Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Speculative Fiction & Political Struggle: The 'New Wave' of the 60s & 70s

Speculative Fiction & Political Struggle: The 'New Wave' of the 60s & 70s
by Jordan Humphreys


It should come as no surprise that one of the greatest books on the relationship between fiction and political struggle was written during one of the high points of revolutionary struggle by one of the major individuals involved in that struggle. Leon Trotsky, the Bolshevik revolutionary, wrote Literature & Revolution in 1924, just a few years after the Russian Revolution and just as a massive radicalisation was erupting throughout Europe. In Literature & Revolution, Trotsky was able to reflect upon how much forms, genres and schools of literature had changed (or for some tendencies, how much they had struggled to stay the same).

The period that I'm going to discuss unfortunately was not as earth-shattering as the years 1917–1924. However, the revolt of the 60's and 70's shook the ruling classes and their ideas throughout the world. The literature of the time, including that broad range of novels that fell under the term speculative fiction, was transformed by the changing society in which the authors found themselves in.

However, I want to make a note of caution.

It can be easy for left-wing writers and critics (socialist ones in particular) to take a crude and mechanical view on the relationship between a historical period and the fiction that it produced. In our effort to combat the idea that politics and art are separate spheres of life, we can take things too far the other way. As the Marxist critic Terry Eagleton wrote,
In its cruder formulations, the idea that literature 'reflects' reality is clearly inadequate. It suggest a passive, mechanistic relationship between art and society, as through the work, like a mirror or photographic plate, merely inertly registered what was happening ‘out there’(Eagleton 46, 1989).

Trotsky himself gave what I think is a much more accurate description of the relationship; he said that artistic creation is “a deflection, a changing and a transformation of reality, in accordance with the peculiar laws of art”(Eagleton 47, 1989). ‘The peculiar laws of art’ are the many different factors that act as layers between literature and society. Even when a radical period is unfolding, the position of the writer in society, the trends in fiction that have come before , and the way that type of fiction is published all shape the link between society in general and a piece of literature in particular.

I hope to show how these mediating factors influenced the relationship between the political struggles of the 60s and 70s and the speculative fiction that was produced during that time by discussing the 'New Wave' in particular. It is my aim to try and draw these links out as fully as possible. Although length will prevent me from looking into each crack, I encourage others to go ahead and explore, deepen, criticise and discuss the ideas in the following article.

It should also be said that this article is by no means a comprehensive study of all the speculative fiction of the period. I have had to limit myself to the trends and movements which I felt most merited discussion.

What came before

The speculative fiction that burst onto the scene in the 60s and 70s was deeply influenced not only by the changing social conditions in which the writers found themselves, but also by the legacy of speculative fiction writers that had come before them.

Many of the writers who would become the spokespeople for the 'New Wave' of speculative fiction in the 60's and 70's were little more than readers during the 50's and it was the contradictions of this generally conservative era and way they exploded later on that shaped much of their world-view.

The 1950s had seen a relative stabilising of capitalism, at least in the most advanced areas of the capitalist world and in particular in the United States. “For close to twenty years the problems that had plagued the advanced countries between the First and Second World Wars seemed to be disappearing for good. Unemployment fell. Living standards rose steadily. The old slum tenement blocks and back-to-back houses were being systematically demolished. ‘You've never had it so good,’ proclaimed Britain's Tory prime minister Harold Macmillan during the 1959 election campaign – and most people agreed” (Harman 1, 1998).

Not all fell into worshipping the greatness of the liberal democracy and capitalism, however. The German-American Marxist Herbert Marcuse's book The One Dimensional Man is filled with a hatred for the political system of the 1950s. “The rise in mass living standards,” he noted, “was provided by an economy which depended on monstrous war preparations for its stability; the unprecedented advance of technology, once seen as the key to human liberation, was now the lock guaranteeing human subjection”(Harman 3, 1998). Although in a minority, there were people like Marcuse who expressed dissatisfaction with the contradictory way that the West had seemingly escaped war, crisis and social upheaval.

However, he also agreed with many of the praisers of capitalism that the majority of people would not rebel against the system: “The people, previously the ferment for social change, have 'moved up' to become the ferment of social cohesion”(Marcuse 256, 1964). According to Marcuse, it was now up to the fringe dwellers and social misfits to fight for change as the majority of working people had become a part of the system and so a part of the problem. This idea of outcasts playing a role in destabilising the system instead of the more tradition Marxism view of the working class would also have an influence upon the ideas of the 'New Wave'.

Science Fiction in particular saw a great boom in popularity during this time. It was the final decade of the Golden Age of Science Fiction, marked by stories that “[valorise] a particular sort of writing: hard SF, linear narratives, heroes solving problems or countering threats in a space-opera or technological-adventure idiom”(Roberts 195). In the era of the space race and massive technological advancement, stories of adventures to other planets and heroic battles with evil aliens appealed to many who grew up during the war years. It would be unfair to say that all the fiction of the Golden Age was simply optimistic and morally bourgeois, but a lot of it was. Isaac Asimov for instance was gifted with a visionary application of science and a more developed interest in the characters behind the technology. However he was also weighed down by an almost utopian sense of wonder in the marvels of science and a rather conservative liberalism revealed particularly in his space opera Foundation series. As Marx said, “the ruling ideas of an epoch are the ideas of the ruling class," and in a period of triumphant capitalism such as the 1950s, it isn't surprising that speculative fiction and science fiction in particular reflected capitalist ideas.

However, they reflected this only to an extent. There were also the liberal dissents of science fiction and fantasy, some of them even achieved success. One of the dominant trends in science fiction, for instance, was the libertarian trend popularised by Robert A Heinlien. Although expressing discomfort with current morals and organised religion, these novels while perhaps radical in artistic terms merely repeated the pessimistic liberal politics of people like Herbert Marcuse. Heinlien's Starship Troopers is a case in point, but even his better novels just criticise mores, morals and social sensibility of the 50s rather than the structures of oppression in society. Heinlien also expressed a deep anti-communist and pro-militarist stance, especially in the before mentioned Starship Troopers. Heinlien would later be attacked by writers of the 'New Wave' for his militarism, especially by Michael Moorcock, who described Heinlien's ideas in his article “Starship Stormtroopers” as “the philosophy of the Western applied to the complex social problems of the twentieth century—it is Reaganism, it is John Wayne in Big John Maclean and The Green Berets, it is George Wallace and Joe McCarthy—at its most refined it is William F. Buckley Jr., who, already a long way more sophisticated than Heinlein, is still pretty simple-minded" (Moorcock, 1978).

Three writers who were politically to the left of Heinlien and would influence the 'New Wave' were Theodore Sturgeon, Ray Bradbury and Alfred Bester. All wrote fiction for the pulp magazines as well as full length novels. Theodore's More Than Human revealed his (and wider society’s) fascination with Freud, psychotherapy and evolution. Both Ray Bradbury and Alfred Bester wrote stories that shared some of Marcuse's liberal ideas such as the alienation felt by people under the conservatism of the 50s and outcasts being the ones able to resist it. Alfred Bester's brilliant story The Stars My Destination was one of the most left-wing science fiction novels of the 1950s, featuring a down-trodden worker, Gully Foyle, and his transformation into a radical through a struggle with inequality and hypocrisy. The opening of the novel describes a world riddled with contradictions, not unlike our own:
This was a Golden Age, a time of high adventure, rich living, and hard dying . . . but nobody thought so. This was a future of fortune and theft, pillage and rapine, culture and vice . . . but nobody admitted it. This was an ages of extremes, a fascinating century of freaks . . . but nobody loved it.

All the habitable worlds of the solar system were occupied, three planets and eight satellites and eleven million million people swarmed in one of the most exciting ages ever known, yet minds still yearned for other times, as always. The solar system seethed with activity . . . fighting, feeding and breeding, learning the new technologies that spewed forth almost before the old had been mastered, girding itself for the first exploration of the far stars in deep space (Bester 7-8, 1956).

These writers expressed feeling of alienation and discomfort, the fear that underneath the golden era of capitalism, things were not as perfect as they were made out to be. They also popularised the use of Freudian themes, furthered the development of character development and a dissatisfaction with the status quo that would have lasting effects upon the writers of the 'New Wave'.

The 50s also saw a massive rise in the popularity of fantasy novels. Although in many ways overshadowed by the Golden Age of Science Fiction, epic fantasy novels took root in many people’s mind. J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings was published over three volumes in the mid 50s. Robert E. Howard's Conan the Barbarian stories and the tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser by Fritz Leiber saw similar popularity, laying the ground for the expansion of the more cohesive sub-genre of fantasy known as Sword and Sorcery.

As the stability of global capitalism started to be shaken up by the events of the early 60s, the social and political basis for the popularity of the Golden Age of Science Fiction was starting to be undermined and a space was opening up for the New Wave to erupt upon the speculative fiction scene.

Break Out: New Wave & New Worlds

Michael Moorcock's 1964 selection as editor of the British Science Fiction magazine New Worlds marked the breaking-out point for the New Wave. In the late fifties and early sixties Moorcock, along with writers like Brain Aldiss who would go on to build the backbone of the New Wave, had discussed “glorious ideas of reuniting the values of popular and literary fiction" (Moorcock xxvi, 2008). Moorcock was influenced by the French existentialist writers and film-makers; he often went to Paris and “became an enthusiast for the likes of Henry Miller, Samuel Beckett, Boris Vian, Blaise Cendrars and William Burroughs” (Moorcock xxv, 2008). It was in Paris that he came across Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination and said of him and writers such as Philip K. Dick and Robert Sheckley that “During the shame of McCarthyism, they were amongst the earliest to raise literary voices to examine modern times often far more rigorously and amusingly than literary writers had done. There were a few brave voices who, like their Russian counterparts, found places to publish and speak to a public who mourned what was going on" (Moorcock xxv, 2008).

While a counter-culture had already begun to form out of the Beats and the first rumblings of student revolts could be heard at Berkeley, Michael Moorcock in New Worlds set out with a “clear agenda: to merge generic SF and Literary fiction. New Worlds not only ran an exclusive interview with Tolkien when he was refusing everyone else but also was the first to judge Philip K. Dick as an important writer.... we ran work by Disch, Pynchon, Soline, D. M. Thomas, Peak and a good many other ambitious writers, artists and scientists" (Moorcock xxvii, 2008).

New Worlds (and afterwards the New Wave in general) rejected many of the central themes and concepts of the Golden Age of Science Fiction. It leaned towards so-called “soft” science fiction and took on themes of alienation, mass media, militarism, the decline of western civilisation, revolt, violence and sex. The ideas were heavily influenced by writers like Philip K. Dick and Alfred Bester. Ursula Le Guin wrote science fiction novels about anarchism, the oppression of women and other minorities, questions of gender and sex-change and, in one of my favourite short stories “The Word for World is Forest,” she explored and reflected upon imperialism and resistance with explicit references to the Vietnam War.

Fantasy fiction was similarly affected, with Michael Moorcock playing a lead role with his epic fantasy novels about Elric the albino emperor, who used his brains and magic rather than strength. A renewed interest in early paganism in Europe (especially England) and a resurgence in anti-Christian themes, especially in terms of the oppression of pagan religions would continue into the 80s and 90s. Also, with the Women's Liberation Movement in the 70s, there arose many fantasy works attacking the traditional sexist attitudes of classic fantasy stories such as The Lord of the Rings. The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley, for instance, tackled the Arthurian romances from the perspectives of the main woman characters.

Few of the speculative fiction writers of the 1960s were directly involved in the political struggles that broke out; however, they were deeply influenced by what was happening. Michael Moorcock says that:
[I]n 1967 Judith Merril, a founder member of The Science Fiction Writers of America, an ex-Trotskyist turned libertarian, proposed that this Organisation would buy advertising space in the sf magazines condemning the war in Vietnam. I was around when this was proposed. A good number of members agreed with alacrity—including English members like myself, John Brunner, Brian Aldiss, Robert Silverberg and Harry Harrison were keen, as were Harlan Ellison, James Blish and, to be fair, Frank Herbert and Larry Niven. But quite as many were outraged by the idea, saying that the SFWA 'shouldn't interfere in politics.' Okay, said Merril, then let's say 'The following members of the SFWA condemn American involvement in the Vietnam War etc.' Finally the sf magazines contained two ads—one against the war and one in support of American involvement. Those in support included Poul Anderson, Robert Heinlein, Ann MaCaffrey, Daniel F. Galouye, Keith Laumer and as many other popular sf writers as were against the war (Moorcock, 1978).

Moorcock's quote shows that only the young upstarts were growing still some of the older science fiction writers like Heinlein and Ann MaCaffrey were against the political ideas that the New Wave embraced. As the radicalisation of the 60's increased in pace with the explosion of protests against the Vietnam War, the Berkeley student revolt, the uprisings among African Americans and the events of May 68 in Paris, the winds turned ever more to the favour of the New Wave. Young people craved new, ground-breaking, political fiction to match the times and those around New Worlds and beyond were more than happy to offer it.

Michael Moorcock's fantasy series about Elric, the albino sorcerer and last king of decadent Melnibone, reflected Moorcock's criticisms of tradition epic fantasy as well as his interest in it. While Harlan Ellison's short stories experimented with literary styles and themes such as surrealism. Many of the writers of the New Wave, especially those in Britain, had connections to socialist or anarchist politics, including Michael Moorcock, Ursula Le Guin and M. John Harrison, while Harlan Ellison was deeply against the Vietnam War and a supporter of the Civil Rights Movement. Often their criticisms of the stories of the Golden Age of Science Fiction were intertwined with attacks upon the politics of those writers in particular the 'big three' Arthur C Clark, Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. The faith in technology and science of the so-called Campbellian years was shattered, and even writers who later tried to bring things back to world view of the Golden Age later had to grapple with the ideas that had been explored by the New Wave.

Peak and Decline of the New Wave

Dangerous Visions, edited by Harlan Ellison in 1967, was a virtual Who's Who of the speculative fiction greats at the time. It included fiction by Theodore Sturgeon, Philip K Dick, Ellison himself, Fritz Lieber, Samuel R. Delany, J G Ballard, Larry Niven and Philip Jose Farmer and was followed by Again Dangerous Visions in 1972, which had fiction from Ursula Le Guin, Gene Wolfe, Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut, M. John Harrison and Thomas Disch. Both of the anthologies swept the science fiction and fantasy awards and were reflective of the height of the influence of the New Wave.

Ursula Le Guin, Harlan Ellison and Michael Moorcock had achieved great popularity, especially within speculative fiction circles. However, the shifting social conditions of the United States and the wider world would soon start to affect political development of the New Wave writers.

In The Fire Last Time: 1968 and After, socialist Chris Harman recounts:
At the end of 1968 the editorial board of International Socialism journal received a draft of an editorial on the year from one of its members, Peter Sedgewick. It began with a quote from the poet Yeats: 'The centre cannot hold …' It was brilliantly written. A far cry from the style most of us dished up. Except...

Except we all agreed (including Peter), that the centre had held. It had been besieged, shaken, battered, but at the end of the day it still survived–the Grand Coalition in Germany, de Gaulle in France, Wilson in Britain, Christian Democracy in Italy, the substitution of Richard 'Tricky Dicky' Nixon for LBJ in the US (Harman 163, 1988).

The social movements of the early and mid 70s would open up even more questions about women's oppression, the oppression of gays, lesbians and sexuality in general, but as the 70s dragged on the radicalism of the previous period began to decline.

The 70s had marked the New Wave's dominance within speculative fiction circles in both science fiction and fantasy, as well as the break down of the divisions between science fiction, fantasy and horror. However, it also marked the assimilation of the New Wave into mainstream science fiction and fantasy. "After the flash and filigree of the sixties, the next decade can seem rather docile, even disappointing. It is widely regarded as an interval of integration and bruised armistice" (Broderick 58, 2002). This was combined with the decline in radicalism as the 70s drew to a close and the conservative black lash of the 80s began.


The whole ideology of capitalism had been assaulted by the radicals of the 60s and 70s, massive social conflicts had undermined the idea that society was one of free equals in either the west or the east. The lasting effects of this revolt against the system would be felt in society and politics as well as in speculative fiction, and those rebels and reactionaries of the fantastic who came afterwards would have to deal with the legacy of the New Wave.

Cyberpunk, deeply affected by the turn to the right and de-politicisation in the 80s, conjured up stories of dark industrialised dystopias where the main characters were “marginalised, alienated loners who lived on the edge of society in generally dystopic futures where daily life was impacted by rapid technological change, an ubiquitous datasphere of computerized information, and invasive modification of the human body” (Person, 1998). In the novels of William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, there is little hope and the working class is almost invisible; what matters instead is the battle between shadowy multi-national corporations and a rag-tag group of computer hackers and social outlaws. While continuing the anti-authoritarian tone of the New Wave and a dislike for the military -industrial complex, it reflected the pessimism of much of the left in that decade: that a chance for revolutionary change had been missed and that it might have been the only chance. This contrasted with the 'New Wave's' strong positive sense that change was in the air and that new, radical techniques were need in fiction to keep up with the constant revolutionising of society.

Now the much discussion is being had over the New Weird, the latest movement within speculative fiction. Popularised by writers such as Jeff Vandermeer, China Mieville and K. J Bishop. Their novels and short stories mix elements of science fiction, horror and fantasy, not unlike the original weird fiction writers. However New Weird writers bas their stories in purely fantastical worlds and are influenced by both urban fantasy and steam-punk. Mieville, a socialist even claims that New Weird is a part of a part of “post-Seattle fiction,” referring to the political struggles against the globalisation and rampant neo-liberalism of the 90s and the battle for Seattle in 1999. Although influenced by the political struggle after the conservatism of the 80s, the New Weird was also deeply influenced by developments in speculative fiction and the rising acceptance of many speculative fiction writers into the cannons of the literary elite.

In the introduction to the New Weird anthology edited by Jeff and Ann Vandermeer, a more comprehensive description of the New Weird is given:
New Weird is a type of urban, secondary-world fiction that subverts the romanticized ideas about place found in traditional fantasy, largely by choosing realistic, complex real-world models as the jumping off point for creation of settings that may combine elements of both science fiction and fantasy. New Weird has a visceral, in-the-moment quality that often uses elements of surreal or transgressive horror for its tone, style, and effects — in combination with the stimulus of influence from New Wave writers or their proxies (including also such forebears as Mervyn Peake and the French/English Decadents). New Weird fictions are acutely aware of the modern world, even if in disguise, but not always overtly political. As part of this awareness of the modern world, New Weird relies for its visionary power on a "surrender to the weird" that isn't, for example, hermetically sealed in a haunted house on the moors or in a cave in Antarctica. The "surrender" (or "belief") of the writer can take many forms, some of them even involving the use of postmodern techniques that do not undermine the surface reality of the text (Vandermeer, 2008).

I tend to see the New Weird as not quite the revolutionary upheaval of mainstream speculative fiction that some might make it out to be, but rather as the beginnings of a more radical speculative fiction that is yet to mature. With the current economic crisis creating social upheavals throughout Greece, the United States and Thailand, we can expect a return but not a plain repeat of the political struggles of the past. The speculative fiction that will be written in the future will be deeply affected by those movements that will hopefully shake the foundations of world capitalism, as well as the development of the New Weird and its roots in the New Wave of the 60s and 70s.


     Bester, Alfred. The Stars My Destination . 1956.
     Broderick, Daimen. New Wave and the Backlash 1960 – 1980. 2002.
     Eagleton, Terry. Marxism and Literary Criticism. 1989.
     Harman, Chris. The Fire Last Time. 1998.
     Marcuse, Herbert. The One Dimensional Man. 1964.
     Marx, Karl. The German Ideology. 1845.
     Moorcock, Michael. Starship Stormtroopers. 1978.
     --. Elric The Stealer of Souls. 2008.
     Person, Lawrence. Notes towards a Postcyberpunk Manifesto. 1998.
     Roberts, Adam. The History of Science Fiction. 2006.
     Vandermeer, Jeff and Ann. The New Weird. 2008.

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Jordan Humphreys is a socialist, writer and blogger. He currently lives in Sydney, Australia and studies Arts at Macquarie University. He runs a blog on speculative fiction and politics called Thoughts On Speculative Fiction and has had a short story published on Horror Bound Online Magazine.

1 comment:

  1. Think the idea of claiming Dick as someone who bravely spoke out against Maccarthyism is wide of the mark. When Dick was in his 60s heyday Maccarthy had been censured by the PTB and was long dead.

    By the 1970s Dick was denouncing left wing intellectuals-even those like Fred Jameson who championed his work-to the FBI!

    Polish sci-fi writer,Stanislaw Lem, along with Fred Jameson were denounced for trying to enlist him to the communist conspiracy!

    Big blows for Maccarthyism these!