Lesson 8: The New Wave: 1965 - 1978

Lesson 8: The New Wave: 1965 - 1978

Created by James Gunn and Thomas Seay

This course is available for online enrollment as ENGL 506 through the Continuing Education department of the University of Kansas. To take this course for academic credit, click here.

Lesson Objectives

After completing this lesson, you should be able to:

  • Identify the major shifts in philosophy, style, and content associated with the new wave of science fiction; and
  • Describe the ways in which authors in the new wave reacted against established science-fiction viewpoints.


"I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream," by Harlan Ellison
The Road to Science Fiction #3, pp. 386-402

"Aye, and Gomorrah . . . ," by Samuel R. Delaney
The Road to Science Fiction #3, pp. 403-14

"Angouleme," by Thomas M. Disch
The Road to Science Fiction #4, pp. 294-312

"With a Finger in My I," by David Gerrold
The Road to Science Fiction #4, pp. 320-31



During the years of Campbell's Astounding and throughout the proliferation of magazines in the 1950s, science fiction took a broad view of humanity. The universe doesn't care whether individuals live or die, whether mankind itself survives; its cosmic processes involve the titanic birth and death of suns, of galaxies, and of a universe itself slowly running down toward the universal heat death called entropy. The viewpoint of traditional science fiction placed readers at a position remote from the human race: for the first time, perhaps, they are able to see humans—and themselves—from afar and judge objectively their potential, accomplishments, history and prospects.

The most distant, most objective view is the indifference of the universe. Another, a bit closer and a bit more subjective, is the view of individuals from space. One of the values of the space program is the photographs of Earth from space, along with the comments of astronauts, such as Neil Armstrong's "I remember on the trip home on Apollo 11 it suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very small."

This viewpoint helps determine a reader's reaction to science fiction. Some readers welcome perspective on themselves or on humanity; some find it painful or silly or are unable to make the kind of imaginative leap necessary to dissociate themselves from their perennial earthbound conceptions. As Edmund Crispin points out:

All these things being thus, it would be surprising if science fiction were to be popular. Nobody can take altogether kindly to the thesis that neither he personally, nor anyone else whatever, runs much risk of unduly bedazzling the eye of eternity. . . . In medieval times Man was commonly visualized as being dwarfed against a backdrop of stupendous spiritual or supernatural agencies; yet not dwarfed ultimately, since the Christian religion consistently averred him to be a special creation. . . . What science fiction has done, and what makes it egregious, is to dwarf Man all over again (this time without compensation) against a new great backdrop, that of environment. (Crispin, The Times Literary Supplement, Oct. 25, 1963.)


A revolution was inevitable against the cold inhumanity of this viewpoint. Although science fiction has been consistently egalitarian, libertarian, and fraternitarian (except in some foreign countries, notably the Soviet Union, where Marxist criteria are given first consideration), its penchant for the long view ultimately created a new breed of writers who focused their concerns on the short term, on individuals and their inalienable worth, on human's passions and perplexities rather than their intellects. Beginning about the middle of the 1960s, primarily in England in Michael Moorcock's state-subsidized New Worlds, through the writing of J.G. Ballard and Brian Aldiss, in part by John Brunner and Moorcock himself; publicized by Judith Merril in her later Best of the Year anthologies and her collection England Swings SF and named by her the "New Wave"; welcome in this country by stylists such as Harlan Ellison, Norman Spinrad, Thomas Disch, and a host of younger writers; encouraged by the Milford Science Fiction Conferences, Clarion Science Fiction Writers Workshops and their successors, and Orbit and Dangerous Visions—the new wave broke over science fiction and left some spluttering older writers and fans in its wake.

The new wave was more than a reaction to the scientific positivism that had become the main current of science fiction; it was a response of younger writers to the spirit of the times, which was rejecting intellectualism as a blind alley and which demonstrated itself in a willingness, to trade the classroom and the book for the experience, to seek answers in drugs and meditation rather than in study and experiment, to put together new groupings rather than improve old ones. "I think, therefore I am" became "I feel, therefore I am," and this shift from rationalism to sensationalism found its way into science fiction.

The new wave also incorporated a shattering of taboos, an inclusion of subject matters--especially sexual relationships, bodily functions, and drugs—that were rarely covered in traditional science fiction. This reached its peak in Harlan Ellisons's Dangerous Visions anthology of original fiction, and in Ellison's own writing, typified by his Nebula Award-winning short novel, A Boy and His Dog. In announcing his anthology, Ellison urged writers to send him stories that were too bold and too frank for science-fiction magazines. As he related it, with the same vigor with which science-fiction magazines told writers they couldn't write about certain subjects or use certain material, he told writers "to get it on, to really do it." The critical and popular success of the anthology not only led to a sequel, Again, Dangerous Visions, but may have contributed to the lowering of other barriers.

Some readers objected to what they considered the inconclusiveness, the willful obscurity, the pointlessness, and the aping of mainstream experimental techniques at the expense of content—all of which they considered typical of the new wave. Increasingly impatient with the bad writing that was printed as science fiction and with the disrepute that accompanied the genre's pulp origins, younger writers had a hankering for status and critical recognition that comes more with form than substance. But the deeper objections of fans and writers were likely stirred by both the shift in the viewpoint of detachment and the narrative viewpoint.

Professor Arthur Mizener has divided contemporary fiction into four main types: realistic, romantic, subjective, and Southern (the last falls outside the framework of the other three, and we will ignore it). They can be distinguished, Mizener says, by their attitude toward objective common sense: the realistic story makes us feel that objective common sense will not only be correct about how things will turn out but also right and wise in understanding that it must turn out that way; the romantic story makes us feel that objective common sense is likely to be correct about how things will turn out but will miss the real meaning of things because it will not take into account the feelings of the central character; and the subjective story makes us feel that what people dream is so important, and therefore so real, that the objective world of common sense, however resistant to their desires, does not finally count.

All of these traditions coexist in contemporary fiction, but science fiction, in the Campbellian tradition, is primarily realistic; science fiction in the tradition of the scientific romance of the early pulp magazines was primarily romantic. The writers of the new wave were primarily subjectivists—a respectable literary position but one that is foreign not only to mainstream science fiction but to science itself. It is not alien, however, to fantasy, which has always been subjective. Besides insinuating a mainstream viewpoint into science fiction, the new wave also brought in a concern for technique, for stream of consciousness and interior monologue, shifting viewpoints and symbols and metaphors, for complex characters explicating their lives on a treadmill of meaningless days, for little people or strange people caught up in the innumerable folds of an inexplicable world, for a way of life that is static, trapped, or doomed. "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream," writes Harlan Ellison.

Many of the writers of the new wave picked up, or reinvented, Heinlein's 1947 term for science fiction, "speculative fiction," on the grounds that "science fiction" is too narrow to cover the various kinds of fiction that qualified under any reasonable definition but included no science. Their motivations were probably a bit more complex: the term "science fiction" was not broad enough to cover the kind of fiction they wished to write, and a new name suggested new possibilities and new directions, while concealing the shameful pulp origins.

Writing Assignment

Stories in the new wave typically focused on the passions and concerns of the individual, rather than on the fates of ideas or societies, and often explored literary techniques that were not commonly used in earlier science fiction. Consider at least two of the stories you read for this lesson. How do they differ from the established science-fiction viewpoint of earlier decades, whether through prose, choice of character, theme, or plot?