Deciphering the Sci-fi Color Code

Red Pink Blue sci-fi

Jasyn Jones' latest Pulp Revolution essay has sparked a fascinating discussion over at the Castalia House blog. One mystery that the CH commenters have deciphered for uninitiated readers is the meaning of the color code that categorizes science fiction works into Red, Pink, or Blue SF.

Daddy Warpig kicks off the discussion in the body of the essay:
If Pink F&SF is pathetic, gitchy-goo modern (Clay Age) not-really-fantasy-or-science-fiction pap and Blue SF is Silver Age technology-and-science-uber-alles stories, the Pulps are RED.
Red for passion, Red for action and adventure and yes, Red for violence. Red for courage, Red for heroism, Red for heroics. Red for vividness and blood-stirring excitement. Red for outrageous creativity and inventiveness. Red for a vitality and drive that was, little by little, lost over the decades. Red for characters who fought and strove and lived, and writing that was about evoking emotions in the audience, not abstract intellectualisms or ideological lectures. Red for the blood of humanity.
In response to which, commenter PCBushi asks a just and timely question:
Pardon my ignorance, but what do the colors mean here – red, pink, blue, purple? I’ve seen some of this discussion on social media recently, but I think it refers to a greater conversation that I’ve missed.
DW's response:
This is the original post, though the meaning has drifted over time. It’s basically what I said above: Pink is the modern SocJus F&SF, Blue the “Men with Screwdrivers” SF.
Pulps are bigger than both, and better than both.
Whereupon Nathan of The Pulp Archivist provides a relevant excerpt from Vox Day's post:
“Pink SF primarily concerns a) choosing between two lovers, b) being true to yourself, or c) enacting ex post facto revenge upon the badthinkers and meanies who made the author feel bad about herself at school. Pink SF is about feelings rather than ideas or actions.”
“So what, in contrast, is Blue SF? Blue SF is a return to the manly adventure fiction of the past.”
However, Blue gets often conflated with Campbell’s Men with Screwdrivers.
DW clarifies.
In specific, because VD scorns the mixing of Fantasy with SF, his definition of Blue SF of necessity excludes the Pulps. This restricts it to Silver Age writers, and those from later Ages who hearken back to that sensibility.
And receives confirmation from the Supreme Dark Lord himself.
Jasyn is right. I conceived of Blue SF as Campellian science fiction, as distinct from both fantasy and the SJW amalgamation of SF, fantasy, and romance that is Pink SF, as well as the pulp that preceded it.
I will readily admit that I have tended to scorn the pulps in the past, although I have read all the John Carter books, and most of Howard’s work.
Pulp is still not much to my taste, but reading Appendix N has given me more respect for it.
DW expounds.
The problem with identifying Blue as “masculine” and Pink as “feminine” is that, while Blue is more masculine than Pink, it deliberately omits a great many manly virtues. It encompasses only a tiny subset of masculinity, that being engineering and science.
It’s the masculinity of intellectuals and geeks, not the masculinity of warriors and leaders.
On that level, Red fiction is far more masculine than Blue, because it includes the manly virtues of physical courage, heroism, and brawn.
Gaiseric objects.
Depends on the work, though. A lot of blue, Silver Age sci-fi is the Asimov stuff that’s getting beat up here in the comments, but not all of it is. Much of the Heinlein stuff is pretty masculine with regards to heroes and warriors. I recently read Jeff Sutton’s First On the Moon and it’s defnitely blue sci-fi men with screwdrivers, but it’s also got a truckload of warrior ethos and leadersship from the main character.
It’s not really fair to compare the best of the pulps to the worst of the post-pulps.
DW presents his closing argument:
Your mistake is assuming this is about mere comparison of published works. It isn’t.
The Silver Age was about the New York clique (Futurians & Cambellines) becoming gatekeepers in F&SF, then imposing their vision of what SF should be on the field. They purposely stopped publishing Pulp-style heroics and heroism, in preference to their own style of stories. More, they waged a DECADES long campaign of defamation against the Pulp authors, a successful campaign of defamation, to where even modern authors with a pronounced love of the pulps use “pulpish” as an insult.
(Again, not all of that was Campbell himself, but rather the Futurians and the like.)
And, while Heinlein was my first SF love, and still one of my favorite authors, even his most adventurous and heroic books simply cannot compare to the masculine virtues evident in Pulp characters, and that’s not counting what happened once he went full counterculture with “Stranger in a Strange Land”.
“Stranger in a Strange Land” was Heinlein’s take on Tarzan. Compare John Smith to Tarzan. Which is more manly, masculine, and heroic?
And Deuce gets the last word.
If the “Big Three” were defined as Heinlein, Anderson and Herbert I would have less problem with that era. However, van Vogt was read out and Clarke and Asimov were made plasticene gods. Thus, the whole course of SF was diverted.
To condense the whole discussion into simple definitions:
  • Red SF: Edgar Rice Burroughs, "Doc" Smith, A. Merritt
  • Blue SF: Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke
  • Pink SF: Leckie, Kowal, Scalzi
As for where my writing fits on the SFF spectrum, this quote from Alfred Genesson offers a big hint:
"Brian Niemeier has a great talent for heroic contrast. At times the tale is dizzying, leaving the reader as breathless as the characters in their desperate struggle."
Brian Niemeier - The Soul Cycle



  1. I liked the classification of New Wave as Purple. Someone just threw the color out there but it fits really well. An attempt at mixing Red and Blue that ended up being its own thing entirely.

    This might be better asked elsewhere, but I wonder if there is a similar classification for Fantasy and Horror after they split from Red?

    1. Others are certainly more knowledgeable, but I might as well take a stab at it for fun.

      Howard was arguably the biggest pulp forerunner of what is now called the fantasy genre. Tolkien popularized epic fantasy. After him, the mainstream publishers flailed around for another LotR-style hit until Sword of Shannara finally came along.

      The industry kept on aping Tolkien with stuff like Eddings' Belgariad until the reaction against Tolkien gained popularity thanks to guys like Donaldson and Moorcock.

      The 90s ushered in sprawling megaseries like Wheel of Time and A Song of Ice and Fire. Authors like GRRM hooked readers with the promise of having something new and interesting to say about fantasy, but they really just mashed up anti-Tolkien nihilism with historical fiction.

      In the 2000s, standalone novels and trilogies revolving around "Look at My Clever Magic System!" became the new hotness. Meanwhile, the height of Pottermania heralded the rise of YA.

      Jim Butcher earned his chops as the godfather of urban fantasy. That quickly devolved into steampunk. If pink SF has a fantasy equivalent, it's the "Beauty and the X" craze where X=vampires, werewolves, gillmen, etc. that took hold around this time, only to return to its roots as straight up porn.

  2. This makes me wonder where I stand? Red or Purple? A lot of my stuff (especially my POI series) has a pulpish feel to it, because I want it to be fun, and I wrote it mainly for guys.

    Of course this has gotten me the usual SJW reaction and criticism. But then I never really knew of these tags when I started writing this stuff.

    1. Sounds like you're doing it exactly right.

      It's not about where anyone stands. It's about writing what you want to write and readers reading what they want to read.