Pulp fiction – real pulp fiction – has a reputation for being brainless fluff. I’m talking here about Conan the Barbarian, Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Zorro, and Tarzan. These stories, now generally bound as collections in books, were originally published in weekly magazines printed on very cheap wood pulp paper. This is popcorn reading: predictable, lurid, and exploitative – calculated to shock and play into the prejudices of their readers. However, like an iceberg, most of the substance is deep under the surface.
Pulp fiction is the domain of early detective stories, the entire Noir genre, the primordial soup out of which rose comic books, fertile ground for science fiction and modern horror writing. Most of our entertainment today – the themes of our hit movies, television shows, video games, books – owes a great deal to these cheap pulp stories. These tales grew out of the social environment of the 1920s and 1930s, and, while there’s plenty of sexism and racism to go around, there’s also a stunning amount of science history embedded in the fabric of the stories and the worlds they are set in.
Hyborea isn’t quite a fantasy universe.
(NOTE: All of the following uses Robert E. Howard’s posthumously published essay on the setting of the Conan stories, The Hyborean Age. Free eBook here at Project Gutenberg.)
Conan the Cimmerian’s world is actually our world, in our own distant past, one we remember only through garbled mythology. The fact that continents move was just coming into acceptance at the time these stories were being written in the 1930s – plate tectonics as we know it found acceptance in the 1950s and 1960s, with the discovery of seafloor rift zones. The actual rate of this movement was not yet known, allowing Howard’s world to have a different shape than our own, including hypothetical “lost continents” such as Lemuria and Atlantis – popular with occultists and mystics at the time.
Human history, too, it was becoming clear, was much longer than once thought, allowing the fictional Hyborean Age plenty of temporal elbow room for lost empires and forgotten gods: these stories take place in the bronze age, on the cusp of the adoption of iron. The people of Conan’s world, similarly, derive from projecting backwards in time from theories of race current in the 1930s (now discredited). According to Howard, Conan’s own people, the Cimmerians, would eventually become the Celts. Both the geography and the population of the Conan stories owe a lot to cutting-edge geology and archaeology of the first few decades of the 20th Century. Although these stories are fiction, they were founded, as much as possible, on the most current science available, and even though we’ve advanced our understanding of the world since, they still present a snapshot of the state of science and corresponding social anxieties in the first part of the 20th Century.
Howard and H. P. Lovecraft kept up a correspondence, and both authors’ bodies of work are interrelated. The stories of Conan interlock with the early human history of Lovecraft’s fiction, and share some of the same place names and even background characters. Lovecraft based much of the horror in his own writing on a new understanding in science in the 1920s that the universe was far larger than previously thought.
“The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.” — The Call of Cthulhu (excerpt) by H.P. Lovecraft
That is not the outlook of fiction with a sense of security in humanity’s central place in the universe. Howard’s evil gods and abyssal horrors share this template, and even some of the literary and conceptual background, especially the new scientific outlook that made it possible. From cosmology to geology, and even anthropology and history, the Conan stories may be pulp fiction, but, like their protagonist, they’re definitely far more intelligent than they look.
Or, if comic books are more your speed…