TT: Waving at the New

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.

New Wave

New Wave

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!

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6 Responses to “TT: Waving at the New”

  1. Louis Robinson Says:

    Well, you two certainly aren’t averse to cliffhanger blogging, are you?

    I can remember generally equating ‘New Wave’ with ‘unreadable’ – I was firmly in John Campbell’s camp as an Analog reader [being just too young to have seen Astounding on the newstands]. OTOH, I eagerly awaited the arrival of John Carnell’s New Writings in SF at the library. Alan, where would you situate that series WRT the Wave?

    • Alan Robson Says:

      John Carnell was actually editor of New Worlds prior to Moorcock taking over. Under Carnell’s editorship the magazine was much more in the traditional Campbell/Analog mode — many of James White’s Sector General stories were first published by Carnell, for example. He resigned the editorship to concentrate on other projects such as the New Writings in SF that you mention, and Moorcock took over the helm and directed the magazine in strange new ways…

      I think Carnell was well aware of what Moorcock would do and he was not unsympathetic to Moorcock’s aims. Carnell and Moorcock were good friends, and in Carnell’s time Moorcock published a guest editorial in the magazine which made no secret of where his tastes lay. But Carnell himself was firmly traditional.

      Like you, I greatly enjoyed Carnell’s New Writings in SF volumes but I always thought of them as very much “middle of the road” science fiction, not connected with the new wave at all.


      -Alan

  2. Heteromeles Says:

    I started reading SFF around 1980, so the New Wave has always been a bit of a historical term for me. Being clueless about the whole history, I’d figured it meant, oh, Moorcock, Zelazny, LeGuin, and Wolfe as opposed to Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein, though I’ve since gotten a little bit more clued in. Now, it seems that commercial SFF is mostly about what sells. While I could frame this as a narrative about SFF becoming a mature field with a mortgage to pay and all that, I really think it’s just mirroring society as a whole, just as it always has.

  3. janelindskold Says:

    Since Alan and I wrote this, I’ve been thinking that perhaps one of the reasons the advent of the New Wave also led to more categorization is that there was a first division: the older style and the newer style. After that, it became natural to sub-divide as to what you liked in each.

    Another contributing factor was that there was finally enough of the stuff to start seeing patterns. If you have three marbles, you just have marbles. When you have three thousand marbles, you start thinking whether you like the cat’s eyes or the steelies or whatever best…

  4. Paul Says:

    I can actually remember the advent of the New Wave, and reading (or trying to read) Merrill’s “England Swings SF.” I kind of agreed with her ex-husband Fred Pohl’s review of it (quoted on the dust jacket) to the effect that experimentation was to see what works; “Why print your failures?” But it certainly brought new styles into the somewhat-staid older SF, to the point where, today, sometimes you can’t tell when a book is SF (or fantasy) or whether it’s mainstream. Publishers try to maintain genres, but they are merging. Generally, perhaps older SF was plot over characterization or anything else, and newer was style over plot and everything else. But maybe it’s all pretty much merged now.

  5. Unreadably New? Boringly Formulaic? | Jane Lindskold: Wednesday Wanderings Says:

    […] by the New Wave SF/F “movement” some decades ago.  Since Alan and I discussed this in a Tangent back in 2013, I won’t repeat myself. [insert link]  I’ll just add that please don’t expect […]

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