Wednesday, 16 August 2017

To Pulp or Not to Pulp ~ A Review of Astounding Frontiers #1 and a Bonus!



I've been following the Superversive movement for a while now. It has paired with the Pulp Revolution as the two main influences of where I'm taking my writing, and both have a lot of crossover with each other. Superversive is focused on stories that show the reader that world can be larger and more mysterious than at first glance, and Pulp Rev focuses on stories with a moral clarity where anything can happen at any time. At some point the two streams will cross and the fabric of the universe will tear. It only stands to reason. They have much in common.

So when I heard members of the Superversive movement were planning on making their own Pulp magazine, I was excited. What more could I ask for? There's so much clear overlap that I could hardly wait to give it a read.

And read it I did.

I'll start with the positives. Declan Finn's According to Culture is just about what I'd expect from him and it gave the magazine the shot in the arm it needed. It was fast paced, action packed, and takes place in a universe that leaves the audience with wonder. It's also quite funny. It's exactly what I was hoping for.

The magazine itself is also very well edited, and the writers all contributed very good speculative stories that wouldn't feel out of place in a Science Fiction magazine from the 1970s. I did not read the serials simply because I do not like serials as a rule, but know that all the authors involved are very capable at writing great stories and from what I've seen these serials continue the trend. If you buy this issue you will get your money's worth. It is a 5 star magazine with very worthy stories.

It has a fantastic title and tagline, too. Very well put together. All in all, it's a great buy.

Now the negatives.

As I said, I didn't read the serials. This is nothing against either the magazine or the writers, but just that I don't read serials. My memory is bad enough that waiting even a week to read the next block of a story will cause me to lose my excitement and the story thread. So anything I say next will exclude them from criticism.

The cover is boring. I don't have any idea why those guys are standing around amidst computer screens and blandly looking around. There isn't any wonder or mystery to be found on the cover and it dulls enthusiasm for opening the issue. Luckily, issue 2 is a step in the right direction here.

This leads into the biggest problem I had with the magazine: it's not traditional Pulp.

Keep in mind that there are no bad stories here. They're all well written and do what they do well, but they are not Pulp stories aside from According to Culture. The reason they're not Pulp is not just because of lax pacing (the first story in particular is rather quick and it is not very Pulp either) but that there isn't much mystery or wonder at the world outside of the characters. There's no genre bending (though again Finn's comes close), and there are no moral conflicts that tie in to the exterior battles-- if there are exterior battles at all.

In other words, it's Science Fiction done in Heinlein's Silver Age style. Not Golden Age Pulp in the vein of Robert E. Howard, C.L. Moore, Clark Ashton Smith, or Leigh Brackett.

The lack of romance (in the older sense) is a big deal for this reader. I read Golden Age Pulp for the excitement, the off-kilter ideas, the wonder, the action, the mystery, the smashing of genre walls, and the morality and spiritual battles. I don't tend to read Silver Age SF because it barely ever has half of those and I personally don't care about complex math equations to tell me how faster than light travel works. Pulp naturally focuses on everything from the bottomless well of the soul to the near inscrutable atoms of the universe and everything in between, while Silver Age focuses on How Things Work and how Making Things Work will solve every problem. They have very different aims.

There's nothing necessarily wrong with the latter, and it wouldn't be an apt criticism normally. But this magazine was advertised as being a Pulp magazine, and my expectations were adjusted accordingly. In that aspect it doesn't hit the mark.

Part of the problem is that all the stories are locked to Science Fiction. Pulp is not just Science Fiction. Pulp is Fantasy, Horror, Science Fiction, Historical Fiction, Thrillers, Alternate History, Weird Tales, Westerns, Detective Fiction, and Romance. It can be any of these at any time, and all at once. There are no genre boundaries in Pulp, and it is one of the unique characteristics that only it contains. Limiting that scope limits the potential stories for the audience.

That's not to say I disliked the stories actually in the magazine. I enjoyed them all. But they did not offer what I was expecting, and I can't help but feel a tinge of disappointment.

To put it in contrast, let me use this space to review two other short stories I have read recently. These are the types of stories I went in expecting from Astounding Frontiers.

The first is I, The One by Dominika Lein. The second is Spider Silk from J.D. Brink (fantastic name, sir) and both of which I had to purchase in the cluttered asteroid field that is amazon's site just to read. I've been looking for a way to properly review them, so it'll work here. These are the sorts of stories that should be in a Pulp magazine.

I, The One is very hard to pin down. Reading the first paragraph one cannot discern if it is Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, or something else. It's quick and snappy: events continually unfold and unravel the world within. The prose is light and yet ropes you in to hold you to the page. Imagine Clark Ashton Smith with an eye on the more mystical parts of the Dresden Files and you might get close to what this story is. It was a delight to read.

On the other side is Spider Silk: Behind the Eightball by J.D Brink. This is a fast paced action story about a superhero hunting wannabe supervillains. It's got a good sense of humor, a swift flow, and is a quick read. It's not anything like I, The One, and yet it is very clearly pulp inspired. About the only personal gripe I have is the excessive swearing, but that is relatively minor compared to the rest. This was fun on every level.

But the best thing to get out of what I said is that these stories are entirely different from each other in just about every way. And they're both still Pulp. That is how wide the net casts. Pulp has an incredible scope.

This is why I expect a lot from a Pulp magazine, and will be expecting more in the future. Astounding Frontiers is a good magazine, with a good foundation for the future, but it is not a Pulp magazine. Not yet.

If you are looking for a Science Fiction magazine: Recommended.

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