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New Wave Science Fiction

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"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 of the "Golden Age" in favor of more literary and experimental forms of SF and Fantasy, with more emphasis on writing and creativity and less on "hard" science, and, well, plot.

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, edited 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 Dangerous Visions, in particular, which called for "stories that could not be published elsewhere or had never been written in the face of almost certain censorship by SF editors", helped make what had been a primarily British movement into an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. The cohorts of writers and readers most associated with this movement were either Beat generation or baby boomers engrossed in the counterculture of The '60s. Both lost relevance by the end of The '70s. As most movements do, it also faced a backlash from a new generation of writers who brought back scientific accuracy, action and adventure (this in particular was aided and abetted by publishers after Star Wars became a mega-hit, as they felt works in the same style would sell better), or both; often matching the literary chops of the by-now venerable New Wave writers, who started to be seen as pretentious intellectual lightweights at best, Bourgeois Bohemians at worst. 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. However, it soon disappeared as a distinct movement, to be replaced with the Cyberpunk controversies of the 1980s.

Also contributing to the decline of the New Wave trend was the maturation of hard science fiction away from the formulaic and restrictive Campbellian formula. Authors such as Larry Niven and Arthur C. Clarke returned the "sense of wonder" and adventure while also updating the science and introducing new modern sensibilities by discarding Campbell's "human chauvinism", Values Dissonance, and other elements that date a lot of Golden Age science fiction.note  The same also occurred for Space Opera, which was given another lease on life by the success of the first Star Wars film in 1977. More complex and polished writing and characterization, along with again updated sensibilities, breathed new life into a sub-genre which was for decades almost a Dead Horse Trope.

The ideas of the British New Wave were to some extent continued in early issues of Interzone in The '80s. 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:

  • An Aesop: During the golden age of sci-fi, most publishers avoided touchy subjects out of fear of public outcry. These topics of contention included gender, sexuality, racism, religion and mental illness. In 1967, the famous anthology Dangerous Visions allowed American authors to start exploring these ideas and popularize them for mainstream sci-fi readers.
  • And I Must Scream: Named, in fact, for a classic New Wave work.
  • Anti-Hero: As a rejection of the classic Science Hero of older SF.
  • Author Tract: Inevitable whenever a work tackles any sociopolitical issues.
  • 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.
  • Inner Monologue: In the style of Franz Kafka, many stories lacked action and were chiefly the protagonists' internal struggles and emotional state.
  • Journey to the Center of the Mind: Exploration of inner space was deemed more interesting than boring old outer space.
  • Mind Screw: Reflecting its experimental nature.
  • Postmodernism: 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 Aliens: When it even featured aliens, they were usually the incomprehensible, starfish type, because that left room for experimental styles of writing.
  • Straw Character: Very common in these works, especially due to the tendency for the authors to preach An Aesop.
  • Totally Radical: With respect to some of the dialogue in certain works, the attempts by then-middle-aged authors to try to appeal to '60s or '70s-era youth were sometimes laughable if not cringe-inducing. It is also worth noting that most of the authors, while contemporary to the countercultures of their day, were not necessarily participants. They may have marginally known someone who was, but they themselves were simply too old to be a plausible participant in something which had as one of its tenets: "Don't trust anybody over 30".
  • True Art Is Incomprehensible: At its most experimental, the New Wave definitely delved into this territory.
  • Unintentional Period Piece: The New Wave authors wanted to make their characters contemporary and this often involved transposing then current trends and lifestyles into the future. They include anything from obvious hippie counterculture expys, to free love and drugs (often the same drugs as the present), or quasi-beatnik slang. This would have made the stories and characters relatable to readers who were of a certain age but not so much anyone born after 1964.
  • Unreliable Narrator: In comparison to the square, clean-cut and professional Science Hero and Space Cadet protagonists of the Golden Age.


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  • 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.
    • His 1969 novel The Black Corridor is a strong example of British new wave. It contains sections with the main character inputting journal entries into a computer, presented in kinetic typography to enhance the psychological horror elements, which were then completely butchered following the 'corrections' in the US copies of the novel.
  • William S. Burroughs' Nova Trilogy was a science fiction work by a non-science-fiction writer that was hugely influential on the New Wave, making it a sort of proto-example.
  • J. G. 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".
  • Barry N. Malzberg is a very controversial figure in the sci-fi world, mainly because of how experimental (and pornographic) his work is. He loved to stir controversy for the sake of it, targeting both publishers and readers. Experimental novels like his famous Beyond Apollo featured unreliable narrators and often went meta by Breaking the Fourth Wall.
  • 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 Josť 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. And then there is the even more famous Lord of Light.
  • 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.
  • Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.'s two seminal novels Slaughterhouse-Five and Cat's Cradle are prime examples of this genre, utilising the Unreliable Narrator, fragmented narratives and surreal imagery synonymous with New Wave fiction.
  • 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. There's also the anti-space opera novel The Centauri Device, which ended up inspiring epics like Ender's Game and The Culture franchise, effectively leading to a revival of the space opera that's still going strong today.
  • Thomas M. Disch turned to science fiction when he wasn't making progress in his chosen field as a playwright. His short stories and novels like The Genocides, Camp Concentration and 334 exemplify New Wave's downbeat and dystopian side.
  • Robert Silverberg created a number of works that were considered New Wave. The most notable one among them, and arguably his best work, was Dying Inside, a deconstruction of telepathic powers. The dystopian novel The World Inside showed the extreme end of the free love movement.
  • Ursula K. Le Guin was part of the more philosophical/mystical aspect of the New Wave, incorporating psychological, sociological, anti-colonialist, environmentalist, and spiritual (especially Taoist) themes into her works, all with deeply ambiguous and uncertain implications (even her most overt Author Tract, The Dispossessed, presented critiques of her preferred ideas). "The Word for World Is Forest" was featured in Again, Dangerous Visions.
  • Frank Herbert occupied a weird space in the New Wave, inasmuch as he never had all that much to do with other authors. He was also a bit on the straight laced, conservative side politically, having no love for the counterculture or interest in psychedelic drugs. He did however, dabble in Zen Buddhism, albeit a heavily Westernized version that was popular at the time. Ironically, he did get fame amongst Iron Maiden fans due to their track "To Tame a Land"note . It may very well be that the image of Dune as trippy and psychedelic is due more to the eccentric styles of the film adaptation by David Lynch and failed film attempt by Alejandro Jodorowsky than to the work itself which discusses ideas in a very sober, intellectual manner. Nonetheless, his works are generally recognized to have drunk from the same well as Le Guin and Dick.
  • While Anthony Burgess was not among the New Wave authors, A Clockwork Orange could definitely be classified as a New Wave work, with its dystopian setting, antihero protagonist, and experimental narrative featuring a ton of near future slang invented by Burgess.

  • 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 a member of the band for a while.