It might seem weird that people once got worked up about this stuff (and, maybe they still do and I’m just not paying that much attention anymore), but about five years or so ago (that’s 35 in dog years and paleolithic ancient history in Internet reckoning), people were getting worked up about “The New Weird,” whether it was a bona fide genre subcategory and/or movement, who its practitioners were, and who the hell cared. At least it was better than arguing about whether cyberpunk was dead and whether slipstream was literary science fiction, or literary fiction that stole from science fiction.
Now, along come the Vandermeers — both of whom have dogs in this hunt, Ann as editor of the presumably now defunct Silver Web magazine and currently at the helm of Weird Tales and Jeff as the author of City of Saints and Madmen, among other works, associated with The New Weird milieu and, if recollection serves, one of those who at the time thought the whole discussion about the classification kind of pointless — with The New Weird anthology. Theirs is an interesting approach. This is more than a compendium of stories that tend to share a theme; rather, it is a kind of snapshot of a fixed era (with one exception) of excitement — possibly mixed with some confusion — of authors breaking ground from traditional fantasy and horror and mixing it up in very intriguing, though sometimes incomprehensible ways, whose time, the editors seem to suggest, has past. “New Weird is dead. Long Live the Next Weird.”
First, a definition.
New Weird is 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 the New Wave writers…
There’s more, but, you get the idea (and, for those not up on their genre terminology, “New Wave” refers to the literary experimentation of SF&F writers that roughly reflects the countercultural ethos of the 1960s). Now, if you’re into “lit-speak” and the debate over what any of this means, this is you’re kind of collection. At the same time, if you don’t care and are just interested in some cool disturbing stories set in gritty alternative worlds, this is your kind of book, too.
In addition to providing some historical background, recommended reading and introductory context, the Vandermeer editorial team takes a somewhat different approach than your standard anthologizers. They reprint excerpts from the Internet bulletin board discussion (James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel do something similar in their slipstream anthology, Feeling Very Strange) prompted by M. John Harrison’s post in 2003: “The New Weird. Who does it? What is it? Is it even anything?” (Interestingly, Harrison’s own response is that it is important for writers to “own” the term, though I confess I don’t understand why this is important, in terms of either marketing or artistic control, anymore than how you would actually do it.) Moreover, they provide critical essays as well as some brief commentary from SF editors based mostly in Eastern Europe, whose totalitarian histories and literature of the absurd (e.g., Kafka) makes them particularly receptive to the New Weird conceits.
Also, there’s an “experiment” in which various authors – Cat Rambo, Sarah Monette, Daniel Abraham, Felix Gilman, Hal Duncan and Conrad Williams – each contribute a section of a story started by Paul DiFillipo, who, in turn, tries to pick up the various strands developed by everyone else in a conclusion that, for some reason that must have seemed clever at the time, is not on the book, but posted at the publisher’s website. The Vandermeers note that, “The result was never intended to be a complete story, although it definitely has closure.” Indeed, the sense I got was that the individual authors were at times seeking more to outdo one another, to see what they could do to throw out something only vaguely related to the previous text (Duncan is the biggest offender here) just to see what the next contributor might make of it, rather than advance a plot line.
It does have a great opening line that typifies the New Weird ethic:
The terrorist got off the train amidst hundreds of other noisy pilgrims, all debarking into the cavernous, cast-iron columned interior of the Battidarmala station on Khunds Road.
Immediately, we know we’re in some of kind of foreign reality, one in which there is some technology but which hasn’t freed the hordes of humanity from themselves, about to be beset by violence. Weird, but at the same time much like our own reality.
Of course, none of this is the main attraction. The Vandermeers select a fairly representative sample from “the usual suspects” — from Harrison to Michael Moorcock to Jay Lake to Kathe Koja (the editors humbly leave out Jeff Vandermeer, who should be here), as well as people I wouldn’t normally have thought of, such as Clive Barker — to illustrate that the New Weird canvas was pretty broad, sometimes emphasizing horror, sometime moody paranoia, sometimes a sympathetic anti-hero, and sometimes straining to be post-modern literate. Sometimes, doing all of this.
Personal favorites here include Jeffrey Ford’s “At Reparta,” in which love blooms from the ruins of a beneficial kingdom of misfits (“Everyone remembers where they were when they first heard that Queen Josette had died. I was standing in twilight on that cliff known as the Cold Shoulder, fly-fishing for bats”), and K.J. Bishop’s “Art of Dying” which dissects the Romantic notion of the artist who sacrifices her health for her craft (“The disease turns her into an old cliche, the beautiful and beloved thing that can only live a short while…”).
One thing that struck me was the difference between the old New Weird and what is presumably the “Next Weird.” Alistair Rennie’s “The Gutter Sees the Light that Never Shines” is the one story original to this anthology and, presumably, an example of a current author consciously adopting New Weird tropes. The “Gutter” of the title is some kind of disgusting creature, which in part explains his name; the other part is his frequent use of a “gutting knife” to murder if for no other reason because he can. There are various secret societies and bureaucracies, as well as the equally sociopathic Sisters of No Mercy who in revenge for their middle sister’s murder put an end to the Gutter in a way that is perversely funny. Yet, I’m not really sure the story is about anything other than a setup for a sick joke. It’s almost as if this was an exercise in adopting the style of the New Weird without any of the substance.
Contrast that with China Miéville’s “Jack,” set in his Bas-Lag universe of the novels Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and The Iron Council. Here we have some weird creatures (the “Remade,” who are subject to bizarre body part grafts in punishment for their crimes against the state), secret societies and violence. Jack Half-a-Prayer, a terrorist with a Robin Hood-like reputation among the masses, has been sold out. The narrator, a former associate with uncertain loyalties, tells the tale of how it came about.
And here’s the difference between these two stories. Rennie’s is weird, and funny in a way. Miéville’s is also weird, and funny in a way. But, unlike Rennie’s, it is very true to life. It seems to me that Miéville has something to say about the psychology of oppressed humanity, in which the oppressor and the oppressed are two sides of the same coin, through the use of the New Weird tropes, while Rennie is primarily just interested in the tropes.
Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong with that. It’s just that five years or so from now I doubt if anyone will see any good reason to anthologize it, let alone provide critical discussions worthy of assignment for a literature class.