GRAVE NEW WORLD – introduction

.Grave New World

The Decline of the West in the fiction of J.G. Ballard

Ballard According to Critics

J.G. Ballard’s literary career started in the nineteen-fifties, his early stories were published in the popular magazines promoting a new unique type of science fiction different than American pulp space fiction, which after the war flooded the British market. In the early sixties the need to change the genre of science fiction and start a new thoroughly English artistic movement was all-pervasive. A small group of young writers, who later were dubbed the ‘New Wave’, looked for a periodical which would publish intellectual SF, or ‘speculative fiction’ as they insisted on calling it. ‘Speculative fiction’ was to be a medium to discuss current social and cultural issues in experimental, often a dramatic way.

The periodical they finally found was New Worlds, a magazine published since 1946, which in its long history many times changed publishing houses and its artistic line. In 1967 the post of the editor-in-chief was given to Michael Moorcock, an ambitious young writer and a friend of Ballard – they together prepared a number of artistic manifestos defining ‘speculative fiction’ and setting the goals for the British avant-garde science fiction. The term ‘speculative fiction’ was soon abandoned, the critics and columnists preferred to call the New Worlds group the ‘New Wave’, which is a literal translation of the French nouvelle vague. Christopher Priest, a writer and a journalist and Judith Merril, an US-born influential anthologist and columnist popularized the phrase ‘New Wave’ among the readers in Britain and the USA.

The avant-garde tendencies in the British science fiction are in fact older than the (late-1960s) term, and stories written by Ballard, Moorcock and Brian Aldiss a few years earlier are now subsumed under the ‘New Wave’ label. Peter Nicholls writes in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1993):

By 1965, then, science fiction was ripe for change. In fact many of the so-called experiments of the period were not experiments at all, but merely an adoption of narrative strategies, and sometimes ironies, that had long been familiar in the mainstream novel. In the event, some of the science fiction writers who felt they now had the freedom to experiment, especially Ballard were to add something new to the protocols of prose fiction generally. (Nicholls 1993: 866)

Therefore, from the very beginning of his literary career Ballard is considered an in-between writer oscillating between ‘low-brow’ and ‘high-brow’ literature, sometimes he is called a postmodernist, sometimes an avant-garde author. The critic, who still in the nineteen-sixties writes about him passionately and is partly responsible for his opinion of an experimental and ‘difficult’ ‘New Wave’ writer is Judith Merril. Merril is an author of a number of well-known disaster stories describing nuclear catastrophes, but only in the nineteen-fifties when she began editing anthologies she became one of the most influential persons in American science fiction. Always experimental and eager to renew cliché standards of American pulp magazines she was an advocate of the ‘New Wave’, and especially of Ballard. As a columnist in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction she presented ‘speculative fiction’ to American readers and discussed books of the New Worlds writers.

New Worlds today is an altogether unique publication: and the astonishment of some of the stuffier intellectual circles in London when the Art. Council announced an annual grant of 1800 pounds for a science fiction magazine… was probably no grater than the shock experienced by American fans attending the 1967 World Science Fiction Convention in New York when they had their first look at the transformed magazine of ‘Speculative Fiction’… The new magazine is quatro size, non-glossy… with cover art, interior illustrations and (increasingly) page design to match the most experimental of the fiction, and to suit the sophistication of Chris Finch’s articles on avant-garde art and graphics. (Merril 1968: 344-345)