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Archive for January 3rd, 2010

I’m Searching For The New Soul Rebels But I Can’t Find Them Anywhere, Where Have You Hidden Them?

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New Weird: a marketing category (or perhaps a movement) around the turn of the millennium, which explored new and often disturbing ways of looking at fantasy motifs and at the borderlands between science fiction and fantasy.

This is how Farah Mendlesohn and Edward James define New Weird in the glossary to their A Short History Of Fantasy. I think it is safe to say that New Weird never really got off the ground as either a marketing category or a movement, it was more of an idea or a discussion. As I wrote in 2006 in a survey of SF movements for Vector:

This is a movement so nebulous that no one could agree on a name for it, let alone a definition and its practioners often deny they write it. The two writers probably most associated with the idea—the pulpy but serious China Miéville and the literary but playful Jeff VanderMeer—use shared genre antecedents to produce very different results. Editorials on the New Weird penned by Miéville, Justina Robson and Graham Joyce did appear in The Third Alternative but these, and the thrashing out of ideas on various internet message boards, only reinforced the lack of commonality. This is mutual respect, mutual ancestry and mutual interests but not anything you could call a manifesto.

It is true, however, that it was fairly short lived; like many conversations it had its genesis in a specific time and place. So it is odd that Mendlesohn and James make it so central to Chapter Eleven of their book, covering fantasy published between 2000 and 2008 (although actually entitled ‘2000-2010’, presumably signalling an early intent to publish a revised edition). Despite admitting that it is “extremely difficult to define” New Weird, they draw a large and disparate group of writers together under this banner. The chapter opens with a brief introduction to the concept, drawing heavily on the TTA Press discussion linked above, following a discussion of China Miéville and Mary Gentle before moving on to other, less plausible candidates:

Two other writers strongly associated with the New Weird in its first years where Ian R. MacLeod and Steph Swainston… New Weird is a genre of both content and style. The Scottish writer Hal Duncan has been acclaimed as one of the greatest stylists in the field… Perhaps some of the most interesting twists of fantasy content come from K.J. Parker and Steve Cockayne… New British writers of the New Weird include Joe Abercrombie (The Blade Itself, 2006) and Stephen Hunt (The Court Of The Air, 2007). (pp. 187-189)

That last sentence is pretty stunning but is presented entirely without any supporting evidence. Presumably Mendlesohn and James have some evidence, even if they didn’t have room or time to actually include it (the book appears to have been written with indecent haste), but I can’t imagine what it is. Duncan and Swainston do seem at home with the weird – I wrote at the time “The Year of Our War is the first book that makes you believe New Weird actually is a movement, rather than a bunch of books China Miéville likes.” – but even MacLeod, although he may have been associated with it, was never unambiguously a New Weird writer. As Cheryl Morgan commented at the time:

I’m currently about 75% of the way through “The Light Ages”, and for all the publishers attempts to market it as another “Perdido Street Station” I’m struck by how different the two books are. China produced a living, seething impression of a city, whereas Macleod has given us a beautifully written but curiously passionless description of a city. China’s work is utterly weird, whereas MacLeod’s approach makes even the magical seem mundane.

Things remain strange when looking more directly at American fiction. Despite earlier acknowledging divisions between the predominantly British New Weird and existing American traditions, it is then all lumped together again. They take Conjunctions 39: The New Wave Fabulists as a key example of American New Weird when surely it is a better fit with the interstitial crowd (although slipstream has an entry in the glossary it is conspicuously absent from the index). Even Miéville’s story in the anthology is markedly different from the work that lodged him at the heart of New Weird.

As with the British writers, there is another jaw-dropper of a sentence: “The best-known short-story writers of the American Weird movement are Ted Chiang and Kelly Link.” (p. 193) I can see precious little to connect the two writers apart from their obvious brilliance at the short form nor do I think either are (consciously or otherwise) working in anything that might be described as New Weird. Of course, everyone has their own definition of what New Weird might be, that is part of the point, problem and fun. It is not necessarily that Mendlesohn and James are wrong, it is just that it seems perverse to make such a contentious concept the backbone of a history of the period with such little attempt at justification.

Written by Martin

3 January 2010 at 20:32