Total inversion

“Talk of the changing relationship between the speculative genres and the mainstream surely predated Bruce Sterling’s now-canonical 1989 essay on slipstream, but the past several years have seen an enormous proliferation of collections based on Sterling’s concept or a related one. What now seems most significant is that, two decades later, slipstream is finally selling. Of course, not everyone is sold on it, so to speak, and slipstream is surely selling rather modestly in comparison with “mainstream” SF and fantasy. Even so, the anthologies are steadily accumulating, and “slipstream” is beginning to lose its scare quotes, at least in some circles. Fans, editors, and even writers seem less afraid to apply the label or have the label applied to them. For instance, James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel’s 2006 collection Feeling Very Strange soon lost its self-proclaimed title as “The Slipstream Anthology,” when not two years later Allen Ashley released Subtle Edens: An Anthology of Slipstream Fiction. (Martin H. Greenberg and John Helfers’ Slipstreams, also 2006, seems to have kept a lower profile.) Many other anthologies and periodicals have tended to ignore the word “slipstream” even when voicing what are arguably similar ideas—and even when including many of the very same writers: a follow-up to Interfictions was released last fall, and ParaSpheres 2 is scheduled for release early this year.. They just keep coming!”

“Chabon’s earlier editorial work deserves our serious consideration now, not because it predated what may come to be known as “the slipstream boom” (or possibly “the slipstream bubble”), but because Chabon comes at the ongoing “slipstream” debates from a very different place and at a very different angle. If you’re at all interested or invested in these debates, his introduction to MECOAS may prove the most interesting part of the book. On the other hand, if you’re tired of the debates, skip Chabon’s intro and admire the selling point of another (possibly) slipstream anthology, Small Beer Press’s 2003 collection Trampoline: “does not contain a manifesto.”

“For those interested in the Great Debate, it’s worth looking at the concept behind MECOAS. Chabon makes the familiar gesture of locating the best contemporary fiction in a mutually fruitful synthesis of genre and mainstream: “it might be possible to argue… that our finest and most consistently interesting contemporary writers are those whose works seem to originate from both traditions”. Almost immediately, however, he shifts focus from a discussion of genre conventions and distinctions to the sheer pleasure of genre. One of the definitions usually proposed—and then dismissed—for slipstream is something like “science fiction with literary sensibilities,” but what Chabon seems to advocate here is the reestablishment of pulp sensibilities in any kind of fiction, whether genre or mainstream: suspense, heavy plotting, entertainment, and downright fun. Chabon’s introduction represents a total inversion of the way some science fiction writers and fans turn to concepts like “slipstream” out of some half-admitted desire to legitimize their endeavor. Chabon, without a doubt a mainstream figure, seems comfortable “legitimizing” the genres without appealing to any kind of literary sensibilities at all. In fact, he’s tired of literary sensibilities, because by now they’re just plain boring.”

A Look Back at a Tributary of the Slipstream Review of McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories, edited by Michael Chabon, by T. S. Miller – Internet Review of Science Fiction, January 2010.

Image: Ed Valigursky, Amazing Stories May 1958, Brother Robot.


Horse lover fat


Some time over the next year a new movie, Radio Free Albemuth, starring Alanis Morissette, is due to be released. The movie is based on a novel Dick wrote before VALIS and originally entitled VALISystemA (it was published after his death as Radio Free Albemuth). The novel VALIS includes references to a science fiction movie “Valis,” which recapitulates the plotline of Radio Free Albemuth. Did Dick intend for all of these works to be intertwined? Can you help us sort the threads?

Jonathan Letham: I’m not familiar with the movie project, apart from what you’ve heard, so I can’t predict how faithful or satisfying it might be for readers of VALIS or the other related works. The novel that the movie takes as its source, Radio Free Albemuth, is an odd duck in Dick’s shelf of published works in the sense that it was actually an earlier draft of the VALIS material, submitted for publication by Dick and then reworked so completely in the writing of VALIS that it appeared to his posthumous editors as a legitimate work of its own. It has champions— some who even prefer it to VALIS. I can’t agree, myself. It seems a fairly pedestrian and cautious feint at the material—readable, perhaps, but not essential. VALIS, meanwhile, is one of Dick’s great masterpieces, so I’m awfully glad that Radio Free Albemuth was written, if only to be rejected and rewritten.

You have a new novel coming this fall, Chronic City, and many of its themes—paranoia, drug use, alternate realities—echo those of Dick more than any of your recent novels. Did editing the three Library of America volumes influence your writing—or is Dick’s influence like a centrifugal force that becomes simply irresistible at some point?

Good spotting. I’ve certainly had a very full refresher course in Philip K. Dick over these last few years, and that’s unmistakably had its effect on Chronic City, yes. Yet I think your image of a “centrifugal” influence is also right, and it feels to me that I’d been swinging back in this direction for a long while—and I’d conceived of many of the images and sequences that would become Chronic City as much as ten years ago. The odd thing about writing novels if you write them as slowly as I do (as opposed to the breakneck speed of Phil Dick) is that you often can barely remember their point of origin by the time you’ve finished them…

The Library of America interviews Jonathan Lethem about Philip K. Dick’s Later Novels

The world around them

“…The challenge of finding a suitable means to examine the “postmodern condition” has produced a vigorous and highly energized response from a new breed of SF authors who combine scientific know-how with aesthetic innovation. But because much of this writing is so radical and formally experimental, and because writing which bears the imprint of “SF” has been so commonly relegated to pop-culture ghettos, it has remained until recently largely ignored, except within its own self-contained world. Examples of important, aesthetically radical SF exhibiting many of the features associated with postmodernism are evident as early as the mid-1950s and early 1960s, when literary mavericks like Alfred Bester, William S. Burroughs, J. G. Ballard, Philip K. Dick, and Thomas Pynchon began publishing books that self-consciously operated on the fringes of SF and the literary avant-garde.


“During the 1970s and 1980s, a few other authors working at the boundaries of SF and postmodern experimentalism continued to borrow the use of motifs, language, images—as well as the “subject matter”—of SF. Important examples would include Don DeLillo’s Ratner’s Star (1976) and White Noise, Ted Mooney’s Easy Travel to Other Planets (1981), Joseph McElroy’s Plus (1976) and Women and Men (1986), Denis Johnson’s Fiskadoro (1985), Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), William T. Vollmann’s You Bright and Risen Angels (1987), Kathy Acker’s Empire of the Senseless (1988), and Mark Leyner’s My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist (1990). While writing outside the commercial SF publishing scene, these writers produced works that perfectly fulfill the generic task of SF, described by Vivian Sobchack as “the cognitive mapping and poetic figuration of social relations as these are constituted by new technological modes of ‘being-in-the-world”‘. As is true of the cyberpunk novels that began appearing in the early 1980s, these mainstream works (recently dubbed “slipstream” novels by cyberpunk theoretician Bruce Sterling) typically portrayed individuals awash in a sea of technological change, information overload, and random—but extraordinarily vivid—sensory stimulation. Personal confusion, sadness, dread, and philosophical skepticism often appeared mixed with equal measures of euphoria and nostalgia for a past when centers could still hold. The characters and events in these works typically exist within narrative frameworks that unfold as a barrage of words, data, and visual images drawn from a dissolving welter of reference to science and pop culture, the fabulous and the mundane, a tendency that reaches its most extreme expression in William Burroughs’s hallucinatory mid-1960s novels.

“A few of these “mainstream” postmodern writers have drawn very self-consciously from genre SF for specific tropes and narrative devices. This is very obvious in, for example, Burroughs’s use of the motifs of the 1930s space opera works he read as a youth, in DeLillo’s borrowing of dystopian elements in White Noise, in Vollman’s improvisational treatment of a much wider range of SF modes in You Bright and Risen Angels, or Kathy Acker’s borrowing of specific passages from Neuromancer in Empire of the Senseless. But typically one gets less a sense of these authors consciously borrowing from genre SF norms than of thier introducing elements simply because the world around them demands that they be present.”

Larry McCaffrey, ed. Storming The Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk and Post Modern Science Fiction. Durham & London: Duke University Press. 1991. pp9-11

Image: Andrew Hurle, Model, 2001.Darren Knight Gallery

Neither and/or

“The term slipstream was coined by Bruce Sterling in a column he wrote for a fanzine called SF Eye in 1989. Sterling was attempting to understand a kind of fiction that he saw increasingly in science fiction publications and elsewhere. He quite rightly asserted that it was not true science fiction, and yet it bore some relation to science fiction. In a key passage of his essay, Sterling wrote:

‘This genre is not category SF; it is not even “genre” SF. Instead, it is a contemporary kind of writing which has set its face against consensus reality. It is fantastic, surreal sometimes, speculative on occasion, but not rigorously so. It does not aim to provoke a “sense of wonder” or to systematically extrapolate in the manner of classic science fiction.

Instead, this is a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the late twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility. We could call this kind of fiction Novels of a Postmodern Sensibility… for the sake of convenience and argument, we will call these books “slipstream.”‘

“Two points need to be made about Sterling’s essay. First is that it includes a reading list of writers, of whom only a vanishingly small fraction were identified with a genre. From the outset, Sterling defined slipstream as largely a mutant form of the mainstream. The second point is that the essay was addressed to an audience of science fiction writers and readers. Nobody calls mainstream writers ‘mainstream” except for those of us in the ghetto of the fantastic. The very notion that slipstream writing needed to be placed in a genre of its own comes from measuring it against science fiction and fantasy. Building a wall to pen the mutant up is a very skiffy thing to do; the impulse is generated from an understanding of genre built up over fifty years of category publishing in the United States.


“This is primarily a social distinction. Science fiction, since the birth of the genre magazines in the 192os, has been seen as a category of pulp publishing more than as a literary form, and still carries this meaning (and associated stigma) despite fifty years of scholars and writers attempting to define it as a mode of writing rather than a mode of publishing. As such, sF was isolated from developments outside of pulp genres. Although the writers themselves may have been well read and educated in other forms of fiction, the genre for better or worse retained its separate identity.

“So when the New Wave SF writers of the 1960 and 1970s adapted techniques and attitudes of literary modernism to SF materials (stream of consciousness, fragmented narrative, cinematic techniques, intense concentration of the sensibility of the protagonist, psychological ‘realism”), it was seen within the genre community as a revolution, even though these techniques had been commonplace in Dos Passos and Hemingway and Stein and Joyce since the 1920s.

“Slipstream as a publishing category has meaning only to those coming from the genre side of the divide. Sterling, chief propagandist of the cyberpunk movement of the 198os, was trying to come to grips with other forms of ambitious visionary fiction being written in the 198os that could by no means be categorized as cyberpunk. In a way, his essay was an attempt to identify a form of fiction in opposition to cyberpunk so as to differentiate it. In the ensuing seventeen years, many writers in the genre who have been trying to establish an identity separate from category SF and fantasy, and in relation to literary fiction, have seized upon Sterling’s formulation. They have taken it to places that Sterling did not intend, and created a subcategory of publications, editors, magazines, and critical opinion within the world of SF discourse and yet separate from it. But in all discussions of slipstream we have seen, at some point the relationship of slipstream to genre science fiction is entertained and defined.”

James Patrick Kelly & John Kessel, eds. Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology. San Francisco: Tachyon Publications. 2006. pp iix-ix.

The rule of exceptions

“William Gibson is a science fiction writer, so is this science fiction? The answer is yes and no. Unlike Vonnegut, who goes to some pains to say he’s not writing science fiction even when he is, Gibson never shies from the label, even though he’s perfectly aware it’s not so simple a tag as it once was. Pattern Recognition is set in the present with no aliens or secret technologies. The plot turns on nothing more exotic technologically than chat rooms and posted film clips in a very recognizable Internet. Recently, Neal Stephenson’s Cryptomonicon, as fat as Pattern Recognition is lean, was largely treated as a science fiction novel by reviewers, bookdealers, and readers, even nominated for sf awards, though the main action involves the breaking of the Enigma code of World War II and isn’t science fiction in the usual sense. China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, on another end of the spectrum, seems science fictional even though it takes place in a Dickensian steampunk world with no connection to ours.

“Science fiction, in effect, has become a narrative strategy, a way of approaching story, in which not only characters must be invented, but the world and its ways as well, without resorting to magic or the supernatural, where the fantasy folks work. A realist wrestling with the woes of the middle class can leave the world out of it by and large except for an occasional swipe at the shallowness of suburbia. A science fiction writer must invent the world where the story takes place, often from the ground up, a process usually called world-building. In other words, in a science fiction novel, the world itself is a distinctive and crucial character in the plot, without whom the story could not take place, whether it’s the world of Dune or Neuromancer or 1984. The world is the story as much as the story is in the world. Part of Gibson’s point (and Stephenson’s too for that matter) is that we live in a time of such accelerated change and layered realities, that we’re all in that boat, like it or not. A novel set in the “real world” now has to answer the question, “Which one?”

Review | Pattern Recognition, by William Gibson by Dennis Danvers, Blackbird Archive


“One of the things I like about doing book tours is that I get to find out what I’ve been writing about — after a week or so, themes start to emerge. So far the interviewers have been focusing on ‘Is Spook Country science fiction?’ and do I think the present is scary?

“The 21st century is weird, man! I got there by the slow time machine, living my way to it. In a world like this, what constitutes the mundane? None of this is very mundane anymore, because it’s all touched by this kind of multiplex weirdness. We’re here, and it’s weirder than anything I’ve ever read in science fiction, except Brunner’s The Sheep Look Up and Stand on Zanzibar. That’s the closest thing to a prediction of where we are that I can think of. Brunner found a way to have all the overlapping science fiction scenarios of a world like the world where we live in one book. (He borrowed the technique from Dos Passos, but that’s good.) But if you had gone to a publisher in 1981 and pitched a science fiction novel where there’s this disease called AIDS and there’s global warming and this list of 20 other contemporary things, they would have called security!”

Interview with William Gibson – Scifirama

Image: Stephanie Valentin, Threshold, 2009.