Genre Definition Module Week 3: Speculative Fiction, New Wave, "Postmodern", "Mainstream" SF

* by Mr Andy Sawyer

Reading Stuff:
J. G. Ballard, The Voices of Time
William Burroughs, The Naked Lunch
Editorial matter from New Worlds magazine
Philip K. Dick, Ubik / Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch

Speculative Fiction

"Speculative fiction" first used by Robert A. Heinlein: "On the Writing of Speculative Fiction" in Lloyd Arthur Eshbach (ed.), Of Worlds Beyond (1947). "What if? ...... Just imagine? ......"

Judith Merill (1966): "Speculative fiction: stories whose objective is to explore, to discover, to learn, by means of projection, extrapolation, analogue, hypothesis-and-paper-experimentation, something about the nature of the universe, of man, or 'reality' ...... I use the term 'speculative fiction' here specifically to describe the mode which makes use of the traditional 'scientific method' (observation, hypothesis, experiment) to examine some postulated approximation of reality, by introducing a given set of changes -- imaginary or inventive -- into the common background of 'known facts', creating an environment in which the responses and perceptions of the characters will reveal something about the inventions, the characters, or both."

The term became used to distinguish "New Wave" or "literary" sf from traditional, pulp, or "hard" sf: for the kind of fiction which is not mainstream or "realistic" but which concentrates on sociological or anthropological speculations rather than scientific or technological.

Peter Nicholls in SFE: "the term has been useful precisely because it allows the blurring of boundaries, which in turn permits a greater auctorial freedom from genre constraints and 'rules.'"

See the current (2003) controversy over Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake: science fiction or speculative fiction?

"New Wave"

Used to describe the sort of fiction published in New Worlds after Michael Moorcock took over editorship with May/June 1964: used by Judith Merril (England Swings SF 1968, aka The Space-Time Journal) and to describe the fiction of Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions (1967).

See New Worlds, especially the glossy post-issue 179 numbers. Major figures: Brian Aldiss, J. G. Ballard and Michael Moorcock, whose love-hate relationship with sf inspired major changes towards stylistic experimentation and the breaking of literary and linguistic taboos.

Peter Nicholls writes in SFE:
Much of it shared the qualities of the late-1960s counterculture, including an interest in mind-altering DRUGS and oriental RELIGIONS, a satisfaction in violating TABOOS, a marked interest in SEX, a strong involvement in Pop Art and in the MEDIA LANDSCAPE generally, and a pessimism about the future that ran strongly counter to genre sf's traditional OPTIMISM, often focused on the likelihood of DISASTER caused by OVERPOPULATION and interference with the ECOLOGY, as well as by WAR, and a general cynicism about the POLITICS of the US and UK governments (notably the US involvement in Southeast Asia and elsewhere). The element of DYSTOPIA in New-Wave writing was particularly dramatic in the case of John BRUNNER, much of whose earlier work had been relatively cheerful SPACE OPERA. New-Wave sf often concerned itself with the NEAR FUTURE; but it often turned inward, too, and one of the buzzwords of the period was INNER SPACE.

Judith Merril's "Best of Science Fiction" series included stories by Ballard, John Updike, William Burroughs, Andre Maurois, Donald Bartelme.

For the British new wave, see Colin Greenland, The Entropy Exhibition.

The term new wave was disowned by most of the writers incolved with it: "I feel I am no part of the New Wave; I was here before 'em, and by God I mean to be here after they've gone (still writing bloody science fiction)!" (Brian Aldiss to Judith Merill in 1966, quoted in The Entropy Exhibition, p. 69.) Any sense of "unity" was probably more apparent than real.

Postmodern SF

Damien Broderick in SFE -- also see the rest of his article:
"In literature, Postmodernism is usually held to imply showy playfulness, genre-bending, and denial of neat aesthetic or moral wrap-up; above all, writing that knows or even struts itself as writing, rather than as innocent portrayal. John BARTH, Jorge Luis BORGES, Christine BROOKE-ROSE, Italo CALVINO, Angela CARTER, Don DELILLO, Philip K. DICK, Umberto ECO, Raymond Federman and Thomas PYNCHON are all Postmodernists whose inventions edge close to sf. Within the genre one might name J. G. Ballard, Samuel R. DELANY, William GIBSON, Michael MOORCOCK, Rudy RUCKER, John T. SLADEK, Kurt VONNEGUT Jr., Robert Anton WILSON, Joanna RUSS and Ian WATSON as well as Norman SPINRAD (sometimes), Lucius SHEPARD (maybe) and even A. E. VAN VOGT (ahead of his time)."

* What Broderick elsewhere calls the "megatext" of Sf -- the shared conventions of readers and writers. ...... a kind of code...... which must be learned by apprenticeship." (introduction to Reading by Starlight.) [Sf isn't the only form of writing about which this can be said: see Elizabethan pastoral poetry.] The playful/serious intertextuality of Sf (see virtually any commentary on Babylon 5) is part of what makes it "postmodern".

"What is postmodernism?" is as dangerous territory as "what is sf?"

See: Frederic Jameson, "Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism", New Left Review 146, p. 53-92; "Generic Discontinuities in Sf: Brian Aldiss's Starship", Science-Fiction Studies Vol 1 no 2, p. 57-8 and other articles in SFS; Brian McHale, Postmodernist Fiction.

Considerable attention given to sf by postmodernists, usually confined to William Gibson. "The surface sheen of Neuromancer allowed critics to plumb the depths of depthlessness." (Andrew M. Butler in Foundation 66, p. 111).

J. G. Ballard

* Acceptance is a common theme in Ballard. Earlier novels involve not necessarily catastrophe but a lovingly-embraced transformation: The Drowned World, The Crystal World, etc. Also early short stories in The Terminal Beach and The Voices of Time.

* "Inner Space": science fiction as an exploration of subjective inner landscapes (or the "Media landscape") in which the focus is on the object but also its psychological or metaphysical implications rather than as conventional "space exploration" stories.

* Peter Brigg (J. G. Ballard: Starmont Reader's Guide 26) puts Crash, Concrete Island and High-Rise together as an "urban disaster" trilogy.

Science fiction as the pornography of the machine. "The elements of new technologies linked our affections." (Crash 1977 Panther ed., p. 26). Vaughan gripping a woman's nipple "as if fitting together a piece of unusual laboratory equipment." (120). The text collapses into nouns, linking together sexuality and machinery: are "Ballard" and Vaughan having sex with women or cars? Hardly sf, perhaps -- is there any "new" technology? (though Vaughan is an extrapolation of the scientist, with his "crash research" a parody of the scientist's obsession with detail.) This may be the kind of fiction which can only be written after the celebration of the 20th century's love of machines and its climax in the Apollo moon-landing. See the cliche of the spaceship as penis: Ballard seems to suggest that we don't have to have the spaceship to live this metaphor. Certainly Crash is an extrapolation of our love-affair with fast cars and danger. Speculative fiction moves back upon itself to join the mainstream, describing how the real becomes the spectacle.

See also the "condensed novels" of The Atrocity Exhibition.

"The Voices of Time"

* The "empty swimming pool" appears in the first sentence.

* Entropy. A loose interpretation of the 2nd law of Thermodynamics which can be paraphrased as "systems tend to become less complex". Heat flows from hot to cold, energy moves from order to disorder, so ultimately everything will tend to stabilize at the same temperature. Maximum entropy is "the heat-death of the Universe". "Even the sun is growing cooler" ("The Voices of Time").

* The count-down of the universe, gradually winding down, echoed by more localised events such as the transformational mutations of animal and plant life, and the overpowering narcolepsis of the protagonist. (Note the character dubbed "Coma"). Other aspects of time -- see the plant which "sees" time. What is our relationship to time? n.b. other "time" stories in the collections -- "The Gardens of Time", "Chronopolis", etc. Evolution or devolution?

* Instead of treating time like a sort of glorified scenic railway, I'd like to see it used for what it is, one of the perspectives of the personality ......" ("Which Way to Inner Space?", New Worlds 118, May 1962.)

* The rich imagery and almost satiric ornateness of the final paragraph of the story. Note also the sense of acceptance, almost ecstatic fulfilment and release: the long paragraph beginning "Like an endless river ......"

Finally: see Pamela Zoline, "The Heat-Death of the Universe" in New Worlds, 1967 and frequently reprinted. A story which became one of the touchstones of "new wave" sf. (It also was part of, and to some extent inspired a new "feminist" approach to science fiction)

For Ballard:
Roger Luckhurst, The Angle Between Two Walls.
Baudrillard's reading of Crash: see Science Fiction Studies Vol 18 no 3, 1991, 313-319. [This issue features a number of essays on "Science Fiction and Postmodernism" including Ballard's response on being asked to take part.]
Does the acceptance of Ballard's avant-garde fiction, "condensed novels" etc. by the postmodernist theorists such as Baudrillard and Fredric Jameson reconstuct his earlier science fiction?

Philip K. Dick


Genre sf or "postmodern" pastiche?
* "June 5, 1992"
* "top telepath"
* Bonds of Erotic-Polymorphic Experience Motel"
* "I'll consult my dead wife."
* "tabby-fur blazer and pointed yellow shoes"

Contrast with Time Out of Joint: slow, apparently conventionally mainsteam-realist opening where the estrangement depends on models of car, movie starlets and whether a room has a light-pull or wall-switch. See how other sf novels open: "I had reached the age of six hundred and fifty miles" (Christopher Priest, Inverted World); (after a paragraph which could come from any realistic description of a harassed middle-manager) "I rubbed deplilatory soap over my face and rinsed it with the trickle from the fresh-water tap." (Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth, The Space Merchants)

Dick's plotting a mixture of the everyday and the surreal. The household implements which refuse to work without payment.
* First 2 chapters: Glen Runciter: the Big Guy. The Good Boss.
* Chapter 3 we meet Joe Chip (mentioned earlier). The Little Guy. The Employee.
* Runciter's organisation keeping tabs on teeps. The World in which this action takes place not clearly visualised. We are set up for an action-sf plot but immediately this option is removed. Only the strand with Pat's apparent "talent" remains of this thread.
* Pat the ambiguously alluring and threatening dark-haired girl (1). 45). See Dick, The Dark-Haired Girl.
* Runciter leads team of "inertials" and Joe Chip to Luna to work for Stanton Mick's organisation.
* Runciter plus JC plus 11 = 13 (Christ and apostles?)
* Following the explosion: who is alive or dead?
* Malevolent and benevolent forces: Jory, whom we met overriding Ella's messages. "Eating half-life people". One of the two opposing agencies: the Destroyer. Ubik, the "god-in-trash", in the form of adverts and junk. The girl Joe picks up, who is Ella, is the "other force". Sophia? the "Wisdom" figure.
* Ch 17: final epigraph: "I am Ubik". And the face of Joe Chip on coin. Which is the "real" reality?

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch
(see also short story "The Days of Perky Pat")

* Escape into consumerism (Perky Pat). Reality shifts. Transformation through drugs: parodic Eucharists.

* Palmer Eldritch another version of the "Form Destroyer". Both novels explore what is real. The science-fictional elements become almost playthings. The plots, involving precogs, travels through space and time, become secondary to the quest for what is behind Form. But this form-examining fiction itself becomes a metafictional game with form and genre conventions.

* A. E. van Vogt, author of The World of Null-A, [as a character in "Waterspider" (If Jan 1964; The Days of Perky Pat]: "I start out with a plot and then the plot sort of folds up. So then I have to have another plot to finish the rest of the story." (A technique used by Dick.) Dick: "I like to build universes which do fall apart. I like to see them come unglued, and I like to see how the characters in the novels cope with this problem. I have a secret love of chaos." ("How to Build a Universe That Doesn't Fall Apart Two Days Later")

* These games and how Dick applies them to the everyday world of small-town American capitalism and (in his later novels) the drug/sex/political paranoias of post-sixties California and his own life are what attracts him to postmodernist theorists. Note how Broderick (in SFE quoted above) seems to be referring to Dick as a postmodernist writer using sf rather than an sf writer using postmodern techniques -- and suggests the reverse for Ballard.

* For postmodernism and Sf see Damien Broderick, Reading by Starlight: Postmodern Science Fiction (which covers much beyond: the discussion regarding genre/mode, p. 38-48; "reading" Sf, p. 64-74) and Andrew M. Butler's review of it in Foundation 66, 111-114 ("reading the insights of Baudrillard, Derrida, Levinas and Jameson is often like reading Sf."

"...... silly, ambitious and indispensable." (RbS, 103)

"Mainstream" Sf (or "Pseudo-Sf")

Un-named sub-genre of sf written by writers who don't write sf. Nineteen Eighty-Four? Nevil Shute, On the Beach. William Golding, Lord of the Flies. Doris Lessing, "Canopus in Argo" series. P. D. James, Children of Men.

Many of these tangential to sf. Somtimes accepted by sf readers. Sometimes the authors distance themselves violently from sf.

Has sf entered the mainstream as Ellison claimed? The history of genre-sf post New Wave suggests that the gulf between sf and the mainstream is wider than ever. How much sf is reviewed in popular or "serious" press? Yet much fiction is written by novelists brought up with or turning to sf: Doris Lessing, Will Self, Martin Amis, Jeff Noon, Iain Banks.

Recent Examples:

Ronald Wright, A Scientific Romance -- references to Richard Jefferies, After London and H. G. Wells. Widely reviewed, widely praised. Not one reviewer seemed to see it in the tradition of science fiction.

Sanjida O'Connell, Theory of Mind. "Psychological Sf" on the nature of consciousness and empathy. References to robotics (similar to the work being done by Kevin Warwick at Reading); paralleled by metaphoric parallels of an autistic boy, "he was like a robot who was being taught how to be human." Reference to Philip K. Dick's "empathy" in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (356) Not packaged as an sf novel, but sf is the air which surrounds it.

Maggie Gee, The Ice People. Not sf (because Jeremy Paxman had discovered "plot" and "character" in it). Near-future story in which gender relationships and social attitudes are explored in the context of a new ice-age which brings social breakdown. (obvious symbolism?) Echoes of post-catastrophe novels such as The Day of the Triffids. Gee claimed (July 1999 Utopias Conference, UEA) to have written, in a previous novel, "the first literary treatment of virtual reality" (a device with which we can amuse ourselves by arguing whether it was foreshadowed in E. M. Forster's "The Machine Stops" (1909) or "only" Arthur C. Clarke's The City and the Stars (1956)).

Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake
"Like The Handmaid's Tale, Oryx and Crake is a speculative fiction, not a science fiction proper."

Robert Potts in The Guardian Saturday April 26, 2003: "Margaret Atwood's lastest novel, Oryx and Crake, is not, she insists, "science fiction" but "speculative fiction". It is a distinction she has also made about her earlier dystopian book, The Handmaid's Tale (1985), currently being staged as an opera in London."

"Science Fiction has monsters and spaceships; speculative fiction could really happen," she explains. Her work is always researched: Oryx and Crake, a novel blending a biological apocalypse with a genetically engineered genesis, acknowledges a number of personal debts in terms of research and background, but also scrupulously offers a list of documentary sources at a web address."

See John Clute's review in his "Excessive Candour" column for scifi.com on

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