Pulp Appeal: Firefly (and Serenity)


There aren’t many self-respecting fans of science fiction who haven’t at least heard about the masterpiece Fox television show Firefly, sadly cut down in its prime by network executives without a clue. At the time of its release, I was simply too pissed off at Fox for canceling my weekly date with Jessica Alba[1] , and could read the writing on the wall. In the early 2000s, Fox had a nasty habit of airing promising sci-fi shows in the Friday night death slots. Firefly is no exception. And then Fox went and made it even worse by airing the episodes out of sequence and taking seven months between the first 11 and last 3 episodes. Fan outcry wasn’t enough to save the show—it rarely is—but creator Joss Whedon did manage to spin out a feature film, Serenity, to wrap up most of the story. Sadly, Serenity didn’t live up to its potential and the franchise died for good.

So, since it is a sci-fi masterpiece and since a lot of people know about it, why am I talking about it? Because it’s pulp, of course. The protagonist, Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion), is one of the losers of a civil war, The Browncoats, and now makes his ends meet smuggling goods through the galaxy. His second-in-command, Zoe Washburne (Gina Torres), had served with Mal during the war and continues to be his trusted advisor. Not everyone on the Firefly-class ship Serenity are remnants of the losing army. Zoe’s husband, Hoban Washburne (Alan Tudyk)—called Wash by nearly everyone—is the Serenity’s pilot, but never actually served in the war. Then you have the amoral musclehead mercenary Jayne Cobb (Adam Baldwin), an escort/geisha/courtesan with advanced social standing Inara Serra (Morena Baccarin), preacher-who-knows-a-lot-about-crime Shepherd Book (Ron Glass), young virtuoso engineer Kaylee Frye (Jewel Staite), Simon Tam (Sean Maher) a doctor who worked for the winners of the war, and the doctor’s sister River Tam (Summer Glau) a psychic badass who Simon broke out of a secret government training facility.


Malcolm Reynolds in his suspenders and 1870s-style leg holster.

Each of these characters has a major arc throughout the short-lived series (only 14 episodes and a 2-hr movie), but the one constant is the pulp-y nature of the show. Malcolm Reynolds could be John Carter from ERB’s A Princess of Mars. The loser in a rebellion ends up leading people, somewhat reluctantly, into another rebellion. The echoes of the US Civil War and the Western expansion are not unintentional, including faux Southern accents shot through with Chinese curses[2] and corrupted modern slang, and 1870s-style Wild West garb and weaponry, with many of the worlds echoing directly the feel of frontier towns at the edges of civilization during the Reconstruction era.

As a tv show with most episodes containing a completed storyline, it naturally falls into the way pulp serials were written and consumed, but the particular stories are always quite pulpy in themselves. In one episode the crew is hired to steal and smuggle goods only to learn the goods they’re stealing are necessary medical supplies for the outpost world. In another, a former friend is being laid to rest and the crew show up for his funeral only to discover he’s using them to smuggle human organs, and ultimately Mal is forced to kill his friend. It’s this mixture of moral complexities that makes for some of the best pulp, as I’ve discussed before in other articles.


Not the best DVD cover out there, but not the worst, either.

Star Wars clearly mixed space exploration with Westerns and Asian culture before Firefly, and Buck Rogers did it even earlier, so it’s not like Firefly is particularly original in concept. That said, its execution was a damn sight better than many people at the time, myself included, thought. As I said earlier, I missed Firefly the first go around and didn’t watch it in earnest until it hit Netflix some years ago. I went and bought the DVD set after watching the first two episodes, as at the time Netflix was far more volatile and less regular with shows’ comings and goings. I felt like a fool for skipping past the show as it aired, but then given how it was mistreated by Fox (and how viewers in general had been mistreated) perhaps it was for the best.

In any case, if you haven’t already hit the bandwagon on this show, which seems expressly unlikely given the demographics of our readers, do yourselves a favor and watch Firefly and Serenity. Though the latter lacks some charm, has too much exposition (gotta fill in those who didn’t watch the series), and moves too quickly through the story, it’s still worth it as a series ending wrap-up.[3]

[1] Dark Angel – one of the few shows my wife (then girlfriend/fiancee) and I agreed wholeheartedly on at the time, both for the cyberpunk dystopia and for the physical looks of the main characters–she for Logan Cale (Michael Weatherly) and me for X5-452/Max Guevara (Jessica Alba). And yes, we own the DVD sets—and book trilogy.

[2] This is a bit of worldbuilding that avoids explicit explanation until Serenity’s movie exposition overload. It’s hinted at through flags in the background and intimated simply because of the fluency of characters in both English and Mandarin, but it’s not until the film where the full history of the Alliance is delivered. Frankly, I think we were better off without it.

[3] If you feel like the movie failed to adequately close certain left-over threads from the series (the Blue Hands, why Inara and Book weren’t onboard at the start of the movie, etc.) there is a series of graphic novels penned by Whedon that fill in those gaps.

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Pulp Consumption: Gentleman Bastards Series

The Lies of Locke Lamora

Red Seas Under Red Skies

The Republic of Thieves

What happens you decide to write about a couple of con men in a fantasy setting? In a world where magic exists, what can two “mere” thieves hope to accomplish?

Image result for lies of locke lamora

Quite a bit actually.

It’s not quite what would be considered grimdark, but a little too weighty for pulp, the Gentleman Bastards fall closer to the sword-and-sorcery tradition of a Gray Mouser and Fafhrd, but with a more tightly controlled story arc than Leiber crafted for his two rogues. The two main characters, Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen, do fall within the heroic duo tradition, and while Lamora might be more readily identified as the main protagonist, Tannen gets plenty of opportunities to shine as well.

Each novel follows a similar structure in that there is the action that is taking place in the present (generally a long con of one sort or another), interspersed with whole chapter flashbacks that serve to run parallel to the main story. This serves to flesh out the main characters (as well as several of the secondary ones) while maintaining the narrative tension of the current scheme. Admittedly, the flashbacks lack some of the narrative punch that the “present” scenes possess, but only in that the reader knows the characters make it to the future dated event.

Each novel takes a slightly different approach, and almost as importantly explores a different aspect of the world Lynch is building. The first takes the reader to Cammorra, a fantasy counterpart to Venice. The second to Tal Verrar, which is what would happen if Atlantic City got to become its own nation state… and the pair gets to indulge in a bit of piracy. Finally (so far), the two end up in Karthain where they are extorted into rigging an election.Image result for red skies under red seas

The series also shows an important facet to writing roguish characters. In order for the reader to have sympathy, you need to pit them against other characters who are even less sympathetic. For example, in RED SEAS UNDER SKIES, Tannen and Lamora take it upon themselves to utterly destroy a coastal retreat for the aristocracy after Lamora discovers the humiliating games the rich force the poor to play for their amusement. Lamora and Tannen’s main adversary is shaping up to be a sadistic wizard, sorry, Bondsmagi, who they cross paths with in the first book. How sadistic? Let’s just say he keeps a cross between a falcon and a scorpion as a pet and leave it at that. By making the villains truly bad, it plays up the sympathy the reader has for the duo, and makes you feel both their triumphs and their tragedies all the more keenly.

The series, so far, has been relatively magic light, with a few notable exceptions. Instead, the more fantastic elements are generally derived from alchemy and outright magic is closely controlled by the aforementioned Bondsmagi. That isn’t to say that that the world comes across as a poorly reskinned Europe as there enough elements such as gladiator games featuring sharks, secret religious cults, and crossbred alchemical creations to keep the world on the right side of weird.Image result for republic of thieves

So if you enjoy a series where the heroes are more rogue than knight, and where a good con is as important as a sharp blade, this is the series for you.

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Pulp Appeal: Disney/Pixar’s Up

MV5BMTk3NDE2NzI4NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzE1MzEyMTE@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,664,1000_AL_Disney’s Up is 100% pulp fiction. If this story had been written and published in Amazing Stories or Weird Tales, it could not have been any more pulp-y than it already is.

The main character takes an unusual mode of transportation and finds himself in a paradise. Here he comes across a friendly animal that leads him to the animal’s master. This master is a megalomaniacal explorer who appears to have slipped over the edge of sanity, using his mania as a means to ensure his solitude and terrorize the locals. After a brief struggle, the main character saves the friendly animal, thwarts the megalomaniacal explorer who falls to his death, and then the main character returns home via a similarly unusual mode of transportation with a new lease on life and a story few people would ever believe.

When you strip out the specifics, the names, and the fact this movie was made by Disney/Pixar, Up resembles countless stories from the pulps (and proto-pulps). There are echoes of Haggard and Kipling, Burroughs and Doyle all throughout the film, which is something I love, but which I feel too many people sail right past without acknowledging.

Pixar gets a lot of credit for originality, most of which is deserved, and I certainly don’t mean to imply a lack of originality in Up. The age of the hero, Carl, and his villain, Muntz, and the relatively subtle use of racial dynamics with Russell set this movie apart from many of the other movies of its time, even almost 10 years later. In fact, Up’s use of retirees for protagonist and antagonist still sets it apart from the bulk of film history. Such distinction becomes singular if you limit the criteria to Disney and Pixar films.


Carl’s house lands on the tepui in South America. Look closely at the right edge of the mesa and compare to the picture at the bottom of the article.

So while there is originality here and while this specific plot hasn’t been done in this fashion, Up follows a rich history of pulp fiction, particularly the subgenre of Lost World adventure stories, as the second paragraph makes pretty clear. Carl may be a septuagenarian, but he is a pulp hero—complex, multi-faceted, flawed but brave, determined to achieve his goal but wise enough to step back when realizing there’s more to life. Think back to Burroughs’ Caspak[1] and Doyle’s The Lost World[2]. Consider Flash Gordon and his exploration of the universe or Doc Savage as he fights back against people bent on conquering the world through the use of futuristic technology.

Muntz is the villain who once started out as an inspiring figure to people. His devotion to his cause at the cost of personal relationships, his rejection of social norms, his retreat to self when questioned over methods and results—all of these led him away from the hero status of his youth, a status he still believes he possesses as evidenced by his interactions with Carl. You can see echoes of Captain Nemo and Captain Ahab in the way Muntz’s obsession takes him down a dark path and in the way Carl starts down the same path until he sees where it ends. I could even go so far as to connect Muntz to Joseph Conrad’s Kurtz in Heart of Darkness (made even crazier by Marlon Brando in Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation Apocalypse Now), but by then I’m heading deep into English professor territory. At the very least, Muntz is a character with motivations of his own and not simply evil for the sake of the story.

I loved Up. I think it’s safe to say most of the world loved it, so I’m definitely not alone. I’m sure I’m not the first to make the connection back to the pulp works of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, but I haven’t yet read any deep analyses. The closest I’ve come across is Roger Ebert’s review where he throws out a momentary oblique comparison to The Mummy, Tomb Raider, and Indiana Jones, and that’s just to scenery and setting. If anyone knows of a detailed critique of the film including such references, I’d love to read it. Maybe I’ll just have to write it myself if there isn’t one.[3]


Still from 1925’s The Lost World based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s work. Notice any similarities between this and the picture above?

[1] Originally I’d written Pellucidar, which is Burroughs’ Hollow Earth setting, itself an homage to Verne. Hollow Earth is definitely related to Lost World, but requires movement through the Earth’s crust instead of hidden locations on the Earth’s surface. Incidentally, Wakanda for Marvel and Gorilla City for DC are also Lost World settings, a detail that frequently is overlooked.

[2] Doyle even included balloons as a mode of transportation, a coincidence that is not lost on me.

[3] As I was getting ready to post this, I came across this thread on Reddit’s “Fan Theories” subreddit. I knew I couldn’t have been the first, and I’m glad to see I wasn’t. I wouldn’t say I agree with the theory, but I’m glad someone else appears to have made the connection. I have found other throw-away references that don’t go into any real depth, but that’s not what I’m looking for.

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Pulp Appeal : Storyhack #1

It would be wrong and naïve of us to state that we are the only magazine out there publishing stories with a focus on high stakes, adrenaline fueled action, and an eye toward having stories that are flat out fun. One of those magazines happens to be Storyhack, run by Bryce Beattie. He is explicitly looking to publish “modern day pulp” and “welcomes works from a variety of genres.[1]

In order to fuel interest in his magazine, he released an Issue 0, but I decided that I’d show a fellow indie some love by purchasing a copy.


New Rules for Rocket Nauts by Michael DeCarolis

This is a fun, retro raygun and rockets story where a washed-up cadet is all that stands between humanity and an alien menace it allowed into its midst. There were a few plot points that had me scratching my head (why would you train a species to pilot ships if you can’t effectively communicate with them?), but overall it was an enjoyable sci-fi piece evoking the likes of Edgar Rice Burroughs or old Buck Rodgers.

The Price of Hunger by Kevyn Winkless

A different take on the classic Wendigo tale, Winkless foregoes the typical cannibal origin, instead making it a tale of the transformative power of greed. I’ll admit, I had some trouble placing the setting of the story at first, but the frontier aspect of the story shines through. I feel it would have benefitted from a bit more setting description than what was given, but that’s also a mild quibble.

Retrieving Abe by Jay Barnson

When a Mormon woman’s husband disappears, everyone fears he was taken by a dragon. Only Lydia Madison is no wilting flower, her father having been a dragon hunter before he was struck down. So she takes down her gun and strikes off to find her husband, whether he be alive or dead. A really nice work that borders on alternate history with a extremely capable protagonist.

Protector of Newington by John M. Olsen

An interesting take on a steampunk story, where the main character is perhaps less than heroic at the outset but overcomes a host of obstacles, and in the process comes to terms the price heroics might pay, especially when it’s other people strapping into the steampunk armor you construct.  The details and limitations of the armor were well thought out and stopped it from being a “power as the plot demands” kind of story.

Brave Day Sunk in Hideous Night by Julie Frost

What happens when a werewolf suffering from PTSD gets unwittingly projected into a bad future, and all he wants is to get home again? What risks is he willing to take to get back home? And what will happen to those that stand in his way? A really heartfelt and beautiful piece that is thoroughly engaging.

Taking Control by Jon Del Arroz

In some ways, I felt that something was missing from this story. The stakes were never clearly defined for me, and while the idea of an aging outlaw more used to hold ups than con games trying to adjust to the fact that they might be getting too old. The ending feels a bit too contrived and certain elements of the story turned into puzzling headscratchers (if the powder was readily available to people… why doesn’t it see more use?). Perhaps I was hoping for more gunplay than I got going into this Western.

Some Things Missing from Her Profile by David Skinner

A reskinned noir story remains a noir story, and Skinner goes all in on this one. When a man’s date is abducted, he goes out of his way to track her down, uncovering a multilayered plot that goes far beyond what he was expecting. You want a story akin to CHINATOWN but boiled down to its essentials? This has you covered.

Dream Master by Gene Moyers

Rich men are stepping out into traffic, but not until after mailing large sums of money to unknown destinations. A psychotherapist is called in to investigate, and with a bit of amateur sleuthing figures the case out. The main character felt like he could stand shoulder to shoulder with the likes of pulp heroes Doc Savage or the Shadow, being larger than life and more capable than anyone else around him. The villain was also left vague and mysterious, and there are plenty of hooks left for adventures to come.

Under the Gun by David J. West

What happens when a Native American picks up a possessed gun that urges him to kill? What happens when he can’t resist its impulses? And what happens when that gun finds its way into the hands of a man who’s lived long enough to regret the killing he’s done? A great Weird West piece that captures the weariness of Porter and the burden of trying to do the right thing.

Circus to Boulogne by Mike Adamson

A historic adventure tale of a WWII pilot shot down over France, and his ordeal to get back to England any way he can. I felt parts of the story were bogged down by the writer being somewhat over-technical instead of evocative, but the story stands strong and if you have any interest in WWII aviation, you owe it to yourself to read this story.

All in all I enjoyed this collection, and if you are interested in seeing what current writers are accomplishing in action and adventure short fiction, you owe it yourself to check out Storyhack!

You can purchase Storyhack through Amazon.

[1] See! We’re not the only ones.

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Pulp Consumption: Get Out


By now I have to imagine anyone who loves horror movies has seen Get Out, so it’s probably preaching to the choir at this point, but if for some reason you’ve skipped over this film you are doing yourself a serious disservice. Seriously, stop reading now and just go watch the movie.

Are you still here? If so, I’m going to assume you’ve watched the film, so beware spoilers below.

Daniel Kaluuya as Chris Washington

Daniel Kaluuya as Chris Washington

It would be stupid not to discuss the popularity of Jordan Peele as a comedy writer and sketch actor, especially where it comes to his frequent collaborator Keegan Michael Key (if you watched the Super Bowl, you saw Key in at least two commercial breaks, and I’m sure you recognize him from character actor roles all over the place).  If you’ve ever watched any of the Key and Peele sketch show, you have no doubt noted the comedic duo’s keen sense of comedic timing. The concept of the right thing happening at the right time to upset or subvert expectations and deliver surprises is the very essence of both comedy and horror, so it should come as no surprise that a brilliant comic writer would also be a brilliant horror writer. This is not to say every comedian would be a good horror writer or vice versa, but there is a very definite overlap in skillsets. Just consider the jump scare that is actually a cat instead of the monster. If you need further proof, go back and rewatch nearly any slasher movie[1], but play a laugh track instead of screeching violins.

Rather than go into a synopsis of the film and then discuss the meaning, we’ll cut right to the chase: the movie is about systemic racism, even at the hands of self-proclaimed white liberal social justice advocates. They trick, control, and usurp black bodies while simultaneously loudly declaring their anti-racist bonafides. It’s limousine liberalism at its finest.

Allison Williams as Rose Armitage

Allison Williams as Rose Armitage

I wrote earlier about Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff, and the Lovecraftian theme is also present here, but instead of Elder Gods, magical texts, and non-Euclidean geometry there’s magic, hypnotism, cults who buy and sell people, brain-body transportation, and the creeping sense of dread brought about by the strange behavior of servant staff, all black men and women, and the insistence by the white family that they don’t have a racist bone in their bodies.

Peele, who wrote, directed, and produced the film, does a pretty good job of giving us details in the same way his characters learn them, although there is one sequence which contains entirely too much direct explanation/ authorial intrusion.

The end of the film, like Ruff’s novel, is the one major shortcoming I see. I understand why the studio pushed for a “happy” ending, with the main character escaping the clutches of a white body-stealing cult, much as I understand why Ruff chose to have his characters triumph over the ancient white cult of sorcery. Black characters don’t generally survive horror films[2]. In fact, it’s so standard a trope in horror movies that it’s frequently lampshaded, to the point of being explicitly called out in character.

The problems I see with both Lovecraft Country and Get Out isn’t the survivors who subvert a trope (indeed, I’m glad to see it), but that the conclusions wrap up too neatly. In the most iconic horror films, the final scenes are almost always ambiguous, with the heroes/survivors just barely scraping through. In fact, it could be viewed as a good thing: After all, Peele is turning the traditional horror tale on its ear a bit. Instead of dark-skinned primitive cults sacrificing white heroes to raise ancient horrors, it’s hyper-savvy technologically advanced cults of white aristocrats sacrificing black heroes to serve as literal body slaves. I just wish the getaway wasn’t quite so clean and tidy. Peele is smart enough that maybe the sequel can call attention to this fact and skirt around it. After all, not everyone in the cult is dead.

Minor faults aside, I definitely recommend this movie even if you have no interest in (or are blind to) the social justice angle of the film. It’s well-written, -acted, and -directed, and tells its story well. Although it is feature-length, the basic morality tale aspect of it should appeal to fans of shows like Tales from the Crypt and Masters of Horror, or, really, fans of horror in general.

As a fan of Jordan Peele’s, I’m very glad this film had the success it did and I look forward to seeing what he makes next. In addition to a possible sequel to Get Out, he’s attached to the Twilight Zone reboot for CBS All Access[3] and Lovecraft Country at HBO.

[1] Particularly Wes Craven films

[2] Although that definitely wasn’t always the case. In fact, in Night of the Living Dead, Ben (Duane Jones) is the only survivor of the night (though at the end he does die because he is mistaken for a zombie), and in Romero’s follow-up, Dawn of the Dead, Peter (Ken Foree) is one of only two characters to survive the long night in the shopping mall.

[3] Cranky old man shouting at clouds – I hate everything about All Access’ business model.

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Pulp Consumption: Magnificent Seven (1960)

What do you get when you remake a classic samurai movie by Akira Kurosawa, only give it an all-star Hollywood cast and set in the old West? THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN[1]! Starring Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Robert Vaughn, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, Eli Wallach, and a guy who saved Frank Sinatra’s life (sorry, Brad Dexter). It also saw the debut of a young German actor by the name of Horst Buchholz.  The incredible score was composed by Elmer Bernstein and is one of the most memorable scores in Hollywood history.

This movie bridges the gap between the earlier golden age of the Hollywood Western where the lines are clearly divided between good and evil, the good guys take their time to shoot guns out of their opponents hands, and the good guys walk away clean, clearly having accomplished their objective. This movie, while it does indulge in some of that (see the opening gun fight between Chris and Vin at the graveyard) for the most part the gunplay is deadly serious.

Image result for eli wallach magnificent seven

You don’t get much more all-star cast than this.

The movie doesn’t fail to manipulate the audience. What viewer watching it doesn’t pull for the obviously outnumbered seven? Early on, it is established that Chris will do the right thing despite the odds or prevailing attitudes when he agrees to bring a Native American to a graveyard over the objections of some of the white residents of the town. A town beset by a stronger force is obligated to search for outside help, not knowing if they’ll be able to find it.

Image result for eli wallach magnificent seven

Calvera isn’t a man to mess with

What also stands out for me is the amount of character development that the movie goes into. Whether it is Bernardo O’Reilly acknowledging his mixed heritage (or his powerful speech to the boys of the village that their fathers, the farmers, are true heroes), Lee overcoming his failed nerves to enter the fight, or Chico realizing the life of a gunfighter doesn’t hold the same appeal as settling down with Petra, one of the village girls. Even Calvera, the bad guy, gets some development. It turns out he needs to raid the village because his men are short on food. So rather than raiding because he is out-and-out evil, he does it because he cares about his men. Calvera also demonstrates a level of savvy not often seen by villains when he initially convinces the seven to leave the town. The seven (with the exception of Harry Luck, who was only after a payday) decide after leaving that they can’t leave a job half-done.


When Charles Bronson ends up being the comic relief… you know you are in a badass movie.

If you are looking for inspiration for your own stories, you can do a lot worse and not much better than the original Magnificent Seven[2].



Are you an indie writer or publisher? Want your work featured here on Broadswords and Blasters? Want to have your ad appear in an issue of the magazine? Drop us a line through our contact page and let us know!

[1] Arguments can and have been made about whether it is as good a movie as Seven Samurai. That’s not the point of this article, and in fact both movies do certain things better.

[2] Yes, I am aware that there were sequels, but as a whole they pale in comparison. Likewise, the remake in 2016 fell flat for me for host of reasons, despite its stellar cast and hints of being a good movie. However, despite being cut short, the 1998 television series is fun if you can find it.

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Pulp Appeal: Ursula K. Le Guin

This article has been harder to write than I anticipated. That’s not just because Ursula K. Le Guin was an important writer, but because I realize that I have been remiss in my reading of her work.

First, she’s not a pulp writer. Her fiction is very definitely in the realm of socially and politically aware, deliberately composed to advance social agendas alongside the entertainment factor. I was not and am not always amenable to that. I tend to find much of that sort of writing to be polemical and I’m usually not interested in too much polemics when I’m reading for fun. That said, her work is important in the grand scheme of science fiction and fantasy, and for that she deserves accolades.

Le Guin’s work is unquestionably feminist. The modern intersectional feminist movement may not always agree because Le Guin’s earlier work had explicitly male characters exploring worlds where the patriarchy held firm control. They attempted to weave their way through those worlds without outright upending them. To some, this is an unforgivable sin and amounts to apologetics.

Paperback cover of The Left Hand of Darkness

Paperback cover of
The Left Hand of Darkness

I’m not one to jump so quick on that. Authors are products of their time and the prevailing attitudes and mores of that time. This doesn’t forgive people like Lovecraft their racism, but judging the entire past based on modern moral standards reaches the height of silliness. For instance, at the time that Bill Clinton was elected President, his saxophone and sunglasses shtick was seen as progressive and representational of black minority voters. He was even called “the first black President.” You only have to look ahead 20 years and that seems positively asinine. In 20 more years there will undoubtedly be critiques of Barack Obama as betraying the black community. Indeed, such rumblings already exist.

But that’s simply revisionist history. At the time, those were major milestones, and a work like Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness is such a milestone, too. In that work she deals with the problems of gender roles, postulating a far future society where not only are the roles broken apart, but the actual sexes of the species are malleable as well. Other authors, including men like Robert Heinlein[1], Joe Haldeman, Samuel R. Delany, and John Scalzi, and women like Margaret Atwood, Anne McCaffrey, Octavia Butler, and Kameron Hurley have explored similar concepts with respect to people changing genders or the implicit problems with ingrained roles determined by those genders. While Le Guin was certainly not the first to do so, the mainstream success of Left Hand made sure many more readers were exposed to it than might have otherwise.

Paperback cover of The Tombs of Atuan

Paperback cover of
The Tombs of Atuan

Of similar importance, at least in the realm of Bildungsroman speculative fiction, are the Earthsea novels, though I confess to having read only the second one, The Tombs of Atuan. I was not particularly impressed, but I was also much younger. I’m going to take it upon myself to read the rest of them this summer during the college break.

The story of hers I’m most familiar with is also one of her shortest, “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” I use this story in both my short story literature and creative writing classes where we discuss both the craft elements of a religious or pseudo-religious parable and the ethics of a society in which suffering must exist in order for happiness to exist. The moral implications of such a society are often lost upon students at first. They feel like the people who stay in the society are evil and the ones who walk away are good, but the story resists such a black-or-white interpretation completely. In reality, the society Le Guin portrays is not so far-fetched, as those of us in first-world societies do enjoy almost all of the creature comforts and peace as the Omelans, and much of that is built upon people who do the hard labor and crap jobs[2] to which we are willfully blind. I’ll leave the rest of the English professor-y stuff for another day, but suffice to say I have spent a lot of time with this story, talking it over with students and professors and casual readers alike.

As a last note, we talk here at Broadswords and Blasters about works that influence our tastes and works that we are currently consuming. Not all of them are pulp, but each of them has shaped the way we think and read in different ways. I’m not always in a mood for socially conscious fiction, which is why I have shelves full of Dragonlance and Forgotten Realms novels alongside my definitive pulp works by icons like Robert Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room on those shelves for the other works, or that even the pulp works aren’t themselves political. Noir works are certainly political critiques of a failing justice system, corruption, and the moral gray areas of real-world encounters. And there’s certainly room for literary analysis of all works–pulp, social sf, high-tech sf, cyberpunk, noir, superhero, literary fiction, vampire romance . . .

It behooves you all to read widely, so that at the very least you know why you love what you love when it comes to pulp. Action-centered entertainment starring proactive protagonists and antagonists with agency doing big things in the face of danger, with moral costs and changes in physical and mental well-being at play, is all key to my enjoyment of the genre, and that isn’t likely to ever go away. But sometimes it’s good to take a break and read something with a bit more heft.

[1] Unfairly categorized as a right-wing authoritarian based only on his early work. Anyone who judges Heinlein without having read Stranger in a Strange Land, Time Enough for Love, Job: A Comedy of Errors, The Number of the Beast, or any of his other works from the late 60s until his death, is simply mistaken.

[2] This is essentially the entire purpose of the Discovery Channel show Dirty Jobs, and what host Mike Rowe most wants viewers to understand.

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