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Martin H. Greenberg and John Helfers (eds); Slipstreams

14 Sep 2007 · 11 Comments

Pretty much ever since the genres science fiction, fantasy, and horror have existed as distinct marketing categories, there have been periodic movements seeking to un-define them as such. In the 60’s there was “The New Wave.” In the 80’s some bruited about the awkward, demi-hemispherist phrase “North American magical realism.” And more recently, an unruly amalgam of authors have had their work variously labeled as “new wave fabulism,” “interstitial writing,” and “slipstream.” I dislike “slipstream” least of these terms. It’s less clunky than “new wave fabulism” and not burdened with mis-associations to 20th-century European cinema, the first New Wave of science fiction, or ridiculously big hair and synthesizers. “Interstitial writing” implies a negative relationship where I think an additive relationship is appropriate; existing in the interstices between genres suggests “neither fish nor fowl” instead of the more accurate “both fish and fowl.” Also, it’s hard to spell. The literal meaning of “slipstream” — the reduced zone of pressure behind a moving object (a.k.a., why birds fly in “V”-formations) — doesn’t apply either, but at least it suggests something hard to get a hold of.

The urge of speculative fiction authors to escape their marketing categories is driven, it seems to me, by sour grapes on both sides. Genre authors who aspire to more than simple escapist tale-telling resent the prestigious awards and publication venues available to “serious” or “literary” authors (most famously The New Yorker). On the other hand, “serious” authors resent the megabucks available to the upper sales echelon of the genre authors.

The debate may seem silly to anyone outside it. Works of “serious” literature have frequently incorporated fantastic elements since the very dawn of literature, no matter when you choose to place the dawn (Homer, Beowulf, Milton, Rabelais…). And many of the canonical great authors wrote their books in an era where the novel was considered an intrinsically frivolous and unworthy work; the idea that critical acclaim should come during an author’s own lifetime is a comparatively new one. But SF writers take their genre-name wrangling very, very seriously. And it’s true that the likes of Dickens didn’t invalidate their work by publishing in markets geared toward the cheap seats. And it’s also true that the prestige markets nowadays are publishing work from writers like Chabon, Lethem, Saunders, and Wallace that are much like the best of the work in the best of the genre publications.

Of course, the advocates for the best of the genre authors tend to downplay the fact that there is also an awful lot of purely escapist genre work published, and a great deal of that, bluntly, is badly written and unworthy of more serious consideration. You know — all those books with dragons, bare-chested strong-thewed warriors, and/or battling spaceships (let’s ignore for the moment the confusing irrelevancy that a tiny fraction of books with those illustrations are actually not crap).

Many smarter minds than mine have considered the problem of how to distinguish the good stuff. I’ve come up with my own test, the Is-it-bigger-than-a-breadbox? test. Here’s how it works: You could describe Hamlet as a ghost story in which a vengeful spirit convinces a young man to murder his uncle, ultimately leading to his own doom. But if you describe Hamlet strictly in genre terms, you fail to capture the essence of the play. It doesn’t fit in the ghost-story breadbox. In the same way, if you describe Kelly Link’s “The Specialist’s Hat” as a ghost story in which a vengeful spirit claims the life of two children, you fail to capture its essence; it doesn’t fit in the ghost-story breadbox either. In fact, that description isn’t necessarily even accurate, and part of the story’s essence (I’d argue) is that it doesn’t fit in the breadbox; it defies the narrative expectations of the conventional ghost story.

The breadbox test has a catch, which is this: If the story fits into different genre breadboxes — ghost-story and hardboiled detective fiction, say — it’s still breadboxable. To escape the conventions of genre, a work has to fail to fit in any genre breadbox.

This is the great failing of Martin H. Greenberg and John Helfers’ theme anthology Slipstreams, one of several recent books released to capitalize on interest in this movement. In Helfers’ introduction, he confesses that he doesn’t quite get what this slipstream stuff is supposed to be (I have the distinct impression he hasn’t read any of it), so he asked his authors to submit stories which combined two genres. Unfortunately, few of the results are impressive; most have a paint-by-numbers predictability to them.

Far and away the best story was Jane Liskold’s “Menu for Life…and Death.” Despite a title which telegraphs more of the plot than it needs to, this combination of cookbook and fatal love triangle was striking and unusual. Other than that, I liked the stories where one of the other genres was detective fiction best, although that may be because I generally prefer detective fiction to westerns or war stories. Robert Sawyer’s “Biding Time” actually suggested a new (to me, at least) motive for murder that arises from its science fictional conceit. Michael M. Jones’ hardboiled Santa “Claus of Death” is about as predictable as the lame title, and not even internally consistent, but I thought the St. Nick à la Chandler was still kinda fun; ditto the vamp sleuth of Tanya Huff’s “Critical Analysis.” Two stories demonstrate Summervillain’s First Corollary of Crap Historical Fiction: If you’re in late 19th-century London, you can scarcely take a step without tripping over Jack the Ripper. (Summervillain’s First Law of Crap Historical Fiction: No matter where or when you are, you can scarcely take a step without tripping over a famous historical personage.)

The primary reason I picked the book up was the inclusion of a story by Nina Kiriki Hoffman, a writer of whom I’m a big fan. “Marrow Wood” doesn’t give her an opportunity to showcase her strengths; it’s too short to allow the compelling character development that marks her novels, and her take on faery magic is more standard and less distinctive than I usually expect from her.

When I was younger, I devoured Alan Dean Foster’s novels by the dozen, but his entry here — a tall tale/deal-with-devil hybrid — is particularly awful. Sentences like, “The result was a climatological confusion that often left him squinting to see through the resultant heavy fog,” cry out for a stern editorial hand. Russell Davis’s “The End of Spring” is perhaps the most ambitious story here, and the closest to slipstream as I define it. But it’s also one of the weakest; it punishes the reader with flat, repetitive present tense; the sentence, “The man sitting in his pickup truck is staring at the ridgeline and thinking about patterns,” appears multiple times; one of its genre components is perhaps apotheosis (if that can be considered a genre), but another is armchair psychiatrist babble.

Needs More Demons?
No, but needs more good writing.

Tags: fantasy · g-author · h-author · historical · mystery · s-title · science fiction

11 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Ezra // 14 September 2007 at 11:03

    Your test for good stuff is good. It can probably be applied to many many things.

    “a vengeful spirit claims the life of two children” I was going to say that I didn’t think that actually happened in the story because the ending was very ambiguous, but you then pointed out that your statement wasn’t accurate, but then I said it all anyway, mainly because I wanted to say how much I love that story and how it scared the bejeezus out of me and how after I read it one night, I wouldn’t go downstairs alone and made Terri come with me.

    >Summervillain’s First Law of Crap Historical Fiction: No matter where or when you are, you can scarcely take a step without tripping over a famous historical personage.

    Ha! Too true. Do you remember the 80’s TV series (and as I’m asking this, I realize I know the answer, which is “80’s TV series?”) called Voyagers, which was sort of like Quantum Leap, except instead of travelling through time and visiting unknown people and making things right, they had to travel through time and visit *famous* people and make things right. It did predate Quantum Leap, though.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Voyagers!

  • 2 summervillain // 14 September 2007 at 11:20

    A neat trick, isn’t it? The story is creepy as all get out even though (or maybe because) you can’t pin down exactly what does or doesn’t happen. I love “The Specialist’s Hat” too. I’ve heard of both Voyagers and Quantum Leap but have never seen either one, except for maybe ten minutes in a hotel room on a business trip.

  • 3 Ezra // 14 September 2007 at 17:09

    and speaking of time travel…
    http://forums.koalawallop.com/viewtopic.php?t=1719

  • 4 Editrix // 14 September 2007 at 20:47

    I can’t help it: “Slipstream” makes me think of Pavement.

    Summervillain’s First Corollary of Crap Historical Fiction: If you’re in late 19th-century London, you can scarcely take a step without tripping over Jack the Ripper.

    Damn that Jack the Tripper!

  • 5 2fs // 14 September 2007 at 23:20

    “Jack the Tripper”? Waitaminnit…I think you’re onto something! The real, true identity of Jack the Ripper…and a new way to interpret Three’s Company! I’ll get to work on this immediately.

  • 6 Tim W. // 15 September 2007 at 03:32

    Even Feeling Very Strange and The New Wave Fabulists, compiled by experts, were only about half slipstream by my reckoning (although both were of higher quality that your description makes Slipstreams sound). I think that either there aren’t really enough slipstream authors to go round, or my strangeness bar is set too high.

    One thing I don’t understand is why none of these anthologies include any stories by Robert Aickman. I would consider him, along with Kelly Link (who I’m virtually certain has read him, although the two have many differences as well as similarities), to be the closest thing slipstream has to a type specimen, and he was doing it thirty to forty years ago. Plus his books are hard to find, so any editor that included him would be doing folks a huge favor. If, like me, you think Magic For Beginners is the best thing to come down the pipe in ages, you owe it to yourself to track down a copy of The Wine-Dark Sea or Cold Hand In Mine.

  • 7 summervillain // 15 September 2007 at 06:26

    Hi Tim, I’m planning to write about Feeling Very Strange too, as part of a general stlipstream-y antho kick. Also in the reading queue is Paraspheres (Rusty Morrison & Ken Keegan, eds) which has a little more historical perspective what with the inclusion of Angela Carter and Rikki Ducornet — but still no Aickman, nor Donald Barthelme. Last night started in on Interfictions (Delia Sherman & Theodora Goss, eds) which starts out with a mildly intimidatingly academic but cogent essay (from Heinz Insu Frenkl) explaining among other things that I completely misconstrue the intended use of interstitial above, and a pair of stories (from Christopher Barzak and Leslie What) that I definitely dug.

    You were kind enough to set me up with a copy of Cold Hand In Mine, for which I hope I’ve been appropriately appreciative.

  • 8 Tim W. // 15 September 2007 at 14:13

    I always thought of Barthelme as a postmodernist, but now that you mention it The Dead Father is pretty slipstreamy.

    I should also remember that Carol Emshwiller has been doing it since forever (she was mentioned in one of the Issues At Hand books, which startled me when I read it). Supposedly a biography/retrospective of the Emshwillers is coming out soon.

    You were kind enough to set me up with a copy of Cold Hand In Mine, for which I hope I’ve been appropriately appreciative.

    I’d completely forgotten that. In fact, I still don’t remember it, but I’ll take your word for it!

  • 9 Michael M Jones // 28 September 2007 at 20:43

    Ouch. Sorry “Claus of Death” didn’t work for you so well, in title or in predictability. I’m interested in finding out what you found internally inconsistent about it, though, if just so I can improve on things in the future.

    But hey, thanks for picking up, and writing about, Slipstreams. I certainly appreciate the intelligent critique of the anthology, and the commentary on my story.

  • 10 summervillain // 29 September 2007 at 07:48

    Michael, thanks for writing. I’ve passed my copy of Slipstreams on to another reader, so I can’t double-check, but I think my consistency issue with “Claus of Death” was that the climax of the story revolves around the reader being unaware of something — the extent and nature of the narrator’s magical powers — that the narrator is well aware of. (If it helps, the last rejection letter I got took me to task for the very same flaw.) You nailed the hardboiled tone and I love the concept of a P.I. who “knows if you’ve been bad or good”; I enjoyed the story even if I didn’t think it was completely successful.

  • 11 Michael M Jones // 29 September 2007 at 09:52

    Thanks for the feedback. Every little bit helps in the long run. You might be interested to know that Mike Resnick and Eric Flint picked up “Claus of Death” for their reprint anthology of fantasy detective stories, THE DRAGON DONE IT (Baen, March 2008), where I’ll be rubbing shoulders with the likes of Gene Wolfe, Esther Friesner, David Drake, and Neil Gaiman. It’s looking to be a great collection, and I hope you’ll check it out. :>

    I’ll have to go back and check what you said against the story. I’m always trying to improve. And yes, the title was intentionally bad. I’m hoping future Nick St. Claus exploits will do even better. :>

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