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New Wave is a term applied to science fiction writing characterized by a high degree of experimentation, both in form and in content, and a highbrow and self-consciously "literary" or artistic sensibility. The term "New Wave" is borrowed from film criticism's nouvelle vague: films characterized by the work of Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, and others. The New Wave writers saw themselves as part of the general literary tradition and often openly mocked the traditions of pulp science fiction, which they regarded as stodgy, irrelevant and unambitious.




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 experimentation 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.


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 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 backed away from the science fiction genre itself, 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. New Wave also featured a retreat from the Golden Age's focus on scientific accuracy in favor of more fantastic or allegorical settings; influential writer Harlan Ellison promoted abandoning the name "science fiction" altogether, in favor of "speculative fiction".

The New Wave also had a political subtext. Brian Aldiss, Thomas Disch, Michael Moorcock, M. John Harrison 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, technology and science. In the U.S., the New Wave would be closely associated with opposition to the Vietnam War and left wing political activism.

It peaked around 1971. It must be noted that Ursula K. Le Guin, Harlan Ellison, and Michael Moorcock continued to be exceedingly popular in parts of the science fiction community. The New Wave movement started to explore many previously rarer subjects, including sex in science fiction. Harlan Ellison's anthology Dangerous Visions was an important milestone. Published in 1967, the anthology sought to smash taboos previously held in science fiction. Dangerous Visions collected three Hugo Awards, one for Best Novelette, one for Best Novella and one special award.

As with Golden Age literature, anthologies were particularly important for the New Wave because most of its best work 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 that 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, and Fritz Leiber's One Station of the Way. The Dangerous Visions anthology (and its sequel, Again, Dangerous Visions) remain especially noteworthy.


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. Pioneers such as Larry Niven broke new ground with fresh scientific discoveries and imaginative extrapolations. 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 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.


John Brunner is noted as a primary exponent of dystopian New Wave science fiction.[1] Critic John Clute wrote of M. John Harrison's early writing that it "... reveals its New-Wave provenance in narrative discontinuities and subheads after the fashion of J. G. Ballard".[2] Brian Aldiss, Harlan Ellison Robert Silverberg, Norman Spinrad, Roger Zelazny are writers whose work, though not considered New Wave at the time of publication, later became to be interpreted under the label.[3] Of later authors, the work of Joanna Russ is considered by scholar Peter Nicholls to bear stylistic resemblance to New Wave.[4] Kaoru Kurimoto is also considered to be among the New Wave canon.[5]

Related topics


  1. ^ "The element of dystopia in New-Wave writing was particularly dramatic in the case of John Brunner": entry on New Wave by Peter Nicholls in Clute & Nicholls 1999
  2. ^ Of the early work, "... reveals its New-Wave provenance in narrative discontinuities and subheads after the fashion of J. G. Ballard": entry on Harrison by John Clute in Clute & Nicholls 1999
  3. ^ Nicholls, Peter. "New Wave". "... whose work was later subsumed under the New Wave label"   in Clute & Nicholls 1999
  4. ^ "... wrote in a style that would have been called New Wave only a year or so earlier": entry on New Wave by Peter Nicholls in Clute & Nicholls 1999
  5. ^ "DePauw University archives".  
  • Greenland, Colin (1983). The Entropy Exhibition: Michael Moorcock and the British New Wave in Science Fiction. Routledge. ISBN 0-7100-9310-1.  
  • Clute, John; Nicholls, Peter (1999). The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (2nd ed.). Orbit. ISBN 185723 8974.  


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