Looking for the Wednesday Wandering? Just page back and celebrate the third anniversary of wandering on about writing, working as a writer, and a bunch of other stuff. Then join me and Alan as we look at a wave that washed over SF and F, and changed it forever.
JANE: Alan, last week you said you wanted to tangent off our Tangents… Go for it!
ALAN: As we’ve talked about all these different SF categories, I’ve been trying to decide just when they began to become important. In my youth, as best as I can remember, we only had science fiction and fantasy. And then the so called New Wave came along with a hiss and a roar and after all the fuss died down, people seemed to start categorising like crazy.
JANE: The New Wave… I’ve heard of it, of course. I’ve heard that the term was coined by Judith Merrill.
ALAN: Yes indeed. She published an anthology called England Swings SF in which she introduced America to a lot of the experimental writing that was happening in England at the time.
JANE: Roger (Zelazny) was often lumped in with the New Wave writers. Honestly, though, by the time I started reading SF, the New Wave had merged into the rest. I guess it must have been different for you.
ALAN: It certainly was. I remember when Michael Moorcock took over the editorship of New Worlds magazine in the 1960s and began to encourage experimental writing.
JANE: Can you define “experimental writing” for me?
ALAN: It ranged all the way from the purely mechanical to to the purely intellectual. On the one hand, people were experimenting with William Burroughs-like cut up and reshuffled sentences. On the other hand they adopted the thermodynamic concept of entropy as a metaphor to describe the world, though I’m not sure many of them really understood it – it’s a rather subtle concept. Pamela Zoline’s entropic short story “The Heat Death Of The Universe” is probably as close as they ever came to a manifesto. But there was always an emphasis on exploring the human psyche – they much preferred inner space to outer space.
JANE: Lovely examples. Thank you… What did Moorcock’s invitation mean for SF?
ALAN: It was an exciting time for SF. A lot of so-called mainstream writers wrote stories for the magazine (the novelist Ian McEwan published several stories there, as did the very aptly named Jack Trevor Story) and, probably as a result, a lot of science fiction writers started using mainstream literary techniques such as stream of consciousness and unreliable narrators in their own works. At the time, many science fiction readers disapproved. “We want spaceships and ray guns!”
JANE: What was your reaction?
ALAN: I rather liked it – but I tended to read more widely than many of my friends and I was not as averse to literary experimentation as they were. By and large, I thought that the field was enriched by it. There were successes and failures, as there always are in this kind of thing, but I thought that the overall effect was a positive one.
JANE: Successes and failures?
ALAN: Norman Spinrad’s novel Bug Jack Barron, which was nominated for a Hugo award in 1970, was originally published as a series of stories in New Worlds. It was a very cynical novel which was full of explicit and shocking (for the time) words. I doubt it would raise much of an eyebrow these days but back then it horrified a lot of people. For a time the major distribution chain in England refused to handle the magazine. I think that can be counted as a success!
The failures were a bit more extreme – Brian Aldiss borrowed techniques from James Joyce and Finnegan’s Wake to give us Barefoot In The Head. It’s just as unreadable and incomprehensible as Joyce’s novel was. Aldiss also borrowed the ideas of the French “anti-novelist” Alain Robbe-Grillet and produced Report On Probability A, which is almost certainly the single most tedious novel ever to have slithered across my eyeballs. A triumph of a kind, I suppose, but not one to be particularly proud of.
JANE: What do you think of the New Wave as you look back on it?
ALAN: I think the movement has had a lasting effect, particularly in England. Most of the writers who worked in the genre were English, or ex-pat Americans who were living in England. I don’t think it had much direct impact in America except, of course, through Harlan Ellison’s Dangerous Visions anthologies. But you might know more about that than I do.
JANE: Only tangentially… When I asked Roger about it, he said that he didn’t think it had been a “movement,” as such… I can actually quote what he wrote me in a letter.
“We were lumped together, despite our differences, because we were similar in representing a reaction to the sf of the 40s & 50s which, while containing some fine ideas & colorful stories, was not particularly noted for the quality of the writing… A [number] of us simultaneously began importing stuff that was old hat in general fiction but new to sf, at about the same time – stream of consciousness, impressionism, stylistic flourishes, a greater emphasis on characterization… Most of us deny there was such a thing as a New Wave ‘movement’ because there was no overall plan or manifesto, many of us were not even acquainted in those days, & we are all sufficiently individualistic to dislike being categorized. (February 4, 1990)
I did some research elsewhere and Roger’s opinion seems supported by other American writers of the time. The New Wave happened, but wasn’t a “movement.”
ALAN: Yes – I thought that might be the case. It always seemed to be much more closely associated with England than it was with America. Perhaps its ideas have been rather more long lasting and influential on English writers as a result.
JANE: What do you think are some of the lasting impacts of the New Wave on SF?
ALAN: Certainly I think that the New Wave raised the literary standards of the genre a lot and encouraged the exploration of ideas that might otherwise have fallen by the wayside. But it’s interesting to observe that when New Worlds ceased publication, many of the more extreme practitioners of the New Wave fell silent, whereas the genuinely talented writers such as J. G Ballard and Moorcock himself continued producing excellent work. Ballard’s reputation is huge, both inside and outside the genre. One of Moorcock’s “Jerry Cornelius” novels (The Condition of Muzak) won the Guardian Fiction Prize, and Colonel Pyat, a character that Moorcock developed in his Cornelius stories, was central to a tetraolgy of highly admired mainstream novels that he wrote towards the end of the last century.
JANE: I agree that the New Wave did a lot to raise standards. As a writer, I am certainly free to use widely varied techniques without any of them raising an eyebrow. It’s great to be able to fit the prose to the type of story, not be restricted to just one variation.
Sometimes I wish I’d broken in in the days when Major Notice could come a writer’s way just for having a larger than average toolbox.
That said, I agree with you wholeheartedly – the writers who were good storytellers in addition to being great slingers of prose are the ones we’re still reading now. The ones I might call “special effects specialists” have faded away.
ALAN: But I think an additional important influential effect of the New Wave on SF is in a sub-genre that many people have argued derives directly from the ideas that the New Wave writers were so passionate about. And it’s a category that’s still going strong today.
JANE: I think I can see where you’re headed, but I have a question for you next week. I fear that we’re due for another tangent off of the Tangents!