This 101 feature originally appeared as Alice Davies, "New Weird 101," SFRA Review 291 (Winter 2010): 6–9. A PDF of this issue is available here.
The New Weird. Who does it? What is it? Is it even anything? Is it even New? Is it, as some think, not only a better slogan than The Next Wave, but also incalculably more fun to do? Should we just call it Pick'n'Mix instead?
—M. John Harrison, April 29, 2003
The New Weird: movement or moment? Accurate description or misnomer? Still alive or already dead? New or simply another name for slipstream/interstitial fiction/cross-genre speculative fiction? M. John Harrison's question quoted above generated thousands of words of debate over 86 days on the discussion boards of The Third Alternative Web site, with every possible position being argued. Since then, pieces on the New Weird have been written for magazines, LiveJournal blogs, and personal Web sites. Interviews have been given about it. Convention panels have been held on it. Anthologies have been dedicated to it. It has been discussed in at least two histories of genre, Roger Luckhurst's Science Fiction (2005) and Farah Mendlesohn and Edward James's A Short History of Fantasy (2009). And, of course, some former proponents have now distanced themselves from it. Where, then, does this leave the genre, the reading public, and the critics and scholars?
What It's Not
From the very beginning of the New Weird debate, critics, authors, and readers argued that using the term is simply renaming fiction that already comes under existing subgenre. Bill Congreve and Michelle Marquardt believed this, saying that the "cross-genre phenomenon called ‘slipstream,' which China Miéville recently called the New Weird," is one that Australians have been writing fiction in "for decades" (9). Others have equated New Weird with interstitial fiction, the recently devised Radical Fantasy and more general cross-genre/intergenre postmodern, literary speculative fiction.
However, if one considers the opinions of the authors who are considered, by some at least, to belong to the New Weird, the new subgenre is distinctive and valuable. Steph Swainston, author of The Year of Our War (2004), which is considered to be a central New Weird text, was one of the first authors to respond to Harrison's questions, saying that the New Weird is a "wonderful development in literary fantasy fiction." She described it as being "vivid" and "clever," "eclectic," "secular, and very politically informed," and that it's "most important theme [is] detail. The details are jewel-bright, hallucinatory, carefully described…These details…are what makes New Weird worlds so much like ours, as recognisable and as well-described. It is visual, and every scene is packed with baroque detail" (April 29, 2003). Five years later, Jeff VanderMeer described the subgenre in similar terms calling it a "type of urban, secondary-world fiction that subverts the romanticized ideas about place found in traditional fantasy, largely by choosing realistic, complex real-world models as the jumping-off point for creation of settings that may combine elements of both science fiction and fantasy. New Weird has a visceral, in-the-moment quality that often uses elements of surreal or transgressive horror for its tone, style, and effects" (21). China Miéville, in "Movements in Science Fiction and Fantasy: A Symposium," described not only the content of the subgenre but the reason for its creation when he wrote "It is an act of making sense, of pointing at a perceived phenomenon in world, and arguably particularly British, speculative fiction: the explosion of the high-quality literary fantastic, accompanied by a certain uncanny baroque, a grotesque, a vivid real-of-the-unreal, uniting otherwise variegated authors" (49).
Authors, critics, readers, and publishers have all found the term a useful tool, whether or not the authors so labeled agree with their classification. The subgenre may or may not be "dead," but the fact of its existence is irrefutable, even if it is "nebulous, fuzzy-as-hell" (48), and exists as a matter of debate.
In his piece "The New Weird; It's Alive" (2008), Jeff VanderMeer argues that the literature that has come to be known as New Weird was being written long before Harrison's fateful discussion board question (19). Like China Miéville (whose writing, both fictional and critical, is at the dead centre of the New Weird maelstrom), and Roger Luckhurst, VanderMeer looks for the origins of New Weird in the decidedly old weird stories from Weird Tales. All single out H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith for particular mention as inspiration and precursors, and as examples of authors whose writing defies easy categorization or genre labeling. That Lovecraft and Smith are as often considered to be the predecessors of modern horror fiction as fantasy or SF only reinforces the positioning of New Weird on the edges of the already fuzzy distinction between the three "speculative fiction" genres. VanderMeer then traces New Weird's precursors into the New Wave movement in SF in the 1960s (of which Harrison is considered to be an integral member), and through the "miniature horror renaissance" led by the weird and grotesque fiction of Clive Barker in the 1980s and 1990s. Norman Spinrad, in 2006's "Not Really New, Not Really Weird" traces a very similar path, providing even greater details on the ways in which the works of Rudy Rucker, Jack Vance, Michael Moorcock (both as author and editor of the magazine New Worlds), and Matthew Hughes prefigure the weirdness of later New Weird authors. The degree to which these "precursors" invalidate the very existence of the subgenre depends on the critic.
An interesting side note in the tracing of antecedents is the linking of the New Weird to the so-called "British Boom" in science fiction in the early 2000s. Both Colin Greenland and Ken MacLeod mention the term in their comments on the "Boom" in the November 2003 issue of Science Fiction Studies (485, 487), and in the TTA discussion the possibility of this genre consisting of works produced predominantly by British authors is mentioned on a number of occasions, with varying degrees of agreement expressed. The Boom is also mentioned by Sherryl Vint in her introduction to the special issue of Extrapolation dedicated to the work of China Miéville, where she describes it as a "renaissance of British science fiction and fantasy literature (197).
Almost all who have provided any commentary in this debate have, however, agreed on the central role of British author China Miéville to the New Weird, both as its best known and most successful author, and as a vocal defender of the term. VanderMeer argues that the publication of Miéville's Perdido Street Station (2000) is the first mainstream publication of a New Weird book, despite the label not being coined until 3 years later, with others similarly focusing on the novel in the same way. Miéville's refreshing mix of fantasy, science fiction/slipstream, the grotesque, almost overwhelming detail, and a core of political ideology is evident in Perdido as well as his other books set in Bas-Lag (also identified by the central city of New Crobuzon), The Scar and The Iron Council, as well as his book of short stories Looking for Jake. Many critics consider these stories to be exemplary of the New Weird, and central to developing an understanding of it.
History of a Label
The controversy over the name New Weird, however, truly began on April 29, 2003, when author and critic M. John Harrison posted his now infamous questions (quoted above) on the discussion boards of the fiction magazine The Third Alternative (TTA). The debate which then ensued is legendary in SF circles, and involved dozens of interested parties, including Steph Swainston, Alistair Reynolds, Justina Robson, Jeff VanderMeer, and Jeffery Ford, all of whom were authors whose works were being suggested as examples of this new subgenre. It is almost impossible to summaries accurately what happened in those discussions, in part because of their length, but also because of the nature of a discussion board, where ideas may be conveyed and responses written quickly, haphazardly, or even while drunk.
When the discussion on the board wound down, little if anything had been resolved. Some argued vehemently against the very act of naming, a stance regularly taken by authors and readers who feel that to classify is to kill and constrain. Miéville himself, with his background anthropology, addresses this criticism in an article he wrote for Locus Magazine in 2003, reminding readers that a label is only a tool, and only as useful as its ability to generate debate and assist understanding (8). It would be difficult to argue that the term did not at least have the potential to aid both readers and scholars, not given the enthusiasm which some showed for the label, and the sheer volume of discussion its suggestion generated.
There were, however, two aspects of this "new' literature which did find some agreement, and these were reinforced in critical pieces and interviews given over the following years. The first was the obvious distinction between the edge-of-the-genre fantasy that was under discussion and the sort of fantasy that was being marketed and sold in bookshops as "fantasy," and the second was political dimension of this writing. Looking at the second aspect first, Steph Swainston explicitly lists a political sensibility as a key feature of the New Weird. Miéville, an avowed Marxist, has always worn his political heart on his fictional sleeve, especially in his third Bas-Lag novel, The Iron Council (2005). Miéville also claims that New Weird is responding to the "opening up of the potentiality in "real life," in politics" that has resulted from the degradation of Neoliberalism (50) The New Weird, he argues, can only be "post-Seattle fiction," rooted in real-world history and politics. These texts don't, however, produce neat utopian political solutions, and even the Marxist Miéville has his proletarian revolution end with less than success. New Weird politics and social structures are messy, the characters don't all live happily ever after, and morally satisfying endings should not be expected.
The politics within the texts is not the only political act of importance here. The very act of naming, some argue, is inherently political. M. John Harrison places it front and center when he said, "If I don't throw my hat in the ring, write a preface, do a guest editorial here, write a review in the Guardian there, then I'm leaving it to Michael Moorcock or David Hartwell to describe what I (and the British authors I admire) write.…There's a war on here…It's the struggle to name. The struggle to name is the struggle to own" (April 30, 2003). Justina Robson expands on this, saying:
It's like Venn diagrams, isn't it? Everyone involved in artistic creation has a whole lot of things going on at once. Some are big footprints over predecessors and some come in from the quirky sidelines of whoever's life it is and taken all together you have a full picture of what someone's doing at a particular moment.…Trouble is, all of those Venn circles are politically charged and economically charged, like it or not. The assignment of value (quality) is something you have to do because you're human and everything has to be categorised somewhere on the scale of Important To Me/Not Important To Me. We all know, mostly to our cost, exactly what the Science Fiction/Fantastic stamp is worth in the contemporary economy of literature. It's so powerful a stamp that Margaret Atwood's publicist has gone to enormous lengths (and has been aided) to make sure it doesn't appear in any review of Oryx and Crake in mainstream press.…Saying these divisions are cobblers expresses justified exasperation but it's disingenuous. This is a war, the winners get all the loot and to name the Truth. (April 30, 2003)
This politics of naming leads into the first aspect mentioned above, which is the complete rejection of the "mainstream," "cookie-cutter," three-book series quest fantasy that sell so well and fills the shelves of bookstore fantasy sections by New Weird authors. Of course, the New Weird is not unique at rejecting these "tired tropes" and venturing to produce something different. Urban fantasy, "indigenous fantasy," contemporary/postmodern fantasy and the literary fantastic/magical realism are all subgenres of fantasy that have defied the expectations of readers and publishers and produced work that doesn't look backwards to Early Modern Europe for inspiration. However, many authors working in these areas have found it less easy to be published than those producing so-called traditional fantasy. This is exacerbated when authors are pushing the boundaries even further, adding in science fiction tropes, surrealist imagery, and a healthy dose of horror and the grotesque. VanderMeer specifically discusses the benefits gained by authors who could conceivably fall under the fuzzy umbrella of the New Weird, especially after the continued commercial success of Miéville's books. The New Weird sold, publishers wanted more of it, and very weird fiction that would never have had mainstream distribution was published (20).
The Present Future
There is no reason to doubt that the effect VanderMeer described in 2008 should not continue to be felt, even if in decreasing intensity, for a number of years to come. (In June 2009 VanderMeer himself said, "New Weird looks like a more valid term now than it did even 18 months ago. Maybe in another 18 months, it'll look like piss and vinegar again"; http://www.jeffvandermeer. com/2009/06/01/new-weird-reading-list/) On the positive side the anthology The New Weird (2008) that he edited with his wife, Ann VanderMeer, is still in print almost two years after it was first published. People like Steven Kolz are still discussing it on their blogs, and making the list of further reading that the VanderMeers provided in the book available to a wider audience (http://mentatjack.com/2009/05/31/reading-th-new-weird/). The term is still being used by critics and academics, and indeed scholarly and academic work is where the New Weird as a descriptor is likely to see its greatest longevity, especially when studied in the context not just of its literature, but also the social and historical circumstances of its naming.
On a more pragmatic note, for those who enjoy the work of those authors already mentioned in this article, lists do exist to direct further reading, both of antecedents and contemporaries. The VanderMeer list cited above includes almost all the authors already mentioned and many more, including Richard Calder, Michael Cisco, Mary Gentle, Kathe Koja, Jay Lake, Mervyn Peake, Jeffrey Thomas and Conrad Williams. Mendlesohn and James also discuss a number of other authors, including Hal Duncan, K. J. Parker, Steve Cockayne, Joe Abercrombie, Stephen Hunt, Kelly Link, Jonathan Carroll, Ted Chiang, James Morrow, Patrick O'Leary, and John Crowley. A number of those just listed were featured in issue 39 of the fiction magazine Conjunctions titled The New Wave Fabulists (2002). Both the title and the featured authors neatly prefigures the New Weird debate, both in terms of precursors and practitioners.
There is, of course, no definitive answers to the questions Harrison posed in 2003. The most recent definition found describes a "mode of fantastic literature that exceeds the tired tropes and themes often associated with genre fantasy and endless sequels, and instead reinvigorates fantastic writing as a blend of science fiction, Surrealism, fantasy, magical realism, and Lovecraftian horror that is attentive to both its pulp and its high culture influences and roots" (Vint 197). Such usage shows, more than nine years after the publication of Perdido Street Station, and more than six after the TTA discussion boards explosion, and despite its detractors, the continuing importance and pertinence of the New Weird for those interested in the new and interesting in fantasy and science fiction.
Congreve, Bill, and Michelle Marquardt, editors. Introduction to Year's Best Australian Science Fiction and Fantasy 2005. Prime Books, 2005.
Harrison, M. John. Remarks on "The New Weird." 29 Apr. 2003. http://www.kathryncramer.com/kathryn_cramer/the-new-weird-p-1.html.
———. John. Remarks on "The New Weird." 30 Apr. 2003. http://www.kathryncramer.com/kathryn_cramer/the-new-weird-p-1.html.
James, Edward, and Farah Mendlesohn. A Short History of Fantasy. London; Middlesex University Press, 2009.
Kolz, Steven. "Reading: The New Weird." 31 May 2009. http://mentatjack.com/2009/05/31/reading-th-new-weird/.
Luckhurst, Roger. Science Fiction. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005.
MacLeod, Ken, et al. "Voices of the Boom." Science Fiction Studies 30 (2003): 483–91.
Miéville, China. "Messing with Fantasy." Locus Magazine, Mar. 2002, 4–5, 74–76.
———. "Movements in Science Fiction and Fantasy: A Symposium." In Nebula Awards Showcase 2005, edited by Jack Dann. New York: Roc, 2005.
———. "The New Weird." Locus Magazine, Dec. 2003, 8, 70.
Robson, Justina. Remarks on "The New Weird." 30 Apr. 2003. http://www.kathryncramer.com/kathryn_cramer/the-new-weird-p-1.html.
Spinrad, Norman. "Not Really New, Not Really Weird." Vector 245 (January/February 2006): 12–16.
Straub, Peter, ed. Conjunctions 39: The New Wave Fabulists. 2002.
Swainston, Steph. Remarks on "The New Weird." 29 Apr. 2003. http://www.kathryncramer.com/kathryn_cramer/the-new-weird-p-1.html.
———. Remarks on "The New Weird." 30 Apr. 2003. http://www.kathryncramer.com/kathryn_cramer/the-new-weird-p-1.html.
VanderMeer, Jeff. "New Weird Reading List." 1 Jun. 2009. http://www.jeffvandermeer.com/2009/06/01/new-weird-reading-list/.
———. "The New Weird; It's Alive." New York Review of Science Fiction 238 (2008): 19–21.
Vint, Sherryl. "Introduction: Special Issue on China Miéville."
Extrapolation 50 (2009): 197–99.