21st-century science fiction and fantasy narratives are very different from that of the 20th, both in terms of what writers and filmmakers are producing and in terms of what audiences expect and desire. Much has been written on these differences in regard to fantasy – especially on the boom in Big Fat Fantasy novels as an escapist-driven response to the events of 9/11 – but far fewer words have been written on the changes permeating science fiction. This disparity in critical and cultural attention caught my attention and piqued my interest, especially after I stumbled across an article describing one of the changes affecting contemporary science fiction: the rise of what some critics are calling “the new weird.”
From one point of view, the new weird could perhaps be described as the latest catchphrase/label adorning works of science fiction that don’t really fit into the genre’s mould. On the other hand, Sofia Samatar, one of the leading lights of the new weird field, describes it as form of fiction that has “a complicated relationship to genre. It might blend genres or overturn their conventions, while still remaining clearly anti-realist.” Another way of looking at it is as the re-emergence of a long dormant form of writing that has been around almost as long as science fiction itself, a form whose tropes, themes and forms were set and shaped by authors as diverse as H.P. Lovecraft, William Hope Hodgson, Franz Kafka and Bruno Schulz. Yet another way of looking at it, according to JS Breukelaar, another leading light of the field, is as a form of fiction that “represents the desire for or pursuit of some hidden principle beyond the mundane.” The truth, I daresay, lies somewhere in between these different perspectives – the new weird might best be described as a kind of post-postmodern fiction that blur genres and forms, resists realism, and rests upon a foundation the blends elements of what we now call science fiction, fantasy and horror.
Take Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy as an illustrative example. The basic premise at its core is pure science fiction: a region of land in North America has been changed through unfathomable extra-terrestrial means, its physics, topography and ecology becoming suddenly unearthly, so much so that the region is quickly dubbed “Area X.” However, within this science fictional framework exist elements of a multitude of other genres, all of which work together to create something greater than the individual parts. The creatures and beings that inhabit Area X – dolphins with human eyes, shuffling monstrosities that resemble transmogrified humans – seem born of the kind of body-horror made famous by David Cronenberg; Area X’s own peculiar geographic features – mysterious tunnels and cave systems, abandoned lighthouses that seem to have once played host to massacres and murders, lonely forests and swamps – evoke traditional elements of horror; the governmental agency charged with investigating Area X seems inspired by the kind of absurdist bureaucratic nightmare narratives made famous by Kafka; and the vast psychological changes experienced by the personnel sent to explore Area X are undoubtedly influenced by the kind of psychological-fiction pioneered by JG Ballard, an author whose work could easily be called a precursor to the new weird.
But this is a digression. The important thing to keep in mind is that the manner in which you interpret the new weird in no way diminishes it or the importance of its rise. The real question to ask in terms of its rise is: Why? Why is a subgenre that has traditionally been seen as an odd diversion on the way to the main attraction now experiencing an upswing in popularity?
The correct answer is, of course: Who knows? This rise is far too current to have been studied in any real depth, and the vagaries of the publishing industry are too arcane to deliver satisfaction. But I have a hunch, a hunch borne from something as cursory as a glance at my fellow passengers on a peak-hour train.
That’s right – I see smartphones as the cause of this rise. Or, to be more specific, what smartphones represent.
To make it plain: advanced technology has become so ubiquitous in modern Western society that it no longer seems to awe us. When you carry in your pocket a device the size of a notepad that can instantly access almost the entirety of recorded knowledge and store as many photos, videos and songs as you wish, then why wouldn’t you be a little blasé about our relationship to technology? Especially the core-technology at the heart of this device is almost unbelievably more sophisticated than that which put a man on the moon, The same thinking applies to driverless cars and cars that park themselves; to realistic three-dimensional holograms fronting live bands and computer created pop-stars; to a planned Mars mission made feasible thanks to reality TV; to GPS tracking and facial recognition scanners; to the dominance of social media and the almost total penetration of the internet; and to skyscrapers and apartment buildings that are almost arcologies, and rise to heights undreamt of only a few years ago.
Even something as mundane as a peak-hour train ride makes me feel like our present resembles a science fiction future from yesteryear. To quote JG Ballard: “Everything is becoming science fiction. From the margins of an almost invisible literature has sprung the intact reality of the 20th century.” The only real difference is that in our present, everything has become science fiction – what was once a fanciful genre has now become our reality.
In light of this, it should really come as no surprise that the new weird has become so popular. After all, even though nowadays we might not be awed by advanced technology, there is still something that fascinates and enthrals us, something that lies at the heart of the new weird: the mysteries of human nature, the bizarreness of human behaviour, and the beguiling impulses and contradictions that drive us. I see these oh-so-human characteristics and traits as underpinning the new weird: one thing that the subgenre always seems to do is to turn science fiction’s typically outward gaze inwards, examining how we as people might react to the strange events, circumstances and beings populating its narratives, rather than simply focussing on the make-up and existence of these things themselves. And yes, this kind of examination also occurs in other forms of science fiction, but in the new weird it is pushed to the foreground and becomes the root of the story rather than the branch.
To put it another way: the strange events, circumstances and beings that populate the new weird function as analogues of the impenetrable mysteries and rich and weird variety of life, and the examination of these things and of our own relationship and reaction to them, mirrors our own fascination with those aspects of the real-world that we can’t really explain. When the “outer” world no longer seems to captivate and awe us, and when so many of its mysteries have been explained and so much of its weirdness has been reconciled by science and therefore made mundane, our thoughts then turn to that which is still inexplicable and bizarre, no matter how hard science tries to rationalise and explain it: the human mind, human behaviour, and our own individual psychologies. In a world where a vast portion of the population doesn’t have access to clean water, and yet people are seemingly more interested in finding this water on other planets, the only real question to ask is: why? And it is these kinds of questions underlining the complexity and perplexing nature of human behaviour and thinking that the new weird is ultimately interested in examining.