The beautiful strange

Sarra Scherb

February 21, 2018

A keening moan in the night that is somehow both human and animal. An artist who makes a chrysalis sculpture that becomes the molted husk of her own transformation. A merciless city-state grafting living animal and machine parts to its prisoners. An historian of a lost culture who infects himself with plant spores in pursuit of the truth. This is the teeming, constantly transforming world of the New Weird. This small, experimental and hybrid genre planted its flag at the intersection between fantasy, horror, sci-fi, and supernatural two decades ago and continues to cultivate that fertile territory today.

On one end of the broad reach of speculative genres, hard science fiction posits that humanity will find a way to reach the stars, or to reverse the damage we cause to our Earth, somehow moving past the selfishness and myopia that plagues us. On the other end, post-apocalyptic fiction sees no possibility of changing course, tracing only a road to complete ruin. The New Weird unfurls a third option: scenarios where humanity finds a way forward by embracing knowledge so strange and incomprehensible that it utterly changes what it means to be human.

New Weird authors place little faith in any intrinsic morality or justness in the human race, and this prompts their characters to seek solutions, solace, and justice in the worlds of nature, the supernatural, and the monstrous. The New Weird is speculative fiction for those who don't believe humanity can resolve our self-made crises or rise above our crueler and more selfish instincts, but who haven't lost faith in the future completely. It just may not be an entirely human — or comfortable — future. Sometimes the outcome is tragic, other times triumphant. But it's clear that we are not finished evolving — not by a long shot. In the New Weird the liminal, adaptable, and changeable thrives; the static dies.

The genre's best-known book was its first. British author China Miéville's Perdido Street Station, published in 2000, is a baroque, nightmarish romp through a quasi-London filled with slavering monsters, intelligent hybrid species, and merciless humans. Its blending of sci-fi, fantasy, steampunk, and horror was so thorough that critics couldn't definitively assign it a genre. Three years later, its genre was retroactively named by author M. John Harrison, who coined the term “New Weird” on a message board. It was meant to refer to a select group of British authors — specifically Miéville, Steph Swainston, and Harrison himself — but within a few years American author Jeff VanderMeer claimed it for a global authorship.

The “new” in New Weird refers to its roots. In his 2008 anthology The New Weird, VanderMeer traces its lineage to three sources: the New Wave speculative fiction writers of the 1960s (such as J. G. Ballard, Michael Moorcock, and M. John Harrison), who inserted a political edge to their work as they gleefully jumped genres; Weird Tales pulp writers from the mid-century, such as H. P. Lovecraft; and horror writers from Edgar Allen Poe to Clive Barker. From these sources, the New Weird gets its penchant for monstrous and often gruesome horror, and its flippant disregard for explaining the uncanny. Authors in the genre are less interested in providing answers and busy with revealing places where human understanding runs out and off the map.

The New Weird's current standard-bearer is Jeff VanderMeer, whose best-selling Southern Reach Trilogy is being released as the 2018 film Annihilation. Nature and humanity are portrayed as adversaries in the majority of VanderMeer's works, working to sublimate each other in a bid for survival and causing terrible damage on both sides. When humanity exploits the natural world or ignores its pain, we are punished and supplanted by it; we are infected by spores, hollowed out and controlled like puppets, or simply made to disappear.

However, those who attempt to bridge the gap between humanity and plant-life are given access to alien knowledge, widening their understanding of what it means to survive, thrive, and coexist. In Annihilation we follow the Biologist on an expedition into the pristine — but deeply unearthly and ominous — ecosystem of Area X. While the rest of her expedition team is convinced Area X means nothing but harm, the Biologist sees it as a place of hope, where pollution and all vestiges of human habitation have been erased. In it she senses an opportunity for an act of contrition: if she gives herself over to the intelligence of this place, it might rid her of ego and greed — her human traits — and perhaps contribute to a "reset" of damage that humanity has caused. The leap into the unknown beckons, but whether she can survive it as anything we would recognize as human — and whether that matters — is one of the book's key questions.

Kindred to the Biologist is Duncan Shriek, an historian and researcher featured prominently in VanderMeer's three Ambergris books. Shriek is investigating the history of the “gray caps,” mushroom-like people who were brutally slaughtered upon the founding of the city of Ambergris. They persist underground, emerging at night and during the city's annual bloody Dionysian revels, spreading an unknown agenda. To gain access to the secrets of this hidden society, Shriek goes underground and submits to the often-horrifying ministrations of the gray caps. Each time he surfaces, it is with more knowledge, but fewer human parts. By the end of the books there is no greater expert on the mushroom dwellers, but Shriek has transformed into a hybrid creature, one who tragically cannot live in either world but who understands both like no one before him.

In the New Weird, characters who cling to the old order — holdouts resistant to change — are portrayed as pitiable, left behind in the march to a bizarre future. But those who dive headlong into the unknown, who embrace the beautiful and terribly alien, are our forever-altered, pioneering heroes. The artist Beth Constanzin in Australian author K. J. Bishop's viscerally beautiful and brutal The Etched City stands tall in this pantheon. Throughout the book Constanzin plays a cat-and-mouse game — or sphinx-and-basilisk game — with gambler and gang enforcer Gwynn, engaging him in philosophical discussions on the nature of violence, brutality, art, and transformation. In a city where miracles both sublime and terrible happen regularly, these conversations take on dire importance, leading Constanzin on a journey to use the power of her art and her will to shed her human form and emerge as something truly other.

Some characters in these stories accept transformation with open arms; others have it forced upon them. This brings a faint, but persistent, pulse of political and moral consciousness to The New Weird. In China Miéville's Bas-Lag trilogy — dating from the early 2000s — his most sympathetic characters are the Remade: prisoners who are punished by being cruelly fused with animal, plant, or machine parts. Most of these are malicious reworkings that make the prisoners' lives harder: turning a man's head backward on his neck; grafting a boiler and heavy mechanical treads to a woman's torso, but giving her no fuel to power them. But these hybrid Remade characters bravely claim their refashioning, seeing dignity where their jailers sought to mock them. Some go guerilla, referring to themselves as fReemade, and launch attacks on the city-state that tried to take their humanity. Others find extraordinary utility in their Remaking, using their tentacles or pistons to aid themselves and their community.

A similar pulse appears in British author Jeff Noon's novels. Noon was writing his psychedelic Vurt books in the 1990s, far preceding the rest of the genre's stars, but they are New Weird to the core. Mutant hybrids walk the streets of his Manchester: dog-men and robo-women, shadow-girls and robo-dogs; a kaleidoscope of species. Each species has its own slang, fashion, music, and micro-industries. These hybrid cultures allow Noon to swap out England's best-known socioeconomic marker — accents — for other markers of social status. Hybrids in his Manchester that are closest to "pure" human are treated best by the police and establishment. Those with nearly no trace of baseline humanity are relegated to slums and rough work, revealing the inequality hidden in the gritty city.

There is something tantalizing about the knowledge that we as a species have so much more to understand about the organisms that live on Earth, much less in space or on other planets: the depth of potential weirdness and otherness is immeasurable. And it is almost a comfort to think that as pioneers among us take the leap to understand the inhuman, we might be finding solutions to our survival on this planet. In Borne, VanderMeer's most recent major release, he depicts the fall-out from near-future climate change, and it is hardly outlandish. It is simply the data from climate science spun out to certain conclusions. It isn't the plant/animal hybrid organism Borne that is the monstrous or horrifying element in this book: it's the fact that humans did nothing to prevent a future they clearly saw coming.

At a time when it feels like flaws in human nature are holding us back from reaching milestones in research, exploration, cooperation, it is grim and yet exciting to think that some unknowable intelligence might force us to adapt and change our ways, or perish. As authors up and down the spec-fic line continue to look to the deep future or a magic-drenched past for inspiration, New Weird practitioners remain committed to looking into the dark, squishy corners of our world, seeking something that might reveal new knowledge — to dredge up something that leads to possibilities that are less human, and dizzyingly, electrifyingly more of everything else.

Books in this review:
  • Perdido Street Station
    by China Miéville
    Del Rey Books
    February 27, 2001
    710 pages
    Purchased by SRoB
    Buy on IndieBound
  • Annihilation
    by Jeff VanderMeer
    FSG Originals
    February 04, 2014
    208 pages
    Purchased by SRoB
    Buy on IndieBound
  • The Etched City
    by K. J. Bishop
    Spectra
    November 23, 2004
    400 pages
    Purchased by SRoB
    Buy on IndieBound
  • Vurt
    by Jeff Noon
    Crown
    January 17, 1995
    342 pages
    Purchased by SRoB
    Buy online
  • Borne
    by Jeff VanderMeer
    MCD
    April 25, 2017
    336 pages
    Purchased by SRoB
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Sarra Scherb is an arts writer, freelance journalist, gallerist, and nerd-about-town in Seattle. She has written for museums, galleries, artists, and publications around Washington and at any given moment can be found wearing too much eyeshadow. Visit her website at brassarcher.wordpress.com.

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