There’s been a fair amount of debate in various encounters about what exactly constitutes a pulp story, and a number of definitions have been floated. With acknowledgment that there are some classic exceptions or deviations here is a definition that I feel comes fairly close to the mark:
- Imaginative Setting or Events. If the setting is mundane there should be extraordinary events to counterbalance the normality.
- Action. The protagonist should take action–even if futile–to overcome the obstacles in front of him or her. Moribund introspection does not a pulp story make.
- Morality. The story should at the very least recognize the existence of a right and wrong–even if the protagonist is in the wrong. Or an immoral protagonist should be pitted against a greater evil.
- Limits. Even though, in their day, pulps were considered lurid and pushing the boundaries of good taste, they had some limits. In today’s society there is little off limits in ‘literary’ or any other fiction. I prefer the pulp I read to have some limits in offensive language and in the explicitness of the sexual content. A question I oftgen ask myself is, ‘would this story fit comfortably alongside a Robert E Howard or Edgar Rice Burroughs story as far as the explicitness of the content?’
- A pulp story should not mock its own tropes.
- Purple Prose. A story should contain vivid and evocative language as opposed to existing in a colorless vacuum of time and space.
Readers may or may not agree with what I propose makes a pulp story–and there is room to argue some points. However, given the above guidelines I have reviewed the stories within Broadswords and Blasters.
1st Story is Skin Deep by Nicolas Ozment
Plot: A couple of young warriors fall in with a lot of crusty mercs looking for comely fey-folk (ilsilke) sunning themselves on ice. They plan to capture some for wives or concubines, but the young warriors are just curious.
Moral Outlook: A crusty merc tries to climb into the sleeping roll with one of the young warriors before finding the ilsilke and is conked on the skull with a stone. The young warriors defend the ilsilke against the mercs who so angry that they try to kill the ilsilke when they discover they are fat and hideous. The young warriors are rewarded with an orgy (which apparently is okay, because the ilsilke are shapeshifters and after all–beauty is only skin deep)
2nd Story: Dead Men Tell Tales by Dave D’Alessio:
Plot: A clever private eye on a space station comes across a murdered man and endeavors to hide some secret information from mobsters, but he’s battling against the handicap of Big Brother technology.
Moral Outlook: The private eye is ostensibly one of the good guys.
Action: Not slam-bang action, but the main character is an active participant in the outcome and wins out by dint of his cleverness.
3rd Story: The Executioner’s Daughter by RA Goli
Plot: An aging executioner passes along the family business to his daughter who messes up her first execution because it takes her two strokes to decapitate the victim. She redeems herself by inventing the Guillotine.
Moral Outlook: None
Action: None (unless you count beheading helpless prisoners)
Pulp?: Probably not.
4th Story: Pension Plan by Dusty Wallace
Plot: A couple of miner’s come back to a strip-mined planet that is being evacuated by the corporation that has exhausted its resources. They murder a bar full of company men in order to steal the payroll.
Moral Outlook: There’s nothing redeeming about the protagonists, but some effort is made to justify their actions by explaining they were paid ok, but not great by their employers, and their employers have mob affiliations (never mind the miners who are having their pay stolen)
Modern Pulp Sensibilities?: There are plenty of F words, jokes about alien genitalia, and graphic descriptions of said severed genitalia.
Pulp?: Unfortunately, this story personifies just about everything I dislike about certain attempts at modern pulp. Protagonists you’d just as soon see die as live, unfettered profanity, etc.
Story 5: Saturday Night Science by Michael M Jones
Plot: Disabled Lesbian meets someone at a Sci-Fi Convention. Hooks up for some bondage and becomes part of an experiment that cycles her through dimensions.
Moral Outlook: The story assumes Lesbianism is acceptable.
Modern Pulp Sensibilities: Did I mention the protagonist is a lesbian?
Action: There’s not much tension.
Pulp?: It’s all played tongue-in-cheek as though they’re too cool to take the pulp tropes seriously. As a consequence there is never any real suspense.
Story 6: Skull Island by Matt Spencer
Plot: Twins with shifting camouflage skin, Ketz and Tia, encounter a scantily clad girl with serpentine tattoos. She stirs Ketz’s lust and he gives chase. They lose her. Then an old but ageless woman tells her story about her youthful encounter with the people of this other tribe.
Action: Not much but the initial chase
Moral Outlook: None, and so the reader has no investment in the protagonists.
Modern Pulp Sensibilities: Tons of F-words and explicit sexual references
Pulp?: Far too explicit to be pulp and not enough action–though there might be some to come. The story is to be continued. There’s some good writing in here, but the story is undermined and destroyed by the explicit content.
Story 7: The Waters So Dark by Josh Reynolds
Plot: A holy warrior, at the behest of the Pope, hunts down a heretic who summons a fiend from the silty depths of the sea.
Moral Outlook: The hero is doing God’s work
Modern Pulp Sensibilities: This doesn’t really have modern pulp sensibilities, which I think is a good thing. It’s more like a cross between Robert E Howard and HP Lovecraft.
Story 8: Thicker than Water by Rob Francis
Plot: An interrogator for the tyrannical Red Duke is horrified to discover he is interrogating his own brother, who has plotted against the regime.
Moral Outlook: The protagonist starts out on the wrong side and then shifts to the right side, but mostly out of the desire for self-preservation.
Modern Pulp Sensibilities: Unfortunately, this means unnecessary profanity in the form of more F-words. Often, I find, that modern sensibilities translates into no boundaries when it comes to profanity or sexual content.
Pulp: Of a sort. This is actually a pretty good story, despite the profanity, but doesn’t quite fit the classic mold.
-Author of Weird Action and Adventure