Adam Callaway has been talking about New Weird and Scifi Strange lately in response to Jason Sanford’s recent fictive table of contents for an anthology of Scifi Strange stories. One of the things that I find most interesting about discussions of genres, specifically subgenres, is how often readers and writers quickly dismantle the genre by spreading it thin. While I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, it does have a tendency to destroy genres or reduce them to vague descriptions and definitions. Two primary examples of this are science fiction (in general) and cyberpunk. The former has always been too large to accommodate everyone with a definition, resulting in the continued debate over what defines science fiction (conventional wisdom would suggest that the assumed, but unofficial definition, is a catch-all for pretty much anything that
resembles science fiction, but isn’t necessarily of that category). The latter is an obvious result of the dispersion of crucial generic themes (in the literary sense) into aesthetic elements (i.e. the reduction of cyberpunk to stories with cyberpunk furniture, such as computer hacking, cyberspace, and so on). I’ve discussed the “what it is” aspect of cyberpunk before, which you can start reading about here (it begins with the general issue of the “punk” suffix and develops into a detailed explanation of cyberpunk after a couple of posts), so I won’t tread into that field again.
The problem now, I think, is that the same thing that happened to cyberpunk could happen to New Weird and, to a lesser extent, Scifi Strange. The former was an “established” subgenre from the early 2000s (the quotes are intentional, since there are still some debate over it, as there always is in issues of genre) and the latter developed out of an association with New Weird, though any actual connection is thin at best. I think it’s important to establish from the start a foundation for defining texts, not necessarily for the economic purposes, but for the purpose of maintaining some semblance of order and the potential for explanation, while also allowing for the presence of outliers and cross-genre affairs (New Weird being a cross-genre-genre).
For these posts (yes, there will be more than one), I want to address Callaway’s views on New Weird and Scifi Strange; particularly, I want to critique his definitional elements and his ideas about these two genres. My hope is to open up the dialogue on New Weird, Scifi Strange, and, more generally, genre studies.
Now for part one:
I. Horror: Placing New Weird in the Aesthetic Moment
Callaway begins his discussion by suggesting that New Weird has more in common with horror than science fiction. Knowing Callaway personally, this is a very curious position for him to take, particularly since he takes the word “science” in SF quite seriously. To suggest that New Weird is built in this way is ignoring a crucial element of almost all New Weird stories: the science-ing of fantasy. As a prime example of this, we can look to Perdido Street Station by China Miéville, considered to be the principal text of the New Weird genre. The story is set in a world population by fantastic creatures and magic, to a certain degree, but it is also a world in which scientists are actively engaged in the understanding of their world in a way that reflects the approaches of scientists in the late 1800s and early 1900s, with a moderate dose of pseudoscience. There is a deliberate attempt on Miéville’s part to evoke the past without compromising the fantastic, meaning that the stories feel real because of its adherence to a proto-scientific vision. That Callaway has neglected to take this into account in his post is odd. I wouldn’t say that science is a constitutive element of New Weird, but it certainly is an important one to acknowledge.
More importantly, New Weird has been rightly suggested as a response, critique, or attack on Tolkien-derivative fantasy, something that should perhaps be obvious when one reads Miéville or Jeff VanderMeer, both authors who I would consider to be foundational writers in the two schools of New Weird (British and American). What New Weird texts tend to do is diverge significantly from what many would call the “epic narrative” (chosen ones, impending societal collapse by a generic evil, massive wars, excessive or lightly-controlled magic attached to heroes, generic and otherwise, and a host of derivative figures who we have seen before, such as the bearded wizard, and so on). They approach fantasy from an altogether unusual angle that suggests that there might very well be an appropriate divergent path from Tolkien’s masterpiece (The Lord of the Rings); i.e. that one can design worlds with as much detail and precision, but with an eye on modern concerns and alternative originary points (Tolkien and Tolkien-derivative works look toward medieval England, while Miéville and VanderMeer draw heavily from the present and earlier periods in colonial-era England or America).
The idea that New Weird is defined by the aesthetics of the horror genre (or, perhaps, the gothic genre, since that seems to apply more effectively here), then, is suspect. Horror elements absolutely exist in New Weird texts, but they are superficial to the science and the critical response the texts evoke. In fact, I would argue that much of what Callaway perceives as aesthetic elements of horror are not actually horror elements at all, but representations of the grotesque, which does not belong to horror (though it is often found there). Taken further, I see New Weird as imagining the grotesque within the aesthetic scope of “beauty.”
Miéville is a master of this aesthetic. Perdido Street Station combines grotesque imagery with narrative in a way that recreates the grotesque as an almost appealing object. Isaac and Lin, for example, are two individuals who are, by most modern accounts, disgusting (Issac an overweight, “juicy” human, and Lin a parasite-infested woman with a large insect head instead of a human one); yet, as their relationship is made clear to the reader, they suddenly become strangely sympathetic characters, if not downright beautiful in how they react to one another. We still might be slightly put off by the detailed descriptions of their eccentricities, but we’re also able to look on in awe as their devotion to one another is made clear and the beauty of their relationship is allowed to shine through. I think to call the grotesque in this context “horror” or “grotesque body horror” is to cheapen what is being created in the moment, to dampen the impact of the relationship between Isaac and Lin, or between the various other characters and settings that exist in other New Weird texts.
New Weird, thus, is a gloriously complicated genre. It can be defined, perhaps with some limitations and vague-ries, and it is and probably always will be a mixture of elements. But it isn’t a horror-derivative subgenre. The elements are there, but it has more in-tune with science fiction and fantasy than it is being given credit for.
More to come in the future.