As a kid, I loved going to the bookstore. We had a Walden Books in the open mall where my mom would go to Kroger, so that is the one I would frequent. When we first arrived in the US, my interest was in Hardy Boys, but I soon graduated to the science fiction section.
This part of the bookstore was dominated by names such as Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke, even Silverberg… the gilded voices of the Golden Age. These were the giants of the time when science fiction was finding its feet, establishing the things that would define it. They were the men who ruled, uncontested, until the New Wave toppled them from their throne in the 1960s.
That is the narrative, of course. The reality is that I was a kid in the 1980s, and none of these guys had been toppled. They still ruled the roost as if the New Wave never happened.
Yes, I’ve discussed the New Wave here before, but never in the context of it’s effect on the genre of the 1980s and 1990s.
First, some context. If you ask someone about the New Wave today, they will likely say that it marked the end of Campbell’s influence on the genre, and paved the way for today’s more character-driven and literary work.
There may be some truth in this… but it certainly isn’t 100% correct. The reality on the ground in the 1980s was that the New Wave had pretty much been beaten back by the old guard by the time I started paying attention to science fiction. Yes, some of the names from the sixties consolidated their places (notably Frank Herbert and Ursula K. LeGuin, with Philip José Farmer a lesser name), but for the most part, the blip had been neutralized, and the rest of the best-sellers were newer names such as Orson Scott Card and Larry Niven.
Even the writing style had gone back from the convoluted literary muddiness of Judith Merril’s anthologies to a more direct type of narrative with a focus on story. Had some of the character-driven sensibilities remained? Yes, those had survived, everyone appeared to agree that they were a good idea… but the other stuff was discarded as soon as editors realized that readers hated it.
The eighties and the nineties, therefore, were good epochs for SF literature. The genre sold well, and new readers arrived.
With the turn of the century, however, another shift occurred, a new New Wave, if you like. SF became more politicized (it was always political, of course) and the sensibilities looked to the literary and experimental once more. Slipstream flourished, straight idea-driven stories became anathema. Some misguided souls began using the term “Golden Age” as a kind of benevolent insult.
The main result of this trend was actually a rise in fantasy sales. People such as Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind and even George R.R. Martin benefitted. They were telling straightforward stories of action and adventure in the traditional mold without looking to challenge or subvert anything… and readers flocked to them in droves. They still do, in fact. Harry Potter was also a product of this time. No one will call Hogwarts progressive, but it certainly did become the darling of supposedly super-progressive Millennials…
Meanwhile, Science Fiction asphyxiated under the heavy yoke of literary writing, and split into factions (the Sad Puppies appeared to try to bring it back, but that effort was, at best, misguided), each of which defends their turf with rabid aggression.
Will any of today’s “superstars” be remembered in the 2030s or will they fall by the wayside the way the writers from the sixties did? I think most of what is happening today will be forgotten as soon as Elon Musk establishes his Mars colony and people become fascinated with progress and ideas again (as opposed to the current preoccupation with politicizing even the tiniest of human interactions and navel-gazing). When humans remember why we admire individuals with drive and initiative who push the species forward, SF literature will reverse its current trend towards utter boredom and resurge like the phoenix.
But even twenty years from now, the stuff written today will still be around so that future readers can look at it and scratch their heads much like I do when I read a lot of what came out of the sixties. At the very least, today’s trends will serve as a reminder of how interesting dead ends can be.
Gustavo Bondoni has never been accused of being overly literary. His latest novel, Timeless, is a romantic thriller in the mold of Sidney Sheldon. You can check it out here.