It could be argued that the New Wave movement in SF in the US started up in 1965, with the publication of quintessential New Wave stories like Ellison's `"Repent, Harlequin ! Said the Ticktockman"' and Zelazny's `The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth'.
Damon Knight, President of the newly formed Science Fiction Writers of America, possessed a quasi-religious devotion to the New Wave prose style. Knight fervently believed that by promoting a sub-group of authors who crafted `speculative fiction', the Literary World would be forced to admit that, far from consisting of frivolous stories about rocket ships and slide rules, SF was a maturing art form whose foremost practitioners were as deserving of praise as Pynchon, Barth, and Vonnegut.
Accordingly, in 1966 the first Nebula Awards were primarily handed out to New Wave authors; those stories (all seeing print in 1965) are represented in this collection.
`The Doors of His Face, the Lamps of His Mouth' deals superficially with a deep-sea fishing expedition on Venus; the emphasis is on the psychology of the lead character, a `baitman', and his tumultuous relationship with his former wife. `Ticktockman' is a fable about a regimented society and a rebellious Everyman.
While at the time these stories were considered daring and witty expansions of the boundaries of the genre, I suspect that most modern readers will find them contrived and unremarkable.
James H. Schmitz provides `Balanced Ecology', a more conventional SF story in terms of plotting and setting. On a planet that features trees made of a diamond-like substance, two children must defend their farm from a rapacious corporation. The ecology theme was certainly a prominent one for the New Wave era, and Schmitz's accessible writing style makes this one of the better stories in the collection.
Zelazny appears again with the novelette `He Who Shapes', about a psychiatrist named Render who uses a high-tech gadget to enter the subconscious mind of his patients. Contemporary readers will recognize this trope from `Inception', the big Summer blockbuster of 2010, as well as any number of Philip K. Dick's novels and short stories. But for this audience, `Shapes' is going to seem lengthy and dull. There are too many belabored passages where Zelazny is intent on demonstrating his ability to write meaningful dialogue. As well, the author can't resist stuffing the narrative with sections of overly figurative prose designed to showcase his ability to relate the visions inherent in the dream-world; such quasi-psychedelic chunks of text were bearable in the `Amber' novels, but work poorly here.
Gordon Dickson's entry, `Computers Don't Argue', is a half-humorous look at how the increased use of computers and automated systems can entrap the unwary consumer. While contemporary readers may raise an quizzical eyebrow over the use of the term `punch cards', the underlying theme of the story is still relevant.
Larry Niven provides `Becalmed in Hell', a hard science-oriented short story. The fact that this tale was considered for a Nebula is an indication that not all the SFWA members were as besotted with the New Wave form as Damon Knight. The pilot of the first spaceship to Venus must deal with an equipment malfunction; complicating things is his suspicion that the ship's brain-in-a-jar AI may be the source of the trouble.
During the 60s and 70s Brian Aldiss was regularly churning out New Wave stories in imitation of his hero, J. G. Ballard; most of Aldiss's entries in this area were unremarkable. Fortunately, when he set his mind on putting together a straightforward SF adventure rather than a Work of Art, Aldiss could write very well. `The Saliva Tree' is a proto-steampunk novelette set in England at the end of the 19th century. A spacecraft submerges itself in the depths of a rural pond, and strange mutations arise in the flora and fauna of the surrounding farm. A Victorian gentlemen must come up with a plan to combat the invaders even as he struggles to convince the eccentric farmer that the visitors from the stars have unpleasant intentions. This story should be very appealing to present-day steampunk fans.
The final story in the anthology comes from the era's foremost practitioner of the New Wave approach, J. G. Ballard. Ballard's New Wave tales could be hit-or-miss, either pretentious efforts at `experimental' writing (`The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race'), or well-composed stories dealing with traditional SF topics (`Billenium').
`The Drowned Giant', which lost to `Ticktockman' for the short story Nebula, is one of his better efforts at mingling a cleanly written narrative with an offbeat, imaginative theme. Here, it is the corpse of an enormous man that washes up on a beach on the English coast. With its existential, melancholy tone, a focus on mood and setting rather than plot machinations, `Giant' has aged as well as, or better than, many of the other New Wave pieces seeing print in the 60s.
To sum it all up, some of the pieces in this anthology have aged better than others. Readers looking for examples of early New Wave SF, before it collapsed under its own excessive artiness, may want to pick up this volume.