"They call it the New Thing. The people who call it that mostly don't like it, and the only general agreements they seem to have are that Ballard is its Demon and I am its prophetess—and that it is what is wrong with Tom Disch, and with British s-f in general. … The American counterpart is less cohesive as a "school" or "movement": it has had no single publication in which to concentrate its development, and was, in fact, till recently, all but excluded from the regular s-f magazines. But for the same reasons, it is more diffuse and perhaps more widespread."
— Judith Merril, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, 1967
New Wave Science Fiction was a literary movement of the 1960s
and 1970s; a rejection of the simplistic action-adventure stories and scientific sophistication of the "Golden Age" in favor of more literary
forms of SF (and Fantasy), with more emphasis on writing and creativity, and less on "hard"
science, and, well, plot. Most such stories rate as 1 on the Mohs Scale of Science Fiction Hardness
. In the preface to Dangerous Visions
, Harlan Ellison famously refused to even call what he was writing science fiction at all, preferring the term "speculative fiction".
The Sixties were a turbulent time (to put it mildly), and the SF community in those days was a small and relatively insular one
, so the New Wave became massively controversial within that community. The New Wave was strongly associated with the Youth Movement of the sixties, and was regarded with much the same distrust and fear by older and more conservative types.
While the origins of the New Wave are somewhat murky, most agree that Michael Moorcock
spearheaded the movement with his New Worlds
magazine, which, when he took over in 1964, began focusing exclusively on experimental and literary SF works.
Two anthologies, England Swings SF
, edited by Judith Merril, and Dangerous Visions
by Harlan Ellison
, helped crystalize the movement. Dangerous Visions
, in particular, which called for "stories that could not be published elsewhere or had never been written in the face of almost certain censorship by SF editors," helped make what had been a primarily British movement into an international one.
The writers of the New Wave began looking beyond SF for inspiration, and Beat writer William S. Burroughs
was mentioned by many as a major influence.
Much like the Youth Movement, the New Wave gradually faded away as its members got older and/or found that really
experimental writing had a very limited market. As most movements do, it also faced a backlash from a new generation of writers who brought back scientific accuracy, action and adventure, or both; often matching the literary chops of the by-now venerable New Wave writers. It did
have a major lasting impact on the field, though, opening up science fiction to all sorts of new ideas and styles, many of which are still common today. And it left in its wake several works that are still very highly regarded. But as a distinct movement, it soon disappeared, to be replaced with the Cyberpunk
controversies of the eighties.
The New Weird
movement has been suggested by some as a partial rebirth of the New Wave.
And for the record, Philip K. Dick
was never particularly associated with or identified with the New Wave—his brand of weirdness was unique.
Tropes often associated with the New Wave:
- And I Must Scream: Named, in fact, for a classic New Wave work.
- Antihero: As a rejection of the classic Science Hero of older SF.
- Darker and Edgier: Rejecting the Bright Shiny Future of classic SF.
- Deconstructor Fleet: New Wave writers loved to deconstruct SF tropes, often in huge piles.
- Dystopia: Again, rejecting the Bright Shiny Future.
- Free-Love Future: As a movement of the Sixties, this was a common element.
- Journey to the Center of the Mind: Exploration of inner space was deemed more interesting than boring old outer space.
- Meet the New Boss: The author lists of the first great anthologies of "Old Wave" science fiction (such as The Best Of Science Fiction and Adventures In Time And Space) are 95% white men. The first great anthologies of New Wave (such as Dangerous Visions) are 85% white men. Despite its desire to be socially groundbreaking, in many ways New Wave had the same old problems of sexism and racism.
- Mind Screw: Reflecting its experimental nature.
- Post Modernism: Applying this to SF was basically the point.
- Science Fantasy: With its emphasis on experimentation and focus on literary qualities, the New Wave frequently blurred the boundaries between SF and Fantasy. It's no coincidence that the umbrella term "Speculative Fiction" arose at this time.
- Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll: See Free-Love Future above.
- Starfish Alien: When it even featured aliens, they were usually the incomprehensible, starfish type, because that left room for experimental styles of writing.
- True Art Is Incomprehensible: At its most experimental, the New Wave definitely delved into this territory.
open/close all folders
- Nicolas Roeg's The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976), starring David Bowie, was an experimental work very much in the style of the New Wave. The source novel by Walter Tevis (published in the mid-1960s) is much more straightforward, though the basic premise of an Alien Among Us who falls prey to humanity's vices is intact.
- A Boy and His Dog was based on a 1969 story by Harlan Ellison that was originally published in New Worlds.
- Michael Moorcock was one of the main drivers of the movement, and most of his works of the time, like The Elric Saga (a deconstruction of classic Sword and Sorcery tropes), were examples.
- William S. Burroughs' Nova Trilogy was a science fiction work by a non-science-fiction writer that was hugely influentual on the New Wave, making it a sort of proto-example.
- JG Ballard was one of the mainstays of New Worlds magazine, and one whose deliberately surreal post-apocalyptic epics came under strong criticism by the old guard for their lack of realism.
- Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination (aka Tiger! Tiger!) predated the movement, but with its gritty Antihero protagonist and highly unusual experimental typography, it became a much-imitated proto-example.
- SF gadfly Harlan Ellison, in addition to publishing the famous anthology, Dangerous Visions (and its sequel), made his own contributions, like the stories "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream", "A Boy and His Dog" (see Film), and "The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World".
- Brian Aldiss was an already-established SF writer who already had a more-than-usually literary bent, and he quickly allied himself with the movement, regularly publishing in New Worlds. While most of his works before, during, and after the period are highly regarded, his novel Barefoot in the Head is often cited as an example of the worst excesses of the era.
- Samuel R. Delany eventually turned his interest in mixing SF with Lit Fic into a career as an academic. He has many examples; his 1975 novel Dhalgren was one of the more experimental, and a surprisingly popular one.
- John Brunner (who is also often credited as a proto-cyberpunk writer) wrote some very successful New Wave works, like the Hugo-winning Stand on Zanzibar. Some people at the time even denied that it could actually be New Wave, because it was good.
- Controversial writer Philip Jose Farmer had his career saved by the New Wave, which opened up markets for his explorations of formerly taboo topics like sex and religion. He remained more fond of the pulps than most New Wave writers, though. His story, "The Jungle Rot Kid on the Nod" was a tribute to both Edgar Rice Burroughs and William S. Burroughs.
- Norman Spinrad was another extremely controversial New Wave writer; his The Iron Dream was banned in Germany for many years, and Bug Jack Barron was denounced in the British Parliament.
- Although Roger Zelazny firmly denied any direct association with the New Wave, his novel Creatures of Light and Darkness was very much in the New Wave style. In fact, Zelazny had created it as a pure experiment, with no intent of trying to publish it, until his friend, New Wave writer Samuel R. Delany insisted that he had to.
- Joe Haldeman's The Forever War was a bizarre deconstruction of military SF, full of surreal imagery and borderline existentialism, inspired by the author's real-life experiences in the Vietnam war.
- M. John Harrison was a frequent contributor to New Worlds, and eventually became the magazine's book editor. He wrote many well-known new wave works, including The Viriconium Sequence, a series that started with The Pastel City, and which was strongly influenced by T. S. Eliot.
- Paul Kantner of the Jefferson Airplane was a huge SF fan, and his solo album Blows Against the Empire was loosely based on a classic SF novel, Robert A. Heinlein's Methuselah's Children, but the protagonists were replaced by a rag-tag band of hippies in search of free love and free music, and the musical experimentation on the album, especially the section where the Generation Ship launches, made it a favorite among New Wave fans. It was nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Dramatic Presentation (a category normally reserved for movies), where it came in second to "No Award"—a sign of how strong the controversy was at the time.
- Hawkwind was another band frequently inspired by science fiction, especially the New Wave—in fact, Michael Moorcock was, for a while, a member of the band.