New Wave n.

a loose movement in science fiction writing from the mid-1960s to mid-1970s, characterized by an experimental approach to narrative structures and language and an emphasis on nuanced social, moral, or psychological conflict rather than on technological concerns

SF Encyclopedia


SF Criticism

  • [1961 P. S. Miller in Analog Science Fact Nov. 167/1 P. Schuyler Miller

    It’s a moot question whether Carnell discovered the ‘big names’ of British science fiction—Wyndham, Clarke, Russell, Christopher—or whether they discovered him. Whatever the answer, there is no question at all about the ‘new wave’: Tubb, Aldiss, and to get to my point, Kenneth Bulmer and John Brunner.]

  • [1964 A. Davidson Books in Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction Oct. 39/1 (reviewing Donald Barthelme’s Come Back, Dr. Caligari) page image Avram Davidson

    This volume leaves me at my usual loss for words. It belongs to the New Wave, or maybe New Ripple, or perhaps New Drip, school of short story writing. Never mind looking for a plot. ]

  • [1965 C. Priest New Wave—Prozines in Zenith Speculation (#8) Mar. 11 page image Christopher Priest

    The publishers and editors should be strongly supported. But, more important, the fact that they are experimenting—with favourable results—should ensure that these ‘new-wave’ prozines are not only encouraged through loyalty alone.]

  • [1965 J. Merril Books in Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction May 71/1 page image Judith Merril

    In the new wave of avant garde ‘fanzine’ publishing, there is hardly a hectographed, mimeoed, or offset effort that does not contain at least its page or two of Burroughs.]

  • 1968 B. W. Aldiss in J. Merril England Swings SF 279 Brian W. Aldiss

    Really, I’m no part of the new wave (don’t even like their stories madly).

  • 1978 G. Elrick Science Fiction Handbook 182 George S. Elrick

    ‘New Wave’ science fiction, (Generic.) Science fiction that emphasizes raw sex, bone-crunching violence, and deep pessimism about ‘the meaning of it all’. It tends to be self-consciously stylistic, and heavily underscores such present-day problems as pollution, racism, and overpopulation.

  • 1986 G. K. Wolfe Critical Terms for Science Fiction & Fantasy 81 Gary K. Wolfe bibliography

    New Wave, Françoise Giroud’s term (nouvelle vague ) to describe a group of younger French film directors who emerged in the late 1950s has since been enthusiastically appropriated by promoters of almost any unconventional movement within a popular art form previously characterized by conventions or formulae. In science fiction, the term was introduced by Judith Merril in a 1966 essay for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (‘Books’, 30, no. 1 [January 1966] ) to refer to the highly metaphorical and sometimes experimental fiction that began to appear in the English magazine New Worlds after Michael Moorcock assumed the editorship in 1964, and that was later popularized in the United States through Merril’s own appallingly titled anthology England Swings SF: Stories of Speculative Fiction (Garden City: Doubleday, 1968). Although Harlan Ellison’s anthology of original stories the preceding year (Dangerous Visions, Garden City: Doubleday, 1967) has sometimes been retroactively credited with unleashing the American version of the New Wave, and though Ellison spoke of the book as ‘a revolution’ of ‘new horizons, new forms, new styles, new challenges’, Ellison himself has expressed chagrin at having once been labeled the ‘chief prophet’ of the New Wave in America (by The New Yorker : ‘The Talk of the Town: Evolution and Ideation’ [September 16, 1967] ). Similarly, many of the other writers associated with this movement, such as Brian Aldiss, J. G. Ballard, Thomas M. Disch, Samuel R. Delany, and Robert Silverberg, have on frequent occasions expressed disdain for or confusion over the term. Nevertheless, writers associated with the New Wave have been credited with introducing new narrative strategies into science fiction, with releasing the power of science fiction images as metaphor, and with weakening the boundaries that had long separated science fiction from Mainstream Fiction.

  • 1988 R. A. Lupoff New Wave in J. Gunn New Encyclopedia of Science Fiction 328 Richard A. Lupoff

    New Wave was a term first applied, by anthologist Judith Merril, to the avant-garde stories published in the British science-fiction magazine New Worlds for a few years after 1964. Some writers and critics deny that there ever was such a thing as the New Wave in SF. They are doubtless correct in the sense that the literary movement lacked organization, a broadly accepted credo, or a formal membership list. However, an identifiable group of writers and editors operating for approximately ten years, from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s, did have an immense impact on the field. In retrospect there can be little doubt that they represented a defacto literary school, whether this was their conscious intention or not. The term New Wave was borrowed from the French cinema. In SF it originated in and was first published in New Worlds when that magazine was controlled by Michael Moorcock. Although the magazine had been published since 1946, it was only with Moorcock’s editorship eighteen years later that the movement began to coalesce. It should be noted, further, that the writers who participated in the movement had in many cases been writing well before this event. Further, the roots of and influences on New Wave writing had existed in general (mainstream) literature for many years. The essential nature of New Wave SF can best be seen in comparison with more traditional SF, particularly that categorized as ‘pulp’. Pulp SF is primarily concerned with physical problem solving and/or combat. Conflict is seen in terms of good protagonist versus bad antagonist (or occasionally natural catastrophe). Moral and psychological ambiguities are few. Style tends to be simple and structure of narration straightforward. In contrast, New Wave writers frequently saw problems as social or psychological in nature, subject to resolution only through radical alterations of the psyche or similarly radical restructurings of society. The conflict they wrote about is between the victimized individual and oppressive society or nature, or it takes the form of a pathological society at war with itself. Moral and psychological ambiguities lie at the heart of most New Wave stories. The movement is characterized by an emphasis on style and experimentation; the structure of the narration could be anything an author found successful. Resulting structural and linguistic experiments, although far from startling in the context of mainstream experimental or avant-garde literature, were startling to readers whose ears had been trained on the pages of Astounding Science Fiction. By these criteria, both GeorgeOrwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man (1953) may be seen as forerunners of the New Wave.

  • 1990 P. Anderson Beer Mutterings in Thrust Winter 16/1 Poul Anderson bibliography

    To the best of my knowledge, it was first said by Robert Heinlein, whose contributions to science fiction were rather more significant than those of the New Wave.

  • 1990 C. Sheffield How Did a Nice Guy Like You in Thrust Winter 18/3 Charles Sheffield bibliography

    The New Wave in science fiction can be characterized in many different ways. Some said it was an attempt to bring the writing of science fiction into the 20th Century by introducing techniques that had been common in literary circles for fifty to sixty years. Others said that it was a unique fusion of two realms of creative ideas, the scientific and the literary. Others said that it was a bad thing, and that SF should get out of the salon and back in the gutter, where it belonged. ‘There’s too much literature, trying to pass itself off as science fiction.’

  • 1991 R. Rogow FutureSpeak 227

    New Wave, (literary): SF movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s that emphasized soft science over hard science, and used writing styles that varied widely from the direct narrative of earlier SF. The term, borrowed from French films of the same era, was first used by Judith Merril, and applied to mostly British SF stories published around 1964—1965. Traditionally, SF had concerned itself with problem-solving. Hardware stories would deal with a dangerous situation on board a starship; space opera would depict a heroic battle with alien forces. New Wave writers were more interested in the inner battles than the external ones; their stories would often deal with a psychological conflict that could only be resolved by a total restructuring of Society. There are few certainties in New Wave SF, and aliens are regarded in a more reasonable (if not affectionate) light. Battles are not ‘us against them’; in the spirit of post-Vietnam America, ‘Us’ is as likely to be the enemy as ‘Them’. Writers associated with the New Wave were Thomas M. Disch, Philip K. Dick, and Barry Malzberg.

  • 1994 R. Silverberg Reflections in Asimov’s Science Fiction July 4/2 page image Robert Silverberg bibliography

    The ambitious work of the writers who were considered to be part of the New Wave was swiftly going out of print, and what was coming in was the first surge of Star Trek novelizations, Tolkien imitations, juvenile space adventure books, and other highly commercial stuff that I had no interest in writing or reading.

  • 2001 Locus June 21/3

    The existential apocalypse of ‘The Last Train’ has an almost New Wave feel to it.

  • 2020 D. Sakers Reference Library in Analog Science Fiction & Fact May–June 200/2 Don Sakers bibliography

    Sometimes there’s a chicken-and-egg question of whether changing audience made SF change, or changes in SF brought in new readers. With the ‘New Wave’ of the 1960s/1970s era, there’s no question: the youth-centered counterculture movement, which started in Britain and moved to the U.S., definitely preceded SF’s move toward more diversity in characters, themes, and literary experimentation. Please note, I’m not implying that greedy SF writers looked around and said, ‘Ah, here’s a new social trend we can exploit.’ The pioneers of the New Wave, just like those of all the other shifts, were predominantly writers new in the field, bringing with them the sensibilities of the particular social evolution.

Research requirements

antedating 1968

Earliest cite

Brian Aldiss, in Judith Merril's 'England Swings SF'

Research History
An early edition of the "Encyclopedia of Science Fiction" suggested that the term was probably first applied to New Worlds-type fiction by Christopher Priest; later editions gave the complete source for this assertion as the March 1965 issue of the "Zenith Speculation" zine, and Jesse Sheidlower verified the quotation. However, Priest's use of the term does not quite use it as a name for a movement as such.

Sue Surova submitted a 1968 cite from Brian Aldiss in Judith Merril's "England Swings SF" anthology.
Bee Ostrowsky submitted a 2020 cite from Don Sakers, in Analog.

Despite the claim made by Gary K. Wolfe in the 1986 cite, the Judith Merril essay in the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction of January 1966 does not use the term "New Wave".

Added to OED3 in Sept. 2003 with an earliest direct cite of 1968, and a bracketed cite from the Nov. 1961 Analog.

Last modified 2023-05-13 02:57:37
In the compilation of some entries, HDSF has drawn extensively on corresponding entries in OED.