1.10.2004

Thoughts on Microgenres

All the 'will it work? won't it work?' discussion of (for example) 'New Weird', here and in many other places, is started to puzzle me. Let's say, one, nobody can impose a new school, sub-genre or publishing label from above, that it comes about because of a groundswell of readers and fans, who read because what they read connects with their lives0. Two, this applies doubly to SF. Which is to say (and to generalise a little, but not to distort, I think): SF enjoyed a fantastic boom in the twentieth century for easily discernable reasons ... it was a form of literature that articulated the general concerns of a rapidly technologising and expanding culture (Western culture) in ways that traditional literatures did not.

Let me take a more specific example in 'cyberpunk', the sort of label to which New Weirders are, I think, yearning. Dated though it now is, cyberpunk actually worked as a microgenre from the early 1980s to the mid 1990s, and it did so not because great writers wrote excellent cyberpunk novels [great writers write all sorts of novels in all sorts of genres, and most of them fall into the silence] but because what cyberpunk was doing tapped into a broad cultural fascination with and anxiety about computing. This microgenre could not have happened in any decade but the 1980s, when computers were new, exciting and alarming. They're not any more, and accordingly cyberpunk has withered on the vine.

In other words, the key question about (eg) New Weird is not 'is Perdido Street Station a good novel?' (it clearly is), but 'what does the New Weird say that resonates more broadly? What does it, to quote the Smiths, say to me about my life?' To answer that question we need to know what are the key cultural foci today.

Here's what I think. The most successful 'New Weird' novels han't actually been doing 'Weird' [by which I mean, suvbversive, unsettling, upsetting: most New Weird fans take enormous satisfactino and perverse consolation in their fave books. And in lesser hands, 'Weird' becomes merely 'Quaint', 'Odd' or 'Grotesque'.] They've been doing very imaginative but rather traditional things with the ramifications of city life.

Take a number of highly esteemed New Weird novels, let's say: Perdido Street Station, Light Ages, Veniss Underground. These have all been about the Urban experience (Mieville reads 'the city' through Lovecraft; Macleod reads 'the city' through DH Lawrence and Dickens; Vandemeer reads 'the city' through Nabokov, 'the shadow of the waxwing slain' and so on). Harrison's Light is a different sort of book, but is still profoundly Urban in focus. I think.

This is all well and good. But the question is whether 'the urban experience' is an actual locus of widespread cultural anxiety and fascination these days. I doubt it. I think it once was, in the nineteenth-century, when it was something genuinely new and disturbing. And I think that's why the great urban novels of Dickens struck such a chord. Nowadays I think the Urban experience is normative. And I think, therefore, that the New Weird is already passe.

[A counterargument would be that the New Weird is actually about 'cultural diversity', which probably does have more bite and significance in today's existence. But I don't really see it: there's a lot of superificial difference in New Weird characters and agents, but they're all pretty much nice or nasty version of the ordinary Western citydweller.]

Which means we need to think about what's actually exciting and angst-producing about contemporary existence, because of course that's where the actual microgenres will grow. Not 'space exploration' (very 1960s); not 'urban-tech' (Blade Runner). But, maybe, a fiction of genuine materialism, and a fiction of genuine spiritualism, which is to say not nostalgic-conservative-magical Heroic Fantasy. Maybe a fiction of the dissociation of sensibility, of consciousness, a Beckettian SF, an SF of depression. Ach, I'm guessing.

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