Saturday, 20 May 2017

The New Wave of Science Fiction

We’ve spent time looking at the Golden Age of science fiction, but it couldn’t last. Many young writers entering the field came to feel, either instantly, like Thomas M Disch, or after some years' slogging away at conventional commercial science fiction, like Harlan Ellison and Robert Silverberg, that genre science fiction had become a straitjacket; though widely supposed to emphasize change and newness, science fiction had somehow become conservative.
As the 1960s arrived, in the minds of many, it was time for science fiction to 'grow up.' A New Wave of authors began to experiment with literary and artistic form, and to break away from the earlier 'pulp' science fiction as adolescent and poorly written. The magazine New Worlds, under Michael Moorcock, who became editor in 1964, was prominent in this new movement.

This was primarily a British movement, but there were changes elsewhere too. Novels began to explore psychological drama, controversy and style. In 1960, Kingsley Amis published New Maps of Hell, a literary history and examination of the field of science fiction. This serious attention from a mainstream, acceptable writer boosted the reputation of science fiction.

In 1965, Frank Herbert published Dune, a dense, complex, and detailed work of fiction which eventually ran to several volumes, featuring political intrigue in a future galaxy, strange and mystical religious beliefs, and the eco-system of the desert planet Arrakis [see next week]. Roger Zelazny's novels such as Lord of Light (1967) and his famous The Chronicles of Amber fantasy series (1970-91) showed that the lines between science fiction, fantasy, religion, and social commentary could be very fine.
J G Ballard
The first writers whose work was later subsumed under the New Wave label were British, notably Brian W Aldiss and J G Ballard. These two were publishing stories in New Worlds while it was still under the editorship of John Carnell, but it was not until Michael Moorcock took over with the May/June 1964 issue that the kind of imagistic, highly metaphoric story, inclined more towards Psychology and the Soft Sciences than to Hard Science Fiction, that both men wrote (in quite different styles) was given a setting where it seemed at home.
Philip K Dick
When I checked GoodReads for the top New Wave books, 15 out of the top 16 were by Philip K Dick. The odd one, at number 12, was by J G Ballard, as were the next 28 books! Then came Michael Moorcock. So I looked elsewhere and found that other lists, while heavily populated with Dick and Ballard titles did include other authors. It seems there is no consensus on the best books. Here is my amalgamation, in no particular order:

Philip K Dick
Martian Time-Slip (1964)
A Scanner Darkly (1977)
The Man in the High Castle (1962)
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968)

J G BallardThe Burning World (1964)
The Atrocity Exhibition (1970)
The Crystal World (1966)
The Impossible Man (1966)

Other Authors
Stand on Zanzibar (1968) John Brunner
Nova Express (1964) William S Burroughs
Dune (1965) Frank Herbert
Babel-17 (1966) Samuel R Delany
Slaughterhouse Five (1969) Kurt Vonnegut
A Time of Changes (1971) Robert Silverberg
Rocannon’s World (1966) Ursula K Le Guin
Barefoot in the Head (1969) Brian Aldis
The Genocides (1965) Thomas M Disch
Lord of Light (1967) Roger Zelazny
NB Harlan Ellison wrote mostly short stories and later, television scripts.

I am surprised and ashamed that I find I have read hardly any of these, considering that I grew up in this era. Dune and its many sequels is the main exception, which I will be writing about next week, and then we will look at some of the other authors. Please feel free to leave other suggestions in the comments to guide my future purchases as I catch up on this great period in science fiction history.

[Adapted from The Science Fiction Encyclopedia and Wikipedia]

Ann Marie Thomas is the author of three medieval history books, a surprisingly cheerful poetry collection about her 2010 stroke, and the science fiction series Flight of the Kestrel. Book one, Intruders, is out now. Follow her at

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