Recovered Writing: MA in SF Studies, Genre Definitions Module, Notes on New Wave SF, October 9, 2006

This is the eighteenth post in a series that I call, “Recovered Writing.” I am going through my personal archive of undergraduate and graduate school writing, recovering those essays I consider interesting but that I am unlikely to revise for traditional publication, and posting those essays as-is on my blog in the hope of engaging others with these ideas that played a formative role in my development as a scholar and teacher. Because this and the other essays in the Recovered Writing series are posted as-is and edited only for web-readability, I hope that readers will accept them for what they are–undergraduate and graduate school essays conveying varying degrees of argumentation, rigor, idea development, and research. Furthermore, I dislike the idea of these essays languishing in a digital tomb, so I offer them here to excite your curiosity and encourage your conversation.

For each of our meetings in the Genre Definitions Module during the first semester of the MA in Science Fiction Studies programme at the University of Liverpool, we were assigned days to lead discussion. For one of these meetings, I began our discussion on the SF New Wave. Below are my prepared notes that I used as an introduction to the topic.

Jason W. Ellis

Mr. Andy Sawyer

Genre Definitions Module

9 October 2006

New Wave SF

New Wave science fiction is characterized as a turn away from the hard sciences to the soft sciences of psychology and sociology, as well as a shift from linear, clear window narratives to experimental narrative styles, as well an adoption of higher literary standards.  The stories in which the term New Wave can be said to describe have no clear historical demarcations.  Most scholars accept the beginning date of New Wave to coincide with Michael Moorcock becoming the new editor of the UK SF magazine, New Worlds in 1964.  Moorcock, as editor and writer, promoted stories that fit the New Wave model.  New Wave ran through the 1980s, but its decline began in the 1970s when conservatism began to erode the counterculture that began in the late-1960s.

New Wave SF cannot be said to have been a formal literary movement, because many authors labeled as New Wave do not accept the designation. Therefore, it is problematic to define it as such.  However, there are certain elements that are identified as being New Wave.  The first, and most important element of New Wave, is the belief that SF should attain a respectability, which would result in SF being taking seriously as literature.  In a sense, it was time for SF to mature and move from a younger, adolescent audience to an adult audience that understood the cultural changes taking place at that time.  It was with this in mind that SF authors began implementing a higher style of writing, as well as undertaking a great deal of literary experimentation in their works.  However, others, such as Damien Broderick in The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, propose that this shift in style has more to do with the greater education the upcoming New Wave writers had than their predecessors.

Another element of New Wave has to do with extrapolation taking place through the soft sciences (e.g., psychology, sociology, and linguistics) instead of the hard sciences used in earlier SF.  Linked to this shift is a turning inward to crisis and introspection of the mind and psyche.  Additionally, New Wave stories are concerned with the near-future, and there are many stories with dystopic elements.  Other New Wave themes are listed by Peter Nichols in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.  He writes that New Wave SF stories include, “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” (866).  Additionally, New Wave authors didn’t buy into the perfectibility of humanity, salvation through science and technology, or faith in human intelligence.  New Wave was a response to the cultural changes taking place in the world beginning in the late-1960s.  It was linked to the counterculture born of that era, and it brought SF out of basements and bedrooms.

We should place New Wave in relationship to earlier SF.  As R. A. Lupoff writes in The New Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, traditional SF is about, “physical problem solving and/or combat.  Conflict is seen in terms of good protagonist versus bad antagonist (or occasionally natural catastrophe).  Moral and psychological ambiguities are few.  Style tends to be simple and structure of narration straightforward” (328).  On the other hand, “New Wave writers frequently saw problems as social or psychological in nature, subject to resolution only through radical alternations of the psyche or similarly radical restructurings of society.  The conflict they wrote about is between the victimized individual and oppressive society or nature, or it takes the form of a pathological society at war with itself.  Moral and psychological ambiguities lie at the heart of most New Wave stories.  The movement is characterized by an emphasis on style and experimentation; the structure of the narration could be anything an author found successful” (Lupoff 328).

A short list of New Wave authors includes:  Brian Aldiss, J.G. Ballard, John Brunner, Samuel R. Delany, Philip K. Dick, Thomas M. Disch, Harlan Ellison, Philip José Farmer, Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Robert Silverberg, Norman Spinrad, and Roger Zelazny.  Not all of these authors embraced the New Wave label, but their stories nevertheless reflect key elements of a new style that moved the SF genre forward.

New Wave was a sea change in the direction of SF, and it most assuredly had its detractors.  Before New Wave exploded, there had developed a conservatism within the SF ranks, which resulted in reused themes and stories.  The New Wave, in part, reacted to this stagnation by trying something radically new.  However, as Asimov was quoted on the back of Judith Merril’s 1968 New Wave anthology, England Swings SF (US title) or The Space-Time Journal (UK title), “I hope that when the New Wave has deposited its froth, the vast and solid short of science fiction will appear once more” (qtd. in The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction).  Regardless of fears held by the old guard, New Wave was a driving impetus toward better SF in both style and story, as well as the foundation for new SF styles such as cyberpunk.  Essentially, New Wave created a bridge between classic SF and postmodern SF.

Published by Jason W. Ellis

I am an Associate Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology. Also, I coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.