Book Review: Nebula Award Stories Eleven edited by Ursula K. LeGuin; Part One: Musing on the New Wave

I haven’t finished reading this book yet, but after just finishing the winning novella, “Home is the Hangman” by Roger Zelazny, I wanted to write something while the impression of it was fresh in my mind.  In short, this story awed me.  It gave me that sense of wonder that I look for in science fiction, that feeling I had so often when, after returning from the fiasco of my year at university in California, I perused the shelves of the local library, checked out early Nebula award volumes, and read stories by Zelazny, Samuel Delaney, Harlan Ellison, Kate Wilhelm, Robert Silverberg, James Tiptree, Jr., R. A. Lafferty, and J. G. Ballard.  The so-called New Wave in science fiction was mounting higher and higher and becoming a tsunami back then.  There was a special sort of excitement in the air and a level of literary excellence that has, in my opinion based on the recent Nebula Award volumes I have read, diminished.  After finishing Nebula Award volumes from 2006, 2008, and 2011, I had the feeling of, well, okay, some of them were good stories – but that excitement, that thrill was missing.  Receiving it as a payoff at the end of “Home is the Hangman” reminded me what I was looking for.  In science fiction I don’t want to waste my time with okay stories; I want cosmic bursts of brilliance.  That’s what I try to write and that’s what I want to read.  I don’t want mediocrity; I don’t even want good.  I want great.  I want to be blown away.  There isn’t enough of that in contemporary science fiction.  Writers nowadays aren’t on a crusade; they aren’t trying to change the world.  That’s what’s missing.

Exemplifying the era of the New Wave in science fiction were the anthologies “Dangerous Visions” and “Again Dangerous Visions” edited by Harlan Ellison.  All the stories in these volumes were not good stories, but overall the books carry the literary excitement and thrill present at the time.  Ellison had his finger directly on the pulse of the movement towards relevance in speculative fiction literature and he illuminated it well in the stories he presented.

What sort of wave is there now, if any?  I can’t see any pattern or trend.  The stories voted each year as award winners are good stories, at least most if not all of them, but for me at least the thrill is gone.

I had been contemplating this a few nights ago when we rented Woody Allen’s brilliant film “Midnight in Paris”, about a writer who longs for the era gone by of the 1920s when Paris was full of struggling writers and painters.  His life changes when he journeys back in time to meet many of these famous literary characters.  It is a spot-on, brilliant movie, Woody Allen’s crowning achievement.  I admire the fact that Woody Allen keeps working no matter what else is going on in his life.  Sometimes he hits and sometimes he misses, but in this film he nails it.  And it struck me as I was watching that I was doing the same thing that the writer in the film was:  I was longing for an era gone by, for the New Wave era of the late 60s and early 70s in science fiction when there was real excitement in the air, when writers really thought that they could break free from convention and experiment and innovate and produce top-rate literature.

I had my chance back then.  I attended Clarion West back in 1973 and was taught by Harlan Ellison and Terry Carr and Peter Beagle and others.  I was caught up in the thrill of the times.  But I didn’t take advantage of it.  I was too young.  I am a late bloomer.  I wish I could have known back then what I know now; I wish I had the experience and the wisdom I have learned in the school of hard knocks.  Alas, a diploma from that school is not suddenly and magically endowed.  You have to go through the hard knocks first in order to earn it, and that I had not yet done.

No, I can’t time travel back to the late sixties and do it all over again.  All I am left with is what the character realizes at the end of “Midnight in Paris”.  He can’t physically go back and live in the Paris of an era gone by; all he can do is take his life as it is at that moment and shape it the way it ought to be.

So be it.

Maybe it’s time for a new New Wave.

I’m a professional writer; I make my living by my words.  I’m happy to share these essays with you, but at the same time, financial support makes the words possible.  If you’d like to become a patron of the arts and support my work, buy a few of my available books or available stories.  Thanks!

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