Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Pulp SF - from the pages of Astounding! to the silver screen

Whilst SF has been around for a long time, at least since the 19th century and arguably a lot longer, what I call Pulp SF only really began to appear in the inter-war period. Writers like E.E. 'Doc' Smith and others, who first published with The Skylark of Space in 'Amazing Stories' in 1928, wrote grand and sweeping stories concerned with two things: getting paid (in the case of Skylark, a set fee of US$125), usually by the word; and entertaining the editor and readers of the magazines that published their stories.

So, to fulfil this, lasers and death rays were fired, rocketships blasted to Epsilon IV to save damsels in distress from evil emperors, and Flash Gordon had just 24 hours to save the Earth. It is not a coincidence that Pulp SF shares its name with Pulp Fiction; stories of gangsters and private eyes were just as popular and for good reason. They were pure escapism, in a world that was reeling from not only the effects of the Great War, but from the Great Depression and, in America, the Prohibition Wars.

Out of such beginnings came a lucrative strand of SF, which has since developed into a myriad of forms. Starguard and Warhammer 40,000 represent it on the tabletop, Traveller and Paranoia enable you to live within Asimov's Foundation or Orwell's Airstrip One, '2000AD' and Marvel Comics can give you pulp in comic form, and - of course - the film industry has given us marvellous films like Doomsday and, yes, the Matrix trilogy. Pulp is still going strong in written form, as well: a quick trip to any Forbidden Planet or your local bookshop's SF section will show that.

But, more importantly, what does this mean, and where am I going with this?

Well, at the simplest level, it shows there is still a demand for pure escapism, particularly of the kind that pays well and which entertains before anything else; and as for my point, that's easy: Pulp is, of course, not all rayguns and robots. Pulp, by its very definition, has a role to play in any social analysis. It is an indicator of the state of a society, or at least of the state the creators feel society is in. Dan Dare, for example, celebrated 1950s Britain, with its Empire, as a great thing. The upper-middle class Dare and his working-class subordinate, together with Miss Peabody, bring a stiff upper lip and a vicious uppercut to bear against the Mekon and emerge victorious as Britain has from the Second World War... whilst Gerry Anderson's Captain Scarlet underlined the marginalisation of Britain and the emergence of the UN (or, in most of his puppet shows, the World Government) as the arbiter of peace and prosperity - threatened only by Mysterons and aquatic enemies.

The reality is, of course, that with such a huge genre as 'SF' cannot neatly be split into two halves. A venn diagram would be much more useful; works can be Pulp with a significant element of social commentary or analysis, and vice-versa. The important thing to realise with Pulp SF, however, is that the style of it is the key. Is it bright and upbeat? Is it gloomy and bleak? Is it cynical, comic, ironic or straight-laced? The answers to these, and similar questions, shine a light on the society in which it was created. Just look at the Pulp SF of the Cold War - Hammer's Slammers, for example, which re-fought the Vietnam War with hovertanks, or films like WarGames and even Ghostbusters, which to a greater or lesser extent reflected the fear of MAD and the Soviet Union.

So what now, in the age of the War on Terror? Already some Pulp - such as the reboot of Savage in '2000AD' which had Britain occupied by Volgs (Russians - a throwback to the original Cold War inspired fears) which dressed like Americans and were fought by suicide bombs and ambushes - has begun to reflect things like the occupation of Iraq, while films like Iron Man demonstrate the appetite for visceral revenge, even in make-believe, against Islamic terrorism.

Pulp, then. Simple to digest, easy to dismiss, often important and always amusing. What's not to like about, for example, the fast-paced action of John Scalzi's Old Man's War, after all? Or maybe there are things to dislike. Let me know; a dialectic requires an antithesis.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, really good introduction to pulp. Interesting you didn't mention Star Wars, but I have no doubt you will in good time. I'm not sure Iron Man really acts out revenge fantasies against Islamic terrorism. Compared to the original comic books, which were clearly anti-Soviet and anti-Vietnamese propaganda, the films seem to mostly use Afghanistan as the nearest modern-day equivalent to Vietnam while jettisoning the context of the war on terror (and, thankfully, most of the explicit racism of the '60s comics).

    I'm looking forward to more on all this, as my knowledge of sci-fi literature is really quite poor.