The Early Days of a Better Nation

Monday, April 18, 2005

Not a Good Word to Say

A fixture of SF conventions is the Dealers' Room. It's mostly books, of course, and these mostly second-hand, but you can also find craftwork, from real deadly daggers to dragon-patterned hairclips; jewellery and embroidery, T-shirts and tiaras. But it's mostly books. Usually I buy one serious critical work, new. This year I bought a funny critical work, David Langford's The Complete Critical Assembly, and a load of old paperbacks. Six of these were issues of New Worlds, the 1970s paperback series that succeeded the SF magazine of the same name. Specifically, they were New Worlds numbers 1, 4, 5, 6, 8, and 10. I read them all as they came out.

They contain some of my favourite stories from the time, and many that I loathed, but the main thing that has stuck in my mind from them is the criticism, largely by John Clute and M. John Harrison. At the time I enjoyed it. I still do, in a way. But what strikes me, on re-reading, is how negative it was. Harrison, in particular, has with very rare exceptions (Norman Spinrad's Bug Jack Barron, Arthur Sellings' Junk Day) not a good word to say about anything published as SF. It's a tellingly selective range that he targets. Most of the books he notices are now forgotten, and were marginal at the time. (Colin Wilson's The Black Room, anyone?) Those that weren't (e.g. Tau Zero) are lined up to have their cardboard characters kicked and their clunky dialogue ridiculed. Their specifically science-fictional strengths - and come on, a competent book about travelling at relativistic velocities to the end of the universe has to have some science-fictional strengths - are passed over with a yawn. It's like reading SF criticism by someone who despised SF; who just didn't see the point of SF's existence in the first place.

(Clute's a different story. No matter how harsh he was, you always got the feeling he thought there was something there worth worrying at. He has gone on to become the field's most erudite, exacting and comprehending critic. Harrison's strengths were and are as a fiction writer, and his early exercises in criticism may have been just that, exercises: wrestling with the genre and building his muscles for other feats entirely. And they are great feats.)

Now you could say that Harrison - and the New Wave generally - was just railing at SF's failure to live up to its possibilities, its lazy contentment with life in a literary slum, its windows steamed up with potboilers. But what rather tells against that is this: in the whole of that series, I can't remember - I may have missed it, but the point is there's nothing that sticks in the memory - anything at all about the good stuff that was coming out at the time. I owe this recognition to a conversation at the con with Farah: when I ventured that the New Wave's critical negativity could be explained by the fact that the early 70s in SF were a bad period anyway, she pointed out that, on the contrary, it was a period of immense vigour: some of the best work of Robert Silverberg, Joe Haldeman's debut, the first wave of feminist SF ... I've just checked the half-decade's details in (where else) John Clute's Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopaedia, and here they are:

The New Worlds paperback series series came out between 1971 and 1976. Let's allow a year for publication lag, and look at some notable titles of 1970 to 1975: Larry Niven's Ringworld, Robert Silverberg's Dying Inside, Ian Watson's The Embedding, Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed, Joe Haldeman's The Forever War, Joanna Russ's The Female Man, John Brunner's The Sheep Look Up and The Shockwave Rider, Gene Wolfe's The Fifth Head of Cerberus, Suzy McKee Charnas's Walk to the End of the World, Bob Shaw's Orbitsville, Samuel Delany's Dahlgren ... there was a lot of SF being written that just didn't fit the neat New Wave classification of on the one hand boring rightwing mechaporn militarist nerdwank and on the other bold experimental fiction that really is vastly superior to all that.

What that left out was the gripping hand. (That's an American SF joke. Never mind.)

Now, I knew all this. I'd read most of these books at or soon after publication. I'd also and likewise read, of the major books that came out between 1976 and 1983: The Alteration (Kingsley Amis), The Malacia Tapestry (Aldiss), If the Stars are Gods (Benford and Eklund), Gateway, JEM, Beyond the Blue Event Horizon (Pohl), The Ophiuchi Hotline (Varley), The Martian Inca (Watson), Timescape (Benford), The Book of the New Sun (Wolfe), Star Songs of an Old Primate (Tiptree), Worlds (Haldeman), Helliconia Spring (Aldiss), The Anubis Gates (Powers), Golden Witchbreed (Mary Gentle).

And yet I've said, of that period between the end of the New Wave and the beginning of cyberpunk:

The New Wave collapsed in a dribble of exhausted froth.

Other developments - the rise of self-consciously 'hard SF' which didn't fudge the physics - failed to re-ignite the genre's engines. The late seventies and early eighties were pretty dire - in SF, and in the world.

What rubbish! How completely, embarrassingly, crushingly wrong! I don't even have the excuse of ignorance. I've thought, and said and written, that I didn't read much SF at that time. Yet it's obvious now, looking at those titles, that I did read them more less as they were published. And it's not that I didn't like them. In almost all cases I enjoyed them, admired them enormously, and enthused about them. And there's the rub. At that time my enthusiasm met a cold blast of indifference or hostility from most of the people I talked to about it. When I wasn't struggling vainly to be a scientist, I was working at crap jobs. When I wasn't active in the most philistine of the Trot sects, I was hanging out in its milieu. Then, in the mid-80s, just as cyberpunk came along, I got a job as a computer programmer and walked away from the sects and finished my thesis, and within a short time was organising an SF club at work and writing The Star Fraction. No wonder, then, that many years later my backward glance at the period between the end of New Worlds and the publication of Neuromancer was bleak. It wasn't dire in SF, or fallow in my own reading of SF, but in the response I got to my talking about SF, and this darkened my view.

I've also attributed the New Space Opera and the British boom to the application of 'a British New Wave [...] sensibility to traditional tropes'. The Americans, I've suggested, supplied the big ideas, and the Brits came along with the literary sophistication and political complexity. This is just insultingly wrong, as well being as an unconscious, and thus all the more galling, echo of that British declining-imperialist conceit of being Athens to the new Rome. For the books I've listed above, and many that I haven't, are quite clearly among the true ancestors and inspirations for New Space Opera and the British boom. They're certainly not lacking in political and literary sophistication. In Britain SF was, with some shining exceptions, indeed in the doldrums in the late 70s and early 80s, but in the US it was flourishing, and branching out in all kinds of new directions. Its contribution, in terms of style and subject-matter and challenge, has proved far more lasting and fruitful than that of most of the British New Wave.

There remains the interesting question of why one of its consequences is, at the moment, a specifically British boom, but that was the subject of another conversation, with Charlie, and for another time.


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