By David H.
At the beginning of the 1960’s, science fiction was in a rut. While grand masters, such as Isaac Asimov and Arthur Clarke, were still writing interesting and worthwhile work, the genre itself had become fossilized. The tropes of pulp science fiction (rockets ships, robots, aliens barely distinguishable from humans, and square-jawed, flawless good guys) were still being used by many authors and a whiff of stagnation had begun to fill the air. The real world concerns of the time (war, segregation, the changing roles of women, political unrest and student protests) went unacknowledged and unseen in the genre. But a revolution was about to sweep through science fiction.
The roots of this new wave began in Great Britain. In 1964, author Michael Moorcock took over the editorship of New Worlds magazine with the purpose of re-defining the style and content of science fiction. Inspired by writers like William S. Burroughs (who used science fiction concepts in such books as Naked Lunch and Nova Express), Moorcock championed writers who were willing to experiment with literary styles and untraditional subject matter. Writers like J.G. Ballard published dark dystopian novels like The Drowned World and Concrete Island, stories featuring everymen who instead of conquering were struggling to survive. Young adult writer John Christopher’s The Tripods trilogy posited a future where the Martians from War Of The Worlds had conquered Earth and the rebellion recruits children in an attempt to destroy their overlords.
In America, the standard bearer was multi-award winning writer Harlan Ellison. The pugnacious Ellison writes in virtually any genre that intrigues him, including horror, science fiction, fantasy, television criticism, and screenwriting (including the Star Trek episode “City On The Edge of Forever”). His fiction often featured anti-heroes struggling to survive in a hostile and unpredictable world: his story “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” depicts the ordeal of the last living humans, entombed inside the supercomputer that had destroyed the world. Ellison’s anthology Dangerous Visions sought out stories that would push the envelope and featured New Wave writers Philip Jose Farmer (Riverworld), Philip K. Dick (The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch), Norman Spinrad (Bug Jack Barron), John Brunner (Stand On Zanzibar) and Samuel Delany (Nova). Delany also wrote what is often considered the New Wave’s magnum opus, Dhalgren. Set in the fictional city of Bellona, a place cut off from the rest of the world by an unknown catastrophe, it’s a hallucinogenic trip that is considered one of the best science fiction novels ever published or one of the worst, depending on who’s talking.
When hard science fiction regained popularity in the 70’s, the New Wave diminished in influence. However, its style and concerns became integrated within the genre, creating what is sometimes called “soft science fiction” and becoming a major influence on the emerging genres of cyberpunk and slipstream. In the end, the New Wave might have receded but it lifted up a genre that had been foundering in the shallows.