Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Sad Puppies and Pulp Revolution

John C. Wright had this to say on the SuperversiveSF Livestream:

Jeffro Johnson is to this generation what Lin Carter was to mine: the guy who went back and found the old forgotten wonders… and introduced them to the modern audience. That’s why I know books from the 40’s and the 60’s and from the 1890’s is because of Lin Carter. The reason why anyone knows these books that were absolutely the staple reading of the 1970’s is because of Jeffro Johnson.

Now granted, I give rave review the guy’s books. I consider him to be the best living fantasy and science fiction author and have said so. We both work for the same publisher and are on the same side in the culture wars. So the guy is completely and utterly biased.

But he’s also right.

And it is the strangest thing, really. Just last year it seemed like I had just one reader. This year, that one reader went off and put together a short fiction magazine… with the express purpose of bringing back the sort of fiction I’d been writing about. And it didn’t stop there, either. It was absolutely uncanny watching it unfold before my eyes, but there are other authors that were in conversation with my book reviews.  Because of them we went from “nobody writes like this anymore” to “these people are picking up where the old masters left off” in a year’s time.

The most interesting thing about surveying science fiction and fantasy history going back to Lord Dunsany and Edgar Rice Burroughs…? It made people want to read. It made people want to write. It made people want to create. And culture being downstream of criticism, it had a noticeable influence on how they went about it. This was unimaginable last year… but undeniable today.

There’s another aspect of this that is less obvious. As Sarah Hoyt wrote over on Mad Genius Club:

We’re still in the middle of a culture war.  And one of the things the — for lack of a better term — other side has is bully pulpits.  Now most of them are in the old paper media, and they’re not really read by fans of the field.  BUT still, they have magazines that publish recommended lists, and interviews with authors, and turn the spotlight on work they think should be read.

We have nothing like that.

That isn’t the case. You can be forgiven for not noticing, of course– this only really started to kick into high gear in the past several months, after all.

Behold:

There’s your spotlight right there. (See Sensor Sweep for highlights.)

And while I don’t speak for these gentlemen, I’d like to point out that the thing that ties them all together is their capacity to judge science fiction and fantasy on the basis of its canon and to discuss that canon without falling into the tired cadence of sneering accusations of sexism, racism, colonialism and whatever other ism the fake literary critics can come up with.

That is the way forward. And none of this would be happening if not for the conversations that sprang up surrounding the Puppy Wars of the past couple years.

The Pulp Revolution Spinner Rack II

Another issue of Cirsova is here!

But face it. Double-sized spectacular that it is, the truth is… you want more. And you can have it, too. Because I’m telling you, our spinner rack runneth over:

(See my complete reviews at the Castalia House blog at each of those links!)

Science fiction before 1980 was suprisingly diverse, and I think this lineup reflects how we are beginning to recapture that. Marina Fontaine’s entry presents a dystopian near-future that is reminiscent of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in High Castle. (Trigger warning: it is noticably less subversive.) Donald Jacob Uitvlugt brings old style swords & sorcery, but… with anthropomorphic lion-people. L.E. Buis has straight ahead Campbellian science fiction. Jon Mollison does the one where the knight kills the dragon– but with the only believable father/daughter relationship you’re liable to come across. And finally… John C. Wright continues the series that takes every distinctive I’d noted in my survey of pulp fantasy and serves them up all at once!

This resurgence of old style science fiction and fantasy looks a lot closer to what you’d see in the canon for several reasons. One: fans of the good stuff have found each other and are comparing notes! Two: the advent of inexpensive publishing combined means that what worked in the original pulp revolution was liable to be tried in today’s marketplace. Three: the extraordinary influence of a clique of authors and editors centered in the New York publishing scene is now irrelevant.

If you’ve been underwhelmed by short works in the big name magazines, the market correction you’ve been waiting for has arrived. You’re not going to see a handful of bloated series that never end or else that quickly end up with that tepid contractually obligated feel. No, you’re going to see dozens of talents writing shorter works… with the best of them getting encores… and the best of those being turned into fix-ups. This isn’t just how a community is forged. This is the sort approach that produced the best and most recognizable works of the genre.

It will do so again. Why? Because human nature has not changed in a hundred years. Neither has the creative process. And it’s already begun. Just last year it seemed like there was hardly anything good to read. Now…? I can barely keep up! There’s never been a better time to be a fan of science fiction and fantasy. Between the rediscovery of the canon and the end of the gatekeepers’ stranglehold on the field, anything can happen.

This is an awesome collection of stories that I think put to shame the sort of thing you’ll find in The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy anthologies. Check ’em out!

No, this Project Really Wasn’t for the Benefit of Gamers

I really need to point out just how surprising this turn of events really is. And I know I keep saying this, but as the narrative shifts… people are going to gradually lose the capacity to imagine what things were really like before.

As I worked through my Appendix N survey, there was never any doubt that I was a game blogger. Even if I started a post in the overall thrust of something focused on literary criticism, I would often pivot back to gaming somehow. Consequently, I would get feedback along the lines of, “hey, this is a great thing you’re doing for gamers.” And, “this is going to be a fantastic resource for role-players.” Also, “this stuff has no place in the Hugo shortlist; there are plenty of other awards for gaming-related writing. Won’t you please step aside so a legitimate sff fan can take your place…?”

Not all of that was intentionally condescending. But it was. The subtext was, “hey… you’re pretty big stuff for a game blogger, but you’re not anything special out here in the book scene, you turkey.” Well, if all of this was for the gamers, then where are they…? Far from showing up in droves, you can actually look back and see where popular game bloggers quietly dropped out of the discussion. One game blogger this year actually deleted his Appendix N posts when he found out that this was a fairly controversial topic. Some gamers that broach the subject write as if there are hordes of zealots roving the internet refusing to read anything that’s not on the Appendix N list. Oddly enough, they fail to mention any names. It’s bizarre!

So where is the action right now…? It’s with people that want to piece together what the science fiction and fantasy canon really is in contrast to what we’ve been told that it is. It’s with people that want talk about old books without the usual politically correct framing. But most of all, it’s with people that want to read and create new short fiction in the style of the old masters. Yes, people do drop back into a bit of game blogging when the topic warrants it. It’s almost as if gaming and gaming history are now a first class element of literary criticism. But that’s a only very small part of what’s happening here.

My Appendix N posts simply weren’t written for gamers. You’re not going to see them write about it or link to it for the most part. Just why that is really isn’t that interesting, really. What is interesting is that no one saw this coming. Gamers were pretty well done exploring the implications of Appendix N several years ago. The real audience for my Appendix N posts were a group of people that nobody could imagine even existing.

How a Handful of Game Bloggers Changed SFF

There’s a great P. Alexander Interview over at Nya Reads. This bit was of course of especial interest to me:

I do need to give a special shout-out to Jeffro Johnson, though. I’d been a fan of his gaming content for some time, and his delve into the books listed in the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide’s Appendix N is what really sparked my curiosity to check out a lot of the authors with whom I’m enamored today. He’s offered a lot of independent support for this project, and I’m thrilled to have him as a regular featured columnist.

Naturally I am grateful for the mention. Cirsova is a very, very big deal. It’s going to be read by all kinds of people that have no idea that it had anything to do with either game blogging or the unearthing of the science fiction and fantasy canon.

For those interested in the gory details… what exactly is happening right now and why…?

  • I started talking about old books with an emphasis on what was so awesome about them– and without the usual snide remarks about how backward the authors and their times were.
  • This simple action inspired a modest number of people to go out and read these now obscure authors. Many of them were blown away by how good the stories were.
  • An ongoing conversation grew out of this through which a reconstruction of the “lost” science fiction and fantasy canon began to emerge. A lot of genre buffs admitted that their view of the field had been terribly incomplete up until then.
  • In the face of a nearly unanimous conviction that short fiction was a waste of time, P. Alexander went and put out a magazine, thereby becoming a modern day pulp editor.
  • People went nuts.
  • Daddy Warpig pointed out that there was a literary movement forming around this stuff.
  • The literary movement got a name: Pulp Revolution.
  • This was followed by a proliferation of blogs through which the conversation grew even more.

Okay, so what really happened…?

I took a distillation of the culture of the old school D&D blogging scene and drug it in front of non-gaming science fiction and fantasy readers. (A great many people took the time to explain to me that this was an utterly asinine idea.) A good year or so later, P. Alexander produced the counterpart to Fight On! Magazine in this context. A wider book blogging culture then emerged that mirrors that of the Old School Revival of the rpg blogging scene from several years back. And just like in that old scene, people are really on fire to create…!

Let me tell you, this is mind blowing. Seriously, go back and read the book blogs from before all this. It wasn’t like this. I’ve gone from being the voice of one crying in the wilderness to being unable to keep up with the discussion. That something like this could even happen is like being in an old story. I can’t wait to see what happens next…!

Giants of the Imagination

If you take some time to read what the early rpg designers had read, you will see that they almost compulsively lifted material from pulp and new wave writers. The most surprising thing about this is the extent to which they passed over the grand masters of Campbellian science fiction. The authors that are synonymous with the field seemed to hold not one iota of attraction or influence to them. Mike Mearls thinks almost entirely in terms of television and movies. These things had a negligible impact on the first wave of rpg designers. For them it was short stories and novellas and short novels from dozens of authors that were primary. There was no “big three” for them: they read everything they could get their hands on.

Looking for Asimov and Heinlein and Clarke in your seventies rpgs…? You’re just not going to find them– not, at least, in the games that got a lot of play. Those guys might be synonymous with science fiction today, but they had very little impact on what actually drove peoples’ imaginations then. Compared to guys like Jack Vance, E. C. Tubb, and Jerry Pournelle they were insignificant.

Read them for yourself and you’ll see: the authors that inspired the rpg designers in the seventies don’t just provide an unparalleled entertainment value. They are also a perfect fit for tabletop gaming and will change the way they you view both science fiction and science fiction gaming.

For more on this, see my posts over at the Castalia House blog:

And as always, please support my researches in to rpg and sff history by purchasing your paperbacks through the Amazon links on the book images you see here.