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Why read pulp?

This April we are going to inaugurate the exhibition ‘Pulp and Scifi’ at the ‘Centro Cívic el
Coll
’ (former headquarters of ‘La Bruguera’), and we wanted to make a brief introduction as an
invitation for anyone in love with scifi who might want to stop by and take a peak. You are also
invited to come and criticize everything; which is a national sport after all.
The word ‘pulp’, used to name the low-budget magazines that became popular during the second
decade of the s. XX, it refers to the material with which they were made, the wood pulp. The reason
this material was used was its low cost.
The curious thing about this name is that it does not refer to the content or style of the product, as
could happen with Poe’s Gothic or Goethe’s Naturalism, but to the form of production. Publishers
were no longer interested in a demanding public that conceived literature as an intellectual aspect
reserved for a few; at this point they were reaching the masses, they were beginning to produce ‘fast
stories’, with the sole objective of entertaining.
Therefore, we should not be surprised by the profile that these types of magazines go for: a
‘throwaway’ format, decorated with covers of vibrant and primary colors, stories of evasion, and, as
people usually say, poor artistic quality. However, it would be very difficult to find a single current
story within the commercial spectrum that does not owe its existence to the Golden Age of fiction.
Indiana Jones, Star Wars, Pirates of the Caribbean … even the most beloved superheroes, like the
Man of Steel (Superman) are linked to a previous character, the Man of Bronze (Doc. Savage). The
way we treat fiction, taken for granted today, has its origins in this era. Great names in later
literature began their careers writing for Amazing Stories, Astounding or for Weird Tales. Among
them are Asimov, Ray Bradbury, E. R. Burroughs or Robert A. Heinlein.
In order to survive, these writers had to produce lots of material, and very quickly, because very
little was paid per word (and that’s if it was paid. It is known that H. Gernsback, the first editor of a
magazine dedicated exclusively to scifi, invented many excuses for not pay his writers, and when he
did, the money was always late and in poor amounts). Despite this and the fact that competition was
fierce, because suddenly hordes of writers were needed to fill a quota that became periodic, during
these years, not only a new form of production was configured, but also a new genre (science
fiction). And a very interesting community of authors was created (especially in the US) who
worked side by side to establish the foundations of what would be the Silver Age of science fiction.
These stories may seem naïve to us, they may seem excessively simple, and even questionable
discursively, as they dedicate themselves body and soul to extol the individualistic spirit of the
conventional hero, always white, stocky and holding a shotgun; However, they transmit a freshness
that has been forgotten and even rejected by current writers, who are distrustful of any type of
institutionality.
Because pulp authors were the first to do what they were doing, because they had no choice but to
be carried away by imagination (in many ways, they were the first to do what they did), and because
their mission was to contain a public desperate to escape from a context framed by two World Warsand an economic crisis (crash of 29) that left the majority of the population plunged into absolute
poverty.
Their themes and style gravitated mainly on two centers: the rationalist positivism of J. Verne and
the Gothic of Poe, Shelley and of course (great pulp writer) Lovecraft. That is why in this ‘literary
movement’ (which we only now recognize as such) one can expect to find mainly mad scientists
willing to transcend human knowledge, even if it means death to them, and bold explorers who not
only discover new worlds in the least expected places, but also to conquer them, as they carry with
them the idea of superior civilization wherever they go.
Many times, a male protagonist arrives to a new place, and confronts his ideology and the material
expression of that ideology (firearms, european sense of honor and moral standards, for example)
against the natives, and of course he wins. Another mainly developed subject at the time was the
alien invasion stories, which should not surprise us, if we realize that this was what Europe was
doing in Africa during the 20th century; invade it to exploit its resources.
To understand the pulp, we must keep in mind that the s. XVIII came full of changes and advances,
both technological and social, and that, despite the fear of ‘transgressing the laws of God’, replacing
them with the ‘laws of Humanity’ (fear expressed in the figure of, as we said, the crazy scientist), the
general idea was that progress, like evolution (Darwin published his famous work in 1860) was
unidirectional and therefore we were heading as a species towards something better.
African or indigenous cultures were not considered as a bifurcation, that is, as a parallel evolution to
the European ones, actually it was believed that they were at a less developed point of linear
evolution. Like a relic of the past that by some miracle had been preserved intact for many, many
years. Obviously, they were wrong. An error that justified many atrocities. Anyway, that perspective
became obsolete after the Second World War.
First of all, because after cases like Hiroshima it became very clear that technological advances can
destroy, as well as build (take for example Hiroshima or the great Nazi constructions and research)
and second, that, as Asimov himself says, ‘after Hitler, people didn’t want to be racist no more ‘.
Therefore, a clear ideological change in scifi can be appreciated after the 40’s, which would give
birth to the Silver Age (superior in many respects, but without that particular pulp brilliance).
Thus, if we are able to put aside naivety and their ethnocentric perspective and, most of the time,
unflattering perspectives towards the female gender, we will find in pulp production a door through
a time when the future was perceived as a universe full of possibilities. We will be able to escape
for a while from the schizoid fear and the lack of a collective project that characterize our historical
present and our view of the future (the great amount of cyberpunk and dystopia that is being
commercialized are a sign of what we expect to come). And we can also enter a community of
writers and editors much more powerful and united than any of the ones that followed.
However, not all writers of this period had the honor of entering the annals of the history of
literature. Many were lost along the way (the pulp was very despised) and most with good reason.
But if this interests you, here are three recommendations for stories that marked an era and invited
thousands of writers to get started in the genre.Submicroscopic- Captain S. P Meek. (1931, Amazing Stories)
An exponent of Verne’s rationalist style, this story is about a man who shrinks himself and finds a
new world in a speck of dust. The character has a shotgun; this and his courage are all he needs to
become the owner and lord of the place, marry the princess, and become king. It is a classic, and the
idea of shrinking has inspired numerous stories (Richard Matheson’s ‘The Incredible Shrinking
Man’, for example), although it is one of the stories that aged poorest, as our generation does not
digest well the helpless princesses or baddies who are described as ‘black’ and ‘savage’. However, it
is worth reading for the number of current characters that were inspired by Courtney Edwards.
Tumithak of the Corridors- Charles R. Tanner.
Another pulp classic. A group of Venusian aliens known as ‘shelks’ have invaded planet Earth,
relegating humanity to a miserable existence in underground tunnels, where, after thousands of
years, have become precarious cities whose citizens do not know sunlight. . Tumithak finds a very
old book about a better time, and decides to go to the surface to kill a shelk and prove that they are
not gods, but mortal creatures. The story (at least the first one) is his journey through the different
corridors (cities) and his final confrontation with the monster. The best thing about the story is the
construction of this world, that is, the various forms in which humans from different tunnels have
adopted to survive.
Age of the Moon- Jack Williamson.
Written as a Gothic tale (a character invited by an unknown relative on an adventure, narrated in the
first person as a diary or memoir, an experiment that does not turn out exactly as it should, but leads
to a great revelation), the story focuses on a journey through space and time, until reaching a time
when the moon was habitable and populated with strange creatures. There, the protagonist will meet
different species in conflict and must help the last of a great race (the “Mother”) to escape from her
enemies. A kind of veiled love story, which focuses more on the connection between the two main
characters (a human and a selenite) than on the literal expressions of the act of loving.
To the initial question: ‘Why read pulp?’ That we asked ourselves at the beginning of the article, we
respond with a phrase from Asimov that will serve as a conclusion:

Asimov, ‘The Golden Age of Science Fiction’, 1974.

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