Men With Screwdrivers and Men With Magnifying Glasses

In the spirit of moving the discussion off site and getting readers moving back and forth, I offer you Jeffro’s excellent review of A.E. Van Vogt’s “Black Destroyer”…and a comment on one of the main points of difference between the superversive movement vs. the pulp revolution movement (I said something similar in the comments to the post; this is an expansion).

From Jeffro:

The “hero” of the story isn’t really the Hari Seldon-like Elliot Grosvenor. Granted, the guy has a knack for navigating the tedious and byzantine bureaucracy that encysts almost any sufficiently complex STEM-related activity. But the real “star” here is Nexialism, a sort of meta-science that allows this guy to be way more insightful than the stodgy and blinkered scientists of his space collective.

I’m sure that this seemed like a really good idea at the time. And the resolution here is way more developed than the typical “reverse the polarity” and “re-route a phase inducer” tricks of science fiction television. But really smart guys thinking their ways out of difficult problems is only ever going to be just so compelling. Nevertheless, the heavy and the setting do manage to overcome this inherent weakness of the unrestrained Campbellian ethos.

Okay. Let’s pretend we’re not reading science fiction for a moment. What sort of fiction is made up mostly of “smart guys thinking their ways out of difficult problems?”


Give up yet?

Yeah. It’s detective fiction.

If you want to categorize more specifically here (like Campbellian vs. pulp sci-fi), we can talk about Agatha Christie style detective fiction (Sherlock Holmes stories were as much or more adventure tales as mysteries, though there were certainly “Men with magnifying glass” varieties of Sherlock Holmes as well – see “The Adventure of the Dancing Men”). Christie is famous/notorious for ending her mysteries by gathering all of the subjects in one room as her detective marches around and explains all of the clues you missed that point to the killer. Her most famous story and her masterpiece, “And Then There Were None”, has only the most lightly sketched characters, and the setting might as well be random. There is little to no action in the entire story. It is notable for one and only one thing: Its brilliant, mind-bogglingly ambitious, and incredibly shocking plot. And coming from a fan of that book – yes, it lives up to its promise. It’s a brilliant book. And if you take away the plot, there’s just about nothing to recommend it except maybe atmosphere, which Conan Doyle was better at anyway.

“Well,” sez pre-Christie-ites, “What character is more famous, huh? Sherlock Holmes, or Agatha Christie’s clone of Sherlock Holmes? Answer me that, smart guy!”

Sure, okay, you can make that argument. But you’ll also need to explain why Agatha Christie is the bestselling fiction author of all time* along with Shakespeare, and, by the way, ahead of J.K. Rowling.

So what is the point of all of this? I can hear the complaints now – “Wait, so you’re denying we have a problem? Didn’t you see the sales numbers? Are you denying that the pulp works have been shoved down a hole? Are you saying you don’t want to see a revival of pulp works? Do you just hate fun? Huh?”

(Okay, those last two are a bit over the top, but the others are variations of questions I’ve been asked virtually every time I disagree in some manner with one of the pulp revolutionaries.)

Well, no, I’m not saying any of those things. I’m just saying – be careful not to extrapolate personal taste into objective fact. What you might consider to be an Obviously Worse tic of a certain style of books may well be exactly what somebody else loves about it. Because apparently smart guys thinking their way out of difficult problems is something people do like to watch quite a bit after all.

Go figure.

*In case you were wondering, the highest rated sci-fi writer on the list is Stephen King, followed by R.L. Stine, Roald Dahl (of course he was a sci-fi writer; what else is “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”?), and then, yes, Edgar Rice Burroughs. The highest rated fantasist is Rowling, naturally.