This week we’ll hop back into my series of posts looking in detail at a single issue of Weird Tales, a classic pulp fiction magazine from 1925 that can be read online. If you haven’t been following along, feel free to go back to the beginning and start here. Or simply join in with…
Wings of Power is the first part of a serialized novel. The serialized novel is something we don’t see much anymore, but was common practice going back, more or less, to the beginning of the novel itself. It was certainly a common thing in the pulps, when there were very few if any other outlets for novel length genre fiction. It wasn’t really until the rise of the mass market paperback in the 40s and 50s that genre publishing as we know it today began to take over from the pulps and short stories started to give way to novels as the primary vehicle for science fiction, fantasy, horror, romance… the best selling genres in present day publishing.
This does present a bit of an issue for me, though, since how do I break down what’s only the first third of a longer work? While I think about that, I’ll Google the author, Lady Anne Bonny…
In the book Science Fiction: The Early Years, there’s a little synopsis of Wings of Power, but under the author’s name: “No information.”
And that’s pretty much it.
Obviously, this is a pseudonym, evoking the infamous 18th century pirate by the same name. I can’t even be sure that the author is a woman… no information at all. And again, this was not at all uncommon. There were pulp authors who didn’t want to use their real names because they were reserving those for “the slicks” and didn’t want to sully their literary careers by being associated with the lowly pulps. There were authors who wrote so prolifically that editors asked them to write under one or more aliases so it didn’t appear that a single issue of a magazine was written by the same person—even if that was more or less true in some cases. And then there were authors who had one name for science fiction, one for romance, another for westerns, etc. So who is Lady Anne Bonny? For all I know she was really F. Scott Fitzgerald…
To the story, then… If we won’t be able to read the other two thirds of Wings of Power, let’s focus more on craft than story, and pull out some examples, positive and negative.
If there’s one rule I believe we should all follow, it’s one scene, one POV. The concept of “third person omniscient” will come off as old fashioned. Readers will feel, even if they can’t articulate it, that something is wrong with your writing if you jump from one character’s head to another within a single scene. Readers want to—and I’d go so far as to say that readers need to—inhabit the experience of a single character in order to feel grounded to the story. That doesn’t mean you have to have only one POV character. I’m all for multiple POVs—but not within the same scene. If you need to jump to another character, a simple scene break is all you need—a few asterisks to indicate a change in POV and/or time and/or place.
In 1925, this rule was not quite so universally known, much less applied, hence the rather beautifully atmospheric opening of Wings of Power, firmly in the point of view of the unnamed “girl,” that then smash-cuts to the mad scientist at the beginning of the last paragraph of the first page (page 77). “At the same moment” is not good enough, but:
…the third finger of one of which the ring gave out its strange emanation.
At the same moment, professor Kurt Marquarri turned…
But then there’s something I’ve been noticing not just in this story but in other pulp magazines I’ve seen: scene breaks—you’ll see the empty line and the drop cap at the top of page 82—come in seemingly at random. “The girl faltered for a moment,” clearly follows immediately after “…and he crouched as if in a vise.” There is no reason for a break here, or on page 84 when the two bad guys read the letter. I’ll blame this on the editor, not the author.
SHOW, DON’T TELL
I would have liked to have seen Joan’s dream of the yellow butterflies instead of hearing her tell Susan about it. I know that that advice, “show, don’t tell,” has been offered up so often for so long it just sounds pat, but it’s of vital importance in writing active, engaging fiction. If you find yourself typing some version of:
“Tell it to Susan, then, my wee lamb. Tell it to Susan, and you’ll feel less frightened of it.”
…stop! And go back and show it first, follow that line of dialog with, “Joan told Susan all about the dream,” then show the next scene!
Another form of telling is when a character says something he or she already knows, or says it to someone else who already knows it. The former is now so archaic, I’m happy to report that I can’t think of a time I’ve seen something like:
“The greatest scientific discovery in the world,” he gloated, muttering to himself after his usual habit; “and I alone am its possessor!”
And what’s up with that semi-colon?
As far as a character telling someone something that person already knows, which I refer to as “Soap Opera Dialog,” how about:
“My father, as you know, was a very great scientist, the greatest of his day.”
This is another warning sign: “as you know.” Never type those words!
ATMOSPHERE & DESCRIPTION
Whoever he or she was, Lady Anne Bonny wrote beautifully when she wanted to. That whole opening page is gorgeous. She’s not afraid to settle into a space and if it sometimes gets a bit purple—and to my mind it only very rarely does—it gives this story of a mad scientist and his nefarious creation a level of literary depth that stands strangely at odds with the material.
The pulps tend to be known for “bad” writing, and though sure, we’ve already seen some stories that were obviously padded or rushed. But alongside authors who started in the pulps and emerged into serious careers are authors like whoever the heck Lady Anne Bonny really was, who display real talent but (as far as I know) never found a wider or longer-lasting audience. And that’s a shame.
Hell, maybe this is F. Scott Fitzgerald, ham-handedly trying to wedge a mad scientist into his voice.
But even then the technobabble in this story gives me a feeling of pure nerd joy. Please don’t allow the science fiction genre to “grow out of” that. I need my life to contain zodium rays, zeta-rays, uranite… but at the same time the author does seem to show at least a passing familiarity with the still young science of psychiatry.
On a darker note (no pun intended), lest you forget that this was 1925 and published in the generally all-white pulps… the word “quadroon,” means “a person who is one-quarter black by descent.” I had to look it up, having never heard this in my life. And, apparently, it was seen as a handicap:
He fingered the gold circlets that lit up the ocher of her skin. Mariquita laughed lazily. Those quadroon beauties knew their day of glory to be brief. If the little hunchback could not give her gold enough, then she would go back to Charlotte Amalie, where ships came in from all the world. That port in the West Indies meant wealth to the woman clever enough to make use of her beauty.
Well, she can always go back to the islands and be a prostitute. Because clearly one-quarter black women have few other options…
That, and some creepiness around women and relationships is starting to make me think that Lady Anne Bonny wasn’t really a lady, but then there were female authors who either wrote to the expectations of the editors, or saw their stories rewritten by said editors, to push them in that direction, so it’s hard to say. Still:
“Young, pale and in mourning,” growled Quinn. “A widow, I suppose. Tell me, Miss Thompson, is she pretty?”
And this seems to be the good guy? Creepy…
Finally, we end this first third of Wings of Power with the appropriate cliffhanger… to be continued…