I love the smell of old books. There’s something about that musty aroma that adds to the reading experience. What is it? A sense of history? Of discovery? Like an archaeologist on a dig is it that sense that you’re looking back in time, like an astronomer studying a star removed in both space and time?
But let’s face it, the smell of an old book can only take you so far. It’s a sign of age, after all, not of quality. And the smell and the paper aren’t what keep us reading these books: it’s the storytelling.
That any pulp novels have remained popular is a bit of a wonder. Today, an author producing the sheer volume of content at the rate pulp magazines were publishing it would sound like a recipe for bad writing, and one glance through back-issues of Amazing Stories and Weird Tales will produce no shortage of duds. But prolific authors like Robert Sheckley, E. E. “Doc” Smith, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Robert E. Howard were honing their craft, exploring the outer edges of their ability and their genres. Among the stories we’d find lacking are timeless gems that fueled the proliferation of the same paperbacks we love to smell.
I’m personally amazed at the longevity of pulp era science fiction. Prognosticating is nearly always doomed to failure if you’re a humble writer, and devoting a whole genre to it is a tricky business. Even so, decade by decade, science fiction dated itself as it wove contemporary discoveries, theories, and fears into its stories about hypothetical futures. In the 1940s, the genre focused on the atom and city-killing weapons of mass destruction used by (or against) wily fascists. In the ’50s, the paranoia shifted to Communism and its alien stand-ins, and robots became commonplace in the household of the future. By the 1960s, space-travel was all the rage, and writers seemed convinced the moon would be colonized before the century was up (and in their view, I should be writing this blog on typostrator in my living podule on Titan). The 1970s depicted a future of the counter-culture, and the ’80s the jacked-in world of cyberpunk.
But all of them were wrong. No moon city. No anti-gravity cars. No robots doing the cooking and washing up. To sophisticated, modern readers the predictions of pulp sci-fi seem as musty as the dime-cent paperbacks in which they were first printed. So what’s the source of our fascination?
In the futures of pulp sci-fi—like the one in E. E. “Doc” Smith’s The Galaxy Primes—there’s a window straight into the world of yesterday. Humans have faster-than-light starships but no cell phones. It seems inconceivable that there might be women in positions of power, and sexual harassment is the order of the day. They’re examples (albeit fantastic, wild, and surreal ones) of the hang-ups and hopes of a generation past.
Reading vintage science fiction—no matter how dated—is an archeological expedition that is worth preserving, even sans the musty smell.