Readers like me who cut their teeth on the New Wave of science fiction of the late 1960s and 1970s will remember the intellectual and imaginative energy of that period, the freewheeling mash-up of genres, the political and social awareness, the maturity and sophistication of much of the writing compared to most of what comprised the genre before. An adolescent genre – or rather, one stuck in a permanent delayed adolescence – suddenly grew up. In the UK, it was all about authors like Brian W. Aldiss, J.G. Ballard, M. John Harrison, Michael Moorcock, and Christopher Priest; in the U.S., it was about the likes of Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, Ursula K. Le Guin, Frederik Pohl, Robert Silverberg, and Roger Zelazny.
J.G. Ballard put the whole issue of the status of science fiction at the time very succinctly in his 1971 essay “Fictions Of Every Kind”:
Everything is becoming science fiction. From the margins of an almost invisible literature has sprung the intact reality of the 20th century. What the writers of modern science fiction invent today, you and I will do tomorrow — or, more exactly, in about 10 years’ time, though the gap is narrowing. Science fiction is the most important fiction that has been written for the last 100 years.
Unfortunately, that’s a status that science fiction now seems to have abdicated. After cyberpunk, with the resurgence of hard science fiction in the 1980s, the rump of the genre retreated within its ghetto walls, to the point where GamerGate finds its echo in the comments and even the work of some Hugo Award nominees, and Orson Scott Card has become the literary poster boy for homophobia. Partly I blame the Death Star-scale explosion of brand licensing and product marketing that followed Star Wars, which showed marketers how easy and lucrative it was to target and mine a sub-genre audience with aggressive merchandising campaigns, which then fed back into publishing through franchises like Dragonlance. All those dinky toys and figurines became the sentries on the walls of the sci-fi ghetto, keeping the inmates permanently infatilized and playing with their boys’ toys.
Meanwhile, I’d argue, dark/weird fiction and cosmic horror have stepped up to supplant science fiction as the genre (or fusion of genres) that contains, in Ballard’s terms, “far more imagination and meaning than anything … in the literary periodicals of the day” and has byte-coined “the new currency of an ever-expanding future.” In my view, some of the best-written and most imaginative fiction currently around is being created in those sub-genres, because the best examples excel supposed serious literature in above all, to paraphrase Ballard, their grasp of the real identity of the 21st century.
What does it say about our society and our time that the genre best suited to it, which is producing the most striking and imaginative writers, is rank with despair, nihilism, terror, cosmic doubt and anomie, and pure and simple horror? Well, try putting a Gernsback– or even a Kurzweil-style spin on 9/11, Iraq, the GFC, Wikileaks, ebola, etc. What kind of faith can even the lay public retain in progress, science and technology that not only have failed to stop Al Qaeda and ISIS, but have even produced climate change and global warming? Let alone an America that has ceased to believe that progress is its ally.
Are those the depressing reasons why the dark and the weird channel the zeitgeist so well? I wouldn’t doubt it. However, the genesis of so much modern horrror and weird fiction in the cosmicism of H.P. Lovecraft points a different reason, I think. Lovecraft managed to fuse, or reunite, horror and the supernatural with science fiction in a way that healed a rift which had divided horror and science fiction since the days of Stevenson and Mary Shelley. In so doing, he broadened genre writers ’choice of themes and tropes, and revitalized their imaginative resources. I don’t see it as a coincidence that science fiction’s creativity seems to have guttered just as the New Weird got into its stride, barring a few exceptional exceptions like Peter Watts. Cosmicism delivered writers a menu of scenarios and explanations to allow writers to cross freely between the two, as well as giving them a worldview and repertoire of responses that have been particularly helpful for addressing a period as traumatized as the 1920s ever was. It also liberated horror and dark fiction from dependence on folklore and the supernatural – still there if needed, but no longer the sole socially acceptable ways of getting weird.
And I’m not evoking the New Wave as some eternal touchstone of value. It’s just one movement in genre fiction that fitted its time particularly well, as dark/weird fiction does ours. And then as now, some of the best writers around are writing in that genre. All hail the new New Wave.