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  Viet Nam Generation Journal & Newsletter

V3, N4 (January 1992)

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Science Fiction: The Viet Nam War in British New Wave

Alasdair Spark, History, King Alfred's College

That American science fiction should relate to the Viet Nam War may seem obvious; less so is the relationship of British SF. Yet, the reaction against the War largely came from the so-called "new wave" in SF, many of whom were British, and a distinctive British tone exists. The American author Norman Spinrad made a perceptive point:

I was in Europe during a piece of the Viet Nam War . . . the war had created a lot of European anti -Americanism, which of course was to be expected. But the tenor of it was peculiar. The real gut feeling had little to with the plight of the Vietnamese. It was a feeling of sorrow, of loss, of betrayal. Europeans felt diminished by what America was doing . . . let down by something they had believed in. (6)

Indeed, events in Viet Nam seemed to many British SF writers accurately to disprove the benign vision of the future held by American SF. As J.G. Ballard noted in 1969, while American SF had once been: an extrovert, optimistic literature of technology.

. . the new science fiction, that other people apart from myself are now beginning to write, is introverted, possibly pessimistic rather than optimistic, much less certain of its own territory. There's a tremendous confidence that radiates through all of modern American science fiction of the period 1930 to 1960, the certainty that science and technology can solve all problems. This is certainly not the dominant form of science fiction now. (59)

To an established writer such as James Blish this was precisely not SF, because of its "excessive emphasis upon the problems of the present, such as overpopulation, racism, pollution and the Viet Nam War, sometimes only slightly disguised by SF trappings." The new wave did hope to re-name the genre "speculative fiction," although the new wave itself was imprecise. Harlan Ellison punningly referred to the "nouvelle vague." The term was first applied to SF in association with the British magazine New Worlds, from 1964 under the editorship of Michael Moorcock, and featuring British and American authors such as J.G. Ballard, Brian Aldiss, Thomas Disch, Keith Roberts, John Clute, and John Sladek. In the US, a major forum was the anthology Dangerous Visions, edited by Harlan Ellison in 1967. Common to both was a frustration at established SF and the SF establishment, fuelled by a dissatisfaction with contemporary America. Its subject matter was often described as "inner space," and focused on what Samuel Mines [L 234] primly described as "crude tastes," but expletives and graphic sexuality were part of an attack upon SF by young writers who aimed to take it out of its insulated world, and expose it to the heat and light of the politics of the Sixties. In effect, just as the Black Power movement came to think of the struggle in the urban ghettoes and against the War as inextricably linked, so many new wave writers would come to believe that struggle against what Ellison call the SF ghetto and the Viet Nam War were also part of a radical continuum.

Therefore, those who saw Viet Nam as a portent of a malign future took Che Guevara's exhortation to "create a thousand Vietnams" and inverted genre formulae such as human-alien relations, or technological visions of the future. The latter was common in British SF, but a specific British mechanism was to insert the unfamiliar into the familiar, and place Viet Nam in the Englishnot the Americanlandscape. In Ballard's "The Killing Ground" (first published in New Worlds in 1969), the USA has twenty million men in arms, waging a losing war against National Liberation Armies in "continuous fighting from the Pyranees to the Bavarian Alps, the Caucusus to Karachi. Thirty years after the original conflict in South East Asia, the globe was now a huge insurrectionary torch, a world Viet Nam." One front is the banks of the Thames, as besieged Americans huddle in their base camp. The quiet incident at the center of Ballard's story concerns three American POWs captured by rebels at the memorial to President Kennedy at Runnymede. As impediments to the advancing NLA patrol, the American POWs are shot in the back of the head, ironically counterpointing the elderly graffiti on the plinth, "Stop US Atrocities in Viet Nam." Five minutes later the patrol are themselves dying in an English meadow.

Michael Moorcock achieved the same effect more significantly in A Cure for Cancer (1971), the third novel in the Jerry Cornelius cycle. Cornelius confronts the invasion of Europe by American troops intent on restoring order, although at home things have collapsed, and the American Army units are once again encircled by American Indians. London is subject to bombing, napalming, and defoliation by the US Air Force. Cornelius passes Hyde Park:

Jerry recognized nebutyl ester, isobutyl ester, tri isopropanolamine, salt, picloram and other chemicals and he knew that the park had got everything--range, Purple, White, and Blue. 'Better safe than sorry.' He pulled up outside Derry and Toms... A boy and girl ran out of the smoke, hand in hand, as he entered the store; they were on fire, making for the drinking fountain on Kensington Church street. (193)

In its focus in a devastated London, this evokes the Wellsian tradition of British SF, but in a future where America offers not liberation but death. The US commander General Cumberland (classmate of General Westmoreland) speaks of:

a wave back there and it's coming in fast, and that wave is American strength, gentlemen, American strength, American manhood, American know how, American guts, American money, American dynamism, American bullets, American guns, American tanks, American planes, American freedom, American efficiency... American love, American humor, American health, American beauty, American virility. (170)

But not, it would seem, American SF.


  • James Blish in William Sims Bainbridge, The New Dimension in SF (Cambridge)1986.
  • JG Ballard, in Langdon Jones, ed., The New SF, (London) 1970.
  • JG Ballard, "The Killing Ground," in Best SF Stories from New Worlds, (New York) 1971.
  • Michael Moorcock, A Cure for Cancer, (London) 1971.
  • Norman Spinrad, The Star Spangled Future, (New York) 1979.

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