Science Fiction as Limited Fantasy

Readers of my blog will remember that I have been wrestling with the question of what is science fiction, and whether science fiction is just bad fantasy (see What If The Future Has Past?). Not, mind you, because I dislike science fiction, but because I like it. I’m working on a sci-fi story and have hit something of a block because I have yet to come to grips with what Science Fiction is, at its core.

If it’s going to be fantasy, well, I’m very fond of high fantasy. I love swords and sorcery. Why why stuff that could reasonably have swords and sorcery without the swords or the sorcery?

A possible solution recently occurred to me. High Fantasy exists on a continuum of how common magic is. It ranges from very common to quite uncommon. The solution is this: what if Science Fiction is fantasy with uncommon magic and modern technology? The burying of magic inside of devices (“warp/wormhole/etc drive”, “shield generator”, etc) is a way of forcing it to be uncommon. If you need a big expensive device to house your magic amulet, this serves as a limiting function to keep the magic rare.

I’m not committed to this idea at all. It’s basically just thinking out loud. It at least gives a framework to think about science fiction which makes more sense than as various degrees of cheating at an unattainable goal (interstellar speculative fiction).

And as a disclaimer, please don’t take this as criticism of science fiction or of fans of science fiction. This is me trying to work through a way to understand science fiction stories so as to be able to write them. Because there’s an obvious reason Why Science Fiction Will Never Die.

Heinlein’s Sexual Morality, Good & Evil in Novels, & More: A Conversation with Mr. John C. Wright

I had the pleasure of having the always-interesting science fiction author Mr. John C Wright (who blogs at scifiwright.com) on my show. It was a somewhat wide-ranging conversation, though it stuck (in my mind) surprisingly closely to the topic we set out to talk about throughout. It’s also available on YouTube:

God’s Blessings on January 31, 2017

God’s blessings to you on this the thirty first day of January, in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2017.

Today is going to be exceedingly short because I’m crazy-busy today. First, I noticed an article by John C Wright about the history of Buck Rogers I’m really looking forward to reading.

Yesterday I read an article by Jasyn Jones about the disappearance of pulp SciFi, Star Wars Stole Pulp. It was an interesting article, but I was even more intrigued because of a comment which gave a counter-point. First, the point:

Post-WWII was the era of the Campbellian Silver Age, the era of “Men with Screwdrivers” SF. Action and adventure were childish and frankly embarrassing, as were purple prose and laser swords. Barsoom? Silly. Buck Rogers? Childish. Northwest Smith? A gunslinger, not a scientist. And this was the age of SCIENCE.

Science was the focus, technology the touchstone. Stories had to be cerebral, intellectual. They had to be REALISTIC. Real science, none of this fuzzy-headed soft science stuff. SF had to shake off the wooly-headed thinking of Fantasy, the embarrassing antics of Space Opera, the adolescent focus on Adventure and Action. SF was serious business. Real Literature. It was time to grow up.

Then the counter-point, by someone calling himself K-bob:

I grew up reading the pulps because I could get a stack of them for 75 cents. I loved them more than comics, and some even had a few great illustrations. But I was also a kid when the Mercury 7 program began.

To me, the screwdriver period was new and exciting. Maybe it’s because I lived on the Space Coast back then and got to see astronauts live a few times. So I shifted to the New Kids because of the general level of excitement for real space exploration and engineering.

It’s very interesting to see that perspective, and the point about how Big Men With Screwdrivers (which is, I believe, a Niemeierian phrase, if inspired by Mystery Science Theater 3000) would have been fresh when it came out and moreover something that was exciting because it tied into the zeitgeist of an age which expected nuclear-powered flying cars in a decade or two. Going by descriptions of people who lived through the early post-war period, real life was a bit like living in the preface to a SciFi book. Basically, people thought of this as the near future:

It didn’t work out that way, of course. But if you think that the Stanford Torus is realistic, it makes a lot more sense why realistic tales of engineering in the near future would be so fascinating. I know for a fact a friend of mine who is very interested in space travel (he watches rocket launches over the internet and has as a bucket list item seeing one in person—a bucket list item he checked off). One of the things he loved so much about Andy Weir’s The Martian was its realism; how it was set in a plausible near future. And my friend does not really like literature; his favorite entertainment is usually about giant robots. One of his favorite giant robot shows involved robots so giant that they could hurl galaxies like frisbees and punch holes in the fabric of reality in order to get at different dimensions.

I recommend reading the rest of K-bob’s comment, because he talked about how this fresh and exciting new trend grew stale, as most fresh and exciting things do. And I’ve no doubt that the cultural marxists and the snobs had a hand in making SciFi worse—it is in their (fallen) nature to do so. It’s a bit like expecting scorpions to sting. But when that is given proper weight, I think that K-bob is onto something; that Big Men With Screwdrivers was able to push aside older and better things in part because it was fresh and new and in part because it spoke to an age that lived in very unusual conditions. Most people these days think of nuclear power in terms of weapons and disasters; those who are familiar with nuclear power (I know a nuclear engineer) think of it in terms of cheaper electricity with no carbon footprint. But in the post-war period nuclear power was going to turn us into gods and propel us to the stars. Given how detached from reality those expectations were, it is perhaps understandable why they found realism to be fantastic.

Glory to God in the highest.

Cirsova Magazine

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing P. Alexander, editor of Cirsova Magazine, over email. If you’re unfamiliar with Cirsova magazine, here’s the cover of their first issue:

They’ve got four issues out, and are working on their 2017 issues. Anyway, without further ado, here’s the interview:

Cirsova is subtitled, “Heroic Fantasy and Science Fiction Magazine”.  In modern western culture, stories of heroism are often associated, I think, with children, because children are not yet sufficiently beaten down by the all-doubt of modern culture. But as Harry Potter showed, there are plenty of adults who are not cowed, even in adulthood. So who is the audience you’re looking for with Cirsova Magazine?

Well, the appellation of Heroic Fantasy is, in part, to distinguish it from much of post-modern fantasy where there are no heroes or the heroes are so horribly flawed that they are often shown as being as bad as, or worse than, the villains. While we have the occasional exception, most of our stories are about individuals performing brave and heroic deeds in fights against injustice and absolute evils.

I think that stories of heroism may be associated with children because of the post-war movement to destroy the notion heroism as childish. During their heyday, pulps were wildly popular not with children, but adults. In fact, Argosy, the first pulp magazine, abandoned children as its target demographic very early on in an attempt to save the publication from going under; they went on to decades of success and were the home to the most iconic and influential literary hero of the 20th century – Tarzan.

By the late 40s and into the 50s, the notion of heroes was dismissed and deconstructed. Romance and heroism as it had once been understood was being undermined in and removed from many outlets of publication and media in the maelstrom created by post-war cynicism, the Cold War, and critical theoreticians in pop-culture. Heroes became the domain of cheesy and banal Comics Code censored rags of the Silver Age, making it that much easier to place SFF heroics in the ‘age ghetto’.

The desire to see heroes and heroics, however, can’t be stamped out. It’s why everyone loves and still talks about Die Hard, Star Wars, and Alien. People like it when good guys stop bad guys and monsters against all odds. Cirsova Magazine is for every person who has loved science fiction and fantasy adventure, opened a book or a magazine with a spaceship or a guy or gal with a sword on the cover, and been let down. I can’t tell you how many times people have said that they’re tired of actionless, sometimes storyless, fluffy-puff pieces of thinkery masquerading as SFF that one seems to see coming out of the more well known houses and publications. Cirsova is for those people who have been let down and want those stories about heroes again. We will not let them down.

That sounds great! You mentioned the pulps, and indeed I’ve heard Cirsova mentioned in
connection with a revival of the pulps as well. (In this article by Jasyn Jones.) Did you conceive of Cirsova as being a revival of the pulps? Or do you even think of it as a revival of the pulps now? Or is it more like a spiritual fellow-traveller to the pulps? In short, what is Cirsova’s relationship to the pulps?

I originally conceived Cirsova when I’d been reading Planet Stories and thinking “I want to create something like THAT!” We ended up leaning a bit heavier towards fantasy than the sort of Raygun Romance that PS published, but that’s really the magazine that has the most direct influence on the publication, even down to the choice of interior fonts.

That said, we aren’t really “retro pulp”, but it may not be easy to explain why. I won’t say that pulp revival is a new thing or that we’re even an important part of what’s referred to as Pulp Revival or New Pulp. Those have been going on to varying degrees of success or influence for decades now. Pulp Revolution, on the other hand, is a fairly recent term that a few of our fans have tossed around to describe us and those like us and our approach to pulp.

Here is the biggest difference in my mind: a lot of what is “Pulp Revival” and “New Pulp” seems to focus largely on the campy aesthetic aspects of pulps, almost as though playing off the assumptions one would have from merely seeing a catalog of magazine covers rather than from actually reading the stories within. It’s cheesy and fun, I suppose, but the best way I can describe it is that it’s like the little kid who puts on dad’s shoes and suit from the closet to play businessman. You also see a lot strange politicization in submissions guidelines – I’ve actually seen a recently launched “Retro Pulp” zine that specifically positions itself as a ‘progressive’ outlet, warning off a lot of common (or assumed to be common) pulp tropes. The only thing we don’t really want to see at Cirsova are Big Men With Screwdrivers SF stories or stories about elves. As a result, we’ve ended up with a pretty incredible array of stories ranging from those that could be considered “progressive” to those that HAVE been ridiculed as puerile and full of unexamined privilege.

What we’re doing with Cirsova is not about being part of “Pulp Revival” or being part of a “retro” movement. We don’t want to confine ourselves to that niche. What we really want to do is bring the kind of story that was being told in the pulps, not the aesthetic, into the mainstream conversation about SFF fiction. We’ve been accused of being “regressive” publication by those who are ignorant of pulps, those who assume that pulps were full of nothing but racist and sexist trash, but in a sense they’re right about us – we’ve embraced the idea that SFF needs to regress harder. We’re using the pulps as a starting point and going forward as though the Campbellian Revolution never happened, as though Burroughs was still held as above ‘the Big Three’, as though Leigh Brackett was still the Queen of Science Fiction rather than LeGuin or Atwood, as though fun, adventure, heroics, and romance were still a good thing in SciFi.

I have nothing against any of the Pulp Revival, New Pulp, or Retro Pulp folks or those movements; we’re just doing something different and have very different goals.

It’s interesting that you mention people whose ideas of pulps are drawn purely from a catalog of magazine covers. One thing which comes to mind is that magazine covers often have little to do with the stories they are meant to represent, and I believe were in fact often done by artists who had not read the stories but only had the barest description of what the cover should look like. And further many of those publishing sci-fi magazines were businessmen at least enough to avoid going out of business, and had some realistic notions about what would catch the eye and how different that might be from the story which captures the imagination.

Have you drawn inspiration from other places, such as, for example, the penny dreadfuls which predated pulp fiction? And either way, have you read G.K. Chesterton’s  A Defense of Penny Dreadfuls, which I think has much wider applicability than just to the penny dreadfuls of his day?

Back then, as today, artists were frequently working on the cheap and under tight deadlines. Only back then, you didn’t have digital, which is a huge time-saver for many artists today. While Anderson’s work on Planet Stories turned out some gorgeous pieces, it’s pretty noticeable that he’d re-use several of the same reference photos for poses – there are a number of covers where the only real differences are color of the dame’s hair, her outfit and what she’s holding over her head (usually a sword or a whip). It was also part of a magazine’s brand, as much as anything else. Weird Tales often had lurid and provocative danger. Planet Stories had sexy and romantic action. Astounding had “wholesome” action (i.e. no dames), and as it reshaped itself post-war, it tended to have a lot of men standing around. or floating heads to indicate how much more serious it was, I suppose. Similarly, Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction has often had a more abstract or impressionist aesthetic that jibed with its status as the ‘literary’ science fiction magazine.
As far as other inspirations, from the publishing end, I can’t really think of any, but from the storytelling end, I’d recommend Appendix N as a starting point for those curious to see just what it is I’d be looking for. When putting together the Dungeon Masters Guide for the 1st edition of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Gary Gygax, Tim Kask and others at TSR compiled a list of works and authors that had influenced the design and development of the game so that players would have a better understanding of where they were coming from. Any arguments about the cultural significance of the list itself aside, Appendix N undeniably includes many of the best action-packed SFF stories ever written. Jeffro Johnson, who has regularly contributed columns to Cirsova, recently published a bestseller on the topic.
I’d be lying if I said I was particularly familiar with the Penny Dreadfuls, though I am aware of them and did manage to make it a decent way into Malcolm Rymer’s Varney the Vampire before setting it down and not getting around to finishing it (the story itself was great, however the critical modern edition made the poor layout choice to use single column with tiny font in a volume roughly the size of a phone book).
You mentioned how modern technology helps artists to be more productive, and thus how art is cheaper for those who commission it. That segues rather nicely into the business side of things, which is, I think, a question on a lot of people’s minds. The pulps are today best known for certain types of writing and—to be blunt—a certain quality of writing. Not that reputation is more accurate here than it tends to be anywhere else in life, but one of the things which the pulps certainly were was cheap. Wood pulp paper was much cheaper than smooth, glossy paper, and so the pulp magazines could make money on fewer readers or smaller margins. Are you using a similar business model to the pulps but relying on the cheaper-still nature of digital distribution, or are you using a new sort of business model, or what?

Well, I would like to clarify that I don’t mean modern technology necessarily makes art cheaper, but it does offer a much greater degree of flexibility that did not exist in the past to collaborate and hash out what the art should look like (quick turn-around time on sketches and, in some cases, quick digital touch-ups and tweaks which were otherwise impossible).

Print on demand publishing has made indie and self-publishing more viable than it has ever been. Until fairly recently, self-publishing usually meant going to a vanity publisher and having several hundred books you’d never sell printed up only to languish in a closet. For Cirsova, Print on Demand through Createspace and Lulu means we don’t have any real overhead on stock. Our biggest per issue operating costs are paying our authors, commissioning cover art, and ordering proof copies, in that order. Once the issue is out there and we fulfill pre-orders/subscriptions, it doesn’t cost us anything.

We do have digital distribution, but Cirsova is meant to be something on your shelf. Interestingly enough, about half of our sales or more are physical, which is counter-intuitive to conventional wisdom about today’s market. Our softcovers are pretty cheap – with the exception of our first issue, which we have for $7.50, our regular issue price has settled into $8.50 on Amazon with an SRP of $10 (we did have a double-sized winter issue that’s $14.99). They’re a little over 100 pages, and 50k-60k words per issue. We do offer an edition for connoisseurs through Lulu that is hardbound with a dust jacket and foil lettering; these are a bit pricier, but they’re absolutely gorgeous. Prior to the Print on Demand revolution, putting out hardcovers with that degree of quality in those small quantities would be prohibitively expensive. This way, we can offer a quality product for a reasonable price, get a reasonable cut, and not have to be sunk out of pocket on physical copies we can’t move. Best of all, since we are not actually the ones selling physical products directly our readers, we don’t have to keep track of sales tax receipts. When I had a record label, the worst thing was having to fill out and mail in reports of 0 sales for months where we didn’t have any tables at shows or cutting checks for one or two bucks when we only sold a couple buttons or patches.

Our digital distribution includes typical eBooks and PDFs and the sort of stuff you’d expect from any sort of work published these days, but I’m not a fan and mostly make them available out of obligation to our fans and readers who prefer e-Readers or just don’t want the clutter of owning physical books. I always hate them, because to make Cirsova e-Reader friendly, we have to strip out all of the layout work that we put into it to give it a pulp magazine look and feel (columns, dropcaps, etc.).

The part about art being cheaper is more drawn from my own experience commissioning covers for my novels. A skilled digital painter can take advantage of the medium to be more efficient than, say, an oil painter can be. (Layers, undo, no need to wait for anything to dry, etc. seem to permit faster work for those who know how to take full advantage of them, allowing an artist to serve more clients.) I certainly don’t mean to suggest that digital painting has devalued art, because good art is of tremendous value. Anyway, thank you very much for your time, it’s been very interesting.
Fair point. Both have their advantages when it comes to economy. For instance, an artist working in a physical medium can sell the rights while still holding onto the physical piece, which they can then still sell; this allows for art to be more affordable for someone commissioning it because the artist can sell the rights and still have something of monetary value. As an example, I don’t own physical copies of any of the first four covers by Jabari Weathers, though I believe that one was purchased as a gift for a writer; if Jabari wanted to sell the originals, he absolutely could, and I know that’s part of why I was able to get such a great deal on his incredible artwork.
With all-digital art, it can be cheaper, as there’s no physical media required and an experienced artist can knock out a commission quickly, but there’s not an “original” that can be sold as well, so the artist makes their money solely on what they charge for the commission and whatever use rights they retain.
Interestingly enough, our cover for issue 5 is a hybrid – it’s digitally colored, but I got both the commercial use rights and the original line-art. (I was tempted to put it up on the block for this Kickstarter to defray costs, but decided I wanted to own at least one piece of original Cirsova artwork). 
Thank you for taking the time to talk with me about the Magazine!  I enjoyed it.
If you’re interested, here’s Cirsova’s 2017 kickstarter.