Monday, 16 July 2018

Where the Silent One Sleeps ~ A Review of "The Moon Pool" by Abraham Merritt

There are certain works that are difficult to review. A. Merritt's work is, to me, the toughest to write my thoughts down about. I have read several of his works but have avoided writing a review just because of how hard it was to sum up what I had experienced. Burn Witch Burn! was one of the best thrillers I had ever read with some fantastic horror, science fiction, and fantasy, blending in to the proceedings with mobsters and witches to spare. Then there was Creep, Shadow!, a story of romance and myths come together over a murderous monster that kills from said shadows and one of my favorite ancient legends on top of it. But the most inexplicable of all might be Merritt's first long work, and arguably the most influential, The Moon Pool.

Running in All-Story Weekly in 1918, a full 100 years ago, The Moon Pool quickly became so intensely popular that a sequel was immediately written (Conquest of the Moon Pool, which is now bundled with the original as one long work) due to demand. There are aspects of this story that Lovecraft would take influence from as well as legendarily off-kilter writer and thinker Richard Shaver. But it was also the story that started Merritt's trajectory as a master of action adventure fiction without any regards to any genre boundaries that were constructed later, influencing everyone from Robert Bloch to Michael Moorcock, to Gary Gygax. And there is a reason his influence spread so far. Simply put: anything can happen in an Abraham Merritt story, and frequently does. This is why he was thought of as the master of fantasy.

But what about the story itself? Surely a 100 year old story must have some curve-balls to have lasted so long as an influence and such highly regarded figures.

It starts with a mystery. Dr. Walter Goodwin, a man of science, joins his friend, Dr. David Throckmartin on a trip after the latter's family disappeared by mysterious circumstances. What Throckmartin had yet to reveal to Goodwin is the horrifying truth of what had happened: and what this mysterious object called the Moon Pool has to do with it. It turns out that there are both wondrous and horrifying things hiding just below the surface of this world. Goodwin begins to question his materialistic view of the universe, as everything unravels around him.

What follows is a story of lost worlds, hidden societies, Lovecraft -style beings, incredible monsters, battles and sieges, myths and legends, and both false and true romance. In just 300 pages, The Moon Pool runs through several satisfying character arcs, breathtaking and unbelievable sights, and plenty of action and adventure to go around. Dr. Goodwin's journey is one fraught with peril and terror, but an unmistakable sense of wonder pervades despite this and drags both him, and the reader, ever onward to discover the truth. I can easily say that this reader was hooked until the last page.

Of course, Merritt's work was immensely popular all the way through the 1940s, and his legacy was well deserved. Reading The Moon Pool one can see all that would come from those like Lovecraft, Howard, Anderson, Kline, Moore, Vance, Brackett, Kuttner, Williamson, or Norton, seeded here in these pages. But Merritt is a bit different in that his influence is more obviously those like Burroughs, Haggard, or Doyle, and the older romance tradition which filters everything he does to make it shine brighter than it would in the hands of a more modern or nihilistic writer. There is a clear sense of morality and sense of good in these pages. If there was one author that epitomizes the spirit of the pulp age that has been lost over the century since the publication of this story, it would be Abraham Merritt.

Of course one could complain about the cliches like the lost world, super science, tough and moral men, living myths, and a good and evil dichotomy theme, but then they would be confusing the creation of such tropes with aping them. Those that tend to create such repeatable aspects of fiction are usually a cut above the imitators, and Merritt is no different. And while one could complain about the cliches, these are cliches no one has used seriously in at least half a century. Simply by being the best and surpassing the subversive writers that lived to tarnish his creations, Merritt remains a fresh and invigorating read while the "important" works have all been binned, including by the subversives themselves.

There is nothing currently being published that is anything like Abraham Merritt, and there hasn't been in a very long time.

This might be an aspect lost on older readers who have grown up in an age where the classic pulp works were easily available, and allowed them to easily read through them as children or teenagers. Newer generations have not been exposed to much of any of what Merritt helped pioneer and usher in, never mind his own work. Reading something like The Moon Pool is like a refreshing drink of spring water in the desert of modern literature. There's nothing being made like it now, and there hasn't been in a long time. In fact, the cliches and tropes that replaced Merritt's have been hammered in for most younger readers' lives to the point where they've never even seen true romance in a book before. They live in a much different world than those who let someone like Merritt fall into obscurity instead of keeping him in print. To them, this is new and alien.

This is new and exciting.

And on the 100th anniversary of a story, I think that is the best endorsement I can give. For those in the mood for a true pulp revolution, The Moon Pool is essential.

It's available in the public domain, so you can read it online for free.

Highest recommendation.

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

"If You Want Something, You Must Fight for It"~ Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba Volume 1 Review

A lot is being said about My Hero Academia these days as one of the best anime and manga series out of Japan. This isn't wrong, MHA has strong art and writing with plenty of heroic themes to get the blood pumping. It succeeds both as a shonen series and a comic book story, and has given the industry more positive press than any series in years. Naturally, it's success is earned.

But there is a little known fact that Weekly Shonen Jump, My Hero Academia's magazine, is actually in a bit of a high point itself. Known for running classics like Dragon Ball, Fist of the North Star, Kimagure Orange Road, JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, Slam Dunk, Rurouni Kenshin, Death Note, One Piece, and Yu Yu Hakusho, it has recently been home to a string of soon to be big hits that are nothing to sneeze at. You might not yet have heard of The Promised Neverland, Dr. Stone, or Hinomaru Zumou, but you will when said series finally get anime adaptions within the next year. Current hits from the magazine include Food Wars, Black Clover, Haikyu!, and the aforementioned My Hero Academia leading the charge overseas. Old favorites like One Piece and Gintama are still running, as well. Needless to say, Shonen Jump isn't doing half bad, and its hits still rule the roost.

But there is one series I do want to talk about that has flown just under the radar. It is due for an anime within the next year, but it took a while for it to get to that point. This series had an uphill battle and has grown tremendously over the last two years. Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba is a series that went by almost unnoticed by most readers and the overseas audience, but is one that has proven itself to be one of the strongest currently running in the most popular magazine in Japan. And now it's finally out here in an official release.

It didn't happen overnight. Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba started two years ago at the start of 2016 and was initially written off as a series that wouldn't make it 10 chapters because it was too antiquated. It is now currently at over 100 chapters and was recently announced would have an anime from the Fate/Stay Night studio, Ufotable. It is a success. And as someone who read that first chapter when it came out, I have to say that it's success should have been no surprise. It just needed a chance to catch on.

There are certain series that get push from editorial when they begin, mostly because they believe they will be hits if the readers just give it enough of a chance. The recent Dr. Stone was one of these, and it ended up taking off in popularitydue to the editors giving it focus, and the team behind it putting in the work. Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba was not one of these series. It was decently popular and its volume sales started off rather low, but it held on due to reader interest remaining and growing steadily with every serialized chapter. It did not get many color pages (a sign that a series is doing well is when editorial gives it cover images or center color pages) until it was running for over a year and it was rarely placed anywhere except the middle of the magazine. Needless to say, this is a series that clawed its way up and earned its rising popularity and the anime soon to release. The audience made it a success on their own.

So what is this whole thing about? What type of series could it be that did not connect with Shonen Jump readers off the bat? It isn't anything too out there. Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba is a fantasy horror action adventure series about the battle between humans and demons. That might seem straightforward, but there's a bit more going under the hood than hunters killing monsters. Though the action is really something else.

In the Taisho Era of Japan, there lived a family in the mountains. A mother, and her six children, lived alone far from the village. They were poor, but happy, living as best they could to get by. One day the oldest son, Tanjiro, headed down the mountain to sell some charcoal, but ended up staying too late in the village and slept overnight to beat the cold. When he returned home the next morning, tragedy struck . . .

His family had all been murdered, and his sister had been turned into a demon. And now she's trying to kill him.

To be completely honest, the first chapter of the series is at least on par with the first chapter of My Hero Academia in terms of both how much is crammed in and how in how hard the themes hit for those paying attention. It isn't just mindless violence.

Tanjiro returns to find his family killed, except for his oldest sister, Nezuko. It's late and cold, but still he rushes down the mountain to save his only remaining relative. Soon she awakens . . . and tries to kill him! She's been turned into a monster, a demon. And once a human becomes a demon, they can never return to normal. He learns this from a demon hunter who arrives in time to save his life from his own sister. That's when the confrontation begins that hooked me onto this series.

But it doesn't quite end there. While most series would just use his family as a tool to describe how pointless and cruel life can be and introduce grisly horror after horror, Tanjiro risks his life against both his sister and the demon hunter to save her life. The bond between the siblings is stronger than they both thought, and Nezuko struggles hard to save her brother even with overwhelming bloodlust consuming her and warping her mind. The hunter, Tomioka, a practical man, is impressed by both their willpower and their connection and, instead of killing Nezuko, gives Tanjiro a quest to find a man who might be able to help him learn how to save her. It's never been done before, but Tomioka thinks if anyone can figure it out, it would be these two. Tanjiro sets off with his sister to find a way to save what little family the two have left.

The themes of family bonds and hope in the face of despair absolutely coat this manga. And the action is very visceral and as intense as the themes. What's more as that despite this is a very bloody and violent series covered in death, it never wallows in hopelessness or despair. Tanjiro's quest is a hard one with no end of troubles, but he doesn't give up, no matter how the evil of the demons might try to crush him.

And he definitely has a lot of harsh lessons to learn.

Another plus this series has is the art. I've been told it's very much an acquired taste, but it's exactly perfect for me. Koyoharu Gotouge draws in a very early '80s inspired action style with a touch of more modern expressions to give the series a very unique look. There are no other series with quite this style of art. It improves as it goes, but the first chapter absolutely nails the core look and feel. The series has a very old school aesthetic.

If there is a complaint with the first volume it is that the series doesn't quite reach the heights of the first chapter again within its pages. The rest of the chapters are good, but it is clear that it suffers from the fact that Shonen Jump is known for cutting its unsuccessful series so early, as the early chapters are a bit rushed. There is no telling before about the 10th chapter of any series for the author to know if it is a success or not and if it will live. Throw in that Demon Slayer was not huge off the bat and the series just wasn't sure if it would last. It takes Gotouge a little while to hit her stride, but by volume 3, the series is off to the races. She finds her confidence and cuts loose. Until then you can see her art and plotting improve leaps and bounds in a very quick fashion. Not bad considering this is her first ever series.

Soon enough Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba ended up becoming one of the strongest series currently running in Jump. And this first volume is where it all started. Now it can hopefully get more of the audience it needs. My only regret was that Viz didn't pick it up sooner, but they were also probably unsure of its potential success. But its quality is no fluke. It's no wonder they licensed it after two years straight of readers requesting it, as even before it received its anime announcement, it was regularly ranking in the top of the magazine.

If you are looking for another top notch shonen series to read or watch alongside My Hero Academia then this one is for you. What starts off as a tragedy soon turns into a quest to turn it all around and find that little sliver of hope in the darkness. Plenty of action and adventure awaits you in this fun series. Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba is one of the best manga series currently running, and it is good to see it finally getting the focus it deserves. Now is the best time to check it out.

Highly recommended.

Thursday, 5 July 2018

Mega Man 9: One of the Best Video Games Ever Made

Mega Man is not an unknown franchise. The player plays as the titular character, jumping and shooting through stages. He defeats eight bosses, absorbing their abilities to use for himself, and then faces the evil Dr. Wily at the end of his cavernous fortress. The franchise just recently celebrated its 30th anniversary. But there is still one game in the series I want to talk about.

This is quickly becoming the most overlooked title in the franchise. I'm talking about Mega Man 9.

This might be the strangest game I've written about so far. Mega Man is a highly influential franchise and is a gaming icon, so why would I choose to highlight a game here in one of these posts? I normally talk about excellent games that fell through the cracks. Surely everyone knows about this series.

Well, what brought this on was more of a pet peeve. I'm seeing revisionist history lifting its head and spitting on what is one of the best games in the franchise. This has happened ever since the Mega Man Legacy Collection was released (and its sequel) which packaged the original 10 main Mega Man games spread across the years in one easy to play compilation. The original 6 NES games remain quite good (2 and 3 are still by far the best), The SNES Mega Man 7 has finally gotten more of the respect it originally deserved, and Mega Man 8 is still regarded as one of the lesser entries despite its 32-bit graphics being the most advanced. Proof that purty graphics and advanced sound mean nothing is the design is weak. But 9 has recently been talked down more and more on for its aesthetic, its difficulty, and the face that it didn't "progress" the series forward. This despite the fact that it is possibly the best game in the classic series. Those dogging this game are completely missing context. Playing all 10 games back to back will not give you an idea as to why Mega Man 9 was so important, and a revelation. In fact, it might be the most important entry since 2 broke the series worldwide.

Let me explain why that is, by using historical context.

When console gaming shifted to the 32-bit generation, a regrettable thing happened. 2D gaming was slowly being thought of as inferior and cheap, going from AAA status to eventually completely vanishing (outside of a small handful) in the massively overrated PS2 generation that followed. Many franchises suffered from this obsession with purty (now horrendously dated) 3D graphics and some like Sony Computer Entertainment of America, would even refuse to release 2D games at all. For anyone who grew up... at ANY console era before the current one? They knew how silly this all was.

Whole genres and legendary franchises were thrown away for flash in the pan newness that has dated worse than anything they replaced. And all those franchises created at the time are almost all buried and forgotten now.

So, it was a bad time to be a legacy gamer.

But the industry did their damage to their own brands. Series like Contra, Sonic the Hedgehog, Castlevania, Streets of Rage, Double DragonTurrican, Street Fighter, and Ghouls n Ghosts, were all but destroyed or left to the bargain bin, and the Mega Man series was no different. It suffered for sins it never committed.

Capcom released Mega Man 8 in 1997 for the PlayStation (and Saturn, in Japan) a few years after Mega Man 7 had graced the SNES and the Mega Man X sub-series had taken off on the same system. Mega Man 8, however, was not a success. It featured colorful 2D sprites, CD quality audio, animated cutscenes, and was released on the series 10th anniversary. It was also not very good. The levels were barren, the difficulty was non-existent, the power ups were weak, the new voice acting was atrocious, and because it was 2D that was even more damaging. Also, the soundtrack was weak, and for a series like Mega Man, such a thing is unacceptable.

One of the few exceptional themes in MM8

The game is not horrible, but it would have hardly mattered if it was the best game in the series. 2D was derided mercilessly in those days by the ever-trustworthy gaming press and abandoned by auteur creators who decided to jump on the 3D-only bandwagon. It was a perfect storm that was unleashed against this title.

Because of Mega Man 8's failure and the industry change of being obsessed with purty 3D graphics over solid gameplay, the series wouldn't see a new mainline entry for a decade. 2D gaming suffered for it.

In this time, Mega Man as a franchise continued, but it became bloated. 8 was a good indicator as to how that happened. The quick and rock hard shooting action was overwhelmed with bells and whistles and gloss to hide the deteriorating level design, over-designed controls, and uncreative boss and level ideas. The newer sub-series (relegated to "inferior" portables, at that) as had the same problems. Most of the later Mega Man X games exemplify this issue. Mega Man had lost its simplicity, and its soul in the process.

Ten years passed. Mega Man, and 2D gaming as whole was dying, relegated to handhelds like the Game Boy Advance (and the newly unveiled PSP and its obsession with "console gaming on the go" was threatening even that) with series like Castlevania and Contra holding as hard as they could despite their blatant sabotage by the industry to convince audiences that these games were not worth your money. 2D gaming was one generation away from being forgotten and abandoned.

Then something happened.

Capcom announced Mega Man 9 in 2008. Not only was it the first console game in the series in over a decade, but it was also back to basics done in the style of the NES games with no frills. It was going to be a full download game, too! This was innovative for the time. 2D games were being treated as full console games again!

If you're rolling your eyes now, it's because you weren't there in 2008. Before Mega Man 9, retro aesthetics were not a thing. They didn't exist outside of novelty mods or bonus levels. Downloadable games were also not what they are now and were mostly re-releases of old games like Pac-Man, or simple arcade shooters like Geometry Wars. Indie games had not even dented the mainstream market, and were still small--Braid was still two years away. The closest thing to Mega Man 9 was Bionic Commando: ReArmed which was merely a remake of an NES game with modern HD graphics. This should tell you how much of a big deal this was. Mega Man 9 was a brand new NES game built from the ground up, meant to take the series to its roots before it lost its way, and it was being treated as a serious project.

Even the first trailer blew gamers away.

There was nothing like this in 2008, and after years of 2D being relegated to the gaming ghetto, this was a revelation. Gamers were hyped like they hadn't been in a long time.

But not everyone was in love. Places like IGN scored the graphics a 2 due to not being modern enough. This was obviously long before faux-retro existed as no one knew how to rate graphics not purposefully being made in a different artstyle (and sprites on a console, at that) and was a sticking point for a lot. Others complained about the difficulty, but they were simply out of practice. I can say that as someone who beat it the first day it was released.

When it released the reaction was overwhelmingly positive. The reason for this is because Mega Man 9 is an expertly designed game that came out at the exact right time and was so popular it caused a sequel to come out less than two years later . . . but we'll get to that. The point was that even Capcom were surprised at the reaction it received. It was not just another entry in a long-running series. Mega Man 9 saved it, and might have helped save 2D gaming in the process.

Those looking at it through the lens of the present are missing what this game actually accomplished. This was before New Super Mario Bros. Wii came out and outsold ever game of its generation. A 2D platformer on a console was unheard of at the time. After all, the industry had done such a bang-up job convincing gamers of their inferiority for two straight generations. This was before retro games were even considered a viable product. Mega Man 9, dogged for its lack of originality by Current Year fans, actually started many trends going on today.

And it gets no credit for any of them.

The aspect ratio of the original games (in the era of widescreen) was kept the same, the moves were kept to Mega Man 1 and 2 levels of simplicity, and the level design and enemies are all perfectly placed to take advantage of your dodging and shooting skills. It was made for those looking for a classic experience. Mega Man 9 is derided for being a "Mega Man 2.5", but that only tells half the tale for fans obsessed with bells and whistles. Mega Man 9 went back to the series roots in order to remind itself what it was originally all about. Aside from using a handful of musical tracks such as the password theme, Mega Man 9 pared the series down to its bones and thrived on wholly original content. It was jumping, shooting, and action, at its tightest. In many ways it was the first real sequel since Mega Man 3 to actually capture the original spark the series had been brought to life with.

In-game achievements (not common at the time) say even more. The game is considered hard, but it can be beaten without getting hit. Sure there are some deaths you might not see coming the first time, but that is a series tradition. You simply learn better for your next try. And there's nothing on the level of the original games' difficulty, which are still beloved to this day. Every level can be beat by running forward and timing your jumps and shots at the right time . . . without you having to stop. Every single boss weapon has multiple uses, can effect just about every stage and the environment, and has different applications depending on the enemy it is used on. This game is perfectly balanced, has a clean aesthetic, and a soundtrack that is one of the greatest of all time.

This is how well-designed and tweaked the game is. Every other entry in the series almost looks sloppy compared to it.

This is because Mega Man 9 is one of the best games of all time.

One of the finest pieces of VG music ever composed

So why is it getting such a divisive reaction these days? That question can be answered quite easily by looking at what came after. What it built was torn down not two full years after 9's release. Mega Man 10 is why Mega Man 9 gets tarred as a lesser game than it actually is. It makes 9's innovative ideas and freshness look like stale pandering, which it was not at the time. Everything Mega Man 9 did, it's sequel did.

And did it worse.

It copied 9's entire media campaign making it look like a cheesy knock-off novelty, and made Mega Man 9 look as if it were merely one in a sea of retro ideas that got lucky. It got a purposely bad box art for promotion, just as 9 did, to take away even that new idea. It used retro graphics, just as 9 did. It used the same aspect ratio approach. It purposely designed itself after Mega Man 2 (only it feels more like the inferior 4 through 6) just as 9 did. It was "Mega Man 9.5", basically everything 9 was accused of doing was actually done by Mega Man 10. And by the time it came out, 10 had already missed the zeitgeist started by 9, which hurt it further.

The level design was uniformly weaker and less thought out than 9. The boss weapons were terrible and unoriginal. The music is not even close to the excellence of 9, with only a handful of catchy themes sticking out. Nothing new was added except what originally killed the series to begin with: bells and whistles. The uniqueness of 9 purposefully going back to the style of 2 and building from the ground up is undercut by doing it again here where it has no reason to.

And that's Mega Man 10's legacy. Copying Mega Man 9 and undercutting all its innovations in the process, thereby ruining two games in the process.

What 10 should have been is what Mega Man 11 is now-- a brand new entry with overblown graphics, fresh ideas, and an original focus. After 9 brought the spotlight back on the series was the time to go all out with new ideas. It would have given the series the shot in the arm it needed before sinking into the abyss for nearly another decade thanks to 10's disappointment and the disaster surrounding Keiji Inafune leaving the company.

So what gamers get now from playing the series is 6 NES entries of deteriorating quality after the third one, an underrated seventh game, an overblown eighth relic from an age that hated its genre, and two games that went back to basics for easy cash. Playing them back to back is confusing, especially if you pay no attention to the time gap in between the entries.

But that undersells what Mega Man 9 actually did. It was a huge hit. It was talked about on message boards as gamers fought to see who could see the end first. It caused a sequel to be greenlit really quickly after a decade of hibernation. It was designed, and plays, masterfully for those who knew what the series was made for. Mega Man 9 is an excellent game. It is also an important one.

And I think it deserves to be known for what it is. Mega Man 9 is one of the best. Don't let revisionism fool you. Few games get as good as this one.

One of my favorite medleys

I'm also creating entertainment of my own! Check out my novel, Grey Cat Blues, if you haven't. Action, adventure, and romance, on a distant planet. What more could you ask for?

Friday, 29 June 2018

Interplanetary Adventures! ~ A Review of The Best of Planet Stories

I realize I've been talking a lot about pulp recently, and it's for very good reason. The pulp revolution is in full swing, traditional publishing is capsizing, and the wild west of indie publishing is beginning to organize itself into a brand new ecosystem. But one thing not always covered is short stories and their place in this new world. That is partially because they have been made irrelevant by gatekeepers and taste-makers since the middle of the 20th century, and because the markets which traditionally housed them, magazines, had died by the 1950s and were rotting corpses by the end of the century.

But the stories aren't dead themselves.

Planet Stories is a magazine with an interesting history that stands out even more in a post-pulp revolution world. Coming in at the exact moment the short fiction market had swung away from the majority of readers, 1939, and ending exactly when the market had been put in its grave, 1955, Planet Stories offers a good view as to what the pulp market looked like . . . prior to 1940.

You see, pulp stories were once written to entertain and enliven the reader. In the Golden Age of pulps (1919-1939) you had larger than life heroes and villains, big ideas, epic scope, danger, romance, awe, and incredible sights. By 1940, a perfect storm had blown in and ended up hobbling the market. This sent it on a downward trend that ended with the market collapse in the mid-1950s. Planet Stories (along with a few others like Startling Stories) existed almost outside of this purely manufactured change, living in the Silver Age of pulps (1940-1956) but acting as if the older era had never died. As you can imagine, this led to some controversy among the respectable types that thought the perfect pristine future was only one step away.

One of the writers that defined the era, and who is considered one of the greatest in the field, Leigh Brackett, cobbled together an anthology for Ballantine Books in 1974, nearly two decades since Planet Stories ceased operating, signalling the end of pulp. This was to be the first in a series but alas no more were made after the initial outing. And that is a true shame.

In her introduction, she states exactly what most of us had figured out from learning about the era.

"It was fashionable for awhile, among certain segments of the science fiction fandom, to hate Planet Stories. They hated the magazine because it was not Astounding Stories, a view which I found ridiculous at the time, and still do."

For context, at the end of 1937, John Campbell succeeded Orlin Tremaine as editor at Astounding Stories, one of the more popular pulp magazines. By 1940 he had changed the magazine's name, flushed fantasy from its pages, and began focusing on the small scope Big Men with Screwdrivers trope. This didn't happen overnight, but it was still noticeable. By 1940, everything the magazine was had been changed and subverted, the old style effectively flushed out. And these newer fans of this Campbell style didn't like that a magazine existed to remind them of their roots.

She continues:

"Of course Planet wasn't Astounding; it never pretended to be Astounding, and that was a mercy for a lot of us who would have starved to death if John W. Campbell Jr. had been the sole and only market for our wares. Apart from everything else, there wasn't room for all of us in that one magazine. And we who wrote for Planet tended to be more interested in wonders than we were in differential calculus, or the theory and practice of the hydraulic ram, even if we knew about such things."

This introduction is invaluable for anyone interested in pulp, and were I to write more I would transcribe the entire thing. Nonetheless, the sum of it is that adventure fiction is the lifeblood of the soul. No matter how much the bow-tied elite or snarky nihilists try, they cannot squelch that love of the unknown an wondrous from the human race. We exist for more and we hunger for tastes beyond the thin gruel of the literary types.

Even now, years after Cambellian science fiction has faded from relevance to the common reader, the most popular stories in the world remain those of tall tales, miracles, the unexplained, and impossible events. Planet Stories was not behind the times, or ahead of them, it was exactly where it needed to be to supply the audience with those base needs. One of the few, at the time.

This introductory tone sets the stage for the rest of the anthology to follow. Seven stories, all picked from the decade and a half of Planet's existence follow in a simple 200 page paperback. They aren't all what you might expect, either! Now why don't we just dive into this?

Opening this collection is the famous Lorelai of the Red Mist by Leigh Brackett and Ray Bradbury, the one and only collaboration between these two famous authors. This is very much a Burroughs-style adventure, and one for the books. A man dies and finds himself transferred to a new body, a different man on Venus who has apparently gone insane. Now he must quickly understand this war he's been thrown into or die a second, more permanent death. Here you get action, action, and more action. The only strange part of this tale is the usage of the names "Conan" and "Crom" though not in the way you might think. Even the author admits they are distracting and would change them if she could. Otherwise this is an action packed adventure that is by far the longest story here and the perfect opener.

We then come to The Star-Mouse by Frederic Brown, a unique a comical story about a small lab mouse named Mitkey Mouse who is trapped on an asteroid with tiny aliens after being sent there by an insane scientist who talks to mice. It's very difficult to do comedy in genre fiction these days that isn't subversive fourth wall breaking, but this story works because the situation is treated dead seriously despite how lighthearted it is. It got a few laughs out of me. Unfortunately, it also isn't very exciting and ends before anything major happens. A decent story, but not one of the best. Nonetheless, it does show the range in stories Planet could have.

Following on from that is Return of a Legend by Raymond Z. Gallun a story about wilderness exploration... on Mars! A boy and his father disappear and a few members of the Earth outpost go to find him. It is otherwise typical of the exploration story type. There's a bit here about what it means to be a martian, but it's mainly an adventure story about exploring a world that is more or less dead. Not my favorite included here, but a solid read.

Quest of Thig by Basil Wells is the fourth story in this collection. Thig is an alien come to Earth to find a human to capture and study to prepare to take over the planet. He succeeds and becomes a man named Terry. He soon learns what it means to be human. If I said this came across as a 1934 story with that premise and less like a 1942 (the year it came out) story then it should tell you the type of theme the tale has and what it builds towards. Nonetheless, it might have been my second favorite in this collection.

Then we come to the most popular story in the collection, and one of my favorites, The Rocketeers Have Shaggy Ears by Keith Bennett. A pre-Starship Troopers Military SF story. Only this is far more exciting than anything Heinlein wrote. A group of Rocketeers become stranded in the jungle of Venus and have to make their way back to base while dodging the alien environment and mysterious animals and beasts waiting in the wings to devour them whole. he entire group faces odds like they've never seen with only their discipline to hold them in check. This story is fast-paced, action-packed, and teeters on the knife's edge of hope and despair throughout. For a slight spoiler, the ending is probably not one you would see nowadays-- or probably at the time.

I always wondered why Ross Rocklynne wasn't a bigger name. Most of his material has never been re-released, and his story in this collection is no different. The Diversifal is a fascinating story filled with action, mystery, and a bit of horror. This one wouldn't have been out of place in Weird Tales, and it's hard to imagine why I've never heard anyone mention it before. A being from the future visits the protagonist and warns him of a dire future for the human race unless he can ruin his own life. This gets rather dark, but never cloyingly so. But it is fascinating. Needless to say, after this unique tale I'm going to be eagerly picking up anything of his I can find. This is my favorite story in the collection.

The last tale here is by the ever-fascinating Poul Anderson with one of his classic entries in Planet Stories called Duel on Syrtis. On Mars, a hunter goes after his prey: a martian! This is a back and forth action story between a hunter and his quarry which ends with quite a surprise. Both characters are fleshed out with obvious motivations and drives, and it tough to say who will win until the final page. Poul Anderson is known for his incredible variety and growth as an author over his long career, but his Planet Stories work were pure pulp from back to front. It's easy to see why this was chosen to end the anthology. To say why might actually spoil the ending, though.

Seven stories, all with very different styles and takes on action tales, and writers that have become almost completely forgotten today. Even this anthology is almost forgotten!

Nonetheless, if you are looking for more pulp to read and just can't decide on a book to pick up, this is what you are looking for. And maybe it'll convince you to look up more from these authors, or the magazine in question.

You could do a lot worse, especially for material from the time period. Planet Stories was an interesting experiment, and I'm glad we had it.

Highly recommended.

My own pulp work is available on amazon. It's a bit too long to have run in Planet Stories, but I'd like to think it would slide in just fine among many of the tales in its pages. It's really more of Weird Tales book, though.

Wednesday, 20 June 2018

Light & Dark Novels

This is a bit of an epilogue to the recent series of posts. I've been thinking about this post Ben Cheah posted on Steemit about the difference between old pulp novels and current Japanese light novels. It turns out there is quite a bit of difference.This also pair with a post on Twitter from a user (@deffik_) that goes into more detail on how current light novels are being made in Japan.

For those that don't know, Light Novels are short punchy books usually no longer than an old pulp novel. They are focused on action, they blend genres, and they are massively popular. However, despite the similarities to the old pulp novels, there are quite a few differences. And those differences are quite large.

So let me sum up my thoughts on this here.

Several authors I have followed on social media including those such as JimFear138, Rawle Nyanzi, and Mr. Cheah himself have all come to the conclusion that light novels (or at least the modern ones they've read) are simply not well written at all. Ever since the Pulp Revolution started, this has been a common topic rising up again and again. What are these books missing that they simply don't hit the mark? After all, they appear to give what so many of us what we were asking for.

As these men are highly into the Pulp Revolution, and also anime and manga fans at that, one might wonder exactly what they're talking about. After all, doesn't a significant chunk of both consist of adaptions from these light novel stories? They're short books, written fast and without any notion of genre boundaries, and they contain constant motion. Surely this should be what those in the Pulp Revolution asked for.

Well, read the Steemit post above and come back here. Did you read that prose? It was all telling and no showing. It reads like the blurb on the back of a book. There's no character or imagination. It's all surface, no depth. The words and grammar have no creativity to them, and I don't mean in a workshop sense. It reads like fiction by an assembly line. And it might actually be.

Of course, there's a very good possibility the translation is to blame. There have been many bad translations that suck the air out of books before. However, I don't believe that's the case here. First is that I've read good books in this style before (the first Vampire Hunter D book is full of character and life) and second of the news coming out of Japan from the Twitter post mentioned above. The following images are from him.

It looks like the assembly line assumption isn't that far off the mark. The industry is just throwing anything out there to see what sticks. Quality control is a myth.

What you have here is the fact that the market is so overstuffed with trash that no one actually pays attention to the prose or anything below the surface level. It's just cranked out to sell because no one has any incentive to get better from merely writing words down. Why bother with learning to write when you'll make money simply from having an Isekai, an over long title, and a harem of girls in the story? This is a long way from the days of Crusher Joe and Vampire Hunter D when you couldn't rely on trends to keep you afloat. They had to actually try.

Where the West has the problem of getting anybody to buy anything, the East has the problem that anybody will buy anything.

In other words, Japan has the complete opposite problem we do. We have writer workshops and seminars focused on purpling prose until it hemorrhages, but no focus on stories that excite or lift up the reader to make them happy enough to pick up the next book. In Japan they have writers who don't even need to learn to write because people will buy it for the tropes anyway. These are two different ends of the problem. There's no balance here, and that's the real issue.

Prose is important and so is readability. But they work together. You write a sentence to engage the reader into the action, not to show off. That includes flow and the proper nouns, adjectives, and verbs to get them breezing through to the next plot point. You don't want a reader to stop in the middle of an action scene because of a poorly worded phrase or have them slumber through a conversation because the character's are merely giving an info dump to the reader. You want it to roll off the page and have enough creativity that it lifts the reader into your world. Both plot and prose are needed to achieve this.

And who achieved this synthesis better than anybody?

That's right! The pulps.

In fact, Mr. Cheah's post is about exactly that. While we can't get hung up on prose like those in Traditional Publishing do to the expense of their audience, we also can't just throw words into a junk-heap resembling a novel and expect people to buy it.

My question in this is how this ended up happening, and why? Is it because of a lack of Mutation or Death that Western genre writers sank into after being infiltrated by nihilists and moral cultists? Why were the Japanese not chased from reading like those in the West were? Their standards might have lowered, but they still pick up books. That's more that one can say about today's market. So what is the difference?

To be honest, this looks like what would have happened if Weird Menace didn't die with magazines and continued on to the mainstream to become the dominant form. Instead of pointless slogs through crybaby snark land we would have fast action packed books . . . that don't ultimately have anything to them at all. That is what Weird Menace was. These stories were just exploitative violence and sex created to titillate, which is exactly what modern light novels are meant to do.

For those who don't know, Weird Menace was a subgenre in the pulps that focused on merging the detective story with weird tales, but not in the way you might hope. There's an eerie menace that breaks the norm like in weird tales but it is always explained away at the end as something completely natural and scientific by the end. There are hard bitten protagonists like in detective stories, but they rarely have much in the way of integrity or morals. What Weird Menace did was stripe the wonder and morality out of both styles to leave the hollow shell of excitement and action behind. And for the longest time the stands were flooded with those gory and sex-filled covers. If you want to know why all the classic pulp writers are tarred as some of the worst people to ever pick up a pen even today it is because when the average person thinks "pulp" they think of Weird Menace, which none of the best writers engaged in.

This is what the writing landscape in Japan is basically like now. I can't decide if this is worse than what we have here, but traditional publishing is dying and we still have movements like the PulpRev to help set us straight. I'm not sure if Japan has anything like that there or if they're really interested in changing the norm. I do, however, feel sorry for the better writers who get overshadowed simply because they don't want to write another story about a big breasted fantasy video game mage inexplicably attracted to a hapless nerd from Japan. I do hope they have a way to do what they want and reach success, but it is a shame the market is as flooded as it is.

So, yes, modern light novels are not very good, and are not what the standard should be, but neither should the dark and depressing dirges that consist of lumpy and awkward works like Chuck Wendig Star Wars books or whatever overwrought claptrap is winning the Hugo Award this year. We have a middle ground to hit, and it is where the revolution is destined to travel.

Let's just be sure not to get lost along the way. The road ahead has many curves.

If you want to see how a light novel should act, my book is much closer to it. It is fast, to the point, and with plenty to keep you entertained. There is more going on under the surface, too. And I can guarantee that the prose does not read like a first draft! That's the influence of real pulp for you.

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Poisonous Heroism and the Death of Fantasy

I didn't expect this to be a series of posts, but sometimes things get out of hand. I recently dealt with a few things that need to be cobbled together into one more of these to sort it out. This will be my last post on this subject of devolved storytelling (at least for the foreseeable future), however, I do have one more subject to talk about in addition to the destruction of mediums and forms.

That would be the stories themselves, in particular the muddying of good and evil. Anyone who has paid attention will quickly realize what this is referring to. There are no heroes left in mainstream entertainment.

Okay, that's an exaggeration, there are a few heroes out there holding on to their dignity, but all are on the precipices of falling into the same bin as the action movie star, the pulp hero, the lone detective, and superhero. They are all very close to forgotten by the mainstream, and what remains out there is a pale imitation of what they were at their peak.

For an example, E3 2018 (a gaming expo) announced a new game by the creators of Life is Strange (a decidedly un-heroic game) about a boy who deals with his mother's death and empty life by pretending to be a superhero to ignore his pain and problems. This is decidedly different from something like Calvin & Hobbes with the Spaceman Spiff character as that is used as a joke to compare Calvin's imagination to his real life--and doesn't undercut either to do it. The superpowers are intentionally showed to be cheap and lousy to constantly remind the audience that this isn't real . . . even though this is a video game.

I shouldn't have to say how silly that is.

In a video game, you are supposed to be taken to imaginary places to engage in gameplay that grips your senses and ingenuity. Because of this gaming has taken us into 80s action movie settings, cyberpunk dystopias, deep an dangerous jungles, and distant planets where mechs roam free. It even allows us to do things like become sport stars or expert soldiers which are much more down to earth than becoming a holy warrior on a desert planet. What video games are is a way to play pretend and inspire gamers to greater heights and places. It's pure escapism with an interactive component.

What this game does is let you know heroes not only aren't real but are a coping mechanism to get you through the empty pointlessness that is life. Nothing matters, but we can pretend it does. In a medium where you can do anything, you are instead relegated to a pathetic loser not unlike the one from the Richard Donner stinker Radio Flyer about a boy who imagines abuse away in a red wagon before riding off and never being seen again. Charming.

And it would have been easy to make this game have meaning.

The boy's mother dies, and he's down and trying to figure out a way through it. Then he searches the basement which holds a strange artifact that gives him superpowers not unlike the fake ones in the game. What's worse is that aliens/the government are notified due to a strange frequency the artifact gives off after being activated. It turns out his mother was an alien herself and died due to Earth's atmosphere and was hiding this artifact from those that would harm innocents. Now he must figure out how to use these powers to rise above himself and his sadness to become what he needs to be for those around him and to carry on his mother's task at the same time.

There you go, I made the story have an actual point in a few sentences. Instead of this the story is going to climax at a point where the kid has a break down when he realizes his powers don't work and has a big confrontation with his father at the end. They'll hug and tell each other they'll get through this and he'll probably go back to pretending because that's all he's got. The end. Why does this need to be a video game? This is closer to Bridge to Terabithia in that it's more focused on teaching "reality" than it is in entertaining the audience which is what the Game part in Video Game should be focused on.

The rest of E3 had similarly pointless narratives including many with Strong Women Characters who have no personality other than being perturbed and downtrodden with flat personalities. They're all about the women discovering themselves as everything in the world struggles to kill them with nothing unique to set them apart except bad hair styles. They're all overly serious without any semblance of fun or hope in them. And when I think video games I think escapist fun. These don't fit the bill.

It's no wonder audiences are tiring of the AAA industry with hardware sales far higher than software (Nintendo aside who still remembers there are other tones other than piss-yellow filters and hopelessness) even with a new console generation looming in the distance. I'm certainly not looking forward to buying another console if this is all we are going to get from now on. The lack of joy is depressing.

But other mediums have a similar problem.

Think of the popularity of a franchise like George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones, a nihilistic dirge where nothing matters and the ending is going to be about the genius psychopath who successfully stabs the most horrible people in the back the best to get his monetary prize and worthless title. The worst person wins at the end and being good is pointless. And this is the model modern fantasy writers are attempting to ape. Because Fantasy now translates to Realistic for some who have a much different dictionary than I do.

This attitude is everywhere in entertainment. There's been a slow poisoning of heroism that has left us with nothing but selfish anti-heroes who never grow and exist only to cause chaos and misery for others. And we are expected to love them because they are "realistic" by insinuating that the world being pointless and without magic or hope is realistic. Again, even were that true, what does that have to do with fantasy?

We all know where this attitude came from. It's been years of an entertainment industry more interested in flipping tables instead of putting anything on them. It's been about mocking heroes and hope and boosting "realism" and despair in its place. The turned tables are all cracked and breaking, and have nothing on them, but they keep getting flipped regardless despite the lack of anything new. Creators have been trained to not create, only to focus on the aesthetics and ape the same subversives that led them into this rut. Fantasy is sunlight to these vampires, which leads them to live only in the dark.

It is much like genres and how they have been utterly divorced from their original purpose of guiding the audience toward the sort of experience they want into instead outright segregating stories based on surface features like if someone uses a wand or a hydraulic wrench to solve a problem. Why does aesthetic matter more than storytelling style? Just as short stories were ripped from their place as the form where inventive fiction usually spawned and became a place for slow, depressing, and meandering pieces that exist only to preached warmed over politics from the 1960s from big publishing approved writers workshops. Everything has to be beaten down and quarantined in tiny boxes. How does this fit with a form meant for wild and free new ideas to grow and inspire others?

This all connects together.

A lot is said of previous decades, but they were never as hopeless and empty as the stories we tell now are. The 80s might have been overly optimistic or over the top, but always had hope to contrast the darker stories. The 90s were characterless, but they still had stories about heroes who fought for things and thought there was more worth saving than their own skin. Now there is no hope, there are no heroes, and there is no chance to imagine anything better than the slop being fed. And what is there now is intensely shallow.

To illustrate that last point, I'll end this off with one anecdote.

Recently someone on social media was so offended by a joke I made that they had to relentlessly insult me while guessing at why they thought I made the insult. Yes, yes, this is social media, but hear me out first. It ties in.

A new comic book was announced and the publisher used the term "You asked for it" to describe the product, so I answered with a picture of the Deus Ex meme of "I never asked for this." which led a few hardcore fans of the low selling character (whose last book was canceled for low sales) and several humorless comic book writers (including those on the book) to join in with them. This would have been fine enough, but what fascinated me was the reason these people thought I made the joke. You see, the first thing that popped into this fanatic's head was that I was mad that this book existed (I didn't care, and said as much) and that I "had enough books for me" while he listed books I don't actually read to tell me what "my" books supposedly were, and that he "knew my type" and why I wasn't interested in this book. This went on for a good half hour as the fan frothed and raged over a simple meme in an attempt to make me look like a monster.

All this over a silly picture.

Is this who heroes are written for now? Humorless and hateful obsessives who can't think in terms other than genitalia and skin color as to how people relate to heroes? Looking at what the industry puts out, and what the low selling writers continue to churn out, it definitely appears to be the case. Heroism has gone from being the universal traits of a Captain America that anyone can admire and attach themselves to into a mix and match game of surface traits to segregate shrinking audiences into. Is it any wonder comic sales are falling with attitudes like this? There's no Fantasy or imagination here.

I don't think the mainstream is going to change in the near future. They are too set in their ways and too scared of any new idea that comes from outside their shrinking and ever-narrowing view of the world. If a revolution comes it will have to be from the outside by those vilified by the same "creative" types who chain themselves to rule books and corporate approved writing workshops. We will have to be the ones to dig up what has been left buried and forgotten and make our case to the public separate from those who wear heroism and fantasy as a skin suit.

It's a different sort of revolution, but not one any less worth having. Shake some evil and get back to what makes things great again. We need heroes, we need fantasy, and we need hope. We need a reason to keep the lights on.

In a world with infinite possibilities where hope falls like rain, anything can happen. So don't lose your way. Things are about to change in a big way.

I wrote my own book about heroes in fantastic world. If you like action, romance and fun, then Grey Cat Blues is for you! Check it out below.

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

The Assisted Suicide of Short Stories

My second violent post in a row. I apologize, but there is something to this, I swear.

From a chart passed around by author Jon Del Arroz comes this list showing the sales of different SF subgenres. To no one's surprise, the ones focused on action and adventure are at the top of the chart. In addition to some weird listings ("Alternate History" and "Alternative History" are two different categories) this isn't all that surprising to anyone who pays attention to what mainstream people like. I'm sure if you've read this blog or similar ones you know all of this.

The worst part of this chart is how low short stories are. Despite being cut up into three categories (again, for some reason) short stories are at the rock bottom of the list and have been for a very long time. Think about it. When was the last time a big anthology came out or when have you heard of a short story that was just so amazing that you just had to run out and buy it? When was the last time you saw a big advertising campaign for an anthology? When was the last time any of the traditional publishing houses put out an anthology that set the world on fire? Unless you're the age of a Baby Boomer, you've never lived in this world. Short stories are irrelevant and dead.

But they weren't always so.

The pulp magazines, and even older sources, ran novels as serials alongside smaller pieces from short stories to novellas to novelettes. These short stories were the main form of entertainment and lasted just as long as the pulps did, up until the mid-50s before the industry imploded. Then they vanished, reserved for transgressive anthologies the public ignored and college classes focused on "subverting audience expectations" with unimaginative "clever" stories like The Lottery. Almost overnight short stories went from small slices of wonder and imagination to having to be based on twists and subversion on audience expectation to be worth reading. And they never recovered from that.

Just take a look at the recent Hugo awards for best short story. They are uniformly embarrassing when compared to anything from Weird Tales, The Argosy, or Planet Stories, and no one in the industry can puzzle out why the mainstream audience just doesn't want to read them. What do you expect when Space Raptor Butt Invasion was a nominee? That is how little anyone cared for the short fiction categories to even bother voting in them. Heck, the Dragon Award doesn't even have a short fiction category, which shows how little larger audiences know or care about the form.

The short story is dead.

But not everyone got the memo. I have reviewed on this very blog several magazines specializing in short fiction that are attempting to bring it back in a big way. Off the top of my head there's Cirsova, Red Sun Magazine, and StoryHack, as well as Superversive Press with their Astounding Frontiers and Planetary Anthology series. There is also a magazine called Broadswords and Blasters which attempt to standout by offering a modern bent to their pulp stories in contrast to the classic ideals of the former magazines. New sources of short fiction are here and they are asking attention.

Speaking of the latter magazine, they recently put up a post detailing what they wanted from their submissions, and what they ended up getting instead. This would go a long way to describing where the field is right now and why it isn't make the splash it should be. The majority of writers simply don't know what the majority of the audience wants, and they were misled about it from their writing teachers and industry professionals.

The relevant part is quoted here:

We have guidelines on our website. They detail, in what we hope is clear and concise language, what we are looking for. They can be broken down in two parts. The first is the genres we are looking for:
  • sword and sorcery;
  • westerns (Weird or otherwise);
  • horror (Cosmic, Southern Gothic, visceral, and psychological);
  • detective tales;
  • two-fisted action;
  • retro science fiction
If you can squint real hard and fit your story into one of those buckets, yeah, we’ll read it and give it due consideration. Mash-ups of the above are also great[2].
So far so good. These styles were the most popular in the pulps back in the day when short stories were king. Of course any magazine seeking to revive the form would use these as a base. This all makes perfect sense.

But the post goes on to detail what submissions they are actually receiving:

Here’s what we see too much of:
  1. Epic or high fantasy.
  2. Fantasy that is a reskin of a Dungeons and Dragons game.
  3. Engineering science-fiction where the hero can solve the problem with a calculator and wrench[3].
  4. Stories where talking about the problem somehow solves the problem.
  5. Slice of life stories that would fit better in a literary magazine. No speculative gloss at all which made both editors scratch their heads and ask “Why did they send this to us?”
  6. Urban fantasy.
  7. Allegories (religious or otherwise) where a solid chunk of the story relies on telling some sort of moral.

You can read the rest here.

And this is where we are. The first six categories were the bread and butter of pulps, and the most popular type of short story when the form was at its popularity peak. These were the most common type of tales at the time, and what went on to influence just about every form of pop culture. This should be common sense.

So why were the majority of the submissions they received in the exact opposite camp? Why were they focused on styles that either don't work in short form or were never all that popular types of fiction in the first place? Should it not have been the other way around?

Well, no. As already established, the short story form has been utterly gutted of its original purpose and tone by our betters. Let us go through each of the seven incorrect story types they were sent in.

1. Epic or High Fantasy

This form is almost exclusively a form of Tolkien worship, which is antithetical to the short story form. Tolkien was an excellent author, but he didn't write for pulp magazines nor was brevity his strong point. His most famous work is a three-volume tome, for crying out loud. High Fantasy is heavy on the details and short fiction is reliant on smaller detail and sharper action. It does not fit the short story form, and you would be hard pressed to find an Epic Fantasy short story regarded as a classic. But because this is the only form of acceptable Modern Fantasy (aside from Urban, or whatever Magical Realism is supposed to be) most writers will use this as a template. Read some Lord Dunsany or Robert E. Howard. Short Fantasy fiction is not what you think it is.

2. D&D Fantasy

This is a whole other problem in the Fantasy genre that really needs solving. There are those who think Fantasy is whatever can be done in Dungeons & Dragons and nothing else. A lot of this comes from their only real Fantasy exposure being Tolkien, his followers, or writers of Dragonlance and other such books. While there is nothing technically wrong with any of that, it does limit the scope of inspiration when nothing older than that has even remained in print and so many of our betters have lied about the quality of the stories. This is why the rediscovery of Appendix N was so important. Instead of transcribing your D&D game to a story, why not look at the inspiration of D&D and start there instead? You're guaranteed to find something better and more original.

3. Big Men with Screwdrivers

And this is where I get blacklisted. Mainstream audiences don't want Campbell's Science Fiction and there's a good argument to be made that they never did in the first place. Even if they did, there are markets for this sort of thing. Castalia House is looking for this and Superversive even welcome it, and I recommend them all the time for writers despite not caring for this style of story. Pulp magazines, however, were not built off the back of Campbell's social experiment. They go back further than that to a form of hot blooded action and romance that are designed to grip any reader with a pulse. Which is why it's important to regress further to see what exactly you're missing here that this is the only style of short fiction you can imagine. Here's a hint: Astounding Stories had an editor before Campbell. Start there.

4. Low-T Fiction

Short fiction is an adrenaline rush. It's made for people to jump in and out between other tasks they might be performing. This means they want action and problems getting solved quickly--they want to feel like something is being accomplished. If you have a story where the problem is simply talked away then the problem could not have been very serious to start with. Talking problems away is for misunderstandings, not life-ending threats. These stakes are not high enough to engage a reader. Nobody wants to read about a trip to the HR department or your son's guidance counselor. Pump up the tension and realize why people read short fiction to begin with.

5. Comfort Food Fiction

There must be some correlation between the more hedonistic and nihilistic a culture is the more it enjoys stories about people doing nothing at all and where nothing happens. Whether in anime or the written word there are writers that think audiences want to read about characters who do nothing, accomplish nothing, and at the end of the day mean nothing. But there aren't, at least not in any real large number. This audience is a small sliver. So stop foisting this style on the greater population. They want a salad, a steak, or a beer, and maybe a combination of all the above. They don't want a saltine. They don't want the same thing they can get by recounting their own daily activities. This is fantasy! Think bigger.

6. Urban Fantasy

The problem with Urban Fantasy is its kitchen sink approach to everything. You have to have werewolves and vampires and fairies and magic and you have to explain why they're all there and how they interact in a world where all of them being real makes no sense to the common man. This cannot be condensed into a small word count without resorting to inside baseball or confusing the audience. And even if it can be, they are mostly detective stories with fairy creatures. They're not that exciting a setting for a shorter piece. But this one is speculation and taste on my part. Urban Fantasy is popular in long form, but I have never seen a shorter piece that has been trotted out by fans to show how well the genre works in said arena. The world also doesn't need two Harry Dresdens. Chicago deserves some mercy.

7. Message Fiction

And this is the big one. How many children have had it beaten into their heads that short stories are for delivering important messages that mean things. Almost all of this comes from what is taught in schools and how they beat any love of reading out of their students. It's no wonder the majority of the population never touches a book after graduation when they are given propaganda as the baseline and told this is what constitutes proper reading. There's nothing saying Le Morte D'Arthur or an old Ray Cummings story can't be used to teach form other than a badly made program that is not interested in instilling a love of wonder or imagination, but on preaching messages. That was a tangent, but it's also what you get from a worthless school system whose idea of genre fiction is The Giver and then wonders why kids don't want to pick up books in their spare time. Then there is assigned material like The Lottery which is based on a twist to make you "think" and wish you never had to read anything ever again. So many people think this is what a short story is supposed to be.

And that is mainly the problem in this whole saga. Short stories were once the ideal form of quick entertainment and should be more popular than ever in this age of instant gratification. But they're not, and that's because of the bad ideas that have been planted in our heads as to what they're supposed to be. The field has been utterly wrecked and, short of a revolution, it doesn't look as if there's any way out.

But there is. As already stated, there are many magazines and individuals dedicating themselves to fixing this problem, and working overtime to accomplish this task. Maybe in a few years Short Stories and Anthologies will be up there with novels where it belongs, but at least that doesn't mean the rest of us will sit by and let it continue to fall so far.

So keep an eye out on those of us putting our work out there whether on blogs, services like Steemit, amazon, or newer magazines. I can't promise every piece will be a home-run, but it can at least get us to first base. And that's a good place to start when we've only been striking out.

Let's bring the form from its grave and allow it the life it deserves.

If you want a sample of my short story work you can find one for free by signing up to my newsletter (or buy the same story for a dollar here), or find others in anthologies at amazon here and here. I should have more info on future stories soon enough, I promise!

As for longer pieces, I have my action adventure novel that you might have missed out on. Hungry for the days where writing was shorter and to the point and there was plenty of red blooded thrills to go around? This is what you've been waiting for.

Thursday, 31 May 2018

The Death of the Genre Wars

I've been wondering about genres for a while now. Sure they are mostly made up to sell product, but they have obvious uses. But what should divide them, aesthetics or something more? I'm not convinced audiences care as much about superficial things like chrome plating or wood framing nearly as much as the 1% of the 1% or publishers looking for a fad do. I'd like to believe history is on my side, but I would do better with an example.

Let us begin at the real dividing line. When Edgar Rice Burroughs first penned A Princess of Mars, the first John Carter novel, what genre was he writing in?

If you answered: He was writing scientific adventure based on known science at the time because he wanted to explore what life on Mars would be really like... then you can hand in your reader card. His body of work simply doesn't bear that motive out. Not to mention the way John Carter gets to Mars would make the hard SF fans froth.

If you answered: He was writing the most imaginative and evocative setting he could... then you get it. He was writing an adventure tale.

The early days of the pulps were marked by attempts to catch the audience with very specific approaches. Their magazine titles were evocative: Amazing Stories, Weird Tales, Astounding. Their novel tiles were striking: Gangdom's Doom, Warlords of Mars, Golden Blood. Their covers would be focused on intense action or gargantuan sights that would never be possible in our normal day to day existence. Before Weird Menace magazines came along to throw an abundance of sex and blood on the covers, and give pulp an image it has never shaken, the pulps were more interested in attracting audiences via wonder and excitement. The content matches this advertising approach, and gives a clear idea of what genre this was.

There were no advertisements discussing the finer points of the feudal system and how it benefits the monarchy and how the audience needs to know this, or propaganda about how amazing science is in exchange for any entertainment. In other words, these stories were not advertised as Fantasy or Science Fiction. The mainstream audience didn't care that much about them. These were advertised as breathtaking adventures meant to wow the reader and make them pick the issue up based on the incredible sights before them. They used wonder for this selling point of accessing the reader's imagination and not the nuts and bolts aesthetics that only the 1% of the 1% care about. The genres back then were not as we know them now.

I should clarify this because I will get strung up by the hard science fiction and epic fantasy fans who each have their own rules that they must abide by.

Let's go back to basics.

Why do audiences consume fiction? That's easy, it is because it's fiction. It's not real. It's escapism. What better way to advertise escapism then by presenting an astonishing and fascinating place beyond the human imagination? At this point the only dividing line is what sort of escapism the customer is looking for. This is where the original genre lines came from.

Do you want to see lands and worlds beyond those you know? That's Adventure. Do you want to see intense battles of good and evil to keep you on the edge of your seat? That's Action. Do you want to dive into a seemingly impossible situation with no obvious answer? That's Mystery. Do you want to see love blossom between two people? That's Romance.

You can see where this is going. Genres are based on the type of story the reader wants to engage in. They choose based on only that criteria and no other. Especially since that's what sales show.

2015 Genre Sales
Modern categories dilute this simplistic and straightforward approach to audiences. Publishers have too many gourmet cooks in their tiny apartment kitchen. All this could easily be avoided if they pared it down to the necessary amount needed.

This needless convolution of genres hinders both authors and readers. Back in the pulp era, things were more straightforward. This means if your story contained a poltergeist haunting an immaculately terraformed Mars with a magical scepter from a long forgotten civilization it had a very clear genre. It was Action Adventure. Why? Because aesthetics didn't matter. It's fiction, use your imagination. Readers and authors both had no problem with this relationship. And this was the way it worked for a long time.

Things changed because those left in charge decided to seize control of labels and tweak them to benefit political agendas and their own personal fetishes instead of mainstream tastes. The result of that? Romance sells as well as ever, while Action and Adventure has been all but destroyed in the fiction market. All the precious sub-genres made up over the last 80 years? All they have done is harm stories they were supposed to be glorifying. It has split the audience into smaller and smaller slivers until said audience became fed up and left for other mediums like comic books, anime and manga, and video games to get their fix. Because of this, the fiction market has only been damaged by changing what worked in the first place.

This is my long way of saying that the genre wars are over. You lost.

It doesn't matter what subgenre you were propping up as the be all end all as the real face of your made up umbrella because it's deader than disco. And at least people still listen to Ring My Bell on the radio. No one outside of a small crowd even knows who Robert Heinlein is, and yet another portion of that sliver are even in the process of scrubbing him out of history. These wars are pointless. In an age where superheroes, space operas, and gun totting ex-hit man are the biggest things on screen and illustrated pages, book sales are flatlining. You're worse than dead. You're a zombie.

No one outside your irrelevant clique cares about aesthetics, and if the audience doesn't care, then the focus must be changed accordingly. The priority should be removing the straight-jacket imposed on writers due to workshops, self-proclaimed experts, and categories that hold no value to customers. While those in the Action Adventure arena have suffered, those that stayed the course like Romance are still doing as well as ever. Why? They didn't bottleneck themselves over fetishes. They allowed their intent to remain the same and the audience stayed even after decades of staying the course.

It's time to go back to basics. If we don't we risk falling even further into irrelevance and eventually into nothing as less and less people feel compelled to pick up a book. If you're not growing, you're shrinking, and we have ample evidence that growth stopped long, long ago.

Time to bring it back again. Action Adventure needs to return to the forefront, and all of us can do it. The Pulp Revolution is a good step forward, but it's only a step. It's time to keep walking.

My own work is in the Action Adventure genre. My most recent novel is a pulp length tale about an ex-punk who he battles mud monsters from Hell on a dying world. I'm doing my part to bring it back to basics again. How about you?