“It is not that I have no past,
rather that it continually fragments
on the vivid and terrible
ephemera of now.
In the long country, cut with rain
there is suddenly
Samuel Delany, Dhalgren
I am a devotee of the Literature of the Uncertain.
I tend to define my own work as New Wave Science Fiction, although I’m also a fan of the term Slipstream Fiction. It can be a difficult style to codify, but I feel the signature characteristic is the use of philosophical ambiguity.
I specify “use of” rather than “existence of”. I feel that the ambiguity should be a deliberate element in the story. A story can simply be silent on a particular question of metaphysics, for example, without falling into the Slipstream category.
It is the significance of the unanswered philosophical question to the plot that makes a work New Wave, in my opinion. Now, I’ll admit that this sounds like a recipe for reader frustration, and I’ll admit that it can be, for some works and some readers–maybe even most readers.
Ambiguity, however, is not synonymous with incomprehensibility (a fact which, alas, escaped many later New Wave imitators). Proper use of ambiguity requires not only that the author refuses to specify the answer of the pertinent philosophical question, but also that the author so constructs the story that whichever answer the readers choose will yield a satisfactory closure to the story.
For example, let’s say that we have a story about a man who sacrifices his life in order to remain true to his religious ideals. The meaning of that story changes depending on the metaphysical question of the truth of his religion. If the author indicates that the God the character believes in is real and will reward the character’s steadfast faith, then you have Inspirational Fiction. If the author indicates that the character’s religion is false and the man died for no rational reason, then you have a darker sort of Psychological Fiction.
If, on the third hand, the author gives evidence which could be interpreted either way, allowing the reader to settle that question, you have New Wave Fiction. Ideally the story should be equally emotionally satisfying to the reader no matter which way it is interpreted, however the important point is that the story is comprehensible either way.
Please note that an ambiguous portrayal of the story’s metaphysic is not the same as an affirmation of a subjective metaphysic within the story. The ambiguity is external to the story–it is the reader, not the character, whose perceptions determine reality. If there is no God (within the context of the story) then the strength of the character’s faith is irrelevant.
Observe also that the use of ambiguity must be both deliberate and limited. The impact of the metaphysical question is blunted if the story is also unclear as to whether or not the character actually dies. Like Douglas Adams’ philosophers, we demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty.
New Wave Fiction requires a greater sense of quotidian reality in those areas which are not intentionally ambiguous, and the best of the New Wave writers understood this. The fiction of Philip Dick, for example, is full of prosaic details that give it a cinema verite feel. Roger Zelazny’s characters, while mythic in some dimensions, are consistently and profoundly human in most of their actions and dialogue. George Alec Effinger’s work is suffused with a manic dark humor that often falls just short of open despair, but the absurdities are drawn with a steady, nigh-photorealistic hand. Samuel Delany’s masterpiece Dhalgren is so down to Earth, in fact, that many people refuse to class it as Science Fiction.
New Wave stories are often described as “thought experiments” and experiments require rigid controls. Change one variable, but keep the rest as close to the baseline as possible.
However it is also important to remember that New Wave stories are still stories–in the phrase “Literature of the Uncertain” the first word has no less weight than the last. The ambiguous epistemology of The Lathe Of Heaven makes for a fascinating framework to hang a story on, but the story is “This is what happened to George Orr.”
The human (or humanoid or human-ish) element is primary in New Wave Fiction because it is through their hearts and minds that we conduct our thought experiments. Even more than in other forms of fiction we have to be able to put a face on the questions. We have to be able to make the abstract real. We may not recall the arguments for and against objective reality in Philip Dick’s VALIS, but we vividly remember Horselover Fat’s torment as he wrestled with those arguments. Tanith Lee doesn’t give us her abstract thoughts on power and responsibility, she gives us Ahzrarn who–while not remotely human–is a person that we can learn to care about and sympathize with.
New Wave fiction is designed to make you think, to invite you to question what you believe. It is perforce unsettling, disturbing. As such, it’s not for everyone.
Some of us, however, enjoy being disturbed, and disturbing others.