Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Pyrite Age 2: Pulp Rides, Again

Stop and imagine for one moment the internet existing in the early 20 th century, the time when science fiction and fantasy were fresh and new and flooding the market.  The Lovecraft clique re-tweeting the day’s bits of racism and xenophobia.  The sheer number of forums devoted to Barsoom rehash and predilection.  The Gernsback website reading like a Japanese mail-order catalogue.  Bloggies expounding the latest exploits of sss-hot Conan (those abs!).  Backwater livejournals pointing out the towering magnificence of Olaf Stapledon’s Starmaker (to no avail).  Hard sf Reddit threads going through Verne novels with a fine-toothed comb.  The majority of media, however, would have been devoted to reviews of the latest magazine releases. As cotton candy as content was, it was the heart of the era.

Amazing Stories, Astounding, Planet Stories, Astonishing Stories, Air Wonder Stories—these and many, many other magazines were where sf&f was happening.  Featuring a handful of stories, some advertizing, and bits of non-fiction or media coverage, they satisfied that craving for “science, in fantasy form!”  I will not rehash what others have put more eloquently (see Brian Aldiss’ The Billion Year Spree, for example), but suffice to say this realm of ‘scientifiction’ drew far more inspiration from Captain Irrational and King Lurid than Mr. Wordsmith or Prof. Humanism.

The stories that filled the pulp magazines were more often written by people caught in the zeitgeist generated by the genre rather than writers with actual talent.  Panache and spritz taking the reins from subtlety and more delicate workings of literature, instead, cheap drama, contrived tension, and the simplest of plot motivators (he attack me so I attack him logic) littered the bite-size bits of sensationalism.  The stories pages rather than chapters or volumes long, the splash offered value for the cent.

Like splurging for a Snickers in the supermarket line, the pulps offered little long term reward (save those who never read the magazines they bought, encased them in glass shrines, and only take them out at parties with ionized tongs) but satisfied for the brief moment they took to read.  It’s not surprising then, the pulps were most popular amongst young people—the least critical, simplest to please, and shortest attention spans there are out there.  Which brings me to the early 21st century state of genre.

Surveying the speculative fiction available today, one has to first be blown away by the sheer volume of content.  It’s unsurpassed in the history of humankind.  Every genre and sub-genre flooded with new authors, new stories, and new sub-sub-genres up for patenting everyday, even the length of genre material covers the spectrum of possibility.  From never ending fantasy series to flash fiction, the average sf fan is lacking for nothing when seeking consumables. Thus, while the actual volume is incomparable, the relative volume of genre material today is analogous to what we saw a little less than a century ago in the Golden Age.  Dime stores’ magazine racks overflowing with Astounding this and Amazing that is like the internet bursting its petabytes with Joe Schmoe’s latest self-published epic fantasy and Jane Doe’s most recent attempt at repeating urban paranormal vampire success. 

But what about the actual content of the material on the sf market today?  Judging the book by its cover, it would appear not much has evolved since slavering aliens threatened bikini-clad damsels while square-jawed men in tights waved bulbous pistols in the air nearby.   Certainly the quality of the graphics has improved in technical and artistic terms, but the ideas conveyed by imagery today is still stuck in middle school.  If I had a nickel for every cover I’ve seen on NetGalley featuring a young woman with a big sword and neon ether swirling about her I’d be able to quit this peanut gallery blog gig and get a real job.  (Toss in a penny for every dark-eyed—or fanged—male lurking in the background and I could buy you an ice cream.)  Epic fantasy too has become almost laughable.  Gritty, take-no-shit male archetypes adorn the covers of the latest testosterone dip into nihilistic uber-violence, giving juvenile males the same erections they got when gazing upon Conan a century ago (those abs!!).  And space opera?  The colors are more finely graded and stars shine more delicately, but the space ship and skintight space suit remains staples.  Looking behind these covers, one most often finds equally vacuous material.  While I have become better at spotting the signs, the amount of shoddy genre material that passes my mailbox and eyes is still unbelievable.  Suffice to say, it would seem that the technology packaging the content has changed, but the content hasn’t.

But I reserve my ten-pound hammer of ‘Yeah, he’s right’ for last: the length of stories.  The average mainstream reader no longer willing/able to put effort into understanding a text with a hint of metaphor, a fact hidden between the lines, or idea not EXPLAINED IN BOLD, publishers have further catered to the gnat-length, Facebook-interrupted attention spans by individually publishing shorter and shorter length stories.  The reader can now purchase their eye kicks in novelette, novella, and short story length for a small price (not difficult when the average hardcover new release is around $20).  They can go through a short story for $1.99 while eating their breakfast cereal—wait for it—just like Johnny used to with Captain Space not so long ago.  (Which says a lot about the mindset of modern genre readers, doesn’t it?)

Point blank: we’ve entered Pyrite Age 2.  Ubiquitous material featuring juvenile content framed for short attention spans has become the norm.  The major gatekeepers more interested in turning profits than balancing profit with quality, the line between fan fiction and fiction has been erased. It’s a hack attack promoted by big publishers, and readers cleaving to a higher standard are under assault.

If you are a lover of mainstream, commercial fiction, you are living in a golden age.  Like Johnny slurping down his breakfast cereal, appreciate it.  If, however, you appreciate more literary efforts, your job has become more difficult than ever.  Sieving through the media hype, “objective” reviews, and promotional material to find truly well-written stories with presence transcending the superficial is almost backbreaking.  Such material also exists in quantity like no one has never seen before, so it too is a lucky thing.  I just need a bigger sword to cut through the crap…

* Feb. 8, 2016 - Since writing this article, the following editorial has emerged from Clarkesworld, "The Sad Truth About Short Fiction Magazines" by Neil Clarke.  In other words, if you can't take it from me, take it from an insider.

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