Lately I've been staying up an hour or so later than usual reading the sci-fi novels of the late Brian Daley, who's probably most famous for writing The Han Solo Adventures novels in the late 1970s. I re-read that trilogy last year, after having first read all three more than a decade ago. They are, in hindsight, some of the best Star Wars books, despite being some of the first, because they perfectly captured the feeling of Lucas' universe even before he'd fully fleshed it out.
The books pulse with a spirit of adventure, almost more fantasy than science fiction. Solo has attitude and swagger. The books move briskly, and Daley's writing strikes that enviable balance between brevity and flavorful description. They're just fun--as close to Firefly as any sci-fi book series can be.
In other words, they're unabashedly pulp novels, and the sci-fi books of Daley's that I'm reading now, written a few years later, strongly remind me of his Han Solo books. They don't quite have the same magic, but they're still fun, lean adventures. I started reading the first, Requiem for a Ruler of Worlds, because I loved the Han Solo trilogy, and because I really, really loved the title. But when jumping into the second, Jinx on a Terran Inheritance, I started feeling a little sheepish.
Shouldn't I be devoting my reading time to literature? Or, at least, award-winning sci-fi? Something that would enrich my life more than some straight-to-paperback sci-fi from 1985? As I was feeling a little guilty squandering my reading time on mindless entertainment, I started thinking about a few different things.
One was an article in defense of romance novels (pretty sure it was this one), which pointed out that most women who read them read them for characters, not eroticism, and that they're not all as porn-y and formulaic as you'd expect from the covers. There's more to them than meets the eye, and that's generally how I feel about a lot of pulpy entertainment--but I still feel a little guilty for indulging, sometimes.
Another was this blog post about the visual intelligence of Pacific Rim, which rails against the "It's really dumb, but it sure looks cool!" mantra we often apply to action movies. The post does a great job of illuminating how intelligently Pacific Rim conveys story and character development in its imagery, rather than its dialogue. Pacific Rim is a modern take on pulp adventure.
Another was the following bit of writing from Raymond Chandler, who probably did more than any other author to establish hard-boiled pulp fiction as a respected genre:
Finally--and here's the one that tied everything together--I kept thinking about William Gibson's take on science fiction and the difference between "future" and "capital-F Future," and how his '80s novels like Neuromancer, and all of the cyberpunk that followed, were actually about the 1980s.
I started reading the next Daley novel, Jinx on a Terran Inheritance, with Gibson's words in mind, thinking about the time in which it was written and how that affected the world Daley had created. And suddenly it was fascinating.
Like most pulp novels, Daley's move along at a fast clip and let the reader focus on action and wisecracking characters. But all of the interesting stuff comes out in Daley's worldbuilding. In his version of the future, ships travel between planetary systems using faster-than-light Hawking Drives. But those drives aren't as conveniently fast as the ships in Star Wars or Star Trek or just about any other sci-fi setting. It takes days, weeks to travel between systems. And space travel isn't for everyone--it's incredibly costly to book passage, let alone own a ship.
Establishing this transportation system has a few huge effects on the galaxy Daley builds. First, it sets up an interesting society where "breakabouts" freelance their way from planet to planet, serving as crew on ships in exchange for passage. Second, most ships are small and cramped, jam-packed with cargo to cover the expense of interstellar travel. The biggest challenge of serving on a ship is coping with boredom.
Human and nearby alien civilizations have advanced enough to travel in spaceships, but they haven't advanced enough to send faster-than-light communications between planets. Couriers handle that job, so messages travel only as fast as starships. Here's an excerpt from Requiem:
"Communications on Earth were instantaneous, of course, or near enough as made no difference. But the fastest that information could travel among the stars was the speed of a messenger ship. Too, the use of modern recording equipment wasn't always feasible, for a staggering variety of reasons. There was also an incalculable amount going on, constantly, everywhere."
As a result, books--specifically pulp novels, or penny dreadfuls--are incredibly popular. People end up reading a lot in space.
"All of this had brought about a renewal of the human powers of description. It had revived as well certain of the earliest forms: tall tales, the traveler's narrative, legends, and folklore. And these books. Floyt recalled that the opening of the American West was as much invented on the spot as chronicled."
Daley has a ton of fun with this concept, as his two heroes, Alacrity Fitzhugh and Hobart Floyt, end up becoming the subject of some (completely made-up) works of pulp fiction. Suddenly, in the midst of this pulp novel, I realized I was reading a very tongue-in-cheek defense of the value of pulp novels.
"Penny dreadfuls!" Floyt cried. "Dime novels; shilling shockers; pulps."
Now it was the breakabout's turn to look nonplussed. "Lofty examples of early Terran literature," Floyt clarified.
Naturally, Daley comes up with some perfect pulp titles that parody the likes of Han Solo and the Lost Legacy--"Hobart Floyt and Alacrity Fitzhugh Challenge the Amazon Slave Women of the Supernova," and "Cazpahr Weir Faces the Zombie Cannibals of the Whistling Asteroid," just to name a couple.
Daley's take on technology reminded me of how quaint sci-fi often looks in retrospect. William Gibson famously depicted cyberspace in Neuromancer, but didn't predict the cellular phone; references to "fax" litter the novel (and Neuromancer's streets), but today we communicate far more digitally than on paper. Daley's future is some wonderfully innocent alternate universe where printed magazines and novels not only still exist hundreds of years in the future, they're the dominant form of entertainment.
These pulp books have grown more meaningful as they've aged, more clearly depicting the values of the author and the time in which they were written.
If I'd been reading these books in 1985, I may have picked up on the self-aware depictions of pulp novels. But I definitely wouldn't have thought anything of print-based media being a commonplace element in Daley's future. It wouldn't have seemed out of the ordinary, then. More than 25 years later, that's changed--we read more on Kindles and tablets than on paper.
In a weird way, the books have grown more meaningful as they've aged, more clearly depicting the values of the author and the time in which they were written. They're nostalgic to read now, and as much as I value the Internet, I'm in love with the idealized vision of lowbrow writing and print publications serving the noble purpose of making spaceflight bearable. In Firefly, Joss Whedon depicted space as the Wild West with horses and remote frontier towns. In his novels, Daley accomplished the same thing with paper.
I'm not exactly reading Daley's pulp novels for the reasons Raymond Chandler wrote about, but he was still right--it's not about the action. I'm having too much fun reading about a future populated by spaceships, faster-than light travel, penny dreadfuls, and absolutely no Internet.