Pulp Fiction Beyond Civilisation
By Marko Susimetsä
The era of Pulp Science Fiction usually refers to the 1930s-1950s when sci-fi and other genre shorts were published on cheap paper. These magazines, bearing names such as Astounding Stories and Weird Tales, were adorned with fantastical cover art and the stories were usually very simple: heroic males and damsels in distress. Action and adventure took the front seat and characters were often just there as mouthpieces for the plot.
The story is not quite as simple, however, as many great names published their stories first on the pages of these pulp magazines. Astounding Stories (and its later incarnations under various titles), for example, printed stories by Robert A. Heinlein, Hal Clement, Isaac Asimov and Frank Herbert. Weird Tales gave an outlet to master story-crafters such as Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury, Tennessee Williams and Robert E. Howard. So, even if a large portion of the pulp fiction was cheaply made and quickly written, there were editors and magazines that managed to find some of the great names to write stories on their pages long before those names became famous. For Astounding Stories, this editor was John W. Campbell Jr. who took the reins of the publication in 1938 and aimed to turn it into a more mature outlet for writers. For Weird Tales, Farnsworth Wright can be said to have served much the same role from 1924 onwards.
A stereotypical pulp hero needs to be flashy and somewhat over-the-top; a precursor of a typical comic superhero, but without the superpowers. They need to be better at what they do than those around them and generally bring down enemies that would decimate the ordinary fellow. One example is Esau Cairn from Robert E. Howard’s Almuric. Esau is a muscular man with a violent temper and these qualities have brought him into trouble with the law. But he is saved from a dull fate when he is transported from Earth to a strange new world, Almuric, where his strength and fighting abilities are a boon rather than a bane. He ends up fighting strange creatures and saving the local humans through many heroic feats.
Howard’s Esau Cairn bears a close resemblance to John Carter of Mars insofar as the sci-fi heroes gallery is concerned. Like Esau, Burrough’s Carter is transported to another world where he must face adversity before he finds his place in the new society. And, like Esau, Carter is also stronger and more athletic than the Martian humans. Similarly superior to their fellow humans were heroes like Buck Rogers, Tarzan and Zorro, the latter two of whom have become more or less their own genres over the past few decades.
To a modern reader, these sorts of super capable heroes tend to come through as somewhat humorous. These days, readers want their heroes to be capable of mistakes and not be as black and white as the pulp heroes of the old tended to be. And if you are trying to tell a serious story, you cannot have a hero that cannot be taken seriously. But I think that there’s still a place for such heroes in modern times. Perhaps not as the main protagonist of a story, but in a secondary role, observed through the eyes of other, less bad-ass characters. As an added bonus, when you do that, you have more opportunities to make fun of the superiority of a pulp hero.
The roots of my story in the Elite: Tales from the Frontier anthology, Beyond Civilisation lie heavily in the early 20th century pulp fiction stories. In fact, when the writers’ packages were first announced, I was just reading old pulp stories and wondering how their heroes reminded me of the days I played Elite back in the 1980’s and FFE in late 1990’s. They may not necessarily fly spaceships in their stories, but they were generally lone heroes against heavy odds. Therefore, when I joined the Tales crew, I immediately drafted a story in similar style, designing a hero who would fit a pulp story setting and a story where he could show off his heroics.
In my story, the role of the pulp hero is filled by Robert Marconan, a mercenary and an adventurer. He was a born pirate and took part in the decimation of cities early in his teens. He flies his ship as if it is a part of his being and eyes the civilisation around him with certain disdain. He relies only on his own abilities to make a path for himself and has a difficult time understanding people who rely on the help of others.
During the development of the story, I had various ideas of how and where I could make fun of him and the following excerpt is one that was deleted early on:
The Viper had been equipped with navy combat computers. They were able to predict the manoeuvres of enemy pilots better and better the more samples they gathered of the pilots’ flying style. The computer compared these samples with a vast database stored in its memory banks, finding the best matches and calculating probabilities of their manoeuvres and tactics. Then it projected these probabilities on the cockpit canopy as an overlay. The technician who had installed the system had said that it could be incredibly accurate.
Robert Marconan had never turned the computer on. He had never needed it.
This section was cut mainly because it went a bit too much over-the-top. The story was not meant to be a purely humorous piece and, furthermore, the description stalled the action in the scene where I had written it. Nevertheless, I think it presents a good caricature of the superiority of a pulp hero. It was writing things like the above that had me chuckling to myself while I was typing away at the keyboard and they are the reason I read pulp fiction even today.
I also aimed to emulate some of the writing style of the early pulp fiction stories in Beyond Civilisation, but whereas a lot of it was edited out before publication – again, it not being the kind of writing modern audiences necessarily look for – I hope you will still like what I did with Robert Marconan and perhaps – if you keep your eyes open for all the clues in the story – you will also figure out which pulp hero served as his inspiration.