New Wave Intensity

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!

7 thoughts on “New Wave Intensity

  • April 1, 2011 at 5:49 am

    I suspect the key word here is “empathy”. In theory, works that encourage the reader to identify with the emotions of the protagonists have more narrative power. So, depending on the emotions we are expected to share, the work could become unsettling. This is not to say that all New Wave was empathic in spirit. But some of the better works had that quality.

    The modern trend in SF is to switch the point of view. Key characters are described as being psychic, empaths or, even, telepaths, but we are expected to be dispassionate observers of the emotions “shared” by the protagonist. It’s now more likely to be vicarious whereas what we now call New Wave was more directly interested in soft as opposed to scientific realities. It was a reaction against the cod science of the pulps and a refocussing of interest on the social context in which the action was to occur. Most modern SF reflects modern sensibilities. The majority of people are uncomfortable if expected to understand others at an emotional level, particularly if this involves judging them. So fiction objectifies emotions and simply presents them for our consideration. It’s a shame because this tends to make the fiction more superficial.

  • April 1, 2011 at 8:57 am

    Karen: very good points. Indeed, “the raw emotional intensity of the writing” does flare up more commonly in fantasy, and the more intellectual pleasures sf offers can give it a different tone. Stand on Zanzibar, much of Russ, some Delany and David Bunch do penetrate into emotion, but then Camp Concentration is wildly intellectual AND emotional. Watts is similar, strong on both. You taught me something here, a service that we need critics for, and I’ll make use of this.

  • April 1, 2011 at 1:19 pm

    I guess I disagree entirely. The hallmark stories of the New Wave were not in general written by Americans, with the exception of Disch and Sladek and James Sallis, but by Moorcock (see Jerry Cornelius stories), Langdon Jones, and J. G. Ballard, and they were often intensely internal and stylistically experimental. I would like to hear what you have to say when you have read a bunch of their work. Also, there was an American movement at the same time, centered around Milford and Damon Knight’s Orbit anthologies, to improve the literary quality of science fiction, not to declare it of only historical interest (which was part of the stated agenda of the New Wave in the UK). Joanna, Chip, and a number of others were of the American persuasion. Brunner, as always, was an extremely talented writer who wanted to please everyone.

  • April 1, 2011 at 4:44 pm

    Greg- Thanks! A high compliment indeed.

    David- So is the argument that UK New Wave was less emotionally intense than American New Wave, Brunner notwithstanding? Perhaps readers today would find UK New Wave sf less unsettling to read, or disturbing but for different reasons?

  • April 2, 2011 at 3:58 pm

    Karen tweeted me and suggested I come along here especially to respond to David H’s comments. Happy to, but I need to spend a bit of time first defining my terms. I think, for starters, that there wasn’t one New Wave but at least three. That is, the one embodied in Moorcock-era New Worlds; the one embodied in Ellison’s Dangerous Visions and the original anthologies that followed like Quark and Orbit; and the one embodied in Judith Merrill’s curation of the field in her Year’s Best SF anthologies. These different New Waves had the following characteristics in varying proportions:

    1) Pushing boundaries of form – trying to absorb the technical innovations of modernism into sf.
    2) Pushing boundaries of content – trying to cover fully subjects like sexuality that had previously mostly been taboo.
    3) A fuller dialogue with the world of “mainstream” literature, and the sense that speculative fiction was part of the larger field.
    4) A general engagement with the concerns of the 60s counterculture.
    5) A critique of some of the triumphalist assumptions of the sf that had gone before.

    If I had to generalise, I’d say that the New Worlds New Wave was more interested in innovations of form; the Ellison et al New Wave was more interested in innovations of content; and the Merril New Wave in the dialogue with the mainstream. But all of them partook of all the above; and generalisations about “UK vs US” are probably doomed because of the extent of transatlantic back-and-forth (Disch, Sladek, Zoline doing their most characteristic work for New Worlds etc.) What Karen describes as the emotional intensity of some New Wave fiction (not all – eg, Ballard) is sometimes a function of the content being looked at, and sometimes the form – eg stream-of-consciousness. Along with the transgressive in New Wave sf, there’s sometimes what one might think of as a kind of stubbornness, a refusal to be normalised. So I’d disagree with Gregory Benford that the field digested the New Wave a long time ago. Some of its innovations still seem shocking – as do those of its ancestors like William Burroughs – as witness, eg, Matt Cheney’s review of Moorcock’s New Worlds anthology. ( But if you had to nominate a single emblematic New Wave story, it’d probably have to be Ballard’s “The Assassination of JFK considered as a Downhill Motor Race” – a story of shocking formal daring that’s also deliberately affectless. So I’d see the emotional intensity that Karen isolates as a consequence of some of the experiments of the New Wave but by no means all.

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