Pulp (Science) Fiction

20 Dec

Yeah. So. I might have been a little hasty in my prediction that all 30’s pulp sci fi would be melodramatic. Too much (over)exposure to Captain Proton. That said, the sci-fi of the 1930’s still seems to have an earnest straight-forwardness to it. That is, with the exception of minor details, it does not read as particularly revolutionary to the contemporary eye. But you know, neither does a Mondrian abstract painting.

Looked at from a purely 21st century perspective, your gut reaction to such paintings (or such short stories) is “So what? Lots of stuff looks like that.” Yes. These days. But then you glance at the year the painting or the story came out and contrast it with what passed as popular design or entertainment in its day, and the work is friggin’ revolutionary. Indeed, any one of these stories can be classed as a primordial example of what is now a common sci-fi trope. If H. G. Wells is the grandfather of modern science fiction, these writers are his sons:

John W. Campbell: “Twilight” (1934) by John W. Campbell sticks close to daddy. That is, it feels, in spirit, like H.G. Wells The Time Machine. It tells the story of a man from the 31st century who travels millions of years into his (and our) future, then travels back only to overshoot the mark and end up in the 1930’s, where he relates his tale to a man from that time, who then relates the story to a buddy of his.

This frame-within-a-frame story-telling reminds me of the 19th century proto-sci-fi I read in which the authors tried to distance themselves from the story they were telling by prefacing it with the narrator saying, “here’s this ridiculous story I heard!” But it does so less as an apologetic device. It also made the identity of the narrator of this particular story confusing at times, although you could assume that if we were being told about the 7 millionth century, it was probably the time traveler character speaking.

You know, I might put a moratorium on reading Far Future stories. They’re always so gosh darn depressing. They all want to turn the assumption of on-going progress on its head (not a bad philosophical goal in itself, such assumptions require questioning), but they seem to invariably question that assumption by depicting an earthly future in which humankind’s evolutionary descendents have gradually stagnated or devolved in some nihilistically undesirable way. In this story, a society which evolved great and wondrous machines has disappeared, and its descendents have devolved to a state where they can no longer use them. As a result, the self-sustaining, perpetually-powered machines continue to do service work for no one in long-abandoned cities.

The saving grace of this story is that it describes this future in hauntingly beautiful prose:

When Earth is cold, and the Sun has died out, those machines will go on. When Earth begins to crack and break, those perfect, ceaseless machines will try to repair her–

The men knew how to die, and be dead, but the machines didn’t.

The universe moves slowly. Only life is not enduring; only life changes swiftly. Eight short millions of years. Eight days in the life of Earth–and the race was dying. It had left something: machines. But they would die, too, even though they could not understand.

What sets this story squarely in the time (1934) in which it was written (and other stories from the same era I’ve read, frankly) is humans from the future evincing the casual sexism and racism of the day. It jars against contemporary views of future people. Science fiction writers can spin visions of the future, but in so many ways, they can’t think outside the box of their own times.

Stanley Weinbaum: One of the things that has always turned me off of classic science fiction is that it was written back at a time when we didn’t know a thing, and now we know that thing, and I don’t have a lot of patience for the writer’s honest speculation that gets it wrong. Similar deal when the writer has to invent a future occurrence, like the first manned voyage to the Moon, that from my point of view already actually happened and happened on a different date to guys with different names in a totally different way than that writer imagined. When it comes to science fiction, I want to be shown something I don’t already—or could not already—know. I want my own reading experience to be transcendent from my here and now.

But, you know, when you’re reading chronologically, it’s less of an issue. I’m not so primed for what I usually want, and more patient about the fact that at the time the author wrote this, this gave his readers all the things I would have wanted if I had been them.

Stanley Weinbaum’s “A Martian Odyssey” (1934) depicts the first manned mission to Mars–which hasn’t even happened even from my perspective–but we 21st century types do have robots on Mars, so I know the red planet is not much like he depicted. And I also keep abreast of all the plans to get humans to Mars, so I am pretty sure the circumstances of that landing will be different than he depicts.

No matter. This is a story about one of the crew of that mission, who takes a shuttle out from the mother ship to explore, ends up crashing, and has to hike back. He picks up a Martian companion along the way, and they learn how to communicate in a rudimentary way. Then, together, they brave a number of even weirder Martian species. Like “Twilight” above, this story is framed in a “here’s what happened to me” frame, so you know the astronaut makes it back to his ship safely from the get-go. The story is half adventure yarn, half philosophical exploration of what it means to be “intelligent.” And thoughtfully so.

A. E. Van Vogt: If the science fiction stories of the 1930’s are the blueprints for the stories to come, than A. E. Van Vogt’s “Black Destroyer” (1939) is the primordial version of stories such as the Alien movie series. There is also something distinctly “Star Trekian” about this story as well, as the men (and they are all men in all these stories) come from an era on Earth in which we have organized galactic exploration, and their ship is manned with specialists of all kinds. Including, interestingly, social scientists.

Together, they struggle to gain back their ship from a predatory alien who has ship-jacked them after they land on the alien’s world. Its plan? To take their ship back to Earth and munch away on the living things there, natch.

What is interesting about this story is that ultimately it is social science (not really big rifles) that saves them. In their time, anthropology has become a well-confirmed science in which they can predict the technological evolution of intelligent species. This helps them determine the weaknesses in their adversary’s plan, given their observations of its species on its native world. This is a naive view of social science that is a bit harder to swallow in 2013, but it would not have been in 1939.

The human explorers have that same gung-ho earnestness typical of characters written during this era. But you know? It reminds me of the same gung-ho earnestness you see in the original Star Trek, a show that I am now convinced was inspired by stories such as this one, even as it went beyond them and set a new bar for the genre.

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