Make It New!

By Matthew Cheney

Since the early part of the twentieth century, at least, science fiction writers and fans have delighted in creating new movements, styles, factions, tendencies, labels, manifestations, wings, branches, blocs, camps, cliques, cabals, and isms. We've had new worlds and waves and weirds, cyber- and steampunks, Gernsbackians and Campbellians, fabulists and fantasists, questers to the core and swimmers in the slipstream—and, like ice cream and porn, the hard and the soft. Every age is golden except the current one, and the dinosaurs inevitably groan as the young turks gobble their way through the latest taxonomy.

SF is not the only type of literature that kaleidoscopes itself this way—poetry, for instance, does it nearly as much, with endless variations on arguments between traditionalists and avant-gardists. It's perfectly healthy, though by the tone of the discussions you might think the entire fate of the world depended on one side eradicating the other. Many writers need to write for something other than love or money—they need to write for a cause, and they are spurred on by a sense of contributing to a new way of seeing the world (or the world-within-the-world that is literature). Sometimes there's more bluster than substance, but the fact is that in the history of most literatures, the eruptions of various cries of "Make it new!" have produced excellent work, often from both sides.

Therefore, I think we need some new movements, because I haven't seen any this year, and we're running out of time. It would be a shame for 2005 to be known as the Year of No Movements. Literature doesn't benefit any more than the human body does from constipation.

What movements might inspire manifestos and denunciations this year? Here are some possibilities:

The New Wonder: Recent complaints that science fiction has lost the sense of wonder it provided to twelve-year-olds have led some writers to align themselves with the tendency (not, they emphasize, movement) known as The New Wonder. All attempts to define this type of writing have caused flamewars on dry-erase message boards, but most of the participants agree that the founding text is this year's surprise bestseller, Tom Swift and the Dilating Door. The anonymous manifesto of The New Wonder includes the following:

Hackneyed science fiction is an attempt to lovingly invert, subvert, culvert, and convert all that is good about what was published fifty years ago. This is fiction that entertains the reader, and, therefore, surrenders to the Story. It is not postmodern and fourth-wall-breaking, peering out of the artifact to wink at the reader. It loves artifacts. Big ones. Discovered far out in space. Space is big. Limitless. Unlike the ways there are to tell a story. This is fiction that is beholden to plot points. It is not concerned with characters or style or anything other than the pure wonder of Ideas. Though of course it knows that characters and language are necessary for the Story. New Wonder has it both ways. We learn from Asimov—the Foundation is our foundation and how cool is that!!!

Philosophology: Baen Books recently became the most successful publisher of science fiction on Earth with the release of the forty-eight volume Right Ahead series, which fans proclaim is not a series of books, but, rather, a new religion—Philosophology. The writers associated with Philosophology write about a shared universe in which the governments of the world have, in a flash, been replaced with weapons manufacturers. A clan of socialists have survived in Canada, however, and threaten the corporate utopia that has spread over the world. Will pragmatic militarism triumph against the insidious pacifism of the Canadians? [Lawyers for the publisher have forbidden us from saying anything more, although Sylvester Stallone has, we are told, agreed to star in the movie.]

Metafictional Space Operatics: Because calling yourself a "metafictional space operatic" is too much of a mouthful when shouting at the old guard, these writers refer to themselves as "Mesops" (pronounced may-sops) and take as their holy text Barry Malzberg's 1975 novel Galaxies, although they are careful to distance themselves from the apparent disdain that Malzberg holds for space opera itself. These writers seek to create stories about exciting stories, stories about writers writing exciting stories, and exciting stories that are about themselves. A typical passage from a Mesops story might read:

Quiggglewrg pulled his blaster rifle out of the holster strapped to his back and aimed it at the battalion of Frhg'rgh slithering toward him.

(Time was when I wrote this stuff for the money, but the money's not there anymore. Now it's for the love. Yes, love. Do you doubt my love? My ex-husband did, but that's why I chained him to the bed and stuck his favorite hunting rifle into his mouth. Has that experience affected my writing? No, not at all.)

Quiggglewrg fired, and the small corridor of the ship lit to the color of sun. The entire Frhg'rgh battalion lay in a puddle of primordial ooze, never to threaten an innocent spacer again.

Cyberhumanism: The immense popularity of Master of Fine Arts programs in writing has produced many well-educated people throughout the United States who need to pay back their college loans, and the Cyberhumanists are all members of this particular demographic. Their writing includes allusions to a vast array of literatures, and grounds these allusions in post-capitalist expressions of urban nonrenewal. Drugs, sex, and neural implants achieve levels of sublimated symbolism not seen since cyberpunk first complexified the landscape of texts in the 1980s. Eschewing the protogrunge, ironocommodificationary stance of the early neuromantics in favor of the disciplinary mechanisms of the humanist writers who were contemporaneous with the cyberpunk output, the Cyberhumanists exploit the tension between imaginary environment and affective appeal, as can be seen in this representative passage:

"Hey, Fare," said the cabbie. "Net says the dead be rioting front of your door. Crash through or roll away?"

"You've got armor for a crash?" Mouse asked, fingering his mirrorshades as if the television-colored sky might fall. He hadn't felt so much like an artificial kid since those days on the islands in the net, back when the pretty boys tried to crossover, back when every hacker was an aunt.

"Shit, yes. The best Ballard armor. Give those deadboys a shot of the ol' orange clockwork, and we're free and clear. Whaddaya say?"

"Nevermore. The horror! Don't you have a conflict-res program?"

"I'll run some electric kool-aid on the dreamsheep and see if we can hippie them."

"Thanks, man."

A few light taps upon the pane made Mouse turn to the window of the cab. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight. The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward.

The New Blurb: Declaring narrative literature itself a relic of earlier centuries, the writers who have aligned themselves with the New Blurb movement do not, in fact, write novels or short stories, but, rather, praise for the stories they would write if they were, in fact, interested in narrative literature. "We began," one of their adherents said, "after we met at a book signing where we realized how many of us said to the author that we would certainly be writers ourselves if only we had the time. Welcome to the twenty-first century, people. Nobody has time to read books, never mind write them. But blurbs—blurbs we can do."

At first, the New Blurb writers created blurbs for actual novels, printed their blurbs onto mailing labels, and stuck the labels on books in bookstores. They soon realized that this required reading too many books, however, and so they began writing blurbs for the books they would write had they the time and motivation. The blurbs continue to be printed on mailing labels and circulated via science fiction conventions and eBay, where some have fetched upwards of $3, plus shipping. Some recent examples (reprinted with permission):

"Lord Hood and the Unseen Squid is one of the great novels of this, or any, century. It positively oozes perfection."

"There has never been a writer like John Shade, and there's never been a book like Taming a Seahorse."

"The Builders of Mars was the best novel of last year, just as The Twilight of Terra is the best novel of this year. Each year can only have one novel that is the best. I don't know what next year's will be."

"I stayed up all night to finish reading Sexual Dimorphism Among the Echinoderms. Now I'm tired. But was it good? Oh baby, was it ever!"

"What a joy it is to read Plague on Wheels. It will reinvigorate your belief in the power of positive thinking. There hasn't been a book this uplifting since the Old Testament."

Asked for a comment on the New Blurb writers, one New York editor said, "They are the kings and queens of their own imaginations. I can think of no higher praise."


Matthew Cheney's work has appeared in a wide variety of venues, including English Journal, Locus, SF Site, Failbetter.com, and Ideomancer. He writes regularly about SF and literature at his weblog, The Mumpsimus. Read more of his columns in our archives.