I have a confession to make. I. Love. Pulp. Pulp science fiction, that is.
Ever since I was a kid I’ve been enamored of Pulp SF. I love the cheesy, and often-times racy, over-the-top Buck Rogers covers: the muscular man of action chasing down the fiendish alien abductor who’s trying to make off with the dame. And what a dame! Scantily-clad buxom lasses all – with incongruous fish bowl helmets that somehow hold back the vacuum of space but never muss their flowing locks. And rockets! Always with the rockets! Rocket shaped space ships poised for takeoff from some exotic alien planet with multiple moons and a few rings thrown in for good measure. That’s how you know its sci-fi, my friends.
But the goodness is not just on the front cover. Turn a pulp over and you get the glory of the blurb. The blurb never fails to amuse and entice with a combination of ridiculous hyperbole and hopelessly anachronistic phrasing. You know you’re reading a pulp blurb when you find yourself doing the Batman TV show voiceover as you read the synopsis. Go ahead; try reading the blurb for The Skylark of Space by E.E. “Doc” Smith below. You almost have to go all Batman on it.
“Scientist Richard Seaton had discovered the secret of the complete release of ultimate energy. And his discovery gave him the key to the exploration of the Universe in all its cosmic immensity. But Seaton’s arch-rival, the powerful, unscrupulous Duquesne, was determined to gain control of this awesome secret too…
The climax came in deep space, when Seaton, Duquesne and three others – two of them women – were marooned, countless light-years from Earth, with only one chance in a million of ever returning…”
Ultimate energy AND cosmic immensity? Two of them women for crying out loud! What’s not to love?
But wait, there’s more!
Pulp books are a feast for the senses! Of course, I’m talkin’ ‘bout proper books here. You know. With pages. Not sterile digital versions on your iSomething™ or Kindle. Great as those devises are, and I love them too so don’t start hating; they just don’t do a pulp justice. I love the dry texture of the brittle binding and chipped corners and the scritch-scratch sound of stiff yellowed pages turning. There is no yellow like the yellow of old pulp pages. You won’t find that in your Crayola box. Then there’s the pleasantly musty smell of old paper and ink. The noble rot. You can smell it now, can’t you? Ah yes. So much for eInk. And the dust. What’s a pulp without years of accumulated bookstore dust? Your Nook won’t make you sneeze like that.
But, of course, all of that is secondary to the real joy of a pulp: the story. Oh, the stories you’ll read.
The best pulps are short and fast reads with minimal exposition and break-neck pacing. Get in and get out. Hang on as best you can. They are rollicking adventures with no pretense to anything other than a good time. You see, there is very little depth to a pulp. No political undercurrent or social commentary. No complex structure or moral ambiguity. It’s all on the shiny space-age polymer surface. They are gloriously and unabashedly formulaic from beginning to end.
In a good pulp you’ll find enough SF tropes to make Margaret Atwood roll her eyes. These stories established the stereotypes after all. The pulp future has it all. Flying cars, ray guns, robots and time machines. Space stations, silver jump suits and artificial gravity. Galactic empires, floating cities and epic battles. Exotic aliens, beautiful women and strapping heroes. And even “talking squids in outer space.”
What about the characters? They are exactly as awesome as they are predictable and cliché.
The good guys are good guys ‘cause how else would they be? They epitomize honor and chivalry and self reliance. You want to be the good guy because he’s a badass. He gets the girl on the cover and always metes out justice to the villains along the way. True men of action like John Carter of Mars:
“I am a citizen of two worlds; Captain John Carter of Virginia, Prince of the House of Tardos Mors, Jeddak of Helium. Take this man to your goddess, as I have said, and tell her, too, that as I have done to Xodar and Thurid, so also can I do to the mightiest of her Dators. With naked hands, with long-sword or with short-sword, I challenge the flower of her fighting-men to combat.”
You don’t pull the mask off the old Lone Ranger and you don’t mess around with John….
The good women embody old time virtues of the fairer sex: beauty, grace and love with a healthy dose of can-do attitude while always remaining more or less helpless and pliant as the plot dictates. You’ll have to forgive them that. It was a different time and besides, a hero needs someone to save.
The bad guys are bad because they can’t compete with the good guys any other way. Many of the best bad guys are aliens. They’ve been poking around in our collective anus for decades – of course they’re the baddies!
“Hideous egotist,” said O-Tar, “prepare to die and assume not to dictate to O-Tar the jeddak. He has passed sentence and all three of you shall feel the jeddak’s naked steel. I have spoken!”
You just know the bad guy is gonna die after a pronouncement like that.
The bad gals are spurned lovers or victims turned cruel. They’re angry and opportunistic and sexy as all get out. They have to tempt the good guys you know. No gray areas in these characters. You’re never supposed to empathize with the bad seeds. That would just slow things down. Your job is to recognize that they’re bad and revel in their comeuppance when it eventually arrives.
Both heroes and villains alike avail themselves of the most outlandish “science” and technology imaginable. This is where the gloves come off. Pulp revels in elaborate scientific explanations that are both silly and wonderful in the extreme. There are pages of this stuff in the Skylark Series:
“The zone of force is necessary to shield certain items of equipment from ether vibrations; as any such vibration inside the controlling fields of force renders observation or control of the higher orders of rays impossible.”
Um, yeah. May the fields of force be with you.
Of course, sometimes the author can’t be bothered with too much jargon and opts to explain it all away as the product of advanced alien intelligence beyond our ken. I’ll buy that. Action is the name of the game in pulp and the second option leaves more room for space battles so we still come out winners in the end. There is no time to waste on physics or relativity. This is all pre-wormhole or subspace stuff here so it’s all about speed! The Kessel Run in four parsecs? A walk in the park. These guys fly to the other side of the galaxy at “titanic speeds”, save the day and make it back in time for a cold one.
Yes, yes, you’re right. There are certainly better books to be reading. Books that read like a steak dinner with a nice Chianti followed by an indie film. They leave you wondering about life the universe and everything. Maybe even touch your life or say something to you. I love those books too.
But every so often, I like to travel “back to the future” – to the beginnings of the genre for a ripping yarn told with earnest joy. Pulp SF books are popcorn and candy, domestic beer and an old B-movie with friends. They leave you breathless and bemused and wanting more. They make you smile and feel nostalgic. They take you away from things serious and mundane for a little while and they don’t demand too much. What more could you ask?
If you’ve never read pulp SF, give it a try. You don’t know what you’re missing. I have spoken.
Some great pulp series to consider:
- Barsoom Series by Edgar Rice Burroughs
- Before the Golden Age edited by Isaac Asimov
- Lucky Starr Series by Isaac Asimov
- Skylark Series by E.E. “Doc” Smith
- Lensman Series by E.E. “Doc” Smith
- The Conan Chronicles, Volume 1: The People of the Black Circle by Robert E. Howard
- The Conan Chronicles, Volume 2: The Hour of the Dragon by Robert E. Howard