I have not undertaken a comprehensive survey of the old pulp masters of sci-fi, fantasy, adventure, or whatever genre label you insist on slapping on it. I have, however, read novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs, A.E. van Vogt, H. Beam Piper, Jack Vance, and Robert E. Howard, and there are several things I can tell you about the old, maligned tales these men wrote.
First, the plots are just as complex and sophisticated as anything we’re told modern audience crave now that they could neither find nor be capable of understanding back in the dark ages. The themes are deep and resonant; a far cry from the insult that the pulps were Saturday morning cartoon-style fare for adult males. In fact, Space Viking and The Cosmic Computer by Piper have enough political intrigue, interpersonal struggle, and shifting conspiratorial alliances in between the action—yet with actual payoff to the set-up—that puts a lot of stuff you could read or watch now to shame.
Second, the language is fantastic. This is not the “bad, clunky prose” we’re told typify the pulps. I like to think I have an above-average vocabulary, and I’m finding words in these books left and right I’ve never even heard of. What’s more, they don’t stand out as a pretentious attempt to sound intellectual, but fit in the flow of the narrative.
The sentence structure is also great. Some of these writers are more lushly evocative than others—Howard comes to mind—but they all create compelling worlds of imagination that are flat-out interesting and unique. I have to call out Vance and Burroughs specifically for this. Also, Piper writes some of the best dialogue I’ve ever read.
So these stories are serious works. Why are they derided? The answer is obvious: far from being wish-fulfillment fantasies for men, the pulps I’ve read have a clear and unambiguous moral thread running through them from start to finish. Good is real and worth protecting. Evil is real and must be opposed. The weak should be defended, and those who commit wicked deeds must be punished. Whether it’s the pagan nobility of Conan or John Carter’s sense of Christian chivalry, the morality is clear. No wishy-washy equivalence or navel-gazing anti-heroes here. Even Lucas Trask, the protagonist of Space Viking, while contemplative, doesn’t devolve into solipsistic inaction.
The pulps were serious, well-written works. And popular. While some may be humorous at times, there is no mid-tier TV sitcom-level snark or smirking irony to be found.
You know what else you also didn’t see back in the days of old, when pulps were king and the American males conscripted to fight in World War II faced danger every single day?
Other adult males constantly comparing what was going on in the fight against Germany and Japan (and Italy, I guess) to plots and characters from those pulps.
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“. . . breaking news for you, right now. Apologies for interrupting your regularly scheduled Today, it is my solemn duty to report that Japanese bombers launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Reports are coming in of hundreds of deaths. A truly tragic scene, and a dire violation of international norms. Now, I know there is a strong isolationist bent in this country, and far be it for me to editorialize on behalf of my station, but if you don’t support American entry into the conflict, you are on the side of Ming the Merciless. It is truly that simple. You are Ming. And you know what happens to Ming every time: Flash Gordon punches him in the face. So take that, you Jap-supporting Mings. Or should I call you Mongoloids, since Mongo is the planet you clearly support. However, all of you brave American patriots, you Flashes, you Supermans, you brave Batmen . . . you have what it takes to destroy Ming and his dastardly alliance. Why, this is just like the time John Sunlight tried to attack Doc Savage by . . .
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I’m not going to take sides or offer hot takes on the Russia-Ukraine war, since all that I know about the conflict is that both are countries that straddle Asia and Europe, no one is really sure if they’re “European” or not, and both were part of the former U.S.S.R. Other than that, you’ll find no political commentary about it on this blog.
But what I notice is that adult Americans’ response to this is to post memes—which, albeit funny, don’t really offer any serious informational content—and make the absolute most embarrassing pop culture analogies to what is happening on the other side of the world. I understand that memes and humor are a way of coping with stressful and confusing situations. And yet, they provide such a superficial level of analysis beyond a few laughs, a detached and disconnected way to feign being part of some larger culture that doesn’t really exist.
Who are we going to rally around in this conflict? Why do we feel the need to rally around sides in a conflict this country is not directly involved in? Why do we not feel the need to worry about the problems closer to home that have more of a direct effect on our lives? Why is international war treated with such scrutiny and fervor—offering commentary and narcissistically making what’s going on over there about us, instead of trying to meet our neighbors and make friends and build connections? When life is treated like social media, the trivial and the remote takes primacy over the urgent and immediate.
Enjoy looking through the spyglass in reverse, but don’t be surprised when conflict hits close to home.
What’s that? You haven’t noticed that it already has?
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There are so few adults offering serious commentary. There are a lot of middle-aged children trapped in a world of comic-book fantasy and lightsaber pew-pew using those stories to explain what is going on. I mean, I’m as guilty of referencing The Lord of the Rings as the next traditionalist, but at least those are serious works created by a serious man using serious language and discussing serious themes. It’s not like I’m talking about how the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or whomever would hand Putin’s ass to him.
Stories are how we make sense of the world. The Iliad was, no doubt, used to inspire young men who sought glory for their people on the battlefield. But those young men were fighting and dying, sword-to-sword, face-to-face, with their enemies. Antiquity was brutal. The stories reflected the brutality of the world with stunning depictions of violence, but also violent depictions of the stunning beauty this world had to offer.
Stories matter, and stories endure. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t read stories, I wouldn’t write stories, and I wouldn’t talk about stories on this blog. The most influential man in human history used stories to instruct His disciples. I get it.
But some stories are more serious than others. Some stories have more gravitas. When someone is explaining complex matters, stories are often a great way to illustrate the point in an easy-to-understand manner. Making the complex simple is a wonderful skill we should all strive to acquire.
Yet some things are too important to rely on pop culture cliché. Perhaps I’m just being a cranky old man here, but a regional conflict with the potential to erupt into full-blown world war is a little too serious for comic book references and other bizarre wish-fulfillment like Captain America snapping some Russkies’ spines. I’d prefer an analysis that relies more upon, I don’t know, classical mythology, or other analogous historical events besides World War II.
Thor isn’t coming to save you. Wakanda isn’t real. There is no Harry Potter or Hogwarts. Jedi is a fake religion from a made-up movie. Captain America never actually punched Hitler. Your sassy tweets will not end this war. Grow up.
This is why I harp on the importance of stories and culture. Churches don’t have the influence that they used to anymore. If anything, pop culture can get people to go back to church, or to church in the first place . . . or to dissuade them from religion entirely. You might not like this, but as far as I can see, it’s true. Those of us of a certain bent have sat out of the culture game for far too long. What we’re seeing now, this unseriousness, this infantilization, is but one result of our ceding ground without a fight.
I suppose in the absence of any high culture, historical literacy, and knowledge of the Bible, pop culture is, unfortunately, all we got. Still, I long for the day when were can have our ostensible thought leaders talk about meaningful world events without throwing in some goddamn Spider-Man references.