Brian Aldiss, John Clute, Michael Moorcock and Norman Spinrad at the British Library

The OED says: New Wave, n. and adj. Forms: also with lower-case initials. Etymology: < NEW adj. + WAVE n.  2 b. With the. A loose movement in science fiction writing from the mid-1960s to mid-1970s, characterized by an experimental approach to narrative structures and language and an emphasis on nuanced social, moral, or psychological conflict rather than on technological concerns. Now hist.

They were a disparate bunch, and I’m not sure whether it was the familiarity of anyone specific, or the general unconventional (or Conventional) appearance of science fiction fans, but a number of them looked vaguely familiar. Someone was explaining to somebody else that a third party wasn’t there as Stonehenge had taken priority; a number of those present looked as though they spiritually belonged their too. There were some younger people around, but on the whole it was, depressingly, a predominantly old and male audience.

The theme of the evening was the Sixties ‘new wave’, and in particular, New Worlds magazine. On the stage last night were Michael Moorcock, Brian Aldiss, John Clute, Norman Spinrad, and Roz Kaveney, the chair.

As a discussion it did seem a little lacking in direction, however, and when Kaveney did attempt to steer it somewhere it wasn’t back on course (as it didn’t appear to have a course); but there were some interesting moments. In the Q&A an audience member announced they had come over from Arizona to attend – it certainly wasn’t worth doing that.

Moorcock explained that it was his intention to make science fiction more literate, and to create a new literature out of it which was popular as well as good. He facilitated the publishing of otherwise previously rejected stories – once he had published it, other publishers saw it as publishable. Spinrad explained than an example was his Bug Jack Barron, which SF publishers said wasn’t SF, and mainstream publishers wouldn’t publish because it was: Doubleday said they would publish it if he took out all the sex and politics. John Clute said that New Worlds’ strength lay in its policy of ‘you do what you will’, and the witness of your peers, although it wasn’t recalled as a cosy clique. Moorcock remembered it as acrimonious, even leading to fisticuffs, people being ‘at daggers drawn’: their commonality was that noone else would publish their work, for example Disch’s Camp Concentration and Moorcock’s own Jerry Cornelius stories. John Clute pointed out that several American ‘new wave’ writers (e.g. Disch, Sladek) came to the UK to popularity, but never were or have been particularly successful in the US.

There was some discussion about why women were not more represented, and I think it was Spinrad who said it was a bit like a boys’ club – Aldiss suggested that at that time most of them had been through National Service, which coloured their outlook. Moorcock certainly has championed women writers in the past, and there was a joint encomium to Joanna Russ, and to a lesser extent, Doris Lessing (Aldiss asked the others, ‘Have any of you had an opera1 based on your work?’, to which Moorcock retorted ‘No, but would a concept album2 count?’).

There was discussion, too, about the damage genre does to fiction – Hugo Gernsback is blamed for inventing the name ‘scientifiction’, which was rapidly changed by the fans to ‘science fiction’, and thence ‘scifi’ (which I find particularly abominable), and SF – Moorcock used the term ‘speculative fiction’ for a while, but dislikes the idea of genres at all.

Aldiss had been told by a group of academic women that they liked reading SF, not for the science, but for the sense of dislocation and disorientation that it gave them, and that made a big impression upon him.

Brian Aldiss always seems a cheerful fellow, I’ve only spoken to him once, in a hotel in Brighton in 1979, when he inadvertently bought me a pint (so inadvertently I don’t think he knew at the time he’d done it), so it was interesting to have an insight into his state of mind when he wrote Greybeard. He had just had an unpleasant marriage breakup, had lost contact with his children, and was living in a destitute state in one room.

He talked about his forthcoming novel, called Finches of War. It’s set on a Mars that has been colonised by (mainly female) humans, but because of the lower gravity all the pregnancies end in stillbirth. Five years before Aldiss was born (so presumably in 1920) his mother had a pregnancy which ended in a stillbirth, and this event resonated through the family’s life – and is obviously still doing so today.

Norman Spinrad was asked about his Iron Dream, he talked about its origin and then other novels which deal with the Holocaust and Nazism – Norman Mailer’s Castle in the Forest and Moorcock’s Pyat sequence

The panel were asked which novels of the period they would recommend, and the list included (I think they’re mostly here) Mythago Wood (BA); The Atrocity Exhibition, Report on Probability A (MM); Camp Concentration, The Müller-Fokker Effect (JC); Barefoot in the Head, the Jerry Cornelius tetralogy, Camp Concentration again, A Clockwork Orange, and Riders of the Purple Wage (NS),

At the end they were asked which of their own works they thought the best. Aldiss said Hellconia; Moorcock Mother London, or the Cornelius books; Spinrad He Walked Among Us; Clute has only written one novel, Appleseed, so his choice was easy. Moorcock pointed out that the proper answer would be ‘whichever lasts’.

At the end, Moorcock leapt to his feet and was out the door with a surprising sprightliness. While I was in the squeeze to get out the door someone behind suggested to his companion than he had been rushing out to the lavatory – but no, he had nipped out before more than a handful of the audience had made their way out and was seated at the signing table already addressing a queue.

This event was part of the British Library’s free exhibition, Out of This World: Science Fiction, but not as you know it, which runs until 25 September. There are a few events connected to  the exhibition, the podcast subscription URL is http://www.bl.uk/whatson/podcasts/podcast122307.xml.

1 Philip Glass. 2 Hawkwind.

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One Response to Brian Aldiss, John Clute, Michael Moorcock and Norman Spinrad at the British Library

  1. Thanks for posting this account (which I’ve only now found) of the BL event. I made loads of notes but, as ever, I can’t read most of my scribble. Your detailed account with so many links is an invaluable resource. Cheers.

    BTW 1: I also blogged about/around the event (far more self-indulgently) here: http://oscarwindsor-smith.blogspot.com/2011/06/surviving-michael-moorcock.html
    2: Hands up. I’m afraid I was probably the mouthy one who assumed Mike was heading for the toilet, being of a similar age. I am blushing.

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