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.



  1. Like R. A. Lafferty, I think you're right that Wolfe emerged within both the US and UK New Wave milieu but rather quickly showed that, whilst there were resonances in the works and mutual sympathies in the persons, he was simply 'made of different stuff'.

    The kind of stuff of which Wolfe was made would inevitably overlap significantly with New Wave (stylised literary prose and narrative, 'soft sciences', experimentation, non-linear, complex, etc.), but, again like Lafferty, he also harked back to some degree to a more engineering sort of s.f. and just older pulpy 'fun' - and he was (with Lafferty) a minority theist/Catholic, which creates certain peculiarities in some ways too 'out there' even for New Wave.

    And like Lafferty I think there was a somewhat nervous-but-enthusiastic-yet-cautious-but-respectful admiration and association from those who made up the New Wave canon. They genuinely liked and sympathised with what Wolfe was doing, but I think they also knew he was somewhat in a class of his own (same with Laff).

    It's interesting that it's been said of Brian Aldiss that he sort of 'grew out of' or beyond New Wave. But the difference is that Wolfe and Lafferty just eventually showed that their deepest colours had been rather different all along (though in some ways complementary).

    I should note that in the mid-90s I discovered New Wavers like Aldiss, Zelazny, Ellison, etc. and really liked it all. Within this movement as a sort of odd growth I discovered both Lafferty and Wolfe and initially thought of them as part of the movement (perhaps slightly odder though). But it didn't take long in my own reading for them to stand out and move into their own unique trajectories that didn't really fit even such a loose grouping as the New Wave.

    Good post, cheers.

  2. I think I should read Lafferty then! I actually have "Fourth Mansions" on my bookshelf, but haven't got around to reading it yet.

    I completely agree that, although there are certainly similarities between what Wolfe did (and does) and what the bulk of New Wave authors did, there are also obvious differences. As you said, Wolfe harked back to the pulps of the Golden Age in a way that most New Wave authors did not, and brought his Catholic faith to bear on his writing in a very distinctive way.

    I think Philip K. Dick did a similar thing (blending 'hard' and 'soft' sf) in a lot of his work, which is why he is occasionally associated with the New Wave, but never really 'fit' with the rest of them.

    Thanks for your comments!

  3. By all means read Lafferty in general and Fourth Mansions in particular, as both are deeply underappreciated among SF readers. And Gene, of course, has praised Lafferty repeatedly, and wrote the afterword to Lafferty's East of Laughter.