j.g. ballard’s new wave science fiction

…from the outset, it was impossible to mistake Ballard’s dry voice and curious obsessions:


‘Later Powers often thought of Whitby, and the strange grooves the biologist had cut, apparently at random, all over the floor of the empty swimming pool.’


Or in his pungent, nonlinear ‘condensed novels’:


‘Narcissistic. Manythings preoccupied him during this time in the sun: the plasticity of forms, the image maze, the catatonic plateau, the need to re-score the C.N.S., pre-uterine claims, the absurd – i.e., the phenomenology of the universe . . .’



Inner space

The first begetter of this heretical tradition, or at least most prominent, is often held to be James Ballard, whose account of an uprooted childhood in wartime Singapore, brought to a close by the distant science-fictional flash of a nuclear weapon bursting over Japan, would be filmed by Steven Spielberg in 1987 as the movie Empire of the Sun.


J. G. Ballard was launched in an unlikely venue: the venerable, dull pages of John Carnell’s British magazines New Worlds and Science Fantasy, which against the odds were also responsible for Brian W. Aldiss, John Brunner and several other brilliant autodidact harbingers of the revolution. Strictly, these few slick British innovators were fifties writers, but each came into his – or very, very rarely her – own during the ferment of the sixties’ New Wave. With his achingly dry surrealist wit, clarified prose and devotion to recurrent ‘properties’ (empty swimming pools, damaged astronauts, catastrophic and numinous landscapes), Ballard was from the outset a goad to traditionalists. By that very token, he was a gift to the quirky US anthologist Judith Merril, whose Year’s Best SF series featured his work, together with an increasingly agitated propaganda for new ways of writing something she dubbed ‘speculative fiction’ – new ways that were generally, in the larger literary world, rather old. Alongside unnerving tales by Aldiss, Ballard and Cordwainer Smith, Merril paraded pieces by Borges, Romain Gary, Dos Passos, Lawrence Durrell, plus the usual literate-to-brilliant sf suspects: Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke, Zenna Henderson, Algis Budrys. In 1960, impeccably, she selected Daniel Keyes’s superb ‘Flowers for Algernon’, a gentle emergent superman story with a bittersweet twist; today, it seems scarcely sf at all, more like Norman Mailer’s account of the Apollo Moon landing. By 1965 Merril had Thomas M. Disch’s bleak, absurdist ‘Descending’, the louche poetry of Roger Zelazny’s ‘A Rose for Ecclesiastes’ and Ballard’s paradigmatic ‘The Terminal Beach’: ‘In the field office he came across a series of large charts of mutated chromosomes. He rolled them up and took them back to his bunker. The abstract patterns were meaningless, but during his recovery he amused himself by devising suitable titles for them . . . Thus embroidered, the charts took on many layers of cryptic association.’6 As, indeed, did Ballard’s ever stranger body of work. When Carnell’s New Worlds expired of terminal blandness in 1964, a youthful Michael Moorcock tore to its rescue, changing the magazine utterly as its backlog cleared. Now, with Ballard as house patron saint, and under the sign of William Burroughs, the New Wave began to roll relentlessly toward sf’s crusted shores. Donald Wollheim found Norman Spinrad’s gonzo novel Bug Jack Barron, serialized in New Worlds, a ‘depraved, cynical, utterly repulsive and thoroughly degenerate parody of what was once a real SF theme’.7 Still, the undeniable detritus carried along with the New Wave was not necessarily welcome even to devoted surfers.8 Half the names on New World’s contents pages are now forgotten – Langdon Jones, Michael Butterworth, Roger Jones – and some were pseudonymous: ‘Joyce Churchill’ hid M. John Harrison, a fine artist who grew disenchanted with sf’s mode (although he released a new sf novel, Light, in 2002). What is striking in retrospect is how enduring, even so, the impact of the major New Wave writers has been, and the longevity of its biggest names: Ballard (although he has largely abandoned sf), Aldiss, Moorcock himself and sojourning Americans during the swinging sixties: brilliant funny, caustic John Sladek (d. 2000), Pamela Zoline, Samuel R. Delany, Thomas Disch, Norman Spinrad. The work of Robert Silverberg, formerly a prodigious writing machine, deepened markedly in a New Wave direction after 1967, winning him a special Campbell Memorial award in 1973 ‘for excellence in writing’. Still, James Blish, another important writer-critic, was disenchanted by the hype and declared the Wave washed-up by the decade’s close.9


Its brief moment is displayed in raucous glory in several anthologies: Merril’s proselytizing England Swings SF (1968; in Britain, The Space-Time Journal), Harlan Ellison’s immensely ambitious fusion of New Wave and American can-do, Dangerous Visions (1967), Spinrad’s The New Tomorrows (1971) and Damon Knight’s important long-running not-quite-New Wave series of original anthologies, Orbit (1966 and later), showcasing such offbeat and consequential talents as R. A. Lafferty, Gene Wolfe, Joanna Russ, Kate Wilhelm and Gardner Dozois. The mood of bewildered antagonism from the old guard is caught perfectly in Isaac Asimov’s bitter remark, cited by Ace Book’s editor Donald Wollheim on the jacket of Merril’s showcase: ‘I hope that when the New Wave has deposited its froth, the vast and solid shore of science fiction will appear once more.’ Wollheim had already taken care to distance himself, to comic effect. On the back jacket, in bold red capitals, he shouted:




and underneath, in black and a smaller font:


(or it may be the least. You must judge for yourself!)


By 1968, however, Wollheim had proved himself an editor of some courage, if little discrimination, publishing amid a constant drizzle of mediocre consumer product several exceptional novels at the margins of the NewWave: Delany’s romantic, flushed The Jewels of Aptor (1962), Babel-17 and Empire Star (1966) and The Einstein Intersection (1967). Ursula K. Le Guin’s first Hainish novels (Rocannon’s World, 1964; Planet of Exile, 1966; City of Illusion, 1967) appeared under the dubious Ace imprint. Le Guin’s triumph at the cusp of the seventies as the thoughtful, elegant anthropologist of sf and fantasy, begun with A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), was established with The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) under a revitalizing Ace Special imprint by New Wave-sympathetic editor Terry Carr and confirmed by The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974).


An error easily made when considering these several trajectories is to suppose that one literary movement follows another in a parable of progress, dinosaurs giving way to eager young mammals – or, in an allegory of regression, gains arduously accumulated are lost to the onrush of barbarians. Neither image is valid. Writers, publishers and readers are always somewhat out of step. By the time a ‘fashion’ is visible, built from the latest work available to readers, a year or more has passed since those texts were created and sold. Unless a movement is geographically concentrated – as the London New Wave scene largely was – mutual influence straggles.


Moreover, in a marginal mode like sf, read most enthusiastically by the penniless young, genre history is piled up indiscriminately in libraries and second-hand book stores. Near the start of the 1960s, fresh inductees to the sf mythos could read the latest coolly ironic Ballard slap at bourgeois prejudice or Zelazny MA-trained gutter poetry – ‘where the sun is a tarnished penny, the wind is a whip, where two moons play at hot-rod games, and a hell of sand gives you the incendiary itches’10 – then turn at once to a paperback of ‘Doc’ Smith’s tone-deaf Lensmen series from the Golden Age and earlier, meanwhile soaking up scads of Asimov, Heinlein, annual ‘Year’s Best’ gatherings and comic book adventures. We must apply Stephen Jay Gould’s evolutionary insight: in every era most species are simple life-forms, fitted almost from the outset to a range of environments and tremendously persistent. So the classics of sf, at least until fairly recently, have always remained alive in the humus. Certainly that was so in the 1960s and 1970s, when the backlists of many publishers formed a reliable backstop to their annual income.


Nor is the distinction between NewWave and Old as simple as pessimism versus triumphalism. Several sets of coordinates overlap, to some extent by accident. It is true that much of the ‘experimental’ sf of the 1960s took a gloomy cast, while the continuing mainstream of commercial sf was distinctly upbeat, constructing a universe in which technological salvation arrives through virtuous human efforts.Was that distinction necessarily echoed in the contrast between a disruptive textuality seeking to enact its ideas in richly modernist symbol and vocabulary, versus traditional sf’s adherence to a ‘clear windowpane’ theory of writing? It is more likely that stylistic differences derived from the filiations (and education) of its writers.


Even if the science of classic sf was often laughable or wholly invented, it did borrow something structurally important from the lab: scientific papers, after all, are meant to rid themselves of any taint of the subjective, uttering their reports in a disembodied, timeless Voice of Reason (even as those findings are acknowledged to be fallible, provisional, awaiting challenge). New Wave writers – and those signing up as established middle-aged veterans, such as Philip José Farmer – took, as their model, narratives drenched in artful subjectivity, even when, as in Ballard’s remote constructs, personality seemed wilfully denied. From the outset, it was impossible to mistake Ballard’s dry voice and curious obsessions: ‘Later Powers often thought of Whitby, and the strange grooves the biologist had cut, apparently at random, all over the floor of the empty swimming pool.’11 Or in his pungent, nonlinear ‘condensed novels’: ‘Narcissistic. Many things preoccupied him during this time in the sun: the plasticity of forms, the image maze, the catatonic plateau, the need to re-score the C.N.S., pre-uterine claims, the absurd – i.e., the phenomenology of the universe . . .’12


The brilliantly iconoclastic Philip K. Dick was forging a powerful new vision from sf’s generic trash, which he dubbed ‘kipple’. Dick was driven by routine commercial urgencies, but something wonderful happened when his hilariously demented tales ran out of control inside the awful covers of pulp paperbacks. Australian critic Bruce Gillespie has posed the central quandary, not just of Dick’s oeuvre but for sf as a maturing yet weirdly shocking paraliterature: ‘how can a writer of pulpy, even careless, prose and melodramatic situations write books that also retain the power to move the reader, no matter how many times the works are re-read?’ Part of his answer is that Dick repeatedly takes us on an ‘abrupt journey from a false reality to a real reality’ or, in the extreme case, ‘a roller coaster ride down and down, leaving behind ordinary reality and falling into a totally paranoid alternate reality. By the book’s end, there is nothing trustworthy left in the world.’13






6. Ballard, reprinted in Judith Merril, ed. 10th Annual SF (New York: Dell, 1966), p. 259.


7. Cited in M. John Harrison, ‘A Literature of Comfort’, in New Worlds Quarterly 1 (London: Sphere Books, 1971), p. 170.


8. Colin Greenland’s usefully analytical and admirably waspish study, The Entropy Exhibition (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1983), emphasizes Moorcock’s role.


9. Blish (writing as ‘William Atheling, Jr’), ‘Making Waves’, in Atheling, More Issues at Hand (Chicago: Advent, 1970), p. 146.


10. ‘A Rose for Ecclesiastes’ [1963], in Merril, ed., 10th Annual SF, pp. 21148.


11. ‘The Voices of Time’, 1960, in Ballard, The Four-Dimensional Nightmare (1963) (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965), p. 11.


12. ‘You and Me and the Continuum’, 1966, reprinted in Ballard, The Atrocity Exhibition (1969) (London: Panther, 1972), p. 106.


13. Bruce Gillespie, 2001, interviewed by Frank Bertrand, ‘My Life and Philip K. Dick’: http://www.philipkdick.com.



—from Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn (eds.), The Cambridge Companion To Science Fiction, Cambridge University Press, 2003