Sunday, October 25, 2009


TOM SYKES on the invasion of the new wave of British science fiction

WHEN I WAS ONLY 11 YEARS OLD, I was introduced to Michael Moorcock’s novels by a schoolmate’s devout hippy parents. At their house, I worked my way through the Elric series as the smell of incense and marijuana wafted under my nose.

At that age it was the post-Tolkien high adventure that drew me in, but as I got older I saw new and more sophisticated things in Moorcock’s writing. I learned that in 1963 he had become editor of the trailblazing New Worlds magazine which published the early stories of J.G. Ballard, Brian W. Aldiss, Barrington J. Bayley and M. John Harrison. These writers were all zealously committed to finding new ways of expressing the increasingly strange world they espied around them.

The genre they created was an avant-garde form of science fiction characterised by philosophical enquiry, experimentation and controversy. This would become known as the ‘new wave’ and, I would submit, its influence lives on in such modern writers as Haruki Murakami, Martin Amis, Will Self, William Gibson, China Miéville, Iain Sinclair and Alan Moore.

Thus it was with great interest that I learned that this year marks the 40th anniversary of the publication of Brian W. Aldiss’s Barefoot in the Head and J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, key texts of the new wave. I first encountered Ballard’s anti-novel on the cusp of the new millennium while studying at the University of East Anglia. I continue to be shocked, impressed and influenced by it today.

Originally published as a series of vignettes (which is almost certainly too pleasant a description) in New Worlds and other journals, perhaps its most memorable section is ‘Why I Want to F— Ronald Reagan,’ a parodic scientific report on how images of the future US President induce psychosexual fantasies in people. Unsurprisingly perhaps, it became the subject of an obscenity trial when it appeared in pamphlet form. One imagines that the establishment was piqued by lines such as: “In assembly-kit tests Reagan’s face was uniformly perceived as a penile erection.” Aside from his shock tactics, Ballard’s point about the aestheticisation of politics by the mass media was prescient and certainly meant a lot to me when I came across it in the wake of Tony Blair’s heavily spin-doctored election victory. Amusingly, pranksters distributed the story at the 1980 Republican Convention that was to approve Reagan’s presidential candidacy. According to Ballard, the less clever delegates missed the irony and took the story to be an endorsement of their nominee!

So what was the historical context of the new wave? In Conversations, Ballard describes post-war Britain as “the triumph of bourgeois values and conservatism ... a sort of deadness in the air.” The writing of that period—whether parochial social realism or the commercialized last gasps of modernism—was, by the 1960s, unable to comprehend the immense changes sweeping through society. A new technological landscape was being formed by the advent of space travel, Concorde, colour television and video conferencing. Relations between young people were altered forever by the legalisation of abortion and the contraceptive pill. Prime Minister Harold Macmillan’s claim that “You’ve never had it so good” ushered in an era of social mobility and the expansion of university education which exposed a whole new generation to progressive ideas, political and otherwise. The use of psychotropic drugs amongst the youth also became widespread.

Travel, for me, has always been something of a mind-expansion project. So it was apt that while I was in Bali in 2007—the furthest I’d ever been from home—I discovered Brian W. Aldiss’s Barefoot in the Head in a backpacker’s bookshop. The novel is set in a near-future Europe that has been carpet-bombed with hallucinogenic drugs. The experience of those affected is aped by the very fabric of the novel, its language slowly breaking down into a kind of fragmentary poetry. I thought it interesting that I was reading this while all around me full-moon parties and round-the-clock debauchery was going on.

However, Barefoot in the Head isn’t just a frenzy of flip hedonism; it was written at a time when there was a great deal of faith in the intellectual possibilities of drugs. Aldiss suggests that those affected by the drug bombs have attained a fuller, more nuanced picture of reality than was previously possible. For example, in one sequence, the protagonist Charteris is able to perceive alternative futures for himself playing out all at once.

Although this article focuses on the British scene, at least one American new wave writer must be discussed: Philip K. Dick. I first became aware of him after falling in love—at a (probably) inadvisably young age—with the film Blade Runner, which was based on his 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Formally, Dick was very much the pulp storyteller, but his ideas were just as outré as his British counterparts. As Emmanuel Carerre’s excellent biography, I Am Alive and You Are Dead, explains, Dick suffered from paranoia all his life caused by mental illness and compounded by external events such as McCarthyism and the later FBI surveillance campaign COINTELPRO. Unsurprisingly then, if there is one recurring theme throughout his fiction it is a constant obsessive questioning of the nature of reality.

In The Penultimate Truth, American citizens have relocated to an underground city in the belief that they must build armaments for a world war that is happening above ground. In fact, that war ended a long time ago but it suits the cynical aims of the elite powers to sustain the fantasy of its continuation.

In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, another world war has wiped out almost every living thing on Earth. As a result, businesses have begun manufacturing robot simulations of animals for human survivors to keep as pets. However, there are also simulated humans (androids) who are out of control and pose a criminal threat to society. Extremely dark and, in places, extremely funny, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? explores what it actually means to be a human or indeed any kind of being. In this novel as in his others, Dick toys with the reader’s expectations, setting up a situation or presenting a case which at first seems absolutely convincing but is later revealed to be a conspiratorial lie or subjective misperception.

Although I wasn’t around at the time, I am certain new wave transformed science fiction from a generally conservative and melioristic genre into one of the truly progressive movements in modern letters. Over my lifetime I have seen the literary profile of science fiction rise to a point where it can no longer be criticised for low-brow escapism, mainly because it tells us so much about our inner and outer lives. As our world becomes weirder, more volatile, more unpredictable, the visions of Ballard, Moorcock, Aldiss and others seem more powerful today than ever before.

Reproduced from the October-December 2009 issue of Quill magazine


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