The New Weird Annotations

The New Weird is at the time of writing, the subject of some debate. Does it exist? Should it exist? What does it stand for? Who are the key practitioners?

The canonical discussion is here, on the webboards of The Third Alternative message boards:

BREAKING? NEWS?! Kathryn Cramer is hosting a full archive of the discussions:

Annotations for 'The New Weird' By Steph on Tuesday, April 29, 2003 - 07:45 pm:

(reordered to maintain chronology with the original thread)

"The New Weird is a wonderful development in literary fantasy fiction."
"The New Weird is a kickback against jaded heroic fantasy which has been the only staple for far too long. Instead of stemming from Tolkein, it is influenced by Gormenghast and Viriconium. It is incredibly eclectic, and takes ideas from any source."

At least one participant defines it as exclusively concerned with fantasy. Although ...

"The New Weird grabs everything, and so genre-mixing is part of it, but not the leading role." and "Trappings of Space Opera or Fantasy may be irrelevant when the Light is turned on." By Jonathan Strahan on Sunday, May 04, 2003 - 04:03 am:

An imagined conversation between William Gibson, circa Pattern Recognition, and a reviewer:

"Gibson: I'm a writer living in a world influenced by a novel that I wrote and trying to write novels that attempt to address that world.
"Reviewer: I don't understand. The world has moved on. What are the protocols that you're using to try to explain this?
"Gibson: The tools and protocols of the mainstream. I'm writing a novel that has a science fictional understanding of the world set in an alternate history version of last year to try to understand the trends that are happening around us. "

So, one aspect of TNW is the idea that it's what SF writers write when they try to understand the science-fiction-reality of our present. Contrasted to what mainstream writers write when they try to interpret the present, eg Margaret Atwood.

Basically, this is a variation on 'SF is about the present'. It reduces to the idea that there's something of special and unique significance about now, and that is causing something special and unique to emerge in SF. There may be an element of truth to this; Future Shock is not dead, as the recent fuss over Nano Tech demonstrates. By MJH on Thursday, May 08, 2003 - 12:34 pm:

"Similarly, I’m not really nterested in any defintiion of the New Weird as a consciously retro fiction: it may be, in some aspects, but I don’t care. I don’t personally give a toss about “the role of existing traditions”. If a new movement considers ideas like this, it has rendered itself academic--ie, dead--before it takes its first step. A live fiction breaks the glass, grabs what it needs, and turns to face the world. I’m more interested in the New than the Weird. "

So TNW is a movement that isn't a movement, because if it starts thinking about itself in terms of being a movement then it's already dead. TNW is an aesthetic. But is there a difference?

Annotations for 'Function follows Form: New Weird 2' By China on Monday, May 19, 2003 - 01:13 am:

"It is, I think, both, and that's it's point. The problem with lots of modern fantasy isn't just that it's repetitive and cliche-recycling, it is that in so being, it is a betrayal of the fantastic. The fantastic still exists in it, but only as a self-tortured, attenuated thing. Thus, to kickback against it is also to try to approach its expectations. That's why New Weird is as much a harping backwards - to the fantastic - as a new thing, though it is both."

TNW as revolt against post-Tolkien fantasy: Check. Guess it must be, if you define Mieville as part of the movement....

"You can make similar (and similarly inflated) analogies with the gay movement. We can be the Log Cabin movement of genre - I'm a writer just like you, and if I happen to write about the odd monster or two, well, it's all behind closed doors, we're all fiction under the skin aren't we, what does it matter, why can't we all just get along... or we can be Outrage!. We're Here! We're Weird! Get Used To It! I know which I'd rather be."

TNW isn't about leaving genre. It's not a breakaway group; it's about promoting genre. Or is it? Richard Morgan is worried, at least... By richard on Wednesday, May 21, 2003 - 09:13 pm:

"The reason I've waded into this thread is that I see a very real danger of a portion of SF/F - what we might call the literary end - becoming so enamoured of its own purity that it fractions itself off and treats the remainder with exactly the same contempt that the mainstream literati now treat all SF. In other words, in our anxiety to be taken seriously, we'll go right ahead and create our own Received Wisdom about what constitutes good SF/F, which it will thenceforth be heresy to challenge."

M John Harrison doesn't have much truck with this... By MJH on Thursday, May 22, 2003 - 11:29 am:

"I feel that the arguments you put forward are a limit, on me, personally. I feel that they are designed to stop me from thinking what I think, and writing what I write: not just in books, or in newspapers and magazines, but here on my own message board. I feel your presence here as a brake. I feel it as the old fashioned Science Fiction Superego, whose job is to bring me down and bring me to earth. Not just me, perhaps, but all writers who want to... well, just do what they want. I don't want that, Richard. I don't want what you want. I resent it. I've had it stuffed down my throat for nearly forty years. It's the boring old received wisdom of the genre, and I don't really see why I should have to put up with it again, especially here, and in the middle of a discussion that did interest me."

Annotations for 'The New Weird 3: The New Weird' By MJH on Thursday, June 05, 2003 - 11:00 pm:

"Even to say "cross" or "boundaries" is to buy a set of artficial limitations. There's only write-space, in which you make your choices according to how difficult a problem you have and how clever you are at combining modes and techniques." [...] "The New Weird is a small move by some writers to site themselves more fully in write-space; elsewhere, on the "mainstream" side of one of those illusory fences, authors like David Mitchell are making similar kinds of moves. The word these days is pick & mix." By Justina on Friday, June 06, 2003 - 01:51 pm:

"One of the things I found hardest to cope with at Clarion, and since at other out and out SF gatherings, is the sense that people have a huge amount invested in keeping up walls between genres, particularly in their case SF and anything else. This came from both sides; editorial/corporate and writer/fan. Because the writers are at the sharp end of this (and actually the fans, although they don't want to know about it much) there was a big fear about writing anything a bit different."

This is undoubtedly true; fandom at large is conservative and reactionary. By Al on Saturday, June 07, 2003 - 10:03 am:

"So, in this context, I’d see the New Weird and writing of its ilk as a resistance – making the point that the value of literature lies not in its ability to service specific niche marketplaces, or provide a specific, secure reading experience on tap (which, if it’s driven by marketing thinking as defined above, is all it does) but rather in its ability to confound and challenge expectations, surprise readers, and introduce something shockingly, rawly new into your life."

This suggests an argument that what SF fans want is 'expected unexpected'; they want their Sense Of Wonder, but they want it in a recognisable form. By Farah on Saturday, June 07, 2003 - 12:48 pm:

"But I wanted to backtrack a moment to the travel writing metaphor. Several people have suggested that the New Weird is written by a writer who has gone native. If that were so they would be a brilliant guide who made everything alien clear because they understood both worlds.
"The New Weird is written as if by someone who has been commissioned to write a travel guide, but who has no idea what a travel guide is, has never met a tourist, and didn't actually know that there were people out there. S/he wanders round, pointing out arbitrary "sights" such as the local supermarket while you wonder what that interesting building in the distance is.
"And when you ask them, they say "oh, that's old, you don't want to know about that"."

Annotations for 'The New Weird 4: Own Wired'

Meanwhile, Cory Doctorow thinks something else is going on... By Cory Doctorow on Sunday, June 08, 2003 - 12:51 am:

"There's a new kind of sf that no label has stuck to yet. It's the stuff that Charlie alluded to upstream, what I called nerdc0re for a while, and what I've been calling "Overclocked" lately. Stylistically, it shares a lot of its moves with cyberpunk, but it's got a couple of signal differences:
"Philosophically, Overclocked fiction is mostly about what Rheingold calls "Smart Mobs." The enabling of collective action through ubiquitous tools, and the way that the civil polity changes in this world. [...] I'd group Ellis's Transmet, Watts's Maelstrom, Schroeder's Permanence, Stross's Glasshouse and Mc Auley's Whole Wide World into this $LABEL. I don't mean to imply that any or all of these people are deliberately pursuing this agenda, but rather that by hook or by crook, this agenda is appearing in their work." By Jonathan Strahan on Tuesday, June 10, 2003 - 03:19 am:

"What is happening is much bigger, and much more subtle, than simply the evolution of a new genre or subgenre of science fiction/fantasy/horror/whatever. There is a change at the deeper levels of, for want of a better term “writing space” or “story space” where things are melding and changing. One of the expressions of that is what you see in the New Weird, another is in the New Space Opera. I suspect, though, if we were to look closely at the continuing evolution of fiction generally, that such changes are showing up all over the place. It’s only that we are more likely to notice them in our own backyard." By Justina on Tuesday, June 10, 2003 - 02:09 pm:

"It's not the case that I think the Granta Top Twenty are going to suddenly start writing SF, or that fantasy is going to creep into mainstream novels in that literal-mimetic way. I was noticing that books such as The Minotaur Takes A Cigarette Break are starting to surface more often, as are sensibilities that one might associate commonly with SF or Fantasy - David Mitchell is often cited as someone who uses the modes of SF/F, if I might use the very sensible definitions we seem to be coming towards." [...] "Like it or not, eventually some wag will come up with the idea of the literal-mimetic and the metaphorical-jump-kit and all that and they will claim it as bang up new literature (I expect). That thought made me a bit low, as I think that the NW? sort of thing is making an honest effort to write fiction which is NOW?, and this mainstream change won't happen until NOW? is LATER?. By then, we'll probably be writing something else, so I guess it won't matter." By Kathryn Cramer on Tuesday, June 10, 2003 - 04:00 pm:

"Under the influence of Judith Merril, Canadian science fiction tends to regard itself as Speculative Literature under the umbrella of Literature. Margaret Atwood was a friend of Judy Merril's (although they sometimes fought). Atwood is also one of the founders of the movement to study Canadian literature as such and to focus on "Canadian content." She regards The Handmaid's Tale as Speculative Literature but not science fiction. She does regard herself as having written science fiction stories. She allowed her story "Freeforall" to appear in the sf anthology Northern Suns (an anthology of Canadian science fiction), ed. David Hartwell & Glen Grant. David says her office was very helpful and cooperative and sent along another four stories Atwood regarded as science fiction. She is also known to appear with science fiction writers at science fiction readings/signings in Canada.
"Also, her continual denial that her novels are science fiction is apparently largely at the behest of her publishers, i. e. a marketing decision having to do with it's placement in the marketing category of Canadian Literature. (In Canadian publishing, science fiction and Literature are mutually exclusive categories and one simply cannot publish literature with a cover that signals science fiction.)
"This having been said, one should not think of her as meek and submissive. She is, by reputation, highly contentious and irritated her literary publishers by insisting on writing novels that might be construed as science fiction.
"It is David's opinion that she might productively be considered New Weird."

David in this context is David Hartwell?, respected SF editor and husband of Kathryn Cramer?, respected Fantasy editor. He's Canadian.

For the discussion as a whole, it's interesting to wonder where this leaves Hard SF. The 'have it all' mentality that is suggested to characterise TNW doesn't necessitate the explication that goes with Hard SF and, indeed, could be seen to be antithetical to it. Is Hard SF defunct? Is it compatible with TNW?

Most of the examples given have been novels, and often hefty ones at that (Perdido Street Station, anyone?). Does short fiction have a role in The New Weird, or is the sort of detailed worldbuilding that seems to be a prerequisite only possible in novels?

Annotations for 'New Weird 4.5: the net on both sides'

Coming soon!

Discussion Participants (alphabetical by nickname):

Key Texts? (historical and current; alphabetical by author):


The New Weird...

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