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The Pulps Reconsidered, Part 4

BasketballStoriesCover350Wide.jpgThe essential difference between literary (as we define it today) and non-literary fiction didn’t crystallize for me until first-person shooters happened. I’m not one for games in general, but an hour or two playing early shooter games like Doom and Quake back in the 90s was an epiphany: This is a species of fiction. The following years proved me right. Most ambitious action games have at least a backstory of some kind, and some modern MMORPG systems have whole paperback novels distilled from them. (See Tony Gonzales’ EVE: The Empyrean Age, based on EVE Online.)

Of course it’s not literature. Did anybody say it was?

What it is is something else, something important: immersive. You get into a good game, and you’re there. I can do the same thing with a decent SF novel, but the phenomenon is in no way limited to SF. I’m guessing that Farmville or almost any reasonably detailed simulation works the same way.

Immersivity is the continental divide between literary fiction and pulp fiction. Like anything else in the human sphere it’s a spectrum, placing World of Warcraft on one end and Finnegan’s Wake on the other, with everything else falling somewhere in the middle. The term measures the degree to which you can lose yourself in a work, where “lose yourself” means “forget that you’re reading/playing and enter into experiential flow.”

Don’t apply a value scale to immersivity. It’s only one dimension of many to be found in fiction, and my point here isn’t to dump on Finnegan’s Wake. Literature is intended to evoke a response in the reader, but that response is not necessarily immersion. (It can be, particularly with classics like Huckleberry Finn that are new enough to be culturally familiar to us–dare you to read Chaucer without footnotes!–and yet not so new as to be afraid of Virginia Woolf.)

Pulling the reader in and carrying him/her along requires a smooth, linear narrative style, a vivid setting, and enough going on to maintain the reader’s interest after a long day working a crappy job. Pulp characters are often types, but that’s not necessarily due to a lack of skill on the writer’s part. A carefully chosen and well-written type allows room for a reader to imagine being that character, which is important in immersive fiction. As much as I enjoyed Gene Wolfe’s massive Book of the New Sun (and I’ve read it three times since its publication) I had a very hard time imagining myself as Severian. I empathize with him and certainly enjoyed watching him against the dazzling surreality of Urth (though I had to read numerous sections several times to be sure I knew what was going on) but being him? No chance. Keith Laumer’s Retief, on the other hand, no problem. Louis Wu? Same deal.

And for the umptieth time: (I can hear the knives being sharpened) This is not to denigrate literary fiction, of which I’ve read a lot and still do. My point is that immersive fiction is a valid entertainment medium, requiring different mechanisms and different skills than literary fiction. Let’s not dump on things for simply being easy to read. Easy is good if easy is what you want–and (on the author side) if easy is what people are willing to pay for.

Which should not suggest that easy to read is necessarily easy to do. The immersive magic of the pulps is obscured by the fact that a lot of it was just badly done, and could not have been otherwise, given that some pulp titles paid a quarter cent a word and published eighty thousand words twice a month. We can do much better these days, at least on the quality side. A brilliant potboiler is eminently possible–if we as readers give authors some sense that it’s ok to take up the challenge, and that they’ll be paid for their efforts when they succeed.

More in this series as time allows.


  1. David says:

    Don’t forget Infocom’s interactive fiction! Search the web for “Floyd the Robot” and you’ll find tributes to one of the most emotionally gripping games ever made: Planetfall.

    Some quotes:

    > “This has to be experienced to be believed. I don’t
    > think anyone has come as close in any other game today.”

    > “The emotions I (and others) felt with this supporting
    > character is legendary.”

    > “Are you kidding? Losing Floyd was probably the most
    > emotional moment I’ll ever have playing computer games.”

    There’s a Wikipedia page about Planetfall:

    > The death of Floyd has been discussed numerous
    > times. Meretzky claims that “numerous players” have
    > told him that they cried over the death of Floyd. A
    > game developers round table on GEnie concluded
    > that Floyd’s death was a sad moment that could make
    > someone cry. Floyd’s death has been described as
    > directly evoking the player’s emotions because the
    > story and gameplay are aligned. The death of Floyd
    > has been described as changing the game to an
    > “evocative theatrical experience” after which “the
    > player feels lonely and bereaved.” The memory of
    > Floyd’s death remains with players for years and is
    > remembered as a direct experience. Floyd’s death
    > “convey[ed] a sense of wonder at the unexpected
    > and touching quality of the gesture.” The scene has
    > been described as a minor milestone toward video
    > games as an expressive narrative art. Game
    > designer Raph Koster feels that Floyd’s death is
    > “cheating” because it occurs in a cut scene.

  2. Tom R. says:

    You may be on to something Jeff, and maybe it is in the middle of that continuum from Literary Fiction to Immersive Fiction where most of the “best sellers” are found.

    I remember the debut of the Techno Thriller genre (Clancy and others) and how they seemed to draw one into them. I read half a dozen or so by several authors and then moved on — they did get repetitious after a while.

  3. Erbo says:

    EVE Online is actually fairly-well focused on the use of fiction to bolster its in-game universe. Their Web site contains a number of short-fiction pieces written by staffers (many filed as “Chronicles”) that provide a look at the events shaping New Eden. They even maintain a “news feed” of events “happening” in the game, to help give you that “you are really in this world” feeling. Also, they have followed up Gonzales’ book with a second novel, EVE: The Burning Life by Hjalti Danielsson. (Published by Tor)

    Another game universe that’s really taken advantage of this kind of fiction is the Halo universe. Eric Nylund’s novel Halo: The Fall of Reach has just been reprinted in a new trade-paperback edition (by Tor this time…the original paperbacks were published by Del Rey), with new supplementary material and a new foreword that discusses the phenomenon. The novel gives the backstory of the game’s faceless protagonist, Master Chief (aka “John-117”) and the SPARTAN-II program that created him and his fellow “super soldiers.” Some of the lines in the book were used in Cortana’s dialogue in Halo 3, and some of the events of this novel are due to be explored in the about-to-be-released game Halo: Reach. So the two aspects of the universe feed each other.

    Farmville is a different beast, belonging to the class of “social-network games.” They’re not, IMHO, as immersive as a high-grade MMO or FPS (and neither do they cost as much, being typically free-to-play), but part of the point is, while you’re playing this game, you’re doing so with your Facebook friends, and there are many options to encourage this interaction, such as visiting your friends’ farms to help harvest their crops, or sending them gifts. In addition, the games encourage you to “publish” significant events, such as gaining mastery levels, to your Facebook news feed, thus providing free advertising to help entice other friends into playing. (I don’t play these games myself, but Sabrina does, and I’ve observed her interactions with the games. I’ve been known to lament not coming up with the idea first, though…I coulda made a FORTUNE! 🙂 )

  4. Carol Pruitt says:

    Quote: “Let’s not dump on things for simply being easy to read.” Easy gets no respect in gardening, either.

    Consider a plant that grows in virtually any climate, requires no special care, bears showy, attractive flowers abundantly in the spring and sporadically almost year-round, supplying off-season nectar to bees and other beneficial insects and seeds to small birds. Oh, and its spring leaves are good in salads. If such a plant were hard to come by, it’d be in high demand.

    But heck, I bet you have dandelions growing in your lawn right now.

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