The Pulp Show Caper

Saturday, May 9th dawned dark and gloomy, but I didn’t mind.  I was still flying high after a round of heavy Star Trek the night before, and even taking my best gal to the airport in the rain couldn’t get me down.  I knew she’d be back.  She always came back.

But a man can’t live on happy feelings alone, and so after I got back to the dive I call a home, I got some food, and a shower, and waited out the heavier rain.  I had a case on the books, and today I had to do something about it.

See, a Mr. Interweb had been coming by the office more and more often, of late, lamenting that science fiction magazines are dying—maybe even all of science fiction.  Worse, he was afraid it might be his fault, but he couldn’t stop what he was doing, now.  He was too far along, and too heavily invested in being what he was.

This was all well and good, but until someone is actually dead, there’s not much for a private dick to do.  That’s when Mr. Interweb pulled out the show-stopper.

“I know where the bodies are buried,” he said, sinking into the wobbly chair across from my desk with a dejected sigh.  “I… I didn’t kill them.  Not all of them.  Some were killed by cheap books, some by radio, some by television and video games and movies, and some from simple neglect.  Some of them just couldn’t compete.”  He looked me in the eyes, then, and I shivered at the empty loneliness that hung behind his glassy stare.  “But I know where the bodies are.”

And so it was that, after the rain stopped, I found myself trudging toward Toronto’s Lillian H. Smith Library, where the annual Pulp Show and Sale was being held.  I had been to this place a couple of times before, for a panel and a book launch—it maintained its science fiction connection through ownership of The Merril Collection.  I had already missed most of the scheduled activities, but the dealer’s room in the basement was still going strong.

The stench of old paper filled the room like the stink of death.  Bodies were everywhere, some wrapped in plastic, others just crammed into boxes, creases in their covers, rips and tears revealing the yellowing pages within.  There was a bustling trade in these antiquities—issues of The Shadow were priced at several hundred dollars—and there were knock-offs available for considerably less.

What struck me was how many there were—Mr. Interweb hadn’t been kidding.  There were a lot of bodies, many of them from before his time.  Amazing Stories, Planet Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories, and Startling Stories were among the many science fiction and fantasy pulps, plus countless others in different genres.  Makes a man envision a time with newstands full of entertainment and fiction, not celebrity gossip and exercise tips.  Makes a man think he’s too old for this game.

A kind dealer pointed me toward his discount bin, where I picked up a copy of Planet Stories from Summer 1955 (featuring stories by Poul Anderson and Leigh Brackett) and an issue of Startling Stories from April 1952 (featuring another Brackett and one by L. Sprague de Camp).  (Must remember to bill Mr. Interweb for expenses.)  What struck me most as I skimmed through them was how little today’s “Big Three”—Analog, Asimov’s, and Fantasy and Science Fiction—have changed from the style of 50 years past.

Sure, these old magazines were a bit larger, and so the text was in two columns instead of one, but they were still printed on that same newsprint-style paper, with the glossy colour covers and a few black-and-white illustrations inside.  But apart from that, you’d almost think they were published at the same time.  Makes a man wonder if Mr. Interweb is the only problem they face if they’re to survive—I mean, there are not a lot of other magazines looking like that on the shelves today, and the ones you do see are even worse off.

And so I left the show, feeling somewhat pensive.  As Mr. Interweb suggested, there were indeed bodies.  But I was left with more questions than answers.  We knew—or at least suspected—what killed these old pulps, but it was little help in keeping the surviving magazines from suffering the same fate.  The case wasn’t closed, not by a long shot.  But the library soon would be, and so I called it a day.

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