- Historic Sites
September/October 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 6
Suddenly sci-fi was a literary vogue, and colleges began to offer courses in it.
Because of this newfound respectability, and perhaps also because the expanded markets made the money more interesting, a good many mainstream writers, like Doris Lessing and Kurt Vonnegut, tried their hands at the genre.
In the 1960s a group of science-fiction writers and critics launched, with great fanfare, what they called the New Wave in science fiction. It is hard to say just who the New Wavers were, because some of the most influential writers of that sort (Harlan Ellison and Samuel R. Delany in particular) firmly denied they were part of the movement; but Brian W. Aldiss, J. G. Ballard, Michael Moorcock, Judith Merril, and half a dozen others—mostly English, or Americans residing in England—joined in issuing a manifesto. No one, they declared, should write about “bloody old Jupiter” anymore; what science fiction should do was concentrate on inner space, on the world of psychedelics and the convoluted workings of the mind, on the changes in sexual mores and social styles. Moreover, this should be done in prose styles and multimedia experiments that reflected the innovations possible in literature itself, as well as in subject matter. Finally, what science fiction most urgently needed to do was to quit calling itself “science fiction” at all. They felt that “science fiction” was a pejorative term. “Speculative fiction” would be better, they judged, or just “sf.”
So the great war between the New Wavers and the Ancient Dinosaurs began to explode. It was a good, hot fire fight for a time, with the New Wavers denouncing the troglodytes for their pulpish ways, and the Dinosaurs pointing out to the rebels that experimental writing was all very well but that most experiments were statistically certain to fail. The New Wavers went on and published their experiments anyway, in magazines like the English New Worlds.
Most wars end with both sides the losers. This particular war in science fiction ended the other way: both sides won. There is hardly a ripple left of the 1960s New Wave, at least as a distinct subgenre within science fiction, but its effects have changed everyone. Old Dinosaurs like myself learned from the New Wave that there were other ways to tell a science-fiction story than the Gernsback and Campbell models, and so the best of recent science fiction is marked by greatly enhanced depth of characterization, willingness to explore the internalities of the human condition under exotic circumstances, and, not least, much more sensitivity to the sound of the language. Meanwhile, the best of the New Wavers have gone back to writing stories about “bloody old Jupiter”—or, in Brian Aldiss’s case, his fine trilogy about the invented planet Heliconia—but doing it better than ever before.
A generation ago science fiction was nearly an American monopoly. American science-fiction writers were known all over the world. One of my own early books was translated into forty-three languages that I know of (one never knows about all the pirated editions), including Finnish, Latvian, and Hebrew. There were always good writers in other countries, to be sure, but only a few, and even of that few hardly any who were known outside their own linguistic territory. And of course, then America had a recognized position in the world, as the preeminent country of technology and change.
It isn’t that anymore—not to the same degree. Every city’s skyline is beginning to look like the set for Just Imagine, and Japanese and French and Soviet people are building larger spaceships to go on more adventurous errands or designing the kinds of electronics and cars we thought only we could do. The international organization of science-fiction professionals, World SF, now has writer-members in thirty-two countries. There are nearly a hundred native science-fiction writers in Japan alone, and more than that in the USSR, and some of these other writers (the Strugatsky brothers from the Soviet Union, Sakyo Komatsu from Japan, and especially Stanislaw Lern from Poland) have world reputations, though even when their reputations extend to the United States, their works are not widely read. American readers simply are not much interested in any science fiction not originally done in English.
After World War If, technological disenchantment began to pervade sci-fi.
The science fiction of the closing years of the twentieth century has changed a good deal from that of its early days. Naturally enough; even science-fiction writers write out of the shared culture and feelings of their times, and the times have changed. H. G. Wells wrote of things that might happen. The early pulp writers of the Gernsback period and beyond wrote of things that may well happen and how they were likely to change everyone’s life. After World War II a kind of technological disenchantment began to pervade science fiction (and a good deal of the rest of the world): Atomic power had come, but it hadn’t given us limitless free energy, only Hiroshima and the nuclear balance. The science fiction of the fifties and sixties tends to be somewhat more adult, and a good deal more gloomy, than what went before.