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.