Examining the New Weird
“Literature is a product of its influences. We all riff on something, work against a certain background, mine a vein of thought or style to which somebody else showed us the way.” –K.J. Bishop
“The New Weird. Who does it? What is it? Is it even anything? Is it even new?” These are the questions that began a 13,000 word response from authors, editors, and science fiction aficionados in 2003. The conversation may have started elsewhere but it reached fever pitch after author M. John Harrison brought the conversation to his Third Alternative Message Board. An abridged version appears in The New Weird, part anthology, part exposition, edited by science fiction power-duo Ann and Jeff VanderMeer.
When the publishing house Tachyon approached Ann and Jeff the two were skeptical. Jeff’s writing, which includes the novels City of Saints and Madmen, Finch, and Shriek, has often been labeled “New Weird,” a distinction that has made him uncomfortable. Ann, a publisher and, up until recently, the Hugo Award-winning editor of Weird Tales, dislikes the term out of concern for pigeonholing authors. After some discussion between themselves and with the publisher, Ann and Jeff began the project. Both still have reservations about the supposed category but through their research, conversations, and readings for the book, they’ve decided that there is a “core validity” to New Weird. They see a commercial life beyond the unwitting creators’ original intentions as well as new writers further developing the style.
In his introduction, Jeff marks 2003 as the year “readers and writers had become aware of a change in perception and a change in approach within the genre.” Taking elements from the New Wave of the 1960s, such as mixing genres and injecting a political point of view, and adding the “unsettling grotesquery” of 1980s horror, exemplified by the writings of Clive Barker, New Weird, with its “understanding of and rejection of Old Weird,” became its own unique genre—or did it? Therein lies the question The New Weird sets out to answer. Does the New Weird exist? If so, what is it, why is it here, and who benefits?
The New Weird is carefully structured to present a comprehensive picture. The book begins with the section “Stimuli,” a collection of stories from the New Wave and Horror movements. Those included are M. John Harrison’s “The Luck in the Head,” Clive Barker’s “In the Hills, the Cities,” Michael Moorcock’s “Crossing into Cambodia,” and Simon D. Ings’ “The Braining of Mother Lamprey,” among others.
New Weird, as a subgenre, takes strange fiction into the 21st century. Many of its writers are influenced by current political situations and offer a fresh, thought-provoking look at the issues we face today. It’s as writer and scholar Darja Malcolm-Clarke says in her essay, “One of speculative fiction’s greatest abilities is to defamiliarize our own world so that we can better see it — and the New Weird has a way of forefronting how the social terrain operates and affects everyday people.”
Throughout the book, British writer China Miéville is credited with launching the New Weird into the public’s consciousness. Miéville’s novel Perdidio Street Station, published in 2000, was the first commercially successful book of its kind; before that the subgenre only enjoyed a cult following.
China’s stands out in the crowd because of his academic background and demeanor. Even if you haven’t read his books, his interviews are a profound experience. His dissertation, Between Equal Rights: A Marxist Theory of International Law, written for his International Relations PhD from the London School of Economics was published in the UK under a historical materialism series. It’s no surprise that China’s fiction is submerged in political and social metaphor.
Konrad Walewski, editor, translator, and anthologist, says the New Weird is innovative “at the level of setting and characters,” dominated by “multicultural and multiethnic societies of humans, monsters, and all kinds of hybrid forms”. As for subject-matter, he says the New Weird “rejected many jaded fantasy tropes, including the clash of good and evil, and chose the exploration of such problems as otherness, alienation, and even from both in its physiological and existential dimension.”
In “Evidence,” the chapter of short stories from writers considered New Weird, Miéville’s “Jack” introduces readers to a prominent character type in New Weird writing: the Remade, a lowly class of citizens often comprised of criminal offenders whose bodies have been grotesquely, often painfully, modified, typically as state-sanctioned punishment. With an ending O. Henry would be proud to call his own,“Jack” shows the dubious side of law enforcement—just one imagined outcome of a destroyed society, a familiar setting in the New Weird.
In other examples of what’s possible with an oppressive government, Jay Lake’s “The Lizard of Ooze” imagines eating in public as a capital offense and in Jeffrey Thomas’s “Immolation” there’s a growing tension between “birthers,” a.k.a. humans, and “cultures,” those with a human-like form created specifically for industrial work.
If you’re involved in the publishing industry or if you’re an engaged reader, the most interesting part of The New Weird comes when the fiction ends. The chapter “Symposium” offers a look inside the initial debate, includes fleshed-out essays from science fiction authors, and thoughts from European editors and publishers.
When weird fiction writer Zali Krishna asked if the term “‘Weird’ refers back to Weird Tales – a pre-generic pulp era where SF, fantasy and horror were less well defined,” science fiction veteran, and forum moderator, M. John Harrison responded, “It makes an exact illusion to Weird Tales and especially the fact that, back then, in that marvellous & uncorrupted time of the world everything could still be all mixed up together — horror, sf, fantasy — and no one told you off or said your career was over with their firm if you kept doing that.” This historical remembrance naturally leads to the question: why do we have so many subgenres and do we really need another?
The conversation provoked varied responses, some of them admittedly self-contradictory. Many who are skeptical of genre-splitting feel as science fiction critic and publisher Cheryl Morgan does: “Labels are marketing gimmicks.” Concerned for the author, editor, reviewer, and anthologist Jonathan Strahan feels “any label reduces and limits perception of a work of art, and so is often less than helpful.” But as one of those self-contradicting types he adds, “I also note my own tendency to a) label and b) use labels. It’s something I try to fight.”
Although the VanderMeers didn’t include China’s remarks, the full discussion is archived online. There you can read his response to the “gimmicks” argument: “I’m astonished by the number of claims that this label (or all labels) is no more than ‘a marketing gimmick’. Undoubtedly, if this caught on, marketers would attempt to use it – just as they do, ad nauseam, with ‘surrealist’. However, this doesn’t mean that ‘surrealist’ isn’t a useful term”.
Speaking from the perspective of a reader, Darja Malcolm-Clarke, I believe, taps into the thoughts of many science fiction fans when she says, “on one level, to me personally, it doesn’t matter whether the New Weird is ‘real’ or not — the New Weird as an idea led me to a set of texts I might not have otherwise pursued.”
Although the majority of bookstores break their fiction up into specific sections there are a few who, believing it to be a show of democracy, mix genre fiction in with their general titles. While this noble endeavor may work in smaller independent stores it can be a frustrating experience when implemented on a larger scale, say, in stores such as Barnes & Noble and Powell’s in Portland, Oregon. For those who enjoy spending a good hour in the sci-fi, fantasy section looking for new books, merging all fiction into one section turns the foraging experience, once pleasurable, into a nightmare scenario.
Author K.J. Bishop, in her essay, also makes this point—with a caveat: “There is no doubt some advantage to be had from labelling fiction under rubrics of genre, period, style, and all else that helps a reader find, on the shelves of a bookstore, something to their taste. But there are disadvantages, too, for both reader and writer, the chief of these being, I think, that a label invites a particular reading of the work and discourages other readings.”
A tone set by some of the detractors is that publishers choose labels for sinister gains. Czech editor Martin Sust, when speaking of the New Weird imprint he created, said, “For the first time we can publish very good fiction in one great book line, with the most successful titles helping the others. The result? All of the books in this line have sold well, meaning we can branch out and buy a few experimental titles as well. . . . It has also forced other Czech publishing houses to make room for books by fresh new fantasy writers”. His sentiments are echoed by other publishers who contributed to the book—categories make it easier to sell books and while this means more money for publishers it also means more money, and ultimately more book deals, for writers.
Since the online discussion eight years ago and The New Weird’s publication in 2008, “many of the writers associated with the New Weird and collected in this volume are already transforming into something else entirely,” notes Jeff VanderMeer. But as every diligent fan knows, history is important. The New Weird helps readers appreciate writers like Miéville, discover less-noted ones like Jeffrey Thomas, and calls attention to the legacy of great writers who came before them. The New Weird does not offer definitive answers, which is the point. Literature is complex.
For a genre—in the widest sense of the word—whose focus is analysing the world, it’s amazing there aren’t more critical theory books such as this one. The VanderMeers have expertly compiled a must-have for every serious reader’s bookshelf; but remember, as Jeff concludes in his introduction, “New Weird is dead. Long life the Next Weird.”
The New Weird at Tachyon
Buy The New Weird at IndieBound
Archived discussion on New Weird
The New Weird: Notes and Introduction at Jeff’s site
Michael Cisco’s essay “New Weird: I Think We’re the Scene”
Interview with Ann and Jeff VanderMeer about The New Weird (opens with sound)
Interview with Ann and Jeff at the Functional Nerds
Contributor Jonathan Strahan’s science fiction podcast, “Coode Street”
Weird Tales magazine
Viriconium by M. John Harrison
Punktown by Jeffrey Thomas
The Etched City by K.J. Bishop
Perdido Street Station by China Mieville
*The New Weird features a full list of recommended readings