Tuesday, December 6, 2016

What I learned from the Warrior-Maid of Mars

I recently came across this incredible cover for Planet Stories Summer 1950 issue and the title stories snagged my attention immediately, of course – how can you not be snagged by Margaret St. Claire and Ray Bradbury in their primes? – but I was also curious to see who else was featured, and went off looking for the contents[1].

Holy cow this is an amazing issue! Look at these titles:

Warrior-Maid of Mars by Alfred Coppel
Flowering Evil by Margaret St. Clair; and
Death-by-Rain by Ray Bradbury of course, but also:

The Enormous World by William Oberfield
Collision Orbit by Clyde Beck
Alpha Say, Beta Do by Alfred E. Maxwell
Moon of Treason by Emmett McDowell
Suicide Command by Stanley Mullen
Unwelcome Tenant by Roger Dee

OK, not all these names stuck around much beyond this issue, but Bradbury? St. Claire? Their presence alone makes me want to read the whole issue. And notice how some of the titles are firmly SFesque while others are verging into the weird tales or planetary romance aesthetic. 66 years ago, the genre periodicals were very different. Let’s take a closer look:

Bradbury’s Death by Rain (also published as The Long Rain) is an incredible story about alienation and displacement - and set on the familiar rain-swept jungle world of Venus-as-it-should-have-been. It starts mysteriously with the crashed Earthers making their way across the drenched jungle, searching for the fabled sun domes which are the only possible respite from the constant grey of the world outside. They have various adventures, but it’s the imagery and atmosphere that’s really gripping. Bradbury was obviously solidly established in 1950, having been publishing shorts at a breakneck pace all through the 40s, but this story is a determined step away from the status quo of SF publishing at the time. For some people, this kind of tale is an early tremor of what would lead later to the New Wave, but for me I think it’s really more of a blending of the Weird Tales era atmospherics with the space adventure tropes of the 50s.

Curiously, St. Claire's story is also about Venus in a way - Flowering Evil[2] is one of a series of shorts she wrote that focus on the weird affairs that accompany alien botany, in this case the trouble Aunt Amy gets into when her ne’er do well nephew keeps sending her plants from various planets in the solar system without really knowing what they are. In this case, the plant in question is from Venus, and after a rather pulpy scene on the verandah over tea and cookies our protagonist moves on to her Venusian greenhouse where we are given a glimpse of what life might be like on yet another version of Venus-as-it-should-be.

But where would we be without the title story? Warrior-Maid of Mars is very solidly in the planetary romance category, and the tagline in the table of contents nails it: “The Terran Barbarians have landed!” it cries, “Already they plunder a dying, helpless planet! And a whisper rustles through the cold, thin air, across the rust-red sands: “Give us a Leader – and we will fight! Give us back our ancient glory!”” Come now, who doesn’t want to read this story after that tag? Surely this story thrums with the red blood of adventure? Reading it doesn’t disappoint. It’s not the most skillfully crafted of tales, but it follows the classic pulp pattern: the main players are introduced and their characters established very early on, the protagonists move from trouble to peril to disaster, succeeding only because they cleave to their heroic ideals. Ostensibly the tale takes place on Mars, but if we read more closely this Mars is more like Robert E. Howard’s Hyperboria – this is yet another imagined world, quite different from what the readers knew about the real Mars. But that’s just it: it’s a placeholder. No one expected Mars to have bronze-skinned warriors swashbuckling their way through life, not at the time, not in the past, not in some distant imagined future. But Mars has a baggage of ideas and images attached to it and not all of them are Edgar Rice Burroughs’ fault. This story builds on that substrate and builds well enough to deserve its place as the headliner.[3] An interesting aside here is that this wasn’t Coppel’s ordinary fare, and actually most of his SF stories seem to have been more typical Campbellian work. It’s curious, then, that he continued to publish right up into the 1990s, but seems to have consistently drifted toward the fantasy end of the spectrum.

Roger Dee’s short-short Unwelcome Tenant, which appears right at the end of this issue, is an interesting one to leave us with. At first, it appears to be a strict space tale of the Campbellian tradition, but it quickly becomes clear there something much more Weird Tales about it. Yes, the setting is interplanetary space and the protagonist is explicitly identified as an astrophysicist, but this story is closer to Lovecraft than Clarke. This is interesting because Dee is another of the fairly long-lived and productive authors that appeared in this issue. He wasn’t anywhere near the status of St. Claire or Bradbury of course, but his single novel was written with Isaac Asimov, and Asimov selected Dee’s stories for a number of his anthologies over the years. He actually began his career with Planet Stories, and this is in fact only his fourth published work – but it gave him a strong push, and he published quite a lot of stories all through the early 50s. Something seems to have happened around 1954-55, and his rate of publication dropped off suddenly, until he published only a couple of stories in 1962 and then fell silent until his final story in 1971. I’ll confess, I don’t know a lot about Dee – the few stories of his I’ve seen in the past have been in Asimov anthologies, and they have been like Unwelcome Tenant – a strong SF setting (rockets, space, technology) but that’s really just window dressing for a more psychological tale, or at least one that forces you to reconsider the nature of identity and self. Or reality. To Remember Charlie By (Fantastic Universe, March 1954) is one of those stories for sure. On the other hand, Pet Farm (Galaxy, Feb 1954) is quite different, though still deeply rooted in the pulp tradition I think – this one reminds me a lot of Merritt and his explorations into the unknown, though here we have an alien world rather than a hollow Earth as the setting for the protagonists’ encounter with the weird.

The fourth writer in this issue who has anything like a significant bibliography is Emmett McDowell. McDowell was really only on the scene for about five years (1945-1950) and this is one of his last stories. I’ve never actually read any of his other stories, but a quick gander at his bibliography over at ISFDB makes me think he was more a Weird Tales and Argosy sort of writer than the 1940s and 50s wanted, which might explain his disappearance. Moon of Treason is interesting though, in that it seems at first glance to be firmly in the space adventure category, something like you’d expect from people like Bester or H. Beam Piper, or maybe Doc Smith. But there’s more here, and the weird factor does come into things as we learn more about the protagonist’s unusual abilities. Sadly, it seems quite difficult to track down many of McDowell’s other stories, but there are a few there – especially some of his early Planet Stories offerings or the ones he did for Jungle Stories – that look like they might have that 20s-30s era Argosy goodness in them.  

Clyde Beck’s story in this issue of Planet Stories, Collision Orbit, is very much in the hard-core Campbell tradition. We open with the protagonist clearly experiencing life as a 50s era jalopy-owning high-schooler (or college student maybe – we’re told he’s studying at Space Tech after all) transposed into a “rockets as casual transportation” future. Technical details play a part in this story, though mainly as scenery in what’s a fairly straightforward adventure story. It’s telling, I think, that Beck seems to have published fiction only three other times in his career – this is the kind of writer who padded out Campbell’s magazines back in the day, writing as a hobby, selling for a year or two and then disappearing.

Finally, we have Alfred Maxwell’s story, Alpha Say, Beta Do – very much a Campbell era “big idea” story about the perils of duplication. The concept is interesting enough, and interestingly is echoed in later stories such as David Brin’s novel Kiln People – though I suppose the idea of temporarily duplicating yourself to get a pair of extra hands or to allow you to do something dangerous without risk is obvious enough. In this story, the hook is in the ephemerality of the duplicates and the fact they are essentially separate people, so able to develop relationships of their own. The protagonists are thrown together, along with their duplicates, and two of the four fall in love…but an accident has left one pair uncertain which is the original and which is the duplicate. The rest of the story is basically a psychological in which the risk of having fallen in love with the wrong one is explored. Honestly, I think it’s the weakest story of the issue, so it’s not particularly surprising to find that Maxwell never published anything else (nothing else SFnal at least). Still, it’s an intellectual puzzle and humorous enough, though a bit dated by the language and the attitudes of the characters.

The point here, I think, is that this is a more or less random issue[4] of a mid-to-high range periodical of the era and the range of stories available here is really quite remarkable. We have full-bore planetary romance[5] , we have some standard for the era “hard” science, we have atmospheric, speculative pieces[6], we have first first string authors, and we have “give him a chance” sort of writers like Maxwell.

This is really a fascinating era in pulp history, when the market was starting to be dominated by a handful of the new big names who were pushing out the old giants, Argosy and Weird Tales. This is when the shift in aesthetic was happening, and we can almost see it happening right here in this magazine. But at the same time, it’s maybe significant that the aesthetic favoured by the Campbell movement  - Astounding/Analog and F&SF in particular as examples that survived to the present – is represented here as well, in a bastion of planetary romance and what we might call “weird science” (to distinguish from the more “fantastic” flavour usually associated with Weird Tales). Contrary to the modern assumptions about this era, alongside the lighter[7] “Campbell” scifi pieces like Collision Moon there was some serious philosophical thought going on in the genre back in the early 50s - as demonstrated by Roger Dee’s piece - and some literary oomph as we see in Bradbury’s story.[8]  This is a vibrant era where several different schools of SFnal writing were coexisting, right at the beginning of the new take-over by the refurbished version of the futurians that emerged at the other end of World War 2.

A very interesting dimension to this is the fact that Planet Stories seems to be reaching back to the era before the war, into the roots of SFF pulps in the 20s and 30s, and seems to have enjoyed a fairly substantial success – it was theoretically a juvenile publication, and was paired with Planet Comics, but it seems to have had more reach than you might have expected for such a magazine at such a time. I maintained its quarterly schedule for a decade and only transitioned to 6 issues per year in 1951 – right at the beginning of the end for the pulp markets.  Even in the more challenging conditions of the early 50s, it managed to keep that schedule until 1954, after which the challenges forced a brief return to the quarterly schedule before the 71st and last issue in June 1955.

So what was it about this magazine that attracted attention?

 Despite the low per-word rates Planet reportedly paid (relative to major markets of the era) it nevertheless attracted submissions from well-established and highly skilled authors like Brackett, like Bradbury, like St. Claire – other big names that appeared between its covers include Asimov, Damon Knight, Fredric Brown, James Blish. While the covers were perhaps rather juvenile in nature, focusing as they did on depicting dramatic women and shocking aliens (preferably locked in some kind of thrilling conflict) what was sandwiched between them was far more sophisticated fare than the era is usually given credit for.

 The focus on tales that echoed the previous Argosy and Weird Tales era lends a great deal of credence to Mike Ashley’s suggestion that the real appeal of the magazine was to the older readers who were looking back to the pre-war period as a golden age.[9] This makes sense of course: as so many today who are interested in the pulp aesthetic have seen, there’s something fundamental to these old pulp stories – an aesthetic that, as Brackett suggested, slots these kinds of stories into the same spaces that our ancestors reserved for folk tales and myth. Of course many readers who had grown up with the richer work of the previous era would find the intellectualism and science focus of the Campbell period a bit cold in comparison.

But now let’s get down to brass tacks[10]:    What can we learn of use today from Planet Stories? I think there are a few things, really.

First, it’s vital to realise that there is a real gap between the aesthetic eras of SFF. The crystallization of Campbellian SF[11] creates something new and different from the Fantastic SF era that flourished in the 20s and 30s, and it stands to reason that while they both may have strong (and weak) points, these points are going to be different and as such the fandoms are not going to overlap completely. This seems obvious, but it’s remarkable how hard it is to find people who understand this extends to later literary movements in SFF as well.

Second, deriving from the first we can see that there is some degree of overlap – not just in fandoms but also in the elements of each literary style. There are things that both schools value, things that they both abhor. As such, both styles of story can potentially coexist in the same market. Take this issue of Planet Stories as an example: Warrior-Maiden of Mars is the title story in a magazine that also features what might be an embryonic New Wave story (Bradbury’s Death by Rain) and a couple of pretty straightforward Campbellesque space adventures. Why? Because there are thematic overlaps between them, and it was reasonable to think that a fair number of the people who picked up the mag for Warrior-Maiden would also enjoy something like Unwelcome Tenant   or Collision Orbit.

Third, and I think this is really important, Planet Stories’ success seems to have ridden largely on the cultivation of its place as a market for Brackett and Bradbury. Here we have a pair of writers who may not have been big names in the beginning, but they had potential and the editors collected them up as part of a core stable. We see this to some extent today, but not like it was with Planet – if you go back and look at the covers of this magazine, the number that feature Bradbury or Brackett in prominent places is surprising. It makes me wonder: how many people picked up this issue of Planet Stories not because Warrior-Maid looked interesting but because Bradbury was on the cover? Remember: while there were dozens of magazines on the racks everyone who was anyone was reading all the long-lived ones. The American issue of Planet had a lively readers’ letters column, which included commentary from people like Poul Anderson, Robert Silverberg, and others who ended up following the luminaries of the SFF field around in the next decades. This is where you build a literary movement.

Some of the “secrets” of pulp success are still with us today – some of the e-publishers like Clarkesworld and Lightspeed have started developing little stables of regular contributors[12] for example – but I really think that anyone working toward building a vibrant revival movement today desperately needs to study the old pulp publications. Argosy and Weird Tales are obvious models to follow, but I think they’re also dangerous: they flourished in a very different environment to the one Planet Stories “lived” in.

Publications like Planet are an excellent model simply because they were facing direct competition from the new aesthetic that was emerging under Campbell’s eye, building on the philosophical foundations of Astounding and the Futurians.

As we’ve seen from the recent reduction in publication schedules at Analog and Asimov’s the financial challenges of keeping a short fiction periodical going are significant.[13] New venues trying to get enough steam to stay afloat will need to learn both from the successes of Planet and Astounding in the pulp era (ie how to cultivate and propagate a chosen literary aesthetic, particularly when there are competing aesthetics already in market) and from the struggles of later era publications that are now stumbling.

I actually think that now is an excellent time to be trying this kind of experiment:

Crowd funding makes it much easier to obtain the seed money needed to try without going broke.  

E-book and other new mediums make “printing” and distribution far easier than they ever have been in the past.

The pulp aesthetic – which is as much about literary experiment as it is about that mythic adventure that Brackett alluded to – seems to do very well in environments where the field is wide open and the rules minimal.

Now is the time!

Forward the Pulp Revolution!

[1] Which, incidentally, can be downloaded at the Internet Archive, here.

[2] Read a scan of this very short story here if you don’t want the whole magazine. But seriously, who are you if you don’t want to read the whole thing?

[3] As an aside, I notice that the eponymous Warrior-Maid pictured on the cover bears a close resemblance to other heroines on other Planet Stories covers. In all likelihood this is just because the artist (Allen Anderson – curiously, this bio doesn’t include this cover, but then he did a lot of Planet Stories covers in the late 40s and early 50s.) most often commissioned had a model he relied on for such things (recursive aside: I find myself wondering if the woman pictured was his first wife, who he divorced after the war, or his second wife who he married after a few years working with Planet…), but I confess I like it as a conceit: it gives a sense of the blending together of imagined stories, whether that was intended or not.

[4] I just came across the cover in a social media feed and it grabbed me enough to make me go looking.

[5] no great surprise considering Leigh Brackett was a major contributor.

[6] not great surprise here either – Bradbury was another major contributor, and one of Planet’s claims to fame is the discovery of Philip K. Dick with his first sale: Beyond Lies the Wub

[7] Notice: the Campbellesque works are lighter – so much for literary pretension.

[8] Seriously: take a look at that one as a study in how to use image and description to establish the psychology of a story!

[9] Ashley, Mike (2000). The Time Machines:The Story of the Science-Fiction Pulp Magazines from the beginning to 1950. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press. Pp151-152

[10] No, not that one!

[11] For lack of a better term, I use Campbellian as a shorthand to refer to SF with a strong focus on the science and tech, the sort of mission statement that you see today in Analog’s submission guidelines: take away the science and the story falls apart. But more importantly, there’s a focus in Campbell’s era on exploring the tech, and on the scientist hero. Note how often these stories feature protagonists who are genius engineers and the like. These heroes are ur-Futurians, not mythic archetypes.

[12] Though in part I think this is due to the limited markets for short fiction resulting in a concentration of submissions.

[13] No matter what they say, the basic reason is almost certainly financial: they save money by going to a 6 per year schedule, even if they are buying and printing the same number of stories. Watch carefully: I suspect we’ll see F&SF follow suit in the next year or so, and if nothing changes they may well ultimately have to choose between going quarterly or abandoning print altogether.