Literature > Book Reviews
Something weird this way comes
Meet the 21st century's new literary movement
Early in the aughts, a new creative force emerged. Worldwide political events, crystallized by the 1999 Seattle WTO protests and the terrorist attacks of 9/11, energized a self-aware readership that embraced New Weird, the 21st century’s first major new literary movement. Books such as China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station (2000), Jeff VanderMeer’s City of Saints and Madmen (2001), Paul Di Filippo’s A Year in a Linear City (2002), K. G. Bishop’s The Etched City (2003), and Steph Swainston’s The Year of Our War (2004) birthed a revolutionary, real-world, postmodern literature that often included surreal elements found in urban fantasy, horror, science fiction, and political thrillers.
This hard-to-define genre engendered two major 2003 debates. The magazine Third Alternative and the writer M. John Harrison, who as part of the 1960’s New Wave supplied a seminal influence for the new writers, facilitated lengthy online discussions exploring the emerging movement. Harrison first introduced the term “New Weird” to the public, though it most likely evolved from a poolside chat between Miéville and Peter Straub at a Fort Lauderdale conference. The name pays homage to two movement progenitors: the 1980’s New Horror (aka Splatterpunk, best typified by Clive Barker) and the New Wave.
More than a decade earlier, in a July 1989 article for SF Eye #5, Bruce Sterling, himself a major player in the 20th-century movement Cyberpunk, which continues to influence our current internet-driven culture, postulated the concept of yet another genre, which he dubbed “Slipstream” and defined as “a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the 20th century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility.” In the 1990s, the burgeoning Interstitial Arts movement embraced this notion in an attempt to define creations that fall between traditional style boundaries. The New Weird, while arguably an aspect of both ideas, has since developed its own identity.
From the online discussions, VanderMeer generated a definition. In the 2007 anthology The New Weird (co-edited with Ann VanderMeer), he presents a summation of his findings:
“[...] a type of urban, secondary-world fiction that subverts the romanticized ideas about place found in traditional fantasy, largely by choosing realistic, complex real-world models as the jumping off point for creation of settings that may combine elements of both science fiction and fantasy. New Weird has a visceral, in-the-moment quality that often uses elements of surreal or transgressive horror for its tone, style, and effects — in combination with the stimulus of influence from New Wave writers or their proxies (including also such forebears as Mervyn Peake and the French/English Decadents). New Weird fictions are acutely aware of the modern world, even if in disguise, but not always overtly political. As part of this awareness of the modern world, New Weird relies for its visionary power on a “surrender to the weird” that isn’t, for example, hermetically sealed in a haunted house on the moors or in a cave in Antarctica. The “surrender” (or “belief”) of the writer can take many forms, some of them even involving the use of postmodern techniques that do not undermine the surface reality of the text.”
Of course the earliest New Weird authors began working in the style well before it was acknowledged as a movement. Miéville and VanderMeer, often seen as leaders of the movement, produced works containing New Weird concepts for smaller presses throughout the ’90s. The development of a moniker provided a marketable identity for publishers, which resulted in much larger venues for the work. Both authors’ careers benefited from the increased exposure, much like those later identified with the movement, most notably Jeffrey Ford and Jay Lake.
While the cultural impact of the New Weird cannot be properly identified for at least another decade, the movement’s reach has slowly seeped into other media. The popular TV show Lost, and acclaimed films Pan’s Labyrinth and Children of Men exhibit several New Weird hallmarks, demonstrating the New Weird infiltration into 21st-century popular consciousness. •