Imagining new worlds

Recently, a debate broke out in the pages of Overland and Kill Your Darlings about the relationship between politics and literature. On the one side, the Overland editors argued for, as I put it, ‘a literature that takes us back into the world rather than away from it, that thinks about the issues that surround us and affect us: a culture of engagement rather than consolation’. On the other, writer and academic Emmett Stinson feared a reductive politicisation that mistook art for politics. Theories and theorists were bandied about – Lukács and Trotsky, Althusser and Bourdieu – but eventually the discussion foundered on Olympian abstractions.

At the time, in an effort to make the discussion more concrete, I listed a number of writers from the field in which I work, speculative fiction (science fiction, fantasy, magic realism, horror, surrealism), whose writings I considered as touchstones for political fiction. In particular, the ‘New Wave’ of science fiction from the 1960s provides a useful example of the intersection between politics and literature, in which the reshaping of a genre goes hand in hand with a radical politics. Because of that, the story is worth retelling, as we ask what a new political literature might look like and how we might reconsider our own practice today.

In June 1968, the well-known American magazine Galaxy Science Fiction published two advertisements, each containing a long list of science fiction writers, illustrators and editors. The first read: ‘We the undersigned believe the United States must remain in Vietnam to fulfil its responsibilities to the people of that country.’ On the facing page, the second list began: ‘We oppose the participation of the United States in the war in Vietnam.’

The anti-war ad had been organised by the writers Judith Merril and Kate Wilhelm. Merril had been in the Trotskyist movement during the Second World War, and was both politically and personally radical. A member of the Futurians, a predominantly left-wing science fiction group, she’d led a colourful personal life and believed in women’s right to sexual liberation and ‘free love’.

As she and Wilhelm collected names, they were shocked – somewhat naively, perhaps – when other science fiction writers refused to sign. They’d assumed that, because the science fiction field was generally liberal and ‘forward thinking’, there would be widespread support for their advertisement. In fact, they had misread the situation entirely.

The pro-war signatories were – with some exceptions – writers of an older generation, from science fiction’s self-proclaimed ‘Golden Age’. They included John W Campbell, the most influential editor of that time, and Robert Heinlein, an ex-leftist who had become a cold warrior for the Right. Heinlein, who responded to Merril’s list with declarations of ‘America first’ and ‘US must win’, expressed a far-Right militarism in anti-communist novels like The Puppet Masters and Starship Troopers. His Glory Road tells of a soldier who fights in Vietnam and brags about disembowelling a ‘Marxist’ in the jungle.

Other Golden Age writers were more liberal. Nevertheless, their work shared many characteristics. In the typical Golden Age SF story, the protagonist – almost always white and male – faced a plot-puzzle created by some science fictional dilemma, to be solved by either intelligence and scientific knowledge (the more liberal Golden Age writers), or through action (Heinlein and others from the Right). For Golden Age writers, science was to lead us in a glorious progress from the suburbs to the stars. The Golden Age authors could thus ask: what kind of worlds will we be engaging with? What sort of alien environments and inhabitants exist there? At the centre of many of the Golden Age texts – such as in Issac Asimov’s Foundation series – was empire.

In its elevation of science, its technological determinism and its belief in progress, the Golden Age was thus an expression of the dominant postwar American liberalism, itself born from the moment that the US moved to centre stage politically and economically. As the Marxist economist Ernest Mandel argued, somewhat overstatedly, postwar ideology was ‘accompanied by a generalised proclamation of the advantages of organisation … Belief in the omnipotence of technology is the specific form of bourgeois ideology in late capitalism’ (italics mine).

The anti-war signatories were, on the other hand, mostly of a younger generation: part of the New Wave, a term first used by Merril in 1966. As a movement, the aim of the New Wave was, as Thomas Disch (one of its members) explained, ‘to elevate SF to its true potential as the heir of Joyce and Kafka, Beckett and Genet’. In doing so, it opened itself up to all kinds of radical content – New Left, feminist, countercultural.1

The New Wave really began with the anarchist Michael Moorcock, who took over the English science fiction magazine New Worlds and edited it from Ladbroke Grove, a centre of the ‘London Underground’. Under Moorcock, New Worlds was transformed into an ambitious vehicle for a literary avant-garde within the genre. Moorcock aimed to revolutionise both science fiction and literary fiction through the destruction of the boundaries between them, a task that included challenging all previous taboos, traditions and norms. His first editorial proclaimed that New Worlds would publish ‘a kind of SF which is unconventional in every sense’. The idea was, as he explained elsewhere, to ‘attempt a cross-fertilisation of popular SF, science and the work of the literary and artistic avantgarde’. New Worlds thus ‘attacked the “literary establishment” as well as social institutions and scientific orthodoxy’.

Later, Moorcock looked back on the project like this:

During the sixties, in common with many other periodicals, our New Worlds believed in revolution. Our emphasis was on fiction, the arts and sciences, because it was what we knew best. We attacked and were in turn attacked in the all-too-familiar rituals. Smiths [and Menzies, the book retailing company] refused to continue distributing the magazine unless we ‘toned down’ our contents. We refused. We were, they said, obscene, blasphemous, nihilistic etc., etc. The Daily Express attacked us. A Tory asked a question about us in the House of Commons – why was public money (a small Arts Council grant) being spent on such filth. I recount all this not merely to establish what we were prepared to do to maintain our policies (we were eventually wiped out by Smiths and Menzies) but to point out that we were the only SF magazine to pursue what you might call a determinedly radical approach – and SF buffs were the first to attack us with genuine vehemence.

Playing the role of TS Eliot to Moorcock’s Ezra Pound (as Disch once put it) was JG Ballard, a quietly spoken Englishman who had grown up in Shanghai. As a child during the Second World War, he had been incarcerated in a Japanese civilian detention centre, an experience that formed the basis of his semi-autobiographical novel The Empire of the Sun. The destruction of imperial certainties was to have a profound impact on Ballard, almost as much as the quiet respectability of suburban Shepparton where he eventually settled after the war.

For Ballard, the old science fiction was exhausted. In a 1962 piece for New Worlds, ‘Which Way to Inner Space?’, he wrote, ‘I think science fiction should turn its back on space, on interstellar travel, extraterrestrial life forms, galactic wars and the overlap of these ideas … similarly, I think, science fiction must jettison its present narrative forms and plots.’ He proclaimed a boredom with traditional science fiction, preferring an examination of ‘inner space’ to outer space and gestured to surrealism and the unconscious. ‘To attract a critical readership, science fiction needs to alter completely its present content and approach,’ he wrote.

His own work reversed or inverted the central narrative strategies of Golden Age science fiction, replacing rational, cerebral protagonists with troubled, isolated antiheroes. His futures were not the space-faring adventures of Asimov or Heinlein but crumbling worlds that were representations of the contemporary psyche, expressed in exotic and efflorescent language.

Ballard’s rejection of the verities of science fiction set the foundations for the later works in the New Wave. Many American SF writers – Disch, Norman Spinrad, Harlan Ellison – began to send their most radical writing to Moorcock. Before long, the magazine had, in Ballard’s words, ‘ceased to be an SF magazine at all, even within my elastic definition of the term, and became something much closer to avant-garde experimental writing’. Ballard himself went on to write a series of brilliant experimental ‘condensed novels’ – reflections on the media landscape, with titles like ‘Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan’ and ‘The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race’. Among Ballard’s notable acts was the curation of a show of crashed motor cars for a London art gallery, a precursor to his novel Crash.

Very quickly, this experimentation brought all kinds of radical content into science fiction, and New Worlds in particular. Pamela Zoline’s famous story ‘The Heat Death of the Universe’ interspersed details of the everyday life of a housewife with other fragments, including an explanation of the second law of thermodynamics (that all closed systems lose energy and thus the universe will one day die). It was a brilliant story, but for many of the old guard one question remained: was it science fiction?

The energy of the New Wave quickly spread to the US, just as many of the US writers sent their most radical works to New Worlds. Merril herself lived for a year in England in 1967 and was so impressed she edited the anthology England Swings SF. The American New Wave was probably most visible in the Orbit anthology edited by Damon Knight (the husband of Kate Wilhelm) and, in particular, in Ellison’s anthology Dangerous Visions.

Ellison had marched with Martin Luther King and protested against the Vietnam War. His journalistic work, some of it printed in the countercultural LA Free Press, connected him with the New Journalism of the 1960s (Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Hunter S Thompson and others), which, as cultural critic Morris Dickstein says, ‘included a broad spectrum of underground writing – political, countercultural, feminist, pornographic’.

In his introduction to Dangerous Visions, Ellison argued, ‘This book … was constructed along specific lines of revolution. It was intended to shake things up. It was conceived out of a need for new horizons, new forms, new styles, new challenges in the literature of our times.’

The anthology contained many of the New Wave writers – Ellison himself, Brian Aldiss, Spinrad, Ballard, Philip K Dick – while its sequel, Again, Dangerous Visions, included Ursula Le Guin, whose ‘The Word for World is Forest’ was a consciously anti-Vietnam War story. Like Moorcock, Le Guin sympathised with the anarchist theorist Kropotkin. Like Ballard, she rejected establishment science fiction:

From a social point of view most SF has been incredibly regressive and unimaginative. All those Galactic Empires, taken straight from the British Empire of 1880. All those planets – with 80 trillion miles between them! – conceived of as warring nation-states, or as colonies to be exploited, or to be nudged by the benevolent Imperium of Earth towards self-development – the White Man’s burden all over again. The Rotary Club on Alpha Centauri, that’s the size of it.

Le Guin, along with Joanna Russ and others, introduced feminism into science fiction, through books like The Left Hand of Darkness and The Female Man. Le Guin was also involved in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements, while Russ, a lesbian, was more combative in her challenge of male dominance in the field.

But the writer in Ellison’s anthology who most exemplified the radical impulse was probably Samuel R Delany, whom Disch described as ‘the American New Wave’s most brightly shining star’. Delany’s earliest novels share much of the imagery and symbolism of Ballard’s disaster stories. Both writers depict decaying civilisations filled with empty cities and ruined technologies. But Delany concentrates on the cultural relativism of language and science, with an emphasis on the marginalised and on problems of identity. Delany himself is black and gay, and his story in Dangerous Visions, ‘Aye, and Gomorrah’, is often taken as a symbolic reworking of the gay experience.

Delany’s views developed in the context of the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the early 1960s, the New York hippie district where countercultural radicals like Abbie Hoffman based themselves. Delany was one of science fiction’s prodigies (he published The Jewels of Aptor at nineteen) who had taken LSD by 1965 and was present at the famous Eighteen Happenings in Six Parts by Allan Kaprow. Later in the 1960s he was involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement, and in 1967 he lived as part of an urban commune, an experience chronicled in Heavenly Breakfast. His writing represented a confluence of all of these currents.

In 1968, when the anti-Vietnam letter appeared in Galaxy, the American New Wave was reaching its peak. That year, Delany’s Einstein Intersection, a novel of extreme language play and experimentation, won the Hugo, while Disch’s book Camp Concentration (in which the chief character, a draft resister, is imprisoned and infected with a form of syphilis) announced its author as a major talent. Robert Silverberg – probably the most right-wing of the New Wave writers – quickly produced a series of meditations on alienation, transcendence and political action, through which his stalled science fiction career was brilliantly relaunched. Philip K Dick had already built a body of work, including essays praising the New Left and the counterculture, centring around philosophical questions of reality, authenticity and what it meant to be human.

Meanwhile, in London, Le Guin published her feminist novel The Left Hand of Darkness. She later published her award-winning novel The Word for World is Forest (based on the novella of the same name included in Again, Dangerous Visions) in which the gentle inhabitants of a planet fight the evil Yumen invaders.

We can see here convergence between science fiction and, for want of a better term, ‘history’. As Ellison proclaimed a ‘revolution’ in Dangerous Visions, activists and radicals were taking to the streets across the world. The year 1968 was when the ‘1960s’ went global: the events of May and June rocked France, with a general strike paralysing the country; demonstrators marched through ‘swinging’ London; in Vietnam, the Tet offensive demonstrated that the United States and its allies could not win the war; riots shook Germany and 126 cities in the US; in Japan students clashed with police; the Prague Spring arose as a powerful reform movement in Czechoslovakia.

Revolutions in form represent the emergence of new content. As a generation, the New Wave writers set out to revolutionise science fiction, driving its own concerns – civil rights, feminism, gay and lesbian rights, the New Left and political action, spirituality and transcendence, eastern mysticism and philosophy – through the genre’s fissures. In order to do so, they had to break apart the traditional narrative forms and structures.

The New Wave dissipated in the mid 1970s along with the radical movement of which it was a part, though the story is less one of defeat than of integration (acceptance by the genre as a whole) and dispersal (the disappearance of the distinctive tone representing the particular correlation of forces from which the New Wave emerged).

Nonetheless, as Spinrad explained: ‘[the New Wave] did change science fiction forever. Because prior to that there really were all kinds of restrictions: it was edited as if it were stuff for teenagers, or more accurately, what librarians thought teenagers should be able to read. So there was all kinds of political restrictions, and sexual restrictions and language restrictions, none of which exist today. In that sense it succeeded completely. After Dangerous Visions after Bug Jack Barron, Barefoot in the Head, stuff like that, you could do anything.’

Joe Haldeman’s 1974 novel The Forever War provides a remarkable example of what the New Wave achieved, because in many ways it constitutes a rewrite of Heinlein’s Cold War novel Starship Troopers. Both novelists had been in the armed forces (Heinlein in the Second World War; Haldeman in Vietnam, where he was seriously wounded); both novels employ essentially the same plot (the rise of the protagonist from lowly foot soldier to officer); both have the same science fictional hardware and a similar hard-nosed literary style. That resemblance illustrates the shifting in ideological focus, best understood against the schism in US domestic politics that was to result in the so-called ‘Vietnam Syndrome’. As Alasdair Spark explains, ‘Heinlein applauded heroism, revelled in combat, and lauded the organisation of society along military lines … Haldeman’s soldiers are elite draftees, caught in an endless, futile war which strips them of humanity, alienates them from civilian society, and denies them status except in survival.’

The anti-war advertisement in Galaxy was written to foster exactly the sort of shift expressed in Haldeman’s The Forever War. For Merril, however, the letter was not enough. She moved to Canada in the late 1960s, giving as a reason the US government’s suppression of anti-war activism. There, she founded Rochdale College, an experiment in cooperative living and student-run education, and was heavily involved in the peace movement. Others took different paths, though few of the New Wave writers entirely lost their radicalism. Forty years after the letter, their example shines for those who feel that contemporary culture needs to be revolutionised, not just in form, but in content.

Of course, literary movements cannot be simply invoked out of thin air, any more than radical political movements can be conjured by pure will. The New Wave project was constructed in the context of the broad social radicalisation in which its writers participated. It is easy for us to forget just how profound this was. The civil rights movement, black power, feminism, the New Left, gay rights, the counterculture – the 1960s fundamentally altered the modern world. Revolution – in both East and West – seemed to be in the air, and to understand New Wave SF, you must understand it as emerging from and engaging with this radicalisation.

The political situation in Australia today is obviously different. The events of September 11 served to derail the anti-corporate movement, and since then no comparable struggles have emerged. Not surprisingly, radical political writing has declined – and this is a fact that we cannot simply wish away.

That does not, however, mean that we should simply wait until the times change. We do not need to simply acquiesce to the era in which we find ourselves: a culture of McDonald’s and Australian Idol, Transformers and manufactured boy bands; a political landscape of wars and occupations, torture and the erosion of civil rights, of the demonisation of refugees or the objectification of women.

Literary and political movements are never entirely spontaneous. They never emerge purely unplanned, without someone initiating them. As Antonio Gramsci once noted, a description of an action as ‘spontaneous’ simply means that leaders cannot be identified. The story of the New Wave consists of conscious political interventions – Moorcock’s tenure at New Worlds, Merril and Wilhelm’s letter, Ellison’s Dangerous Visions – having significant cultural effects. At key points of that history, both science fiction and the broader culture were shaped by people who had both a literary agenda and a political one.

Furthermore, most of the New Wave writers embarked on their projects before the widespread 1960s radicalisation took place. In 1962, Ballard’s inversion of Golden Age SF opened up a way of writing science fiction with an entirely different world view. Moorcock took over New Worlds in 1964. Ellison began writing about civil rights and the marginalised in the late 1950s, populating his fiction with outsiders, the working class, little people struggling, rather than ‘heroes’. Le Guin and Delany followed similar trajectories. They were, in other words, participants in the 1960s, not simply reflections of it.

The New Wave is instructive in a final sense, demonstrating that approaching culture politically (in the broad sense of the term) does not necessarily result in the production of dour and didactic texts. On the contrary, political interventions underpin many of the greatest formal revolutions, the most experimental and original work. In this respect, the New Wave echoed the earlier avant-gardes of the 1920s and 1930s. The New Wave writers did not ‘preach’ or reduce their fiction to politics or allegory. Rather, their politics provided the world view, the horizon for their works. They had, if you like, a political unconscious.

Like the New Wave, we need to diagnose what we think is terminal in contemporary culture, and create a vision for an alternative. To do so, we must have a political reading of the contemporary era. Out of this diagnosis we need to consider the appropriate forms of fiction to publish and the appropriate projects in which to be involved.

1 This is a ‘wide’ definition of the New Wave’, which some would challenge.

Rjurik Davidson

Rjurik Davidson is a writer, editor and speaker. Rjurik’s novel, The Stars Askew was released in 2016. Rjurik is a former associate editor of Overland magazine. He can be found at and tweets as @rjurikdavidson.

More by Rjurik Davidson ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays