After five days of sorting through boxes, being surrounded by the crinkle of cellophane sleeves and the smell of old pulp paper, it is time to pack up my notes and move from gathering to refining. Dozens of scans and a spreadsheet too messy to share contain clues for me to track my thoughts over these whirlwind days, some of which are not too messy to present to you here:
The first thing that I’ll be doing is putting together context: who was writing and editing these stories? I’m making great strides thanks to a recent book with a wide audience suggested to me by my friend Daniel (who, frankly, could be the hero of many of these stories considering his intellect, disposition, and ringlets like those of Grecian statue). Astounding breaks down the relationships between four of the big names of science fiction: Campbell, Asimov, Heinlein, and Hubbard, all while giving an account of the era in which they were writing. Alongside this, I’m waiting on a copy of the 1961 fanzine “Who Killed Science Fiction” by Earl Kemp, to get some reflective feedback from science fiction authors and fans on this particular moment in time.
As I read these notoriously white, notoriously male texts, I can’t help but write about the way race and disability intersect in these texts. Race is everywhere in these pulps–even where it allegedly isn’t. The texts center white characters (a choice that can’t be looked past as unracialized) and people of color are sometimes represented directly, but the authors more commonly map the stories of people of color onto aliens or robots or animals or white, disabled people. The story being referred to above is one of the few that directly addresses race; it does so in blatantly racist ways. “The Menace” blames the havoc in its narrative on black characters and explicitly works to stoke antiblack sentiments in its readers. What sticks with me after reading through the pulps in which it appeared is a particular reader response to this story and the editor’s response to this response. While the pulp published a voice critical of the story’s racism, the criticism isn’t squarely that racism is wrong (protip: it is), but that it’s not scientific (protip: racism plays a huge role in the history of science). On one hand: yay! for someone to say that race is not a scientific concept in 1929 is…decent? …not so bad? better than many scientists of the day who were still celebrating eugenics? On the other hand, the response from the editor was, “We are printing this letter here, mainly because it is the only one that we know of that has been received reacting unfavorably against Dr. Keller’s stories. We are quite certain Dr. Keller had no race prejudice in his mind when he wrote the stories. The theme itself was such, that there was no other solution to it, and inasmuch as no other brickbats were received on these stories, it would seem that they were accepted at their face value. From our correspondents’ letter it is clear that Dr. Keller is one of their favorite authors –Editor.”
I didn’t come to the pulps to venerate these authors and their works as the foundations of science fiction as we currently know it. I came to sit with the legacy of the genre as one that I’ve been steeped in as self-professed nerd and white man who grew up reading the novels and short stories of pulp writers. How can I be open to analyzing the violences within an archive whose stories I can parody with my eyes closed? Whose tropes are as familiar as some family members? And whose story arcs continually recycled in our reboot culture? In trying to speculate on futures, these stories shaped their present moment, telling people to expect certain things *not* to change, and for a long time these stories suppressed others from imagining otherwise. At the same time, some of the weirdness in these texts, their untied ends, and their misfits making it to the page might have allowed space to imagine better futures than their authors intended.
These texts can’t solely be scrapped as having no value, despite the misogyny and racism that runs through them to a greater or lesser degree. The work I come here to do is find the ways in which science fiction has shaped culture, for good and for ill. Many think back to the “Golden Age” of science fiction with nostalgia, erasing the parts that don’t shine. And so, I am returning to these stories to prevent that same nostalgia from manifesting in me and to consider the violences nestled into these stories that might rear their heads again as the stories are rebooted into blockbuster fodder.
This brings me to a story I stayed with for quite a while today: “Isle of the Abominations” from Weird Tales, October 1938. The word “abomination” put up a flag for me as potentially signaling any of the following from a writer in the era: disability, non-normative sexuality, eugenics, religious commentary on any number of people, or a heavy undead unit from Warcraft III. What I found my eyes caught up in was a story about carnivorous plants, the educated, white foresters brought in to de-forest them, the laborers they lead (camps of Black and Irish workers), and one heavily metaphorical mule. One way of reading it is as a horror story that slowly allow the fear of carnivorous plants to take root in the reader. Another, if one listens closely to the soliloquy of the dead mule in the story, is to read it as a commentary on bloodthirsty and ever-expanding capitalism/consumerism. However, to reach this reading means engaging in the violence of metaphor, particularly in relation to Black people’s treatment in science fiction.
To put it briefly, the pulps are a mess. They are filled with savory speculation and unsavory opinions about people different than the predominantly (but not solely) white male authors and imagined audience. This messiness, in turn, is where I see potential. The pulps are not polished texts; the pulps are not academic essays. They shaped and were shaped by readers’ opinions (even readers that didn’t fit the authors’ imagined audiences) and authors’ biases. They were produced quickly and cheaply. The pulps are layers fraught with pitfalls and veins of potential that came to become a major genre in American Popular Culture. It’s impossible to say exactly what will come of this work, but I can tell you I can think of a few possibilities…