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

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.

Jennifer Trynin: Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be

If I were dictator of the world, everybody who wanted to form a band to play in front of people would be legally required to watch Standing in the Shadows of Motown first, and everyone who wanted to sign a record deal would be required to read Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be. In my dictatorial fantasy, this leads on the one hand to more bands that go back to the basement until the members learn to listen to each other, and on the other to fewer bands that sign contracts that will probably kill the band. I’m extra-sensitive on the latter point right now; a local band I like just signed a P&D deal with a Warner’s affiliate, and while I wish I could be happy for them, and hope I’m proven wrong, I think it’s unlikely the band will survive the experience. The last dozen or so sure didn’t.

But Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be is by no means only for aspiring record-deal-signers, or obsessive students of music culture. In fact, one of the awesome things about the book is how thoroughly outside-the-industry Trynin’s vantage point is. She found herself the object of an archetypical major label bidding war without having much prior knowledge of how such things work, and she doesn’t expect the reader to bring that knowledge either, nor does she get bogged down with business specifics. Although I think this memoir works well as a cautionary tale, it’s also a highly entertaining rags-to-riches-to-rags story, and Trynin brings the same sort of not-quite-what-you-expect sly wit and acuity to her prose that she once brought to her songs.

Needs More Demons? No. The only thing I want to change about this book is to tack on a feel-good happy ending where Trynin had a long, productive, if perhaps niche-y career as an independent artist. Unfortunately, although she played guitar with Loveless for a while, that hasn’t exactly come to pass so far.

While I don’t want to change the book, I do hope somebody assembles a glossary of all the names-changed-to-protect used in it, and I’m not steeped enough in Boston-ania to get very far. “Flint Raft” would seem to be Gravel Pit. “The Front Load” seems to be The Middle East. And…? Please feel free to help in comments.

Marcus Gray: The Last Gang in Town

I found Gray’s enormous, dense history of The Clash mostly fascinating, but the obviousness of Gray’s authorial agendas bugged me. The book is subtitled “The Story and Myth of the Clash,” and Gray spends a lot of effort looking for the points of divergence between the (hi)story and the myth of the band. He provides ample substantive examples of The Clash’s revisionism of their history and politics, e.g., subsequent claims that the “SS” in London SS, an early Mick Jones band and one of the earliest punk acts, was not a Nazi reference. But statements to the effect that Paul Simonon was born nearly 3 miles from Brixton he always claimed as his birthplace struck me as faintly ludicrous. If Gray were set loose in my own backstory he’d doubtless take me to task for claiming I lived in Baltimore, when in fact I always dwelt a quarter mile or more outside the city line — as well as for the shifts of my evolving political consciousness.

Gray also attempts to force events into his personal view of punk, in which the Clash (for example) are a force of positivity, and Nirvana (very explicitly) is a negative force. That’s fine. Gray is in good company, as far as I’m concerned, with many who fundamentally misunderstand Cobain’s art, and I prefer to view the punk subculture through rosy glasses sometimes myself. But in his quest to whitewash punk, Gray suggests that Sid Vicious might have been the lone bad egg in the early punk scene, and single-handedly tainted the whole movement with violence. That strikes me as not only absurd, but also as exactly the sort of revisionism for which Gray is quick to take The Clash to task.

I was also a little frustrated that something like half of the book goes by before the Clash record their first album. There was rich detail about proto-Clash London SS and the 101ers, but like many punk documents, Last Gang in Town devotes much of its length to the first flowering of punk, at the expense of everything after those first few months, which have already been minutely analyzed elsewhere.

Even though I often disagreed with Gray in particulars (I’m afraid my friends may have found me tiresome on the subject in the weeks I spent with this book) I found him thought-provoking throughout, and often both informative and insightful. Somewhat to my surprise, when I found myself facing a copy of Gray’s similarly-sized It Crawled from the South: An R.E.M. Companion, the lizard brain shrill of “buy this, buy this!” quickly won out over my top brain’s sombre muttering of “this guys annoys us.”

Needs More Demons? Maybe. But The Clash had plenty of their own.

Laurie Lindeen: Petal Pusher

Laurie Lindeen’s rags-to-well,rags chronicle of her band Zuzu’s Petals reminded strongly of Tommy Womack’s excellent and thematically similar Cheese Chronicles, with the added fillip that Laurie hooks up with someone Much More Famous midway through the band’s career arc.

Almost all of the book is written in the present tense. Lindeen is sometimes deliberately cagey about whom she implicates in various activities, with a two-of-us-got-busted (not saying which two) story being the height of obfuscation. She’s also sometimes cagey about when an event took place in relation to other events. The book more-or-less follows the band from slightly-pre-inception to its eventual disintegration. In the beginning of the book she’s flashes back from the band history to her pre-band life, but later when she flashes back from mid-to-late band timeline to earlier band timeline it gets a little confusing, and that confusion is my chief criticism. The frequent jumps backward and forward in time stop the book from being frontloaded with a lot of “here’s my life before I began to rock,” and Lindeen generally ties the flashback thematically to an event in the current timeline, but I still could have done with a little less backstory.

I’ve never been on tour, but Lindeen’s descriptions carry jolts of recognition for me anyway. If I mentally string together all the out-of-town shows I’ve played, I get a similarly grimy and unglamorous mental picture. Lindeen likes a lot the same bands I like and hates a lot of the bands I hate, and I found her a generally agreeable tourguide even when she was being kinda grumpy (she acknowledges her grumpiness, which helps). The writing is a little rough in places, but she manages quite a few very trenchant observations and made me laugh out loud several times.

I read a publisher’s galley, so I feel like it’s not fair to pick on the copy-editing. But there were a few errors so strange and confusing, that, fair or not, I was amused and bemused, like the word “nice” with a gratuitous circumflex — yes, nicê — and “die” instead of “the” on multiple occasions.

Needs More Demons? Nah.

Leslie What:Olympic Games

It was Leslie What’s contributions to Small Beer Press’s pretty-much-mostly slipstream zine, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet that made me really take note of her name. Her stories for that magazine fit what I think of as the general mode of slipstream (or interstitial, or new-wave fabulist, or whatever you want to call it) fiction.

My inadequate definition of slipstream is that it almost always uses some of the trappings and motifs of speculative fiction, but compared to “traditional” fantasy or science fiction it’s much more concerned with literary qualities like style, voice, mood, and theme. It’s correspondingly less concerned with plot, and, to a lesser extent character development (at least in a realistic mode).

Although Olympic Games sprouted, more or less, from the slipstream story “The Goddess is Alive and, Well, Living in New York City,” the novel itself strikes me as more fantasy than slipstream, and it takes off in tangents that give the whole work a different feel and larger scope. This is definitely to its benefit; I found myself much more caught up in the story of the supernally-gifted, reclusive artist called Possum, and his ensorcelled love Penelope, and less interested in the modern world doings of Zeus and Hera. For the most part I thought What did an excellent job of steering clear of genre clichés, despite the familiar territory. The tone is mostly light, but never broadly comic, and certainly not without emotional resonance. The novel reminded me in bits and pieces of several different authors, but it didn’t seem specifically derivative of any one particular voice.

A quibble I can’t stop myself from including: If I’d judged this book by its cover, I never would’ve picked it up. Michael Dashow’s cartoonish illustration evokes the wrong mood entirely — it seems much more suited to a more overtly comic fantasist like Robert Asprin or Terry Pratchett.

cover illustration of Leslie What's novel, Olympic Games

I sometimes feel a little hamstrung by using Needs More Demons? as a metric, but, anyway, it doesn’t.

John MacLachlan Gray: The Fiend In Human

I think the first time my friend Marty and I had a conversation about books, he said something like “I read classic literature [which gave us substantial common ground] and thrillers about serial killers.” [which didn’t much increase it] and he expressed a distinct lack of fondness for modern “serious” fiction.

We’ve spent plenty of time since discussing our respective tastes in entertainment media, and I have a high opinion of his judgment. Enough so that when for Christmas he gave me a copy of what was obviously a novel about, among other things, a serial killer, I actually read it instead of just reading a summary on the Internets. (To be fair here, I gave him one more-or-less “serious” modern novel and in short order convinced him to read another one.)

And in fact, The Fiend in Human is an excellent example of the sort of serial killer fiction that actually appeals to me, not least because several of its characters actively question the role of the press in turning criminals into quasi-heroic figures, not to mention the risk of inspiring copycat crimes. Further, it’s set in a compellingly detailed Victorian London. It also has a dash of post-modern narrative “difficulty;” most of it is written in a present tense with vocabulary and sentence structures that often evoke 19th-century prose styles (“To Whitty’s surprise, the inert gentleman across the table speaks in a distant, weak voice; the open mouth does not perceptibly move,” but that also admit much more modern constructions, like the one-two-three punch that opens the first chapter:

There is something unspeakable in Whitty’s mouth. Is it a dead animal?
No, it is his tongue.

This odd marriage of styles is intermittently broken up with snippets of proto-yellow journalism penned by the protagonist, Edmund Whitty, which adhere more strictly to 19th-century prose conventions (like the dread, stilted, and infinitely conventional past tense).

One of the reasons I prefer “mysteries” to “thrillers” is that I like the puzzle aspects of whodunnits — I don’t much care for the novelistic device in which an early scene from an alternate viewpoint establishes the identity of the evildoer, so that the reader is in on the joke while the detectives flounder around. The Fiend in Human walks a tightrope between these styles; the reader knows a big piece of the mystery for certain before Whitty does; the astute reader will probably figure it out many chapters before, and the serious mystery devotee will probably catch a subtlety that eluded me.

Fortunately The Fiend in Human has much more going for it than a twisty plot; there’s some real depth to the characters, some real thematic depth to their actions, and the sheer brooding, grimy presence of Gray’s London is a marvel (his descriptions of the infamous London fogs were especially noteworthy).

I found a lot to like, and I was quite content to accept Marty’s loan of a sequel, but I also found it a little grim for my taste. Edmund Whitty and his seamy milieu are vividly drawn, but far from pleasant, and I think I need another escapist book or two before spending more time in John MacLachlan Gray’s hands.

Needs More Demons? Absolutely not; Whitty has plenty.

Barbara Hambly: Children of the Jedi

I liked Timothy Zahn’s Star Wars novels a lot, even if they were a somewhat guilty pleasure. Many other people apparently liked them too, because LucasFilm and Bantam Spectra cooked up a chronology spanning some fifteen years after Return of the Jedi and found writers to fill it in with dozens of novels. The back cover descriptions and the lush front cover paintings of these books touched some eternally-thirteen-year-old part of me, and I bought more of them than I will admit. Unfortunately, the adult part of me found most of them so badly and baldly written as to be totally unreadable.

Lately I’ve ditched several of these novels via Bookmooch. I’m happy to connect the books with people who really want them.

But initially I held back a handful I thought I might actually read someday, because they were written by writers whose work I already knew and had enjoyed in the past. Barbara Hambly’s Children of the Jedi was the first of these. I’d read one or two of Hambly’s fantasy novels and remembered them favorably — not great, but not as thoroughly cliché-ridden as some of the other fantasy novels I’d read.

Children of the Jedi turned out to be a perfect book to read while feverish. It wasn’t as clunky as some of the Star Wars novels that had failed to draw my interest, but it wasn’t exactly challenging either. Structurally it’s a bit like The Empire Strikes Back, cross-cutting between widely separated events in bizarre, extreme, environments. Luke Skywalker, See Threepio, and the requisite motley, unlikely, collection of allies find themselves marooned on a decrepit battle station ruled by an insane supercomputer, and haunted by a strange entity. Meanwhile, Han Solo and Princess (now Chief of State) Leia, and their assorted pals and foes try to unravel the mysteries around a secret enclave of Jedi children on a crazy planet where life exists only in fragile enclaves between a wintry surface and a volcanic molten hell. Ultimately (of course) the disparate plot threads collide, and derring-do, tense chases, Dark-Side-of-the-Force hijinks, and things-blowing-up-real-good ensue. Children of the Jedi evinces the same sort of plot flaws the original movies showed throughout — the Force has a strange tendency to become much less useful when the author needs to make it difficult for a character to surmount obstacles. I was particularly annoyed that Skywalker mysteriously, but conveniently, forgets many of the uses to which his lightsaber can be put.

Children of the Jedi trots out plenty of the standard riffs, with various folks expressing the signature “bad feeling about this” on no less than four occasions, and plenty of arms and/or hands being de-attached with lightsabers. It has some references to other series books that felt very clumsily grated on, and I think it would have be stronger if it were cut by twenty percent or so. But it also offers some quirky touches that I appreciated, like the weary ex-stormtrooper who embroiders flowers on his homespun clothing. And it kept me from focusing on how rotten I felt for a few hours — it delivered all that I asked, and expected, of it. Maybe that’s not such faint praise.

Needs More Demons? Not really.

David Schickler: Kissing in Manhattan

I’ve tried several times, unsuccessfully, to write about the fiction of Jonathan Carroll. It’s even difficult to articulate why it’s so difficult for me to write about Carroll. I’ve studied his technique and themes enough to learn something about them, but those easily-isolated surface attributes don’t explain Carroll’s bewitching power. This book — something less than a novel, but more than a set of linked short stories — provides a clue, because it uses many of Carroll’s characteristic tricks. The fantastic and surreal intrudes into the everyday, the emotional core of characters drives the story more aggressively than the plot does, and the narrative voice is often capriciously omniscient:

It was ten minutes till five on a Thursday. Donna and Lee’s office was on the twenty-first floor. It had a bay window facing south, and just before five every evening, Donna and Lee stood at this window and looked at the sunlight on the rivers. Lee, who was a lesbian, loved the East River best. Donna loved the Hudson.

One of the problems I’ve had in writing about Carroll’s books is that they’re excessively trivialized by reducing them to capsule descriptions: they wind up sounding silly. But they don’t feel silly while I’m reading them; they’re often deeply affecting, even when they contain outlandish events. I can’t explain it clearly, but the supernatural and surreal elements of Carroll’s fiction seem to obey an internal logic that gives them resonance. It doesn’t matter whether this logic is obvious to the reader or not; its presence is felt nonetheless.

I didn’t get this sense from Schickler’s work; the fantastic elements, as when a lonely young man stumbles upon a strange figure surrounded by gem stones in the basement of a sex shop, seem awkward and unconvincing. If it sounds a bit silly, I thought it was. This particular event propels the narrative and is close to the book’s thematic heart, but it doesn’t make any sense, nor does it make nonsense in a way I found compelling.

A further peeve: several of Schickler’s characters are high-powered attorneys, whom he writes about it in a way that suggests strongly to me that he’s never met one.

Needs More Demons? I dunno, but it needs more something.

Peter Dickinson: The Seventh Raven

An illustration of the power of context:

Lately I’ve been writing quite a bit about fantasy novels marketed to young adult audiences (probably to the dismay of many readers, but that’s beside the point for now). I was on the Amazon website perusing lists of people’s favorite young adult novels, and in a list with a bunch of genre authors, I found The Seventh Raven described like this: “Too bizarre to actually describe here. Let’s just say you’ll never read anything quite like it again.” I have the impression that I looked it up somewhere else and read a comment along the lines of “This is a book about . . . no, actually, it’s better if you just find out for yourself.” (I can’t find that comment now, though, so I could be wrong about that.) Anyway, the information I had was enough for me to request it from the library. It sure looked like a fantasy novel when I picked it up; the cover features a grim-looking kid wearing an elaborate raven headdress.

If I had read an accurate description of what the The Seventh Raven is “about” (plot-wise, and to some extent thematically) I never would have read it. And that would have been a shame, because I liked it a lot. It seemed quintessentially British, in a good way: precisely and insightfully written, rather dry-humored, and somewhat reserved even when depicting loud and raucous events.

The list I found it on described it as “little-known.” If that’s true (I’d certainly never heard of it, which proves nothing) I suspect it’s in part because it doesn’t fit neatly into a single genre at all. It’s a good book, I’d say, in at least two genres. Where do you file it? How do you market it?

And I agree with the source I can’t find and may have manufactured — better not to know anything at all of what genres the novel might or might not fit in. I will tell you that you’ll have a first-person 17-year-old female narrator as your guide, and mention that I recommend it doubly if you’re a musician of any stripe, and that’s all you’ll get from me. If you wind up with the same edition I read, maybe you could put some sort of slipcover on it. That way you won’t embarrass yourself showing the front cover in any public place, and you’ll reduce the risk of reading the back cover ’til after you’ve finished.

Needs More Demons? Nope.

David Hewson: A Season for the Dead

I’m a longtime fan of the Daedalus Books remainders house. I’ve learned about some of my favorite authors from their chatty, informative catalogs.

Every once in a while, though, I follow up a recommendation for a real dud. Hewson’s A Season for the Dead drew many comparisons to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, because (I surmise) it’s a thriller, it’s set in Rome (partly in the Vatican), and because one of its characters in an expert in ancient Christian texts. The Washington Post allegedly said it was “better written and more sophisticated” than Brown’s bestseller, and described it as “intelligent entertainment,” both of which strain my credulity.

This is a misleading comparison. Anyone who expects this novel to offer the sort of historical speculation that The Da Vinci Code trades in will be disappointed in that regard: A Season for the Dead starts with a gruesome scene in a Vatican reading room, but other than that, history is used almost exclusively as window dressing.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of this book is that it’s not purely awful. There is some attempt to imbue its characters with inner lives, and there’s some attempt to give the plot events some thematic heft.

But these positive qualities are outweighed by the novel’s flaws, which include stilted dialogue, stock characters, and plot points both cliché-ridden and implausible. It’s the sort of book in which cops identify suspects on the basis of opportunity without considering motive or means. At one point I wondered if Hewson was setting up an especially shop-worn plot-twist, and thought to myself, “even Hewson wouldn’t stoop to that, and besides it would completely violate the continuity he’s established.” A few chapters later, he went for it. Hewson’s particularly shaky in attempting to portray the motivations and actions of the rich and powerful — you could except more nuanced and credible villainy from the average soap opera. Worse, his female characters manage between them to evoke just about every vile stereotype of women in crime fiction. Finally, there’s a lip-smacking prurience to Hewson’s descriptions of graphic violence that borders on the pornographic, and a pair of blatantly pornographic scenes that border on the ridiculous (I was reminded of the movie Team America: World Police).

Needs More Demons? Even an influx of demons couldn’t salvage this turkey.