The Future of the Fantastic: New Wave Slipstream Fabulism
Edited By Harlan Ellison, iBooks, inc, 544pp, $14.95
Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology
Edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel, Tachyon Publications, 320pp, $14.95
Conjunctions: 39: The New Wave Fabulists
Edited by Peter Straub, Conjunctions, 400pp, $15.00
ParaSpheres: Extending Beyond the Spheres of Literary and Genre Fiction: Fabulist and New Wave Fabulist Stories
Edited by Rusty Morrison and Ken Keegan, Omnidawn Publishing, 640pp, $19.95
I am an ignoramus.
Or at least I was. Back in July I wrote an article about Science Fiction that got just about everything wrong. There were good writers once in Science Fiction, I lamented, where had they gone? Well, apparently they were around all along, I just didn't know about them. In fact, I had no clue what was going on in Science Fiction, and yet for some reason I still felt qualified to expound upon it at length. I suppose that's just part of what makes the Internet so interesting.
But then, it isn't so surprising that I didn't know what was going on in Science Fiction, as I'm the type of guy who generally reads "Literary Fiction," and like many readers of a particular type of writing, I didn't stray outside my aisles in the bookstore much. Sure I used to pick up a Philip K. Dick book now and again, maybe a Neil Gaimen novel, but hell, those guys are cool. And reading them made me feel like I was open minded and hip to what's going on, even if I wasn't.
Thing is, I like the fantastic in fiction. I like the weird and the strange and the magical, I like Borges and Saramago and the rest of the Magical Realism crowd, I hold Kafka in the appropriate amount of awe, and I think that guy Thomas Pynchon is really on to something. I like Charles Johnson and Paul Auster, Steve Erickson and David Foster Wallace. And what I've discovered is that there are guys writing very much in the vein of those writers who I had never heard of because I only read "Literary Fiction." I tip off for me was Kelly Link, who I stumbled upon and who proceeded to blow my mind. "I'm a Science Fiction writer," said Link, "I think the term 'Literary Fiction' really turns people off." What in God's name, I wondered, was she talking about?
So I did some research, and what I discovered was that ever since Hugo Gernsback almost single-handedly created the genre of "Science Fiction" back in 1926, there has been a tension between fantastic stories told within the genre (or genres, if we include Fantasy and Horror, the other pillars of "Speculative Fiction") and outside of them. People, including myself, like to bring up 1984 and Brave New World as examples of SF novels that are accepted in the literary cannon, but at the same time there were also Zamyatin and Kafka and Robert Walser and many others writing fantastic stories around the same time period who had nothing to do with SF as we know it. By the 1960s the "New Wave" of SF writers took a look around and saw fantastic novels all over the place, saw their own work maturing and becoming more sophisticated, and thought the time was finally nigh for their lot to be accepted. In Dangerous Visions, the 1967 anthology that basically defined the New Wave, Harlon Ellison wrote:
Speculative fiction has been found, has been turned to good use by the mainstream, and is now in the process of being assimilated. Burgess' A Clockwork Orange, Vonnegut's God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, and Cat's Cradle, Hersey's The Child Buyer, Wallis' Only Lovers Left Alive and Vercors' You Shall Know Them (to name only a recent scattering) are top-flight speculative novels, employing many of the tools honed by science fiction writers in their own little backwash eddy of a genre. Not an issue of a major slick magazine passes without some recognition of speculative fiction, either by reference to its having foretold some now commonplace item of scientific curiosity, or by openly currying favor with the leading names in the field via the inclusion of their work alongside the John Cheevers, the John Updikes, the Bernard Malamuds, the Saul Bellows.
We have arrived, is the inescapable conclusion.
We have arrived! The leading names in SF are to be included next to John Updike and Saul Bellow! In fact, when Ellison was putting together Dangerous Visions, he tried to include "Literary" writers too, and he seems a touch defensive at his inability to accomplish this.
Originally, one of the lesser (but no less important) intents of this anthology was to commission and bring to the attention of the readers stories by writers well outside the field of speculative fiction. The names William Burroughs, Thomas Pynchon, Alan Stillitoe, Terry Southern, Thomas Berger and Kingsley Amis were listed in my preliminary table of contents. ... Circumstances almost Machiavellian in nature prevented the appearance here of the former sextet.
But in some ways the New Wave movement was enormously successful. It did usher in a new age of more complex and sophisticated writing in SF, and also spurred the academic world to launch a slew of courses, journals and papers. And yet, the revolution did not quite occur. Here's Bruce Sterling in 1989:
In a recent remarkable interview in New Pathways #11, Carter Scholz alludes with pained resignation to the ongoing brain-death of science fiction. In the 60s and 70s, Scholz opines, SF had a chance to become a worthy literature; now that chance has passed. Why? Because other writers have now learned to adapt SF's best techniques to their own ends.
"And," says Scholz, "They make us look sick. When I think of the best 'speculative fiction' of the past few years, I sure don't think of any Hugo or Nebula winners. I think of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, and of Don DeLillo's White Noise, and of Batchelor's The Birth of the People's Republic of Antarctica, and of Gaddis' JR and Carpenter's Gothic, and of Coetzee's Life and Times of Michael K ... I have no hope at all that genre science fiction can ever again have any literary significance. But that's okay, because now there are other people doing our job."
In this article, Sterling proposes that there is something he calls "Slipstream," which is "a contemporary kind of writing which has set its face against consensus reality." Who are the Slipstream writers? Sterling gives us a list that includes Paul Auster, Margaret Atwood, Kathy Acker, William Burroughs, Steve Erickson, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, even Philip "I never heard of alternate history before I did it myself" Roth for The Counterlife; basically, just about everyone writing fantastic fiction working outside the "Science Fiction and Fantasy" section of the bookstore and a token amount, like New Waver Michael Moorcock, within it.
In 2002 Sterling contributed to Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology, edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel. Included are literary stalwarts like Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, George Saunders and Aimee Bender, alongside self-identified SF writers like Carol Emshwiller, Kelly Link, Benjamin Rosenbaum and, of course, Sterling himself, thus in some ways fulfilling Ellison's ambitions of putting Pynchon next to Moorcock. At least over the 13 years since Sterling talked about the "brain death," SF had rebounded enough to produce these latter writers. (A brain death that was, I think, overstated for effect in the first place by Carter Scholz; Sterling is, after all, part of the Cyberpunk movement which produced such stellar writers as William Gibson and Neal Stephenson.)
The same year Feeling Very Strange came out, the literary magazine Conjunctions released an issue/anthology called The New Wave Fabulists. The anticipatory description in the preceding issue of Conjunctions read as follows:
For two decades, a small group of innovative writers rooted in the genres of science fiction, fantasy, and horror have been simultaneously exploring and erasing the boundaries of those genres by creating fiction of remarkable depth and power.
Who are these innovative writers? At least a few are straight out of the Feeling Very Strange: Kelly Link, Karen Joy Fowler, Jonathan Lethem, and more from that anthology are mentioned in the introduction as people they would have liked to include, like Jeff VanderMeer, Jeffery Ford, Michael Chabon and Carol Emschwiller. (Emschwiller, having also been anthologized in Dangerous Visions all those years ago, can now make the claim to be a New Waver, a Slipstreamer, and a New Wave Fabulist.) "Fabulism," you see, is a term used to describe Magical Realist writings by people who are not Latin. (This despite the fact that Magical Realism actually comes from Germany and Austria—but that's another conversation all together.) New Wave Fabulism is the term invented by Conjunctions to cast a broader net, to include fantastic writing that simply isn't Magical Realism. In practical terms one wonders what the difference between "New Wave Fabulism" and "Slipstream" really is? Why didn't Conjunctions just call the issue "Slipstream" and be done with it?
The real difference between the terms is an illustration of why we can't declare the tension between those inside and outside the genre finally over and break out the champaign. The term "Slipstream" was created by Bruce Sterling to describe people predominantly outside the genre, but because he himself was inside of it, talking to people inside of it, the term has come to be used primarily by the SF community. "New Wave Fabulism," however, was proposed by a literary magazine to describe people inside the genre, and it is already coming to be used by people in the Literary world as a way to describe SF writers who are, you know, "good," because apparently we can't just call it Speculative Fiction without turning people off. In 2006 an anthology was released with the unwieldy title of Paraspheres: Extending Beyond the Spheres of Literary and Genre Fiction: Fabulist and New Wave Fabulist Stories. In the statement-of-purpose essay from this anthology, editor Ken Keegan reveals:
On several occasions I initially described the work we would be publishing as "speculative fiction," only to receive a response like, "Oh, you mean science (or fantasy, or genre) fiction. I don't read science (or fantasy or genre) fiction. I only read literary fiction."
In other words, the world that Ken Keegan operates in is actively hostile to the term "Speculative Fiction," in the same way that Kelly Link says that "Literary Fiction" turns people off because the world in which she operates is actively hostile to that term. Paraspheres includes a lot of the familiar names, VanderMeer, Karen Joy Fowler, Shelley Jackson, Jeffery Ford, Michael Moorcock, but Ken Keegan's essay never once mentions the word "Slipstream"; one wonders if it's simply because he's never heard of it? Or perhaps because it already has the odor of SF about it and would also turn off the unnamed people Keegan describes his books to.
Which brings us to the crux of the matter. To quote Benjamin Rosenbaum from a dialog reprinted in Feeling Very Strange,
People with content-based definitions of genres are going to find themselves increasingly bewildered. It's all about traditions and communities.
And who the hell would want to get out of the SF/F genre? For me, if I have any selfish, ulterior motive behind my arguments for how "slipstream" gets constructed and construed, it's that I want to be able to write literary-influenced experimentalist fiction and talk about it at cons.
The difference between Literary Fiction and Speculative Fiction is not the content, but the communities, communities which are often wildly ignorant about one another, and more significantly, openly hostile to one another. Which is not to say there aren't exceptions; obviously Bruce Sterling reads Literary Fiction and the editors of Conjunctions read Speculative Fiction. But the very existence of two terms, "Slipstream" and "New Wave Fabulism," to describe something that, if they aren't the same thing, might as well be, highlights the communal divisions even between the people who are most open to crossing their borders.
I spent a lot of time thinking about why this bothers me so much. It's not just that someone who's really into José Saramago might love Ursula K. LeGuin, but never be exposed to her, and vice versa with LeGuin's fans, though that's the most obvious complaint. It's that it's clear that the number of people who are reading fiction are dwindling. Fans of Literary Fiction and Speculative Fiction are small, almost religiously fanatical groups with a deep love of the their favorite authors and books, and if the content of those books is so similar so much of the time—and it is—then why is there a division at all? Why can't they all be fans together? But it's almost like the fans are too fanatical, creating arbitrary loyalties and irrational prejudices. It's as if in certain quarters, the words "Literary Fiction" and "Speculative Fiction" have the same weight as "nigger," "spic," or "kike." Listen to the way they say, "I don't read that Science Fiction crap." "I don't read that boring, pompous Literary stuff." It makes me want to get all the Literary Fiction readers and all the Speculative Fiction readers in one room and throw Kelly Link books at them until they kiss and make up.
"Slipstream," "New Wave Fabulism," I don't like these terms. "Slipstream" sounds geeky, and "New Wave Fabulism" is unwieldy and weird. More to the point, fiction doesn't need to be pigeon-holed, and pigeon-holing only encourages parochialism, which is how we got into this mess in the first place. There's certainly nothing wrong with communities of like-minded people, but I'm sick of all this us-and-them crap. There has always been the fantastic outside of the SF ghetto; it's not that we need to erase the borders, it's that the borders never really existed in the first place.
But one thing I will say about these anthologies is that they're full of great writing. And in the interest of promoting and creating a dialog about this great writing, in the coming weeks I'm going to be reviewing each of them. I'm going to start with Dangerous Visions and move on to Feeling Very Strange, Conjunctions: The New Wave Fabulists, Paraspheres and lastly Trampoline edited by Kelly Link, because it contains many of the same writers and because Kelly Link rules. This series will be called The Future of the Fantastic, and may also involve further discussions like this one, and reviews of other books not yet named. Enjoy.