Here on this blog and elsewhere on the internet I’ve drifted in and out of conversations about the New Weird to varying degrees of success. The main trouble is that no one quite seems to know what it actually is. Well, there is a rather simple explanation: the New Weird is the work of a bunch of authors who decided to call their work New Weird, but that’s hardly satisfactory. There are a few shared characteristics that are not, however, limited to one specific movement. Since the job of defining New Weird is outside the scope of a single blog post, we’ll leave it as “I know it when I see it”, and move on to critique.
Specifically, my main contribution has been my rather critical attitude to the way New Weird authors seem to pick and choose from various mythologies and mix in incoherent fashion—my go-to example is the vodyanoi and other non-human denizens in Perdido Street Station by China Miéville. In Bas-lag, there is no reason vodyanoi would be called vodyanoi, especially because vodyanoi already means “thing which faffs about in the water” in Russian. Same goes for khepri and garuda, which have been extracted from their mythological and cultural contexts and reshuffled into a new one. Whether you have a problem with this is a personal matter, and I’ll be quick to note that this is a practice that extends far beyond the New Weird. However, I wasn’t able to articulate why this bothered me so much, why I found it so dissonant, beyond a sense of wrongness in pulling such creatures away from the contexts that created them. Elements of Slavic folklore caused the greatest amount of annoyance mainly because I have a personal connection with them.
There another thing that bugs me as well: I quite like weird fiction of the 30s and 40s. I, too, worship at the altar of Clark Ashton Smith et al. So why do I feel so iffy towards the New Wierd as a movement? Surely this should be something I’m embracing?
However, help was at hand! I’ve been corresponding with Alasdair Czyrnyj (he of Ferretbrain fame) for quite a while now, and he had this to say about New Weird:
There was one other problem I have with New Weird that I think you’ve alluded to before. I recall there’ve been a few discussions of Miéville’s Bas-Lang books on Ferretbrain in the past, and I remember you writing that you found it weird that there were all these creatures from different Earth mythologies jammed together and given their native names, despite the fact that those names would be meaningless in the world of Bas-Lang. I know you chalked it up to being a dreamworld, but I think the problem is more than that. I think the problem that some New Weird writers run into, one I’ve seen in both Miéville’s and Steph Swainston’s books, is that their stories depict self-contained worlds with their own physical parameters, features, rules, and backstory, but there is no history. They may have a past, but not only is there no sense that previous ages were different than the current one, it is impossible to imagine such a state. They borrow so freely from our world, and take knowing glances at their own so often that you cannot believe they evolved into their present state, a problem that thuds up against the claims to “realism”. Things happen in New Crubuzon, but you can’t actually imagine pioneers trekking their way inland, lo so many centuries ago, establishing a trading post which grows into a town then a city then a megapolis (and where does this megapolis get all its food and coal and iron ore, anyway?). Steph Swainston’s books are centered on a war fought by immortals against bugs that has lasted for millenia, so things really haven’t changed over the years. They’re not built like quest narratives, where the journey is the primary concern and the setting can be glossed over. There are supposed to be functioning self-contained entities we are observing as if we are a native, except they…aren’t.
At last, it all makes sense. My ambivalence to New Weird, I think, comes from the sense of absent history noted above. This normally wouldn’t present much of a problem, yet New Weird works that set out specifically towards creating the sense of a separate, secondary world create a sense of disconnect by not giving those worlds any sense of a past. There is no feeling of historical change; the setting feel static, suspended outside of time, and yet attempt to give an impression of “pastness”. Wierd fiction, from which the New Weird supposedly draws inspiration, doesn’t have this absence. Either history wasn’t a concern, in which case there was nothing to be absent from, or else there was a palpable feeling of the ancient past bubbling up and wreaking havoc on the narrative present. Clark Ashton Smith specialized in creating worlds that felt unimaginably old; while the settings were indeed “weird”, they had their own standard of normalcy, and ancient horrors remained abnormal, unexpected, even weirder. H.P. Lovecraft’s buried temple ruins also have a sense of deep history about them. There’s a great difference between Zothique and Bas-Lag or Ambergis, insofar as Zothique is our world far off in the future, yet, somehow, closer to the past. Things have changed, will change. It is not a “static settings built on references”, as Alasdair puts it.
Keep in mind that Alasdair and I both happen to have BAs in history, so when confronted with a lack of historical coherence we’re much more likely to put up a fuss than others are. I’m not saying that this is necessarily some overarching, unsolvable problem with the New Weird. It’s just that the explanation goes a long way to synthesizing the reasons why I, personally (and obviously Alasdair as well) feel uneasy about the whole thing.
We’ve seen a bit too many movements these past few years that don’t feel like “movements” at all, but instead relabelled pastiches of older works. New Weird is one example, the various –punks are as well. Does drawing inspiration from the same source (in this case, weird fiction and the new wave) necessarily equate a movement? Or is it just a desperate means to graft some weightiness to a set of (mostly) disparate works related only by the authors who wrote them being interested in some vaguely similar things? If that’s the case, is the “new” Sword & Sorcery a movement too? And finally, why am I asking so many questions after setting out to answer one? Aaargh!