Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The Cargo Cult of New Pulp Media

Those of us laboring in the trenches to drag science fiction and/or fantasy (sf/f) literature onto a new track spent decades lost in a desert wasteland with only the occasional Cryptonomicon or Eifelheim oasis to slake our thirst.  And even those novels, great as they are, can't hope to satisfy the urge for adventurous fun that the pulps and their immediate descendants still provide.

Many of us experimented with small house publishers producing contemporary attempts at modern pulp sources only to find their writing fell into the same traps and pitfalls as those that had ensnared the big publishing houses.  Sure, they wrote stories that tried to emulate the pulps, with 1920s slang and fast action and a little weirdness thrown in for its own sake.  But these did little to slake a thirst for the sort of pulp feeling that Misha Burnett so ably describes on his blog. 

The elevator pitch for Mischa's post is that the five pillars of pulp writing are Action, Impact, Moral Peril, Romance, and Mystery.  Being the clever fellow that he is, Mischa includes a caveat that the list is neither authoritative nor definitive.  My summary of that position is that pulp is like porn, it's hard to define, but I know it when I see it.  It's a fairly broad spectrum of media that meets a few important criteria, no single one of which is mandatory.  A pulp mystery might lack action, but still feel pulpy.  The tale of one man struggling to escape the pull of the sun's gravity has little room for romance, but can still contain action, impact, mystery, and moral peril - suicide is an immoral act, after all.

Most of the more modern attempts at pulp writing emphasize the pillars of Action, Impact, and Mystery, with a dash or Romance, but include only the barest hint of Moral Peril.  Unfortunately, it's that last one that really lends weight to the rest.  An immoral hero with no code who triumphs...just because...or to save others for external reasons, lacks the gravity of a Batman or Superman honor bound to capture villains rather than kill them. 

Note that the villain doesn't have to struggle to honor his code - moral quandaries can be fun, but most heroes have a code they honor and that's the end of the story.  The question is never, "should I break my code to score the win", but, "how do I score the win without breaking my code?"  That's an important distinction.  Heroes who know right from wrong, and act unhesitatingly to do the former rather than the latter, are compelling and attractive in ways their more spineless and weaselly brethren are not.

To take one forgettable example, a few years back, I read a series of superhero novels set in a vaguely steampunk setting.  Although it featured a lot of action and impact, the moral peril was presented solely in terms of god-like supermen moping about and refusing to save the day because of guilt or some other feeble excuse.  They weren't heroes who fought, they were angsty hipsters (beards and all) suffering from the crushing weight of responsibility placed upon their shoulders.  These were characters who faced moral peril, and failed - not heroes.  The fact that I can't remember the book's title or a single character's name speaks volumes about the quality of its writing and plot.

At the time, the explanation for the book's failure escaped me.  I didn't notice that the lack of Moral Peril left the book as a hollow shell.  In the words of the greatest film critic of our day, I didn't notice it, but my brain sure did.

Which brings us full circle to most modern attempts at recreating the feel of pulp writing.

Whoops, first we need to go back to Melanesia in the early 20th century.  The natives there watched white men show up, build runways and aerial antennas, and then accept gifts from the sky.  Clearly, they reasoned, clearing landing strips and building rotating circles pleased the gods, resulting in gifts from the sky.  They lacked the deeper understanding of things like radar waves, supply chains, and logistics that would have allowed their crude attempts to bear the same fruit as those of the newcomers.

Most modern day pulp writers are like those islanders.  They look back to the Bracketts, Hammetts, Howards, and Burroughses, and enact the same ritual writing, but lack the understanding of the deeper underpinnings that give the Loreleis, Contintenal Ops, Conans, and John Carters such emotional punch.

The writers in the latest Pulp Revolution - the Hernstroms, Burnetts, Niemeiers, (and hopefully Nyanzis*) - are the first ones I've encountered that aren't simple engaging in superficial copying of the old masters, but build their tales on the firmer ground of Moral Peril, and they are the first ones that I've actively sought out more, more, more from.

I'll keep looking for other authors that stand on the five pillars, naturally, but it's nice to know somebody out there gets it.

* Rawle Nyanzi has been writing on his survey of Appendix N works from the perspective of a millennial.  He recently announced that his survey was slowed by the writing of his own novel.  It will be interesting to see how somebody born another two or three decades removed from the pulps' original publishing date approaches writing pulps of his own.

1 comment:

  1. Hey, thanks for linking me!

    I've come to like this pulp stuff a lot, especially the sci-fi/fantasy varieties of it. The way I see it, there's no reason fantasy can't have scientific elements in it -- it just seemed like a natural extension of the fantasy milieu to me.

    And you're right; it makes more sense if there is some kind of moral code. I think that preachy 90s-era cartoons and sappy Disney movies had made moral codes seem "uncool," so artists jettison them in favor of moral ambiguity, which they are told is "grown up" and "real," unlike Disneyfied kids' stuff.

    For example, I remember an ad for anime VHS tapes (The Best of Anime II) that showcased a lot of violence and specifically disparaged classic cartoons like the Looney Tunes and Mickey Mouse, then went on to insult American animation in general as fit only for children, while anime was "grown up." And at the time, I ate it up.

    While I had moved away from such immature thinking about animation long ago, reading Appendix N showed me that a tale with some kind of morality did not have to be a preachy mess with bad characterization. It actually gave the tales feeling. Moral ambiguity is not the be-all and end-all.