A bit of a stream of consciousness ramble in response to a really interesting piece on Teleread:
Writer Paul StJohn Mackintosh has a fantastic little article on Teleread contrasting the New Weird with the New Wave of Fantasy/Science Fiction that emerged in the 1960/70s. The New Wave of Fantasy/SF was politically aware, experimental, and pushed at the boundaries of genre that were just then beginning to solidify into the forms in which we know them today. A phenomenon that appeared to have had its last gasp in the cyberpunk explosion of the 1980s. He lays some of the blame for this seeming stagnation in the realm of F/SF at the feet of Hollywood and its attendant marketing machine. The explosion that was Star Wars and the ensuing product branding and marketing acted as a barrier in genre, ‘sentries on the walls of the sci-fi ghetto‘ as StJohn Mackintosh puts it, serving to brush aside and exclude those who would seek to push at those genre defining walls.
It is the opinion of StJohn Mackintosh that Dark/Weird Fiction and Cosmic Horror have stepped up to fill in the gap left yawing by Science Fiction. That it is now the Weird that is the playground for imagination that Science Fiction once was. I do believe that he is right in this. As Science Fiction and Fantasy have become ever more mainstream over the last 30+ years they have become more strictly defined. The Weird, on the other hand, defies such strict definition. Stories of the Weird can sit squat on the outskirts of any of the readily existing genres or outside of genre conventions all together.
What does it say about our society and our time that the genre best suited to it, which is producing the most striking and imaginative writers, is rank with despair, nihilism, terror, cosmic doubt and anomie, and pure and simple horror? Well, try putting a Gernsback– or even a Kurzweil-style spin on 9/11, Iraq, the GFC, Wikileaks, ebola, etc. What kind of faith can even the lay public retain in progress, science and technology that not only have failed to stop Al Qaeda and ISIS, but have even produced climate change and global warming? Let alone an America that has ceased to believe that progress is its ally.
Whilst it is undoubtedly true that much of the Weird is shot through with nihilism, terror, and despair I think that there is more to the reason for the Weird’s ascendancy as the playground for the literary imagination.
I have written before about how the First World War was a point of cultural rupture that inspired the modernists, both high and low, and which ushered in an age of great ideological conflict. An all pervasive dichotomy defined as capitalism/communism or east/west. We see a similar dichotomy in the work of HP Lovecraft with his horror being about both the rupture as the world changes and the dichotomies of known/unknown, natural/unnatural, civilised/non-civilised, human/non-human, WASP/non-WASP. These early works of the Weird, of Cosmic Horror, are rather illustrative of the emergence of, what would become, the global stalemate of the ‘cold’ conflict between the USSR and the USA. Over the course of the 20th Century the conflict changed from being an ideological one, as the USSR evolved into a state-capitalist mode of production, into being a conflict between two competing forms of the same economic model. It was capitalism fighting with itself about how it worked best.
It was in this context that the New Wave emerged as artists reacted to the potential ‘hot’ conflict between these two monolithic entities. They had to find new ways to express this cultural paradigm.
The world has again changed dramatically over the last two and a half decades. The fall of the Eastern Bloc, the events of 9/11 and the various conflicts around the world which have come in its wake -Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria etc- and the increasingly apparent effects of man made climate change(me from the 1990s says “I bloody well told you so”) have reshaped how we perceive our world. No longer is the threat to our civilisation an easily understandable conflict between two powers. Now there are so many factors at play it can be difficult to keep track of them all.
In Syria we have the rise of the, initially US backed, Islamic State who we are told are bad guys, and they most definitely are, yet those who are doing the best job of resisting them are the PKK who are also, we are told, bad guys. (Incidentally there have been some extremely interesting developments with the PKK and their move towards libertarian municipalism and away from left leaning nationalism) We have the increase in natural disasters caused by climate change, the resulting increase in migration. We have the rise of right wing racist organisations capitalising on the increase in migration. We have the economic cluster-fuck that is being exploited by the various ruling classes of the world to tighten their grip on their respective societies through the implementation of austerity measures. We have the increasing frequency of revelations of corruption and outright bastardry in the establishment. Chaos rather than simple conflict is the order of the day.
It is because of this emergent obviousness of the chaos that is the world that the Weird has become the playground for those wishing to play in the literary laboratory. Science Fiction and Fantasy have become so constrained by their marketing that it becomes near impossible to use these forms to explore the constant flux and rupture of life in late capitalism. The Weird allows for near complete freedom in the artist’s approach to interpreting and presenting the world to itself. A freedom that was once enjoyed by F/SF in the time of the New Wave writers.
It isn’t simply the despair and nihilism that runs through the Weird that allows it to act as such a powerful tool for authors in the present age. It is the wild abandon with which authors can approach a theme that mirrors the chaos and turmoil in which we find ourselves. We no longer see the progress of humanity as being anywhere evidenced; perhaps this is because so much recent technological development of late has been personal -the mobile phone/pc, the internet, medicines. These things are all subtle and hidden from view. They may have changed the world but they haven’t put people on the Moon. Now we see chaos and disorder – The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere | The ceremony of innocence is drowned | The best lack all conviction, while the worst | Are full of passionate intensity – where once we saw ourselves as part of a grand narrative.
This doesn’t, however, necessitate despair or nihilism. It does however necessitate the need for an approach that is free of the constraints of genre which have developed over the last half a century or so. The new paradigm needs a new literary tool kit. The Weird is that tool kit.