Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

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Category Archives: Science Fiction

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 Best Science Fiction Read in a Long Time

I picked this up thinking I would find out the ending to Arkhaven’s first comic series. But then I couldn’t put it down.

It’s in the same universe. And it’s very much like Traveller. Worlds have tech levels which are enforced by law. There is a “spinward marches” where all the action takes place. There is a jump drive and some sort of non-reality jumpspace… but you can precipitate out of jump in less than two weeks.

But the story…. It really is first rate. If you liked Poul Anderson’s Flandry stories, The Mote in God’s Eye, Jerry Pournelle’s A Spaceship for the King, or Vernor Vinge’s A Deepness in the Sky, then this will be right up your alley. It’s an intricate spy thriller featuring a female James Bond type going head to head against sort of a female Agent Smith and it’s utterly engrossing.

One thing about Vox if you’ve observed how he handles real life intrigues, he really does think several moves ahead compared to most people. Also he’s quite cunning. This “evil mastermind” trait of his turns out to be a perfect fit for this type of book. For the first time in a very long time I get to see an elaborate “chess game played on interstellar scales” plot with factions that have realistic motivations… and adversaries that are actually worthy opponents.

How many times have you heard reviewers complain that a property’s bad guy is neither competent nor coherent? Well this book is the answer to that objection. If you’re on the hunt for a tightly plotted space thriller, this should go to the top of your pile.


Did Edgar Rice Burroughs Write Science Fiction?

Did Edgar Rice Burroughs write science fiction…?

It’s an interesting question. My favorite thing about it is the extent to which team “no” is willing to contort themselves in order to keep the man out of the clubhouse. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction is fairly representative in this regard:

The standard of storytelling and invention is high in the Barsoom books, Chessmen and Swords being particularly fine; but it has always been difficult for some critics to accept the Planetary Romance as being, in any cognitive sense, good sf. Although Carter’s adventures take place on another planet, he incontrovertibly travels there by magical means, and Barsoom itself is inconsistent and scientifically implausible. It is clear, however, that Burroughs’s immense popularity has nothing to do with conventional sf virtues, for it depends on storylines and venues as malleable as dreams, exotic and dangerous and unending.

That’s quite an endorsement, really. But even these nudniks have to hedge their bets because the Barsoom stories are undoubtedly science fiction. They’re just not good science fiction– at least according to some critics, anyway. Oh, and hey… they don’t follow the sort conventions that only became dominant decades after the series’s inception. Astonishing!

Encyclopedia Britannica manages to be somewhat more evenhanded as they cast him as a major figure in the development of the field:

Edgar Rice Burroughs, with his serialized story Under the Moons of Mars (1912; novelized as A Princess of Mars, 1917; adapted for film as John Carter, 2012), transformed European-style “literary” science fiction into a distinctly American genre directed at a juvenile audience. Combining European elements of fantasy and horror with the naive expansionist style of early American westerns, Burroughs had his hero John Carter outwit various inferior green, yellow, and black Martians. He also marries a red Martian and has a child by her, despite the fact that she reproduces by laying eggs. Burroughs’s hero remained an SF archetype, especially for “space operas,” through the 1950s.

But note how many places they drop the ball right there in that brief passage. Burroughs garners demerits for mixing elements of multiple genres within the same novel… at a time when the dividing lines between fantasy, science fiction, and horror were considerably more blurry than we are used to today. (Keep in mind that before John W. Campbell’s tenure at Astounding Stories, the magazine featured multiple stories by H. P. Lovecraft!) Meanwhile, Argosy magazine which featured many of Burrough’s novels was not a magazine that targeted a juvenile audience by any stretch. Finally, Burrough’s hero was synonymous with fantasy and science fiction all the way through the seventies when the movie poster depictions of Luke Skywalker were specifically crafted to evoke Frank Frazetta’s renditions of John Carter of Mars. Meanwhile, Superman– the character that set the template for superhero comics for all time– was patterned after two Burrough’s most enduring creations, John Carter and Tarzan.

When it comes to science fiction and culture in general, you really can’t underestimate the influence of Edgar Rice Burroughs. But critics and historians alike can’t seem to allow themselves to give the man a fair shake.

It’s bizarre.


Star Wars is Science Fiction

Bruce Bethke weighs in yet again on a very old argument: this nutso idea that Star Wars isn’t science fiction:

“Sure, it looks like science fiction. It sounds like science fiction. And based on that guy in the wookiee costume who was ahead of us in the concession line, it even smells like science fiction, or at least like the third day of a furry fandom convention. But Star Wars is not science fiction. It’s a long-winded heroic magical fantasy saga that happens to take place in a world cluttered up with lots of sci-fi props and set dressings. If considered as science fiction, there is not one thing in the entire Star Wars universe that bears close scrutiny, because if you think about it at all seriously, the seams split and all the nonsense comes pouring out.”

The nonsense just comes pouring out, eh? Well hey, hate Star Wars all you like. (I was done the moment I was stunned by just how godawful the theatrical re-release of “A New Hope” was.) I will say this, though: this particular light saber cuts both ways. Talk about throwing stones in glass houses!

Let’s look again at all that “real” science fiction from around 1940 to about 1980. I mean really look at it:

  • How much of it was predicated on the idea that only a united One World Earth Government could reach the stars?
  • How much of it assumed that the future government of humanity would necessarily be some sort of socialism or communism?
  • How much of it was a glorified bully pulpit used to beat down and mock the concept of religion in general?
  • How much of it included free love and explicit sex or presented the idea that modesty, fidelity, and marriage were all outmoded, uncool, and unfuturistic– to the point of taking on any and every imaginable taboo up to and including incest and pedophilia?
  • Similarly, how much of it went out of the way to present cowardly loser protagonists that are both unheroic and unsuccessful with the opposite sex– in order to be more “realistic”?

I’m one of those people that became a science fiction fan because of Star Wars, and gosh… it really was a chore to find anything to read in that genre when that franchise was first exploding into the wider collective consciousness. For decades, I was convinced that to read anything for fun I would just have to hold my nose and read around all the tacky stuff just to enjoy my favorite genre. But face it, by the late seventies, the science fiction brand was weighed down by a great deal of nonsense. And it had gone on for so long that most people couldn’t imagine it being any other way.

It wasn’t always like that, of course. Just as the Poindexters of today are out in force poo pooing classic Star Wars, so too were the letter columns of classic science fiction magazines filled to the brim with the sneering and heckling of weirdos that were convinced that the genre of science fiction could only work well if it were turned into some sort of freakish tool for smashing the natural forms of economic and social life.

The roots of Star Wars predate all of that, of course. The old works are superior in many ways, but the resonance of the early film franchise with Edgar Rice Burrough’s Barsoom stories, C. L. Moore’s Northwest Smith, and E. E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman stories in undeniable. (The first accounts for the definitive space princess, the second a clear antecedent for the Han Solo scoundrel type, and the last provides a template for the “guardians of peace and justice” archetype that the Jedi knights fulfilled.)

Maybe those stories aren’t your cup of tea. Maybe you think Asimov and Heinlein and Clarke are superior in every way and deserved to erase the foundations of the field in order to bring us astonishing tales of alien threesomes, men traveling back in time to have sex with their mothers, and the “real” story behind what happened when the star of Bethlehem lit up the sky. More power to you if “dangerous visions” of the sixties and seventies are what floats your boat!

But like it or not, the original Star Wars movies were science fiction– science fiction of a type that was wildly popular when guys like Asimov and Heinlein and Clarke were still in diapers. If science fiction in the same vein as Star Wars isn’t science fiction, then the generation that laid the foundations of the field never existed. And the people who also inspired all of the best known science fiction grandmasters to pursue careers writing classic tales are erased from history as well.

That’s crazy.

Get the real story on the history of fantasy and science fiction: Check out my book Appendix N! And lemme tell ya, the hard back looks so slick, it makes a perfect Christmas gift. Don’t miss it!


Cirsova Magazine Now on Amazon

You know, I missed my chance to get articles published Space Gamer, Autoduel Quarterly, JTAS, and Fight On!… but that just makes being part of Cirsova that much more exciting.

What is it? The basic thrust of the magazine is to pay money to people that want to do unironic, unsubverted “Appendix N” style fiction today. Its overall look is meant to invoke classic Weird Tales magazine, but the material can go so far as to recapitulate Planet Stories as well. Basically, it does for science fiction, fantasy, and horror what the OSR did for D&D.

I’m really happy to have my name on the cover– and even more, to have this magazine be the inaugural entry on my Amazon author search page. (Hey, it’s another notch on the “real writer” track.) Please support this endeavor!

It’s only $7.50 for the paperback and $2.99 for the Kindle edition.