While I agree with Charlie that we don’t want the human wave to be a prescriptive movement, one that cuts at the edges and where people can keep adding more injunctions and shall nots till, as in the present, you’re only allowed to write one type of book that echoes every other kind of book out there, because there’s only one opinion and one story line.
OTOH, while we’re not going to kick you out of The Human Wave for eating crackers in bed – or for writing a book where everyone dies at the end. Or… – if you’re throwing your lot in with us and advertising yourself as one of us, then you should know that people will expect a certain feel. And that feel almost certainly won’t be the slough of despond. It almost certainly won’t be a feeling of disgust for human frailty and human imperfection and a worship of a quasi-mechanical perfection that doesn’t exist in humanity till all humans are dead. It almost certainly won’t be a feeling of “we’re all doomed and why bother?”
We’re not going to tell you can’t do that, because frankly it’s up to you. If you think that’s what most people want to read and what’s been censored by the gatekeepers (you might consider upping your meds) and think it belongs with a ragtag group trying to return the fun to science fiction, by all means, have at it. But don’t be surprised if people attracted to the rest of our stuff aren’t attracted to yours.
This is because while the “human wave” is hard to qualify – all of us coming from many traditions, from fantasy to science fiction and from romantic fantasy to literary – we know it when we see it. More importantly, the readers know it when they see it.
I’ve been reading everyone’s posts on this over the week, trying to firm it up in my mind, and it seems to me the important part of the “human wave” is the “human.” And that’s perhaps where our greatest contrast to the New Wave is. The New Wave viewed human flaws, human defects and human frailty as things to be mocked and condemned. No, they didn’t explicitly say so, but it came through in most of their stories. They viewed humans as flawed and therefore to be destroyed. This was, I think, a reaction to the previous generation’s view of humanity as infinitely perfectible. (Which wasn’t much better, since it was at the heart of all the totalitarian theories of the twentieth century.)
But viewing humanity’s frailty and error as irredeemable, and humanity, therefore, as an evil to be eradicated is not better. In its ultimate manifestation it gives us people who hate themselves for being human. The prescription, state wise, is the same too – they want a strong state to make of them what they can’t make of themselves. They forget of course that the state is composed of humans.
Forgive me for using an analogy that is not accurate, insofar as humanity probably isn’t one giant organism. But if humanity were a giant organism, the early twentieth (and in parts the later nineteenth) century would be the part where it graduated from elementary school. It now knows enough to understand most of the world around it, and it feels confident that it can conquer its bad habits and its defects and grow up to be perfect.
Then comes middle school. I sometimes say that Europe is dying from the wounds of WWI. To be honestly, the reaction that was WWII only complicated matters. If humanity were indeed a sole organism, this is the time at which it sits in its room cutting itself. And sooner or later, as time passes, it realizes it’s never going to be perfect.
Those of you who have raised kids know instinctively what comes next: the cynicism, the self hatred. In a particularly neurotic teen, which I think we’ve proven humanity is, it leads to trying to commit suicide. There will also be attempts to return to childhood, which is where I think we get the rejection of science and the wish by many to lose enough population to return to an agrarian land-bound economy. In their minds this is always an idyllic time, just like childhood is idyllic in the mind of the teen.
Many of the establishment stories (not New Wave, but an outgrowth of it) frankly read like a long-sustained teenage scream-out. Or worse, like lying in bed going “moaaaaan. Everything is bad and I can’t fix it.”
The Human Wave is, I think and hope, where we grow up. Individual humans can do it, I hope species can, and I’m sure that literary movements can.
This is where we come to terms with the fact that we’re flawed, yes, but we’re all we have to work with, and there is a basic sanity in loving yourself. You try to improve, yes, but you expect neither perfection nor utter failure. Being human is a project not a destination. Being human is a daily effort, not something you’re born.
You’re born a tailless ape with impulses and needs like any other animal, and a brain big enough to aspire to more. Human is what happens when you integrate those, when you don’t condemn the animal but you also don’t let it have its sway. It’s a struggle you face every day, unafraid, and when you fall down you pick yourself up and try again.
If the human wave works out, it will neither have the (fun but often superficial) characters of the golden age, who often seemed to never sweat, nor the evil anti-humanity of what is now considered “deep.”
Yes, humanity has flaws. Yes, it will always have flaws. But those flaws contain some of our deepest qualities.
There is a Jewish story about Moses, which I told each of my children in turn when it became obvious they were falling in despair because they’d realized they’d never be perfect.
During those forty years in the desert, one of the chiefs of the tribes whom the Israelites were approaching was a great believer in the study of physiognomy. This is the belief you can tell a person’s character by their facial traits. Hearing of this great multitude advancing towards him, he sent his court artist to spy covertly and make a portrait of their leader, so he knew what to expect.
When the physiognomist looked at the portrait, he told the chief. “We’d best meet him at the edge of our land and surrender. This man is an adulterer, a murderer, a thief. He will destroy us.”
So, quaking, the chief met the Israelites at the border of his lands. On speaking to Moses and hearing they were just passing through and had no intention to pillage or kill on their way, he invited Moses to the banquet, where he found that Moses was not in fact a monster. So he told Moses the story and said, “I’m going to have my physiognomist put to death because he’s useless.”
But Moses said, “No. Stay your hand. He is right. I am naturally all those things. I’ve just chosen not to use my natural traits that way. It is knowing those flaws in myself that gives me the ability to help others behave better and to spot those who can’t. And it is struggling to make myself better that gives me the strength to keep my people together on our journey.”
Whether you accept the historicity of Moses or not, you can probably see the truth of that. Someone who was perfect, sweetness and light, and never had experienced a bad impulse in his life, would not be able to keep a fractious people together on a perilous and grueling journey.
I knew this truth about myself by fourth grade. I knew I was naturally envious, so it was easier to study and be the best than to live with the envy of the person who had the best grades. I knew I was naturally aggressive, but I didn’t like the results of just pounding people at random, so I channeled it into looking after the weak and the timid and worked it out by beating the occasional bully who’d pushed too far.
That balance between knowing yourself what you are and choosing to be better or to channel it in ways that don’t disgust you and don’t destroy those around you is being human.
It is the fact that we live in muck that makes us aspire to the stars. It is our own internal weakness that makes us struggle to be strong for those we love. It is knowing our own craven, irresolute nature that gives us the strength to say we’ll be better than that when it’s needed.
And that is, I hope, what the Human Wave will bring to science fiction and literature in general.
Not a pollyannaish utopia, not heros that work like clockwork, not a shiny future where everything is splendid – mind you, we won’t tell you you’re not Human Wave if you do that, but you might find that stories with no conflict don’t sell well. Not a despondent wallowing in the filthiest parts of our human condition – again, we won’t tell you that you’re not Human Wave if you do that, but our readers WILL know.
No, Human Wave aspires to write and read humans as they are: with the flaws and the warts that make our achievements – both scientific and moral – more astonishing.
Get out of your parents’ basement. Stop contemplating suicide. Stop raging at how everyone is stupid. Yes, a large amount of people are, and you too are, but there is kindness and joy and love out there, why are you ignoring it? It’s as real as the rest of it.
Go forth and read and write and be human.