‘New Worlds': One of the Most Influential Sci-Fi Magazines Returns This Fall
Few literary publications have had an impact like the British sci-fi magazine New Worlds, which ran from 1946 through 1971, when it stopped regular publication. Over the course of a generation, it transformed science fiction that changed the way it was written, published, and perceived by culture at large. Its impact naturally extends to comics as well, and whether the influence is direct or by osmosis, it's fair to say that a majority of comic book creators are doing work to some degree under the shadow of New Worlds.
Now, after a several-decade gap in publication, the magazine is set to return this fall in both print and online editions as Michael Moorcock's New Worlds, with editorials and guidance from the sci-fi icon and former editor. So for absolutely no reason at all let's talk about the magazine and its influence on comics. Just for gits and shiggles.Most people consider the Golden Age of Sci-Fi to begin in the late 1930s and end around the mid-to-late '50s, and it did a lot of growing up in that time. War does that. (Said the guy who's never been in a war.) What was once light-hearted, imaginative adventure became serious, hard science what-ifs colored by the bloody prism of world events. Utopias became dystopias; pulp traditions were shed and the space opera emerged, with John W. Campbell and the Futurians piloting the ship. Campbell was the Editor of Amazing Stories, the first sci-fi magazine, with a group of contributors that included Frederik Pohl, Isaac Asimov, and Damon Knight. Also a great name for a band.
Across the second half of the 1950s, though, something
started happening. Stories got weirder. Prose got prettier. It got harder to tell whether a book should be considered genre work or literary fiction. Writers like Ray Bradbury, Alfred Bester, and the incomparable Kurt Vonnegut kept pushing the form along with Fahrenheit 451, The Stars My Destination, and The Sirens of Titan. (Bester is also the creator of the Green Lantern's oath, btdubs.) Then literature at large took a sudden turn: Allen Ginsberg's Howl started the Beat Generation with a war cry, and William S. Burroughs chimed in with The Naked Lunch, and even genre writers took notice. Real science started to outpace writers' prescience; the Space Race was on. By the early 1960s, sci-fi was practically nervous for a big change, like a wave stuck at the crest, unable to crash.
When Michael Moorcock (yes, it's a very funny name) assumed editorship of New Worlds in 1964, the New Wave of science fiction landed. It's an observed beginning, at least. Under his first issue as editor, the May/June volume, hard science fiction was no longer welcome. The publication was set apart from others immediately with striking artwork and stories that played loose and free with science the expectations of the form, like J.G. Ballard's Equinox (which became The Crystal World) and Barrington J. Bayley's anti-space opera The Star Virus; essays like "A New Literature for the Space Age" by Moorcock and "Myth-Maker of the 20th Century," an exaltation of Burroughs by Ballard.
Over the next decade, New Worlds rewrote the syllabus on what was acceptable, maybe even what was expected in science fiction. Stories weren't about the hard, flat science of it all, the rules of physics or robots. They were about people. The characters were always more important than the events, and on whatever weird precipice of possibility they stood, it was always the people who held center stage. People who did things real people do: swear and drink and have sex and take drugs.
Liberties were taken with form and structure; magical realism and the rhythm of the Beat bled into the genre, and experimental prose and fractured narratives pushed the boundaries of science fiction writing. The covers got more and more abstract; poetry was published alongside SF; non-fiction articles covered Pop Art, the sexual revolution and recreational drugs. Sci-fi wasn't just cool, it was sexy and dangerous and weird. Frankly, for those readers who experienced the change first-hand, it must've been kind of a mindf***.
The sheer density of classic stories in New Worlds is staggering. Few publications, even those within the realm of straight literary fiction, can claim a productivity on par with it. Dozens of novels and maybe hundreds of stories that appeared in its pages went on to become touchstones in sci-fi, and they were all churned out in the turmoil and energy of the cultural revolution. Ballard's amazing kink-think-pieces on the intrusion of technology and media -- The Atrocity Exhibition, Notes Towards a Mental Breakdown, The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race (collected with others as The Atrocity Exhibition with illustrations by none other than Phoebe Gloeckner) -- paved the way for cyberpunk. Brian Aldiss practically populated his own subgenre with quirky epics like Acid Head War, a messianic tale of freestyle narrative set in a post-war Europe in which hallucinogenic drugs had affected entire populations, and Report on Probability A, a very experimental story about the observations of three characters named G, S, and C.
Eventually American writers appeared in the magazine as well, including punch-happy maven Harlan Ellison's A Boy and His Dog (adapted into comics by Richard Corben and film starring a twenty-something Don Johnson), Roger Zelazny's Love is an Imaginary Number and Philip Jose Farmer's simultaneous tributes to Burroughs Edgar Rice and William S., in The Jungle Rot Kid on the Nod. Even the iconic Thomas Pynchon contributed.
The influence New Worlds had on comics is so profoundly direct, it nearly goes without saying. When superhero comics were transformed in the 1980s, it was at the hands of British writers who had grown up with stacks of New Worlds at home. Alan Moore's roots clearly run back to Ballard and Pynchon and Philip Jose Farmer. Neil Gaiman's creation of The Sandman drew much inspiration from Moorcock's tale of a melancholic albino, the Elric stories. There's practically a Jerry Cornelius genre in comics, with a clear line running from Bryan Talbot's Adventures of Luther Arkwright to Grant Morrison's Invisibles to Matt Fraction's Casanova. In response to the news of New Worlds' return, Warren Ellis blogged that the original "reshaped fiction and captured invention in the culture at large." And if you don't agree with him, he can kill you with his brain.
Aside from the obvious imprint it left on comics are the interesting parallels in the stories of New Worlds and comic books. Like comics, New Worlds repackaged and reinvented itself to be taken more seriously. In the 1980s, comics asked to be called "Graphic Novels;" in 1967, New Worlds was printed with the byline "Speculative Fiction." Like comics, when New Worlds tried to push the boundaries of its genre, it ran into problems with censorship and distribution.
Those problems eventually led to the demise of the magazine's classic period. It's hard to believe that the new incarnation coming this fall could have the impact that the original did, but in a new age, with a renewed sense of direction, there's no telling what might be accomplished. Keep your eyes on http://www.newworlds.co.uk/ for more when the site goes live sometime this summer. For now, keep all three eyes glued on the Facebook page. That's right. The third eye is an inner one.