• We live in a world dominated by a vast, slowly decaying empire that gets quite literally superhuman powers by feeding on what we may as well call the blood of the Earth; • That empire is ruled by a decadent aristocracy that holds court in soaring towers and bolsters its crumbling authority by conjuring vast amounts of wealth out of thin air; • Backing the aristocracy is a caste of corrupt sorcerers whose incantations, projected into every home through the power of the blood of the Earth, keep the populace disorganized, deluded and passive; • Entire provinces of the empire are ravaged by droughts, storms, and other disasters caused by the misuse of the Earth’s blood, while prophecies from the past warn of much worse to come; • Meanwhile, far from the centers of power, the members of a scattered fellowship struggle to find and learn the forgotten lore of an earlier time, which might just hold the secret of survival...It was more or less at this point that the realization hit: we have somehow gotten stuck, all seven billion of us, inside the pages of a pulp fantasy novel. Those of my readers who are significantly younger than I am, and missed the vast outpouring of cheap fantasy novels that played so large and disreputable a role in shaping my youthful imagination, may benefit from a bit of history here. The runaway success of J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord of the Rings in the late 1960s inspired publishers, who are after all in business to make money, to look for ways to cash in on the same market. One obvious gambit was to dredge up older fantasy fiction, and much of what was readily available was the pulp fantasy of the 1920s and 1930s, when H.P. Lovecraft’s overheated prose and Robert Howard’s overheated gonads filled the pages of Weird Tales magazine and the imagination of teenage America with musclebound barbarian heroes, tentacled horrors from three weeks before the beginning of time, and most of the other modern conveniences that have furnished fantasy fiction ever since. Lovecraft and Howard were, alas, both dead when the late-Sixties fantasy explosion arrived, and so their ability to produce new works was somewhat limited. For a while, accordingly, it was possible for almost anybody who could write a literate English sentence to get into print as a fantasy novelist. Most of what flooded onto bookstore shelves in the years that followed was remarkably atrocious, with two-dimensional characters, engagingly bad prose, and utterly unconvincing plots duking it out in a loser-take-all contest. At the time, I wasn’t a stickler about quality—I was in the market for anything more colorful than the two-dimensional blandness of an American suburban childhood—but I did prefer those who could write well; Tolkien’s trilogy was one of those favorites, and so were the products of the busy pen of Michael Moorcock. These days Moorcock counts as a serious novelist, having clambered up out of the mosh pit of pulp fantasy fiction into the rarefied balconies of literature. Back in the day, though, he was among the leading figures in the pulp fantasy revival. Better than any of his rivals, perhaps, Moorcock recaptured the flavor of the gloriously trashy Weird Tales era, penning sprawling sagas about a succession of heroes who were all iterations of one Eternal Champion, destined to hack his way forever through an infinity of parallel worlds. And the backgrounds against which Elric of Melniboné and Corum Jhaelen Irsei and Dorian Hawkmoon and the rest of them suffered, swaggered and fought? More often than not, they were vast and crumbling empires propped up by supernatural powers, ruled by decadent aristocrats who conjured various things out of thin air, full of corrupt sorcerers, whole provinces ravaged by disasters, and—well, I suspect you get the point by now. Aside from the colorful details just mentioned, though, there was something else woven into the pulp fantasy of that era, Moorcock’s and otherwise. The worlds of pulp fantasy are by and large worlds in decline, strewn with immense ruins and scattered with artifacts no one can duplicate any more. The heroes of pulp fantasy are caught up in the undertow of decline, and their battles and quests are generally defined by legacies of the pre-decline past that have to be preserved or destroyed before the future can begin to take shape. Interestingly, that was as often true in the Weird Tales era; Conan the Barbarian, who was placed by his creator Robert Howard somewhere in the conveniently undocumented past between the fall of Atlantis and the beginning of recorded history, spent much of his time dealing with the half-remembered legacies of the assorted drowned continents that Howard borrowed from Theosophical literature. J.R.R. Tolkien, whose name I’ve invoked a couple of times already in this essay, worked with the same theme. There’s been a great deal of literary criticism of Tolkien’s work down through the years, but I don’t recall seeing any that’s talked about the extent to which Middle-Earth was influenced by the pulp fantasy of the 1920s and 1930s, which Tolkien (like his friend C.S. Lewis) read eagerly. One of the things that makes Tolkien’s work so inventive is the way that he plopped a bunch of hopelessly middle-class Englishmen dressed as hobbits into a world full of pulp fantasy clichés, complete with heroic survivors of drowned Atlantis—excuse me, Númenor—and an evil wizard-king who rides a tame pterodactyl into battle. Framing this arguably satiric dimension and the story as a whole there is, once again, the theme of decline: the twilight of the elves, the last hurrah of the heirs of Númenor, and the end of a sad and tangled story that had been winding down since the Elder Days. Middle-Earth is not a place where progress happens, any more than Conan’s Hyborian Age or age of the Young Kingdoms in which Elric wielded the black sword Stormbringer. A brand of fiction commonly dismissed as sheer escapism, in other words, provides narratives more useful to the current state of the industrial world than the supposedly serious narrative of progress that still shapes every detail of contemporary public discourse. I’m not sure how far to take that point, though I have to admit that if Mabelrode the Faceless, Demon Lord of Chaos, were to be named as CEO of Citibank, I’m not sure I would be surprised. (On the other hand, maybe he already has been; it would explain a few things.) It would arguably have been better for us all if, when Edwin Drake and his men went to drill the first commercial oil well at Titusville, Pennsylvania back in 1859, they had found an ominous standing stone there carved with glowing runes:
THE BLACK GOLD IS THE BLOOD OF THE EARTH THE FORCE IN THE BLOOD IS THE FLAME OF THE SUN TO DRINK OF THE BLOOD IS TO MASTER THE WORLD BUT THE FATE OF THE EARTH AND ITS BLOOD ARE ONEStill, we missed that warning, and so have never quite gotten around to noticing that the world around us has much more in common with pulp fantasy fiction than it does with what passes for serious thought these days. By this point, though, I suspect that you, dear reader, are wondering about one detail. If we’re actually stuck inside the pages of a trashy fantasy novel, as I’ve suggested, and all the details of the setting and the plot are in place, where is the protagonist? Who is the hero or the heroine who will turn the pages of the long-lost Gaianomicon, use its forgotten lore to forge a wand of power out of the rays of the Sun, shatter the deceptive spells of the lords of High Finance, and rise up amidst the wreckage of a dying empire to become one of the seedbearers of an age that is not yet born? Why, you are, of course. .