“I hope that when the New Wave has deposited its froth and receded, the vast and solid shore of science fiction will appear once more.”
– John W. Campbell, frothing about the New Wave
If you spend a lot of time studying history, you’ll know that it helps to put the slings and arrows of the present into perspective. If you’ve been reading science fiction for the last ten or twenty years, you have likely noticed a certain shift in the field the last couple of years. A certain… bump in the level of its quality, particularly at the prose level. There are some award-winning stories from the last decade that I could poke fun at here for their cardboard characters and clunky prose, but on the whole the shift we are seeing in the science fiction and fantasy field is exciting. So exciting, in fact, that if you love great sff books, as I do, it’s impossible to keep up with all the great stuff out there.
About a decade ago, the worlds that I really enjoyed in books were marginal. They were stuffed into the New Weird category for a time, which we all soon learned wasn’t a genre at all. China Mieville was the genre, and the New Weird was a blip. Those experiments with prose and gooey weirdness got subsumed completely by the publishing meltdown in 2008, when editors and authors found their livelihoods lost, and fear sent publishers back to the basics. Many books got the ax, including my first novel, before they could even see the light of day. The field turned inward, betting on solid hits, easy to read prose, simple styles, proven genres.
There were those of us who kept writing, though. There were writers there pushing for more diverse work, less easy to define, and they were publishing slowly but surely, folks like N.K. Jemisin and Tobias Buckell and David Anthony Durham. Daniel Abraham put out a lovely but alas, far ahead of its time series called The Longprice Quartet that was fairly masterful. Nalo Hopkinson and Nnedi Okorafor continued to publish and inspire writers coming up after them. While we fought and continue to fight about what science fiction is and who should be writing it, a lot of people are just fucking out there writing it already, and go fuck yourself for trying to put us in a box.
Though there has been momentum building for some time, a backlash against the backlash, I’d say it wasn’t until about 2013 when publishing started to catch up. Ann Leckie wrote a space opera (a woman wrote a space opera! With women in it! AND PEOPLE BOUGHT IT SHOCKING I KNOW AS IF NO ONE HAD BOUGHT LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS OR ANYTHING BY CJ CHERRYH OR OCTAVIA BUTLER), and it swept the awards. We Need Diverse Books was able to organize the conversation about the overwhelming whiteness of publishing, bringing together disparate voices into one voice crying out for change in who writes, edits, and publishes books, while the first Muslim Ms. Marvel comic book (written by a Muslim, even!) broke sales records.
The water has been building up behind the damn for a long time, and it’s finally burst.
Watching the pushback to this new wave of writers finally breaking out from the margins to the mainstream has been especially amusing for me, as I spent my early 20’s doing a lot of old-school SF reading, including reading SFF history (I will always think of Justine Larbalestier as the author of The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction). I was, of course, especially interested in the history of feminist science fiction. Women have always written SFF, of course, but the New Wave of the 60’s and 70’s brought with it an influx of women writers of all races and men of color that was unprecedented in the field (if still small compared to the overall general population of said writers in America). This was the age of Joanna Russ, Octavia Butler, Sam Delany, and nutty young upstarts like Harlan Ellison. These writers brought a much needed and refreshing new perspective into the field. They raised the bar for what science fiction was. And so the writing got better. The politics and social mores being dissected got more interesting and varied, as one would expect when you introduce a great wave of writers into a field that was happy to award the same handful of folks year after year. They shook up the field. They changed science fiction forever. The established pros had to write their hearts out to catch up.
And clearly, as the Campbell quote above illustrates, not everybody liked them. They hated all these different viewpoints, all these upstarts, all this young energy from these literary backgrounds. As far as they were concerned, the New Wave was ruining science fiction.
In fact, what history has shown, and what we see on looking back, is that – if anything – the New Wave saved science fiction. It saved it from obscurity, from the endless circle-jerk, from the literary and social margins where it seemed content to argue with itself, and wither, and die. These talented and passionate new writers forced established writers to up their game. They raised the bar.
Here’s what Ursula Le Guin said about the New Wave:
Without in the least dismissing or belittling earlier writers and work, I think it is fair to say that science fiction changed around 1960, and that the change tended toward an increase in the number of writers and readers, the breadth of subject, the depth of treatment, the sophistication of language and technique, and the political and literary consciousness of the writing. The sixties in science fiction were an exciting period for both established and new writers and readers. All the doors seemed to be opening.
It was this bit, here: “All the doors seemed to be opening” that I was thinking about while at the Nebula Awards weekend in Chicago. Here were these astonishingly talented authors entering the field, young and old, yes, but fresh to the field, with new perspectives, incredible talent, and alternate ways of looking at the world. I read Cassandra Khaw’s short story “Breathe” this morning and shook my head at how wonderfully it experimented with language for effect (and achieved it! Nailed it!). There are a dozen stories that wowed me recently that I could just go on and on about. I read The Fifth Season in awe at its technical brilliance, and found that when I sat with my Hugo ballot this year that I’d read so many great books that narrowing it down was actually difficult for me for the first time.
There is, in fact, so much exceptional work out there right now that I find I can’t keep up. We’ve come a long way from the whale rape story, is what I’m saying. Because while there has always been great work, it was a lot harder to find ten years ago, as much of it was coming out in chapbooks and small press editions and stuff like the then-obscure, scrappy little magazine called Strange Horizons. But today, publishers are taking a few more chances, and then a few more, and a few more… and this change is led, more and more, by readers as well as writers.
We are inside a new wave, folks. And it’s amazing.
This is an incredible time to be writing speculative fiction. It is an incredible time to be in the field. And while I understand how it’s easy to get riled up by slap fights and naysayers and racists and extremists who will hate every New Wave in whatever form it takes, stop and take a breath for a moment and look around you. Because the wave doesn’t last forever. The wave washes over a genre and transforms it utterly, but you can only ride the peak of it for so long.
Enjoy that view from the peak.