Saturday, May 23, 2015

Subgenre Saturday: New Weird

And now for something completely different. Well, maybe not completely, but we’re looking at a subgenre that sits in my wheelhouse, but it kind of clings to ceiling and drips stuff down on everybody else’s head. See, starting in the late 1800s and bleeding into the early 20th century, you had a genre that’s known simply as ‘weird.’ It came before horror and fantasy and their ilk were really being categorized as such. These were the writings of people like H.P. Lovecraft and Franz Kafka. They didn’t fit into what was being written at the time. Mainstream/literary fiction, science romances, that kind of thing. They were different. Subversive. They were just plain weird.

You saw the same thing in the sixties and seventies, only this time it was new wave, not weird. Fantasy and horror were now well-established genres, and they, along with science fiction, had their own tropes, their own vibe, and their own expectations. New wave was just as subversive as weird fiction, but it had much more to subvert. And it did. Writers like Roger Zelazny and everybody’s favorite curmudgeon, Harlan Ellison (Who, to take this whole subversion thing to the max, refused to even call his work sci-fi or fantasy. He insisted on the umbrella term ‘speculative fiction.’).

As with everything in the publishing world, things come in cycles (Doubt me? Compare the popular romances of the 80s with the popular romances of today.). These subversive tendencies cycled right on back through into the movement I’m finally getting to: new weird. A somewhat inelegant title for what I consider to be an incredibly elegant subgenre of sci-fi and fantasy.

New weird is a strange beast. It’s not mocking SF/F as much as it is mocking literary fiction. For years and years, there’s been a struggle between the lit-fic community and the spec-fic community. As SF/F writers, we’re very often pushed into the ‘science fiction ghetto,’ because it can’t possibly be worthy fiction if there are jetpacks or aliens. Then, when there is something that the literary crowd likes that manages to claw out of the ghetto, they steal it and take that glory away.

New weird protested, and did it by writing brilliant fiction. Yes, it’s speculative fiction through and through, but it’s too completely genius for anyone to brush off, no matter the content. It’s full of sweeping ideas and it plays against the tropes standard in sci-fi and fantasy (or at least the tropes standard at the time it was written). Often, it blurs the line between the genres to a point where you can’t even tell which side of the line it falls on.

The one name that comes to the top of almost every new weird list, and for very good reason, is China Mieville. Essentially, it’s what he writes, and if you pick up his work, you’ll see exactly what new weird is. My favorite from him is Railsea, a story that could possibly be sci-fi, but could just as easily be fantasy, but maybe it really doesn’t matter. A world where the oceans are gone, replaced by railroad tracks lid in an ultimate war. It mixes religion with science, and you just can’t place it. Pure brilliance.

A few other perennials of the subgenre are His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman, and Mervyn Peake’s brilliantly atmospheric Gormenghast books (Titus Groan, Gormenghast, Titus Alone). New weird even has its own magazine, for fans of this type of fiction (Tales of the Talisman). There’s also the SCP Foundation, of which I’m a huge fan. A huge intersection between all crossroads of speculative fiction, and all very much bound in a well-woven format.

There aren’t a lot of TV shows and movies like this, unfortunately, or I would recommend them. It’s a little more common in anime and manga, where genre lines as we know them blur as it is. Things like Durarara. I feel like an argument could also be laid out for Gunnerkrigg Court as new weird, but it would perhaps be better-suited as a straight up science fantasy. More on that one next week.

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