I’d like to offer some further thoughts inspired by F. Brett Cox’s recent post. The bit from his essay that seems to be generating the most comment is:
The New Wave still freaks people out. Whenever I teach Samuel R. Delany’s “Aye, and Gomorrah,” the students are almost always genuinely unsettled. They never know what to make of Pamela Zoline’s “The Heat Death of the Universe”; one or two have been outraged that it’s on the syllabus for a science fiction class.
Gregory Benford left a comment saying: “Amazing! Yet the field digested it long ago…” I whole-heartedly agreed with Cox’s point, and mentioned Joanna Russ as an example. A. A. Roi states: “It’s understandable that people are still freaked out by the New Wave. The vast majority of Science Fiction that kids are exposed to (Media SF) hasn’t really progressed beyond a 50′s sensibility.”
So I got to thinking a bit about what specific quality of New Wave writing unsettles me when I read it. Because even today I approach sf from that era apprehensively. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that it’s not the subject matter: I think the politics, diversity, and ‘soft-science’ themes aren’t terribly shocking to today’s readers. In that sense I agree with Greg’s comment that the sf field has ‘digested’ the lessons of the New Wave. Certainly when I read Russ’ The Female Man it wasn’t the feminism of the narrative or the lesbianism of some of the heroines that I found disturbing. What really disturbed me was the raw emotional intensity of the writing. I think that’s shared by some other New Wave authors, and it might be the key.
In Russ, and also in works like John Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar, there’s an intense emotional component to the stories that the reader cannot avoid. The narration doesn’t shy away from the character’s moments of rage, frustration, grief, or joy. They are as central to the story as any ray-gun space-battle set-piece–in fact, more so. While other works may elide a moment of intense emotion (set if off stage, relate it in flashback, imply it without description), these stories put it front and center.
It seems to me, when I look at the field since the end of the New Wave in the 80’s, that sf has again distanced itself from that kind of emotional primacy. I think that might be the key to A. A. Roi’s comment about not progressing beyond a 50’s sensibility, although in this sense I’d include literature as well as media sf. I’m not going to resort to the hoary cliche that sf ‘doesn’t have real characters’ or any such thing. That’s not true at all. There are tons of characters, some beautifully developed and some cardboard, some extremely memorable and some ephemeral. But I wonder if the field has returned to the ‘habit’ (for lack of a better word) of again eliding the moments of strong emotion, of allowing readers to flow past them without forcing them to really experience them.
As I was thinking about this, I also thought of Peter Watts. No one can accuse his work of being in any way emotionally distant–see his Hugo-nominated Blindsight. He has characters who feel a lot of rage and pain, and he doesn’t shy away from describing it, sometimes at length. And I wonder if that might not be the reason that many readers today also describe being unsettled or discomforted by his books and stories. It might be something that his style shares with the sf of the New Wave.
Another thought that percolated through my mind as I was working on this was the significant amount of fantasy stories (especially at shorter lengths) that I’ve read that do focus on the emotional intensity of their characters. I wonder if, at the moment, fantasy and ‘slipstream’ works (e.g. M. Rickert) have been channeling this emotional tenor that doesn’t seem to fit any more easily in the sf of the 2000’s than it did in 1940’s sf.
What do you think? Is there any legitimacy to making the broad assertion that New Wave writing uncomfortably foregrounded intense emotional experience in way that the field has rarely done before or since? Is it too broad a brush? Have I simply been reading too-small subsets that have skewed my perceptions? Let me know!