time being at least. What new disasters can you think of that haven’t already been done? (Laughs) You get these cycles, you know, about ten years or so ago, there was such a rash of stories, about psionics especially, and we all got sick of ‘psi’, and about ten years before that there’d been such a rash of anti-utopian things, especially bad imitations of The Space Merchants. I at least got the feeling that if I read one more of those I’d have to go and throw up.
Reading this interview, smack in the middle of the 1970s, further cements some of the impressions of the time I got after read Malzberg's Breakfast in the Ruins.  Starting with the death of John W. Campbell in 1971 and ending with the Thor Power case in 1979, science fiction publishing was getting hammered again and again.

John Campbell's death in 1971 extinguished a guiding light for the genre.  Campbell continued as a magazine editor for years after the age bearing his name had passed, only stopping when they laid his body to rest.  Evidence of his continuing influence can be seen in Anderson's interview, as Campbell coined the term "psionics" and promoted the idea, beyond the point of saturation into hoary cliche, a good ten years after "The Cold Equations" murdered the Campbelline Age.  When Campbell passed, a friend of Barry Malzberg remarked, "The field has lost its conscience, its center, the man for whom we were all writing. Now there's no one to get mad at us anymore."  

Campbell's death also coincided with another collapse of the short fiction market. Science fiction as a short fiction market had survived the death of the pulps in the 1950s, and continued through the 1960s as the main voice in the great conversation between science fiction writers. But changing times, and yet another swing towards the literary, had run short fiction sales into the ground. While some of the magazines survived, even to this day, they no longer held the prominence once held in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. The novel took its place. But as the Anderson interview shows, the short novel format of the pulps, 40,000-60,000 words, and science fiction serials, including translations of international series like Perry Rhodan, flourished for a time.

A change of the guard in editors accompanied the shift from magazines to books. Magazine editors tended to be active writers with a connection to the history of the genre. Even though many Golden Age and New Wave writers looked down on their pulp forebears, they were also involved in translating these works into new media, such as television, movies, and graphic novels. However, the book editors were university graduates, without an understanding of the history of the genre. From his vantage point in 1980, Malzberg derisively pointed out for many of the newer editors, their understanding of the genre only began with the books of Harlan Ellison. This would put works from before 1958 outside of their frame of reference, including the pulps, the Campbelline era, and even much of the Golden Age stories. As the new gatekeepers, the book editors would select works that reflected their vision of the genre; one that had been divorced from science fiction's past. And, since short story anthologies did not sell, there was little incentive for editors to familiarize themselves with the short works of the pulps, Campbells, and Golden Age.

As books took over, so too did the economics of the book market. Publishers made more money off of larger books, so the length of the average novel grew, first to 80,000 words, then to 100,000 and beyond. This trend continues to this day, with TOR bragging about creating new book binding technology to handle the 400,000 words of Brandon Sanderson's Words of Radiance as recent as 2014. The pulp novel format, with its shorter length, was not as cost-effective as the longer stories. Nor could multiple pulp novels be easily combined into a single volume. So newer works written to the longer formats were favored over the old. Even the international serials, which evolved from the pulp formats, fell victim to this trend.

Much has been written of the two black swans of 1977; Star Wars and the epic fantasy explosion. Both represented a sea change in the type of stories readers demanded, representing types of stories that publishers had not been offering before. Preference shifted away from the works of the Golden Age and the New Wave, from the dystopias of the early 70s to more hopeful adventures. Epic fantasy also contributed to the growing word counts of the novel.

Finally, in early 1979, the Supreme Court announced its decision on Thor Power Tool Company vs. Commissioner, essentially rewriting the tax code covering inventories. This made the extensive backlists held in publishers' warehouses a liability. Almost overnight, the publishers pulped thousands of titles, effectively killing off the backlists including a large number of older titles. SFWA and many writers see this as the act that caused the divorce between science fiction and its past. However, it is better understood as the final blow in a series of calamities.

Given the turmoil of the decade, even more trends and events leading to the transformation of science fiction and fantasy may be discovered. However, it is clear from Malzberg that the world of science fiction in 1980 was fundamentally different from the world of science fiction in 1970, and he was uncertain if the changes were for the better. Anderson sheds a little light on the progress of various changes already well under way in 1975.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

A Simple Measure of Word Usage

As a little experiment, let's compare readability test results for "If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love", by Rachel Swirsky, 2013;

Simple Measure of Gobbletygook - 11.5th grade lavel
Flesch Kincaid - 8.5th grade level
Lexical Density - 45%

with the first 1,000 words from "Black God's Kiss", by C. L. Moore, 1934;

SMOG - 8.3th grade
Flesch Kincaid - 6.3th grade
Lexical Density - 44%

Both SMOG and Flesch Kincaid measure the use of polysyllabic words, not content. For reference, conversational English is about a 6.0th grade in Flesch Kincaid. Lexical density is a percentage of content words (nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs) to total words. Current fiction averages at 50%. was used to quickly generate test results. This limits the amount of text per test to 1000 words. To be consistent, the first 1000 words were chosen.

So why did I do this? It's an attempt to quickly quantify changes that might have happened over time in weird short fiction. Dinosaur was picked as a current story, with Kiss as a pulp story. Although neither are necessarily representative of their times, I wanted to see if there was enough of a difference that further comparisons might be warranted.

What did I expect? Moore, as the pulp writer, would rely on fewer polysyllabic words and more content words than Swirsky, a modern prose poet. This would translate into Moore earning a lower grade level and a high lexical density than Swirsky.

What happened? Moore did have a lower grade level than Swirsky, but they both had a lower than average fiction lexical density.

What's next? - I am thinking of running this with seven pulp shorts from the pre-Cambelline 1930s and seven Clarion graduate modern sff writers to get a better baseline for comparison.


For a point of comparison, and why I think I might be able to catch something by these tests, here are the results for the first 1000 words of Schuyler Hernstrom's "The Challenger's Garland", published in 2014 and a representative work of Pulp Revolution.

SMOG - 7.3th grade
Flesch Kincaid - 4.5th grade
Lexical Density - 49%

Which is closer to what I expect as results from the pulp masters. As before, the grade level is only a measure of polysyllabic word usage and not a measure of content. Hernstrom grapples with adult issues, not elementary school ones. He is in good company at this grade level with celebrated western author Louis L'Amour. Lexical density is higher, but I expected 53% or more from pulps, even though that expectation might need to be revised.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

C. L. Moore on Shambleau

I have a long interest in how writers construct their stories.  It is one thing to listen to an academic or critic discuss the art of writing.  But to hear from the writer herself, in this case Catherine "C. L." Moore, is a special treat.

The following passage by C. L. Moore assumes that you have read her story "Shambleau", published in Weird Tales in 1933 and frequently reprinted elsewhere. Fortunately, for those who haven't, the collection of the same name is January's Puppy of the Month at the Puppy of the Month Book Club, so there is a chance to soon catch up.  And, if the passage wasn't so long, I might have saved it for an entry at that blog.  But, Fair Use being as muddy as it is, I would rather not risk disrupting a group blog if I have made a mistake.  Besides, now I can indulge in a little commentary.

Moore's character-based approach fills in some of the gaps of Dent's master plot formula.  Dent relies on action, external events, and the hero's skill to drive the plot forward.  Moore still uses action, but also uses contrasts of character to not only drive the plot, but also to populate her stories and make her characters stand apart from each other. And from character comes motivations, which provide internal drivers for the plot as opposed to external events.

Also, she states that to be a good writer, you must be an avid reader.  This echoes advice given later by C. S. Lewis, Stephen King, and others.

From "Afterward: On 'Shambleau' and Others," found in The Best of C. L. Moore:
Midway down that yellow page I began fragments remembered from sophomore English at the university. All the choices were made at random. Keats, Browning, Byron— you name it. In the middle of this exercise a line from a poem (by William Morris?) worked itself to the front and I discovered myself typing something about a “red, running figure.” I looked at it a while, my mind a perfect blank, and then shifted mental gears without even adding punctuation to mark the spot, swinging with idiot confidence into the first lines of the story which ended up as “Shambleau.” 
The red, running figure in the poem had been a young witch pursued by soldiers and townspeople in some medieval village. In my story they had perfectly sensible reasons for killing her as soon as possible. 
I sat at the typewriter and heard distant bells ringing somewhere on the backstairs of my mind. The situation was wide open, and with no conscious mental processes whatever I surrendered myself to it and the typewriter. (This is among life’s most luxurious moments— giving the story its head and just keep your fingers moving. They know where they’re going.) 
Unfortunately, you can’t expect your unconscious to carry on for very long unaided. So far I have only promised to reveal where the ideas come from, not the story itself. So stay with me, pay close attention, and I’ll see what I can do. 
First, you have to read a great deal of the works you enjoy most. Much of it will be useless. But the trusty unconscious can be relied on to make lots of unseen notes, just in case. Mine did not fail me. 
I couldn’t let my character Shambleau go on running forever, could I? I had the whole scene in hand now— medieval setting, red, running figure, pursuing soldiers and citizens. But then what? 
Obviously she was going to need help— also a foil to set her off effectively and to give the story a shape it didn’t yet have. So Northwest Smith strolled onstage without even a glance my way, perfectly sure of what he was going to do about this. (Northwest Smith? Well, once I had typed a letter to an N. W. Smith, and the name lingered tantalizingly in my mind, waiting for this moment. What would a man named Northwest Smith look like? Be like? Occupy himself with? I soon found out.) 
To complete the triumvirate of lead characters to whom my typewriter introduced me that day long ago, a companion and foil for Smith slouched carelessly into view, thirsting for drink and women. His name was Yarol, and I cannot conceal from you that it is an anagram from the letters in the name of the typewriter I was using. But I like it anyhow.
Here we return to my conviction that you must read enough, enjoy it enough, to absorb unconsciously the structure of the fiction you like best. In this case Shambleau needed help urgently. There wasn’t any yet. The story required a backbone strong enough to support the plot, and Northwest Smith arrived on cue. For contrast with the seemingly helpless fugitive, “Shambleau” needed a strong, tall, romantically steely-eyed male. I think it was along about here my mind got devious and I realized that after his use as a defender was over she might just possibly spring her trap and destroy him. You will note that this gave my still unfledged plot a way to go after the rescue.
So Smith himself was going to need help. Preferably from someone as antithetical to Smith as Smith was to Shambleau. (Who needs two Northwest Smiths?)
Therefore, Yarol. 
And that’s how it all began.
Update:  This quote from the same article further illustrates her approach to writing.
All started out with some wild but malleable idea for which I had to choose a lead character strong enough to play the action against, which is what gives a story form.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

A Short History of Exclusion in SF

Rather than sense of wonder, the primary virtue of mainstream science fiction has been exclusion, or a continued winnowing of topics and media from the writer's toolkit.


1935 - Weird Tales readers revolt against the inclusion of Dr. Satan, an anti-hero with mystical and scientific powers in the vein of the Shadow and Doc Savage.  Excluded from science fiction are the hero pulps.

1937 - John Campbell takes over as editor of Astounding Science Fiction, ushering in the era that would bear his name.  In the drive to root science fiction in plausibility, planetary romance and space opera are excluded from mainstream science fiction.

Early 1950 -  The Futurians attempt their revolt in the desire to move science fiction readership and fandom to the Left.  Their stories championed science fiction as a vehicle to examine social issues, typically at the society level instead of the personal.  Excluded from their science fiction are engineering and heroism.

1960s - The New Wave movement attempted to raise literary quality through the use of soft science fiction.  During this time, a section of the movement attempted to rename the genre to speculative fiction.  Rather that attempting to reunite science fiction, fantasy, and horror into a weird tales genre, these writers instead excluded science itself from science fiction.

1970s - This decade might be called the Crazy Years of publishing.  Through a perfect storm of market forces and legal rulings, the short fiction market, where mainstream science fiction was birthed and once thrived, was replaced by books as the vehicle for science fiction's great conversation.  From now on, short fiction is effectively excluded from the mainstream of science fiction thought.

2000s - Patrick Nielsen Hayden, an editor at TOR, claims that there are too many libertarians in science fiction and seeks to correct this through promoting Left-leaning authors.  Unless you are lucky enough to write for Baen, conservative values and ideas are excluded from science fiction.

2004 - Mundane Science Fiction publishes a manifesto that seeks to remove all speculative technologies from the stories, reducing them to Howells's idea of "stories about the plight of the 'common man,' just living an ordinary existence" but keeping times, technologies, and settings to an immediate near-future.  Mundanes removed any flight of fancy or speculation or even future from science fiction.

2014 - Social Justice Advocates beat the diversity drum, promoting the buying of stories from women, American racial minorities, and the minorities of sexualityIn doing so, they insist that stories must also include said minorities and that readers should stop reading books for white men.  If, by accident of birth, you are white, straight, or male, you are excluded from science fiction. 


What techniques and topics are left to build a sense of wonder with? 

Monday, December 12, 2016

What Happened to Fun?

Which means to excellently educated people, including those who don’t consciously buy into the Marxist vision, finding these “markers” in a book makes the book “good.”  The most piteous tragedy of the oppressed woman is instructional and therefore can be enjoyed, and in fact MUST be enjoyed, even if you doze multiple times in the course of reading it, and end up downing three pots of coffee just to finish the novel… and even if you sometimes don’t finish the novel.  You know these are novels your literature professors would approve of, and therefore are sure it is a “good” book. 
This vision collides at a fundamental level with that most of the Sad Puppies supporters have.  THAT vision is that reading is a ludic endeavor.  It exists to be enjoyed.  We are not interested in whether it advances the cause of social progress, the cause of social retrogress or no cause at all.  We don’t believe that the purpose of literature is to be useful, but to be enjoyed. 
We think “good” in a novel or story depends on how deeply it moves us, how much it stays with us, what impact it has on us and our life.
That reading is something that is to be enjoyed may not seem like such a controversial statement, but for almost 150 years, the idea has come under attack.  These critics insist that there must be some other good to writing.  In most cases, this other good has a political end to it.  The Futurians and their heirs, when pushing for a more social minded science fiction before trying to write science fiction without any science to it, follow the tradition of William Dean Howells, editor of the Atlantic Monthly in the 1870s.

Howells crusaded against the fantastic.  In "On Writing as a Fantasist", Dave Wolverton tells how:
[Howells] proscribed writing about “interesting” characters–such as famous historical figures or creatures of myth. He decried exotic settings–places such as Rome or Pompeii, and he denounced tales that told of uncommon events. He praised stories that dealt with the everyday, where “nobody murders or debauches anybody else; there is no arson or pillage of any sort; there is no ghost, or a ravening beast, or a hair-breadth escape, or a shipwreck, or a monster of self-sacrifice, or a lady five thousand years old in the course of the whole story.” He denounced tales with sexual innuendo. He said that instead he wanted to publish stories about the plight of the “common man,” just living an ordinary existence. 
Howells did so because "he was a socialist, and he was trying to encourage–nay, dare I say bribe–other authors into writing propaganda for him."  Rather than making his proscriptions based on "how literature really worked; he tried instead to make it serve his political agenda."  And in serving agenda first, reading could no longer be about fun, but about message.  

Since Howells edited the Atlantic Monthly, one of the highest paid markets for fiction, his views quickly spread through the American writing community.  Appealing to his prejudices became the gateway to a payday, and the prestige of the Atlantic Monthly set the expectations of the high end market from that point on.  It is no accident that the writers of the exotic and the fantastic found their home in the pulps, and not the more prestigious and lucrative slicks.  Howells's editorial descendants left no other place for such tales.  They promoted message and propaganda with money and prestige.  And so the idea that reading is fun got regulated to a guilty pleasure.  In these days, 150 years removed from Howells, where the foes of escapism would deem every book you read a political act and a vector for a political disease message, mere enjoyment is now a sin.

From Campbell to the Futurians, New Wave to sf as speculative fiction, and Minimalism to the current push for Great Social Justice, every literary movement in science fiction that attempted to gain some of the prestige of the literary mainstream has done it by excluding elements of the fantastic from the writer's palette.  Each of these movements has also attempted to move the viewpoints of readers and fandom towards a given political goal.  Despite being a genre in declared pursuit of the sense of wonder, it has repeatedly needed to relearn that before you can educate, you first must entertain. This idea, expressed most recently by various Sad Puppies, has been voiced before, including by New Wave author Harlan Ellison, thirty, forty, and even fifty years prior.  Yet every time science fiction forgets about fun in the pursuit of propaganda, print sales have dropped, as they are doing now.

So once again, we must learn the basics of writing, starting with the first lesson:

Fiction is supposed to be fun.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Time is Ticking...

It's been said that writers compete for the Average Joe's beer money, and Joe like his beer.  I've seen this attributed to Heinlein by some and Pournelle by others.  Today, as Peter Grant talks about the behind-the-scenes of his newest release in his Maxwell Saga, Stoke the Flames Higher, he echoes this sentiment:

I’ve been saying for some time that we’re not competing for consumers’ reading dollars;  we’re competing for their entertainment dollars.  They can buy entertainment in many forms, from going to the movies, to buying a DVD or video game, to going out to eat, to whatever.  We need to provide something so compelling that they choose to spend their dollars on our books, rather than something of greater interest or value to them.  Also, because economic times are hard, there are fewer entertainment dollars available, and consumers are seeking to spend them in the most cost-effective way possible.
I'll add an extra dimension to both sayings: time.  Joe loves his Call of Duty, and Jane, her Facebook. And, as politics moves from a spectator sport to one of the full-contact variety, Twitter gains an appeal.  Writers will need to create something to draw Joe and Jane away from their entertainments of choice.  Pulp has an advantage here, as the exoticism and action of the pulps, no matter what topic or genre, have held the attention of readers for decades. 

One catch with time, however, is picking a story length.  Short stories, once the mainstay of fiction, have been looked down by some as not providing enough story to justify the time.  Strangely enough, this attitude even extends to the slush pile of fan fiction, where the only cost to the reader is time.  Likewise, epics full of doorstopper books of endless pages can be imposing, scaring away readers.  As the ebook market matures, there has been a rebirth of interest in the novella and short novel (30,000 to 60,000 words), or the average length of a hero pulp novel.


I recommend the Maxwell Saga.  A mixture of the western and the space juvenile, it offers a rare example of a compelling straight arrow who, through his competence and hard work, starts from nothing yet grows successful in his profession as a naval officer.  For the action addicts, the Maxwell Saga is more space opera than Horatio Alger story.  For fans of the exotic, Steve Maxwell's continued dealings with the Chinese Triads have become the most compelling thread throughout the five book series.  Start with Take the Star Road.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

A Confession

Jon Mollison at Seagull Rising writes:
Grab me by the neck, push me into the stall, and threaten me with a humiliation shampoo and toilet water rinse, and I’ll admit to being a member of the Pulp Revolution.  But I may not be a very good member, because I’m not all that interested in which branch of the literary renaissance you want to stick me on.  Granted, I have more in common with the guys really digging into the heart and soul of the pulp attitude, and that crew shows up in my social media circles more than any other.  But I fear too much spent time defining and pigeonholing writers and works will prove to be counter-productive.

You’re reading words written by a guy who participates in the Puppy of the Month Book Club – that alone should tell you that I’m not so much interested in reading the ‘right’ group of writers as I am in reading the ‘high quality’ group of writers.  It doesn’t matter which of the publishing revolutions the book stems from.  It could be pulp revolution, superversive, Sad Puppy, Rabid Puppy, or none of the above.  If it’s a fun read full of adventure, exploration, action, and mystery (or any combination of the above), then it’s for me.
Generally, this is my attitude, too.  Don't get me wrong, I revel in the comparative reading of genre and movement because I enjoy indulging in amateur lit-crit.  And, one day, I intend to eliminate the word "failed" from the "failed writer" description I occasionally use.   Hopefully, I can approach the level of work that Jon Mollison and Schuyler Hernstrom are currently writing at.  But at the end of the day, I'm a reader of science fiction, fantasy, and other weird tales.  And I'm pissed off.  

Publishing and even fandom has been holding out on the good stuff.  Whether it is one clique of WorldCon writers recommending each other and only each other in a marketing circle jerk or the repeated cries from academics that fifteen-year old stories are too tough for new readers, publishing is only interested in the short game of the now.  Only on blogs and message boards, the more remote the better, do you find fans whispering to each other about long out-of-print books that they used to enjoy.  I didn't find Little Fuzzy, Bridge of Birds, or Dumarest on the bookshelves of Barnes & Noble, after all.  And I am grateful for the ebook boom because I can now find stories like these, written by authors who love storytelling as opposed to authors who use storytelling to love themselves.

Whether those suggestions come from Baen Barflies, Blue Sci-Fi, Human Wave, Superversive, and now the Pulp Revolution doesn't matter.  I want to read good stories.  But what each of these groups have done is widen my exposure to neglected authors and stories, past and present.  Pulp Revolution interests me the most as it is the one group intent on delving into the murkiest origins of weird tales, the maligned entertainment driven days of the short story.  But a good story is where you find it.  And I can no longer easily find them published by the mainstream SFWA-WorldCon-Clarion crowd.

Pulp Radio Wednesday: Quiet Please - "Wear The Dead Man's Coat"

Monday, December 5, 2016

Jeff Duntemann reconsiders the pulps

Recently, over at Sarah Hoyt's blog, she discussed reading an old pulp story, "The Green Men of Greypeck" by Festus Pragnell, and the lessons she drew from what she found to be a below-average pulp of questionable-to-the-point-of-silliness worldbuilding:
On the other hand, I also realized why I read these back to back as a kid, even the ones that made me roll my eyes and go “oh, this is so stupid” or “Bud, your politics reek.”  They caught you.  They did their job first and preached at you second.  (And sometimes incoherently, improbably, and in a few paragraphs.) Which I’m cool with.
So, should you read ["The Green Men of Greypeck"]?  If you wish.  It’s on Amazon.  It’s readable.  Do I recommend you pattern your writing on it?  Uh… no.
But you might want to look at how he sets up a beginning with a man accused of his brother’s murder, then drags you through a plot that doesn’t stop.
Jeff Duntemann joined the comments and brought up a trio of his blogposts describing his own rediscovery of the pulps.  Duntemann is an old science fiction hand who has recently returned to the genre (I recommend his The Cunning Blood), and his insights, taken from railroad pulps, help highlight both the history and the technique of pulp writing.

From Part 1:
How bad were the Golden Age pulps, really? Thirty-odd years ago I had a few SF pulps from the late 1930s, and while I’m not sure where they ended up, I remember the cognitive dissonance that arose from knowing that I should despise them–while in fact enjoying them a lot. Reading them was a little like watching old B-movies like The Crawling Eye: You know damned well they weren’t literature, but somehow they kept your attention and made the time pass..which is exactly what they were created to do. 
Few people–especially those under 40–realize just how broad a phenomenon the pulps were, and how small a part of it SF actually was. Beyond SF and fantasy there were sports pulps, many subspecies of crime/detective pulps, adventure pulps, romance pulps, aviation pulps, western pulps, railroad pulps, and doubtless others that I’ve never heard of. The SF pulps were better than I’d been led to believe, and I started wondering recently whether the SF pulps were outliers, or whether the pulps as a phenomenon and even a literary form have been slandered out of proportion by the ultrasophisticated artsy elite.
Thirty-odd years from the date of writing, 2010, would put his first reading of the pulps in the 1970s, during the transition of the field -and fandom- from short-story based magazines to books. The new book editors were not schooled in the pulp and magazine history of the genre, remembering only the novels of the late Golden Age and the New Wave.  But while Duntemann's first reading of the pulps reflects post-periodical attitudes to the pulps that last to this day, he shows just how ubiquitous the pulps were, sharing stories in an entire host on genres, of which detective pulps, hero pulps, and weird tales were just a fraction of.

From Part 2:
In a way very much like the Tom Swift books I read in the early 60s, the railroad pulp stories (and I’m guessing all pulp stories) were created to help people imagine themselves in certain roles and in certain situations. The people (thinly) depicted in the stories were like halloween costumes, in a way, to be put on by people who wanted to imagine themselves as railroad engineers and brakemen, or perhaps remember being railroad engineers and brakemen years ago.
This should be obvious, and it may be obvious to you, but I’m amazed at how some people just don’t understand why pulp fiction was ever popular. A lot of people would consider the railroad pulps bad fiction because they focus on technology (railroad tech, such that it was in 1935) rather than inner conflict and growth. Swap in “spaceflight” for “railroads” and you’ll have pulp SF of the same era. The railroad pulps had their share of adventure and fistfights and gunplay, but I was amazed at how close the action stayed to the tracks. And just as superb writers like Robert A. Heinlein stepped aside from the action to teach lessons on orbital dynamics, the railroad pulp authors sometimes taught lessons about their beloved technology. Read this excerpt from “When Destiny Calls” by E. S. Dellinger, the cover story in the August 1935 issue. It’s dense, but if you love trains you’ll understand the frightening energy contained in a boiler full of steam (enough to lift a 100-ton locomotive two and a half miles into the air) as well as how the devastating boiler explosions common during the steam era actually happened.
 It is important to remember that the events of the time inform many of the stories.  As Duntemann suggests:
 The firms that published pulp fiction knew exactly what their customers wanted: a sense of being somewhere else, somewhere vivid and colorful, somewhere better and more exciting than a boarding house during the Great Depression, after a twelve-hour day at a mindless job in a sweltering factory that paid a quarter an hour. 
However, the times also created the type of stories told as well.  The lawlessness of Prohibition and the Depression created such a outcry against crime that manifested itself in the vigilante justice of the Shadow, the Avenger, and Amusement, Inc..

Also of interest to the characterization of the pulps is the strong setting and events that accompanied it.  C. S. Lewis, in his "On Science Fiction", noted:  
Every good writer knows that the more unusual the scenes and events of his story are, the slighter, the more ordinary, the more typical his persons should be. Hence Gulliver is a commonplace little man and Alice a commonplace little girl. If they had been more remarkable they would have wrecked their books. 
Many pulps were written with this in mind.  

In Part Three, Duntemann ponders about the demise of the pulps and offers these writing lessons:
The pulps were about specific cultures. They were tightly linked to a time and a place and a generally understood cultural subtext. This was even true of early pulp SF, much of which might be characterized as “Depression-era Chicago on Mars.”
Characters were intended as costumes to be worn by readers, not fully realized individuals to be admired on their own merits as independent men and women. A lot of people don’t understand this, and many still won’t admit it. Make characters too vividly fluky and original, and readers will have a hard time identifying with them. 
As a corollary to the above: Concepts, settings, and action were as important as characters, and much more vivid. Again, it’s the difference between imagining yourself driving a fast car and imagining someone else driving it. 
The pulps were fun. They understood and accepted their role as immersive entertainment. They were not equipped to be literature and didn’t try to be literature.
While the emphasis on action echoes that made in Misha Burnett's Five Pillars of Pulp Revival, Duntemann adds setting and concept to the pulp stew.  It is no coincidence that many pulp and noir stories use the City, be it New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, or Los Vegas, as a character in and of itself.  And a review of Moorcock's Thrre Day Novel recalls how much emphasis he placed on getting the imagery right for the story.  Perhaps a sixth pillar should be a sense of the exotic.

While Duntemann does not answer whether or not the pulps were slandered in this series, his posts are a welcome addition to the Pulp Revival discussion.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Thanksgiving Mini-Reviews

I've been travelling, both on business and vacation, which explains the light posting here for the last couple weeks.  But while posting was light, I had plenty of time to read.  Here are some quick reviews of the books that I read during my travels.


Architect of Aeons, by John C. Wright - The fourth book of the Count to the Eschaton sequence wakes Menelaus Montrose and Ximen Del Azarchel after the invading Hyades civilization collects the peoples of Earth, sending their captives to forcibly colonize worlds.  To ensure the survival of the colonists and Man as a collection of species, they must speed the growth of the AI construct inside Jupiter and risk enslaving the worlds of Man to the Jupiter Brain.  This is ambitious space opera on a galactic scale across millennia of time.  Read. This. Series.

Battle Cruiser, by B. V. Larson - Larson has been crowned as one of the Big Three of Indie Mil SF, outselling many of legacy publishing's mil sf masters.  Battle Cruiser instead is a space opera with a hero in the military instead of the military as hero of most mil SF.  It is a decent beach read and an improvement over his Star Force series.

Comes the Destroyer, by David vanDyke - The tenth book in the Plagues Wars series is probably the wrong place to introduce people to it as the series constantly changes genres, starting as a bioterror tale that goes post-apocalyptic and then full-bore mil-sf in the vein of John Ringo's Legacy of the Aldenata.  While I enjoyed the earlier bioterror and post-apocalypse entries more, vanDyke crafts a page-turner that kept my interest, and I want to find out how the series ends.  And there's five more books and at least one more genre shift to go...

Set to Kill by Declan Finn - At times both a love letter and a Dear John letter to convention fandom, Set to Kill brings a Ringoesque hypercompetent mercenary security professional to Dragon Wyvern Con, where Sad Tearful Puppies have been threatened.  Best described as action film meets sci-fi convention murder mystery, it works best for those who have been caught up in the recent incineration of the Hugos or for those in the Liberty/Dragon Con crowd who can see through the thin character disguises.  Guaranteed to piss off the WorldCon crowd.  As a story, though, it's prequel, It was Only on Stun, is a better example of the convention murder mystery.

Swan Knight's Son, by John C. Wright - As it is the December Puppy of the Month, keep an eye on the Puppy of the Month Club blog for my thoughts.  I will say that I found it to be a quick read and a worthy addition to Wright's growing bibliography.

Thief of Time, by Terry Pratchett - I loved reading this when it first came out, and the radio play with Harlan Ellison as Wen the Eternally Surprised is still one of my favorite audiobooks.  However, during this read through, I found a hollowness to Pratchett's work that I failed to notice when Discworld was a bigger part of my reading life.  The scaffold marks on the humor and plot are more evident this time around, and much of the action is anti-heroic in nature.  Susan now gets old fast, and is only a dye job and problem glasses away from a modern internet scold.  However, the best part of the book is still the Monks of Time, aka the Men in Saffron.

Thune's Vision, by Schuyler Hernstrom - This is a collection of sword and sorcery stories that I heartily recommend to readers wanting a fun read and writers who want to learn their craft.  As it was the November Puppy of the Month, Frisky Pagan, Jon, and I all wrote in depth on it here.

The Vindication of Man, by John C. Wright - The fifth book in the Count to the Eschaton, it starts with Rania's imminent return from the M3 globular cluster and the liberation of Man from service to the Hyades cluster.  John C. Wright then throws a toolbox full of wrenches into the mix, shaking up the concepts of reality that Menelaus and Ximen used to steer history by.  It sags in the beginning as the stage is set on the planet Torment, but takes off like a roller-coaster as soon as the ornery Texan comes out of hiding.

Who Fears the Devil?, by Manly Wade Wellman - Probably my favorite collection of Appendix N stories, this features John the Balladeer who walks through Appalachia with his silver-stringed guitar, collecting folk songs and stories from the people he meets and squaring off against the witch men, haints, and haunts that afflict them.  Fans of D&D will see an inspiration for the Bard class, while fans of weird tales will find mountain men and women, as well as their beliefs and traditions, treated with respect instead of the sneering at hillbillies more commonly seen in the publishing industry.  Potentially a future Puppy of the Month.