My Winding Road To PulpRev

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I wasn’t always a science fiction and fantasy reader. Despite what my bibliography says, in some ways I still am not. At least, not the kind of reader most SFF is aimed at.

As a child I read voraciously, but I was always drawn to world myths, folklore and fairy tales. One day I would read about how a boy and a girl outmatched Baba Yaga with kindness and intelligence; the next I saw Thor slaying Jormungandr and in turn dying from the world serpent’s venom; the day after I witnessed Krishna opening his mouth to his human mother Yashoda to reveal the entire universe. These were tales of courage and cowardice, sin and virtue, heartbreak and sacrifice, duty and destiny.

When I finally meandered over to the fiction section, I found myself utterly bored. Age-appropriate stories had their own charm, but they paled in comparison to the stories I had read. How could a girl who used her photographic memory to solve small mysteries compare to the Aesir’s cunning scheme to bind Fenrir and prevent a premature Ragnarok? Why should I care for the everyday tales of the Bookworm Gang when I could read of the tragedies, labours and triumphs of Hercules? What were the exploits of Mr Kiasu when placed next to Scheherazade’s tales?

Nevertheless, I kept reading everything I could get my hands on. The TintinAsterix and the Hardy Boys series made regular appearances in my household. Readers Digest sent condensed novels to my home then, and there I ventured into adult fiction. At the age of 13, a classmate lent me a copy of Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six, and there I discovered a new genre: thrillers.

I read every Tom Clancy work I could find, and sought other writers in the same vein: Chris Ryan, Andy McNab, Larry Bond, Dale Brown. Here were stories of geopolitics, terrorism, war, of issues that mattered to readers of the day. These were events that could have happened and worlds that might have existed. Here I studied tradecraft, politics, human motivations, tactics, technology and absorbed the lessons of research, meticulousness and mindset.

When the Harry Potter craze hit Singapore, I got my hands on the first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. It was a decent story in its own right, but to someone who had grown up reading the tragedy of King Arthur, Xuanzang’s journey to the West, and the exploits of John Clark, Harry Potter was… underwhelming. It had its merits, but it wasn’t worth a second read. I understood its appeal to regular children, but I, having achieved the Grail with Galahad, slain the Medusa with Perseus and defeated terrorists beside Team Rainbow, was no regular child.

Nevertheless, I attempted to read other modern science fiction and fantasy stories. Storm Front by Jim Butcher was one of the few I remembered: it was raw, but even then it was entertaining, and to be fair Butcher got better with each successive novel. But the rest? There was no sense of tradecraft, no sense of stakes, no plot, wooden dialogue, characters who avoided death simply because the enemy lacked intelligence. They weren’t worth my time.

I turned elsewhere. Michael Connolly, Daniel Silva, Charles Cumming, Max Arthur Collins, Barry Eisler, Marcus Sakey, Stephen Hunter, Sean Chercover. In crime and spy thrillers I found a different emphasis: where the technothrillers of my youth paid fetishistic attention to technology and weaponry, these thrillers sketched out all-too-human portrayals of people and their achievements and failings. And yet… they still lacked something quintessential, something I had seen in my childhood books but not quite replicated.

I turned to the classics. Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley. Here, I found it again: recognition of elemental evil, celebration of the human spirit, the triumph of transcendent goodness. I found adventure and excitement and philosophy and science and reason. In Around the World in Eighty Days I saw how decisiveness, technology, creativity and an obscene amount of money could take a man on globe-spanning adventures; in War of the Worlds I caught a nightmarish vision of an unstoppable alien invasion, on par with the Apocalypse; in Frankenstein I saw the consequences of mad science and an exploration of the human spirit; Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea mixed romantic adventure with then-cutting-edge science.

I had found the pioneers of science fiction and fantasy.

Once again I looked at modern science fiction and fantasy. And once again I was repulsed. I was the child reading a poor version of Harry Potter: having seen the enlightenment of the Buddha, the twilight of the gods and the resurrection of the Christ, what were these stories but pale shadows? But for a few glittering jewels, these stories were dull and flat, inspiring little more than boredom and contempt.

Then I found John Ringo. And from Ringo I found David Drake, David Weber and Larry Correia. These were the descendants of the stories that had fired my boyhood imagination: heroes facing mortal and moral peril, exotic locales, excellent tradecraft and tactics, weighty actions whose consequences rippled through the story universe, coherent technology and intricate settings. I looked at what inspired them, and I found Robert A. Heinlein, Raymond Chandler, H. P. Lovecraft, Dashiell Hammet, Mickey Spillane, Frank Herbert, Elmore Leonard.

In these stories I rediscovered what I had lost: expansive worlds and settings, characters clothed in their culture and their beliefs, exhilaration at overcoming impossible odds, unflinching explorations of the dark heart of man, epic struggles of good against evil, inhuman monsters and alien beings. In these stories I rediscovered the universal elements that lurked at the heart of the grand tales of my childhood. I saw the lineage of ideas and story elements linking these stories to the classics, and from the classics to the world myths.

I had rediscovered the pulps.

How could science fiction and fantasy have fallen so far? When did tales of galaxy-spanning empires give way to interchangeable dystopias in generic Earths wrecked by the predictable boogeyman of climate change? How did military science fiction, the literature of high strategy and wartime ethics and futuristic tactics, become stylized shoot ’em ups or bland sludge about everything but the military? Why do modern SFF stories have characters clinging to 21st century progressive cultural and political values in settings that could not justify them, while old-time stories had entire schools of thought and cultural norms that flowed organically from their settings?

These questions, and more, haunted me as I explored fiction. When I took up the pen, I decided I could not follow in the footsteps of modern SFF writers. Against the old masters, they were like candles to the sun, and I refuse to craft dim candles when I could ignite new stars.

In my writing and my research, I strove to keep one foot firmly in the Golden Age and the other in the present. As I studied the pulp masters I blended their techniques with the rest of my arsenal, drawing upon what I have learned from war stories and mythology, fairy tales and thrillers. And in doing so I found others who shared my approach.

This is where I found PulpRev. Be they members of the Pulp Revolution or Pulp Revival, the people of PulpRev respect the tales of the past while training their eyes on the future. They are the children of the Internet era: they banter on Twitter and Gab and Discord, they haul up the books of the past with Project Gutenburg, they make full use of blogging and self-publishing platforms to get the word out. They tell stories for a modern audience while honouring what made their literary inspirations timeless. For PulpRev, the answer to the doldrums and the blandness of modern SFF is simple: regress harder. Regress to the glory days of pulp, and revel in the forgotten era of SFF. Rediscover the tales of lost cities and atomic rockets, planetary romances and adventure fiction, and breathe new life into a stale, insipid, calcified industry.

PulpRev is a rapidly-growing movement in SFF. We are writers and readers, indies and hybrids, and we have come to create a new epoch. We uphold the old masters, and we birth new works of our own. Neither politics nor borders divides us. Ours is a big tent: all who appreciate the pulp aesthetic is of our tribe. If you wish for fiction that sends the spirit soaring, fiction that is romantic and heroic and thrilling, fiction that is just plain fun, come join us, and together we shall make SFF great again.

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If you’d like to see the fruits of my research in pulp and writing, you can find my novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS on Amazon and the Castalia House ebook store.

Space Opera is about Opera

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Tor launched #SpaceOperaWeek to promote and discusse space opera. In 24 hours, the Pulp Revolution launched a memetic revolution and claimed the hashtag for its own. Now, practically every hashtag and Internet discussion about #SpaceOperaWeek is dominated by the PulpRev folks. This stunning success exposes a hard truth: Tor has no idea what space opera is about.

Tor says ‘Space Opera is at its best when it merges the sweeping, big stakes stories with ordinary human drama‘. That is a laughable notion.

Space opera is about Opera: enormous stakes, huge conflicts, sweeping scope, massive drama, larger-than-life characters. Readers do not want to read page after page of mind-numbing tedium; they already live that in everyday life. They read fiction, especially science fiction, to escape reality, not to delve deeper into it.

David Weber’s Honor Harrington series is a classic example of space opera: interstellar diplomacy and warfare, grand strategy and fleet tactics, conspiracies and drama, high technology and higher stakes. The series doesn’t have Admiral Harrington spending entire novels caught up in mindless staff meetings and tedious paperwork; that’s not the point of space opera. People don’t want to read boring stuff, and ordinary, everyday life is boring. If they want to read about ordinary human drama, that’s what literary fiction is for.

Tor’s assertion to the contrary demonstrates a lack of awareness of what readers want. But that’s what you get when you bring aboard a writer who admits she is “not really a Space Opera kind of girl“.

Space opera is about, well, fun. As John Del Arroz points out on the Castalia House blog, space opera doesn’t have to realistic; it just has to be fun.

Not that there isn’t room for realism if it doesn’t subtract from the story. It just has to be done right.

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Science fiction celebrates the vasty deep of the galaxy, marvels at the strange wonders born in the light of alien suns, and lauds the power of the imagination. Today, sci fi is split into ‘realistic’ hard science fiction and ‘unrealistic’ soft science fiction, with works assessed by how closely they hew to known science. The old pulp masters would have laughed at such a notion. But it doesn’t mean that it’s not useful.

Hard science fiction is the fiction of probability. It celebrates the glory of science today, showing us what we can do with what we already know. It is not about fixing your imagination into tedious todays and stagnant yesterdays, or locking your brain into the realism box. Science constantly changes; a hard sci fi story cannot possibly remain completely accurate forever, nor should it. Instead it should strive to show what humans can achieve simply with what we know today, and build a ladder for us to reach for brighter and more glorious tomorrows.

Starship Operators is perhaps the hardest science fiction anime today. There is no sound in space; the sound is explicitly described as dubbed in for viewers. Battles take hours or days, with ships jostling for position. The only artificial gravity aboard a ship comes from rotating wheels. Light-speed lag significantly affects tactics and combat.

Yet at its heart, Starship Operators is about a group of plucky space cadets waging a one-ship war against an interstellar superpower to free their country while being sponsored by a television company. It doesn’t let science get in the way of the story. Hence there are stealth ships, plasma weapons, faster-than-light travel, and a disturbing lack of thermal radiators. The science in the anime are simply the props that allow the story to be told.

For ultra-diamond-hard science fiction, bar none, look no further than Children of a Dead Earth. It’s a space warfare simulator, designed with the express purpose of exploring what warfare in space would look like. Everything in the game obeys the laws of the universe: thermal stress and radiation, orbital mechanics , the rocket equation, Young’s Modulus and more. To fully appreciate the game you need to have an in-depth understanding of lasers, nuclear reactors, thrust and a dozen other fields. No fantasy physics here – at least, until you unlock the black box design module.

Children of a Dead Earth succeeds because of these limitations. The creator produced a compelling story universe in which humanity has colonised the planets, asteroids and moons of the Solar System. It is a universe riddled with superpower conflict and interfactional rivalries, culminating in a shooting war where fleets of atomic rockets attempt to destroy each other with high-intensity lasers, hypervelocity projectiles and nuclear missiles. While this isn’t strictly space opera, a setting like this demonstrates what can be done today — so imagine what can be done tomorrow.

Soft science fiction is the fiction of possibility. It’s not completely accurate, but it doesn’t have to be. Instead, soft sci fi sets the stage for epic tales of tragedy and heroism and sorrow and hope. It takes the readers to journeys to far-off worlds, fires their imagination with depictions of Super Awesome Tech, and the very best stories point the reader to greater truths about the nature of humanity.

Star Wars (the original trilogy!) is an enduring classic of soft science fiction. It has Space Magic, wandering samurai with energy blades and mind powers, galaxy-spanning polities and world-killing superweapons. It’s not realistic and pretend to be. It doesn’t bother with ‘ordinary human drama’, focusing instead on the high drama of good versus evil and the struggle between the Light and Dark sides of the Force. The original trilogy focuses on being fun, and that is why its legacy endures to this day.

Looking further into the past, we see the old masters of pulp writing space opera with an emphasis on opera. E. E. Smith’s seminal Lensman series exemplifies this: elder alien races manipulating younger ones to achieve their ends, superweapons and psionics aplenty, massive space battles with the casual destruction of worlds, and titanic struggles between the forces of civilization and tyranny. Compared to such luminence, mere human drama means nothing.

While it may sometimes be useful to divide science fiction between hard and soft, it is merely a paradigm, to be adopted when useful and discarded when not. Consider the case of John C. Wright’s Superluminary. It features all manner of ‘soft’ sci fi technology–casual biomodification, psionics, the titulary faster-than-light travel mechanism–but the story universe is carefully constructed, with the technology obeying the rules of the universe as faithfully as any other piece of high technology in a work of hard science fiction. With these sci fi elements, Wright tells a story of a young man who must seize the throne of Humanity and lead mankind in a desperate war against a star-spanning race of vampires who have conquered the universe and seek to consume everything. Nowhere near ‘realistic’, but it is an epic space opera told in the grand tradition of the old pulp masters – and vastly more enjoyable than stories of mere human drama.

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Science fiction is about *fiction* and space opera is about *opera*. If people want to read about science or space, there are plenty of non-fiction books, magazines and journals to choose from. If people want to delve into ordinary human drama, they just have to live ordinary lives or pick up lit fic. The science in science fiction makes the fiction *fun*, and the space in space opera is the setting for the opera.

Science fiction is not about dragging readers through muck and demanding they derive pleasure from it. Science fiction turns their eyes to the stars, and space opera takes them there. Space opera is about opera: the glory, the terror, the joy, the horror, the sorrow and the wonder that awaits the intrepid starman who dares to brave the infinite expanse.