Wednesday, October 5, 2016

The Pulp Aesthetic

Misha Burnett recently joined the ongoing conversation about pulps, to which a fellow blogger Rampant Coyote[1] responded – and Misha responds again here. There are some excellent points in both blog posts.

Too often, I come across supposed "pulp revivals" that seem to think the defining feature of the pulp era[2] was "B list schlock." To be sure, there was a lot of poor work printed in the scramble to get a piece of the action in a market suddenly bursting with appetite for literary periodicals, but to say that's what made the pulp era different is deeply unjust. In fact, the pulps drew their appeal from three things:

1. The universality of heroic tales: The pulps and their descendants are heirs to a heroic tradition that - in commercial literature - leads us back to the 18th Century romances. This doesn't necessarily require swash-buckling derring-do, but does mean the tale needs to present a clear sense of good and evil, and the protagonist's success should at its core lie in the adherence to a moral core, whatever the source of that might be (faith, honor, obligation, confidence and strength of will - it doesn't really matter – more on this in a later post)

2. The allure of the exotic: As both Misha and the Coyote say, it's this sense of the unknown and the surprising that catches the reader, the sense of exploring strange new places and discovering things outside the realm of everyday life. Sure, you could say it's just escapism - and I don't think there's anything wrong with that - but I think it's more than that. Face it: if you spend 12 hours a day at a computer in a cubicle farm you really, really don't need to read more about working at a computer in a cubicle farm. You might not have time, money, energy to take a month to paddle up the Amazon, but you can read about it on the bus. Yes, escape is part of it but more importantly humans just need to explore beyond the familiar, to learn new things and see new places. The exotic dimensions of the pulps provide this exploration, and the authors of stories that push past the boundaries can remember it for us wholesale when life prevents real exploration.

3. Experimentation: There's a reason why the pulp aesthetic lives most fully in short fiction and "pocketbooks" - the best of the pulp mags would have a solid heroic-exotic story at the core and wrap it up with some efforts that sometimes worked, sometimes didn't but the author and the editor took a chance. There was a wide open space where writers could try to fit together bold new ideas and new writing techniques[3] - the best writers could make things work, but sometimes the whole thing would fall flat. But it didn’t matter too much because the format was short, the costs low, and most importantly there was often the redeeming feature of The Big Idea that was embedded in the tale.

What’s strange about many efforts to “recapture the pulps” is that they fail not because there’s no appetite for the pulp aesthetic in the modern world[4] but because they don’t really get it. They see the failed experiments of the pulp era, the sea of mediocre work, and mistake it for the whole. They get trapped in the illusion that the poor production quality of things like the Flash Gordon cinematic serials in comparison to modern SF/X is the touchstone of the pulp aesthetic, and the ironic undercurrent of the effort ends up sucking the whole thing under.

But the thing is that the true substrate on which the pulps were built isn’t ironic at all – it’s earnest and enthusiastic. It can sometimes be dark of course, and doesn’t always involve uncomplicated protagonists and villains, and even sometimes pokes fun at itself, but the basic sense of it is pure – and you could even argue that it’s founded on human universals.

The strangest thing about the failure of these efforts to revive the pulp aesthetic over the years is that the current era seems like an ideal time to reboot the old pulps and take the best of its successes forward into a new era of SFF. The technological revolution we’ve seen in publishing over the last decade is a perfect environment for this – if cheap printing and even cheaper pulp paper were the raw materials of the original pulp revolution, surely even cheaper  e-publishing options available today are ideal?

Better still, if you look closely the pulp aesthetic never died – not really. It simply shifted venues. While the Campbellian era was being forcibly dismantled by the New Wave[5] the pulp aesthetic was moving into new formats. It’s no coincidence that the late 60s saw a renaissance in the comic industry, or that the 60s and 70s saw effort after effort at figuring out the small screen. Right through to the 80s TV was a major vehicle for pulp aesthetic – naturally there were direct adaptations of the pulp periodical format such as The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone, but there was so much more: in the 60s there were classics like The Prisoner, The Avengers, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, Joe 90 – even the amazing supermarionation shows like Thunderbirds and Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons! It just kept getting better in the 70s with things like The Six Million Dollar Man, UFO, and Space 1999. People like to cast Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica as a revival of the old pulp aesthetic in the 70s, but the truth is they are the derivative “schlock”[6] in comparison to the rampant experimentation that was already going on.

Some of the verve survives right into the 1980s with classic Saturday morning cartoons like He-Man, Sectaurs and the like[7] - but more importantly we get to see the pulp aesthetic reflected in the prime time live-action TV of the era as well. Things were starting to change, but the “family oriented adventure shows” still had that sense of experiment, that search for the exotic, and uncomplicated heroics.[8]

TV started to change as well in the late 80s and the 90s – there was more “lived experience” fiction being shown, and we saw reality TV starting to grow. Oh, there were still a few bright lights in the schedule, but the pulp aesthetic was definitely fading. Where did it go? I think the aesthetic lives on in things like comics (especially superhero comics in the more traditional style) and in video games. This is where we see the bulk of heroics, exploration, experimentation in entertainment media right through to the current year.

So here we are, looking at print traditions in SFF that seem to have lost their power over the decades. There are still excellent writers, and I’ve seen some beautiful wordsmithing, but the common elements that made SFF explode in the 1930s seem to have been pushed aside for a time. There are a few venues where the old pulp feel is starting to reassert itself though, and it will be very interesting to see where it goes.

Exciting times indeed!

[1] I confess that online conversations often make me feel like I’m living in a pulp story…

[2] I’m especially thinking of the pre-WW2 boom from the 1920s to the 1930s – though of course the true pulps survived to some extent into the 60s, and the aesthetic was preserved in some venues even beyond.

[3] Including techniques stolen wholesale from other genres! Just look at how techniques for generating suspense, or for writing action, or for weaving in romance, or for building up setting got swapped back and forth between SF, weird tales, detective stories, hard boiled action, western, and even romance and erotica.

[4] There obviously is – just look at the sales figures of SFF authors who tick off just one or two of these three points of appeal.

[5] Well, that’s what they told themselves.

[6] Cue hate mail in X minus 3…2…1

[7] These had the disadvantage of sometimes/often being mainly created after the fact to help sell toys, but the writers drew heavily on the keys of pulp adventure to create watchable episodes. Admittedly, in some cases episodes were only marginally watchable, but they get A for effort.

[8] Don’t believe me? Check out these classics – some are painfully derivative of popular properties of the era, others are in the full tradition of the original pulps: taking someone else’s good idea and figuring out a better way to do it. But more than anything else, we see the freedom to try anything and the paramount goal of trying to entertain. Many of these shows failed dismally in the ratings, but not for lack of verve.

1 comment:

JonM said...

Well said, Kevyn.