Saturday, 18 September 2010

Gene Wolfe: New Wave author?

I've been wondering lately, while writing the introduction to my honours thesis, to what degree can Gene Wolfe be considered a New Wave author?


The New Wave movements in sf came about in the 1960s, largely as a response to the increasingly stale and repetitive hard sf tropes pervading the genre. New Wave authors brought some much-needed stylistic changes to the genre, offering more literary writing with more complex narratives, characters and writing styles. They also brought the 'soft sciences', such as sociology, psychology and philosophy, to the foreground of their writing, often downplaying or omitting altogether the traditional 'hard science' themes of Golden Age sf. With these new focuses came some of the critical attitudes that the genre needed, and New Wave sf tended to draw into question the scientific optimism and positivism that filled the earlier pulps.

The movement originated in Britain, specifically in the pulp sf magazine New Worlds while it was edited by Michael Moorcock. Moorcock and the writers he published, including J. G. Ballard, Brian Aldiss, Thomas Disch and Samuel R. Delany, championed this new style of sf. The New Wave movement was strongest in the 1960s and 1970s, after which point it became a thing of the past. Although the movement had ended, the style continued, and the New Wave undoubtedly had a lasting impact on the genre, opening it up to become the complex and rich genre we know today.

From left: Michael Moorcock, Brian Aldiss, Mike Kustow and J. G. Ballard.
Photo from the Ballardian. Circa 1968.

In an interview with Larry McCaffery Wolfe was asked if he was aware of New Wave authors writing in the 1960s while Moorcock was editing New Worlds. He responded:
I was not only aware of what they were doing but I even placed one story in New Worlds. What was happening with the New Wave was that a lot of SF authors with literary backgrounds, rather than scientific backgrounds, were applying what they knew in their works in just the same way the people with engineering and scientific backgrounds—Heinlein, for instance, or Asimov—had applied those backgrounds earlier. ... Alot of experimentalism was handled in such a way that it alienated readers, many of whom were raised on the pulps and didn't give a damn about "literature" in any kind of elevated sense. I was personally sorry to see it not catching on since some of what it was trying to do certainly struck a responsive chord in me. When Harlan Ellison put together his Again[,] Dangerous Visions, he included three stories by me, so I was associated with the New Wave. It was a time in which a lot of people were yelling at us for what we were doing, and we were yelling back at them. Actually, at various times I was put into both camps by different people, which was fine with me.
Wolfe certainly made good use of the new styles advocated by the New Wave, especially in The Fifth Head of Cerberus, which is, by his own admission, very much a New Wave text, especially the novella "'A Story' by John V. Marsch." With his complex characters, unreliable narrators, non-linear narratives and erudite fusions of different genres, not to mention his focuses on mythology, religion, philosophy and theology, most of his work would seem to fit within the broad range of New Wave styles and themes.

Gene Wolfe. Random photo I found at Aussiecon Four.

Nevertheless, in an interview with Lawrence Person Wolfe expressed a good deal of hesitancy when discussing his association with the New Wave:
I don't think I was heavily influenced by the New Wave. If I was a part of it, I was only a very remote, peripheral person. I suppose the epicenter of the New Wave was J. G. Ballard, although you might dispute that, and certainly I was at a great distance from J. G. Ballard. ... belonging to a literary movement doesn't consist so much in using a certain set of techniques, as it consists in running with a certain set of people, and only to a very small degree did I run with that set of people.
Yet in spite of his unwillingness to be closely associate with the New Wave, Wolfe certainly emerged within the movement. As he said, he had a short story, "The Green Wall Said," published in New Worlds in August 1967 — so clearly Moorcock thought Wolfe was sufficiently 'New Wave' to be published in his distinctive magazine. Furthermore, Wolfe had three short stories published in Ellison's Again, Dangerous Visions anthology in 1972, a follow up to his remarkably successful Dangerous Visions anthology of 1967. Both of these volumes were essential to the New Wave movement in America. The Wolfe stories published by Ellison were "Robot's Story," "Against The Lafayette Escadrille" and "Loco Parentis," collected together as "Mathoms From the Time Closet."

Wolfe doth protest too much, methinks. As my supervisor said when we were discussing this, you can't get much more New Wave than New Worlds and Again, Dangerous Visions. We eventually settled on the word "originated": as in "Wolfe originated within the New Wave movement of the 1960s."

I would love to hear other people's opinions on this. Does Wolfe's distance from the New Wave clique of authors mean he wasn't part of the movement? Can he still be considered one of the New Wave authors? Please feel free to comment below!

For more on the New Wave, I would recommend reading:

Damien Broderick. “New Wave and backwash: 1960-1980.” The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, edited by Edward James and Farah Mendelshon. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Edward James. “From New Wave to Cyberpunk and Beyond, 1960-1993.” Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.

And, of course, the "New Wave" entry in John Clute and Peter Nicholls's Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.


Thursday, 16 September 2010

Utopias Conference podcasts and other random things

I recently blogged about the fourth Australian conference on utopia, dystopia and science fiction, titled Changing the Climate: Utopia, Dystopia and Catastrophe (see Day One, Day Two and Day Three). I was just informed that audio podcasts of the keynote addresses have just been uploaded to the conference webpage. I would strongly encourage listening to the papers by John Clute, Kim Stanely Robinson and Tom Moylan — they were fantastic.

Thesis progress: almost there! Everything has now been written and looked at by my supervisor except for the conclusion, which will be quite short (and I have some great ideas for it, too, so there shouldn't be any problem there). I've been re-reading it and making some minor changes today and I'm really happy with how it's turning out. The only problem is that it's several thousand words over the word limit, so there may be some frantic word cutting ahead. The final submission date is 25 October, so we're getting close!

While checking some details on Michael Moorcock and New Worlds for the introduction to my thesis, I discovered that Moorcock has a Doctor Who book coming out next month! It's titled Doctor Who: The Coming of the Terraphiles and the hardcover edition is set to be released on 14 October, according to It will feature the current (eleventh) Doctor and Amy Pond (yay!) as they join a group called the Terraphiles that are obsessed with Earth and its history. Apparently it will also involve some of the characters from Moorcock's other work, which should be interesting. Check out the awesome cover below.

And finally, I just had to post this hilarious YouTube video I discovered via the Evil Librarian Supervillain blog. Enjoy!

UPDATE: The above video is probably best enjoyed when it has been contextualised, so check out these recent commercials that have become a YouTube hits: Old Spice: The Man Your Man Could Smell Like, Old Spice: Questions and Old Spice: Did You Know.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

Aussiecon 4 in review

So. I finally have time to write something about Aussiecon 4, the 68th World Science Fiction Convention, held in my home city of Melbourne, 2 - 6 September. Since all the days have now blurred together, I'll just go through, what were for me, some of the most interesting aspects of the convention.


The academic track, convened by Andrew Milner and Helen Merrick, brought a diverse range of papers on many interesting topics. I heard some fascinating papers on: myth and history in Neil Gaiman's Sandman; the progeny of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner; Doctor Who and the 'coolification' of nerds; Doctor Who and fairy tale; and speculative science in the writings of Johannes Kepler.

Evie taking questions after her paper
Evie, my wife, delivered a fantastic paper entitled "Science Fiction: The Language of Bioethics Philosophy," in which she examined the (mis)use of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and Andrew Niccol's Gattaca in bioethical debates on cloning, genetic engineering and genetic discrimination. People really enjoyed it and it sparked some good conversations afterwards. Evie has her own blog, too.

On the last day of the con I presented my paper on generation starships in science fiction, which was quite well received. Question time was far less terrifying that I had anticipated and overall it was a very positive experience.

Me presenting my paper


There were some fascinating panels during the convention. I attended "Creating believable space travel" and "Hand-waving, rule-breaking and other dirty tricks of hard sf," both of which included panels of hard sf authors and scientists, including Gregory Benford. There was a great panel on copyright in the 21st century, which had Cory Doctorow as a panelist. A panel titled "Capes and skirts: the plight of female superheroes" was very heated, with two of the panelists discussing the objectification and mistreatment of women in comics, while the other (male) panelist became (unnecessarily) very defensive — much arguing ensued! There was, however, a very good panel on the history of women in Australian sf, which included panelists Lucy Sussex and Helen Merrick. There were also some great academic panels covering the environment and climate change, race in sf and feminism.

From left: Tom Moylan (m), Jonathan Cowie, John Clute, Glenda Larkin, Kim Stanley Robinson

I particularly enjoyed a couple of the panels that John Clute was on. One was "How to Review," which was both insightful and fun, since Clute's approach to reviewing was the opposite to the approaches taken by the other two panellists, John Berlyne and Dirk Flinthart. For instance, whereas Berlyne said that he was writing to tell readers whether or not to buy and read a particular book (without giving away any 'spoilers'), Clute adopted a more literary approach by reviewing books in more critical terms, examining how they work (and giving away 'spoilers' freely). Personally, I much prefer Clute's reviews, but I understand the need for both. Another interesting panel was on "slipstream" fiction and sf/f genre conventions. Again, Clute was at odds with the other panelist, G. David Nordley, but Clute clearly had a better understanding of genre and how it works (I have no idea why Nordley was selected for the panel). Clute said that genre is pure until you actually look at texts, since no text conforms perfectly to a single genre. Quite true. He also said that most near future sf could now be considered 'slipstream', since so much now plays with genre tropes and distinctions, traversing and transcending traditional genre boundaries.

From left: John Clute, Ian Nichols (m), G. David Nordley


The Hugo Awards Ceremony on Sunday evening was brilliant. Garth Nix did a fantastic (and hilarious) job as Master of Ceremonies and Kim Stanley Robinson did very well announcing that there had been a tie for best novel (China Miéville and Paolo Bacigalupi both won). I was very glad that our very own Shaun Tan won the Hugo for best professional artist, that Moon won best long form (film) and, most of all, that StarShipSofa won best fanzine. This was the first time a podcast had won a Hugo award, and you must head over to the StarShipSofa website to see Tony C. Smith's reaction during the live video podcast of the Hugo award results (fast forward to 40:00 to see him react to winning the award). I was, however, disappointed that Dollhouse's "Epitaph One" didn't win best short form (TV), since I strongly believe it was much better written than any of the Doctor Who specials nominated. (In fact, Dollhouse got the most primary votes out of the five nominees, but after the preferences were counted — with everyone who voted for a Doctor Who episode preferencing another Doctor Who episode — the three Doctor Who specials claimed the first three places and Dollhouse came fourth. Grr. That doesn't seem fair!)


On our way to one of the panels my wife and I got lost and ended up attending an impromptu game show! Paul Cornell hosted an absolutely hilarious game of "Just a Minute," a BBC radio comedy game show, featuring a great panel which included Patrick Nielsen Hayden, China Miéville and John Scalzi. I stuck around until it finished, even though it meant missing a couple of the panels I had intended on going to, because it was just so much fun!

The "Just a Minute" group

Kim Stanley Robinson's guest of honour speech was brilliant. Originally planned as an interview of Robinson by Sean Williams (who could not make it), it ended up being Dr. Kim Robinson interviewing sf author Stan Robinson, and it was great! There was also an on-stage conversation between Robinson and Robert Silverberg, where they discussed archaeological hoaxes, the New Wave of sf, and whether or not it is advisable to write in the nude. A very funny conversation indeed!

Robert Silverberg and Kim Stanley Robinson

There were relatively few costumes or TV/film-centric events, but there were a bunch of people wearing Star Wars outfits. I couldn't resist getting my photo taken with this group of stormtroopers! I believe there was, at some point during the con, a Star Wars event with choreographed lightsaber battles — I'm sorry I missed it!

Me with three stormtroopers!

Another highlight was the screening of Shaun Tan's new short film The Lost Thing, due for release in November and based on the picture book of the same title. Introduced by Tan, who discussed it's making-of, The Lost Thing was absolutely beautiful and amazingly done.


I picked up some great books from the dealer's room and I was able to get many inscribed. Among them:
  • Kim Stanley Robinson, Galileo's Dream (paperback) (signed & inscribed)
  • John Clute, Canary Fever: Reviews (first edition, paperback) (signed & inscribed)
  • China Miéville, The City & The City (paperback) (signed & inscribed)
  • Phil & Kaja Foglio, Girl Genius Volume 9: Agatha Heterodyne and the Heirs of the Storm (signed)
  • Shaun Tan, The Bird King and Other Sketches (first edition hardcover, launched at the con) (signed & inscribed)
  • Lucy Sussex, A Tour Guide in Utopia (signed & inscribed)
  • Gregory Benford, Timescape (paperback) (signed)

I also picked up some other cool things, like an issue of Postscripts with the as yet uncollected Gene Wolfe short story "Comber" (2005), some issues of The New York Review of Science Fiction with Wolfe-related articles and reviews, and some pulp magazines, including Aurealis #2, the cover of which is the first piece of artwork that Shaun Tan sold.


I've come away from Aussiecon 4 with not only a nice stack of beautiful books and another conference paper to add to my curriculum vitae, but with quite a reading list. Towards the top of this list is now Robinson's Galileo's Dream, Miéville's The City & The City and Benford's Timescape — I've only read short stories and non-fiction articles by these authors, but after having met them I really want to read these books. I'm currently reading selected reviews from Clute's Canary Fever and I am constantly finding myself jealous of his amazing vocabulary and lyrical writing style. Attending the con also introduced me to authors who I now, having met them in person, have absolutely no desire to read — as tempting as it is, I won't name them.

The convention also introduced me to the sf/f fan scene for the first time — previously I had attended academic conferences relating to sf/f, but never a con. Now I'm tempted to go to Perth in Western Australia next year for Swancon Thirty Six / Natcon Fifty and if the 2014 WorldCon does end up being held in London (and I hope it does!) then that would provide a wonderful excuse for my wife and I to visit the UK!

Saturday, 4 September 2010

Utopias Conference, Day Three

The third day of the Utopias conference, Changing the Climate, was a great end to a great conference. I was thrown in the deep end when I was asked to chair a session immediately after the opening keynote, but it went quite smoothly and wasn't as difficult as I anticipated (I had never chaired before). There were a couple of fantastic papers presented in the session I chaired, including one by David Blencowe, a PhD candidate from Monash University, who discussed the representation of utopia and revolution in Walter Benjamin and Ernst Bloch in his paper "Catastophic Intentions: Benjamin and Bloch on the Nature of Revolution."

After lunch there was a launch for the two latest volumes of the Ralahine Utopian Studies series, with a speech by one of the series editors, Tom Moylan. The latest volume of the series, titled Tenses of Imagination: Raymond Williams on Science Fiction, Utopia and Dystopia, was edited by Andrew Milner, co-convener of the Utopias conference.

I attended a couple of very interesting papers in the afternoon, both on Christianity, utopianism and ecology, including one entitled, "Of Bodies and Souls: Ecology and Orthodox Christianity," which was particularly insightful, as the presenter looked at recent statements from the Eastern Orthodox Church that call harm to the environment a 'sin' and unpacked the theology that underlies such statements.

In a session chaired by Kim Stanley Robinson, John Clute gave a perfect keynote address to close the conference. His paper was titled "Truth is Consequence," and he discussed the failure of "fantastika" (sf/fantasy/horror) to predict the problems we are now facing with climate change. Peter Nicholls, co-author of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, joined us for John's keynote and the end-of-conference drinks, so my wife and I got to express our appreciation of both John and Peter's work on the encyclopedia, which has helped us with every sf essay we've written.

During the end-of-conference drinks I got another chance to chat to Kim Stanley Robinson, who is just a really nice guy, and when you get him talking about Gene Wolfe, he sounds just like any other Wolfe fan. He told me about his experiences writing the introduction to The Very Best of Gene Wolfe and how it was the fruition of 35 years reading Wolfe's work. I had also given him a copy of my list of uncollected Wolfe short stories (since we had discussed his short fiction a few days earlier) which he really liked, expressing a hope that they could be put back into print in one form or another (to which I wholeheartedly agreed).

So that was the end of the Utopias conference! The next day? Aussiecon 4! (Which I still haven't had a chance to blog about!) Right now, I have to finish cutting down that paper I'll be presenting on Monday...