Saturday, September 23, 2017

No Hacks Herein: StoryHack Action and Adventure #1

I’ve written before of the nascent Pulp Revolution—of the authors who, operating under the aegis of #PulpRev, have sought to restore the glories of the pulp magazines of the first half of the twentieth century.  Their work eschews politics (for the most part) in favor of a primary focus on action, and in most cases affirms rather than subvert the traditional heroic narrative.  The protagonists are not flawless, but are generally admirable in their skills and motives, and by and large succeed against the odds.

One of the brighter emerging lights in this movement is Bryce Beattie's StoryHack Action and Adventure, in which I had the good fortune to be published earlier this year.  The magazine is back with another installment(confusingly designated as Issue #1), and it’s a solid effort all around, well worth the four-dollar Kindle price.

The layout and mechanics of the issue are consummately professional and almost completely free of errors, the inserts provide a persistent thread of chuckle-worthy humor, and the cover and story artwork contributes positively to the overall reader experience.

A magazine of this sort will, of course, rise or fall based on the quality of the writing.  As with the first issue, a number of the brighter lights of the new pulp community have turned up with new work, as well as several writers who are better known for work outside of that subgenre.  The diversity of the pulp movement is well-represented here, with work ranging from traditional detective fiction to steampunk superheroics to weird westerns.  Moreover, the issue gives the lie to pulp critics who claim that the movement is intended as a playground for white men; both the authors and the heroes they portray vary widely in culture, ethnicity, and gender.

This set of writers brings to bear many distinctive sets of specific skills and passions which influence their work.  Here is an obvious expert in the mythology of indigenous Canadians; over there is a writer who has carefully studied the early history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints; over here’s somebody who just plain knows about guns.  I suspect that for this reason, every story will be somebody’s favorite.  As for me personally, I was especially fond of:

Frost, a standout in StoryHack Issue Zero, is back with another tale of werewolf private eye Ben Lockwood.  Frost’s take on lycanthropy is far more detailed and interesting than is the standard in paranormal fiction, as Lockwood doesn’t just take on fur and claws—he takes on a canine psyche as well, with the attendant focus on scents and dedication to/reliance upon his “pack”. 

This particular story starts out in the same gritty, noir vein as Frost’s previous story.  Then it takes an entirely unexpected turn into another genre altogether.  It’s best if I don’t reveal more about the plot than that.  Frost’s primary gifts, though, lie in prosecraft, and about those gifts there’s a GREAT DEAL to be said.  Her line-by-line writing is elite by any standard, and her ability to infuse her heroes with vulnerability is a particularly rare and valuable skill within a subgenre that tends to brim over with steely-eyed supermen.  For all the ornate mechanics of this story, Frost never loses sight of the man at its center—a PTSD survivor who’s taking it one day at a time, and who learns the value of self-care in a very literal way.

UNDER THE GUN by David J. West
A supernaturally-influenced western that follows immediately upon the events at the Little Bighorn, in which one of America’s most celebrated military villains gains a new lease on life in the form of a possessed firearm.   One of the primary merits of the new pulp movement is its heavy emphasis on action, and West understands better than some of the other authors in this issue the necessity of getting the action underway early.  The voices of the two primary characters are resonant, distinctive, and interesting, and the central conceit of the plot is compelling.  This is the most absorbing piece in the issue on a line-for-line basis, a genuine page-turner that will have readers eager to read more of West’s work.

An impeccably researched tale of the post-Battle-of-Britain standoff between the RAF and the Luftwaffe, full of language that soars in both the literal and figurative sense.  Adamson’s narrative voice, positioned here as a pilot’s memoir, rings with authenticity; in his hands, the technical language of the piece is engaging rather than confusing.  The sensory detail here—the thrum of the airplane engines, the feel of the sheepskin jacket—is impressively rich.  I found myself reminded of the aerial scenes in Dunkirk, and it seems to me that's a pretty good piece of art to be evoking.

Really, though, the narrative style is the star in this one.  Both in the opening half, where combat details alternate with the pilot’s internal narrative, and in the second half, where the protagonist finds himself at sea in an open boat, the writing is reminiscent of Stephen Crane in style and quality. 


All told, StoryHack Action and Adventure #1 is a fun read, a positive manifestation of the new Pulp movement, and well worth your time.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Wizards Die By Stages

You will never achieve the greatness which your talent merits.  Lack of ability is the smallest of the obstacles you face.  Of greater importance are the number of hours in the day and the number of years in a life.  You will spend a third of your life asleep and most of eternity rotting in a pine box.  Your ability to shape the world is determined primarily by your ability to enlist other people as a force multiplier in pursuit of your goals.

In recruiting others, you have two primary options:  force and persuasion.  You can make people DO what you want, or you can make people WANT what you want.  The third method of enlisting others—economic contract—is essentially a combination of the two; you persuade the other party to engage you economically, and entry into the contract enables you to stake a legally enforceable claim to their labor.

Almost every historical figure of importance has been exceptionally skilled at either persuasion, or compulsion, or both.  My life has been spent teaching teenagers to argue, so the persuasion/compulsion dilemma is central to my thinking, and informs a great deal of what I write.

Magic is the great literary work-around where the persuasion/compulsion dilemma is concerned.  Magic radically empowers the individual to pursue his or her goals without help.  I suspect that’s why we’re so enamored of it as readers—we long for that kind of independence, for the ability to reshape reality without having to be bothered with what other people think.  Magic is a free lunch.  It offers us something for nothing.

“Wizards Die By Stages,” currently available to readers at, is an attempt to turn this literary trope on its head.  The story envisions a world in which even magic obeys the central rules of economic interaction—a world in which magic is derived from the labor of intangible, sentient entities, and in which their labor is compelled.

In most economic systems, those riding high on the hog have no real incentive to question the nature of the system from which they benefit, and I see no reason to imagine that magicians would be any different.  It goes without saying, of course, that those who point to the oppression inherent in such systems run into resistance from entrenched interests.  But it only takes one persuasive voice to change the world.  And while compulsion may be the easiest, most cost-free way to control others, persuasion can prove more enduring...