Sturgeon’s Law and the Pulps?

I see this over and over and over again. That the pulps only have a bad name because only 90% of them are bad, because Sturgeon’s Law says 90% of everything is bad, so don’t hold that against the pulps!

Euro-style games R something like the SF/F pulps. Most R trash, a minority R good, a small fraction transcend the formulas to become great. – Lewis Pulsipher (@lewpuls) 

Out of the many stories I’ve reviewed, I’ve yet to hit what I’m now calling “Sturgeon’s Pocket”, that rich, thick vein of 90% crap lying just below the surface crust. I’m thinking that maybe, just maybe, Sturgeon’s Law isn’t the best thing to use to defend (yes, defend) the pulps, because it’s just not true. This line of thinking is generally used to try to defend the “good pulp” from the reputation of the “bad pulp”, except most of the “bad pulp” is pretty good, just not amazing, and the “really bad pulp” has been rather sparse. Hell, I’ll even break it down by the names and numbers:

Exceptionally Good: 14

  • The Moon that Vanished, Leigh Brackett
  • Black Amazon of Mars, Leigh Brackett
  • Stalemate in Space, Charles L Harness
  • Queen of the Martian Catacombs, Leigh Brackett
  • Priestess of the Flame, Sewell Peaslee Wright
  • Raid on the Termites, Paul Ernst
  • Enchantress of Venus, Leigh Brackett
  • Coming of the Gods, Chester Whitehorn
  • Raiders of the Second Moon, Basil Wells
  • Red Witch of Mercury, Emmett McDowell
  • The Bubble Dwellers, Ross Rocklynne
  • Lorelei of the Red Mist, Leigh Brackett & Ray Bradbury
  • The Martian Circe, Raymond F. Jones
  • Moon of Danger, Albert de Pina

 

Very Good: 18

  • Miracle Town, William F. Temple
  • I Like You, Too, Joe Gibson
  • Asteroid of Fear, Raymond Z Gallun
  • Garden of Evil, Margaret St. Clair
  • SOS Aphrodite, Stanley Mullen
  • Hellhounds of the Cosmos, Clifford D. Simak
  • Vulcan’s Workshop, Harl Vincent
  • Captain Midas, Alfred Coppel Jr
  • Cosmic Yo-Yo, Ross Rocklynne
  • Mists of Mars, George A. Whittington
  • The Spider Men of Gharr, Wilbur Scott Peacock
  • Grifters’ Asteroid, HL Gold
  • The Sword of Johnny Damokles, Hugh Frazier Parker
  • The Last Monster, Gardner F. Fox
  • Juggernaut of Space, Ray Cummings
  • Quest on Phoebe, James R. Adams
  • Mo-Sanshon!, Bryce Walton
  • And Then There Were None, Eric Frank Russell

Pretty Good/Okay: 17

  • Softie, by Noel Loomis
  • Reverse English, John S. Carroll
  • Date Line, Noel Loomis
  • Cosmic Jackpot, George O. Smith
  • Yesterday’s Doors, Arthur J. Burks
  • Duel on Syrtis, Poul Anderson
  • Peril Orbit, C.J. Wedlake
  • Action on Azura, Robertson Osborne
  • Signal Red, Henry Guth
  • Ordeal in Space, Ralph Sloan
  • The Giants Return, Robert Abernathy
  • Battlefield in Black, George A. Whittington
  • And the Gods Laughed, Fredric Brown
  • Beer Trust Busters, AR Stuart
  • Mutiny, Larry Offenbecker
  • The Venus Evil, Chester S. Geier
  • Vassals of the Lode-Star, Gardner F. Fox

Okay/Not So Good: 10

  • The Referent, Ray Bradbury
  • Galactic Heritage, Frank Belknap Long
  • The Diversifal, Ross Rocklynne
  • The Envoy, Her, H.B. Fyfe
  • The Star Saint, A.E. Van Vogt
  • The Starbusters, Alfred Coppel Jr
  • Madcap Metalloids, WV Athanas
  • Prodigal Weapon, Vaseleos Garson
  • Formula for Conquest, James R. Adams
  • The Little Pets of Arkkhan, Vaseleos Garson

Terrible: 4

  • No Winter, No Summer, Damon Knight & James Blish
  • Square Pegs, by Ray Bradbury
  • That Mess Last Year, John D McDonald
  • The Wheel is Death, Roger Dee

 

Note that this ONLY includes pulp stories I’ve read and reviewed from the 50s and earlier. If I included stuff from the 70s Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction that I’d read and reviewed, the numbers would skew significantly towards terrible. For post pulp-era stories I’ve reviewed (*: or read to review but wound up not actually reviewing it), here’s the breakdown, which includes some F&SF, Flashing Swords, and one Vance story from an old Universe. (parenthesis is F&SF-only)

Exceptionally Good: 4(3)

  • The Bagful of Dreams, Jack Vance
  • Doctor Rivet and Supercon Sal, Gary K Wolf
  • The Horse Lord, Lisa Tuttle
  • The Mars Ship, Robert Thurston

Very Good: 4 (2)

  • The Tupilak, Poul Anderson
  • Storm in a Bottle, John Jakes
  • Not With a Bang But A Bleep, Gary Jennings
  • Nina, Robert Bloch

Pretty Good/Okay: 9 (7)

  • The Mountains of Sunset, the Mountains of Dawn, Vonda McIntyre
  • Time is Money, Haskell Barkin
  • The Lands Beyond the World, Michael Moorcock
  • Assault on a City, Jack Vance
  • The Exiled, The Hunted, George Guthridge
  • The Final Close, J.P. Dixon
  • The Holdouts, Kit Reed
  • The Star Eel, Robert F. Young
  • A Star is Born, Joseph Green*

Okay/Not so good: 4 (3)

  • Shoes, Raylyn Moore
  • In Rubble, Pleading, Michael Bishop
  • Swords Against the Marluk, Katherine Kurtz
  • Horror Movie, Stuart Dybek

Terrible: 7 (7)

  • A Delightful Comic Premise, Barry Malzberg
  • Mouthpiece, Edward Wellen*
  • The Attack of the Giant Baby, Kit Reed
  • Those Good Old Days of Liquid Fuel, Michael G Coney
  • Friday the Thirteenth, Isaac Asimov
  • My Boat, Joanna Russ
  • Graveyard Blues, Dennis Etchison*
  • A Game of Vlet, Joanna Russ*

Monsters Vs. Mobs

In my experience, mobs have always presented the bigger threat to PCs than big-bad monsters. There are a number of reasons for this, some mechanical, some psychological. Why does this seem to be the case?

First of all, adventurers are usually prepared for a monster. They have often heard of the monster they will soon fight and have taken precautions based on the information they have gathered. Indeed, the reason they might be in a specific location is for the sole purpose of finding and dispatching said monster.

When fighting the monster, there’s often an economy of force which the adventurers are able to match 1/1 or better, whether it’s in terms of damage, overall hit points, or most significantly, perhaps, number of attacks.

One large monster will typically get to make 1 attack for every 3-6 attacks it receives; even if it is doing more damage and hitting more often, PC tactics can often compensate for hits and spread damage in an effective manner to minimize irrecoverable losses.

Mobs are different story. Even if the players are prepared for a big fight, they may not be prepared for handful of mooks that are waiting at the mouth of the dungeon to take the treasure the heroes just recovered.

The PCs’ economy of force may be matched or reduced. Mobs will often be attacking at a 1/1 ratio or better; the man-to-man fighting will also prevent use of certain tactics which the PCs might more effectively use against stronger foes who are fewer in number.

Oftentimes, the most devastating party losses come at the hands of a mob AFTER defeating a large monster. Why? Players assume an air of invulnerability after successfully dispatching single dreadful foe, but are brought low in an evenly matched fight when forced to fight one-on-one with few or no assists from fellows.

Does this jibe with the ‘heroic’ notion so woven into D&D?

I think it does.

Many iconic heroic battles throughout history and literature consist of 1-v-1 fights or one or a few heroically holding off a much larger force until they are wiped out.

On one hand you have Beowulf & Grendel or David & Goliath, while on the other, you have Benkei at the bridge or the Spartans at Thermopylae. One advantage of a game like D&D is that the game isn’t over for the player when the guy or guys left to cover the others’ retreat finally succumbs to the tides of battle. They can just roll up a new character. Of course, this doesn’t work if you’re building a fictional character franchise – Conan can’t be killed by mooks (though he and many other pulp characters have come close to being brought down by them many times). But I don’t think that characters dying to mobs is necessarily antithetical to pulp-style heroics, since those heroics draw heavily on earlier literary heroic traditions, ones where heroes DO die.

And when a character makes a heroic last stand,  that character is gonna be remembered.

Now, there ARE mechanics that do give PCs an advantage over mooks in ways that reflect those scenes of one character killing dozens. Fighters get extra attacks against single hit-die opponents. 1HD monsters and most human opponents should fall into this category. Mid-level fighters have a decent chance of cutting through several such opponents each round! Can they get overwhelmed? Absolutely! Lots of mobs are going to be tougher than 1 HD, but then that’s not like a hero being overwhelmed by mooks, is it? That’s more being overwhelmed by not one but several monsters.

Sometimes, heroes just need to run away. Plenty of pulp S&S stories start with the hero running from a fight that they know they can’t win, usually involving a large number of mooks who are after them. The difference between your characters who died and Conan could be that Conan knew when to run and you didn’t.

Fall and Winter Review Round-Up

Been a long time since I shared a list of the stories I’ve been covering at Castalia House.

planet_summer49

http://www.castaliahouse.com/46255-2/ (Queen of the Martian Catacombs, by Leigh Brackett)

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-madcap-metalloids-by-w-v-athanas/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-s-o-s-aphrodite-by-stanley-mullen/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-starbusters-by-alfred-coppel-jr/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-peril-orbit-by-c-j-wedlake/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short_reviews_garden_of_evil_by_margaret_st_clair/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-stalemate-in-space-by-charles-l-harness/

planet_stories_march_1951_cover

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-black-amazon-of-mars-by-leigh-brackett/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-duel-on-syrtis-by-poul-anderson/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-star-saint-by-a-e-van-vogt/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-envoy-her-by-h-b-fyfe/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-asteroid-of-fear-by-raymond-z-gallun/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-diversifal-by-ross-rocklynne/

Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them: Bigger Potential Makes for a Bigger Letdown

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them came so close to being a good movie that it hurt. It had so many things going for it, and all they needed to do was just fall into place to tell a story far better than any of the Harry Potters. But alas, it was not meant be! The refusal to take the last necessary steps into awesome territory and a final fifteen minutes that came crashing down around what had been built up, as though to telegraph just how badly I was about to be disappointed, managed to drag the whole thing into the rubbish bin. When I found myself thinking “Oh, my God, a pulpy story in the Harry Potter universe?!” I realized that there was no way I would not be disappointed, and no amount of finger crossing could save me.

Fantastic Beasts has a lot of stuff going for it, especially early on. In fact, up through the scene where they’re at the goblin speakeasy, I’m thinking “Man, this is fantastic!”

To begin with, FB starts essentially the same way as Mo-Sanshon!; an outsider crosses the path of a normal guy and drags him off on a wild adventure. Newt Scamander, a squirrely wizard with a menagerie of monsters enlists the help of the unwitting Jacob Kowalski to help him recover creatures that have escaped. Kowalski is the normal joe, everyman hero like the kind you’d see in the pulps – he was a part of the expeditionary forces in World War One, he’s a blue collar worker, and he has a dream of starting his own business.* Where these two cross paths is in the bank where Kowalski is trying to get a loan to open a bakery; at this point, we don’t know if Scamander is going to be a shifty villain or wild trickster, given the trouble he’s causing, but we know right away that Kowalski is someone we’re going to be rooting for!

Not only does it have the perfect pulp adventure setup, it’s got dames! Tina Goldstein is tough and no nonsense; she takes her job seriously and she’s capable – unfortunately, her compassion (and a bit of temper) had put her in a bad spot with her superiors and it’s shaken her confidence a bit. Her sister Queenie is smart and sexy, a powerful master of domestic arts (I know how this sounds, but watching her make dinner for Kowalski was absolutely one of the best scenes in the whole movie), and devilishly clever, but even though she can read people’s thoughts, she doesn’t resent men for thinking she’s a bombshell. She even falls for the normie every-joe!

The fact that Kowalski holds his own fairly well, a few bumbles aside, and isn’t reduced to a punching bag works out really strongly for a good chunk of the film. Unfortunately, the movie can’t fully embrace the fact that Jacob Kowalski is the real hero of the story. Wizards can do, get into, and get out of just about anything; Kowalski can’t, which is why the stakes for him as a mere mortal who’s won the heart of a gorgeous wizard dame are incredibly high and why he’s the one to root for. Unfortunately, when things reach their head with the uninteresting A-plot-that-feels-like-a-B-plot with whatshisname the evil wizard and the crazy orphan boy, Kowalski never gets his big-damn-hero moment that he desperately needs…that WE desperately need. Frankly, Scamander doesn’t get one either, and the whole unmasking of the bad guy as being some other bad guy felt incredibly anti-climactic. I didn’t care about the kid with the crazy chaotic magic powers or the guy trying to manipulate him; I cared about whether or not Kowalski would be able to break the no-normies-hooking-up-with-wizards taboo and if he’d get that bank loan!

Spoilers! There have been spoilers before, but I’m really going to spoil it now.

Even though the movie was starting to completely fall apart by the big wizard… conversation at the end, I’m thinking “Okay, there’s still a chance… there’s still a chance!” President Wizard Lady says ‘this is a disaster, we can’t wipe the memories of everyone in Manhattan’, and Scamander says ‘lol, yeah we can, cuz this thing I have’. Kowalski has to get wiped. There’s a teary scene as Kowalski steps into the rain where he’ll forget his big adventure and his love with Queenie. While Scamander gets pardoned and is allowed to go off back to England with his monsters and publish his book, the best he gets is an awkward derpy scene with Tina; we needed a moment of ‘Damnit all, New York is the publishing capital of the world, I’ll stay!’ with a big kiss on the docks. The final scene where Kowalski has his bakery with pastries shaped like the half-forgotten monster and a smiling Queenie shows up tries to bring things back around, but it’s nowhere near as good as we’d gotten to see him stand up to the President Wizard and say “I’ll have any dame I want, and I want her, and she wants me, and you wizards be damned if you’re gonna stop us!”

 

This movie came SO CLOSE to being what I wanted from a gonzo fantasy movie set in the Roaring 20s New York, and that’s what makes it hurt the worst. Frankly, the characters were far more likable than anyone else in the Potterverse. But one of the major problems the movie had was trying to work in a good versus evil conflict that just wasn’t nearly as interesting as the main good-guys and the host of cool, scary, and cute monsters. If they had completely excised the stupid and inane plot about Grindelwald pretending to be Graves and the kid who’d gone crazy supernova from being forced to hide his magic powers by a crazy magic hating orphanarium marm and just made it about tracking down a bunch of weird monsters that had escaped and undoing the damage they’d done, it would’ve been a much better story, because all of the parts of the movie focusing on the later were absolutely wonderful. Supposedly, there are going to be several more movies about Grindelwald, which sucks, because his storyline was the worst part of the movie that dragged the whole damn thing down. I don’t care about what the wizards do with boring generic evil wizard-guy, I wanted to see Scamander throw his British reserve to the wind and give Goldstein that hero’s kiss she obviously wanted and was literally crying because she knew she would not get.

*:Normal joes tended to be a lot more awesome back then; it’s a law of averages thing.

Dig Awesome Female Characters in Your SFF? Read the Pulps!

Awhile back, a rather cartoonish individual on twitter criticized Cirsova’s aim to be ‘regressive’ like the pulps, saying that it was tantamount to celebrating and wallowing in sexism. Prior to being blocked, I merely suggested that this person wasn’t actually familiar with the pulps.

If you want some awesome lady heroes, anti-heroes, or villains, the pulps are where it’s at.

The last handful of pulp stories I’ve read have featured:

  • An ass-kicking jungle princess who can hold her own and even saves herself from time to time. (Son of Tarzan, All-Story Weekly 1915-1916.)
  • An alien high priestess queen who sacrifices an anthropologist to her people’s gods because why wouldn’t you? (Garden of Evil, Planet Stories, 1949)
  • A lady spy who outwits an alien viscount and blows up a Death Star (Stalemate in Space, Planet Stories 1949)
  • A warrior woman who unites several barbarian tribes, conquers the largest city in the North, and becomes the queen warden of Mars’ northern marches. (Black Amazon of Mars, Planet Stories 1951)
  • A princess who won a bloody succession war to become the most powerful ruler and greatest fighting general Venus has ever seen. (Planet of Peril, Argosy All-Story Weekly, 1929)

I’ll be talking about two of those, Stalemate in Space and Black Amazon of Mars, in my upcoming columns at Castalia House this week and next.