Visions of Paradise

Saturday, November 29, 2008

New Waves

Science fiction first appeared in the 19th Century following the Industrial Revolution, an outgrowth of fantasy based on scientific extrapolation (which partly explains why it developed so soon after industrialization began). Like humanity, the evolution of science fiction has combined steady growth with sudden mutations of development. In an earlier era, these abrupt mutations were called “waves”, and they occurred at fairly regular intervals. It is actually fairly easy to spot most waves which took place in the 20th Century:

▸ 1895, the publication of The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells which immediately raised science fiction from its previous existence primarily in “dime novels” (a la Frank Reade, Jr.) and voyages extraordinaire (as written primarily by Jules Verne and his imitators) to literary status;

▸ 1912, the publication of Under the Moons of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs marked the beginning of the scientific romance era;

▸ 1926, the first publication of Amazing Stories, edited by Hugo Gernsback, the first pulpzine devoted exclusively to science fiction, inaugurated the pulp era of science fiction during which the genre lost the last vestiges of its once-lofty literary status in America, although it retained that status slightly longer in Great Britain;

▸ 1939, the publication of “Black Destroyer,” by A.E. van Vogt in Astounding Science-Fiction, edited by John W. Campbell, Jr., began the Golden Age in which science fiction broadened scientifically and deepened intellectually after the self-induced restrictions of the Gernsback era;

▸ 1950, the first publication of Galaxy Magazine, edited by H.L. Gold and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, edited by Anthony Boucher and J. Francis McComas (first published in 1949) spearheaded the development of science fiction both intellectually and as literature. This movement received further impetus by the creation of the first paperback book lines devoted to publishing science fiction, Ballantine Books (1952), edited by Ian and Betty Ballantine, and Ace Books (1953), edited by Donald A. Wollheim;

▸ 1965 was the beginning of the New Wave, spearheaded by British science fiction magazine New Worlds, edited by Michael Moorcock, who attempted to infuse science fiction with mainstream literary and experimental techniques. American writers such as Roger Zelazny, Samuel R. Delany, Harlan Ellison and Thomas M. Disch were important figures in this movement;

▸ 1984, the publication of Neuromancer, by William Gibson, inaugurated the cyberpunk movement in which science fiction largely abandoned future worlds and far-future extravaganzas to concentrate on near-future extrapolations from the late 20th Century, with an emphasis on such “cutting edge” scientific developments as computers, nanotechnology, and virtual reality.

A brief examination of the number of years between the waves is interesting: 17, 14, 13, 11, 15, 19. Assuming that irregular pattern continues, the next wave should have taken place somewhere between 1995 (11 years later) and 2003 (19 years). Has it happened yet? Has there been any sudden spurt in the evolution of science fiction akin to the birth of the “New Wave” or the development of cyberpunk?

Actually, there have been several changes in the shape of science fiction in the past decade rather than just a single one, likely because science fiction has grown so large and sprawling that there are many “focal points” now rather than just a single one. So what are those important changes?

1. Fantasy has become a strong component of the genre, so much so that often it is indistinguishable from science fiction. How often do you read reviews containing statements such as “this novel reads like fantasy but is pure science fiction” or vice versa? During the height of the New Wave, fantasy probably consisted of 1-2% of all genre books being published, and they were primarily reprints from the early, pre-Gernsback era when science fiction split decisively from fantasy. It’s major impetus was a single event: the publication and consequent success of Lord of the Rings in the 1960s, but it took many years for fantasy to take hold.

2. Horror has become a strong component of the genre as well, its main impetus being the incredible popularity of Stephen King, beginning in the 1970s. While horror has had its commercial ups and downs, it too has had a strong effect on the shape of contemporary science fiction with authors such as George R.R. Martin, Dan Simmons, China Mieville and Neil Gaiman interweaving horror with fantasy and science fiction so well that the three sub-genres are almost indistinguishable now.

3. Science fiction and fantasy have both “crossed over” into the literary mainstream, although generally in such disguises as magic realism and slipstream which are rarely, if ever, acknowledged as either science fiction or fantasy. Many mainstream critics are still making claims that “This novel is too good to be science fiction,” and many “literary” writers who write decidedly science fiction novels still disavow their works falling into that disreputed genre. But people such as critic Michael Dirda and writer Michael Chabon openly embrace genre as more and more writers, whether admittedly or secretly, embrace it in their writing as well;

4. Perhaps the dominant current movement in "core" science fiction is the revival of hard science and space opera as an often-unified entity. Early in the 1990s, many “core” sf fans were upset at Gardner Dozois since the pages of both Asimov’s and The Year’s Best Science Fiction were dominated by literary science fiction and fantasy. There was almost no traditional far-future and space settings in the stories Dozois printed, and fanzines were filled with complaints that Dozois was printing the type of science fiction he preferred to the exclusion of all other types.

In an interview at that time, Dozois replied that he was printing literary sf and fantasy because that was primarily the type of stories he was receiving as submissions. He claimed to love “traditional” sf but was receiving so little of it, and so low in quality, that he could not possibly print much of it in the pages of Asimov’s.

This was an easy rebuttal for Dozois since there was no way it could be challenged by his critics who had no access to his slush piles. But a dozen years later, Dozois’ defense has been proven by a glance at the pages of either Asimov’s or The Year’s Best Science Fiction since they now print hardly any fantasy, and literary science fiction has been almost supplanted by more traditional sf types, especially hard science fiction and space opera.

This movement had its foundation in Great Britain, centered around Interzone. Writers such as Brian Stableford, Greg Egan, Stephen Baxter, Iain M. Banks, Ken MacLeod, Paul J. McAuley, Sean McMullen, Alastair Reynolds, and Peter F. Hamilton have sparked a resurgence in what Dozois calls “radical hard science fiction”. These authors have spread their tentacles from Interzone to Asimov’s to year's best volumes and even to the award ballots.

“Hard” science fiction was pronounced dead during the “New Wave” era, but was kept alive by a few diehard authors (Larry Niven, Gregory Benford). During the “Cyberpunk” era a few authors altered the Cyberpunk lead into more sfnal worlds (Greg Bear), but this time it is more than just a few authors who are carrying the torch; it is an entire movement which is sweeping science fiction like a...well, like a wave.


  • Great overview. If anything stood out as the most recent wave, I would say it was the British hard space opera movement too. But I don't see an outpouring of praise for it. In the past, that is, before the Internet, book reviewers and fanzine writers kept the pulse of science fiction. Neuromancer's clean sweep of the awards, and the whole brouhaha that followed, made it obvious we were in a new wave. I don't see that now.

    Did you see the recent New Scientist article asking if science fiction is dead? Are we heading into an anti-new-wave period?

    By Blogger Jim Harris, At 8:04 AM  

  • Here's some more info about Hugo Gernsback that may interest your readers.

    I’ve recently published a new 900-page biography about the life and times of Hugo Gernsback. It is available on Amazon. Just follow this link:

    The manuscript was found while I was in the process of closing down Gernsback Publications Inc. in 2003. It was apparently written some time in the 1950’s. It covers all the areas that Hugo found interesting: wireless communications, science fiction, publishing, patents, foretelling the future, and much more.

    Want more info? Contact me at

    By Blogger lartronics, At 5:33 PM  

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