This post is brought to you by the peonies and roses currently gracing our yard.
Recently a very dear friend emailed and asked me for a description of the book I'm finishing up writing. How would I classify the story I'm trying to tell? Exactly what kind of writing is it? Here's the answer I gave her:
I would call it 'urban fantasy,' except that a lot of it takes place in the woods of the Hudson Highlands (the rest is in Manhattan). But maybe that works. The setting is modern day, but there is a lot of magic being thrown around as if it were unusual, but not impossible.
ZF-360 [that's the working title of this book] is most similar in feel to mythic fiction by people like John Crowley, Charles de Lint, Terri Windling, and Neil Gaiman. I don't think it's 'literary' enough to be called 'magic realism.' I hate the term 'elfpunk,' but that might be an accurate description.
After writing that, I found myself unsatisfied. My answer, while it gave her some guidelines, seemed frustratingly imprecise. What is it exactly that I am trying to do in my writing? Ruminating upon that question occupied my mind as I frantically sewed costumes all last week.
Have you ever been wandering lost, looking for any known landmark, when suddenly you recognized something familiar? It's as if the entire landscape shifts around both that item and you; as you orient yourself, it appears as though the world around you has changed, when it is really your brain that has done so. This happened to me in a figurative sense last night.
I was reading over the panel descriptions for Readercon, which is now exactly one month away. I noticed that the word 'slipstream' was used over and over again. It's a word I'd heard before, but hadn't bothered to look up. As I read, however, I saw from the context that this word might be a touchstone for me. Popping it into my trusty Google Search box, I was immediately rewarded with the article in which cyberpunk deity Bruce Sterling actually coined the term 'slipstream.' This is what he 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 [emphasis mine]. 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 Postmodern Sensibility, but that looks pretty bad on a category rack, and requires an acronym besides; so for the sake of convenience and argument, we will call these books "slipstream."
Other writers argue that slipstream is more of an effect than a genre; whatever it is, I recognized as I read that Sterling's definition captures exactly the kind of story that ferments in and emerges from my quirky brain. Apparently, I am a person of a certain sensibility.
I've always believed that relying too heavily on consensus reality is a dangerous thing. For example, I was talking with some really smart women yesterday morning about self-defense. We traded stories of the things we do to ensure that our houses are secure on nights when our husbands are away. One woman opined that it was more likely that one's house be surrounded by armed bandits than for an evil clown to attack one from under the bed. I laughed and said, "Don't be too sure about that." I spoke only seven-eighths in jest.
It seems to me that unconditionally accepting consensus reality is one of the ways by which our minds narrow and close as we age. As children, we often believe that anything is possible; the death of that openness and faith is more dangerous than we realize. Do I believe that some people see dead people, as in my current favorite TV show, Medium? Do I think that aliens have visited Earth? Do I suspect that time does not flow at a constant rate? Do I presume that trees and rocks have spirits? Call me crazy, but I reserve the right to abstain from a definitive vote on any of these questions for the present. As unlikely as they may seem, I refuse to rule them outright impossibilities.
At the end of his article, Sterling gave a list of books he regarded as fitting into the slipstream genre. I found similar lists elsewhere on the internet, and apparently an updated one will be dispersed at Readercon. Here are some of my favorites of those books generally recognized as slipstream:
Winter's Tale, by Mark Helprin
Foucault's Pendulum and
The Island of the Day Before, by Umberto Eco
Was, by Geoff Ryman
Life of Pi, by Yann Martel
Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman
White Noise, by Don DeLillo
Shoeless Joe, by W.P. Kinsella
The Witches of Eastwick, by John Updike (I know; I usually hate Updike.)
I find it odd that before last night I didn't wholly make the connection between my work and that of the above writers. But perhaps that is because I hold them all in such high regard. I wouldn't dare to presume that my books might ever be on the same list as these.
I find it comforting, however, to be able to slap a label on what I'm doing. The next time someone asks me what kind of fiction I write, I'll be able to answer with aplomb, "Slipstream." The fact that this will most likely confuse them does not bother me; somehow the fact that there is a category out there for my stuff gives me confidence in what I'm doing.
And I'm doing it again, now that the trek is behind us! Since we have recitals, graduations, courts of honor, firesides, and baseball games to plan and/or attend in the next four weeks, I've set July 6th as the date that I'll be done with ZF-360. That way, I can hand Patrick a manuscript to read as I jaunt off to Burlington for the annual treat that is Readercon. Trust me, I'll make my deadline this time. I couldn't bear the shame of it otherwise.