Adam Christopher: Retro-Futurism (Or, The Very Serious Business Of Pulp Fiction)
Behold! A guest post from a good friend and a great writer, the mighty man with two first names, Mister Adam Christopher —
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A few years back I was on a WorldCon panel with m’learned host Mr. Wendig and fellow author Stephen Blackmore, and we were tasked with discussing the subject of pulp fiction. I remember having a lot of fun, but I’m not entirely sure we ever managed to get to the bottom of what the term “pulp” actually meant, at least not in the context of modern science fiction. Okay, yes, originally, way back in the 1920s and 1930s, it literally referred to the paper fiction magazines were published on – cheap, low-quality pulp newsprint – and then because everybody in the history of everything is a snob, the quality of the paper somehow became confused with the quality of the stories on which they were printed and pulp fiction became a synonym for, well, crap. This was low-grade mass-produced nonsense for people who didn’t read the important books that other people pretended to read, stories deliberately designed by evil publishing overlords to entertain and enthral and – gasp! – excite.
Heaven forfend stories should be fun.
And sure, a lot of pulp sci-fi was written very quickly – the prolific Gardner Fox apparently wrote ten stories a week, using his morning and evening commutes to outline and his lunchtime to edit. A lot of pulp fiction is, well, not of a high quality, but considering the enormous volume produced – at its peak, reading pulp fiction magazines was actually the number one leisure pastime in America – the hit rate probably adhered to the standard bell curve.
I’d argue that reading pulp sci-fi now is no less entertaining than it was seventy years ago, but while our understanding of science and technology is infinitely more advanced than it was back then, I don’t think that needs to have any impact on our enjoyment of the original material.
More than that, I don’t think it can, or should, stop us from creating new fiction in the same vein. For some reason, there’s a secret rule of science fiction that says it has to be set in the future, but as we should all know by now, writing rules are there to be ignored, if not laughed out of the building.
It was with this in mind that I set about writing a series about a robot assassin working in Hollywood, California, 1965. In the world of the Ray Electromatic Mysteries, the robot revolution came and went in the 1950s – while robots and artificial intelligence were useful things, it turned out that people didn’t like robots taking their jobs, so the whole thing was canned – and Ray finds himself as the last robot in the world. Programmed to be a private detective, he was re-programmed by his profit-motivated supercomputer boss, Ada, to be a hitman, after she figured out that you could make more money from killing people than helping them.
That’s the concept, and it’s a simple one. What was harder was, if you’ll pardon the pun, the execution. Because now I found myself having to write a series of science fiction novels set not in the future, but in the past.
There’s a temptation here to, well, take the piss, as they say here in the UK – to mock or make fun of the genre. To our modern eyes, the science of the 1960s can be both amazing and ridiculously quaint – we managed the incredible feat of landing people on the moon using the most complex machines ever invented, yet a one megabyte hard drive was the size of a small truck and people weren’t really sure that computers had a place in the home.
But I wasn’t writing comedy. Far from it. I was writing Raymond Chandler’s lost science fiction stories, imaginary tales set in the near future of his beloved Los Angeles. To that end, Raymond Electromatic and his boss Ada had to be high-tech, state-of-the-art visions of progress.
To make these stories work, there was only one thing to do. I had to take it all very, very seriously, taking it as an established historical fact that there were robots in the 1950s and 1960s. Some were simple drones or factory machines, but others were human-like, powered by true AIs, able to take over whole sections of industry and business to allow the people they replace live that much-promised life of automated leisure.
From that, I could build the world and my protagonist. Raymond Electromatic was the last robot off the production line, a special project personally overseen by robotics mastermind Professor Thornton. So, Ray was special – more independent, able to live and work alone in the big city. The key to his success was his memory tape, a remarkable piece of hyper-miniaturisation that allowed an entire day of experiences and data to be recorded onto a small reel-to-reel magnetic tape installed in Ray’s chest. At the end of each day, the full tape is swapped out for a clean one, and he can get back to work.
Of course, the side effect of this is that he doesn’t remember anything about what he’s done, but this is the bleeding edge of science. Some obstacles are just insurmountable… and in Ray’s case, having a short-term memory problem is a pretty good insurance policy for their operation. And if Ray is a technological wonder, his boss Ada is nothing short of a miracle. A supercomputer the size of a room, Ada is the brains of the operation – and being immobile, her memory banks have a considerably larger capacity than Ray’s.
But this isn’t a pastiche. Sure, it’s fun – coming up with suitably archaic yet futuristic technology for the books is a blast – but this is science fiction. Ray may be a wiseguy but he kills people for a living, and the seedy underbelly of Hollywood is a very dangerous place.
So what does that make Killing Is My Business? It’s a slice of retro-futurism wrapped inside a hardboiled, Chandleresque crime novel – but it’s also a serious science fiction novel.
Just one set in the glorious future of 1965.
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Adam Christopher’s debut novel Empire State was SciFiNow’s Book of the Year and a Financial Times Book of the Year. The author of Made To Kill, Standard Hollywood Depravity and Killing Is My Business, Adam’s other novels include Seven Wonders, The Age Atomic and The Burning Dark. Adam has also written the official tie-in novels for the hit CBS television show Elementary, and the award-winning Dishonored video game franchise, and with Chuck Wendig, wrote The Shield for Dark Circle/Archie Comics. Adam is also a contributor to the Star Wars: From A Certain Point Of View 40th anniversary anthology. Born in New Zealand, Adam has lived in Great Britain since 2006.