Monday, March 12, 2018

Rev it Up!: A Quick History of the Pulp Revolution

You can find this book here.

*NOTE: This post exists for two reasons. The first is for those newcomers who might have missed just where this whole thing came from, and the second is for those of us who need a refresher. I claim no credit for, or leadership in, the Pulp Revolution.*

If there is one thing the last decade has shown, it is that most people are unsatisfied with the way things are. Entertainment, especially, no longer entertains but instead caters to niche fringe groups that are desperate to shed their roots and destroy their origins for the offhand chance an Important Person will acknowledge them. There is not one industry not currently suffering from this problem now, and it was little better years ago.

But what if the problems stemming from today are actually symptoms of a much older sickness? What if you can trace it back using the words of those who deliberately tried to tear down good things in order to build worse ones? What if they succeeded and no one around you wanted to admit it?

Wouldn't you want to do something?

Well, the Pulp Revolution is about that first and foremost. It is about doing. It is about reclaiming things lost deliberately and calling attention to a legacy in danger of being forgotten. It is about going backwards and building again.

That is what the PulpRev is.

But where did it start?


In a dusty little saloon called Tabletop Gaming there was this movement called the OSR. For those puzzled by acronyms, it stands for Old School Revival/Renaissance. It stands for exactly what it says it does. Judging from my description of the Pulp Revolution, you might know where this is going.

I'm going to include wikipedia's definition to shoulder the blame should I get any of this wrong and to make sure I don't miss anything, but it does line up more or less with what it is:

"The OSR was made possible by Wizards of the Coasts' release of their Open Gaming License in 2000, which allowed the free and unapproved use of large amounts of creative and rules mechanic material related to the Dungeons & Dragons game. 
"Broadly, OSR games encourage a tonal fidelity to Dungeons & Dragons as it was played in the first decade of the game's existence—less emphasis on linear adventure plots and overarching metaplots and a greater emphasis on player agency. Frequently they are built around older rules systems made available by the OGL. As such, the OSR label includes most Dungeons & Dragons retro-clones; most OSR games are variants of either the 1974 original Dungeons & Dragons rules (OD&D)—such as Swords & Wizardry—or the 1981 Basic and Expert sets of Dungeons and Dragons (known as B/X, or Moldvay/Cook, after those sets' primary authors)—such as Labyrinth Lord, Basic Fantasy RPG, and Lamentations of the Flame Princess."
It was a movement meant to bring the hobby back to its roots as many had seen their favorite pastime devolve and melt into a puddle of grey goo. If anyone has ever played 4th edition (or *cough*3rd*cough*) then they know where the sentiment came from.

So it only stands to reason that in this climate that someone would take it a step further. If the game that changed so much can in itself be warped so far out of its original shape and intent . . . what about the literature that inspired it in the first place?

That would be the pulps, and that is where things get interesting.

There is a bit of a cosmic jest here. The pulps were what inspired D&D in the first place. It was the love of the stories and the wonder of imagining yourself in an adventure in those worlds. Pulp worlds were exciting, invigorating, and creative. Who wouldn't want to play games based on that? That is what makes this turnabout funny. Now it was a revival of said gaming that was inspiring a return to pulps, the original inspiration.

Gary Gygax, the man behind the game, created a list of books. These were the books he recommend players read to get ideas for games just as they inspired him in the first place. It was not just a suggested reading list, but one based on the type of stories the game was meant to be based on. These were the books that inspired one of the biggest games and with the heaviest influence in pop culture of the later half of the 20th century. In other words, these books were important.

And no one was talking about them.

That's where we begin.

Revving Up

The catalyst to the Pulp Revolution arising specifically were several things from different places.

First, a gamer named Jeffro Johnson began a series of posts on the Castalia House blog detailing his read-through of the entirety of the Appendix N list.

If you want an idea of Jeffro's passion, I highly suggest following the Appendix N tab on the Castalia House blog and reading what you find. If he isn't talking about going the Full Mr. Peanut, he's talking about something nobody else is. And that was very important for a lot of those in the PulpRev.

These articles led discussions both out in the open and behind doors, and left some of us contemplating on our own direction. It wasn't just on the works themselves, but on the entire era in question. Many began digging and searching for answers.

At one point genre fiction was without boundaries. They could be anything from science fiction to fantasy to horror to sailor stories to even being about trains and still retain an energy and love of mystery and wonder that simply no longer existed. Anyone who looked into this was taken aback by the revelation.

Where did all that go? Why had we fallen so far away from where we started, and why were the roots dug up and replaced with weeds that have long since choked out anything fresh?

This is the drive of PulpRev.

Jeffro's work was one of the starting places for this movement. Personally, I am very thankful for it. However, Jeffro also mentions other places the Pulp Revolution came from. It was not just based on his work.

"But there are many significant actors involved here, all of whom worked together to make the Pulp Revolution happen:

  • *There is Larry Correia, who not only ignored what his writing teachers told him… but who also pulled off one of the greatest pranks in science fiction history. He got a lot of people talking about something that wasn’t immediately obvious
  • *There is Edgar Rice Burroughs, who single-handedly set the tone for fantasy, science fiction, pulp, comic books, role-playing games, and Star Wars.
  • *There is Gary Gygax, who created a time capsule that preserved that vision in the face of an industry and gatekeeping establishment that was hellbent on seeing it extinguished.
  • *There is John C. Wright, who never got the memo that Appendix N style fantasy was out of style.
  • *There is Alex Kimball, who offered to pay semi-pro rates for people that wanted to bring back more of it to the short fiction scene.
  • *There is Daddy Warpig, who observed that something was happening and called it what it was before anyone could grasp its significance.

"That’s quite a list!"

I will try to talk a little about a few of the above shortly.

Of course, pulp fiction has never fully gone away. But that isn't without lack of trying. It has been used as little more than an insult or a cheesy aesthetic for those who hated them. It has been used as an insult by those who never bothered to read the original works. Pulp became a synonym for trash, and nothing else. The Tarantino movie didn't help. The tradition of genre fiction actually goes back through the pulps and the penny dreadfuls all the way to at least Poe. By ignoring the pulps you are cutting the line of tradition and thumbing your nose at it. Those who trash it have no idea what they are actually doing.

Pulp fiction was what written entertainment mainly was before the 1950s. But they are not what you were told they were. There were different genres mixing together, stories were built to satisfy the reader first, there were crazy genres based on things like railroads, and this is where the origin of most every modern entertainment you enjoy came from... without the edges sanded off. This is where George Lucas swiped from to create Star Wars--every single piece of it--and a lot of the old stuff is better than what he put out. This is where the modern fantasy, horror, and science fiction story kept its links to the past while still striking out in new directions without fracturing links to each other in the process. This is where ALL tabletop and video games get their roots from: name a game, and it has its feet firmly planted in Pulp Town. Comic books are direct descendants of the pulps. Television shows like Star Trek and the Twilight Zone? Yes, them too. Anime and manga had direct ties to the Pulp tradition, even running translated pulp stories in the very first issues of Weekly Shonen Jump--the most popular entertainment magazine in Japan. Foreign comics like bande dessinĂ©e as a whole get their inspiration from the same place. Pulp was a worldwide thing, not regional. Every piece of entertainment you enjoy comes from the pulps: all of that great material you love that no longer exists and has been deliberately destroyed over the years comes from these things.

These things were important. Pulp was the entertainment world.

And no one was talking about it. When those in the Pulp Revolution started talking, they also started thinking about it more and more. Then they began digging, and they didn't like what they found.

This goes back far

Another reason the Pulp Revolution happened is, and this will be controversial: the Sad and Rabid Puppies movements and both their successes and failures.

Now, please don't clog up the comments about either of these. I was there for both and I was paying attention. A third hand report you heard from a biased geek news website is not going to sway me on this. I've already been called a liar for reporting on what my two lying eyes have seen before.

Here's the short version, and the true one. Larry Correia started Sad Puppies because he wanted to prove that World Con was a clique. It was just for fun, but the clique exploded with rage. He was correct, and he succeeded in showing it if only by their reaction. It went on for two more successful years, the third year being run by author Brad Torgersen. It then ran its course.

Vox Day started Rabid Puppies because he saw an opportunity to strike back at that petty crowd and hit them where it hurt. Also, to have fun. He wanted to destroy any illusion that their club meant anything except for their tiny, shrinking, and dying base. Space Raptor Butt Invasion is now a Hugo Nominated work. He succeeded.

That's all there is to either movement. Their goals had been met, and both Larry and Vox shook the dust from their feet and moved on.

But there were fall-outs to these campaigns. Vox Day walked away having accomplished his task, but Sad Puppies continued on in gutted form a little longer as a recommended reading list and faded away. There was also some infighting that ended up splintering any remaining interest most had in it. For all intents and purposes, it's dead and it's done.

But it did leave its mark on those paying attention.

Some history on Sad Puppies

Why so many people supported them in the first place is reflected in what was nominated by the small clique, oblivious to the outside world, and what was actually selling to normal people. A lot of people were disillusioned with how goopy and empty genre fiction was becoming and wanted to find better than what the big publishers like Tor were putting out. That was when a lot had a sinking realization.

There was no real alternative.

The big publishers were putting out sleeping pills as books, and finding anything in the independent world was nearly impossible. There was a hunger there, but nothing to satiate the stomach. Unless you liked subversion, you just weren't being offered much aside from table scraps.

But that was a big motivator in why the Pulp Revolution took off.

The third reason it happened, and this is going to sound strange, was the recent cultural shift over the last three years.

As I've said, entertainment is in a bad place. For a long time many of us just sat on the sideline twiddling our thumbs and hoping for things to get better. Surely someone would waken from their slumber and wonder why nothing was getting better, realize they had fallen far from where they started, and work to get back on track.

But it never happened.

Video games were getting streamlined to oblivion as loudmouth political wanks began bullying customers. Genres were wiped out. Good developers were destroyed. Game journalists were getting by on nothing but the fact that they knew the right people. And we all just sat by and hoped it would get better. It only got worse.

Comics were getting more and more insular and up their own rear. They no longer courted new audiences, and when they did it was for an audience that didn't exist instead of the one that walked away. Comic shops were closed as Marvel continued to allow their employees to mock customers online and over-ship books to said stores. We just expected it would work itself out. It hasn't.

Movies recently just had their worst Summer box office since the 9/11 tragedy. They remake and subvert old properties constantly and end up making inferior products that critics (suspiciously) love while audiences clearly do not. Their "stars" are self-important and full of themselves, and as recently uncovered are almost all involved in covering up gross sins. Television is in exactly the same boat. But many still think it'll turn around. It isn't going to.

All of these have led to fan and customer movements that range from GamerGate to ComicsGate to the recent kerfuffle and justified backlash over Star Wars: The Last Jedi. What do all three have in common? They were all gas-lit to try to deflect the argument and hide behind strawmen. Anyone who has seen all three of these and still pretends there is no pattern is beyond saving at this point.

Then there is the literary industry.

Oh boy.

Books are not immune to any of the above. For this, I'm going to hand it over to author Brian Niemeier:

And with the book industry is where we find our first break in the storm clouds. While the big publishers are failing like every other industry, the indie market actually has the biggest chance it has ever had, and it was only really being realized a little as a few years ago.

These major factors converging were what lead to the Pulp Revolution. This is where it comes from.


You had things like Appendix N discussions, blogs focused on pulps, writers creating new stories, and even new magazines based on standards the old ones had. I can't say they were all tied directly to the Pulp Revolution in their origins specifically, but they did show up at the table at the right time. They were all very much sharing the same goal.

This would be the part that I would mention people directly, but I don't want to forget anyone or say the wrong thing. Let's just say that if you can look around for PulpRev in any search engine you will find someone in it. It encompasses more than a small group, and is always letting in those who want to contribute. No one can co-opt it because the movement exists only to revive the old and link it to the present to move toward the future. Removing any one step in this process causes it to fail.

The Pulp Revolution goes beyond a small handful. Yes, you too can be PulpRev.

However, I will link to one podcast in particular, hosted by Geek Gab. This is an episode with Jeffro Johnson, Science Fiction writer John C. Wright, and rant-master extraordinaire Razorfist on pulp. This is a good encapsulation of the sort of thing the movement tries to strive for. Listen to their excitement and enthusiasm and tell me there is nothing to this thing.

At this point it is important to mention that the Pulp Revolution is not related to any other pulp movement, including New Pulp. Those movements exist to carry on a style of story for a specific audience and has a niche focus. The PulpRev exists to revive, re-energize, and kick in doors to the wider world. It is not a peaceful movement, and it is not complacent.

The revolution first started as more of a revival focused on reading and discussing old pulps and relishing how good the stories are and cursing the fact that they were buried for so long. It was peaceful at the time.

It is no longer.

In 2016 many people began to write. Some were inspired by the new magazines that sprung up, some by simply reading an old pulp story that had been buried, and others by discussions and realizations that the competition was so weak that there was nothing left to lose. Pulp or death.

That's just it, though. There is nothing left to lose. Entertainment is dying. Art is dying. The past has been discarded, the present is a toilet bowl, and the future is as uncertain as ever. You can either wallow and cry, or you can get up and slay the wizard before you. Guess which one PulpRev has chosen?

So start creating.

Let's finish this off with a quote from Jeffro himself.

"Pulp Revolution is not a group you associate with. It’s something you do. It’s reading old books and discussing them. It’s blogging and podcasting. It’s continuing the conversations that spring up on social media. It’s writing new pulps and putting them up on Amazon. 
"It’s not anyone’s place to tell anyone else they’re pulp revolutioning wrong. There is no gatekeeper. This whole thing is happening because there are no gatekeepers! And unlike the Sad Puppies, there is no one that can imperiously tell anyone, “hey… we built that.” Nobody built it. It just happened. When people find out the truth about the pulps and start reading them for themselves, they are overcome with a desire to create. Games. Stories. Criticism. It’s awesome. Nobody orchestrates this."

The solution is simple: Revolution! Go back to what was lost and pick up from the torn threads. It will take some time, but it isn't impossible.

It is inevitable as long as you're willing to fight.


  1. Excellent post! That's the most concise summation of SP/RP I've ever read, and it's more accurate than most.

    1. Thanks for reading! I felt we all needed a quick reminder as to where it all came from. Hopefully others think so, too.