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Friday Five: 5 Marvellous Mythemes

We pick on "tropes" a lot in genre criticism. In part, because we use the word (incorrectly) as a 50-cent variant for "cliche". And partly because, well, we're jaded and snarky, and we like to see new. But as this week's guest, points out, tropes aren't just a fancy way of saying "been there, done that" - they actually underpin much of what makes genre so brilliant to read. And especially when you look into SF/F's glorious pulp heritage, there's an infinite amount of variety around each of these concepts.

Keith Harvey is the author of six genre works, spanning fantasy to espionage - Vogel Flies SouthVogel and the White BullCave GossipPetroglyphsSea-Snails on a Black Chow’s Tongue, and Grimoire of Stone - and is currently working on a science fiction novel. You can share your own favorite pulp trope with him on Twitter at @redrookreview.

Amazing-Stories-March-1927Here are my favorite five pulp tropes or mythemes (the essential kernel of a myth—an irreducible, unchanging element):

Portals to other worlds

Portal fiction transports the reader from a familiar to an unfamiliar world through some device—a cave, a wardrobe, a looking glass, a wormhole, a hole, a tornado, laser, or time travel. Of course, I am referring to Burrough’s Princess of Mars (1917), C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950), Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass (1871), Jim Henson’s Production’s Farscape (1999), Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864), Frank L. Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900), Isaac Asimov’s A Pebble in the Sky (1950), andH. G. Wells’ The Time Machine (1895). This list is demonstrative but certainly not exhaustive. Consider Tolkien’s Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. In both novels the reader begins in the calm confines of the Shire and then travels with the protagonists to the chaos of Middle Earth.

01_fantadv_1940_04_v02_04_fc-600x816Hollow Earth

In 1961, I underwent what the Germans call a “Wende” or turn. With the first issue of Marvel’s Fantastic Four, I gave up reading Flash and Batman and became a loyal Marvel reader. Jack Kirby was the reason; a man who was in touch, I believe, with the collective unconscious. In Fantastic Four #1 (Nov. 1961) the team encounters the Subterra neans, led by Mole Man. Mole Man, a human, rules an entire kingdom beneath the earth. Of course, stories about civilizations beneath the earth have always existed. Most religions have tales of underground civilizations: the Hebrew Sheol or the Greek Hades. But, psychologically, a literal or figurative descent into the underworld is almost de rigueur for any journey taken by a mythic or pulp fantasy character. Enkidu, Gilgamesh, Orpheus, Odysseus, Hermes, Hercules, Dionysius all travel to the underworld. Their journeys are psychological in nature and arise from oral tales. Pulp fiction relies on these mythemes but it was supercharged by the occult and sham sciences. In 1691, Edmund Halley delivered a lecture wherein he postulated that the inner earth consisted of three concentric spheres and in 1818 John Cleves Symmes published a circular in which  he declared that the “earth is hollow and habitable within.” And it was through Baudelaire’s translation of Symmes novel, Symzonia: Voyage of Discovery (1820), that Jules Verne was inspired to write Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864).

Ancient Astronauts

You cannot mention ancient astronauts and not think of Marvel Comics and Kirby. But the ancient astronaut mytheme emerged with a vengeance in the 40’s and 50’s.  On June 24, 1947, Kenneth Arnold saw nine silvery shapes in the Wisconsin sky and the pulps and the comics were off to the races (space races). There are numerous examples of humans meeting aliens but one of my favorite story arcs includes issues #48-50 of the Fantastic Four (1966). This storyline introduced Galactus and the Silver Surfer. Not only are these tales numinous (there is a gnostic overtone) but Kirby postulated the question: “What if they are here to kill us?” Some writers chose not to see aliens as antagonistic but benevolent. Some even believed they created us or, at least, gave us an evolutionary bump. Erich von Däniken’s Chariot of the Gods (1970) and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey both appeared in the late sixties.


Many forms of Gnosticism exist but the primary tenet is that the material world is created by a demiurge and it is imperfect or evil. Kirby and Lee relied on this concept over and over again. In the Silver Surfer stories, Gnosticism seems to form its thematic core and is carried over into the mythology and origin story of the Inhumans. Philip K. Dick also exploited this trope in his late trilogy: Valis (1978), The Divine Invasion (1980), and Transmigration of Timothy Archer (1982).


From Jesus exorcising demons and casting them into swine to Mephistopheles enticing Faust, I just knew demons existed. However, they didn’t really scare me until I read William Blatty’s The Exorcist (1971). From that novel I saw the mytheme’s intrinsic power in pulp fiction.  It was also about this time I discovered Michael Moorcock’s Elric stories and fell under the spell of the hero manipulated by a conniving demon.

Share your own favorite tropes and mythemes in the comments. What SF/F concepts have been used over and over again... and you'd still come back for me? The pulpier the better!