#113 = Volume 38, Part 1 = March 2011
Jeff Hicks and Mark Young
Slipstreams, Paraspheres, Interstices: Fictions of the New Millennium
James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel, eds. The Secret History of Science Fiction. San Francisco: Tachyon, 2009. 382 pp. $14.95 pbk.
Rusty Morrison and Ken Keegan, eds. Paraspheres: Extending Beyond the Spheres of Literary and Genre Fiction. Richmond, CA: Omnidawn, 2006. 640 pp. $19.95 pbk.
Bradford Morrow and Brian Evenson, eds. Betwixt the Between: Impossible Realism. Conjunctions:52. New York: Bard College, 2009. 400 pp. $15 pbk.
Delia Sherman and Theodora Goss, eds. Interfictions: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing. Boston: Interstitial Arts Foundation, 2007. 296 pp. $18 pbk.
Delia Sherman and Christopher Barzak, eds. Interfictions 2: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing. Boston: Interstitial Arts Foundation, 2009. 296 pp. $16 pbk.
Team Bizarro, eds. The Bizarro Starter Kit: An Introduction to the Bizarro Genre (Orange). Portland: Eraserhead, 2006. 226 pp. $10 pbk.
Team Bizarro, eds. The Bizarro Starter Kit: An Introduction to the Bizarro Genre (Blue). Portland: Eraserhead, 2007. 231 pp. $10 pbk.
Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, eds. The New Weird. San Francisco: Tachyon, 2008. 414 pp. $14.95 pbk.
The fracturing of sf into ever more specialized categories, as Pawel Frelik notes elsewhere in this issue, follows the parallel rise of postmodern literary techniques and their transfusion—first by New Wave writers and then by cyberpunks and so-called slipstreamers—into the arteries of sf, with each subsequent manifesto an attempt to revivify a body of generic conventions labeled artistically moribund. The resulting avant-garde hybrids have sent critics scrambling to contain and taxonomize the trend in order to legitimate the contours of a developing aesthetic as well as identify points of meaningful divergence. This situation has given rise to a colorful array of identifying terms—slipstream, Avant-Pop, New Wave Fabulism, New Weird, and so on—often coined (or capitalized upon) by publishers eager to cash in by successfully branding the Next Big Thing.
In some ways this publishing landscape is the polar opposite of the “Iron Curtain of category marketing” lamented by Bruce Sterling in his “Slipstream” jeremiad, as the marketplace now accommodates a greater range of “in-between” content than ever before. Niche communities, championed by Mark Amerika in his “Avant-Pop Manifesto” as the net-based collectives who would destabilize the “commercial standardization” of art and obviate the administrative layers between author and audience, have emerged as more fuel for a revamped marketing machine, which now draws strength from both traditional genre categories and whatever niche market shares are presently available.
Perhaps a useful metric for recent anthologies or collections of “in-between” fiction in this new milieu might be a distinction between those materials that have been labeled through inductive selection—the designation of this or that work as, say, “slipstream” after its initial publication and/or concomitant anthologization—and those that have been prescribed in an effort to conform to a set of niche-based publishing conventions. Such an evaluation might, at the very least, help to disentangle the knotty junctions of artistry and hype and thus more meaningfully reveal any correspondence masked by disparate subgenre designations.
One recent anthology organized by an inductive method is Conjunctions:52, Betwixt the Between: Impossible Realism. A collection whose stories closely match Sterling’s original designation of slipstream, it serves as a follow-up to Conjunctions:39, The New Wave Fabulists (2002), whose guest editor, Peter Straub, solicited original works from authors such as China Miéville, Jonathan Lethem, John Kessel, and Neil Gaiman and sought to showcase how science fiction, fantasy, and horror have changed over time. Although Straub’s collection also presents essays by John Clute and Gary K. Wolfe that engage the recent critical-editorial conversation on genre boundaries, his project did not intend to define or constitute a new literary movement. In Conjunctions:52, Morrow and Evenson follow Straub’s lead and present new work from a variety of established mainstream authors as well as those more closely connected to sf, fantasy, or horror. In doing so, the editors chose not to limit the horizon of their collection by employing narrow categories. As Morrow and Evenson state in their introduction, “What we learned anew was that fantastic fiction, whatever name it goes by—New Wave Fabulism, Speculative Fiction, the New Weird, Slipstream Fiction—is a thriving, daring, imaginative literature that can never again be shunted into the ghetto of ‘genre’” (7). By choosing not to conform to any single term in that list, Morrow and Evenson remain open to a much wider range of fiction.
The stories in this collection could easily fall within the categories of postmodernism or slipstream, though many could even pass as outliers of sf or fantasy fiction. The term “Impossible Realism,” however, seems more closely descriptive of the 25 varied stories, as each contains a sharp break from reality as we know it while remaining slightly familiar, as if taken from a universe once removed. Although the tales tend to move a little farther from our reality towards the end of the collection, none appears so bizarre as to be seriously off-putting. The comfortable balance between the familiar and the strange seems to come from the fact that each author works within familiar territory. Stephen Wright’s “Brain Jelly” maintains the same detached relationships and emotional distance found in his 1993 novel Going Native, Shelley Jackson’s “Flat Daddy” (cobbled together from random words selected from the New York Times) continues the playful subversiveness of her hypertext Patchwork Girl (1995), and Jeff VanderMeer’s “Predecessor” furthers his foray into the so-called New Weird. Thus, the authors in Conjunctions:52 are working to their strengths instead of creating forced entries in an artificially constructed category.
Another anthology following the lead of Straub’s Conjunctions:39 is Paraspheres: Extending Beyond the Spheres of Literary and Genre Fiction, edited by Rusty Morrison and Ken Keegan. The editors present fifty stories, of which all but a dozen appear in print for the first time, under the designation “Fabulist and New Wave Fabulist” writing, further aligning with the approach taken by Straub, whose praise appears on this volume’s back cover. Keegan’s epilogue bewails the formulaic writing that gives genre fiction a bad name, though he concedes that the publishing world deserves most of the blame, because it rewards the predictable devices constituting genres. Since he notes that “a book published with the wrong classification or completely outside the commonly approved classifications will have a difficult time finding reviewers and an audience,” he and Morrison choose the term Fabulist for their collection of in-between stories because it is “associated with quality literature” and is “generally placed in the general fiction area of bookstores” (625, 636). The term offers a fitting umbrella for “a wide diversity of styles and subject matter” that helps ward off subgenre formulae and also functions as a Trojan horse, a marketing coup that smuggles sf elements into the “literary” fortress (637).
Much of this work could be usefully placed under the heading of slipstream, as elements of the fantastic often appear inside otherwise plausible stories about cloning or environmental disaster, and a healthy dose of postmodern sensibility gets mixed up in some of the batch as well. Does all of the work fit into the editors’ framing assumptions? Does it all work together to create a unified whole? Is the fiction overall strong enough to hold its own on the literary shelf? The answer to these three questions is, alas, no. Some of the authors—Ursula K. LeGuin, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Michael Moorcock—are clearly included to curry favor with sf fans and entice them into taking a chance on the lesser-known authors within the covers. How else can one convincingly explain the appearance of Moorcock’s “Cake,” a realist tale of love, politics, and a family not-to-be, in the pages of this collection of purportedly hybrid, fabulist writing? Though an editors’ note explains that they “have placed [Moorcock’s] work of narrative realist literary fiction … at the end … in order to assist readers in their return to reality” (623), the apology doesn’t pass muster. The opening stories are similarly suspect—the first, Ira Sher’s flash-fiction-length “Lionflower Hedge,” reads like an unfinished sketch; and the next, Leena Krohn’s “The Son of Chimera,” a promising excerpt from a full-length novel, feels in this context incomplete. But many others exist happily within the frame, and the multifarious styles and thematics evidenced throughout testify to just the kind of wild imagination and diversity of the in-between for which Morrison and Keegan hope to provide a vehicle. (A follow-up volume, Paraspheres 2, has been announced for January 2011.)
The editors of The Secret History of Science Fiction (2009), James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel, also follow an inductive method of selection similar to the one they used previously for their 2006 compendium Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology (reviewed in SFS 34.2 [July 2007]). Each of the stories in the anthology has appeared in print elsewhere, in many cases thirty or forty years prior to its inclusion here. Thus, the selections—mostly from well-known authors such as Margaret Atwood, Thomas M. Disch, LeGuin, Jonathan Lethem, and Gene Wolfe—help Kelly and Kessel make a retrospective argument about what they call the “secret history” of those authors “who refused to be constrained either by the strictures of the mainstream genre or that of science fiction” (17). It is a similar argument to the one made in Feeling Very Strange, but instead of focusing on a mutant strain of the mainstream (slipstream) that falls somewhere in between sf and postmodernism, they “hope to present … an alternative vision of sf from the early 1970s to the present, one in which it becomes evident that the literary potential of sf was not squandered” (8). In many ways this line of reasoning continues the ghetto-versus-mainstream polemics of their previous collection, here drawing from Jonathan Lethem’s 1998 article “Close Encounters: The Squandered Promise of Science Fiction,” which laments the Science Fiction Writers of America’s failure to select Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow for the 1973 Nebula Award. For Kelly and Kessel, the oversight represents a “failed rapproachment of sf” to the mainstream that speaks to the limiting genre conventions imposed by fan communities and editors (7). It also reveals the need, they argue, for a revisionist history of how “literary sf” since the New Wave has woven a colorful counter-thread into the tapestry of science fiction that has greatly expanded the possibilities of the appellation.
The structure of the anthology resembles Feeling Very Strange in that it presents a pair of epigraphs by various authors before each story, further staging among the texts an ongoing conversation, whose content in this case almost exclusively concerns the definition and possibilities of sf. What is clear from these quotations is that the term remains fluid and that the authors see no reason not to merge into a mainstream long-prepared to accept sf-related tropes. Indeed, Kelly and Kessel make the case that sf has already done so some time ago, and that it will require a shift in thinking (on the readers’ part, they seem to imply) to realize the genre’s full potential. But given that online fan communities helped the editors define—and problematize, and expand—the emerging trend of slipstream, their introduction raises a question: to whom is their intended call to action actually addressed? If it is truly the fans, then in all likelihood Kelly and Kessel are preaching to the converted—a growing network of readers clearly embracing the many new directions of sf in the twenty-first century. The “secret” of this collected history, it seems, was outed long ago.
Polemics aside, the fiction contained within The Secret History will not disappoint. All the stories represent master talents at the height of their powers who imbue their work with psychological depth, existential quandaries, technological problems, social satire, and political consciousness—all the verve and complexity you might expect from well-written “literary” sf. Newer fans will benefit most from this collection, as it offers a multi-generational procession of entertaining and thought-provoking short fiction that could easily serve as a well-balanced primer to the cutting edge of the genre. Long-time fans, however, may find little new here besides the organizing frame.
The Interstitial Writing movement proposes another, more prescriptive, way of classifying the contemporary shift toward in-between fiction. With the purpose of giving “all border-crossing artists and art scholars a forum and a focus for their efforts” (IAF Mission Statement), members of the Interstitial Arts Foundation, which was launched in 2003, have assembled two recent anthologies to represent the project—Interfictions: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing (2007), edited by Delia Sherman and Theodora Goss, and Interfictions 2 (2009), edited by Delia Sherman and Christopher Barzak. In his introduction to Interfictions, Heinz Insu Finkl further defines the interstitial as “a space between things: a chink in a fence, a gap in the clouds, a DMZ between nations at war, the potentially infinite space between two musical notes, a form of writing that defies genre classification” (ii-iii). This definition works as well as any since it stresses the two points that can be found in any conception of the term: a strong feeling of existing between two modes (as opposed to a synthesis or blending), and an even stronger notion that interstitial writing can never function as a stable genre of its own. Most authors connected to the movement believe that their work—which identifies with one or two established genres, such as sf or fantasy, while also deploying ideas drawn from philosophy, academic criticism, and even china patterns—falls too far afield from constituent genre conventions to fit comfortably within them. In practice, interstitial writing almost willfully ensures that it will not meet the expectations of genre-bound readers.
In Interfictions and Interfictions 2,the editors challenged the authors to present works of short fiction fitting an individualized definition of the interstitial that, more often than not, falls between two specific subjects or genres of their own choosing. The story-creation process entails, in other words, writing in response to a prescribed topic, and as with most workshop-style experiments of this type, the results are mixed—some are interesting, some are quite good, and some are plain terrible. The varying levels of quality seem to hinge on whether the authors present a story in a familiar set of genres (or “comfortable” modes) or if they overreach in an effort to meet their ad hoc notion of the interstitial. Often, these unsuccessful stories read like dry manifestoes against “the balkanization of art,” or as a shabby realism with perfunctory sprinkles of fantasy thrown in to satisfy the in-between criteria. But the successful stories fall more naturally between categories—sf and biography, history and myth, or fantasy and realism—and it may be that their authors are simply more experienced at making these types of cross-genre connections work. None of the successful stories could easily be called fantasy or sf, and many would find a hard time being marketed as either, but their quality makes them worthy of finding a readership. At its best, then, the Interfictions series usefully promotes work by authors who would otherwise slip through the cracks of extant publishing categories. At its worst, it compels authors to adhere to an ideological prescription of definitional anomie that limits more than it liberates.
The “New Weird,” perhaps the most widely recognizable classification amongst these recent anthologies, also adheres to a more or less concrete set of genre features that ultimately seems prescriptive. Coeditors Jeff and Ann VanderMeer suggest that this writing resurrects the spirit of the paranormal stories found in the pages of 1920s and 1930s pulp magazines such as Weird Tales, blending elements of the fantastic and the supernatural to create a foundation for “modern-day traditional horror” (ix). The New Weird, according to Jeff VanderMeer’s introduction, steps beyond the limits of these predecessors and combines elements of the New Wave (whose authors blended sf and fantasy) with the “unsettling grotesquery” (x) found in Clive Barker’s Books of Blood (1984-86).
In many ways, the editors of The New Weird seek to expose readers to both the roots of this new genre and to the more recent outgrowths that define the term. The collection opens with a section labeled “Stimuli,” which reprints a number of stories—including Barker’s “In the Hills, the Cities” (1984)—that serve as a primer of sorts for the horror field. The volume then moves on to “Evidence,” which represents the field as it stands today, offering China Miéville’s “Jack” (2005)—a tale set in the author’s lush Gothic venue of New Crobuzon—as its first envoy. This choice is unsurprising given that VanderMeer cites Miéville’s novel Perdido Street Station (2000) as the catalyst for the New Weird movement. What is surprising, however, is that the story forms the blueprint for everything that follows. Claiming Miéville no doubt lends the New Weird classification an added caché, but it is astonishing that a genre would take his formula so literally—all of the new stories take place in a fantastical urban setting, either off-world or in another universe; all of the stories incorporate an element of the grotesque; and all of the stories are psychically unsettling. This isn’t to say that they aren’t any good; it’s just that the overall selection isn’t as diverse as in some of the other books reviewed here.
Technically speaking, the VanderMeers employ an inductive process for their anthology, as none of the stories was written specifically for the volume. This methodology not only provides a crop of stories closely resembling Miéville’s work, it also helps define for readers (albeit in a narrow way) the horizons of New Weird, allowing them to anticipate a specific product in the future and even ask for it by name. This question of what fans expect arises in the third section of the anthology, labeled “Symposium,” which includes an edited reprinting of the online exchange prompted by M. John Harrison’s query on the Third Alternative Message Board: “What is the New Weird?” This interesting question soon devolves into a defense of the act of labeling itself, with the majority believing that terms like “New Weird” ultimately benefit both author and reader alike. To the minority who argue that such labels are reductive, Harrison suggests that naming is a mode of ownership, with author-driven labels ensuring greater control over one’s work than, say, labels affixed by some outside agency. In either case, it seems, the limitations of the genre are clear, as writers must essentially choose to work within the category or outside of it, thereby establishing the New Weird as another strict term of demarcation.
A similarly prescriptive subgenre is the growing catalogue of so-called “Bizarro” fiction. Team Bizarro, the anonymous editors of a Portland-based publishing outfit, define their genre as the literary “equivalent to the cult section at the video store,” which features a “sometimes surreal, sometimes goofy, sometimes bloody, and sometimes borderline pornographic” cartoon logic that revels in “absurdities made flesh” and strives “not only to be strange, but fascinating, thought-provoking, and, above all, fun to read” (5). Rather than engaging with any specific genre debates over what fits into existing categories, the editors of The Bizarro Starter Kit collections (published with orange and blue covers in 2006 and 2007 respectively) revel in the naming rights made possible by their newly-staked-out territory. Thus, an absurd and ultimately meaningless parade of new distinctions—Avant Punk, Irrealism, Tweeker Lit, Walronian Fiction, Chunky Absurd, Brutality Chronic, Blender Fiction, Metrosexual, The Horrible, Cranio-rectal Subterfuge, and many more—accompanies the author profiles preceding the stories. It’s a free-for-all that extends into the writing itself, a pulpy mash-up of pop-culture references contorted into baldly irreverent forms. Zombies, ninjas, cannibals, cops, and Jesus appear often in these pages, as does a chuckleheaded Beavis and Butthead-style celebration of the scatological set against the token backdrop of the apocalypse. Perhaps unsurprisingly, all of these Bizarro tales are the brainchildren of mostly young men. They are also all published exclusively through the imprint of Bizarro Books, and thus display a coherence in tone and aesthetics that clearly reflects their prescriptive origins—that is, the collected authors’ awareness of and close adherence to both pre-existing niche-community expectations and the press’s publication criteria.
Putting aside the issue of its dubious literary pedigree, the Bizarro genre certainly lives up to its self-proclaimed goals, particularly its desire to be fun. Garish story titles—“The Baby Jesus Butt Plug” by Carlton Mellick III, “Don’t F(beep)k With The Coloureds” by Andre Duza, “Cheesequake Smash-up” by Bradley Sands, “Monster Cocks” by Mykle Hansen—vie for reader interest and will, most likely, elicit laughter for one reason or another, if only for a moment (and likely in disbelief that they were published in the first place). The Bizarro team has also released genre-slipping texts at novel length, all equally silly and assaultive, with titles like Mellick’s The Faggiest Vampire (2009) and our personal favorite, Hansen’s Rampaging Fuckers of Everything on the Crazy Shitting Planet of the Vomit Atmosphere (2008), published by aesthetically affiliated small presses such as Spunk Goblin and Eraserhead. Is this a new direction for sf, or even a meaningful expansion of “slipstream”? From within the bong-smoke-begrimed interior of their little echo chamber, surely neither the writers nor the publishers of Bizarro care very much, provided their crazy gimmicks help pay the rent.
A marketing culture that increasingly favors narrow, easily-defined categories may permit a paint-by-numbers system for more predictable reader consumption, but it also militates against the possibility of fresh discovery. Readers of Bizarro or New Weird know exactly what they’re getting, and as a result both terms have achieved some modest success. But the best of these anthologies—and the best new terms to describe their contents—maintain looser definitions of contemporary sf/fantastic/postmodern/horror fiction that yield more surprising results. This vaguer approach may not be as beneficial for those in charge of marketing the recent influx of in-between fiction, but it allows readers the freedom to bring a new world into their ken, rather than remaining within the limits of genre classifications.
Nonetheless, there is a reason why each of these collections strives to find a name for what is happening in contemporary fiction. Something is happening, and although Sterling suggested that slipstream was not a “catchy” enough term to encompass this zeitgeist, it doesn’t appear that anyone has done any better. Whether we call it Avant-Pop, Impossible Realism, the New Weird, or Interstitial, the struggle to name and describe the current “wave” of crossover work remains. These new terms each walk a line between description and labeling, allowing authors to use them as they see fit—as marketing tools, as writing guidelines, or as taxonomies best left to somebody else.
Amerika, Mark. “Avant-Pop Manifesto: Thread Baring Itself in Ten Quick Posts.” c. 1992. AltX. Alt-X Digital Arts Foundation. Online. 15 Dec. 2010.
“IAF Mission Statement.” Interstitial Arts Foundation. Online. 5 Dec. 2010.
Lethem, Jonathan. “The Squandered Promise of Science Fiction: Close Encounters.” Village Voice Literary Supplement (June 1998): 45-46.
Sterling, Bruce. “Slipstream.” SF Eye 1.5 (July 1989). Online. 16 Dec. 2010.
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