A few months ago MPorcius called me out for stating Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars is an empty piece of fiction. He’s right. I didn’t qualify the statement. A Princess of Mars is an ideologically empty piece of fiction. This important detail aroused in my brain a discussion regarding the relative merits of pulp speculative fiction. By coincidence just a few days later, I discovered an unpublished case study in Speculiction’s archive that is so relevant I’ve decided to post it word for word in an effort to shed more light on the subject.
Research Title: Reader Response to Juxtaposed Forms of Speculative Fiction
Joe: likes science fiction but despises horror
Sally: likes fantasy but hates steampunk and hard sf
Case study #1
Both Joe and Sally were provided Vernor Vinge’s A Fire upon the Deep and Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight, given time to read, and then brought together for a discussion related to the books. Time limit for discussion: one hour.
Proctor’s Notes: Joe and Sally were initially full of energy to talk about the books they had read. Joe was eager to vaunt the qualities of the space opera while dashing to pieces the urban fantasy. He cited the originality of the premise, the exciting plot, and kick-ass nature of the modified humans as things he liked about the Vinge, and the cheapness of horror, the excess of blood, and the predictability of the storyline as reasons the Meyer was bad. Sally held quite the opposite opinion. She felt the space opera was slow, the dialogue overblown, the characters silly, and, interestingly enough, reported having blown milk out her nose laughing at the incredulity of dogs piloting sailboats. With Twilight, however, she thought the love story between the heroine and the vampire was well developed, related emotionally to certain scenes, and greatly enjoyed the way which the plot surprised her time after time. These points were discussed only briefly, however. Joe and Sally intelligent human beings, each quickly realized they had differing personal interests in fiction, and that additional discussion would lead nowhere of mutual significance. No further discussion arose, and the remaining 45 minutes were spent in silence.
Case Study #2
Both subjects were provided The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle, given time to read (a month for Ash), and then brought together for a discussion related to the books. Time limit for discussion: one hour.
Proctor’s Notes: both subjects arrived at the discussion a little subdued. When asked why he was quieter than the first discussion, Joe stated that he was still pondering Ash, particularly the ambiguous ending, the novel’s intent, and the relationship of the modern portion of the text to the historical. Sally responded with the idea that by structuring the novel as such, perhaps Gentle’s intent was to make history more subjective than we currently take it to be, and cited a few key passages to the effect. Joe admitted he could see the point, but answered that due to the fact the historical section seemed to contain elements of the impossible, he wondered at the underlying reality, regardless of era. Sally citing Ash’s seemingly supernatural experiences as central to the novel’s reading experience, the discussion then dipped into Ash’s relative femininity and the differences in her relationships with the other characters, particularly treatment and deference. From there, the discussion shifted gears to Ash’s relationship to fantasy heroines in other works of fiction. Joe and Sally speaking in calm, measured tones, both agreed that Ash was a far more realistically presented character than most women in epic fantasy, and that for this, derived not only empathy from the reader, but likewise evoked questions regarding the role of women in fantasy, the experience of being a woman, as well as the role of women in society as compared to those men typically occupy and whether or not the associated stereotypes have value. There was barely 5 minutes left on the clock before the discussion shifted to The Handmaid’s Tale—something which both subjects agreed was not enough time, and therefore set a date at Speculiction’s coffee bar immediately after the session to carry on the discussion. The last the proctor heard before the subjects left the room was Sally postulating that the fictional societies in both Gentle and Atwood’s stories, despite the centuries separating them, seemed to have more in common than were different, and as a result may have been commenting on our own society. She was listing the ways as they disappeared around a corner.
The caliber of discussion evoked by the two case studies was markedly different. The discussion resulting from Case Study #1 was limited to the basic building blocks of story (plot, setting, character) and whether or not Joe and Sally liked or disliked how each author presented them. Accordingly, the input each provided was more individual and preferential in nature. Case Study #2, however, saw the discussion interact with not only the concrete qualities of each text, but likewise society and culture at large, particularly the manner in which gender is perceived in fiction and reality, as well as the objective reality of history. The input each provided was noticeably more intellectual, socially conscientious in quality, and touched upon ideas of concern to humanity at large, particularly in the West. None of this type of discussion was observed in Case Study #1.
Dashing heroes, feats of the impossible, epic battles, cheesy romance, contrived relationships, splashy visuals, risky ventures, wooly aliens, wily villains, impossible twists, breasts and brawn, double-crosses, dangerous games, grand escapes, unlikely coincidences, gritty fights, damsels in distress—these are the main drivers of pulp science fiction and fantasy. Unchanged since the dawn of time, they feature in stories with larger-than-life plotting, easily relatable (likeable/hateable) characters, and narratives that exist in recognizable, exciting, easily digestible fashion whose sole aim is commercial success.
Yes, pulp is a lot of fun. The emphasis on eye-candy and transparency, it may be the ultimate in passive enjoyment. Luxury of the purist, the reader knows the encounter is entirely separate from reality. And it’s precisely this separation—the lack of relevancy to the real world—that renders pulp “empty”. Taken away, the reader can relax while reading, no need to engage one's self save connecting the dots of plot. No need to worry the writer may have a social or political agenda. No need to think laterally in order to interact with some complex idea the text might present.
Like a soap bubble, pulp’s substance is insular. Even with all of the flash and bang, there is little to nothing to transcend the page to achieve value or meaning beyond—to burst the bubble, as it were, and exist in the real world. As here we get into the thorny semantics of ‘value’ and ‘meaning’, best to make them clear. Reading pulp from one’s youth can have meaning. Looking forward to getting home, sitting down with a hot cup of coffee, and picking up the latest bestseller to get your mind off work can have value. Ideas that stimulate wonder and awe are a quintessential aspect of being human, and therefore valuable. But these are all individual. Everybody has different books they appreciate for nostalgia’s sake. We each have different ways of spending our free time to relax. And everyone’s mind is activated by personally relevant visions and concepts. Looking at the reasons MPorcius states A Princess of Mars is a “full” text one finds exactly these personally relevant reasons, i.e. sustained “me” and “I”. “I also enjoy [Burrough’s] Victorian attitudes,” “One reason I read science fiction and fantasy books is to explore a different world,” and “Most important to me, when comparing Burroughs and Brackett as entertainers (and of course their primary objective is to entertain) is how vivid and vibrant their settings are, and how thrilling their scenarios are. To be fair, MPorcius does mention that Burroughs writes about “what role men and women have in society and family” and also “addresses important topics like the role of the state, eugenics, religion, and the virtues and pitfalls of modern and primitive societies.” I would argue, however, the word “addresses”. If by “addresses” MPorcius means to use as plot devices and elements of setting, then yes, these aspects are “addressed” in perfunctory fashion. If, however, the meaning of “addresses” is to present, investigate, unpack, and comment upon, then I would beg to differ—with a pointy stick. Burroughs’ writings (at least what I have read) have no agenda beyond entertainment—and this wholly includes A Princess of Mars. The man was interested in selling copy via vivid, exciting yarns, and at no time directly addresses any issues in-depth warranting a combination of “investigation,” “unpacking,” or “commentary.”
This leads to the conclusion: none of the arguments MPorcius offers make A Princess of Mars a full text, i.e. that it has value beyond personal preference or that insular to the text. What for MPorcius is ‘”vivid and vibrant” is for other readers dull and boring. Likewise, what is “memorable, striking and ‘alive’” is forgettable by other readers’ standards. And what is “addressing the role of men and women in society” is just an incidental way of coordinating plot to achieve as much bang for the buck as possible.
Reading a simplistic space opera or epic fantasy is something that is an enjoyable, even a preferable experience, at times. There are moments floating in the bubble—escaping reality—is the best thing for mind and soul. (And, I will concede, it’s every person’s right to argue whether or not Yoda would be able to defeat Darth Vader in a lightsaber duel.) But let’s not make the mistake of putting pulp at the same level as fiction with literary ambition—of calling it a “full” text. In its failure to transcend personal relevancy and engender discourse on ideas that touch upon significant aspects of society and culture in more universally meaningful fashion, pulp remains empty, oh so ideologically empty.