England Swings SF, Judith Merril, and the New Wave

  1. I'm finally reading Judith Merril's groundbreaking 1968 anthology England Swings SF. Here are some thoughts.
  2. i probably ought to write this post as a poem or a series of brief sections with cryptic titles or as a reification of my mental state while reading the anthology or as a single long run-on sentence with no punctuation or something
  3. But I won't.
  4. (Most of the stories in the book are less experimental in format than I would have expected.)
  5. I suppose this list of items in no particular order should be a bullet list instead of a numbered list, but I'm numbering it in homage to Pamela Zoline's “Heat Death of the Universe,” about which a bit more anon.
  6. This was one of the anthologies that more or less launched the New Wave in the US, although Merril herself doesn't use the term “New Wave” in her introduction; she's focused more on it being something that British writers were doing.
  7. Any anthology can be seen as making a statement, whether implicitly or explicitly; but the main statement that a lot of anthologies make is just “here are some good stories.” Most anthologies aren't setting out to change the whole field.
  8. The back-cover blurbs on the 1970 paperback edition I'm reading are entertaining:
    • This may be the most important sf book of the year ... (or it may be the least. You must judge for yourself!)
    • “A mind-stretching, nerve-sizzling adventure.” —Raleigh News & Observer
    • “So far out it's left the understandable galaxy.” —Atlanta Journal
    • “Intriguing, disturbingly mod ... a bit too much of a good thing.” —Publishers Weekly
    • “This book is a must for anyone interested in the future of the field of SF. Or in the future.” —WBAI, New York
    • “They are closer to the world of Kafka and William Burroughs than to Asimov and Bradbury ... it is doubtful that the New Wave will sweep away the more traditional science fiction.” —Boston Globe
    • “The first wholesale application of modern styles of writing to the SF short story form.” —Columbus Dispatch
  9. There's a significantly higher percentage of women authors in this book than in most of the anthologies from that period that I've read lately—a whopping 14.8% of the stories are by women! That's almost 15%! ~Amazing!~
  10. ~Sarcasm marks~ can be useful.
  11. I've been reading a bunch of stories from the early 1970s recently, and several introductions-to-anthologies that argue about whether the New Wave was awesome, was killing science fiction, or was just one of the ways people were writing sf. And I already knew a fair bit about the New Wave before that. So it's hard for me to approach this book as something completely new, the way some American readers of the time might've done.
  12. One statement this anthology semi-explicitly makes is something like (I'm paraphrasing here) “Something new and interesting is happening in British sf. It's worth paying attention to.”
  13. It would be useful to have a paraphrase mark that acts like a quotation mark but indicates paraphrase rather than direct quoting.
  14. I've read or skimmed a third of the book so far, and nothing is much impressing me, alas. I'll probably just skim most of the rest of it.
  15. Zoline's “Heat Death of the Universe” (later in the book) will almost certainly end up being my favorite piece in the book.
  16. Interesting that the bios of a couple of the women in this book are careful to mention their husband's names. (Though in one case, the author was married to Michael Moorcock, one of the guiding lights of the New Wave, so not mentioning her connection might've felt disingenuous.) Zoline's bio starts by saying that she's unmarried. I suppose that's relevant to her story, sorta kinda.
  17. Another interesting thing about the author bios: they're presented as a sort of a dialogue, with Merril talking about them in the third person and the authors interjecting bits about themselves in the first person.
  18. A lot of the stories in this book are quite short, though that may partly be an editorial choice to fit more stories into the book.
  19. A Year's Best anthology tends to make the statement “these are the best stories published this year, in this editor's opinion,” but it also often makes the statement “this is the state of the leading edge of the field right now; this is what's being written, and this is how it's being written.”
  20. Merril had edited a series of Year's Best anthologies in the 1950 and 1960s. “In her editorial introductions, talks and other writings, she actively argued that science fiction should no longer be isolated but become part of the literary mainstream.” (Says Wikipedia.)
  21. Donald A. Wollheim's two-page publisher intro at the beginning of this 1970 Ace paperback edition of England Swings SF says, among other things, “Ace books [...] does not take any stand in this controversy. [...] We reprint ENGLAND SWINGS SF not because we are in agreement or in disagreement with it, but because we think it is part of Ace's traditional service to science fiction.”
  22. Half the time when I pick up this book, it falls open to a page that says “evidently the whole affair's to do with Jed.” (From “Manscarer,” by Keith Roberts.)
  23. Wikipedia says: “One anthology project Merril began in the early 1960s under contract to Lion Books in Chicago was aborted, but inspired her publisher's editor Harlan Ellison to go forward with his own version of the project, which yielded Dangerous Visions (Doubleday, 1967).”
  24. Magazines can also make statements. Moorcock's New Worlds and Kyril Bonfiglioli's Impulse/Science Fantasy were making statements about what sf should be, in opposition to what it mostly was at the time.
  25. When we started Strange Horizons, we discussed whether we wanted to focus on some particular kind of fiction; in particular, whether we wanted it to be a new Dangerous Visions-style venue. We decided that we weren't all that interested in presenting dangerous visions per se; we just wanted to publish good stories.
  26. “Good stories” is usually editorspeak for “stories we like.”
  27. There are a variety of ways that a given publication can be influential, groundbreaking, or important.
  28. Some editorial statements about a given publication are more overt than others.
  29. Merril's influence tends to be underappreciated these days, imo.
  30. (So is Cele Goldsmith Lalli's, speaking of women who were influential editors in the 1960s.)
  31. Wikipedia says: “In contemplation of her death, [Merril] left a sizable sum of money to hold a celebratory/memorial party at the Bamboo Club in Toronto. An organized editor to the end, she prepared detailed lists of who should call whom when she finally died.”
  32. Some New Wave stories don't have traditionally satisfying endings.

One Response to “England Swings SF, Judith Merril, and the New Wave”

  1. brainwane

    I enjoyed this.


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