Science Fiction’s New Wave

The “New Wave” era represented the coming of age of science fiction, both when it started to enter the mainstream, and also when it attained a level of sophistication that could claim itself as “literature”, as opposed to just entertainment. This, not coincidentally, coincided with the 1960’s, when television shows such as Star Trek and Lost in Space drew mainstream audiences.

Interestingly, quite a few of the short stories I read for this era ended up as full-length feature films, but not until the 1990’s.

Judith Merril: All that said, I am starting my list with a story that falls squarely into the Golden Age, only because I originally saw a publication date of 1967 on it, when in fact it was first published in 1948. “That Only A Mother” is an early Cold War speculative fiction cautionary tale. It takes place in the near future (the early 50’s). The Cold War has erupted into atomic war, and mutant births are rampant due to fall out. Infanticide, especially by fathers, is a common response.

A young woman whose husband is an atomic researcher for the military is pregnant and gives birth to a baby girl while her husband is away for eighteen months. She writes to him of her relief that their child is born “just fine,” but when he finally meets his child, well… suffice it to say, he is a bit taken aback.

What makes the story less nihilistic than it could be is the cozy style that veers between point-of-view prose of the wife’s daily life and letters/telegrams between the wife and husband. The narrative also puts the infanticide trend under scrutiny through Margaret’s thoughts and newspaper accounts of them, rather than throwing up its proverbial hands over it, or playing it for shock value as later New Wave era short stories might have done.

Harlan Ellison: “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman” (1965) takes place in the 24th century, when every citizen’s time is strictly monitored and regimented, even shopping and leisure, and citizens are docked a certain amount of life when they are late for anything. If you are chronically late, you get the death penalty at the hands of “the Ticktock man.” This is justified by a world that is perpetually at war. “The Harlequin” is a terrorist whose pranks serve to disrupt the regimented schedule in various places around town, including a factory and a shopping center. The Harlequin is a bit of a clown, and perhaps that’s his biggest sin: people enjoy him. He is a celebrity. The Ticktock man is unable to assassinate the Harlequin, because they don’t know who he is.

It’s said Ellison plunked out this story in four hours during a writing workshop, and I kind of agree with the reviewer who called it: “a “primitive statement . . . about [the] solidly acceptable idea [that] regimentation is bad.” You can’t help but feel that Ellison wrote this after smoking weed and watching a Joker episode of Batman. Sixties Batman, the slapstick one.

I don’t think the basic moral of the story is the reason it was so well received, though. This is an experimental piece, with a jarring ungrammatical voice meant to be a futuristic form of grammar and vocabulary. This is difficult to pull off, especially in a short story, because you’re always doing a balancing act between presenting a genuinely different mode of speech from a genuinely different culture and remaining comprehensible to the contemporary reader (David Mitchell, I’m looking at you). The grammar of the story also represents a Meta level in which Ellison is “breaking the rules of writing” while his character is breaking the rules of his society. “Harlequin” is best understood as an Absurdist piece, which falls squarely into the art movements of its time.

Philip K. Dick: “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” (1966) is the short story that would later become the movie Total Recall (1990). A man goes to a company that places false memories in your head for a price—usually pleasant memories of things you wish you could experience. He decides he really wants a trip to Mars, and selects a secret agent scenario. As soon as the technicians start the procedure, though, the man gets back real memories of being a secret agent on Mars. He has been exposed.

Or has he? Is this simply what he paid for? The story follows him as he tries to figure out exactly what happened, and what is real.

The movie and the original story diverge at the end, and I kind of prefer the way the movie proceeded–staying with the first twist instead of introducing yet another twist as the short story does.

What interests me reading decades-old stories such as this is comparing what science fiction writers of the past could imagine of the future, and what they couldn’t. For example, in the future Philip K. Dick depicts, the human race has people on Mars and can implant memories in a human brain that seem real, and yet a robot cab driver can’t tell a man from a woman and the main character still relies on a typewriter.

Dick has had other stories also turned into movies, including “The Minority Report.”

Samuel Delany: Science fiction short stories can remain short and still have full-length feature films based on them because the stories take shortcuts. One of the major shortcuts is breaking the “Show, don’t Tell” rule. Many stories on the present list resort to entire sections of “As you know, Bob” dialogue or internal character monologues that tell the reader the rules of that world.

“Aye, and Gomorrah” (1967), on the other hand, plunks you in the middle of a future time and culture, and forces you to figure it out on your own until well towards the end, when the AYKB dialogue finally takes place. Like “Ticktock Man”, it is written in a futuristic voice.

The story is about a small group of non-gendered drones called “spacers” who do the work on other worlds in the solar system. They are born gendered and then altered after birth so they can’t reproduce. Ambient radiation on these worlds plays havoc with reproductive systems, so society does not want them reproducing. The procedure is not the same thing as simply being “snipped.” Their entire gender identity and secondary sexual characteristics are changed. Neither being de-gendered nor free of sexual desire is something the spacers resent. This is partly because, when off-duty, they are allowed to come and go as they please and party it up. They can hop halfway across the world through technology in the amount of time it takes us to cross town.

One way in which they “party” is to prostitute themselves with abandon to a certain class of gendered humans living on Earth who envy their freedom and are attracted to their genderlessness. Sexual activity means little to spacers. It’s just a way to earn extra money.

This story was intended to be to play with concepts beyond binary gender and comes highly recommended, and it does have wonderfully loose and vivid description that is up to the global-hopping devil-may-care attitude of the protagonists. But its “playing” with gender doesn’t seem to be particularly transgressive to me. It conflates having gender with being sexual, and I think if I wasn’t cis-gendered, I would feel a bit disgruntled with its depiction of non-cisgenderism (I hesitate to even call what the spacers are “transgender”).

Harlan Ellison: Ever since I first came across the title, “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream” (1967), I have wanted to read this story. I’d describe it (unfairly) as “The Thaw* meets Terminator.” “Unfair” because it’s uncharitable to compare a story to successors that came out 20 or 30 years later and which were probably inspired by this tale.

In the story, a handful of post-war survivors are trapped by an artificially intelligent computer designed to help in the war, which has become their sadistic torturer through some extrapolation of its wartime programming gone awry in the apocalyptic aftermath where that programming is no longer relevant. The computer has the capacity to keep its captives the same age indefinitely, although they are not immune to pain, disfigurement, or death. It can also tap into their minds to discover their worst fears and create torture scenarios to match them.

The writing is beautiful at the same time it is bleak, and if you want a good example of early post-apocalyptic nihilism in science fiction, this is it. It also contains one of the most blatant examples of “As you know, Bob” info-dumping I have ever seen. I think I will stop feeling guilty about using this device in my own writing.

*Yes, that’s the Killer Clowns from Outerspace episode of Star Trek: Voyager.

Pamela Zoline: “The Heat Death Of The Universe” (1967) is highly-recommended as an example of feminist science fiction. The story is, in a word, gorgeous. It is poetic, richly detailed, layered with metaphor, tragic, and thoroughly part of the New Wave of non-linear writing. I recommend it.

It is not, however, science fiction. It is fiction with science used as a metaphor, but that’s a different thing. Science fiction is usually defined as speculative fiction where the science, life forms, or technology are fictional. In other words, such science (or technology, or societies) do(es) not (yet) exist, and/or are products of the writer’s imagination.

This story depicts the daily life of a housewife in Almeda, California. The main character briefly speculates about aliens that are like stereotypical Californians, but there are no such aliens in the story. She is well-versed in physics, the details of her life are compared to entropy, and her coping skills are shown disintegrating like the heat death of the universe, but these are metaphors based on recognized facts and theories in existing science. We don’t see, e.g., a future where the actual heat death of the universe happens.

Anyway, go read. Marvel. Shudder.

Brian Aldiss: “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long” (1969) is another domestic tale which veers between the point of view of the wife, the husband, and their “child.” The husband creates android servants, but has recently developed a prototype with human-like intelligence and a human form and asked his wife to raise it as their son. She struggles with this, finding it hard to bond with a machine.

The story cuts between the husband, who is giving a speech extolling the virtues of his new line of machines based on the prototype, and the world of his wife and son, a home floating above ground, completely encapsulated, with a holographic garden forever in summer. The world below is overcrowded, starving, and unpleasant.

The husband is convinced his bio-electronic beings will end loneliness by being loyal companions. In the meantime, at home, it is evident his wife is very lonely, and his “son” is desperate to find a way to win her love and approval.

This is apparently the short story that the Steven Spielberg movie AI was based on, which makes me curious about the movie, since I never saw it.

Joanna Russ: “When It Changed” (1972) is a classic example of lesbian-feminist-seperatist (LFS) writing of the early 70’s. A colony of women has been separated from Earth for eight hundred years. They have developed their own culture and way of life. The colony once had men, but a catastrophic plague killed them all, and the women used what technology they had to survive via two-woman procreation. Earth, which dwindled in the aftermath of war and pollution, has finally pulled itself together and gone in search of its colonies, and found the world of Whileaway.

In other words, men have found the good women-folk of Whileaway, and it’s a little like the Native Americans meeting the Whites – the Whites smiling all well-meaning, assuming their technology, culture, and presence is an ipso facto improvement, while the Native Americans stare horrified into the face of the death of everything they know and love. Whileaway’s culture is a little “backwoods,” but it functions fine. Still, it doesn’t have the technology to resist the Earthly onslaught.

For those harboring stereotypes of LFS literature, it’s worth a mention that the story has a very laid back, natural voice you’d expect from the kind of person the main character is. There’s nothing that feels defensive or harsh in it. It won the Nebula Award for Best Short Story in 1972, and proved speculative fiction can serve as a vehicle for exploring present-day norms, assumptions, and attitudes.

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