II. Slippery Fiction
And, lo, it came to pass that the Slipstream was born.
Slipstream. It's a word, a marker that has served a purpose the way "cyberpunk" serves to distinguish a specific point on the science fiction timeline: Way down here at the far left — this great big foot–long span — are the dinosaurs, and way up here in the last millimeter is this teeny dot. You see that? I'll get you a magnifying glass. There. That's cyberpunk. Yup, lasted just that long, too; although you'd think it was still a going concern.
Slipstream is no different. It's a term, coined by Bruce Sterling back at a Sycamore Hill Writing Workshop I happened to attend in the late 1980s. Bruce had identified something going on in what we sf philistines refer to as the "mainstream" (a term whereby we manage to ostracize ourselves from the main currents of western literature — hurrah!). He asked the workshoppers if we had noticed any books that fit his criteria of contemporary mainstream novels that had carried off fantasy, mystery and even science fiction tropes. And, boy, we sure had. It was pretty easy, really, because the publisher of most of them, Vintage Books, had created a packaging format that made them stand out as part of a line of books that was doing something different, something of superior artistry, something we should all be paying attention to. Given that we at the workshop could toss off a bunch of names that fit his definition — McInerney, Auster, Erickson — clearly we had noticed. Bruce intended the word as a marker, and by now you'd think we'd be putting it to bed. The publisher has changed their look; they seem to know that it's time to pan for gold elsewhere. Instead "slipstream" springs up all over the place as if it's identifying something new. In two weeks I'll be a guest at the World Fantasy Convention in Washington, D.C., and it's the topic of a panel there.
And once again, Bruce had identified merely the latest incarnation of a phenomenon that was not new at all.
III. "Sherman, set the wayback machine for 1965."
Rod Serling steps out of the dark into a small spotlight. He wears a black suit, and smoke from a cigarette floats up from where his hands are clasped before him. Squinting and grinning simultaneously, he intones: "Submitted for your approval, here we have the burned–out shell of a literature called 'Modernism.' Full of stories about marital infidelity, alcoholic induced rage, cultural ennui, marital infidelity, driving across country in order to have an epiphany, shopping at the A&P, and, finally, marital infidelity. What this depressed and depressing literature doesn't know is that it's about to fall down the Rabbit Hole we call The Metafiction Zone."
Metafiction means "beyond fiction." If modern American fiction was a snow globe paperweight, metafiction was a big hand shaking it all up like crazy and then depositing it back on the desk top. The plain story plainly told was flung into confetti–like pieces, and the pieces were reassembled out of order or not at all, with malice of forethought.
The Deconstructors included Barth, Barthelme, Coover, Pynchon, Hawkes, Gaddis and Gass.
Meanwhile, inside the science fiction genre, we were having our own metafictional event, tagged the New Wave. Like metafiction, it was an expression of the desire to shake up hidebound traditions.
The Waveriders included: Moorcock (at the top), Ballard, Brunner, Zelazny, Delany, and Sheckley. In fact, I've concluded that if you were writing sf in the late 1960s and your name ends in "y," you were required to write New Wave fiction.
Their influence did ripple out. Wavecatchers in Europe and the USSR, such as Lem and the Strugatsky brothers, picked up on these experiments with the absurd and unnatural, because they were already writing a science fiction of the absurd — sf by way of Russian traditions, full of the mad absurdities of Mikail Bulgakov and other surrealists.
One metafictionist, Lawrence Durrell, even wrote two metafictional science fiction novels: Tunc, and Nunquam.
Meta–tinkering came with built–in limitations, however. There are a lot of ways you can reassemble "story" that don't work. It should not be surprising then that a lot of Metafiction and a lot of New Wave fiction just plain sucked. Here's a test for you — name 3 great metafictional novels of the '60s. I'll be back in a week to collect your answers or, at the very least, to cut you down from the rafters.
Prestigious writing workshops such as those at the University of Iowa, where I happened to be at the time, filled up with wannabe writers diving into metafictional experiments to show off how brilliant and clever and "important–real–soon–now" they were. The problem with the influence of such experimentation was that many of the writing students (and some of the published authors) hadn't established that they could write a story yet, and already they were taking them apart. It's like someone who's never ridden a bicycle dismantling it and then holding up the rear brake pad and saying "This, this will be my bicycle."
But the real built–in limitation with the grand experiment of deconstruction is that readers want stories. I'll repeat that. Readers. Want. Stories.
They may not want stories about the checkout boy shagging a housewife in the warehouse of the local supermarket, but they want a story. Experiments that by definition focus on only one aspect of "story" will have a very small audience; and while they might appreciate your experimental story intellectually, they won't have much or any visceral reaction to it. They will not be emotionally moved. We have been telling stories at least since we lived in caves; that's some hundreds of thousands of years of attitude about how it's done that you have to get around. So the experiments, in the end, weren't going to last, because, finally, we want our stories.
What it reminds me of, is a jazz musician I once heard explain why the fusion jazz of the 70s just faded away (yes, experiment with form was not just going on in literature — what do you think this is, a vacuum?). He said, "Nobody wanted to listen to that stuff while they were eating dinner." And he's right. I love Miles Davis, but it's going to be a rough meal conducted to the strains of "Bitches Brew." There is a comfort element missing, an invitation to participate that's absent. And so, too, in metafiction.
Each movement of this kind is a reaction against that which preceded it. So naturally, what followed reacted against metafiction. And, fortunately for us, for Bruce Sterling, and for the slipstream, the new movement embraced "story" again.
IV. Would You Like Magic with Your Fries?
Running concurrent with metafictional experimentation and deconstructionism was fiction from Mexico, Central and South America. Like Columbian cocaine, this fiction slipped across the border and began secretly altering perceptions. It was deemed "Magical Realism" and the term, as initially applied, referred specifically to this South American phenomenon. The fiction combined or conflated traditional, contemporary story–telling with surreal, fantastical, folkloric material.
The Mages included Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortazar, Carlos Fuentes, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
As their influence spread north, these magic realists influenced such writers as T. C. Boyle, Steve Erickson, Paul Auster; and across the Atlantic, Italo Calvino. (All very much as the British New Wave had inspired North American science fiction writers in the sixties.)
You may have noticed that this list sounds a lot like Sterling's Slipstream list. Yup. Once again, Slipstream is an historical document, describing something that was already firmly entrenched by the time it was defined.
And "slipstream", like "magic realism", at one point was very specific in its application but has been watered down beyond all recognition by over–application. Both terms are now tossed off by reviewers and critics who have no idea where they came from or, really, just what they mean.
So here's Frost telling you that slipstream is now an all–but–meaningless term, regardless of how much we talk about it, and that talking about it isn't going to do any good. How are we supposed to talk about this weird non–classifiable fiction, then?
Let's go back to Frost's Big House of Literature. We still have a big house, and the rooms are still replete with all their furnishings. But you might notice now that there are tables and chairs out in the hall. There are people in the halls, too, or on the stairs, people just walking around, going into one room after another, but not taking up residence in any of them for very long. These people are NOT coloring inside the lines. They're not even coloring outside the lines. They're coloring in between the lines. They're Liminalists. They're Interstitial!