Review: New Worlds Quarterly #2

Time for a little history lesson. In the early days of science fiction, from its murky pre-1900 past to around 1960, most of what was written in the genre was pulpy in nature. This is not always a bad thing, but it has its limitations. It tends toward formulaic action plots with ideas given the short end of the stick. The prose is at best competent, never experimental, and at worst unreadable. Two-fisted manly men dominate the genre along with swooning damsels, moustache-twirling villains, and wacky ethnic sidekicks. This is the era of Asimov—there was a lot of good work being done, but its value is tightly circumscribed.

For a variety of reasons, this began to change in the 1960s. This era is sometimes called the “New Wave” of science fiction. We began to see a more diverse array of writers with more interesting things to say: people like Ursula K. Le Guin, Harlan Ellison, Avram Davidson, and numerous others. The term is often applied more narrowly to a group of authors associated with the British magazine New Worlds, which at that time was under the editorship of Michael Moorcock. These authors include Norman Spinrad, Brian Aldiss, J. G. Ballard, and Thomas M. Disch.

This more narrow “New Wave” had a very distinct style. The plots became stranger and harder to figure out. Prose grew almost defiantly complex. The stories were politically conscious and tended toward the radical left (where 50s SF was rather overtly right-wing and to this day has an obscenely powerful influence on right-wing thought). The influence of drugs was never far away. It was an angry refutation of SF’s past, and like all angry refutations it had a real point that was sometimes obscured by all the bile. At its best the New Wave breathed new life into a genre that was growing stale. At its worst it was miserable and nihilistic.

After the New Worlds magazine ended due to financial difficulties, Moorcock revived it in several different forms. The first one was as a series of quarterly paperback anthologies. The present review considers the second of these anthologies, published in 1971.

The anthology opens with Keith Roberts’s “Monkey and Pru and Sal”, a post-apocalyptic story about a simple-minded degenerate human and his mutant companions as they travel through the countryside in the remains of a truck. It’s an interesting story, but its narrative conceit wears a little thin by the time it’s done. This will be a recurring theme throughout the collection. Experimental prose becomes standard operating procedure, and everything must be told from some strange point of view or other even if it’s to the story’s ultimate detriment.

Norman Spinrad contributes “No Direction Home”, a series of vignettes set in a world where the ubiquity of synthetic psychedelics has undermined traditional conceptions of reality. This is one of the more effective stories in the collection. I particularly like the vignette format, which allows Spinrad to get some quick and dirty worldbuilding done without an overarching plot.

A forgettable story by William A. Woodrow is followed by M. John Harrison’s “The Causeway”. Both of these are fairly traditional SF horror stories that seem out of place here. Harrison’s is more effective (I had to look up Woodrow’s story to remember what it was about), but neither of them contain anything you haven’t seen before.

J. G. Ballard contributes an essay on Wyndham Lewis’s Human Age trilogy. The essays in this collection are pretty annoying because they are so light on detail. Harrison’s Tolkien criticism at the end at least manages to make a point before it peters out, but Ballard fails to establish any kind of context for the trilogy and, having done that, goes on to say nothing about it.

Barrington Bayley gives us “The Four-Colour Problem”, a 40-page acid trip of a story with an interlude explaining the titular mathematical problem (which was solved a few years after the publication of this story). This is followed by a story by Peter Tate and a collaboration between George Zebrowski and Jack Dann. Neither one is particularly interesting; the most remarkable thing about these stories is that it took two people to write one of them.

Thomas M. Disch, perhaps best known to the wider world as the author of The Brave Little Toaster, contributes a story that’s more interesting for the implications of its existence than for anything in the text. It is a parody of glurge-type stories. But nothing in the text indicates that it is a parody. There is not a moment where he smiles and winks, and it’s not even over the top. It is objectively indistinguishable from a legitimate example of what he’s trying to parody. It’s Andy Kaufman-esque. It’s also, unlike Andy Kaufman, rather mean-spirited and unpleasant and beneath this talented author.

The most exciting stories in the entire collection are by Michael G. Coney and Rachel Pollack (as Richard A. Pollack). “Monitor Found in Orbit”, Coney’s story, begins by getting on your nerves with its narrative pretensions but gradually takes shape into something brilliant. “Pandora’s Bust”, by Pollack, is just insane. Nothing I can say to describe it will do it justice.

Unfortunately, the collection ends on a lacklustre note, with a rather ineffective time travel story by Arthur Sellings and the aforementioned Tolkien essay. This anthology is a representative slice of the New Wave just as it was beginning its descent. It is relentlessly gloomy and packed with experiments that don’t always come off well. It’s also colourful and fresh in a way that lots of classic SF is not. I’m not able to recommend it anymore highly than that. If you’re looking for something new, try it out. Don’t expect it to change your life or save your soul.

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