Sign up for our newsletters   

Baltimore City Paper home.
Print Email

Big Books Feature

Dazzlement, Enchantment, and Trash

Alfred Bester, Philip K. Dick, and the Apotheosis of Pulp Science Fiction

Joshua Krause

Big Books Issue 2002

The Mobtown Connection Was H.L. Mencken the Godfather of Hard-Boiled Fiction? | By Tom Chalkley

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun Confessions of a Sweet Valley Scribe | By Lizzie Skurnick

No More Heroes Comics: The Latest Medium to Test Fine-Arts Waters | By Christopher Skokna

Everybody Must Get Stoned Mass-Market Paperbacks Lull Our Reviewer Into Submission | By Wendy Ward

Dazzlement, Enchantment, and Trash Alfred Bester, Philip K. Dick, and the Apotheosis of Pulp Science Fiction | By Mahinder Kingra

Pulp Revisited Hardly anyone starts his or her reading life with Remembrance of Things Past, To the Lighthouse, and...

By Mahinder Kingra | Posted 9/25/2002

"I do seem attracted to trash, as if the clue--the clue--lies there . . . I certainly see the randomness in my work, and I also see how this fast shuffling of possibility after possibility might eventually, given enough time, juxtapose and disclose something important." --Philip K. Dick, quoted in Divine Invasions by Lawrence Sutin

Modern science fiction had its start in 1926 with the appearance of the first issue of Amazing Stories, a pulp magazine devoted to a new genre that editor Hugo Gernsback dubbed "scientifiction." Like the pulps in other genres, Amazing Stories and its imitators were not published for high-brow readers, but rather for undiscerning teenagers and working-class readers seeking escapist entertainment. Poorly paid writers worked quickly and usually carelessly in order to earn a living wage, and the bulk of the stories appearing in the heyday of the pulps--the 1920s to the '50s--were crudely written and laughably implausible. Since then, SF has moved far beyond its ignoble roots and narrow genre confines--today it encompasses the scientifically astute "hard" SF of Gregory Benford; the intricate, galaxy-spanning space operas of Iain M. Banks and Vernor Vinge; the politically charged works of Octavia Butler; and the "cyberpunk" novels of William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and Neal Stephenson.

Despite this brilliant array of talent, and occasional forays on to national bestseller lists, SF remains a marginal genre, largely ignored by the bulk of the reading public. Critics and contemptuous readers dismiss SF as juvenile trash. Curiously, when SF's partisans defend the genre, they do so with the same basic definition of literary worth as do its critics and construct elaborate genealogical charts that trace SF's beginnings to more respectable forebears, citing Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Plato's Republic while name-checking Thomas Pynchon and Nathaniel Hawthorne along the way in a bid for legitimacy.

Perhaps the critics are right and SF is irreducibly pulp fiction. Does this necessarily debase its value as a mode of expression, as a literature of ideas? Must SF be respectable in order to have merit? Or, rather, is there a sophisticated pulp aesthetic within which SF can be appreciated and understood on its own terms?

Any definition of a pulp aesthetic must start with the editors of the pulp magazines (and their direct descendants, the cheap SF paperback houses like Ace), who exerted a profound influence over the development of the genre, encouraging their stables of writers to wed fast-paced--though not necessarily logical--narratives to grand ideas about human nature. They assumed that their readers had short attention spans (otherwise they'd be reading Proust and Joyce) and tailored the stories they published accordingly, stressing economy and breakneck pace over decorous style. At the same time, they recognized that readers who had sought out SF over, say, westerns, were interested in more than action and demanded of their writers a flurry of ideas in each tale.

While many pulp stories were confused lumps of scientific melodrama, the more talented writers realized the liberating possibilities offered by this method and created compact, fast-paced narratives, accelerated by such basic emotions as fear and dense with concepts and innovations extrapolated from the hard sciences and from such social sciences as psychology, anthropology, and sociology. Pounding out their stories, they could not afford to be self-conscious about their prose style, the nuances of character, or the coherence of the plot and instead allowed a surreal logic to take hold and make an almost primal connection between their words and the reader's brain. The pulp aesthetic, then, suggests a richness, even gaudiness, of ideas, a delirious hodgepodge of esoterica, held together by a driving narrative that never lets the reader go, nor allows them to question the improbabilities of a story's underlying presuppositions.

Two writers in particular exemplify the dazzling heights attainable by hewing more or less closely to this pulp aesthetic. The first, Philip K. Dick (d. 1982), has enjoyed a remarkable renaissance over the past 20 years; the second, Alfred Bester (d. 1987), is greatly admired among afficionados but otherwise unknown. And thanks to Vintage Books, both authors' most important novels are readily available at bookstores everywhere, in some cases for the first time in many years.

Vintage has been methodically reprinting most of Dick's novels since 1990 (25 so far) so that readers need no longer scour used-book stores in search of such once- fabled classics as Ubik, The Three Stigmata of Eldritch Palmer, A Scanner Darkly, and Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said. (Vintage has done Dick no favors, however, by reprinting his worst novels--The World Jones Made, for example--with equal diligence.) Also back in print from Vintage are Alfred Bester's two major novels, The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination, and a collection of his best SF and fantasy stories, Virtual Unrealities.

Though he is now read by serious- minded intellectuals and discussed in prestigious literary journals, Dick began his career in the pulps and never completely rejected their aesthetic. He wrote quickly--in 1963-'64, for example, he turned out 11 novels--both for financial reasons and out of his obsessive need to write. His prose is necessarily clipped and direct, and so matter-of-fact that references to precogs (those gifted--and cursed--with the ability to see into the future; Steven Spielberg's Minority Report, based on one of Dick's short stories, revolves around the visions of a trio of precogs) and other SF devices slip by almost subliminally, thereby limning new worlds as economically as possible.

Thematically, Dick also drew on his pulp roots. The paranoia central to Dick's fiction (as well as, sadly, his life) is very much a pulp trope. Both John Campbell's 1938 novella "Who Goes There?" (first published in Astounding and filmed several times by Hollywood as The Thing) and Robert Heinlein's wonderfully strange, at times perverse, alien-invasion novel The Puppet Masters (first serialized in Galaxy in the 1950s) trade in the same anxiety about identity and reality as Dick's novels. Similarly, Dick's depictions of the government's manipulation of reality through the media in The Zap Gun; of drug-addled undercover cops narcing on themselves in A Scanner Darkly; and of androids believing themselves to be human while the human pursuing them becomes afraid he's really a robot in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (adapted into the 1982 film Blade Runner) imaginatively, sometimes unrecognizably, rework familiar pulp SF plots and concepts.

Even as he sought to distance himself from SF (he wrote several non-SF novels that went unpublished until after his death and returned to the genre both chastened and troubled by long periods of alcoholism, drug abuse, and psychosis), Dick embraced pulp's "fast shuffling of possibility after possibility" to create complex and challenging works that reflected his own visions of a reality far more troubling than most writers, SF or not, have imagined.

Alfred Bester, whose most accomplished works were all published in 1950s pulps, did not turn the pulp aesthetic inside out as did Dick; instead, he pushed it to its outer limits. Damon Knight, analyzing Bester in his 1967 critical history of SF, In Search of Wonder, wrote, "Dazzlement and enchantment are [his] methods. His stories never stand still a moment; they're forever titling into motion, veering, doubling back. . . . Pyrotechnic as his performance is, it nearly always seems to end up somewhere."

The pulp aesthetic is never less than pyrotechnic, and Bester's two major novels epitomize this quality better perhaps than any other writer's work. The Demolished Man is set at the dawn of the 24th century and follows interplanetary corporate magnate Ben Reich's attempt to kill his chief competitor and elude the telepathic police force that has put an end to premeditated murder. The Stars My Destination takes place in a distant future when humans have developed the ability, called jaunting, to teleport by thought alone. Its anti-hero is Gully Foyle, a space mechanic of limited prospects who becomes a Nietzschean force of pure will after he is abandoned in deep space and survives only to revenge himself upon those responsible.

These sketches, of course, utterly fail to capture the glorious, revelatory, and undeniably crazed grandeur Bester achieves in both novels. "This was a Golden Age, a time of high adventure, rich living, and hard dying . . ." begins The Stars My Destination, with Bester writing in an ironic style inspired equally by 19th-century Romantic literature and 1950s American optimism that effectively sets the tone for his epic, Dumas-inspired moral adventure, which features such marvelous details as an extreme ascetic cult, the Skoptsies, who have had all of their nerve endings severed so that they may exist in perpetual sensory deprivation; plastic surgeons who create monstrosities for gladiatorial combat; and an asteroid community that differentiates its members (and, unfortunately for Gully, its visitors) with elaborate and hideous facial tattoos. More pulp than pulp, Bester's work is deliriously entertaining and yet achieves serious purpose in the process: In The Demolished Man, uncovering the twisted, Freudian roots of Ben Reich's obsession with his business rival; in Destination, witnessing Gully Foyle's remarkable and moving transfiguration from brute--murderer, rapist, terrorist--into human being, ironically, as he learns how to control his atavistic rage in order to better exact his vengeance.

Bester also creates brilliant settings in typical pulp fashion: briskly and economically extrapolating future societies from the admittedly improbable evolutions to which he subjects humanity. In Destination, for example, teleportation and its inherent threat to privacy ("I think I'll just pop over to the neighbors" takes on a whole new meaning when thought equals action) has brought about a new Victorian (or perhaps Islamic) age of prudery, in which women are hidden away at the centers of mazes, safe from lascivious jaunters. In The Demolished Man, the telepathic minority has established a guild and an elaborate caste system to protect its own interests and to ensure that its members do nothing to incite the normals.

Such compelling, insightful flights of imagination are inconceivable without pulp: No other medium could accommodate such a pile-up of ideas and images told so swiftly that improbabilities are overlooked and only truths about human nature keep pace. In his 1973 essay, "Science Fiction: A Hopeless Case--With Exceptions," Polish SF writer Stanislaw Lem blasts SF fans, publishers, and writers for their lack of critical discernment. But he also identifies, in the juxtaposition of economics and art that defined SF in the pulp era, a central tenet of a pulp aesthetic: "Science fiction is such a remarkable phenomenon [because] it comes from the whorehouse but it wants to break into the palace where the most sublime thoughts of human history are stored."

Related stories

Big Books Feature archives

More Stories

Going Short (9/23/2009)
Some authors simply prefer compact storytelling over the novel's wordy road

Let's Get Short (9/23/2009)
City Paper's Big Books Issue 2009 takes a look at fiction's overlooked gems

Neverending Stories (9/23/2009)
Short stories continue to be where sci-fi writers explore their big ideas

More from Mahinder Kingra

The Man Without a Country (10/17/2001)
New Nobel Laureate V.S. Naipaul and His Critics

Goodbye to All That (9/26/2001)

10 Best Books: Mahinder Kingra (12/20/2000)
1Tulipomania, by Mike Dash (Crown) An elegant and entertaining work of popular history that...

Comments powered by Disqus
CP on Facebook
CP on Twitter