It’s why we like what we like. It’s why we like the music we do, and whether (Heaven forbid) we like that painting that matches the upholstery. Even your favorite ice cream is a type of aesthetic that is appealing to your own tastes. This article is an attempt to delineate what I like to call “pulp sci-fi”, a heading that encompasses the sub-genres of space opera, retrofuturism and dieselpunk.
Although the term “pulp” refers to the cheap paper on which many early fiction tales were printed, it is much, much more than that. These tales, while reviled by their contemporary literary critics, provided a foundation, toolbox, and set of tropes that all modern pop-culture science fiction must pay homage. It is so significant, in fact, there is a movement to preserve the heritage of these stories at sites like The Pulp Magazines Project.
The Vintage Library cites the defining factors of what can be considered pulp and includes fantastic, escapist fiction for the general entertainment of the mass audiences. Pulps allowed its readers to experience people, places, and action they normally would not have access to. Bigger-than-life heroes, pretty girls, exotic places, strange and mysterious villains all stalked the pages of the many issues available to the general public on the magazine stands.
I liken this to the “Dukes of Hazzard Effect”. While you can never predict what the general populace will latch onto, regardless of its merits, you must eventually concede it is a thing. In his book Redneck Boy in the Promised Land, Ben Jones recounts how CBS founder and chairman William Paley despised “cornpone” humor and after returning from an extended vacation in Europe was aghast at the success of the television series. It was such a success, in fact, it would be years before he could cancel the thing.
While the significance of The Dukes of Hazzard beyond just puerile entertainment remains to be seen, pulp adventure in general has grown into a thriving acceptable part of pop-culture at large from its lurid and seedy origins. It could even be argued that the ham-fisted morality plays of the Duke Boys are a derivative offshoot of this early hero pulp fiction. It is clear, however, that the pulp ideologies have had a direct and lasting influence on contemporary science fiction in all mediums. Mai Ly Degnan cites many examples in the essay Pulp Magazines and their Influence on Entertainment Today.
“Needless to say, pulp magazines paved and shaped the way for many of our creative thinkers today. Even though it has been decades, these same themes have crossed over into every form of entertainment. From television to comics, much of our entertainment has been influenced in some way by pulp magazines.”
As for Science Fiction in particular, a little over a hundred years ago, books were either classed as fiction or non-fiction. It wasn’t until the mid-century that more and more categories began to crop up.
Now the following may seem like a severely long-winded exercise in semantics, years of retail has instilled in me the value of categorizing content to make it easy for your target audience to locate what they are looking for. It’s the reason record shops and book stores (ancient retail outlets) grouped like things with like things.
While surfing through a few of my favorite film listings on various streaming services I began to notice duplicate categories where many of the titles were listed. It seems a particular film can be simultaneously a drama and a comedy, many are also listed in multiple other genre categories. So is the case with Science Fiction and for me “pulp sci-fi” encompasses these distinct, and sometimes overlapping, sub-genres.
Space opera is adventure science fiction set mainly or entirely in outer space or on multiple (sometimes distant) planets. The conflict is heroic, and typically on a large scale. This particular brand of SF has become popularized in modern culture by the Foundation series (1942–99) by Isaac Asimov. An early notable space opera film series was Flash Gordon (1936–present) created by Alex Raymond. In the late 1970s, the Star Wars franchise (1977–present) created by George Lucas brought a great deal of attention to the genre. We won’t spend any time on this one.
Retrofuturism is characterized by a blend of old-fashioned “retro” styles with futuristic technology, retrofuturism explores the themes of tension between past and future, and between the alienating and empowering effects of technology. Huh?
The article What is retro futurism? by Annalee Newitz also tries to loosely impress what characterizes retrofuturism.
What should be mentioned is that retrofuturism is primarily defined by the aesthetic of a true historical “futuristic” style. Where it is the most obvious is in intentionally depicting “futuristic concepts” as they would likely have been presented in a prior period.
For example, if the television series Star Trek: Enterprise, while set in the timeline prior to the original series, had been designed to intentionally look like it was actually produced in the mid-sixties, it would likely qualify as retrofuturism. This is even more evident in the Deep Space Nine episode “Trials and Tribble-ations.” This episode was produced in 1996, thirty years after the original Star Trek aired, but was styled to match the look of the original series. So in essence, regardless if the medium is television, comics, or literature, the defining characteristics of retrofuturism are dependent on the period they are produced in comparison to the period they depict.
Blade Runner (1982) likely could be another example of retrofuturism since the story, set in 2019, is intentionally designed to be evocative of 1940s noir-styled cinema. It falls a bit short in other areas such as the vehicles and some of the environment design since those reflect a more modern futuristic aesthetic.
So, if Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow was set in any future period than the 1930s it would count as retrofuturism. But the styling is reminiscent of the aesthetics of the 30s and it is not attempting to “predict” what the future may look like from a 30s point of view. Therefore this settles into another sub-genre known as dieselpunk.
Dieselpunk takes over where Steampunk leaves off. These are stories that take over as we usher in the machine-heavy eras of WWI and WWII. The use of diesel-powered machines plays heavily. In this (like its steam counterpart), the focus is on the technology. This somewhat newer offshoot incorporates fantastical elements (sci-fi, supernatural, arcane magic) into what would otherwise be considered historical fiction of a specific period.
In the article Discovering Dieselpunk (2008), authors Ottens and Piecraft seek to put this specific flavor of sci-fi into context. Ostensibly they cite the origins of the concepts but also detail the specifics that separate this sub-genre from its predecessors. They even go so far as to break down various outlooks within the sub-genre itself. While the article provides a fairly comprehensive list of source material that illustrates the various styles of dieselpunk discussed, the film Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) is probably the best textbook example of dieselpunk in recent history. Where it differentiates from retrofuturism is it makes no effort to predict what it thinks things will look like beyond it’s own period setting. Costumes, weapons, and characters are all grounded firmly in the 1940s although many sci-fi elements like the Tesseract and vita-rays are present.
But “pulp sci-fi” is more than these particular sub-genres, too. It envelops a sense of raw, unadulterated, adventure devoid of placing too much emphasis on how things work over telling a fun and thrilling story. Films such as Alien or Prometheus are great examples of pulp sci-fi with a modern veneer. Although Superman as both a character and a story has origins firmly rooted in pulp, the 2013 film Man of Steel takes great pains to ramp up the pulp sci-fi feel. This is also evident in 2011’s Thor where the design and backstory of Asgard is portrayed as an ancient alien culture as opposed to the more traditional religious roots in Scandinavian mythology.
As time has gone on, and I have researched more and more about the origins of my favorite forms of literature, I have developed a taste for specific stories and have wondered what made them stand apart.
I have a much greater appreciation now for films like Raiders of the Lost Ark than I did when I originally saw it on opening day in 1981 when I was only 13. After seeing the influences that inspired this film it is clear that the intentions of the original source material can be expanded and introduced to all new audiences in a slick new package. The same is true for the serials and movies that inspired Star Wars.
Is it really important to delineate these various flavors of sci-fi? Sure. Because I dig chocolate ice cream, but it’s even better with crushed almonds mixed in. I will choose it over vanilla, or the horror of mint chocolate chip any time. It’s always good to know what’s in the carton before checkout.