Edward Willett

The Space-Time Continuum: Pulp Fiction

This is my latest column from the Saskatchewan Writers Guild magazine Freelance, with extra graphics!

Mention “pulp fiction” these days and most people probably think of the 1994 Quentin Tarantino movie. But of course the movie’s title referenced something much earlier: fiction literally published on pulp—cheap paper made directly from wood-pulp.

Pulp paper quickly turns both yellow and brittle, and perhaps that perception of poor quality has coloured the perception of the fiction printed thereon, but in fact many classic stories—not just of science fiction and fantasy, but in other genres, too—first appeared in what are now known as the “pulp magazines.”

Mike Ashley is a U.K. researcher and editor who has published four books on the history of science fiction magazines just since 2000, with a fifth in the works. In a recent essay on The Pulp Magazines Project website, he offers a quick history of pulp magazines.

He defines pulps narrowly, as magazines not only printed on pulp paper, but of a standard size, about 10 X 7 inches. Their glory years were 1896 to 1955. After that, they largely vanished. Some magazines became larger and moved to better paper, while the few survivors mostly shrank to digest size, roughly 7 X 5 inches.

The magazines lacked bulk advertising: they were so cheap to produce that even though they typically sold for a dime, they could survive solely off of sales revenue. Illustrations were limited to line drawings, because photos wouldn’t reproduce well.

The direct ancestors of the pulps were dime novels and boys’ adventure magazine. (Interestingly enough—to me, at least—a previous Edward Willett wrote dime-novel Westerns.)

Ashley pegs the first proper pulp as The Argosy, born as The Golden Argosy, a weekly boys’ adventure magazine, in December 1882. The name change in December 1888 was an attempt to attract a more grown-up readership. It moved to the pulp format in April 1894 (the image is the cover of that first pulp issue). The focus remained on adventure stories, but more serious work was also serialized, such as Upton Sinclair’s novel In the Net of the Visconti.

The overall model, though, was exciting adventure fiction, sold cheaply, and it worked so well that by 1907 The Argosy was selling half a million copies of every issue, making it second in circulation among American magazines.

Success bred imitators—lots of them, far too many to list here. The early pulps had an eclectic approach to fiction, but specialty magazines soon appeared, beginning with 1906’s The Railroad Man’s Magazine, in which all of the stories were linked to railways.

In October 1912 All-Story published Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs. His Martian adventures featuring John Carter followed. Their success led to even more fantastical stories (though there’d always been some) appearing in the pulps.

Science-fiction readers finally got their own magazine with Amazing Stories, started by Hugo Gernsback in April 1926. Though it was the first science-fiction magazine, Ashley points out it wasn’t really a pulp: initially, it used a larger format and heavier paper. As a result, the honour of being the first true science-fiction pulp goes to 1930’s Astounding Stories (whose first cover graces—if that’s the right word—the top of this column).

Amazing Stories continued in print form until 2005, but the real “amazing story” is Astounding’s. Renamed Analog in 1960, it continues to this day: you can find it in Chapters as a digest-sized magazine published on cheap paper (though better paper than the original pulps used!). That’s the cover of the most recent issue at right.

Other science-fiction pulps included Wonder StoriesStartling Stories, and Planet Stories, which introduced such writers as Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, and L. Ron Hubbard. On the fantasy side, Weird Tales published H.P. Lovecraft, and Robert E. Howard’s tales of Conan the Barbarian.

The number of pulps dwindled during the Second World War, and by the mid-1950s they’d almost all vanished, “victim,” Ashley says, “to all manner of afflictions—comics, paperbacks, television, and eventually the withdrawal of their major distributor.”

And yet their spiritual descendants live in science fiction and fantasy in the form of the “Big Three”: the aforementioned Analog, Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine (launched in 1977), and The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy (1949).

In the larger literary world, there’s a movement called New Pulp (“stories by modern fans and authors that recreate the style of adventures that appeared in the pulp magazines during the pulp era”), which has an annual convention called PulpFest.

And in science fiction specifically, there’s the Pulp Revolution. Jasyn Jones, one of its adherents, defines it thus:

“The Pulp Revolution…is about learning from the past how to make great stories. It’s about grabbing the audience right out of the gate and keeping them mesmerized by moving the story along. It’s about the absolute minimum of boring talky baloney, and the absolute maximal entertainment, enjoyment, and fun. It’s about audience first, last, and always. It’s about eschewing all else in pursuit of stories that inspire, that thrill, that horrify, that move, that elate. It’s about storytelling in its purest and most elemental form. It’s about all that…”

From my point of view, “all that” sounds pretty sweet.

Pulp fiction lives!

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