No More New World Orders
By Martin Lewis
"There have always been Young Turks outside the gates of the City of SF, banging their swords against their shields and clamouring for entrance. Every ten years or so, since the hedonistic heyday of science fiction in the Golden Age of the dimly-recalled Forties and Fifties, a movement cruises through the streets of genre, all a-fire for a revolution, eager to see the blood spilling down the pavement in rivers. And every time, the revolutionaries eventually win out over the out-going Old Guard. And every time, the revolutionaries claim the throne, spike their flag into the earth, and proceed to mill about, wondering what to do now that they've gained the City."
Those words were written in 2002 by Gabe Chouinard, the closest thing the modern genre has to an iconoclast, as the opening salvo of his essay 'The Long Road to Nowhere'. They suggest that the concept of movements within the genre excite a certain amount of passion. Of course, it was ever thus. Chouinard's opening is essentially an ungainly retread of the opening of Michael Swanwick's famous essay 'A User's Guide To The Postmoderns', written almost two decades earlier.1 But for all this excitement and all the sound and fury they have generated, what good have movements ever done for us?
Swanwick's essay is predominately about two warring factions of the early Eighties—cyberpunks and humanists—but he starts by talking about the most famous revolutionary movement in science fiction history: the New Wave. As he puts it:
"On one side were the new writers entering the field who were not willing to abide its traditional restrictions (no graphic sex, a plain, 'naturalistic' prose style, emphasis on idea to the exclusion of character) and on the other side their predecessors, suddenly labelled Old Wave, who objected to the new influences tainting their literary water hole (graphic sex, 'experimental' prose, emphasis on mood or character to the exclusion of idea)."
The main organ of this movement was Michael Moorcock's New Worlds. Moorcock's swansong to his magazine, New Worlds: An Anthology, was published in the US for the first time in 2004. (Despite several Americans being prominently involved in the movement this long delay in publication is not entirely surprising.) Moorcock cautions that this collection is not a 'best of' but rather a representative sampling, concentrating "on writers perhaps more typical of those we published in the years when, much to our surprise, we scandalised various establishments."2 So it may usefully stand for the whole of the movement but if Moorcock found the shocking elements of his magazine hard to spot then, they are even harder to find today.
In his essay, Swanwick puts some measure of ironic detachment into his words so his own views on the debate he is summarising are slightly obscured. Regardless of this the definitions he gives have clear problems. It is not true to suggest that the stories in New Worlds: An Anthology are lacking in ideas, rather they represent a different sort of ideas; socio-political and philosophical ones, instead if flat 'What If' speculation. This can be just as much to the exclusion of character as any Old Wave story. In fact, of all the traits identified by Swanwick, experimentalism is probably the movement's most defining feature. The first substantial story in the collection, Barrington Bayley's 'The Four-Colour Problem', is a good example of this. It mixes a hard SF idea about the topology of the Earth with counter-culture sentiment and wilfully post-modern literary touches, such as: "The president went through the stock motions that link together dialogue in novels—lit a cigarette, bit an apple, stroked his chin and drummed his fingers on the table." Bayley even inserts an eight page lecture on the mathematics behind the Four-Colour Problem with the warning—or is it a promise?—that "readers who are uninterested in mathematics may omit this section without much loss."3 This may be bold but the end result is messy and unsatisfying. Which is not to say experimentation cannot produce good work. Pamela Zoline's remarkable 'The Heat Death Of The Universe', also included in the anthology, has stood the test of time and is rightly regarded as one of the best stories of the period. Taking entropy as her overarching theme Zoline produces a psychological profile that blends together a study of domestic isolation and an obsessive-compulsive chronicle of everyday minutia with cosmological angst.
Looking backwards, though, too often experimentation is just that. J.G. Ballard, one of the most (if not the most) important writers to emerge from the period is a case in point. He is represented by 'The Assassination Weapon', a condensed novel that went on to form a chapter—if it can be called that—of his infamous 1970 novel The Atrocity Exhibition. It highlights the problem with the anthology: as interesting as The Atrocity Exhibition is it is hard to claim it as the best of Ballard's work. Compared to work from any other period of his career—his early disaster novels such as The Drought; the cold, urban alienation of Crash; the fabulation of The Unlimited Dream Company; even his most mainstream work, his fictionalised autobiography The Empire of the Sun—it comes off as unsatisfying, its density and repetition wearying. In his canon it can be relegated to the level of curiosity. The cumulative effect of the stories assembled in the anthology is similar. Instead of presenting a showcase of supreme artistic achievement it is a historic document showing many authors doing important groundwork, both for themselves and the genre as a whole. As Matt Cheney puts it in his review of the anthology:
"Any young writer who desires to bust open the gates and locks of SF should pay close attention to this book, because much of the preliminary work has been done here. There is a reason many of these writers later did excellent work: they had to do what was here first. They had to see what would happen."
The next major, 'Capital M' Movement did not develop until the early Eighties with the advent of cyberpunk. Although Bruce Sterling's Mirrorshades anthology might provide a better overview of the movement there can be only one choice for a core cyberpunk text: William Gibson's Neuromancer. A debut novel, it became one of the most popular works of science fiction ever written. Like Stranger in a Strange Land, Dune and Dhalgren before it, it crossed over into popular culture in a way few SF novels have ever achieved and Gibson's vision became the default future for a generation. It was a long way from what Ballard had in mind when he claimed Earth was the only truly alien planet but it rejected the ad astra per aspera spirit of the Old Wave just as strongly.
Case is a former cyberspace 'cowboy' who has been neurologically crippled by his previous employers for stealing from them. This leaves him unable to re-enter the virtual reality matrix he considers his true home and instead he is reduced to slumming around Chiba City, a Japanese freeport, in a drugged daze. Then, faced with a combination of the threat of death and the reward of the matrix, he is persuaded to carry out One Last Job. There then follows a fairly routine techno-thriller heist plot that takes him across the globe and finally into orbit. By the end of the novel we are left with a race-against-time espionage novel with added commodity fetishism and a ticking (digital) clock.
As with the New Wave, Swanwick provides a handy summary of the cyberpunks: "their fiction is stereotypically characterised by a fully-realised high-tech future, 'crammed' prose, punk attitudes including antagonism to authority, and bright inventive details." Again we can quibble with this. While most of these things are true of Neuromancer — indeed "bright inventive detail" is main reason the book is still worth reading, for all its flaws—Case does not display any punk attitude. Where punk celebrates the flesh Case cannot wait to escape it for the "bodiless exultation of cyberspace."4 Neither is he driven by antagonism, he is simply not driven at all; his defining characteristic is apathy. At the end of the novel he uses his wealth to return to the slum existence he had been living when we first met him. What is needed is some of the characteristics Swanwick ascribes to the humanists, writers of "consciously literary fiction, focusing on human characters who are generally seen as frail and fragile, and using the genre to explore large philosophical questions." Case may be frail and fallible but his characterisation is woefully lacking and any humanity he might possess is suppressed. The same can be said of all Gibson's characters, mostly egregiously in the case of Neuromancer's sole female character. Molly, a cybernetically-augmented assassin, is originally introduced as Case's minder. Within ten pages she is fucking him. In much the same way as in Hollywood blockbusters mere proximity is deemed sufficient for a relationship to form and showing character development is considered superfluous. As with New Wave, for all that cyberpunk aimed to be an assault on the staid conventions of the genre, concentration on characterisation still takes a back seat. If the problem with SF is that it lags anywhere from twenty to a hundred years behind the mainstream, Neuromancer does little to address this. Likewise just as the New Wave contained the seeds of its own destruction so too did cyberpunk, and the book's success has been its own worst enemy. Reading Neuromancer today, twenty years after its release, it is clear that it is all surface, no depth, and no matter how intricately that surface is etched after constant exposure and imitation the original seems slightly tarnished.
Which brings us back to Chouinard. Never one to rest on his laurels he revisited the theme of 'The Long Road To Nowhere' a year later in an essay called 'Minor Futurism: Where SFF Is Headed'. It appeared in Locus Online, the electronic sister magazine of the venerable periodical, enabling him to reach a far greater audience than Swanwick (and probably greater than any previous critic) and in it he stated:
"Most people agree that SFF has been adrift, directionless and Movement-less since the Cyberpunks."
It is a bold, baseless contention using that old chestnut of spurious rhetoric "most people agree". However even if it is true that SF is Movement-less is this any reason to be concerned? Why should we be striving for the Great Leap Forward? For this article I have through necessity only selected one book each to represent New Wave and Cyberpunk. Obviously this gives only a partial glimpse of each movement but both New Worlds: An Anthology and Neuromancer can be considered exemplars for their respective movements. Further, both suggest that such self-conscious movements have a tendency to suffer from tunnel vision. In fact the best movements are those that do not exist. For example, when Iain Banks published Consider Phlebas in 1987 he had no idea he had written a work of New Space Opera.
Consider Phlebas is the first of the Culture novels, which soon become some of the most popular works of British science fiction ever written. The Culture itself is a vast post-scarcity society where resources are so abundant that no one need work or want for anything. Rather than being expansionist or militaristic it is content to simply relax and enjoy the fruits of its technological achievement. It is clear that Banks approves strongly of this, though it strikes some readers (particularly Americans, with their strong libertarian and protestant traditions, it seems) as an unconscionably hedonistic utopia. Throughout the Culture novels Banks repeatedly concentrates on the margins of his society because, let's face it, utopia is boring. In Consider Phlebas he chooses the most marginal protagonist possible: Bora Horza Gobuchul is an ally of the opposing side in a war between the Culture and a religious society called the Idirans, who morally object to artificial intelligence. (In a rather good coinage, that looks like it has stuck, he calls this 'carbon fascism'.) It is a clever device, both showing us his society from the point of view of an outsider and pre-empting (or at least trying to pre-empt) those critics who claim the Culture is nothing more than a benevolent dictatorship.
The Culture series has evolved to become a battlefield for arguments about the limits of liberal interventionism—arguments that have emerged in parallel with those that have taken place in the real world—culminating in Look To Windward, a novel that some argue undermines the very nature of the series. At the time, though, this was a clear subversion of the imperialistic tendencies of what I suppose we now have to call Old Space Opera. At the same time the ambiguities of his society's interaction with other, less advanced, cultures point to the fact that while he is clearly a political writer he is not operating within a prescribed framework. So whilst Banks was reacting to some features of traditional space opera he did not have a check list of heterodox tropes that a New Space Opera cabal commanded that he purge from his writing. Primarily he was writing what he wanted to write. Instead it was left to critics to piece together a movement from the tangle of texts that shared obvious influences but to differing degrees and effects. The term 'New Space Opera' was not even codified until 2003 in a special issue of Locus, with an editorial by Gary K. Wolfe and Russell Letson, that collected articles by Ken MacLeod, Paul McAuley, Gwyneth Jones and M. John Harrison (more on him later.) It appeared at around the same time as a separate essay by David G. Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer at SFRevu. While Wolfe points to New Space Opera writers as having "a very deliberate dialogue with each other and with space-opera form itself"5 this dialogue took place almost entirely through published fiction. This is as it should be.
The same phenomenon can be seen even more clearly when faced with the New Weird. This is a movement so nebulous that no one could agree on a name for, let alone a definition and its practioners often deny they write it. The two writers probably most associated with the idea—the pulpy but serious China Miéville and the literary but playful Jeff VanderMeer—use shared genre antecedents to produce very different results. Editorials on the New Weird penned by Miéville, Justina Robson and Graham Joyce did appear in The Third Alternative but these, and the thrashing out of ideas on various internet message boards, only reinforced the lack of commonality. This is mutual respect, mutual ancestry and mutual interests but not anything you could call a manifesto.
Swanwick talks of Lucius Shepard as being something of a locus of praxis between the cyberpunks and humanists. Although he does not mention it, such praxis is also to be found in his own work; his industrial wildwood of a novel, The Iron Dragon's Daughter, melds together many elements in a way which anticipates New Weird. However even those most strongly one camp or the other found it hard to stay there. If you look at the career of Bruce Sterling, the most talented and vocal of the cyberpunk writers, his most interesting and successful work has not been in the subgenre he helped birth. The year after Neuromancer he published the brilliantly fertile Schismatrix, another key text of the New Space Opera, and a book that stretched far beyond the boundaries of cyberpunk. Perhaps this isn't so surprising. This is after all the man who invented and simultaneously derided slipstream before many years later going on to write Zeitgeist, a perfect example of the subgenre.
It might be even more instructive at this point to look at the career of another writer who has escaped these boxes and whose influence runs through all the examples of movements so far given: M. John Harrison. His short story 'Running Down' is one of the best collected in New Worlds: An Anthology and yet placed in those surroundings it seems almost conservative. As is clear from his non-fiction of the time (recently collected in Parietal Games) he was every bit as revolutionary minded as his peers but there is none of the excess of experimentation on display elsewhere. It is for this reason that it fitted very well into his recent, highly acclaimed collection, Things That Never Happen, and it is no coincidence that the concerns and execution of 'Running Down' line up very strongly with contemporary literary fantasy. The same year as that story he published The Centauri Device, an angry, hollow, raging novel that would become one of the proto-texts of the New Space Opera. The recent Gollancz SF Masterworks reprint carries a glowing cover quote from Banks, who has named it as one of his ten favourite SF novel. Ken MacLeod, who also cites the novel as an influence, goes so far as to suggest it anticipates cyberpunk. Simultaneously Harrison was writing what would become the Viriconium sequence. Along with Melvyn Peake's Titus Groan this would become a template for fantasy writers who rejected the Tolkein orthodoxy and chose to plough a different furrow. The particularly fecund millennial strand of this is what would eventually end up being labelled New Weird. And then, as if to be wilfully contrary, at the height of interest in the New Weird he published Light, a triumphant return to space opera which was rapturously received by critics (if not by the average punter.) This is not the career of someone subordinated to a dogma. Harrison is his own man:
"I'm not interesting in planting any flags—just in making sure no one else's flag gets planted in me."
It is understandable that Harrison can be a touch fractious on the subject. A writer of any skill strives to escape such chains and it must be galling to see each free generation approaching, desperate to slap on the irons. More galling still to see some writers rushing to embrace their jailers. The history of people like Harrison and Sterling suggests that there is very little point in manifesto building apart from at best, a critical propaganda organ, and at worst, a platform for posturing. Of course, neither of these have anything to do with producing fiction. With this in mind the Young Turks would do well to burn their manifestos, throw away their flags, cast off their hair shirts and get on with the business of producing art. That's the hard part: leave the petty squabbling to the critics.
1. Michael Swanwick, 'A User's Guide To The Postmoderns' in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, Vol. 10: No. 8
2. New Worlds: An Anthology, 2nd edition, ed. by Michael Moorcock (New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 2005) p.ix
3. Barrington Bailey, 'The Four-Colour Problem' in New Worlds: An Anthology
4. William Gibson, Neuromancer (London: HarperCollins, 1993) p.12
5. Gary K. Wolfe, Locus, Issue 511, p.40
Bayley, B. 'The Four-Colour Problem' (1971)
Ballard, J.G. 'The Assassination Weapon' (1966)
—The Atrocity Exhibition (1970)
—The Drought (1965)
—The Unlimited Dream Company (1979)
—The Empire of the Sun (1984)
Banks, Iain M. Consider Phlebas (1987)
—Look To Windward (2000)
Delany, Samuel R. Dhalgren (1975)
Gibson, W. Neuromancer (1984)
Harrison, M. John 'Running Down' (1975)
—Parietal Games (2005)
—Things That Never Happen (2002)
—The Centauri Device (1975)
Heinlein, R. Stranger In A Strange Land (1961)
Herbert, F. Dune (1965)
Moorcock, M. New Worlds: An Anthology, 2nd Edition (2005)
Peake, M. Titus Groan (1946)
Sterling, B. Schismatrix (1985)
Swanwick, M. The Iron Dragon's Daughter (1993)
Zoline, P. 'Heat Death of the Universe' (1967)
This article first appeared in Vector 245. Back issues of Vector are available from