Sunday, 4 July 2010

The Entropy Exhibition - Colin Greenland

Between 1964 and 1973, the magazine New Worlds came under the editorship of Michael Moorcock. With a change at the helm, the magazine took off in a different direction. It wasn’t an about face as some have claimed any more than it was sudden, but there was a definite air of new direction and a sense that there might actually be a destination to the somewhat rambling pleasure cruise.

Originally a science fiction magazine, Moorcock encouraged the development of new kinds of writing. Science fiction was the starting place, but he (along with many others) was deeply dissatisfied with what science fiction had become – dull and so cut off from the mainstream it might as well have been on another planet (called 'The 1930s').

The time, of course, was ripe for revolution. Set firmly in a milieu of experiment and exploration that saw a blossoming of music, art, and socio-political concerns, it was inevitable that literature would also undergo an upheaval. That it cam from this particular quarter is something that most literary critics and theorists still fail to understand or acknowledge.

Very often, the change in literature at this period is attributed to the ‘gritty realism’ of the ‘angry young men’. Yet this was not a revolution. It stayed well within the bounds of what had gone before yet was feted as a step forward into ‘daring’ territory by people who probably thought not buttoning your collar under your tie was an act of revolution.

To the dismay of entrenched hard sci fi fans, a new tranche of New Worlds authors tore everything up (sometimes literally) and started again. From scratch. They questioned everything. Many of the experiments in writing they tried didn’t work, but they were exuberant, interesting, and for me it was a real joy to read them. They were keeping pace with the music and art scenes (which most of the rest of literature was not), they were political, and they dived headlong into inner space and came back with trophies and reports stranger than any that had ever been brought back from outer space. And they changed literature.

Greenland’s book concentrates on three of the core writers – Aldiss, Ballard, and Moorcock. And in discussing their work, he explores what motivated the revolution (ideas about entropy sit at the heart of much of the work that was written by these and other contributors); how it developed; how it became saddled with a label none of them wanted or agreed with (New Wave); what they achieved; and what the coterie of New Worlds writers really were.

One thing they were not, nor did they ever pretend to be was a ‘movement’. The whole point of what was happening at New Worlds was that serious writers were being allowed to experiment and find a genuine new voice for their writing. Science fiction was the ideal basis for this (and it is gratifying that all the great writers that grew out of New Worlds and rode the shock waves like crazed surfers – Ballard, Moorcock, Aldiss, Bayley, Zoline, Russ, Sladek, Harrison, et al) have never once turned their backs on their roots (unlike many so-called literary writers who have plundered the worst of sci fi for ideas and then had hissy fits when they got busted). Given that each writer involved with this was looking for their own voice, they could never be classed as a movement. The writing styles, the content of their work, the things they were experimenting with and trying to achieve were so diverse, differed so much from writer to writer that call them a movement is absurd. One only has to read statements some of them have made over the years to see how different they were as writers.

Greenland’s exploration of this is insightful and well written (and desperately difficult to get hold of). It casts light on what is often dismissed as a sideshow. Yet this really was a breeding ground for literary revolution. If you don’t believe that, then look out for a copy of this book, and then look out for Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition; Aldiss’s Report on Probability A; Moorcock’s two Glogauer books – Behold the Man and Breakfast in the Ruins; and the Moorcock edited New Worlds an Anthology published by Flamingo. They might not be entirely to your taste but it will demonstrate that these are writers who have immeasurably enriched the literary scene and who, in some cases, were so far ahead of the scene in the ‘60s and ‘70s that everyone else is still struggling not just to catch up, but to find any sign of the route they took.