Thursday, April 27, 2017

Get Pulp in Your Teeth

Image result for trump juicero
There’s been a lot of talk lately about a “magical” device that delivers “perfect” juice, and is destined to revolutionize the way people drink juice in just the same way Keurig revolutionized coffee.

I have no idea about this device other than what has been in the news and so will refrain from more than a brief comment about money[1] and coffee[2] but I will use it as an excuse to talk about pulp.

There has been a lot of talk about the pulp aesthetic in fiction among the people in my circles. Not merely in the Pulp Revolution community over on G+ but elsewhere as well. Not a great deal of what is being said is particularly innovative – I suppose this is a natural consequence of the fact we’re mostly discussing styles of writing that are at least a century old – but a great deal of it is interesting, and exciting enough to have triggered a little nest of activity in writing and publishing.

This isn’t the first time a revival of the pulp aesthetic has started up – in fact it seems to have been coming more or less at 5 year intervals for a while now – but I think this may well be the first time I’ve seen it actually getting traction in a big way. This might be an illusion caused by the fact I seem to have been sucked into the center of the maelstrom, of course. My fingers are crossed that it’s more than that, and to be honest I think the circumstances are quite different now than they have been in the past.

One reason the pulp vibe is coming back, I think, is technological: the last big wave of enthusiasm[3] seems to have petered out largely because it was too soon to take advantages of the various ebook and archive resources currently available.  

With the meteoric  rise of self-publishing platforms such as Amazon, Smashwords, and others – with the explosion of highly affordable print on demand services in the last few years – with the emergence of alternative financial tools such as the various crowd funding platforms – and with the growing ubiquity of social media communication platforms – it’s easier than ever to get a conversation started, to generate enthusiasm, and to keep the momentum rolling.

I think this is enormously significant.

When you look back to the golden age of the pulps, you see a slowly building momentum that – by the time of pulp’s peak in the 30s and 40s – had generated a truly incredible range of magazines. And when I say incredible, I mean incredible: take a look at this photo of a street-side magazine display from 1935.

The market was bulging with magazines. Significant publishers and little fly by night operations were all jostling for space on the shelves. Offset printing technology was getting cheaper, and advances in paper manufacturing were making printing a much cheaper industry than it had ever been before. Small-shop printing houses sprang up all over the place, and taking advantage of this new infrastructure people threw money at new magazines as business speculation or even just because what they wanted to see on the shelves wasn’t there yet.

And that’s not even considering the underground publishing industry.

The Fantasy Amateur Press Association (FAPA) founded in 1937 is the oldest fan APA for science fiction, but the APA model goes back into the 19th Century and there were little APAs all over the place. Many of these were hobby oriented, and quite a few were focused on some variety of creative work. But what happened in the early decades of the 20th Century was an enormous shift in thinking that added to the boiling industry.

Certainly, many fanzines of the era orbited around fans who – by some means – had access to one of the smaller shop presses and were able to buy, negotiate, wheedle, or simply steal time at the press when it wasn’t in ordinary operation.  But this still limited the number of people who could get in on the activity.

APAs already existed, as I mentioned, but for the most part they operated via carbon copy or laborious retyping – naturally, this significantly limits the range and size of audience.

But hectograph and mimeograph technologies were plummeting in price as well, and this made a huge difference: suddenly, a fairly normal middle-class fan could reasonably buy or borrow a new or used mimeo or hecto and churn out dozens of copies of a ‘zine. Suddenly, the conversation wasn’t limited to the people an enthusiastic fan could talk to in person, or the handful he or she could contact by carbon copy letters.[4]

Even before the establishment of FAPA suddenly connected fans were talking: through the letters columns in print magazines, in letters to what we might call semi-pro magazines (the fanzines being produced at pro presses), and now in hectoed and mimeoed pages being churned out in people’s cellars and garages and kitchens.

Overnight, the conversation went from being an excited murmur to a veritable roar.

Why is this significant? Because I strongly believe we are looking at a similar kind of sea change in publishing.

E-books have been around for a while of course, but over the last few years it has been getting easier and cheaper to produce astoundingly professional products that are available not only in e-book format but also in print, thanks to POD services. Approaches and techniques that were once sneered at as “mere vanity” are now viable business models, particularly for what amount to fan works with attitude.

Combined with crowd funding to ensure a regular flow of capital even in cycles where breaking even is difficult just about anyone can notice a gap in the market, conceive a way to fill it, and launch the product in the course of just a few months.

Look at the success of Cirsova Magazine, now going into its second year.

Look at Bryce Beattie’s StoryHack, which went from a call for submissions at the beginning of March to being nearly ready for its first issue to go to print in May.

Look at the explosion of collaborative anthologies.

Look at the growing number of blogs and the increased volume of chatter about self-publishing on social media.

As always happens when there’s a technological “singularity event” bringing together interest and enthusiasm with a sudden decrease in the cost of artistic expression, we’re seeing the boom beginning right now. This is nothing new: it’s happened every time a new technology makes the headlong dash into everyday commodity level prices. It happened with hector/mimeo in the 30s, it happened with 8mm film in the 60s, it happened with cassette tapes in the late 70s and 80s, and it’s happening now with the convergence of e-books and the tools to produce them.

And the thing is, #pulprevolution is really just one facet of the explosion, the one I happen to be seeing most clearly because of location.

It’s really been bubbling for the last few years with the erotica/romance e-book boom, with the extreme horror movements, and of course with wave after wave of amateur book publication in nearly every genre imaginable.

This brings us back to the juicerino or whatever the stupid thing is called:

It's not just a metaphor for the over-produced slicks, it's also a metaphor for publishing more generally.

Sure, I could pay too much for an electric motor and some rollers, and slap in a squeeze-bottle of processed juice. Or I could just grab some fruit and veggies - maybe even out of my own garden - and smash the juice out of them myself.

Yeah, I might get pulp in my teeth. I might even get a healthy dose of caterpillars along with my kale smoothie.

But man will it taste good!

#pulprevolution - not just good, but good for you!

It’s an exciting time, people. It's a time when if you long for a certain flavour of fiction then it’s probably time to heed the clarion call:


Get pulp in your teeth!

Join the revolution!

[1] And the fools from whom it is soon parted.
[2] And the terrible sins that the unwashed commit against it
[3] See The Cimmerian Blog (shuttered since 2009), the Grognardia blog (likewise since 2012) and the Robert E Howard Foundation (still active, and – significantly – actively producing their own imprints of REH’s work)
[4] Carbon copy letter circles were certainly common enough – Lovecraft’s is of course the most famous.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Thoughts on Appendix N

Full disclosure: In January I began contributing a column on vintage SFF and genre literary history for the Castalia House blog, at +Jeffro Johnson ’s invitation.  The below is my own thoughts on Jeffro’s Appendix N project. I receive no payment from CH, nor have I been asked or encouraged to promote Jeffro’s book beyond a friendly thanks from the author for what little I’ve done to support his project and his hope that I’ll talk about it. 

And I will. 

I’ve been engaged with what has come to be called #pulprevolution since long before it became a thing. My ongoing mission[1] has been to learn more about the roots of SFF, and to bring back some of the amazing aesthetic that was dominant in the pre-Campbell era. Part of that is a matter of developing my own writing – to learn from proven classics how it’s done. Part of it is to delve deep and learn about the social and cultural contexts in which my mentors[2] were working.

So, when I stumbled on Jeffro a couple of years ago[3] imagine my surprise – and pleasure – to discover that he had decided to undertake a project:

He wanted to know more about the roots of one of his favourite games – D&D[4] – and since the 1st edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Guide[5] contains a convenient list of books to inspire and inform adventures in a fantasy world he decided to start there.

Over months, he searched out books and stories, many of which are actually quite hard to find today[6], and many of which he had never even heard of.

He read them.

He was blown away.

What he found in those pages turned out to be more than just an exercise of “oh, that’s where that module came from” or seeing the image of some obscure mechanic. It was stories he’d never seen before, stories better than he was expecting.[7] I was familiar with a lot of what was on Jeffro’s reading list already, but many of them were things I’d read long ago – I started following his quest mainly because I was curious, but soon got swept up in his bubbling enthusiasm. It was simply invigorating to see these stories through his fresh eyes.

This book - Appendix N - is the product of his exploration, and I think it’s a great read if only for the sheer energy it projects and some of the fascinating connections he discovers between works you might never have thought related.

Now, Jeffro came to some conclusions that I found puzzling, and others that I disagree with. But there was a thread there of ideas that resonated with my own, and areas where I could whole-heartedly agree:

Gary Gygax’s “Appendix N” is a fascinating time capsule of classic science fiction and fantasy works that goes a long way toward providing a snapshot of what he was thinking about as he worked on what ultimately grew into one of the most popular pen and paper role-playing games of all time. The significance of this list – which spans the literature of seven decades[8] – goes far further than simply the inspiration for an enjoyable pastime, however: it’s a window into the past of SFF that affords us a view of a particular literary aesthetic – one that has, in many ways, simply been forgotten by print publishing.[9]

There’s a lot to love in the crumbling pages of old science fiction and fantasy. Of course, there are things that society has moved beyond as well[10] – we are better for it – but even when voices from the past shock us with things we regard as ridiculous or even unthinkable today[11] there’s an aesthetic present from the early days of Argosy and Weird Tales that resonates in the best of the adventure writing of the 1940s and 50s, and in the best remembered works of the New Wave revolution in the 1960s and 70s.

Heroism[12], the struggle between good and evil, the triumph of civilization over barbarity, the wonder of exploration – these themes drive stories forward by appealing to something fundamental in the nature of humanity. Stories that incorporate these themes engage us, draw us closer to the protagonists, make us care what happens next, celebrate when the challenge is overcome – or mourn when the hero fails. This is the common thread that runs through Gygax’s list, and that pervades the early role-playing games.

This observation on the themes found in enduring stories is nothing new of course – it’s something that writers and storytellers have known forever. In the Western canon, these themes can certainly be traced back at least as far as the Epic of Gilgamesh after all. Where SFF is concerned the key is that in the beginning it was an entirely new realm in which authors could explore these themes, experiment with new ways of engaging them, and build edifices on the shoulders of giants. As explorers in a new space, classic pulp authors were in constant conversation with one another – not only within SFF, but across pulp genres. What we might now view as derivative works were in fact the collective effort of these authors to try again and again to find the right way to fit their bold new ideas together.[13]

Things changed somewhat with the coming of the Golden Age of Campbellian “hard” SF.[14]

The gothic fantasies, weird tales, and planetary romances of the previous era slid from the limelight as the industry embraced a new aesthetic that had a very clear vision of science and engineering as the foundation of the future – an echo of the techno-utopia flogged by Wollheim and the other Futurians around the time of the first Worldcons.[15] The pulp ideals never faded entirely however, and you can see their influence clearly in the work of Campbell’s best known protégés.

Still, the richness of the legacy faded somewhat, despite the continuing work through the 60s and 70s of several authors who dated to before Campbell’s revolution.

I think that this fading, and the impending loss of SFF’s core, is one of the things that triggered the New Wave revolution of the 60s and 70s.[16] That grand effort did a great deal to re-invent the richness of the pre-war era pulps, and led to a series of fascinating new authors with works that – I think not coincidentally – also ended up on Gary Gygax’s list. Sadly, the revolution faltered[17], and by the time the 1980s rolled in things were changing again. In fact, this seems to be the watershed where the legacy of the pulps truly began to be forgotten.

The 1980s and 90s saw the birth of cyberpunk after a decade of gestation, and at the same time it saw a dramatic shift in mass market publishing that echoed the mega corps of the cyberpunk idiom: a concentration of SF publishing in five Houses Major[18], and a shift from smaller bookstores to franchise megastores. While there are some excellent writers who flourished in this period, it’s hard to see the rise of franchise series and massive, unending epics as anything but a cooling of the creative engines of SFF as it adapted to the reality of market forces.

From here, we fast forward to the e-book revolution and the crumbling empires of English language markets divided between the Five Houses: technology has definitely pushed the balance back to some extent: publishing is easier than ever before, and the new publishing media make it possible to bypass anyone who aspires to be a genre gatekeeper.[19]

I don’t think there is any debate to be had over whether there are excellent modern SFF authors: There certainly are.

And the best of them are as skillful with words as any of the classic greats – though there are also of course many less skilled, just as in any literary era. Likewise there should be no debate over whether the pulp era, which forms a large part of Gygax’s list, was universally golden. There were duds, and plenty of them; this should hardly be a surprise when considering the dizzying array of periodicals that were scrabbling for text to print each and every month during the 20s, 30s, and 40s. But somehow, over the last thirty years entire dimensions of the enormous wealth of “scientifiction” and strange tales have been pared away to leave little history and even less memory of the roots of modern SFF.

This, frankly, is a crying shame.

Fortunately, while the Great Houses of publishing have moved ever further from the core aesthetics that launched and sustained the genre from the early years of the Twentieth Century to explore new thoughts and styles of SFF, the core aesthetic has been kept bubbling in other venues:
The comics boom of the 90s and early 2000s certainly owes something to the love people have for wonder, adventure, and heroism. Advances in special effects and computer generated imagery have also brought us an amazing variety of SFF entertainment on both small and large screens. Moreover, video games have exploded as the cost of delivering ever more realistic experiences plunges, making it more feasible and more satisfying to not just read about heroes, but to live them.

Two worlds of SFF diverged in the decades after the New Wave, but now interest in the parts that had been largely forgotten is growing – and it’s interesting that this is happening just as the technologies that supported the divergence of SFF are themselves converging. Technological convergence has brought us a wealth of amazing new things. The resurgence of interest in older SFF offers the potential for another convergence, this time between the core aesthetic that made the pulp era great and the good things that have been built in the current era.
The vigor and freedom of e-book publishing and other electronic venues echoes the explosion of the pulps themselves in an era of rapidly decreasing publishing costs. In this environment I think the potential for yet another revolution in SFF is enormous, but to make it happen we will need to recapture the essence of that era of exploration and experimentation. And to do that we need to sift through the layers and rediscover jewels that have been lost and forgotten, then work those jewels into the treasures of today.[20]
Just imagine a newly invigorated world of SFF that combines the heroic aesthetic of the classics with the rich language and diverse voices of the present! To my mind, now is an ideal time for such an experiment, and now is an amazing time to be rediscovering forgotten classics.

[1] Seriously had to resist the urge to call it a 5 year mission – but who likes limits!

[2] People like Jack Vance, A. Merritt, Leigh Brackett, C. L. Moore – and yes even Howard and Lovecraft. But also le Guin and Norton and Moorcock and Heinlein and Philip K Dick and Laumer and…oh the list goes on forever!

[3] I was actually looking for gamers, and hooked onto him because he was posting stuff about Star Fleet Battles, a game I miss playing!

[4] D4 thieves or nothing!

[5] I just realised I haven’t typed that all out in years.

[6] Interestingly, the zeitgeist must have been bubbling in the back of his mind, because quite a few of the works on that list have mysteriously become available in digital editions in the last year or so.

[7] Because for some reason the popular image is of the pulps as low quality crap on every page, when in fact there were some excellent authors at work as well and those are the ones whose work endured.

[8] For context, think about this: how many people today have a passing familiarity with fiction spanning seven decades? This alone tells us something about the lack of attention older genre fiction gets today.

[9] That’s not to say that there is something fundamentally wrong with the aesthetics that have emerged in the decades since of course – just an observation that a particular era seems to be completely invisible today, and this seems puzzling.

[10] And things we’re still struggling with, and new things that in a decade or two’s time we’ll look back on with shame, I suspect. Such is progress.

[11] Particularly on issues of race and gender.

[12] I’m speaking of the heroic in terms of the literary device, not in terms of thick-thewed warriors. Briefly: the idea that the protagonist must face some challenge to ideals, and must (in part) be successful by staying true.

[13] And actually, there’s little more fun for a bookworm than to stumble on the different takes on a single idea by authors writing at the same time and obviously “arguing” with each other over the best way to write it. Or maybe I’m just strange?

[14] Though with Campbell, apparently “hard” SF also includes telepathy and dianetics…

[15] A social engineering rallying cry that was taken up in slightly different form by Damon Knight, Harlan Ellison, Joanna Russ and others in the 60s.

[16] Surely it’s no coincidence that Moorcock, one of the engineers of this revolution, gives explicit credit to pulp master Lester Dent (of Doc Savage fame) and his formula for adventure fiction in his own formula for writing a novel in three days?

[17] If the detractors are to be believed, in part because of the pessimism of the plots, in part because they were perhaps too experimental in their move away from the Campbelline tradition.

[18] Gratuitous Dune reference.

[19] Or rather, by making it easier to put your own work in front of them returns the gatekeeping power to the readers – where it belongs.

[20] Resisting the urge to continue the Dune analogy and refer to spice instead of jewels…

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.