A short excursion into things I’m reading…
In the world of Science-Fiction, the latest movement is named the PulpRevival or PulpRevolution . These writers, readers, and critics, most self-taught and (way) outside of the mainstream are attempting to revive a connection to the bedrock of science-fiction in the Pulps of the early 20th century. They overlap a lot with the alt-right backlash that seems to be defining most of our cultural discussion.
They’re still trying to get traction, steam, and, well, some sort of order, but I tend to think they may be on to something (see the Castalia House Blog for the nerve center; a similar movement their in dialogue with are the Superversive folks). They’re aware of and taking advantage of the failings of today’s big publishing houses; they’re tapping into a conservative moment and appetite for reactionary media; and they’re fun (though associated with some alt-right crazy, so you’re mileave may vary). I’ll probably write something about them in the coming weeks.
To try and get a taste of the current crop of writers, I downloaded P. Alexander’s Cirsova, a new journal of heroic fantasy and science-fiction. I’m aware this is a first outing and not necessary when it comes to short fiction magazines, but I’m kind of a stupid completionist on these things and like to start with the first of a series if I can.
Cirsova #1 contains six stories, a novelette, Part 1 of an “epic poem”, and an retrospective on a pulp-age writer’s influence on tabletop gaming. I’ll write a few thoughts on each piece before making a comment on the whole. I don’t care about spoilers, so be warned – this is not a spoiler-free safe space.
“The Gift of the Ob-Men” by Schuyler Hernstrom
Hernstrom has become a favorite among some of the major players of the PulpRevival. I can see why. His story exudes the heroic fantasy of Robert E. Howard’s Conan – a tribal warrior, exiled from his home, tasked with destroying his people, and going on adventures along the way.
But while he has he aesthetic, he lacks Howard’s polish. This isn’t the only story with serviceable but weak writing in the collection – only Burnett’s novelette and two of the short stories have a good style that draws in the reader. Schuyler is also trying to do too much in this short story – an encounter with a race of mushroom people, the experience of seeing all times, fighting off a madman and his machine in a decadent city, a final confrontation with his old rival, and a budding romance in the ends.
I like the parts and the ideas, but it needs focus. All of this could have been put down in a novel and allowed more breathing room between the disparate parts. Adventure short stories, especially of heroic fantasy, should be about keeping an almost breakneck speed, but if there’s too much content that breakneck speed ends in a crash. “The Gift of the Ob-Men” doesn’t become a terrible conflagration, but it doesn’t pass the finish line gracefully.
Perhaps Schuyler’s later writing will give him that focus or let him have the space to let these disparate elements better integrate.
“My Name is John Carter (Part 1)” – James Hutchings
A recounting of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ A Princess of Mars in verse. It’s fun, I like it. That I’m a fan of ERB’s novel definitely helps. There’s a few groaners in adhering to the meter and rhyme scheme, but I’m okay with such things in a pulp journal. It adds a smirk to it.
The pedantic in me doesn’t want this to be called epic poetry. Long-form, sure, but not epic. Epics usually recount the tale of many adventures embedded in some overarching narrative. Burroughs isn’t quite that. But whatever, I’ll give it to him. I’m very interested as to where this will go.
“The Day at Tillbury” by Kat Otis
So I’m pre-disposed to dislike this story – celebrating the defeat of the Spanish Armada, now with sorcery wielding warrior-monks (who we never see!), by an English bastard (not a euphemism, born out of wedlock) with magic powers. We all know the defeat of the Spanish Armada is among the great tragedies of history, allowing England to achieve it’s greatness under Protestant Dominion – an imperfection akin to sin.
Either way, the general idea is fun – a historical-fiction adventure with a dash of fantasy. I tend to like the aesthetic of post-reformation Europe, the tragic fall of the old medieval system and the horrific ascendancy of modernity. And while I might cry over the armada, I do like me some British Imperialism.
But back to the story, there’s some weakness in the kind of care-free attitude of the main character. Yes, a terrible thing happens to him, but in the end he succeeds ostensibly because of being powerful and brave, but really because things just worked out for him. It didn’t sell to me. The writing wasn’t terrible, but nothing to be excited about.
“At the Feet of Neptune’s Queen” by Abraham Strongjohn
Pure and unadulterated Sword and Planet. Actually, let’s just call it what it is – a complete ripoff of Burroughs’ Barsoom novels. But, god forgive me, I loved every word of it.
Strongjohn’s writing is fun, and there are moments where he shines. His depiction of the coronation of Ch’Or, his martian John Carter, was fantastic – both in the ceremony and the majestic description thereof. He also has moments of over the top pulpyness, especially in his description of action. It’s a bit of a mangle, but it just packs in so much! The first paragraphs are good example –
Another fierce insectoid creature reared up as though to strike at Bi’Tik with all of its might then twitched and stiffened with a gurgling hiss that only partially drowned out a fierce battle cry. Bi’Tik scrambled aside as the thing fell forward, Ra’Ana perched atop it and withdrawing her weapon from its neck. – Cirsova #1, Loc 706
While a little overly erotic, Strongjohn is also great at juxtaposing feminine might. The noble warrior maiden Ra’Ana is a perfect pairing for the mighty Ch’Or while the sorcerous and voluptuous Vraala plays a foil in using her physical assets to seduce her way to her ends.
The only glaring fault is a last act treason which, while not incongruous with the earlier tale, begs to have more space given to it – more fleshed out background, more fallout, more angst. It’s all there, but subtle to the point of making you unsatisfied with it.
I can’t seem to find anything more written by Strongjohn, but I’d love to see where he goes from here.
“Rose by Any Other Name” by Brian K. Lowe
Lowe probably writes one of the first stories with real good style. It reads well and clear, which makes sense as Lowe is not a newbie writer. The story is interesting, but screams as only a part of a whole.
Kaine is a time-traveler who is becoming lost among the ages by the mysterious “Old Machines”. Stuck in what appears to be the far future, I’m pretty sure he admits to being some sort of neanderthal, but is very cognizant of the changes in history. He encounters a silverback gorilla with human level thinking and a girl who’s been messed with by the Old Machines. The story does a neat twist in the end in making the girl actually a member of a wolverine-human hybrid race, transformed by the machines.
The adventure is there, though a little subdued, and the world is not as fleshed out as I’d like. This is probably a good choice on Lowe’s part, knowing he doesn’t have the space for it. But it makes the story seem a little humdrum.
“Late Bloom” by Melanie Rees
I hated this story. A steampunk tale about a woman caught in a universe where she’s basically a slave to a man (her husband?), the airship they’re on makes some sort of rip into another universe, they pull in a man who might be from our own (wielding a gun her man/husband can’t figure out), he escapes and she gets to revenge-kill her captor. I could barely follow it.
The story doesn’t sound too bad, if a little bit much of a revenge-fic. But the writing is horrific. I couldn’t make heads-or-tails of what was happening most of the time and rereads of sections just reinforced the feeling of poor writing.
“The Hour of the Rat” – by Donald Jacob Uitvlugt
An Asian fantasy, telling the story of a house maid attempting to reclaim her lost combs by midnight theft and her run in with a legendary assassin, the White Ghost, looking to bring justice to a murderously perverted nobleman. This was one of my favorites, sketching the foreign environment enough to let one’s imagination have free reign to piece it together into an exotic locale – one of the strengths of these sorts of short stories. The house maid getting suddenly caught up in events beyond her was played nicely, allowing the unfinished justice of the assassin to be satisfying while still leaving a desire for more. I’d like to read more stories about the White Ghost.
“A Hill of Stars” by Misha Burnett
“A Hill of Stars” recounts the tale of human servant of a Great One, mysterious beings who live for eons and are the centers of civilization. With his master voluntarily dying after thirty thousand years, he is free and elects to search out and join up with the Wild Humans in the countryside of the world. Captured by such a tribe, he ends up defeating the monster they try to feed him to and he rides off into the sunset with a beautiful new friend.
Burnett’s tale is oddly distant, but works because of it. The first-person voice holds a kind of dispassion which, for me, gave the character a kind of otherworldly fear – fitting as he had served something which was decidedly suprahuman. The story itself is somewhat by-the-numbers, which isn’t bad. I became a little bored at the climax, easily guessing what would happen.
The world, though, especially the Great Ones, definitely intrigue and leave one asking for more.
“Retrospective: Toyman by E.C. Tubb” by Jeffro Johnson
Jeffro is something of the godfather of the Pulp Revolution, his Appendix N series on Castalia House (and published after completion) brought to the fore the old pulp science fiction and laid down a gauntlet against the current gatekeepers of the genre. His work, while important for the genre, is actually aimed at better understanding the roots of Dungeon & Dragons and Tabletop Roleplaying.
This retrospective continues this trend, but is a bit of a work of inside-baseball. I have no familiar with the game system he discusses, Traveller, and so was not as intrigued in seeing its forerunner in the work of Tubb. Still, the retrospective was interesting in discussing the work of a pulp great. Something Jeffro has helped many of us see is that the old Pulps could be just as rich and narratively satisfying as anything written today (if not more so!).
The collection works really well and shows some great promise for future issues of the journal. While there were a few weak stories (“Late Bloom” and “This Day, At Tilbury”), the rest were enjoyable and a few sent me looking to follow the writers for new material (“At the Feet of Neptune’s Queen” and “The Hour of the Rat”). I’m looking forward to what else Cirsova will be putting out.