New Wave science fiction  

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"In "Sortir du XXe siècle" (2000) Michel Houellebecq praises J. G. Ballard, Thomas M. Disch, Cyril M. Kornbluth, Norman Spinrad, Theodore Sturgeon and Kurt Vonnegut, but most of all, R. A. Lafferty, especially, the latter's "The World as Will and Wallpaper" (1973)."--Sholem Stein

"The phrase "New Wave" was used generally for new artistic movements in the 1960s, following the nouvelle vague of French cinema. The regular book reviewer of Analog Science Fiction and Fact, P. Schuyler Miller, first used it in the November 1961 issue to describe a new generation of British authors: "It's a moot question whether Carnell discovered the ‘big names’ of British science fictionWyndham, Clarke, Russell, Christopher—or whether they discovered him. Whatever the answer, there is no question at all about the ‘new wave’: Tubb, Aldiss, and to get to my point, Kenneth Bulmer and John Brunner".--Sholem Stein

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The New Wave is a movement in science fiction produced in the 1960s and 1970s and characterized by a high degree of experimentation in both form and content, a "literary" or artistic sensibility, and a focus on "soft" as opposed to hard science. New Wave writers often saw themselves as part of the modernist tradition in fiction, and the New Wave was conceived as a deliberate break from the traditions of pulp science fiction (SF), which many of the New Wave writers involved considered irrelevant and unambitious. The New Wave science fiction writers of the 1960s thus emphasized stylistic experimentation and literary merit over the scientific accuracy or prediction of hard science fiction writers.

The most prominent source of New Wave science fiction was the magazine New Worlds under the editorship of Michael Moorcock, who assumed the position in 1964. In the United States, Harlan Ellison's 1967 anthology Dangerous Visions is viewed as the best representation of the genre; J. G. Ballard and Brian Aldiss were also principal writers within the movement. The New Wave was a period marked by the emergence of a greater diversity of voices in science fiction, most notably the rise in the number of female writers, including Joanna Russ, Ursula K. Le Guin and Alice Bradley Sheldon (using the pseudonym James Tiptree, Jr.).

The New Wave engaged on complex levels with concepts such as entropy, postmodernism, surrealism, and utopia, and in this it was influenced by the political turmoil of the 1960s, such as the controversy over the Vietnam War, and by social trends such as the drug subculture, sexual liberation, and the environmental movement. The New Wave was critiqued for the self-absorption of some of its writers and was influential in shaping the development of subsequent genres, primarily cyberpunk and slipstream.



Influences and predecessors

Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon, Fritz Leiber, Algis Budrys (especially for his novel Rogue Moon with its use of Freudianism), and Alfred Bester can be considered as important precursors of the movement.

Naomi Mitchison's Memoirs of a Spacewoman (1962) has elements that resemble New Wave, though it's not clear if there was any direct influence.

In his introduction to a reprint of Leigh Brackett's Martian Quest, Michael Moorcock, the editor of New Worlds (and thus the New Wave's prime instigator), wrote "With Catherine Moore, Judith Merril and Cele Goldsmith, Leigh Brackett is one of the true godmothers of the New Wave. Anyone who thinks they're pinching one of my ideas is probably pinching one of hers."

Beat writer William S. Burroughs would prove very inspirational, so much so that Philip José Farmer in "The Jungle Rot Kid on the Nod" and Barrington J. Bayley's "The Four Colour Problem" (Bayley's most acclaimed work of fiction, which appeared in New Worlds) wrote pastiches of the elder writer's work and J. G. Ballard published an admiring essay in New Worlds. (Burroughs had earlier expressed admiration for Bayley's short novel Star Virus.) Burroughs' use of experimentatation such as the cut-up technique and his appropriation of science fiction tropes in radical ways proved the extent to which prose fiction could prove revolutionary. In this, the more extreme New Wave writers sought to emulate his example.

The movement

Growing as a trickle more than a flood, New Wave began in 1964, when Michael Moorcock took over as editor for the British science fiction magazine New Worlds. While the American magazines Amazing Stories, with Cele Goldsmith as editor, and the respected The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction had from the very start had a leaning towards unusually literary stories, Moorcock turned that into a concerted policy. No other science fiction magazine sought as consistently to distance itself from traditional science fiction as much as New Worlds. By the time it ceased regular publication it had more or less transcended the science fiction genre, styling itself as an experimental literary journal.

The content of New Wave rejected the core concerns of traditional science fiction ("outer space"), in favour of a focus on taboo breaking and a more people focused approach ("innerspace"). Central concerns of the New Wave (and of William S. Burroughs, before it) were a fascination both with mass media and with entropy, the idea that the universe (and human societies) will irrevocably run down.

The New Wave also had a political subtext. Brian Aldiss, Thomas Disch, Michael Moorcock and other key figures in the British New Wave came from various Marxist and socialist political traditions; their disdain for genre SF was partly a maneuver against American cultural hegemony and what the New Wavers considered "conservatism" in "Campbellian" SF with its faith in, and obsession with, technoscience. In the U.S., the New Wave would be closely associated with opposition to the Vietnam War and leftwing political activism.

The New Wave peaked around 1971. It must be noted that Ursula K. Le Guin, Harlan Ellison, and Michael Moorcock continued to be exceedingly popular in the science fiction community.

The New Wave movement started to explore many subjects, including sex in science fiction, in ways that were previously unthinkable. Harlan Ellison's anthology Dangerous Visions was an important milestone. With its publication in 1967, the New Wave broke — it smashed taboos relentlessly, holding no regard for any sort of boundaries. The styles of the authors varied, but one thing held common for everyone: They had something to say, and they said it. What was more, Dangerous Visions also collected three Hugo Awards, one for Best Novelette, one for Best Novella and one special award.

Anthologies were particularly important because most of the best work of the New Wave was produced in short-story length. This is partly because magazines buying primarily short fiction were to remain the most important SF market until the post-Star Wars publishing boom around 1980, but there were artistic reasons as well. The stylistic daring and experimentalism the movement valued were more difficult to sustain at novel length, and all too many of the attempts became ambitious flops.

Among works frequently cited as particularly important to the New Wave are John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar, Philip Jose Farmer's Riders of the Purple Wage, Thomas M. Disch's 334, Samuel R. Delany's Babel-17 and Dhalgren, Langdon Jones's The Great Clock, Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light, Harlan Ellison's I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream, J.G. Ballard's The Voices of Time, Brian Aldiss's The Dark Light Years and "anti-novel" Report on Probability A, Fritz Leiber's One Station of the Way, and Frank Herbert's Dune. The Dangerous Visions anthology (and its sequel, Again, Dangerous Visions) remain especially noteworthy.

The decline

Several factors may have contributed to the "death" of New Wave science fiction. One factor was its assimilation into the larger science fiction mainstream. A second factor was the passing of the radicalism of the 1960s in art as well as life.

The New Wave's demise may have been hastened by conscious reaction against it in the SF mainstream. Lester del Rey, an influential editor (who had in fact been published in Ellison's first Dangerous Visions anthology), led a conscious effort to re-assert genre traditions in the 1970s and early 1980s. By then a neo-Campbellian revival of hard science fiction after 1982 at the hands of David Brin, Gregory Benford, Greg Bear and others had emerged. On the other hand, cyberpunk, a movement popularized by Gardner Dozois and editor Ellen Datlow, had made it clear that "the rebellion" had taken on a radical new form.


Some have seen the emergence of cyberpunk literature as a sequel of sorts to the aims of the New Wave movement. Cyberpunk incorporated several of New Wave's "ancestors," namely Burroughs and Alfred Bester and partially embraced New Wave proponents Harlan Ellison and Samuel R. Delany.

The current New Weird movement and the genre of slipstream fiction occupies a space similar to that of the New Wave movement, in relationship to the mainstream of science fiction and fantasy. However, they have a far less adversial relationship to their "parent" genres.


A more important effect of the movement was to broaden the range of acceptable themes and styles in genre SF. While the New Wavers never achieved the thorough disruption of genre conventions they were aiming for, they helped make it possible for post-New-Wave SF writers to tackle previously taboo subjects and to more often use techniques such as stream-of-consciousness narration and unreliable narrators. Even the neo-Campbellian revivalists who had set themselves most directly against the New Wave's political and aesthetic program eventually benefitted from the new freedom.

Significant New Wave authors

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