Entertainment vs. Edutainment: The New Pulp Narrative

In my wild opinionated youth, I was something of a disdainer. Where other readers and writers widely explored what certain genres had to offer; I tended to stick with the first thing that brought me in the door. I liked Star Wars, and never found another sci-fi world that interested me until I read Heinlein. Star Trek was fine, but I didn’t want to converse with nerds about it, so I held it at arms length (yes, the irony of that is breathtaking. It was a different world then). And after reading Tolkein at age 11, no other fantasy write would ever do.

I tried the mainstream ones. Raymond Feist’s work I found dull and lifeless. Robert Jordan had an interesting take before he drowned it in a sea of skirt-smoothings and braid-tuggings. And Martin… Well, we will not speak of Martin. The only other author I held in Tolkein’s tier was Frank Herbert, and even his series got silly before it ended (I’ve never cared for the expansion novels. They don’t have the same feel. The intensity and insight isn’t there).

But there was another side of Fantasy that I haven’t explored until recently. I speak of what is known as “Sword & Sorcery” or “Blood and Thunder”, i.e. the Pulp side of things. And as I have earlier written, I have found prose craftsmanship and strong storytelling in the works of Robert Howard and Fritz Leiber. They may have been Low Art, as these things are defined, but that doesn’t mean they were garbage. Quite the contrary.

The moral quality of art is something of a bugaboo. On the one hand, to the extent art and aesthetics are tied to Philosophy, they are tied to some pursuit of Truth, which has moral considerations. On the other hand, art as a transcendent experience does not fit neatly into the finely-ground gradients that ethics and politics create. There is something to the experience of watching say, Trainspotting, that exists even if you come to deplore the ethos limned therein. Aesthetic quality and moral quality are related but distinct.

And the Pulps, generally speaking, inhabited a moral universe. There may have been gradations between darkness and light (Conan and The Grey Mauser are certainly no Paladins), but overall there was an awareness in each story of who traded in deceit and corruption, and who was honest and forthright. Justice, a Cardinal virtue, involves not just fairness but also honesty, the keeping of ones word. The ability to tell the truth and do as you have promised has always been admired, and it’s opposite reviled, across culture. Human society does not function without it. Violent pulp heroes tended to be those who could and would do that.

What isn’t found here is preaching. Pulps were not interested in subverting, inverting, or otherwise altering the moral awareness of their readers. They acted upon the moral universe common readers were familiar with. The need for art to be at odds with culture, something I’ll talk about in another Ruskin-related post later on, was not present. That was the secret of the pulp’s success, as chronicled in J.D. Cowan’s Pulp Mindset, which I’m currently reading on Kindle.

So far I’ve read Cowan’s summary of pulp history, and how it differed as mass entertainment from 20th century litfic. It has its repetitive moments (you are unlikely to forget how Cowan feels about OldPub, as he calls it), but overall it functions as a discussion of what pulp is, and its overall aesthetic. So it is of use to writers of genre fiction, especially if they want to avoid the politicized slapfights that have plagued SFWA, The Hugos, and suchlike. I look forward to reading the rest.

SubStack, Marketing Lamentations, and Cover Design Refreshes

There’s a new publishing platform out there called SubStack. I heard about it on Twitter. It looks cool, it’s free to use, and it’s got a bunch of features like MailChimp that cost extra on WordPress (the number of things this blog doesn’t have because I don’t feel like shelling out for a WordPress business account would stagger the imagination. The stumbling block is huge. It’s why I podcast on Spreaker). I thought it might be a good place to put some content that isn’t really for UJ or, some stuff I’d like to showcase.

The idea is similar to Patreon: get subscribers in the door, and they pay you for content. Visually, it looks a lot like Medium. I have had a hard time with both, and I don’t really know why. I can publish the stuff, but no one reads it. I’m not one of the big names SubStack boasts of. I have, at present time, no name at all, despite damn near 20 years doing various kinds of blogging. For some reason, I’m just not getting it.

Perhaps I’m just too esoteric. Perhaps I haven’t managed Marketing. Certainly when I try to read about SEO, my eyes glaze over. Everything that’s not conceptually obvious seems out of my reach. There’s a trick that I’m missing, some step beyond. I look at the names of people who have tens of thousands of subscribers at $15/month and I don’t know who any of them are. They all seem boring or the same Connected Elect as already write for big publications. I’m sitting in the middle of the Information Superhighway, watching the same Mack Trucks run me over, bragging about how light and nimble they are.

The curse of this age is that anyone can get their stuff made, but only a curated few get their stuff seen. Everybody has a way to put video on the internet, but only Superhero tentpole movies, featuring characters decades old, made by international megacorporations, seem to matter. Having a blog today is like having a UHF station back in the 70’s: Yeah, you’re doing it, but no one cares.

The practical upshot of all this is that until I figure out how to grow an audience, expansion into anything else is absurd. And there I confront the reality that the kind of art and story I like, that interests me, is not the sort of thing that jumps out of the Internet and screams “Pay Attention to Me!” Screaming “Pay Attention to Me!” is necessary but also stupid. And that would put me in the camp of the Intellectuals, except I hate them even more, because they don’t merit the title. They all write like ad-men and Buzzfeed interns.

And that’s why the place is called Content Blues, in case you should be wondering. I create Content, and I have the Blues about it.

But that sort of defeatist groaning only takes you so far. This isn’t an online suicide. I’m not done.

Click image to buy on Amazon.

What’s this? Something that’s been published since 2018, the Year of the Three Novellas. A good novella, eight chapters, clean narrative, third-person focused. It starts with a reference to Blade Runner and it uses an Alien encounter story to explore the Philsophical problem of the Ship of Theseus. It’s not as erudite as The Devil Left Him, or as creative as The Party At the Last Tomorrow, but I might like it best.. Like a lot of my work, it’s pro-human, as despite my well-documented moral cyncism as regards the capacity of my species, I am and always have been firmly on its side. I am human; I prefer human to other forms of life, and am unbearably wearied by those who do not.

Why am I talking about it now? Simple: I made an elementary change in the cover: I improved the font.

Orignal cover on the left.

The book bills itself as an “Existential Sci-Fi Monster Tale”, and the original font just did not suit that theme. It looks too comic, too chunky. A void is a place of emptiness, therefore having the letters fill up so much space feels wrong. I went through scores of cover designs during and after the writing and editing of it. What I went to press with had the right image, and so I probably didn’t want last-minute self-doubt rabbits gnawing at my purpose.

The beauty is, I can revisit these decisions. Will the new cover excite any interest? I’ll do a price-reduction on Amazon next week and see. Hope is just another word for nothin’ left to lose.

Dan Simmons Demonstrates There’s No Such Thing as Bad Publicity

Apparently he committed thoughtcrime by criticizing Little Angry Climate Girl, whereupon the usual gang of Two-Minute-Haters jumped up and down, whereupon his most well-known book shot up to #1 on Amazon. Larry Correia has the details.

Now, logically speaking, we must stipulate that Correlation is not Causality, so it’s entirely possible that the Legions of Woke were not the cause of Dan Simmons’ thirty-year-old book getting purchased by everyone who wearies of the Legions of Woke.

But if something else were the cause, then that might be even worse for the Neo-Puritans. Because that means their *INTERNET RAGE* had no power to derail … whatever that cause was. Incompetence or irrelevance, take your pick.

This reminds us that, absent a real armed struggle, the perpetually angry only have the power that you grant them. And once people realize that, realize that there are plenty of people who are sick as they are of the endless noise, then the noise retreats accordingly. As Rotten Chestnuts has it:

once the revolutionary fervor passed away with the first generation of fanatics, Puritanism was unsustainable.  In Massachusetts, for example, they were hanging witches in 1693; by 1698 Cotton Mather was being openly mocked, and by 1700 everyone was pretending that the whole sordid business never happened.

Stand Your Ground seems to be the operant principle.


Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Space Opera

If you define fantasy as “a story that cannot occur in the real world”, as this web site does, then you can include sci-fi in that, as sci-fi takes places in worlds unseen and with technology uninvented, and any technology sufficiently advanced functions more or less like magic in the minds of many people.

But I’m not quite sure about that.

There’s definitely a link between sci-fi and fantasy, as both tend to be adventure stories. But Fantasy is by definition “unreal”, while sci-fi is “could be real”. Technology can seem magical, but it isn’t magic.

Which is why people tend to say “Sci-Fi and Fantasy” rather than just “Fantasy”. Related, but not a subset of. Because you can mix them, and the result is known as “Space Opera”.

Or is it? Here’s Tor.com working themselves into a later on the virtues of Space Opera, but holding off on really defining it (or refuting the statement that it’s Fantasy in Space). They talk about color and style, and poetry, but that seems to me a question of style, which is not really ontological.

To me, Space Opera means that there are elements of the universe that rely on speculative technology, space travel, and other Future Tropes, and also elements of the magical and supernatural. Star Wars is the most commonly known expression of this, but I think Dune qualifies even more, because with Dune the mystical/supernatural stands apart, plot-wise, from the tech. The Bene Gesserit and the Bene Tleilaxu are the institutional expressions of the cleavage.

What’s operatic in Dune is the struggle of Paul to understand himself, as well as the struggle against the Emperor and the Harkonnens. The remainder of the novels deal with the consequences of that struggle through the generations, as the metaphysical singularity represented by Paul is worked through by his son, Leto II, the God-Emperor.

The spice is real, and has a life-cycle, but it’s no less magic for all of that. It enables a mind to fold space and time, to see without seeing. The Worm is God.

If you keep the spice and lose the space travel, you have a struggle amid houses for dominance of the magic thing, which will play out much like A Song of Ice and Fire. If you keep the space travel, and lose the Spice, you have a sci-fi story about assassins and feudal regimes, with human enemies instead of aliens. The elements of each make make the other greater, while remaining distinct.


John C. Wright on Time Travel: An Absurdity Wrapped in a Non-Starter

It’s a longish post, but well worth your time.

In science fiction stories, there are a limited number of ways to explain the conundrum of how time travel can work in a world where there is both the appearance of free will and the appearance of cause and effect.

I doubt I can list all the various answers of the various imaginative authors who have attempted in an entertaining way to address the paradox. It makes for entertaining bull sessions by college students and philosophers, however.

But I can mention some basics:

In effect, the effort is to see how you can keep one or both of the appearances of cause and effect and of free will.

Wright mentions a number of methods (he calls them “options”) for dealing with the paradox:

  1. Free Will Doesn’t Exist (You can go back in time, but you will do exactly what you did, because that is what happened. This is the Slaughterhouse Five answer. “The Moment is Structured That Way” say the Tralfalmadorians).
  2. Cause and Effect Doesn’t Exist (You can go back in time, but in changing the past you only eliminate yourself).
  3. The Universe Doesn’t Like Things Changed (You can go back in time, and change the past, but the universe will order itself so that it gets the desired result in spite of your actions. This is the Tralfalmadorians-on-Steroids).
  4. Time Travel is Just a Scene-Change Device (Dr. Who, Quantum Leap, etc.)
  5. Multiple Time Lines Without Consequence (the easiest solution, in which no matter how much mucking about you do, the only changes will be cosmetic, and you can always go back and re-do it, and you will discover that you in fact, already have)
  6. Time is a Hard Drive Being Overwritten (By changing the past, you destroy the original timeline in which time travel was invented. So time-travel has the result of eliminating time-travel)

It’s great fun to consider, and I’ve always admired the Back the Future precisely because it makes Time Travel very difficult. You’ve got to have a Flux Capacitor and you’ve got to have 1.21 jiggiwatts of electricity and you’ve got to get that car up to 88 mph. Miss either one of these, and the time travel won’t happen.

I also especially enjoy the second movie because the plot takes it back inside the structure of the first movie, and revisits the exact same scenes without disturbing any of them, or indeed having anyone in those scenes notice that they’re being observed. It fascinates me. I’ve never seen a sequel deconstruct the first movie so entertainingly.

Lit Fic is a Genre

At least, that’s the takeaway I have from this Sarah Hoyt Post at Mad Genius Club.

Look, most twentieth century literature we were forced to read — particularly late 20th century literature — was written to be “what university professors like.” A dash of unearned superiority, a bit of social critique and always, always, every character being a worthless bastard or bitch, not worth the paper they were described on. Oh, and the entire thing always ended in a morass of bitterness and disillusionment.

The word for this Human Stain plot-template is trope.  Things fall apart, the center cannot hold, and all that cal. Broken people behave brokenly. I just had this experience with Manhattan Beach. It was a fun little story, with a mystery sewn into it, but I didn’t finish before it had to go back to the library, and now I’m not sure if I’m going to bother to. The mystery wasn’t going to be that mysterious. Whatever the most disillusioning solution would be, that was going to be the one that did it.

Bad things happen and that’s the end. That’s literary fiction for most of the time I’ve been alive. Really, since before that, if you go back to A Farewell to Arms and The Great Gatsby, where these things became obligatory. And that’s fine. But it’s a trope as simple and pure as Space Lords and Barbarian Kings. They comfort the worldview of the a certain segment of the population, by “challenging” it, according to a process of peripeteia and catharsis that was already old when Aristotle wrote about it. The rest is wankery trying vainly to disguise what they’re doing.

Back when I was going through literature courses I cured every professor who hit me with the “genre is just bad literature” by introducing them to Bradbury then hitting them with Phillip K. Dick while they were down.  Not one retained their opinion of genre, and some of them I left converted to science fiction.  (You could trace my progress through Portuguese educational institutions by the teachers/professors who not only read but rhapsodized over science fiction.


David Lynch’s Dune is So Bad it’s Hypnotic

The “Disasterpiece Theater” series at The Decider begins with a good choice.

In a lot of ways, Dune has a lot of the same problems as Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. Hear me out… Both were made for a rabid science fiction audience. Both films boast beautiful production design and talented casts. However, the biggest problem with both films is that they spend more time providing exposition about tedious political plots and religious superstitions than they do establishing characters and relationships. Dune spends almost a half hour telling you about houses and treaties and spice and navigators before getting to the tense gom jabbar scene (which Herbert begins on, like, page 5). Lynch just drops you into Paul’s world and you go with it because he doesn’t quite know what’s going on, either. You’ve got a relatable protagonist to latch onto, use him!

Lynch’s Dune is visually stunning but a narrative mess. And I’m a big fan of the series. I even like God Emperor of Dune (But not any book after that. The last two novels that Herbert wrote feel tired and meandering, and all the works written by Brian Herbert and Kevin Anderson just feel wrong). But even I find almost every line and acting choice weird and off (plus Patrick Stewart as Gurney Halleck? What?).

Yes, it should be watched. Actually, it should be watched several times:

  1. What? Who’s that? What’s going on? Why is this so BORING? Ugh, Never again!
  2. Actually, there’s some neat things to see here. It’s got a cool look. I might watch this again; it might grow on me.
  3. No, this is a bad movie. I’m done. Wierding modules? What were they thinking?

Virgina Madsen is gorgeous, however…