On Any Given Day the World Could End Horribly

Sunday, November 3rd, 2013

In 1981, it was pretty much every intelligent person’s assumption that on any given day the world could end horribly, William Gibson claims:

There was this vast, all-consuming, taken-for-granted, even boring end-of-the-world anxiety that had been around since I was a little kid. So one of the things I wanted to do with Neuromancer was to write a novel in which the world didn’t end in a nuclear war. In Neuromancer, the war starts, they lose a few cities, then it stops when multinational corporations essentially take the United States apart so that can never happen again. There’s deliberately no textual evidence that the United States exists as a political entity in Neuromancer. On the evidence of the text America seems to be a sort of federation of city-states connected to a military-industrial complex that may not have any government controlling it. That was my wanting to get away from the future-is-America thing. The irony, of course, is how the world a­ctually went. If somebody had been able to sit me down in 1981 and say, You know how you wrote that the United States is gone and the Soviet Union is looming in the background like a huge piece of immobile slag? Well, you got it kind of backward.

That war was really a conscious act of imaginative optimism. I didn’t quite believe we could be so lucky. But I didn’t want to write one of those science-fiction novels where the United States and the Soviet Union nuke themselves to death. I wanted to write a novel where multinational capital took over, straightened that shit out, but the world was still problematic.


  1. Al Fin says:

    Most “new wave” science fiction writers were pretty incompetent in terms of economics and how things actually work.

    By the latter 1970s, smarter persons were predicting the USSR would collapse sometime in the 1980s. SF writers such as Brin, Sterling, KS Robinson etc. were beginning to get wrapped up in the anthropogenic carbon climate doom apocalypse delusion.

    Doom was a strong and strange attractor for that set.

  2. Isegoria says:

    I remember finding descriptions of New Wave science fiction terribly vague when I was a kid. It all made sense when I realized that New Wave meant Progressive.

  3. I found those descriptions equally mystical. “More about sociology” unlike, say, Asimov’s Foundation stories? “More psychological” as opposed to Herbert!? The “less obsessed with technology” criterion generally proved to be code for “clueless about technology.”

    It was during a binge-reading of the Nebula Award anthologies in high school that it finally clicked, thanks to the multiply-awarded work of James Tiptree Jr. Her (the name was a pseudonym) work was very well written with fine characterization, and was almost without exception violently misandristic.

    I’m not kidding when I say violently misandristic. One of the stories involved aliens wanting to clear humans off the Earth. They do so by releasing a gas that exaggerates the “naturally violent nature of the male sex drive” or some such. Result: whenever a man sees a pretty woman, instead of becoming horny he violently murders her. There wasn’t any analysis or questioning of this premise, that the heterosexual male sex-drive was fundamentally about violence, it was just baked in.

    That isn’t to say the new-wave didn’t have its bright spots. Ursula K. Le Guin’s ‘The Dispossessed’ remains high on my list, mainly because it is willing to pointedly examine the precepts of its proposed society rather than just propagandize them.

    Anyone have any other favorites (positive or negative) they’d care to share?

  4. Chris C. says:

    Having grown up in the Fifties and Sixties reading Heinlein, Asimov, Norton, and the like, and having an engineering mindset, I had little patience with those who couldn’t get science right. And after picking up a masters in economics in 1988, I got picky about that, too. By that time, I had transitioned from a P.J. O’Rourke conservative to libertarian, so the silly Progressivism of some of the New Wave fiction (won’t call it SF because there was no science, IMHO) annoyed me. Don’t remember any one in particular, but I became pretty good at deciphering cover-blurb clues, and managed to avoid that genre pretty well.

    Not to say that some authors that I enjoyed in those years didn’t get some things wrong. Niven and Pournelle were great on science but missed the coming collapse of the Soviets, David Drake is a bit weak on economics (again, my opinion), but these and similar were strong enough in all the other aspects to make reading their books fun. But the New Wave seemed to miss on science, economics, understanding human nature, and even good characters and plot can’t make up for the rest in my case. Maybe if they wrote their story as fantasy, with non-humans, and magical stuff-making devices, it might work. Or not.

  5. Al Fin says:

    Of course I am forced to admit that anyone after HG Wells and Jules Verne is “new wave” to me.

    I remember reading “Can the Soviet Union Survive Until 1984?” by Andrei Amalrik sometime in the late 70s.

    The man made a good case from his perspective, and I wondered why more intelligent futurists and SF writers seemed unable to take basic economics and human nature based sociology to weave such plausible — but anti-mainstream — scenarios.

  6. Tschafer says:

    Spider Robinson was kind of OK…

  7. Space Nookie says:

    Personally, I really enjoyed “the screwfly solution”, and everything else I have ever read by Tiptree/Sheldon. As an author, she has a very interesting bio (military intelligence, CIA, PhD in research psychology) and her themes of biologically driven behavior and male/female sex differences are somewhere to the Right of Roissy. I think you may have been thrown off by the fact that her female characters are generally very passive/incapable/incurious and it can seem like she was setting up some type of morality play with females as the “good”, whereas in fact the stories have to be highly contrived for the female characters to stand independently and not just be overwhelmed by the male personalities.

  8. Isegoria says:

    I haven’t read much New Wave science fiction, but I encountered the term while reading about Michael Moorcock, whose fantasy writing I’d read. Moorcock led the New Wave movement as editor of New Worlds magazine. He considers himself a (left) anarchist.

    His most famous creation is the fantasy character Elric of Melniboné, a kind of anti-Conan: a frail albino sorceror born into his position as the last emperor of a mighty island empire. Elric is full of self-loathing for what his empire has done, and the other Melnibonéans can’t understand this. Nothing to see here…

    Moorcock infamously described Tolkien’s work as Epic Pooh, for its conservatism, and similarly attacked Robert A. Heinlein and H. P. Lovecraft in his essay “Starship Stormtroopers” in the Anarchist Review.

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