Wednesday, March 28, 2007

A Schoolboy's Guide to The New Wave

I'm about to talk about a New Wave-ish book I read, so I figured I would repost, slightly edited, several posts from from the past week or so, as a kind of context:

We start with my potted, and undoubtedly biased, history of the New Wave, posted in response to an OP essentially asking what the point was of the New Wave:

First of all, you have to remember that there were two New Waves, and that they were not quite identical.

The first New Wave was the English one: centered on Michael Moorcock's New Worlds and aggressively anti-pulp (and semi-covertly anti-American, in the rah-rah gung-ho Cold War sense of America). The exemplar writer was J.G. Ballard, with Brian Aldiss as another major figure.

The second New Wave, inspired by the first, was American. Harlan Ellison was its biggest exponent, and Samuel R. Delany probably the exemplar writer. Damon Knight's Orbit series of anthologies was the long-term home for the American New Wave, with Ellison's Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions being major milestones. The American New Wave was slightly less political (simply because it couldn't possible be more political, but that was a very political era in SF).

Each New Wave ran for a decade or so as an identifiable movement, which seems like an immensely long time these days. Both tried to appropriate techniques and ideas from mainstream literary fiction -- stretching back to the '20s, in some cases, as SF was exceptionally conservative back then -- into SF.

Both movements had something in common with the modern "Mundane SF" movement: they thought genre SF had moved far away from any connection to the real world; that SF wasn't telling stories that related to real people's real lives, and had drifted off into pulpy tales of silly super-science and cardboard strongly-thewed space captains. One of the common calls from the New Wave was to concentrate less on outer space and more on inner space -- that is, to create psychologically complex, believable characters and involve them in plots that didn't require Bug-Eyed Monsters or mad scientists' daughters in mortal danger.

And in 1964, Bester was editing Holiday and had been out of SF for years. Bradbury was mostly in nostalgia-mode, with books like Dandelion Wine and Something Wicked This Way Comes (and also generally did not characterize himself as a science fiction writer to begin with). Kornbluth had been dead for six years. Simak may have been a fine writer (and was coming off Way Station the previous year) but was clearly pastoral and quiet and backwards-looking.

(Also, none of those four were ever particularly identified with Campbell or with Astounding/Analog, except perhaps Simak. That list looks like it's aiming more at the '50s Galaxy axis, which was that decade's attempt to make SF better -- as Campbell was in the '40s and the New Wave in the '60s.)

The burst of feminist SF in the '70s owed much to the New Wave, and the fact that SF is not purely seen as a genre for teenage boys is also in great part down to them. (So you can blame or credit them for the modern spec-fic sex scene -- whichever you choose.)

Did they go too far? Of course; all movements go too far. But Campbellian SF definitely needed a swift kick in the pants in the '60s.

Someone else (an entity known as "Girish") posted to say that the field was pretty much unified before the New Wave. I did not agree.

That wasn't actually the case. For example, in the mid-50s, Galaxy was not F&SF was not Astounding, and each one definitely had its own stable of writers. (And here I'm just talking about the good magazines; there were plenty of others, mostly filled with space opera yardgoods.)

There wasn't actually a unified vision of the field at any time after other magazines joined Amazing in the marketplace, except insofar (post-1939) as Campbell paid the best rates, so people wanting to make decent money toed his party line (which, with the Dean Drive, Dianetics, and so on, often was very odd).

The New Wave wasn't even the first revolt against Campbellian SF. It was just the biggest one at the time.

Then "Girish" talked about having a diverse field meaning that each reader had to find the things he liked individually, instead of everyone reading and liking the same stuff.

Fans never all liked the same things, I'm afraid. The first fan-feud over science fiction (as opposed to the first fan-feud over fan personalities) probably happened in the letter columns of Amazing more than a generation earlier. Fans always had to find the things they liked.

The New Wave did not cast us out of a skiffy Eden, in which Bester and Horace Gold lay down with Ray Palmer and Campbell. I'm afraid there never was such a place.

Later, a "Peter Knutsen" claimed that the New Wave was just a smokescreen for writers who couldn't hack the "necessary scientific literacy," a phrase I took exception to.

Because insulting people you know nothing about is so much easier than actually, y'know, reading some stories.

Let us know how that works out for you.

And then you can explain the level of "science literacy" required to justify the Dean Drive, and Dianetics, and the Shaver Mystery, and...

"Science fiction" does not mean "a story in which all of the science is correct." Ray Palmer wrote SF. Volsted Gridban wrote SF. Edmond Hamilton wrote SF. Lionel Fanthorpe wrote SF. And none of them were "New Wave."

Mr. Knutsen replied, and this was my response.

You wrote "necessary science literacy." I, and others, pointed out that there was never any level of science literacy (however low you want to set the bar) that was "necessary" for writing SF. So your contention that the New Wave was some special aberration of sub-scientifically-literate writers was therefore disproven.

The others, if you don't recognize them, are examples of hideous science unmatched by anything in the New Wave (which generally had decent science, as far as it went -- well, let's not look *too* closely at those spiderwebs in Aldiss's Hothouse).

And I couldn't get any snottier than that, so that's where my part of that thread ended.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

i feel impelled to borrow the phrase "space opera yardgoods"
Excellent post. Thanks. Now to go read that thread.

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