The Speculator: The New Weird

Of the birth of subgenres, there is no end. They arise like bubbles full of miraculous hopes and potentials from the Planckian foam of the canon, inspiring writers new and established alike.

One of the youngest branches of fantastical literature acquired its name only in 2003, although ancestral instances of the mode can be found from much longer ago. But at that not-too-distant date the long-established, well-regarded U.K. author M. John Harrison kicked off an online discussion with the questions: “The New Weird. Who does it? What is it? Is it even anything?” The sound and fury that filled the subsequent five years settled many of those issues, while raising others. But it seems impossible any longer to deny that the catchy tag can be hung with some justification and critical utility on a certain type of story.

The first place to go for a grounding in The New Weird is Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s 2008 anthology of that name. (Full disclosure: a work of mine is featured therein.) In his superb introduction, Jeff VanderMeer details the history, strategies, and effects of the New Weird and discusses its marketplace impact and probable future vectors. His eloquent and persuasive “working definition” of the mode is too long to quote at length here, but the salient bits include the phrases “urban, secondary-world fiction,” “elements of both science fiction and fantasy,” “elements of surreal or transgressive horror,” and “surrender to the weird.”

The vague adumbration of new forms of strangeness — strange settings, strange characters, strange doings — evoked by those selected terms will probably best be qualified and refined by looking closely at four recent novels that all fit more or less comfortably under the big New Weird tent.

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Ekaterina Sedia is an author of off-kilter fantasy whose young career appears to be blossoming in the crepuscular light of this new subgenre. Following on the Russian-set fable The Secret History of Moscow, her new novel, The Alchemy of Stone, works more along the lines of China Miéville’s trendsetting, Perdido Street Station (2000). As VanderMeer recounts, that Miéville novel — with its outré city of Bas-Lag inhabited by freaks and monsters, as well as more-or-less normal Joes and Janes — crystallized much of the feel and tone and many of the tropes of the New Weird and catalyzed the whole question of a recognizable New Weird fiction.

Sedia’s compact and charmingly tragic book takes place in the City of Gargoyles, a conglomeration built partially by primal nonhuman stone-working creatures (now in danger of extinction), and partially by the subsequent human settlers. Our protagonist is Mattie, a sentient “female” automaton created by a Mechanic named Loharri. Given her partial freedom (Loharri still retains the literal key to her windup heart), Mattie has switched to the rival political/philosophical camp of the Alchemists. Her pursuit of a cure for what’s killing the gargoyles will lead her through politics, warfare, and romantic heartbreak.

Along with its echoes of Miéville, Sedia’s sweetly melancholy novel — captivating, though less densely tricked out with backstory and verisimilitudinous details — carries with it a delicious flavor of European puppet fairy tales, from E.T.A. Hoffmann to Carlo Collodi. In the end, though, its major guiding star might be a writer who does not figure often enough into New Weird hagiography: Tanith Lee. Lee’s particular blend of dark fantasy, romance, and obsessive quests seems to have found a worthy prot?g?e in Sedia.

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Constructing marvelous artificial environs, playgrounds that determine and shape both character and action, has long been a signature move of science fiction. Larry Niven’s Ringworld. Arthur C. Clarke’s Rama. But with its hybridizing strategy, the New Weird also delights in the creation of such monumental canvasses for action, porting the “Big Dumb Objects” of SF into fantasy realms. Also hovering over such endeavours is Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast series. (Much as Tolkien is the godfather of conventional quest fantasy, so Peake is the patron saint of the New Weird.) In his duology, consisting of Shadowbridge and Lord Tophet (really a single long novel split into two pieces), Gregory Frost makes good, although somewhat cursory use of this tactic.

Frost’s inspired creation is a world that might be infinite and is mostly ocean, aside from a few scattered islands. Spiral bridges stretch across the waterscape from one horizon to another, their lengths divided into city-states called “spans.” Our protagonist is the island-born Leodora, a young woman called by her heritage and nature to be one of this world’s itinerant bards, performing with shadow puppets and musical accompaniment. Her crusty old manager, Soter, and jack-of-all-instruments, Diverus, realize that Leodora has the potential to be even greater than her father, a figure of vast cultural significance. If, that is, she can avoid the rough attentions of jealous gods such as Lord Tophet.

Frost fashions a palpably real trio of leads and provides plenty of mythic back-story for his world (in the form of full-blown short stories embedded in Leodora’s act). Leodora’s quest for artistic and personal fulfillment rings true as well. But we see in realtime only two spans out of an infinity, and the vast matrix of bridges never assumes the tangibility or inevitability of other New Weird venues. Harking back to older, more whimsical models such as Lord Dunsany or Clark Ashton Smith, Frost spins a tale more charmingly fabulistic than assaultively hard-edged.

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“Surrender to the weird.” By this exhortation, the New Weird writers are enjoined not only to allow their subcreations to flourish without allegorical or parodic subtexts that drag in consensual reality as a prop, but also, I think, to ramp up the strangeness quotient in a Rimbaudian visionary program featuring a “long, intimidating, immense and rational derangement of all the senses.” This tactic of course flies against H. G. Wells’s famous advice for SF writers, paraphrased thus: “The reader will accept strange events, or a strange character, but not both at once.” For fans of the New Weird, the more oddness in all areas, the better.

In his debut novel, The Court of the Air, Stephen Hunt has piled on the bizarrerie, but in a coherent fashion that allows his world to hang together for our enjoyment. At every turn, his characters confront novelties that are not only alien to us but to them. Hidden subterranean colonies, killer dog-human monsters, nanotech infestations — Hunt piles on the outré elements with glee and no regard for low-bandwidth literary conventions.

Recalling Ian MacLeod’s cousinly The Light Ages (2003), Hunt’s milieu vaguely resembles our familiar Victorian era, presenting us with what might now be called a familiar steampunk setting. But whereas the majority of steampunk stories are fairly firmly anchored to our timeline, Hunt’s world is laterally skewed.

Embedded firmly in a matrix of exotic rival nations, the empire of the Jackals, scene of the novel’s action, more or less resembles Great Britain, with a toothless monarchy and a parliamentary government. But the King of the Jackals undergoes the ritual amputation of his arms, and the government maintains a secret spy system, the Court of the Air, with HQ perpetually afloat in the upper atmosphere. Our protagonists — amidst a stellar cast of supporting characters, including Steammen and Craynarbians — are two young orphans, Molly Templar and Oliver Brooks. Their paths, mostly separate but ultimately converging, reveal them to be, each in their own way, at the center of vast machinations involving the return of elder gods, among other significant affairs.

In this self-assured debut, Hunt’s rollicking, exuberant, madcap prose and zigzag plotting point to the secretly humorous side of the New Weird, the genre’s aptitude for comedy often overlooked by other writers.

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The first three books discussed here evidenced the intersection of fantastical and science fictional tropes in their New Weird stylings. Alan Campbell’s Iron Angel, a sequel to his debut book Scar Night (2007), brings the subgenre’s horrific components to the fore.

Campbell’s original mise en scene was Deepgate, a positively Miltonic city suspended on a network of vast chains above a steaming pit of Hell. Celestial bashings left that pendulous city half-destroyed at the climax of the first book, and it is to this shattered place that we briefly return, before the book’s focus expands outward — and extra-dimensionally. Renegade Spine church assassin Rachel and her charge, the wounded angel Dill, are captured and brought back to Deepgate for torture. They manage to escape, but Dill’s soul has been exiled back to Hell, and his body inhabited by an infernal entity with a mission. Meanwhile, majestic forces marshal across the lands in anticipation of armageddon.

Campbell’s ecstatically lurid gothic imagination bears comparison to that of Clive Barker or Mike Mignola. Surely his most captivating and characteristic creation this time around is the figure of John Anchor. An immortal giant sometimes covered in a living armor of crabs, Anchor is tasked, as he bestrides the earth, with towing through the skies a demonic warship populated with damned souls: “Rotting, salt-furred timbers sweated moisture. Seaweed hung from dripping lines?. Among the rigging hung men and women and angels: a disparate army of warriors suspended by ropes looped around their necks.” New Weird doesn’t get much more transgressively vivid than that!

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Jeff VanderMeer plumps for the New Weird as a still-evolving style and form, leading to some only partially foreseeable “Next Weird.” Given the strength of these four very different novels, I think we can safely say that future wonders await, to which many readers will happily surrender.