Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

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Category Archives: Pulp Revolution

Barsoom and Pulp Revolution on Inappropriate Characters

Inappropriate Characters is a new youtube series on tabletop games featuring some of the guys from the scene that are most likely to take flack from the culture police. Appendix N and the Pulp Revolution get mentioned in the inaugural segment during the Barsoom discussion– it’s at the 20 minute mark and runs for about ten minutes if you want to catch that. But hey… why not live large, put on a pot of coffee, and kick back with the whole thing? It’s a good show!

One of the points that come up is that Edgar Rice Burrough’s Barsoom stories are the gold standard for science fantasy adventure within the PulpRev™. That’s not quite how I’d put it.

Coming at this from a historical angle, if you do a survey of fantasy and science fiction from over the course of the 20th century, what you’re going to see just how tremendously influential Edgar Rice Burroughs was. It’s astonishing. There is a sixty year period where Edgar Rice Burroughs set the tone to such an extent, that he was basically the model for how fantasy and science fiction should be done. Look even at the second wave authors like Jack Vance, Leigh Brackett, Michael Moorcock, and many others– they all going their careers off the ground by emulating Burroughs.

In 1973 when Gary Gygax sat down to write the introduction to the original edition of Dungeons & Dragons, this is what he said:

These rules are strictly fantasy. Those wargamers who lack imagination, those who don’t care for Burroughs’ Martian adventures where John Carter is groping through black pits, who feel no thrill upon reading Howard’s Conan saga, who do not enjoy the de Camp & Pratt fantasies or Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser pitting their swords against evil sorceries will not be likely to find DUNGEONS and DRAGONS to their taste. But those whose imaginations know no bounds will find that these rules are the answer to their prayers.

It’s no accident that Burroughs is the first fantasy author to be mentioned there. It’s also no accident that you see Burrough’s mark on each of the most enduring comic book, tabletop gaming, and Hollywood blockbuster franchises.

The idea of the Pulp Revolution isn’t so much to– as the RPGPundit puts it– set up Burroughs as some kind of sacred cow. The point is to embrace the reality of what people genuinely find to be the most inspiring and thrilling from across science fiction and fantasy history. (Hint: it isn’t “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”.) And the point is to extend the range of your creative palette by taking a look back at what actually worked back in those dark ages before 1980. There’s so much social and political pressure against doing just that, this has become a bizarrely subversive act.

But it’s also a lot of fun.

If you’d like an example of how this is all playing out, I would point you to Cirsova Magazine issue number five, which has a story by Schuyler Hernstrom that just picked up a Planetary Award. Check it out!

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“The person responsible for making the things you really want to see is you.”

Here’s one of the luminaries of the OSR throwing down the gauntlet to a very familiar complaint:

Things that I believe that will make everybody hate me, part XVII:

1. The very purpose of identifying a “community” is to recognize some specific difference from the general population. The very definition of a “community” must exclude most people from it for it to even be a community.

2. If you think the OSR is too straight/white/male making too much straight/white/male stuff, well, even if that was 100% correct… where’s your supplement? Adventure? Version of The Rules?

Every one of us in the OSR had to decide that something that we wanted wasn’t being given to us, so we made it ourselves. And each of us continues to do our own thing. If you think that’s lacking in some way or another, that’s not our responsibility, it’s your opportunity.

The person responsible for making the things you really want to see is you. Embarrass us with your riches. We can’t stop you. In fact, we’re waiting for it. And you. Really. Step on up.

You know… if “step on up” is the answer when you’re sort of a niche of a niche in a scene that’s already a niche group… then how much more would it apply to a supposedly massive silent majority that’s perpetually put off by the social justice bias of Hollywood, publishing, and television?

Pulp Revolution and Winning

Mean things have been said!

But was saying mean things right back good enough? Not this time!

Jesse Abraham Lucus explains why:

Turns out there’s been a bit of a kerfuffle on Jeffro’s blog. Commenter with the username “Groffin” has laid down some harsh criticism of the movement. What stands out to me about Groffin’s comment, poking out from between the blackpill, is this:

And for all your glorification of the insular and self-aggrandizing indie-literature circuit, you have no minds of comparable skill or prestige, and will not for years and years if ever.

That hits me where it hurts. We don’t have writers like that. I’m far more optimistic than Groffin about our prospects, but the road to greatness is long and hard, and we don’t get there just by saying we’re getting there.

“We don’t have writers like that.”

Hey, speak for yourself, guy. I sure as heck do. And I’m happy to name names, too.

If we can take it for granted that the past forty years has been a veritable Dark Age for science fiction and fantasy, then having P. Alexander’s Cirsova magazine has been an absolute godsend. Has it come close to the very best of the Weird Tales era? No one that I know of has argued that. But I believe he can go toe to toe with some of the better works in Andrew J. Offutt’s Swords Against Darkness series. More recently he has managed to go further and acquire stories that are on par with the better efforts you could find in Planet Stories.

You’d rather have the next H. P. Lovecraft? Well maybe he hasn’t arrive yet. But Misha Burnett‘s New Wave style handling of the Great Old One’s oeuvre  sure did manage to raise the bar on what I expect today’s short fiction authors.

Who has managed to capture some of the more thrilling qualities of Jack Vance and Robert E. Howard? Schuyler Hernstrom, hands down. Who has succeeded in imbuing his stories with the more compelling aspects of Lord Dunsany, C. S. Lewis, and 1930s space opera? John C. Wright. Who has diligently applied himself to reclaiming pulp era heroism and romance? Jon Mollison. Who has gone from making a work comparable to a short Andre Norton novel to recapitulating the fire of an early 1940’s Leigh Brackett? Dominka Lein!

What kind of person looks at this smorgasbord of thrills, romance, and wonder and feels compelled to say something nasty? Probably someone that isn’t looking for quite the same things that I championed back when I surveyed eighty years of influential tales of adventure, horror, and heroics. 

But the framing here is absolutely absurd. Why would you expect anyone living today to have achieved the same prestige as the pulp masters? When they’ve been unfairly mocked, smeared, diagnosed as mentally ill, and pretty well erased from the science fiction and fantasy narrative. (!!)

So much for prestige!

But really, the question isn’t whether these contemporary authors have equaled pulp masters. No one living is capable of achieving the same sort of gravitas as someone that died eighty years ago and then went on to directly influence the canonical works that define the field. That is self-evident, isn’t it?

The real question is… do we have something right now that we didn’t have five years ago? I think we do. You really could not find people creating stuff like this then. (Let’s be honest. A good chunk of us didn’t yet know that this is what we had a hankering for. Ahem!) It didn’t help that the stories in Asimov’s, Analog, and The Magazine of Science Fiction & Fantasy weren’t at all like this. And I’ve been reliably informed that he stories that got nominated for awards were not like this, either.

If you had come to the conclusion that nobody would ever write Appendix N style science fiction again, nobody would have blamed you. But here we are. After entire strains of fantasy and science fiction were pretty much suppressed, changes in technology combined with a diverse range of amateurs, professionals, commentators, and all-out rabble-rousers have arguably revived them.

Whether you can call that “winning” or not is up for debate, sure. But as far as I’m concerned, this is unimaginably awesome. Where I used to routinely walk out of Barnes & Noble with nothing good to read– to the point where I was beginning to think that I just wasn’t that into science fiction and fantasy anymore, now I’m swamped with more great authors than I can keep up with.

If you ask me, that’s winning.

The Revolution Continues with Superluminary and Cirsova!

Here are two new releases you won’t want to miss!

Superluminary from John C. Wright, which I’m told features an epic scope that hearkens back to the Weird Tales of the thirties… and then devolves into Jack Kirby style comic book clashes. Planets will explode.

Meanwhile Cirsova is the short fiction magazine that stands out from the pack. If you’ve read Dominika Lein’s I, the One or Reptilian Wanderer… you’ll be glad to know you can now get more of her stuff. And if you’re down in the dumps wishing that somebody would do Leigh Brackett style science fiction again, never fear! Abraham Strongjohn’s got your back!

Appendix N and Pulp Revolution Hits and Misses

Over the past three years, I made a great many bets. Some turned out to be on the money. Others turned out to be swallowed up by trends I couldn’t even imagine.

Before Appendix N, pulp was synonymous with awful writing and was generally considered to not be a topic worth delving into. Today? Pulp methods are not just back in style, but they are considered to be pretty much an essential survival mechanism for anyone that seriously wants to make it as a writer. To be fair, though, of all the things I intended to be bring attention to… Pulp Speed was not one them! (As far as I know, Nathan Housley is responsible for introducing that particular nugget into the discussion.) Being more focused on the critical space than the rat race, I was much more inclined to dismiss the concept altogether, as I did when I encountered the fact that Roger Zelazny wrote Jack of Shadows in a single draft.

From a critical standpoint, I championed short stories at a time when the word on the street was that short fiction is a colossal waste of time. Surveying the 20th century, short fiction was the undeniably where the most ground was broken, the most influence was made, and the most action was. In many cases, the original short form works are better than the later fix-ups that replaced them. The Moon Pool is a canonical example of that. But I would even point to The Eyes of the Overlord as being noticeably stronger and effective when compared to its followup Cugel’s Saga, which reads much more like a bland contemporary overlong novel than its predecessor.

It turns out that the people that are really doing well with fantasy and science fiction writing are putting out large numbers of novels as part of an interminable series. Edgar Rice Burroughs is the exemplar people are recapitulating, not H. P. Lovecraft. Which irks me a little. I really liked the variety that was to be had in the standalone stories that made up the bulk of what came out in the pulp era. But mass matters. Authors like A. Merrit and Leigh Brackett are less well known today in part because they never took a character like Sherlock Holmes or Tarzan and did them to death.

On the other hand, there are a great many short fiction magazines and anthologies coming out the past year or so that make explicit moves toward the old ways. I have no idea how things are shaking out there, it’s a veritable deluge. My opinion is that it’s absolutely integral to the health of the broader fantasy and science fiction scene. But I don’t see the big dog types ever getting behind this.

Which not coincidentally leads me to my next point. The big disappointment for me is that individual author mailing lists have turned out to be far more important than a strong social media presence– and yeah, I bet BIG on the latter. The increase in shadow-banning and censorship by big tech puts a hard limit on what can be done on the web, yes. But more than that… what effort I put into bringing attention to new writers this past year mostly only contributed in mistraining their Amazon algorithm and locking them into a ghetto of wrong-thinker types.

It’s a bitter pill. I think it changes everything, too. But the big dogs did not climb to where they are by ignoring unpleasant truths. I really have no idea what the implications of this are for the various literary movements that coalesced in the past couple years here. It’s danged hard listening to this. On the other hand, the thesis of my book is being born out. The people that are killing it on Amazon have far more in common with Robert E. Howard than they do Philip K. Dick.

Or Ursula Le Guin for that matter.