As writers and readers of pulp fiction, I think sometimes we feel a detachment in our work and entertainment from some of the realities of society around us. It’s all just pulp adventure and escapism, right?
The answer can be yes, and that said without judgment. That is a large part of the allure of pulp fiction — it’s fun, it’s wild…it plays with the trashy and exploitative alongside an innocence that can be very comforting and comfortable.
But make no mistake, creations of this sort can and do have an effect on people’s perspectives, even if, during the escape into a fun, thrilling read, we might not be fully cognizant of it.
In the Sixties, when I began reading pulp stories and my lifelong love of the genre was kindled, I was nonetheless troubled by sometimes appalling racism and sexism in the texts. I needn’t go into the details…just pick up any adventure or mystery pulp from the 1930’s and you will find those things woven into the subtext…sometimes in the background, sometimes in the forefront. Homophobia was certainly present as well, though perhaps less frequently spotlighted, as pulp writers of the era often avoided going near the issue at all.
In some ways the world of 2023 is vastly more enlightened and humanistic than 1933…but there are times, reading in the news about hate crimes, intolerance and dismissal toward fellow human beings, I feel as if very little has changed.
As an author, I made a conscious decision long ago to actively oppose and reverse the attitudes toward race, gender, sexual identity and more that I had seen in the pulp genre I so loved. When I undertook the vast project of creating a modern pastiche of the heroic fiction world through the Doc Talos tales, I wanted very much to take the sometimes subtle, sometimes blatant attitudes of intolerance and make a very different statement: none of us — readers or the characters we channel in stories — are stereotypes. We all deserve dignity…we all deserve acceptance and respect.
The above image, of the character Rickie Talos (avatar of Pat Savage) in a suit and sporting a You got a problem with me, pal? expression — an alternate cover/ultimately interior illustration for the 2022 Rickie anthology — would have been inconceivable as a cover painting for a 1930’s pulp magazine. Sexual roles were expected to be conformed to…and that was the tip of a conformity iceberg.
To write about human beings, infinitely complex as they are, is a responsibility I feel even pulp writers must embrace. And so I have striven to portray that complexity in every corner of the stories told in the Doc Talos world. A few examples include the fact that in addition to being dynamic, intelligent, a shrewd businesswoman and a skilled aviator, Rickie is bisexual. There are familiar characters within the pastiche who are gay. No bias is laid at their feet whether they are hetero or otherwise. The primary power-character threaded through the tales is a woman of color. One of the Seven (analogous to Phil Farmer’s Nine) is a transwoman. LGBTQ+ characters take important roles right alongside white, hetero males.
And the point is not just to give the diversity of people a place and strong, nuanced voices, but to involve those characters in the tales as a perfectly normal part of the storytelling. There are laudable, notable, fascinating qualities within every character. The diversity spectrum includes heroic characters, villainous ones, supporting characters.
I present everyone in the tales as imperfect…but (I truly hope) none are two-dimensional; their human qualities impossible to sum up with a pre-judged, cardboard façade.
No doubt I make mistakes, and errors of judgment in the writing. But I hope, ninety years from now (as we are, in 2023, nine decades down the line from the Depression-era pulps) that if the stories survive that long, they reflect a society that is certainly still grappling with enlightenment, but following that long moral arc of justice that sees people through a societal lens of respect.
May more and more of the stories we create and enjoy take us along that road.