New Wave Science Fiction: An Introductory Syllabus By Author Misha Burnett

When I am asked to describe my work in terms of genre, I usually say “Science Fiction”, but I have to go on to explain that it may not be the sort of Science Fiction that most people are familiar with. I consider myself firmly in the New Wave Movement, which unfortunately peaked nearly a half century ago in the 1970’s. Consequently modern readers who are familiar with what I call “Post-Star Wars Sci-Fi” often expect something very different.

Misha BurnettSo what is New Wave Science Fiction (aside from no longer accurately named)? Like most artistic movements, it began as a reaction to what had gone before. The Science Fiction of the post-war pulp era had become rather formulaic, relying on standard tropes of rocket ships and blasters and galactic empires battling evil aliens—boy’s adventure stories in space with bug-eyed monsters taking the place of pirates and savages. Not that all Science Fiction of the 1940’s and 1950’s fall into that pattern, of course, but there was a prevailing feeling that the genre had reached the point of self-parody.

What’s more, the mood of the reading public in America and the UK had changed. The world had changed. The generation that had won the war against the Nazis made way for a generation who saw wars in Korea and Viet Nam that seemed to have no purpose aside from spreading misery across the globe. Penicillin had paved the way for Thalidomide and Reddi Kilowatt’s atomic future was looking darker and more frightening as we learned more about the effects of radiation.CH

For New Wave writers the Land Of Tomorrow wasn’t the shining city on a hill that the Gernsback pulps promised, all Lucite and chrome and white marble, it was a labyrinth, a place full of hidden dangers and with no clear directions. The message of New Wave seems to be, in the words of Leonard Cohen, “I have seen the future, brother, and it’s murder.”

Which is not to say that New Wave is entirely—or even mostly—apocalyptic. It is, however, the literature of risk, and the awareness that progress is not an unmixed blessing is central to the overall esthetic. It moved Science Fiction beyond boy’s adventure stories and into stories written for adults, that dealt with adult themes, presenting a universe that was drawn in shades of gray, asking difficult questions and positing problems for which there was no clear right solution.CB

The novels that I am listing here are my own recommendations for readers wanting to get a good feel for New Wave as a genre. I don’t claim that it is exhaustive or definitive. These aren’t “the best” by any objective standard, or even all of my personal favorites. I do feel, however, that they make a good introductory reading list. Objections can be raised to my inclusion of some of these titles—several of these authors did not consider themselves New Wave. However, I do believe that all of them have the spirit of the movement, a willingness to ask hard questions, a sense of moral ambiguity, and a focus on the psychological, emotional, and even spiritual depths of the characters, rather than the technology. More fiction, less science, as it were.

The Soft Machine, William S. Burroughs (1961)

TSMWilliam Burroughs is considered by many (including myself) to be the Father of New Wave. His work is hard to explain, and often hard to stomach. The graphic descriptions of homosexual sex, drug use, and violence are definitely not for the faint of heart, but his work also contains a manic energy that can’t be denied. Burroughs had a unique vision of reality that not so much challenged existing preconceptions as utterly demolished them. I consider The Soft Machine to be the most accessible of his works (which is not to say that it’s an easy read by any standards).

Einstein Intersection, Samuel Delany (1967)

The Einstein IntersectionThis book deals with some very deep issues of myth and identity in a seemingly effortless way. Set on Earth in the far distant future, it is the story of Lo Lobey, a wandering musician looking for Kid Death, to try to force him to return his lost lover. Orpheus, however, is only one of the myths that Delany uses to investigate the question of how the stories we tell ourselves make us who we are.

Macroscope, Piers Anthony (1970)

Macroscope(Anthony)Possibly the most “Science Fictiony” novel on this list, you’ll find many standard tropes, space travel, communication with aliens, imagined communities with free love and controlled breeding. The story, though, is less about the eponymous high tech macroscope and more about the unlikely characters who find themselves using it to move through time and space. Much of the jargon and imagery is sadly dated, but if you can get past that the story is both engaging and disturbing.

The Lathe Of Heaven, Ursula K. Le Guin (1971)

TLoHJustly recognized as a classic, and twice filmed (1980 and 2002), Le Guin’s vision encompasses a dozen possible futures and ties them all together in the mind and dreams of one man. A haunting and poetic novel about power, and the price it has.

The Iron Dream, Norman Spinrad (1972)

TIDImagine that Adolf Hitler stayed out of politics and instead moved to America, where he got a job painting covers for pulp magazines, and then went on to writing them. Spinrad gives us a taste of what Hitler may have written, in a short novel called The Lord Of The Swastika, and then goes on to write an analysis of the novel, from the point of view of the alternate world in which World War Two never happened. It’s a fascinating look at the psychology of the Third Reich, using fiction to examine some very disturbing questions about how the Holocaust happened.

What Entropy Means To Me, George Alec Effinger (1972)

WEmtMThis one is a hard one to explain. It’s a story about a man telling a story about his brother, but the narrator doesn’t actually know what happened to his brother, and so he’s making things up, and it takes place on another planet, sort of, and there are all these chairs on the lawn, uh, look, just read it, okay? It’s surprisingly readable for a novel in which nothing is really known for certain.

You’re All Alone, Fritz Leiber (1972)

YAABar none, the scariest book I have ever read. Also a huge influence on other works of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror (all of which describe this book.) What if everyone in the world was pre-programmed to move and talk and go through their daily lives, not really alive or aware, like a machine? And what if someone “woke up” suddenly, became aware while everyone else was still just going through the motions? What would happen to someone who broke the pattern? What if everyone around you was just following their programming, and no one could see you, or react to you, or know that you even existed?

The Man Who Folded Himself, David Gerrold (1973)

TMwfhThe Time Travel Novel to end all Time Travel Novels. Gerrold uses the metaphor of time travel to write a serious novel about identity and self, how we see ourselves, how we relate to ourselves, how we come to terms with who we are, who we were, who we could be, and who we choose to become. It also deals frankly with a man who has sex with himself, so be advised that there are some homosexual erotic scenes.

The Shockwave Rider, John Brunner (1975)

TSWRAn extremely prophetic novel that imagines a world in which everyone is connected by computers and comes damned close to describing the Internet as it is today. It also describes many of the problems that the Internet brings, the loss of privacy, the consequences of instant celebrity, the dangers of trusting data from anonymous sources. Some heavy-handed polemic in spots, but all in all an extraordinary piece of work, given when it was written.

A Scanner Darkly, Philip K. Dick (1977)

ASDThis is one of the truest and saddest novels I have ever read. It deals with drug addiction in a brutally realistic way, even though it contains many Sci-Fi elements. The 2006 film based on it is probably the most faithful adaptation of any of Dick’s stories, and the film’s tagline, “Everything Is Not Going To Be OK” perfectly sums up the heart of the book.

Again, this list is what I consider a good introduction to the New Wave genre, and should provide the open-minded reader a glimpse into other worlds, both fascinating and terrifying. These are also books that I consider my own personal inspirations. This is what I aspire to. Only my readers can tell me how close I’ve come to reaching it.

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13 thoughts on “New Wave Science Fiction: An Introductory Syllabus By Author Misha Burnett

  1. Great list of books I don’t remember reading, but of authors whom I read everything I could get of their works! So maybe my library thought these were too dangerous 🙂 Where did Heinlein fit in the ‘New Wave’ categorisation? Ditto Fred Pohl and Poul Anderson, all of whom I associate with Fritz Lieber in my “favourite authors” of my youth 🙂

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    • Heinlein and the other “hard science” writers took a different path. I think that a novel like “The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress” is as much a reaction against the pulp era, but rather than rejecting the Sci-Fi tropes Heinlein and others chose to reform them. He (and Clarke and Asimov and later Niven and many others) kept what they felt was good about the genre while rejecting the bad, without reacting as drastically as New Wave writers.

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    • I don’t think that recent sci-fi can be neatly summed up into a single genre as easily as the post-war pulp era can be. Writers tend to pick and choose from the best of the past.

      Today we have so many different voices in Sci-Fi. Military, Romance, Dystopian, Apocalyptic, YA, Sci-Fi/Fantasy fusion, Existentialist, that I don’t know if I could say that it’s really one genre anymore. (Hence my desire to specify my own work into a sub-genre.)

      In terms of quality, I think that the books I’ve listed have stood the test of time as novels first. I am sure that there are genre novels being written today that will last (I really hope that mine are among them) but I suspect that the question of which ones will have to be answered by our children.

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  2. Thank you for these recommendations. I will check out some of the works you mention. The only book of Dick’s which I have read is “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” so I’d be interested to check out more of his writing.

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    • I think Phillip Dick was a true genius, and I recommend pretty much his entire body of work. He does tend to get a little heavy handed at times (In my opinion “Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep” verged on being preachy). It was tough to narrow down his work into one book to include on this list–I considered “A Maze Of Death”, “Time Out Of Joint”, “Confessions Of A Crap Artist” before settling on “A Scanner Darkly”.

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    • To Misha’s suggestions I would add Clans of Alphane Moon, and Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch.

      I also really like Valis, but it is potentially his least accessible work, so I suggest leaving that until after you have read more of his work.

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