What is Science Fiction Pulp Anyway?

Pulp originally referred to the cheap paper once used for disposable magazines that were often sold at subway stations or bus stops and only intended to last one or two reads before being tossed. And magazines such as Wierd Tales, Astounding Science Fiction, Super Science, and If Magazine were a good way for a new writer to cut his or her teeth in the trade. Many, like Hineline and Asimov, later climbed up the literary ladder to publish novels based on the short stories that they originally sold to the magazine trade.

But pulp has become much more than the quality of the paper it’s printed on. It’s a style of writing that many people still find appealing. Imagine yourself a writer who needs to make a buck; your reader is a passenger on a train car and they want to read something exciting and fun on the way home, and your publisher pays by the word. Suddenly everything becomes amazing, thrilling and astounding! Your heroes ripple with well-sculpted muscles as they battle sinister, fearsome, and devious foes. Everything is cranked up to eleven as your story thunders across the page to its thrilling climax. The reader is enthralled as they turn page after page to see what happens next, and the editor writes you a check for every adjective you used. That is the essence of pulp.

It is also, to be fair, the essence of cheese. Characters in pulp can be so overblown as to be corny, and the plots are often extremely basic. For this reason, pulp is usually excluded from the term “literature.” In fact, the anti-pulp stigma is so bad that authors usually write under assumed names so as not to ruin their chances in the “real” fiction market. For example, I once met the author of the book you see me holding in the picture above (Spaceways: of Alien Bondage). His name wasn’t John Cleve but Andrew J. Offutt and he was one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met.

Still, as much as the “literary” crowd hates to admit it, pulp has been a huge influence on our culture; Conan the Barbarian–pulp, Buck Rodgers–pulp, The Cathulu mythos–pulp, and on and on. Pulp has also inspired many “serious” writers with its pow! zap! style. Stephen King is a great example, and he bravely admits that his style of writing is often influenced by the pulp he read as a kid.

Now, I freely admit that a lot of the pulp written in the long ago past has sexist and racist overtones. Shamefully, that was so commonly accepted at the time that many people were unconscious of it (which does not excuse it). However, I must note that a lot of non-pulp of that same era had sexist and racist overtones so I don’t blame pulp as a genre for the sins of the era that birthed it. And I’m happy to say that modern pulp seldom if ever contains those sorry elements.

That’s right, there is modern pulp. Authors are still churning out that fast paced, action packed, double hyperbole styled fiction. Face it, some times we just aren’t in the mood for philosophical tales and simply want a straight forward story with ray guns that go zap! and spaceships that go woosh! If you’ve never read pulp science fiction, I recommend you give it a try. You may thrill to the adventure, or you may laugh at the cheese (or both), but either way, you’re sure to have fun.

Clayton J. Callahan

3 thoughts on “What is Science Fiction Pulp Anyway?”

  1. I take exception (or two) to your history that jumps us from bad paper to cheese. Lurid, over-the-top stories populated Victorian magazines, but since the 7 x 10″ format was the cheapest way to produce a magazine in the first half of the 20th century, it was adopted by publishers trying to make a buck on untested writers and marginal genres. The ‘Cheapnis’ emerged from the cheapness.
    You’ll want to check out Sam Moskowitz’s piece, the “History of the Munsey Pulps”, in his excellent book Under the Moons of Mars to get a feel for the impact of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and the evolution of ‘pulp’ as a FORMAT on the history of science fiction.
    And I can’t overlook “plots are extremely basic” — it’s CHARACTER that’s in short supply in pulp literature. Hell, Faulkner is easier to follow, plot-wise, that your typical Shadow story.

    Like

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