New Wave

Tagged: Theme

This term, as applied to sf, is borrowed from film criticism, where it was much used in the early 1960s as a translation of the French nouvelle vague to refer to the experimental cinema associated with Jean-Luc Godard (1930-    ), François Truffaut (1932-1984) and others. (It was also later applied to music around 1977 as a synonym for Punk.) The term was first used with reference to UK sf writers by P Schuyler Miller in his regular book-review column "The Reference Library" (November 1961 Analog), though in a sense fairly remote from its eventual import (Brian Aldiss and John Brunner were identified as "new wave" but so too were Kenneth Bulmer and E C Tubb). Jim Linwood in "The Fanalytic Eye" (1964 Les Spinge) used "new wave" to point in general terms to the aspirations of young UK writers and critics like Charles Platt; finally, Christopher Priest – in "New Wave – Prozines" (March 1965 Zenith-Speculation 8) (> Speculation) – associated the term specifically with the sort of fiction being published in New Worlds, where – as with the French film makers and critics of a decade earlier – a combination of critical advocacy and illustrations of that advocacy through works of art soon made the term descriptive of an actual movement. It soon came to be used more by sf proselytizers than by the writers concerned – especially by Judith Merril, in her anthology England Swings SF (anth 1968; cut vt The Space-Time Journal 1972) and elsewhere.

The kind of story to which the term refers is in fact rather older than the (late-1960s) term, which anyway has never been defined with any precision. The first writers whose work was later subsumed under the New Wave label were British, notably Brian W Aldiss and J G Ballard. These two were publishing stories in New Worlds while it was still under the editorship of John Carnell, but it was not until Michael Moorcock took over with the May/June 1964 issue that the kind of imagistic, highly metaphoric story, inclined more towards Psychology and the Soft Sciences than to Hard SF, that both men wrote (in quite different styles) was given a setting where it seemed at home.

Traditional Genre SF had reached a crisis point in both the UK and the USA by the middle 1960s; too many writers were working with the same few traditional sf themes, and both the style and content of sf were becoming generally overpredictable. Many young writers entering the field came to feel, either instantly, like Thomas M Disch, or after some years' slogging away at conventional commercial sf, like Harlan Ellison and Robert Silverberg, that genre sf had become a straitjacket; though widely supposed to emphasize change and newness, sf had somehow become conservative. Young Turks, of course, conventionally exaggerate the sins of their seniors, but this time they had a real case. It was not as if the market were shrinking; on the contrary, hardcover publishers were more willing than ever to add sf to their lists. There was no reason to suppose that publishers would not be grateful for sf becoming rather more flexible in style and content.

By 1965, then, sf was ripe for change. In fact, many of the so-called sf experiments of the period were not experiments at all, but merely an adoption of narrative strategies, and sometimes ironies, that had long been familiar in the Mainstream novel. In the event, some of the sf writers who felt they now had the freedom to experiment, especially Ballard and perhaps (rather later) Moorcock, were to add something new to the protocols of prose fiction generally; the New Wave may have taken from the Mainstream, but it gave something back in return (this is now a truism of Postmodernist criticism, but it was by no means clear at the time), and certainly New-Wave sf did more than any other kind of sf to break down the barriers between sf and mainstream fiction.

Because it was never a formal literary movement – perhaps more a state of mind than anything else – New-Wave writing is difficult to define. Perhaps the fundamental element was the belief that sf could and should be taken seriously as literature. Much of it shared the qualities of the late-1960s counterculture, including an interest in mind-altering Drugs and oriental Religions, a satisfaction in violating Taboos, a marked interest in Sex, a strong involvement in Pop Art and in the Media Landscape generally, and a pessimism about the future that ran strongly counter to genre sf's traditional Optimism, often focused on the likelihood of Disaster caused by Overpopulation and interference with the Ecology, as well as by War, and a general cynicism about the Politics of the US and UK governments (notably the US involvement in Southeast Asia and elsewhere). The element of Dystopia in New-Wave writing was particularly dramatic in the case of John Brunner, much of whose earlier work had been relatively cheerful Space Opera. New-Wave sf often concerned itself with the Near Future; but it often turned inward, too, and one of the buzzwords of the period was Inner Space.

Moorcock's New Worlds published most of the notable figures of the New Wave at one time or another, including the work of several US writers who lived for a time in the UK, such as Samuel R Delany, Disch, James Sallis, John T Sladek and Pamela Zoline. Other US New Worlds contributors often subsumed under the New-Wave label were Ellison, Norman Spinrad and Roger Zelazny; other UK contributors were Barrington J Bayley, M John Harrison, Langdon Jones and Charles Platt, and one would add Christopher Priest, although he was less closely associated with New Worlds.

Despite the various excesses of New Worlds, whose stories sometimes embraced Entropy with a fervour reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death" (May 1842 Graham's Lady's and Gentleman's Magazine), there is no doubt that it was influential on sf Publishing generally, and it was not long at all before various US markets were adopting a far less exclusive attitude to what they would or would not publish, a symptom being the appearance of Original-Anthology series like Dangerous Visions, New Dimensions, Orbit and QUARK/, which included a good quota of experimental work – indeed, they demonstrated clearly (though the point hardly needed to be made) that as much US sf as UK had come to be New Wave in style and content.

All this naturally horrified some of sf's more conservative spokesmen, as a glance at sf histories written by David Kyle, Sam Moskowitz and Donald A Wollheim will demonstrate. Wollheim commented, in The Universe Makers (1971), that "the readers and writers that used to dream of galactic futures now got their kicks out of experimental styles of writing, the free discussion of sex, the overthrow of all standards and morals (since, if the world is going to end, what merit had these things?)". It is easy to feel some sympathy with the conservative viewpoint in one respect; with few exceptions the New-Wave writers avoided Hard SF, and it must have seemed to some observers of the scene as if the very thing that most centrally defined sf by its presence – the science (to simplify) – was disappearing.

But in fact the battle was quickly over (though hard sf never quite regained its former position of prominence). The better New-Wave sf writers were soon accepted by sf readers generally, and often found an audience outside sf as well; the bad writers (some were terrible) mostly fell by the wayside. By the 1970s there no longer seemed very much point to the term, although newly prominent figures like Gardner Dozois, Barry N Malzberg, Joanna Russ, James Tiptree Jr and Gene Wolfe clearly wrote in a style that would have been called New Wave only a year or so earlier. Later in the decade all sorts of quite different new writers emerged who had clearly absorbed the positive lessons of the New Wave, along with some of its attitudes, ranging from Michael Bishop and John Varley in the USA to Ian Watson in the UK.

There can be no doubt that during the late 1960s genre sf found new freedoms, while the market showed a greater readiness to accept sophisticated writing. As with all ideological arguments, one uses whatever ammunition comes conveniently to hand, and it suited many friends (and foes) to see the New Wave as a kind of homogeneous, monolithic politico-literary movement. It was never that in the minds of most of its writers, many of whom resented being categorized. Disch commented, in an open letter published in 1978: "I have no opinion of the 'New Wave' in sf, since I don't believe that that was ever a meaningful classification. If you mean to ask – do I feel solidarity with all writers who have ever been lumped together under that heading – certainly I do not."

It was common during the 1970s and 1980s, especially for those (like Disch) who resisted stereotyping, to dismiss the importance of the New Wave, or even to deny that it ever existed. From the perspective of the 1990s, however, it seems fair to say that the New Wave was real and liberating; New-Wave excesses – including its sometimes miasmic gloom – have largely dropped away in subsequent sf, while the New Wave's grasp of the complexities of the world has remained. The 1960s were indeed a maturing period for genre sf; if we see the 1960s as sf's puberty, then we also have an explanation of why some of it, at the time, was so irritating (especially in its tone of voice): most adolescents are. One reason why the perspective of the 1990s is useful is that we have, meanwhile, been able to observe yet another New Wave in action: Cyberpunk.

Two of the many anthologies of New Wave sf are The New SF (anth 1969) edited by Langdon Jones and The New Tomorrows (anth 1971) edited by Norman Spinrad. A book on the subject is The Entropy Exhibition: Michael Moorcock and the UK "New Wave" (1983) by Colin Greenland. [PN]

see also: Arts; SF Music.

Previous versions of this entry

Website design and build: STEEL

Site ©2011 Gollancz, SFE content ©2011 SFE Ltd.