What I Mean By “Pulp”

I proudly profess myself to be a pulp-style writer. This may confuse people, because there’s a tendency in modern literary circles to refer to “pulp” stories as if they are the same as the media they were originally printed on: cheap, disposable, and not intended to withstand the test of time. It’s considered sub-standard writing. Obviously, that’s not what I mean when I say “pulp.” I suspect a lot of people using it in the derogatory sense have rarely if ever actually read pulp-era stories.

So let’s talk about the pulp era. From the late 1800s through about the 1950s, with the rise in literacy rates and nothing quite resembling the modern publishing system (and before television really took hold), we experienced a proliferation in periodicals publishing stories for entertainment. Many of the magazines were more traditional, catering to a more mainstream audience (middle-class men, housewives, etc.) and came on higher-quality paper. These were sometimes called the “slicks” or “glossies.”

Then you had the magazines focusing on stories for more niche audiences. Because of the more limited, focused markets, they were produced more cheaply than the slicks. The paper came from a cheaper wood pulp process, and the pages were often were not trimmed to perfectly identical size. They tended to pay less for stories than the “slicks,” but they also accepted stories with more niche appeal. Today, we would call these stories “genre fiction” (and yes, some people say that with a derogatory tone, but I don’t hang with those folks). Some magazines were of more general action/adventure appeal and would print stories across a lot of what we now would think of as genres / sub0-genres. Other magazines devoted to stories of horror or the macabre, several devoted to different styles of science fiction, detective stories, romance, aviation, railroads, sports stories, westerns, you name it. Many came and went with as few as a single issue.

A lot of classic genre fiction and (now) well-respected authors got their start in the pulps, often for as long as the pulps remained a viable source of income.

Acclaimed science fiction author Ray Bradbury praised Leigh Brackett, the “Queen of Space Opera,” for teaching him “pure story writing… how to pare my stories down, and how to plot.” In addition to writing tons of pulp science fiction, she went on to write several novels, write and co-write screenplays for movies like Rio Bravo, the Big Sleep, and won a (posthumous) Hugo for a little movie you may have heard of called “The Empire Strikes Back.”

Because the pulps were inexpensive (by design), I suppose there’s a natural assumption that the contents of the pulps were of low worth. Personally, I don’t know if the crap-to-gem ratio was that much higher in the pulps than in the slicks, or than in the modern mainstream publishers with layers of editorial control. What I do know is that the successful pulp writers were prolific and able to generate stories that pleased their editors and audience with stories heavy on plot, rich with vision and spectacle, and often full of bizarre but entertaining characters. That’s not to say they were pointless entertainment, but the editors rarely let the deeper themes or commentary overshadow the entertainment factor.

For me, I can expound on what I think about true “pulp” and the “pulp style” for hours (and I have!). For me, it comes down to that “pure storytelling” that Bradbury praised Brackett for teaching him, tight but lurid prose, passionate and compelling characters, at least moderately larger-than-life spectacle, and a generally optimistic worldview (even if the settings themselves may be dystopian hellscapes). And most importantly, pulp stories are about fun and entertainment.

That’s what pulp means to me, whether I’m reading something originally printed in a pulp magazine in the 1940s, or something written by modern writers who invoke that style. I want to be transported and taken on a wild ride full of action, twists, romance, and adventure. That, to me, is pulp.


I got to type those favorite words yesterday on the second book of a new series. Said series will be announced shortly and will release later this year.

I love this part, but not because it feels like I’m finished. Instead it feels like I’m on a roll and ready to jump on all the other things to do–including getting started on the next book in the series. All while doing revisions of previous books, planning out the release, etc. This is a little bit of a departure from how I did things with the Blood Creek saga, but I hope parallelizing things a bit more will speed up the process.

All that pending work doesn’t detract from the enthusiasm I have for seeing another story drafted. This project has grabbed me by the collar and hasn’t let me go, and it has constantly surprised me as it has evolved. They’ve taken me on a journey. When I type “the end,” that book is the most important one in my life at that moment. It’s a wild experience to feel that it has come to an end, and that this fun story that previously existed only in my own imagination is now in a medium suitable for sharing.

Well, eventually. The ingredients are mixed and ready for baking. 🙂

I hope you enjoy reading it even half as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it. I’m looking forward to writing “The End” a couple more times before the end of the year.

Sword Art Online Progressive: Aria of a Starless Night Film Review

I spoke at an anime convention not long ago about Virtual Reality, specifically in reference to how close we were to the technology of Sword Art Online. Most of the people in the audience were fans of the show. You could tell, especially with the cosplayers dressed as Asuna, Kirito, and others. I made a few jokes about the show / light novels, wondering if I’d earn the ire of the fans. Surprisingly, they rolled their eyes and laughed along with me.

The fans know. It’s popular to bash the show because it’s so popular. On top of that, many of its flaws are pretty glaring, so it’s an easy target. The fans–and I consider myself one–are not ignorant of its faults. If anything, they understand the flaws better than many of the detractors. But they enjoy the series in spite of this.

After finally watching the show a few years back, I took my first foray into English translations of Japanese Light Novels by reading the first two SAO novels–the Aincrad arc. I had hoped the Light Novels would shine a bit more light on what felt like a strong premise but a sometimes weak execution. I wasn’t too impressed. Later, I discovered these stories were largely written early in the author’s career, the core arc was intended for a particular contest (which he didn’t qualify for because it was too long), and… well, there were a lot of reasons why it wasn’t so good. Somehow, Reki Kawahara stumbled onto the right combination of concept, and his vision of the VR death game resonated in spite of its flaws.

It was such a strong concept that this is what SAO become known for, even though that story arc ended up being only half of one season. Yes, it impacts everything that follows, but (most of) the survivors escape the game of death after two years in only 14 episodes. Many of those episodes are taken from short stories written later. And yeah, what came later is better written. Many people complain about the story being so disjointed with huge time gaps between episodes of the anime, but that’s due to the nature of the source material.

While addressing the gap for the purpose of the anime, Kawahara wrote a much longer story that became episode 2–the battle against the boss of the first floor, which happens a month after the game goes live. He wrote far more than they could be adapted into a single episode. At that point, he and his publishers hit on the idea of revisiting Aincrad and truly fleshing out all that happened during that two-year period. Sword Art Online: Progressive is the result, a spin-off series that revisits Aincrad on a floor-by-floor basis, with the idea of each book covering a floor. At 75 floors, that’s a lot of books. Especially now that the story is expanding and floors 6 and 7 are taking two books each.

Happily, these later books are better-written, the characters better fleshed-out, and the world more strongly built than the initial Aincrad foray. Yes, there are some retcons (most of them pretty “soft”), but the series is intended to be a massive expansion rather than a reboot. Aincrad is getting lots of detail. Kirito’s and Asuna’s early relationship is getting explored (which, IIRC, didn’t actually exist originally). The larger plot and world elements from later arcs now have roots in the original death game. These aren’t masterpieces by any stretch, but they are fun. And while they are still Kirito-centric, we do get to see some other points of view.

Last year, the first… er, second…? Ah, whatever… an anime adaptation of the first book in the series came out as a feature-length film in the theaters: Sword Art Online Progressive: Aria of a Starless Night. I was really, really looking forward to this film, and happily, it did not disappoint, although it did surprise. It really did not adapt much more of the novel than the 2nd episode of the anime. Instead, they created a new story centering around Asuna, and her experience as a fairly casual gamer finding herself trapped in a game with fatal consequences for failure. The story takes us through the early days of the game through an expanded version of the events of episode 2, culminating in the heroes finally reaching the second floor of the 100-floor game world.

Fans of the anime and the books will find cameos of favorite characters throughout, including significant events involving monsters that nearly ended Kirito’s life only a day into the game. Personally, I find Asuna a far more interesting character than Kirito. At least with the later books, Kirito has become a more complete character rather than the self-insert character as he first appeared. Delightfully, you get a bit of his deeper character in this film–and as a starting point as a socially inept kid trying to look cool but also trying to do the right thing.

The movie introduces a brand-new character, Mito, a classmate and close friend of Asuna. The similarities and contrasts between these three principle characters–Asuna, Mito, and Kirito–bring out their personalities in sharp relief. At least as a starting point. Asuna goes through the most growth and faces the most dramatic changes this first month, which makes her a great focal point for the film. She still has a long way to go throughout the series, but you can see the seeds of her transformation here. And she goes from being a hopeless newb to a front-line badass, which is fun.

Like the rest of the series, there are plenty of flaws here, too. I had trouble buying Asuna’s relationship with Mito at the start of the film, other than it being an act of rebellion against the very strict expectations imposed against Asuna by her society and family. It probably needed more time to truly gel before their world goes to hell, but it was just not possible in the feature film format. I was annoyed that Argo was only given a cameo appearance, when she is a major secondary character in the books and in a particular part of the story. Again, a feature-length film can’t have everything.

The decision to start over from the beginning from Asuna’s perspective, starting in the days and hours before the official launch of the game, opens things up to a new generation of fans unfamiliar with the series. Honestly, I think this film makes a far better starting point for anime fans than the first season of the TV series. Since so much of this film is a new story, there’s plenty for existing fans to enjoy as well.

All-in-all, I think it’s a competent addition to the SAO franchise, and a stronger entry overall than the other SAO feature film, Ordinal Scale. They have announced another feature film for this year, based on the events on the fifth floor (in book 4). I can’t say I’m too thrilled with the jump, unless this is bookmarking a new, unannounced TV series that will fill in the rest. However, if they can pull off the next film as well as this one, I’m looking forward to it.