Monday, 28 March 2016

Science Fiction in 1966 – UK: New Worlds and J.G. Ballard


Fifty years ago: a tumultuous year in a decade marked by rapid social, technological and cultural change, a snapshot of 1966 captures science fiction in the process of evolution, absorbing outside influences and re-defining its possibilities – a mirror of its wider social context. With the broadcast of the first Star Trek episode in North America that year, and Doctor Who going strong in the UK since 1963, science fiction had widespread exposure on the rising medium of television and, in Fantastic Voyage, one of the year’s most successful films. There was sufficient interest in publications beyond the mainstream to allow for a thriving sub-culture of independent journals and fanzines. Novels such as Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon and Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room! were well-acclaimed examples of science fiction’s continued relevance, even as fresh possibilities emerged. Various factors, including a keen interest in ‘literary’ writers – notably William Burroughs, whose experimental novel Naked Lunch was first published as a paperback in 1966 – suggested new directions for genre fiction, just as modern art and popular music began to incorporate ideas from the avant-garde, which were in turn adopted by the burgeoning counter-culture. These developments helped to create a climate for a gradual move away from traditional science fiction toward more contemporary settings and subversive themes.

To be continued...

Part One 

The highly-regarded English science fiction magazine, New Worlds, began a process of transformation in 1964, when Michael Moorcock took over as editor. Moorcock has written that he was “interested in broadening the possibilities of the SF idiom and New Worlds... seemed the best place to do it.” His predecessor as editor, E.J. ‘Ted’ Carnell, was a stalwart of the domestic science fiction scene since the ‘Golden Age’ of the 1930s – an attendee at the very first convention of 1937 – and perceived as being representative of an outmoded and conservative notion of the genre. By 1966, Moorcock’s avowed intention after replacing Carnell – to steer the magazine away from its increasingly dated preoccupations with alien invasions and far-flung galaxies, and to embrace contemporary art and avant-garde literature, such as that of Eduardo Paolozzi and William Burroughs – was being put into practice. February 1966 saw the inclusion of ‘A Two-Timer’ by David I. Masson, Head of Special Collections at the University of Leeds, who brought an academic rigour and keen interest in linguistics to the established time-travel formula.

Another writer eager to seize the opportunity to adapt and subvert familiar concerns was J.G. Ballard, already an established author but whose work at that time was moving in the same trajectory as the magazine, away from traditional themes and toward the experimental works for which he was to become (in)famous. Ballard’s autobiography, Miracles of Life, relates that it was in fact Carnell, while associated with “a rather conventional view of the nature of science fiction”, who had begun to encourage this development as early as a decade before, and Moorcock who endorsed it. Carnell recognised “that science fiction needed to change if it was to remain at the cutting edge of the future” and accordingly urged Ballard to “concentrate on what I termed ‘inner space’, psychological tales close in spirit to the surrealists.” While his full-length books that year, The Crystal World and the short-story collection The Impossible Man, broadly conformed to genre expectations, he used New Worlds and the literary magazine Ambit (for which he contributed a lengthy review of Burroughs to the Spring 1966 edition) as vehicles to pursue his new direction. These “fragmented narratives” or “condensed novels” included ‘The Assassination Weapon’, ‘You: Coma: Marilyn Monroe’ (published in both magazines) and, appearing in the 1966/67 edition of Ambit, ‘The Assassination of J.F. Kennedy Considered As A Downhill Motor Race’, short pieces that were later to form part of one of his most notorious books, 1970’s The Atrocity Exhibition. 1966 thus found Ballard in a period of transition, publishing conventional work while simultaneously developing the more daring and disturbing approach which was to carve him a unique and hugely influential place in modern science fiction.

Ambit #29, Autumn 1966

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