I have decided to repost my Guardian articles on this blog, simply because I want to keep a record of the full texts as published. I know it’s unlikely that the Grauniad will disappear any time soon, but stranger things happen…
Three years on from the original publication of this piece, and more than a year since I last commented on the subject, we are still waiting for the Next Weird. In early 2008 I was writing at what would prove to be the tail end of a remarkably innovative and exciting period in British SF publishing. Now the major UK imprints are caught in what seems to be a descending cycle of commercial conservatism. Let’s hope the pendulum swings back in the other direction, and we start to see SF as a home of literary experimentation again.
The new world of New Weird
Why is genre fiction now the real home of literary experimentation?
When M John Harrison started the debate that would crystallise definitions of the term “New Weird” in 2003, much of the creative energy that had driven the movement had already moved on. As editor Jeff VanderMeer says in his introduction to the first comprehensive anthology of the movement, the New Weird is dead. Long live the Next Weird.
Much of that early creative energy was generated in Britain. With the decline of Interzone magazine in the mid to late 90s, a space opened in British genre writing for a new approach. Into that space came The Third Alternative, intended by publisher Andy Cox as a home for writing that blended fantasy, science fiction and horror with an experimental edge. This collision of genres and the resurgent interest in horror among a generation of young writers became the defining aspects of the early New Weird.
In 2000, the nascent movement was catalysed by what is now widely acclaimed as the New Weird’s seminal text, China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station. Miéville, who had already built a cult following with his short fiction, outspoken socialist politics and confrontational opinions on traditional genre fiction, scored both a critical and commercial success with his epic novel. Set in the violent, filthy streets of Bas Lag – a fantastic re-imagining of Victorian London, Perdido Street Station captured the gnarly essence of New Weird and combined it with a well-crafted pulp narrative accessible to a broad readership.
Alongside Miéville’s novel, Jeff Vandermeer’s City of Saints and Madmen, KJ Bishop’s The Etched City and Steph Swainston’s The Year of Our War’brought the New Weird fully into the world. While none replicated Miéville’s commercial success, each added unique new facets to the genre. Over the same period a number of British writers not directly involved with the New Weird produced work that shared some of its ambitions. Charles Stross’s Accelerando, Justina Robson’s Natural History and later Hal Duncan’s Vellum were at the cutting edge of a revolution in genre fiction.
But if the New Weird was revolutionary, it was a revolution that was playing out over decades. The revolutionary energy that drove the New Weird had manifested itself many times before in genre fiction. Way back in the 60s, a clutch of writers including the now legendary figures of JG Ballard, Thomas M Disch, Harlan Elison and Brian Aldiss achieved a very similar revolution around the Michael Moorcock-edited New Worlds magazine. In Reagan’s and Thatcher’s 80s the cyberpunk movement captured a new, darker vision and launched the careers of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling among others.
In fact, while frequently characterised as unoriginal and bland, the science fiction, fantasy and horror genres had been engaged in a non-stop process of revolution and evolution stretching back to HG Wells and Jules Verne, through Philip K Dick and Ray Bradbury and on to the writers of the New Weird.
So what is this revolution struggling towards? For serious writers of speculative fiction the prize has always been the belief that the unrealities of science fiction, fantasy and horror provide unique tools with which to dissect the realities of our world. Those tools have been so successful that the language of speculative fiction has become one of the most powerful forces in contemporary culture. You only have to switch on a TV or load up a video game to find yourself immersed in the worlds of sci-fi.
If the New Weird writers represent a turning point it is because they are the first generation of writers to grow up completely immersed in the culture of sci-fi. For such writers the language of speculative fiction is the first and preferred means of expression, because it is the only way to describe a real world permeated on every level with unreality, fantasy and fiction. Whatever the Next Weird may bring, it seems certain that the real experimental energy of literature will remain in genre fiction.