- by Gitabushi
I’ve been reading more slowly lately. Life, plus an obsession with a mobile game* as a stress reliever.
I am really trying to like Pulp. There is much to like about Pulp. But there is also much to dislike about Pulp.
Edgar Rice Burroughs (ERB) provides some good examples of both.
I’ve read enough of ERB and Robert E. Howard that I can get into a pulp mindset where I turn off my writing critic and just enjoy the story. And *still* ERB annoys with some of his poor plotting mechanics.
I have to conclude that ERB was great at coming up with an amazing archetype of a hero, and then just writing about his bad-ass character. His fame comes from being the first to have such a bad-ass character, rather than from actual writing talent.
Maybe that’s harsh. I know it’s going to irritate some people. But look, I’ve read The Monster Men (which was one of ERB’s later works, and an attempt to be more literary), and while it still had some problems, it was actually a fairly well-written book, with some twists, some character complexity, proper foreshadowing, etc.
But I’m still in the midst of slogging through Gods of Mars, and there are just so many examples of poor writing.
I feel like nearly every 3-4 pages there’s an example of poor writing that jars me out of my Willing Suspension of Disbelief.
Sometimes it is having incredible luck that saves John Carter from failure/death or otherwise continue the narrative. One would be irritating, but there have been at least 10 so far…way too many. Examples: How was it John Carter to Barsoom returned just in time to encounter Tars Tarkas? How was it Tars Tarkas wasn’t the Green Warrior surprised by the unexpected jumping tactics of the Plant Men? How did Thuvia and Tars happen to be right at the location where the damaged air car of John Carter, Xodar, and Carthoris comes to ground? Why does Thuvia have the ability of nearly perfect telepathy with beasts? Is this something other Barsoomians have? The answer seems to be that ERB needed something to get the characters through a nearly-impossible situation, so he just pulled something out of the air and ran with it.
Or the characters encounter an obstacle, and what do you know, they just happen to have the ability/item they need, right at that moment, but ERB just forgot to mention it before then! This is probably the most irritating, because it gives an impression of first draft writing: if your writing leads you to put your characters into a difficult situation, you go back and add the solution earlier in the work, at a time that it won’t seem unusual or significant. Call it effective foreshadowing, call it effective preparation to avoid a deus ex machina, I don’t really know the right way to put it. But ERB completely misses the mark for this in A Princess of Mars and Gods of Mars.
One that bothers me even more, however, is when ERB is inconsistent with the world and the rules of the world he himself set up. In A Princess of Mars, he explains at length that the Green Men have rifles capable of amazing long distance accuracy, and the marksmanship skills to use them at incredible ranges. Yet when the Green Men would reasonably use that advantage in a way that might hurt the main characters, the Green Men conviently forget to use them. A prime example of this (which I just read, and pushed me over the edge to needing to write this complaint) is when the Warhoons are chasing John Carter’s band after he rescued Tars Tarkas, but the Warhoons merely pursue them instead of shooting their mounts from underneath them. Another example is several pages earlier when John Carter merely follows Tars’ escorting guards through the dungeon, intead of attacking them immediately to free Tars. And immediately following when John Carter regretfully feels forced to ambush Tars’ guards, clearly feeling it was not up to his standards of fairness. This bothers me because John Carter had not hesitated to attack far more than just four Green Men warriors previously, and he had killed one with a single blow from his fist before. Why would he hesitate in this situation, and why would he finally decide on a somewhat-dishonorable ambush? Inconsistency.
There are other things to like about the book, but this isn’t really a book review. I like it better than the Land that Time Forgot, because when I put The Gods of Mars down, I do want to pick it up again. But it isn’t compelling me to reach the finish like The Monster Men did.
I’m not saying the book sucks. But it does spur contemplation on the nature of successful writing. Should I sacrifice quality for speed in writing? Should I just come up with a great character and not stress plot and consistency? Why does the best of SFF pulp have this many problems, but the best of Western and Detective Noir do not?
Okay, come at me.
* Kingdom Rush. My obsession is finishing every level without using any of the one-time use special abilities you can purchase with diamonds. I’m almost done. I’m stressed because the new job I mentioned on Twitter as getting hired for FIVE MONTHS AGO still hasn’t given me a start date. Long story there.