Sunday, November 20, 2022

Two Recent Losses--and Recent Gains

These losses have nothing to do with fantasy, science fiction, or weird fiction, but I would rather not let them go by without notice. Thoughts of them lead into further thoughts and speculations.

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First, jazz musician Pharoah Sanders died on September 24, 2022. He was eighty-one years old. In listening to his music, one has ineffable feelings about human life and pain, intimations of suffering, melancholy, joy, triumph, and spiritual transcendence. I am saddened that he is gone.

Second, Gal Costa died on November 9, 2022, at age seventy-seven. She was a Brazilian singer of great sensitivity and charm. Although she was part of the Tropicália movement in her native country, she and her music came out of a slightly older Bossa Nova movement. Her death is also a very sad occasion.

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The phrase bossa nova literally means "new wave" or "new trend" in Portuguese. It was first used in reference to a new musical style in Brazil in the late 1950s. At around the same time in France, cinéastes were involved in a movement called the New Wave, or Nouvelle Vague in French. (1) Shortly after that--all of this seems to have happened in about a two- or three-year period--the term New Wave was applied to science fiction written by British authors and published in the magazine New Worlds. There were American authors of New Wave science fiction, too. By the 1970s, the wave had either subsided or washed over and become a part of a greater science fiction. After a few years, new things aren't new anymore.

Although most people are temperamentally conservative, we also like new things. Newness must have been a hard-driving force in the late 1950s and early 1960s. We can speculate that it had to do with demographics, or populations finally beginning to recover from nightmares of world war. Coincidentally, the idea that science fiction might be dying also came up in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Maybe old waves were drawing back as new ones were rolling in.

There has been at least one effort to revive the new waves of the past. That sounds like a contradiction to me. It sounds like the workings of nostalgia, an attempted return to past glories and not at all a progressive or innovative thing. Call it quixotic. Maybe even silly. Alternatively, it might be considered ambitious--or hubristic. We puff ourselves up by imagining that we have made or discovered new things. There's an awful lot of that in this world. Anyway, that new return to the old past is a so-called "New Weird." The term itself first appeared in print in 2002. I suspect it is meant to evoke memory of or an association with the New Wave in science fiction, right down to the initial assonance and monosyllabic construction of the words weird and wave. (In order for it to happen, weird had to be turned back into a noun: another return to the past.) Former editor of Weird Tales magazine Ann Kennedy VanderMeer and her husband Jeff VanderMeer are or were champions of the "New Weird." In 2008, they published an anthology called just that, The New Weird.

Two thousand two was twenty years ago. Two thousand eight was fourteen years ago. What was new then isn't any more. So is there still such a thing as the "New Weird"? Was there ever? Or could it have been an imitation--or a conceit, a self-conscious conceit at that? I can't say. I haven't read any authors of the "New Weird" unless Thomas Ligotti is one of them. I certainly haven't read any literary criticism or any real literary theory behind any of it. I wonder if there are such things. And I wonder if the term New Weird gained any traction at all outside of a small, or medium-sized, circle of writers and editors.

New things are generally made by young people. João Gilberto was still in his twenties when he made his breakthrough as what Antônio Carlos Jobim called "O Baiano bossa-nova." Gal Costa began singing professionally at age eighteen. She was not yet twenty-three when the seminal album Tropicália ou Panis et Circencis was released. Pharoah Sanders made his first record at twenty-four. There are examples after examples. Young people are new in the world. They literally are a new wave. Their elders are less often innovators. Although many of the writers and editors of the "New Weird" were still young adults at the turn of the last century, they are now in middle age.

One of the complications for their generation--Generation X--is that they are outnumbered not only by the generation above them but also by the one below them. Maybe Generation X didn't have all of the opportunities to distinguish themselves that other generations have had. Maybe they didn't have much of a chance to thrive. Then again, maybe that's just bellyaching and excuse-making. Remember that in the 1980s and '90s, Generation X were referred to as the "Slacker Generation."

There's another thing to consider, though, for Generation X is unique in American history. (3) That uniqueness comes from a historical event that came halfway through their generation, possibly at the exact midpoint. Before that, things were normal. After that, all hell broke loose. What happened is that Generation X became prey. Call them instead the Truncated Generation, for millions of their cohorts--their brothers and sisters, their friends, classmates, and coworkers, their lovers, husbands, and wives--were eliminated, tipped in pieces into an enamel pan. Moloch had returned and for decades reigned supreme--until this year. The Truncated Generation were the first to be born into the Moloch State and first to bear the brunt of its murderous violence, its aggressions and depredations. Growing up, they must have been aware of their narrow escape. Is it any wonder, then, that their art is so dark, negative, violent, pessimistic, and nihilistic? That they would create or revive something they have called the "New Weird" in which, apparently, there is an underlying anti-life, anti-human, and anti-child philosophy?

As the wise man of Ecclesiastes wrote, there is nothing new under the sun. One of the claims of the "New Weird"--one of its claims to newness, I think--is that it subverts and combines and mixes the conventional genres and sub-genres that exist under the general heading of fantasy. One thing to consider here is that those conventions may have formed, or at least hardened, during the pulp era. Likewise, the genres and sub-genres of fantasy fiction were drawn apart during that same era and during the paperback era that succeeded it. Before the pulp era, there weren't really conventions within individual genres and sub-genres because those categories had not yet been separated from each other, nor had they been named, described, delineated, or formalized in their conventions. In other words, if there is innovation in the "New Weird," it may just be in the putting back together of things that were drawn apart before living memory began. Proponents of the "New Weird" as both new and a thing unto itself should also consider the fictions and metafictions of writers like Jorge Luis Borges, John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, and Kurt Vonnegut. Could it all have been done before?

Beyond all of that theorizing, there is this question: Where is there left in this world--in our society or in our culture--to make anything new? Technology still leaves us with openings, I guess, and so there appear to be remaining possibilities in science fiction. There are also still openings made by human depravity, which knows no limits. We are witnesses every day to its advances. It runs ahead of us, in fact, each step carrying it, and us, into new territory. Maybe that leaves possibilities for weird fiction, too.


(1) There is a current French pop group called Nouvelle Vague. One of the primary figures in the original Nouvelle Vague, French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard, died just this year, on September 13, 2022. He was ninety-one years old.

(2) Many years ago, I met two British birders at a state park in California. They were of an age that they could remember in the early 1960s playing on piles of rubble in London made by the Blitz.

(3) Unique until now anyway, but this new uniqueness goes in the opposite direction. It will be years or decades before we understand just where it goes.

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We're now in the week ahead of Thanksgiving. I write on Saturday, November 19, 2022. It was a cold day today, but sunny. I was out and about. In my very small part of the world, I saw people who seem happy, positive, cheerful, and energetic. Terrible things have fallen behind us this year and we can be happy again now that they're gone. Let us give thanks.

Happy Thanksgiving

to the Readers of

Tellers of Weird Tales!

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There was a lot of Americanized bossa nova during the 1960s and '70s, and there are lots of Anglo names on this record cover from 1968. But there is also the name of the great Brazilian guitarist Laurindo Almeida (1917-1995), who, as it so happens, played on an episode of Star Trek in which the late Nichelle Nichols sang "Beyond Antares." To hear influences of Brazilian music on American (and Canadian) popular music, listen to "Undun" by The Guess Who (1969) and "At Seventeen" by  Janis Ian (1975). I have posted this image for its expression: Viva Bossa Nova! 

Text copyright 2022 Terence E. Hanley

1 comment:

  1. A nice remembrance, Terence. Both were significant performers in their time, especially Sanders. And I do love Bossa Nova music, as well.