Is Indie the Reincarnation of Pulp?

Cedar Sanderson considers indie to be the return of pulp, to which I agree. I would personally think of it as more of a reincarnation than a resurrection, as it is a new life and a new form, but the bottom line is unchanged. I mean, really, the pulp era was from around the 1890s until the mid 1950s, so that was a 65-year run. The indie era effectively began around 2010, so arguably we really just had a 55-year hiatus where the technology favored a few large companies that could take considerable advantage of the economies of scale. Now the little guys are back, tiny mammals scurrying around the world of giant dinosaurs finding our niche. That exploration is taking us solidly back into the realm of pulp. It may look different, but it’s the same thing. And yeah, a lot of it is crap, but a lot of it is hella fun, too.

Here’s the article over at Mad Genius Club:

The Resurrection of Pulp



Snallygaster vs. Dwayyo

This was shared by the American Snallygaster Museum (yes, Blood Creek fans, this is a real museum). It’s a fantastic piece by @sherwinsketch88 of the two traditional enemies fighting. I wish I could have come up with a way to have a snallygaster battle a dwayyo in the Blood Creek books, but it never worked out.

For the record, if it was an actual brawl to the death, my money would be on the dwayyo unless it was caught completely by surprise.


Portal Fantasy and Isekai – What Are They?

A few years ago, I discovered the Japanese term, “Isekai,” which literally means “Another World.”  It has become a popular subgenre of its own in Asia, and that popularity has spilled over to Western shores, through books, manga, and anime. It’s similar to what we call “portal fantasies.”  There are some differences between isekai and portal fantasies, depending on how you define them, but their intersection covers a lot of ground. Generally speaking, these are stories of someone from our world who goes to another world and becomes some kind of agent of change (usually a hero, but sometimes… something else).

These have been a staple of fantasy stories since… well, forever, really. Even before such classics as Burrough’s Barsoom series, The Narnia series, The Wizard of Oz, A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court, or Alice in Wonderland. Think “Jack & the Beanstalk” – the beanstalk is literally his portal to another world. There were lots of Jack stories, most of which are lost now, but many of them did have everyman Jack going through secret doors or pits or what have you into worlds of giants and / or dwarves. The Jack tales are part of an oral storytelling tradition going back for hundreds of years.

For some more modern examples of portal fantasies, think of the recent Jumanji films, or Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. Evil Dead 3: Army of Darkness is a cult-classic. A couple of great examples of this kind of film that you might not think of as being portal fantasy (or isekai) are Yesterday and Galaxy Quest.

Isekai stories tend to be from Asia (although that is changing), and have been a popular staple of light novels, manga, and anime for years. The original Aincrad (and Alicization) arcs of Sword Art Online are popular examples. Re: Zero, Mushoku Tensei: Jobless Reincarnation, The Rising of the Shield Hero, Ascendance of a Bookworm, GATE: The JSDF Fought There, My Next Life as a Villainess: All Routes Lead to Doom, KonoSuba, Overlord, and That Time I Was Reincarnated as a Slime are all good examples of modern isekai stories in anime, manga, and light novels.

A Character From Our World

This kind of fantasy is all about experiencing the wonder (and danger) of a new world through a viewpoint similar to our own, modern vantage point. For that, we start with a character from our world and our time. This does not mean you can’t have a character with a unique perspective or who comes from a different walk of life in our world–that’s half the fun. However, it should still be a character the reader from the author’s intended audience can relate to on several levels.

Many modern isekai stories solve this by taking a shortcut. The main character is a “reader-insert” character with very little personality of their own and a generic background. I’m not a big fan of this approach, but I guess it works.

The character shouldn’t be from a different time or place that would make their viewpoint too different from our own. For example, Captain Kirk is from a science-fiction background of his own, so his experience of a strange, new worlds wouldn’t be a portal fantasy or isekai. While John Carter may have been a great isekai / portal fantasy character back in Burroughs’ day (and so he’s grandfathered in just fine), his pre-WWI world is so far removed from our own that he’d not be a great candidate for a point-of-view character in these kinds of stories today.

Likewise, “Reverse Isekai,” where a character from another world comes to ours, and we get to see our world through a new perspective, would not really qualify. It is its own thing.

Finally, I’ve seen a couple of stories where the fact the main character is from modern-day Earth seems to have been tacked on to a more traditional fantasy. If you were to ignore the intro, the main character might as well be a native of the fantasy world. These stories are isekais or portal fantasies on a technicality only. It’s fine if the origins of the character fade into the background as the months and years go by in a new life in another world, but the character’s background should initially play a major role.

Going to Another World

What qualifies as “another world?” It’s a setting that is very different and separate from our own. Obviously, getting sucked away to the warring kingdoms of Mars, or a fantasy world of dragons and sorcerers or talking animals would qualify. So would going far back or forward in time, to King Arthur’s Court or to the distant future of various incarnations of Buck Rogers. Being abducted by aliens and taken into outer space is a classic. So is traveling to a “lost world” buried deep inside the hollow Earth, full of prehistoric creatures and forgotten magic or technology.

Whatever the case, the setting should be significantly different from our world–at least from the perspective of our main character. That might not necessarily mean it is a significant difference for the reader. As an example, take the film, Yesterday. In the movie, the main character is injured in an accident where all the world’s electricity stops working for several seconds. When he awakens in the hospital, at first everything seems normal–but he soon gets suspicious of things not being exactly as he remembers. Then he discovers that the Beatles never existed in this world, and their songs were never written. As a struggling musician inspired primarily by the Beatles, whose only claim to fame is doing covers of Beatles songs, this is a huge difference between the worlds.

“Hidden” worlds – like the wizarding world in Harry Potter – usually don’t count. While the character can experience the same sense of wonder, they never really leave our world. Traveling to another world requires some level of commitment. Being able to jaunt around through time and space in a magic blue box is also not really the stuff of true portal fantasy or isekai. In GATE: Thus the JSDF Fought There, however, while the titular gate is a fixed location and crossing over is a short walk or drive through, the military occupation and tight government restrictions make going back and forth a serious undertaking. It counts. Spirited Away is more questionable as an example of the subgenre. The setting is more of a hidden world within our own, but the main character must not leave as a matter of her own sense of duty and love of her family.

Agent of Change

The characters from modern Earth (or a very similar equivalent) in both isekai and portal fantasy tend to come with some ability or skills that not only allow them to survive in this new world, but to exceed what the natives are capable of doing. Or, in isekai terms, to “cheat.” This could be simply be from having “lost” knowledge or familiarity with technology, having skills only available from Earth, their Earthly or spiritual heritage, and / or special supernatural powers (possibly gifted by the beings responsible for transporting the character in the first place).

For example, John Carter possesses immense strength and can leap tremendous distances in the low-gravity world of Barsoom (Mars). He also has an outsider’s perspective and a sense of honor from Earth that enables him to attack problems from a different angle than the natives of the world.

In Re: Zero, the hero is categorically worse at most things than any adult native, with (at first) little self-awareness and extremely poor survival skills. The one ability that allows him to endure is also the one ability that allows him to pull off the seemingly impossiblewhen he dies, time ‘resets’ a la Groundhog Day, allowing him to attempt to fix not only the situation that led to his demise, but also other mistakes he may have made along the way.

In Ascendance of a Bookworm, the protagonist threatens the entire social order with her “inventions” (and magical capacity), in spite of her frail physical form. In Yesterday, the main character disrupts the entire music industry with his “original” compositions. “User” Kevin Flynn’s adventure forever changes the computer world of Tron.

Adventure vs. A New Life

In portal fantasy, the adventure to a new world is often more of an extended visit. The main character accomplishes their objective and returns to our world a changed character, bringing with him or her the new skills and perspective they obtained on their “hero’s journey” in another world. This extended visit might take years (although in Narnia, they return home to find they have not aged and very little time has passed).

In your average isekai story, the ability to return home and resume anything approaching a normal life is less likely, if not impossible. Many isekai heroes are actually reincarnated in this new world following their deaths back on Earth, while retaining their past memories, skills, and personalities. They must set out building a new life in this (currently) unfamiliar world.

This isn’t really a hard-and-fast rule differentiating  the two, just more of a tendency.

What’s Fun About Them?

Isekai / portal fantasies work on several levels. They are naturally effective escapist fantasies, as the point-of-view characters have literally escaped the mundane world (often unintentionally) and are thrust into new adventures. The point of view allows us to engage our sense of wonder, and we as readers get to learn about the fantasy worlds organically as the protagonist does. There is no status quo to return to, so the main character is thrust into an active role immediately upon arrival. And, yeah, there’s wish fulfillment here: a nobody from the real world becomes the single most important person in another world.

How about my stories? Would I consider the Blood Creek Saga to be an isekai or portal fantasy series? I think there are definitely some elements of this subgenre there, inspired in part by the old Jack tales. If I really wanted to, I could probably get away with calling the series a portal fantasy, but that is not the focus of the story. The world of “Around the Bend” is a setting, but not THE setting.

So I’m going to go with “no,” but if you like portal fantasies, it’s at least in the same area code.

I do have a short story in Fantastic Schools Volume III that I believe is solidly in the portal fantasy (but not Isekai) category.

Would I write a full-on isekai-style story? I would, if I felt I had a strong idea that stood out in the subgenre. I think it could be a lot of fun.


Genre Wars: Fantasy vs. Science Fiction

As I have put together my list of books for this site, I’ve been categorizing them into genres. This can be a pretty sticky matter. Should Blood Creek Witch be considered contemporary fantasy, or paranormal? Is Steampunk a subgenre of science fiction, or of fantasy?

At some point in my life, I decided that the chocolate of Fantasy and the peanut butter of Science Fiction should never be mixed, Star Wars notwithstanding.  Fortunately for me, that phase didn’t last long, and I got over it. While I enjoy figuring out the lines between genres, I’m comfortable with the stories that cross those lines. I thought I’d talk about it a bit here, because why not?

You can lump all of it into a category called “speculative fiction” and be done with it. But where’s the fun in that?

If you go back to the earlier pulps, you’ll find a lot more mixing and matching between science fiction and fantasy elements. Sometimes the “magical” elements can be explained by super-science of the vast untapped potential of the mind. But it’s really just trappings. For example, in the Tower of the Elephant, Conan encounters an alien from a space-faring race, and it fits right in with the sword-and-sorcery world of Robert E. Howard’s most famous character. In this, and countless other pulp stories, the line between science fiction and fantasy isn’t just blurred, it doesn’t really exist.

At some point, the pulp magazines began differentiating themselves from the others by branding their style of stories. For Amazing Stories, Hugo Gernsback coined the term, “Scientifiction,” which didn’t quite roll off the tongue like Forrest Ackerman’s “Sci-Fi.” As Gernsback explained in Volume 1, Issue 1 of Amazing Stories, “By ‘scientifiction’ I mean the Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, and Edgar Allan Poe type of story—a charming romance intermingled with scientific fact and prophetic vision.” Later magazines (notably Astounding Stories, once taken over by John Campbell) also carved out their own branding, which evolved from year to year and from editor to editor. Astounding Stories and several like it focused on evolved to become today’s “hard” science fiction, while others became known more for softer science fiction stories and “space opera”. Still others tended toward stories of supernatural, horror, fantasy, planetary romance, you name it.

I think pulp marketing and branding is where the differentiation between Science Fiction and Fantasy as separate genres began. Not specifically with Hugo Gernsback or John Campbell, but with the various pulps seeking their own unique brand of fiction. It’s all marketing and differentiation, but it also served a purpose for readers to find the kinds of stories they wanted to read. It wasn’t a hard line, and a story that might seem a more natural fit for one magazine might instead have found a home elsewhere.

There was also a weird thing that happened many decades ago that made categorization even harder. Science fiction–at least certain kinds of science fiction–became respectable and appreciated by critics and academia. It achieved a cultural legitimacy that fantasy hasn’t yet, in spite of fantasy generally outselling SF in recent years. Maybe this was another case of clever marketing. Whatever the case, science fiction gained some prestige that caused authors and publishers (especially around the 1970s) to push to have their works recognized as SF rather than fantasy.

While I think that reputation has declined somewhat over the last couple of decades, I think there’s still a residual bias that favors science fiction as being more “important” than fantasy. And “hard” science fiction as somehow intrinsically better than “soft” science fiction.

I don’t think that holds any water, personally–a good story is a good story. But I still have my own categorization, and I recognize that fans of one genre have certain expectations. Violate those expectations at your own risk, and the risk of alienating your audience.

For me, science fiction needs to feel at least remotely plausible in the current or future world (even if it’s an alternate history world or in a galaxy far, far away). Hard SF needs to adhere to most of the known scientific principles or theories of the real world, while soft SF has a bit more flexibility. Even if the technology is basically magic (see Clarke’s Third Law), it should be explained (or at least lampshaded) enough so it doesn’t feel magic. So… the Jedi are fantasy, while Babylon 5‘s telepaths are science fiction.

Because I’m a fan of classic & pulp SF, I also assume that if something was considered science fiction when it was released, it remains SF today even if modern events and revised science destroy the plausibility of it for modern readers. I’m not gonna rip the SF label from Star Trek just because there were no Eugenics Wars in the 1990s, and we never sent Khan Noonien Singh and his followers into space exile. The Barsoom series may be legitimately called science fiction for its time (but of course, that was before we really had those labels), but if I were to write a similar story today, it’d be fantasy.

There are some fun edge cases, like Sword Art Online. It’s science fiction with a generally fantasy setting (an artificial fantasy world in virtual reality), so I consider it science fiction, but you could watch a single episode and think it’s straight-up fantasy.

I consider time travel (or other time-related stories) fantasy by default, but it really depends on how the author presents it. Interstellar is a relatively “hard” SF movie all about time distortion. The Terminator films? Sure, I’ll give it to them, although they got sloppier with their unexplained restrictions as the series progressed (at least as far as I’ve watched). I think the author needs to do more than just invoke the words “quantum” or “tachyon” to make the SF label stick. If the characters instead just jump into a blue box, a phone booth, or a DeLorean and start having adventures, then it’s probably a fantasy. Have at it!

As far as what I prefer to write: It really depends on where the story takes me. On the science fiction front, I’ve written cyberpunk, space opera, and even something kinda like MilSF, post-apocalypse (which I’d probably call fantasy), and more. I don’t tend to write anything very close to hard SF. Everything else tends to be fantasy of some kind, from time travel to paranormal to straight-up sword & sorcery. I’m probably hurting myself on branding, but as I said, I don’t like to stay inside the lines very well. I’m just out to have fun, and there’s plenty of fun to be had all over the world of “speculative fiction.”