Big Echo

The City’s gone: on New Weird’s history

Big Echo, an online journal of SF criticism, recently published Jonathan McCalmont’s ‘Nothing Beside Remains: A History of the New Weird’.

A lot can change in the space of thirteen years. Back when Miéville first began attracting attention, his indifference to traditional boundaries seemed not just refreshing but downright heroic. Here was a commercial Fantasy writer who used techniques more closely associated with Science Fiction and Horror and managed to attract a huge readership and mainstream attention in the process. Miéville’s success not only challenged conventional thinking about what audiences expected from genre literature, it also hinted at a brave new world in which genre writers might be freed from their commercial shackles and allowed to explore fresh forms and new ideas. In 2004, China Miéville was not just an interesting young writer, he was a herald of the apocalypse… an apocalypse that had been a long time coming.

 

It demands a significant time investment and that is an investment well worth making. Whilst the focus is on the New Weird – be it as a moment, a conversation, a sub-genre, a mode, a retrospective articulation – it unpacks a great many ideas that McCalmont has been exploring in his columns for Interzone. It’s a sophisticated piece of criticism and I’ll be thinking about it for a long time to come.

Of course, I read many interesting pieces of writing which strike me as important, and most of them I don’t blog about. The real reason I’m writing this post is because it turns out that an essay I wrote in late 2003 as a University of Sussex undergraduate was “One of the first attempts to map the new critical territory” of the New Weird.

This was quite a surprise to me. It was also something of an “oh, fuck” moment.

Whilst I don’t wish to distance myself from that essay – I wrote it, I believed what I wrote, and I own that – in late 2003 my knowledge was… let’s say patchy. An enthusiastic reader of SF and fantasy who had chosen to study English Literature out of twin desires to ‘become a writer’ and avoid a real job for as long as possible, I had read and adored China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station and The Scar. Sadly it would be several more years before I had read most of the other writers whose names appear in the TTA Press discussion which was the genesis of whatever the New Weird was: Steph Swainston, M. John Harrison, Jeff VanderMeer and so on.

I thought Miéville was the bee’s knees and was very keen to write about his books. The forum’s deconstruction and critique of older Tolkeinesque fantasy forms appealed to the forward-looking firebrand in me, whilst my recent studies around the concept of the Uncanny seemed to offer just enough connective tissue that I could get away with leveraging them in order to write about some books I actually liked (rather than just issuing another half-hearted essay about the dusty old critical language of Todorov – which was as close as the university’s reading lists got to the vibrant contemporary field I enjoyed). From these disparate, incomplete parts I cobbled together an argument. I never expected anyone other than my course tutor would read the essay, even after putting it online sometime in 2004.

In truth I doubt many people ever did read it, and that’s probably for the best as I think any connections I made to broader and superior critical arguments or analyses (e.g. Farah Mendlesohn’s concept of “liminal fantasy”) were accident not design. I do wonder how much that might be said about any callow work of criticism seen in retrospect, and if nothing else this does feel like a mildly cautionary tale of critical responsibility. Then again… I doubt that tiny little undergrad essay ever influenced anyone’s thinking.

That’s enough of my navel gazing. Do read this deeply fascinating essay when you have an hour or two to spare. And remember not to take self-styled critics too seriously…

 

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