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The Literary World of Pulp Adventure (And Dragons) With Marie Brennan – Guest Post
All Art Courtesy of Todd Lockwood
Ahhh, pulp adventure. It’s so fun, and yet such a mess.
It was never a respected corner of publishing, even when respectable authors were working in it. The whole idea of pulp magazines was that they were cheap, disposable entertainment, not worth the time or money or attention of more reputable literature. Sometimes that judgment was fair (the vast majority of pulp fiction sank without a trace), and sometimes it wasn’t — witness the classics of the genre that still get attention even today.
What has lasted, above and beyond even the few individual figures who survived, is the energy. The pulps were gonzo, before gonzo was a thing. Sure, you may search a given story in vain for even a shred of something resembling logic — but who cares? If the author did his (or more rarely, her) job right, the story is wall-to-wall spectacle, with more plot twists than you can shake a typewriter ribbon at. And out of that frantic dance came a whole host of tropes that we use even today.
I made a list of those tropes, when I set out to write this series. See, my previous project, the Onyx Court, was serious, deeply-researched historical fantasy, full of intrigue and as historically plausible as I could make it. Switching to Isabella’s memoirs was a major gear shift. Thirty thousand words into A Natural History of Dragons, I was trying to figure out how to arrange for Isabella to obtain some information. I imagined her overhearing a conversation, asking roundabout questions . . . no. What I needed was SMUGGLERS. And MYSTERIOUS FIGURES IN THE NIGHT. In short, I needed to cut loose from the part of my brain that said, “but, but, but, how” and go for things that were shiny.
Of course, that doesn’t mean leaving logic behind entirely — because these days, our standards for pulp adventure are a good deal higher. The rampaging sexism and racism and other prejudices of the classic pulps aren’t exactly attractive anymore; I’m not going to toss in a cannibal race or have anybody worshipping Isabella as a goddess, to pick two examples, no matter how iconic those tropes are. Figuring out how to use the furniture of the genre without falling into more subtle iterations of those problems is also a challenge.
But even with those considerations in mind, this project is sheer fun. Things on my list of tropes that I can use: ancient ruins, booby traps, undeciphered languages, mystical curses, hostile environments, dangerous animals, near-death experiences. (Is it wrong of me that I’m fond of giving my characters diseases like malaria and yellow fever?) Other things, which would be spoilers to mention here. When I find myself not sure where the plot should go next, I can look over my list for some new element to chuck in. It keeps the energy high, and makes me eager to get to that next shiny bit.
I don’t claim to have fully replicated the gonzo enthusiasm of the pulps. But I hope I’ve done something even better: welding that enthusiasm onto a more solid base. Failing that, I hope at least to entertain. It is, after all, what the pulps did best.
Marie Brennan is a former academic with a background in archaeology, anthropology, and folklore, which she now puts to rather cockeyed use in writing fantasy. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. In addition to many short stories and novellas, she is also the author of A Star Shall Fall and With Fate Conspire (both from Tor Books), as well as Warrior, Witch, Midnight Never Come, In Ashes Lie, and Lies and Prophecy. You can find her online at SwanTower.com.
You, dear reader, continue at your own risk. It is not for the faint of heart—no more so than the study of dragons itself. But such study offers rewards beyond compare: to stand in a dragon’s presence, even for the briefest of moments—even at the risk of one’s life—is a delight that, once experienced, can never be forgotten. . . .
All the world, from Scirland to the farthest reaches of Eriga, know Isabella, Lady Trent, to be the world’s preeminent dragon naturalist. She is the remarkable woman who brought the study of dragons out of the misty shadows of myth and misunderstanding into the clear light of modern science. But before she became the illustrious figure we know today, there was a bookish young woman whose passion for learning, natural history, and, yes, dragons defied the stifling conventions of her day.
Here at last, in her own words, is the true story of a pioneering spirit who risked her reputation, her prospects, and her fragile flesh and bone to satisfy her scientific curiosity; of how she sought true love and happiness despite her lamentable eccentricities; and of her thrilling expedition to the perilous mountains of Vystrana, where she made the first of many historic discoveries that would change the world forever.
Marie Brennan introduces an enchanting new world in A Natural History of Dragons.
A Tor Hard Cover
On Sale: February 5, 2013