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On the Net: Genre by James Patrick Kelly


canned worms

In the last installment we puzzled over slipstream, that kind of writing that crosses genre boundaries. But what is genre? Mssrs. Merriam and Webster <http://www.m-w.com/home.htm> have this to say: "a category of artistic, musical, or literary composition characterized by a particular style, form, or content." This is, alas, not a very useful definition, especially when applied to SF. For it is possible to imagine stories that have no science fictional content, but are written in a science fictional style or the mimic the forms of science fiction. Slipstream, for example. But science fiction is all about content, no?

There is a wonderful site created by Turkish fan Neyir Cenk Gökçe, Definitions of Science Fiction <http://www.panix.com/~gokce/sf_defn.html>, which offers fifty-two (count ‘em!) different and sometimes conflicting attempts to characterize our genre. Here are three pretty good ones:

"SF is a controlled way to think and dream about the future. An integration of the mood and attitude of science (the objective universe) with the fears and hopes that spring from the unconscious. Anything that turns you and your social context, the social you, inside out. Nightmares and visions, always outlined by the barely possible." Gregory Benford <http://www.sfsite.com/03b/ben29.htm>

"Science Fiction is the branch of literature that deals with the effects of change on people in the real world as it can be projected into the past, the future, or to distant places." James Gunn <http://falcon.cc.ukans.edu/~sfcenter/bio.htm>

"A science fiction story is a story built around human beings, with a human problem and a human solution, which would not have happened at all without its scientific content." Theodore Sturgeon <http://www.physics.emory.edu/~weeks/misc/sturgeon.html>



Science. Change. The Future. We can all point to reams of science fiction that address these issues. But then there are many stories that "feel" like science fiction but probably aren’t, under most of the fifty-two definitions. Alternate History <http://www.uchronia.net> is yet another example of fiction that seems related to our genre but doesn’t feature SF content.

In thinking about what science fiction might be, it helps to distinguish between the genre as an art form and the genre as a commercial product. The writer’s intentions and those of the publisher are by no means the same. When I sit down to start a new project, I’m not immediately concerned with whether I am going to be writing science fiction, fantasy, slipstream, mainstream, or whatever. I’m just trying to write a Jim Kelly story. As I shape the piece, however, it often becomes clear what genre I’ve wandered into. But even if it’s not clear, I might nevertheless send the manuscript to Gardner and Sheila to see if they’ll publish it in their SF magazine. If they do, does that then decide my story’s genre?


Well, maybe.

Actually not. Longtime subscribers may recall that this magazine once had a letters column, presided over by the indefatigable Isaac Asimov himself. From time to time irate readers would write to ask what certain stories (some perpetrated by me) were doing in their favorite SF magazine, when said stories had little or no discernable fantastic element. Isaac always rose to the writers’ defense and proclaimed his confidence in the judgment of the editors. But I understand why those letters got written. It was because the stories didn’t fulfill the genre contract.

That contract is a set of promises that a genre implicitly makes to its readers. For example, you bought this magazine with certain expectations. You would be understandably chagrined if all the stories in this issue were about people solving crimes. You want detection, plunk down your $3.99 for Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine <http://www.themysteryplace.com/ahmm/index.shtml>. Gardner and Sheila might slip an occasional story in that doesn’t strictly adhere to the genre contract, but this is Asimov’s Science Fiction, by god, and it’s SF you’re going to get! However, the marketing of Asimov’s as an SF magazine does not always address the genre intentions of the writers herein.

Another component of our peculiar genre is what Samuel R. Delany <http://www.pcc.com/~jay/delany> has called the protocols by which readers interpret context. You read the stories in Asimov’s differently than you do those in Hitchcock’s. Impossible things can be commonplaces, moral certitudes can be discredited–the very sentences themselves can take on strange, new meanings. On the most basic level, consider some of the jargon we toss off so blithely. Hive-mind. FTL. Wetware. AI. Nano. Hyperspace. VR. Cyborg.

The whole clanking machinery of our genre is at once a bug and a feature, a blessing and a curse. Thank God I don’t have to stop the plot to explain to you how my AI protagonist was programmed. You’ve read so much of this stuff that all I have to do is wave the authorial wand and you’ll accept that an intelligent house might obsess about her furniture. But will your Grandma Lucy get it? Will little Billy be able to wrap his mind around nanotech when he’s still fuzzy about the difference between an electron and a proton? What makes SF so special to some also makes it too specialized for others.



In her essay "An Introduction to Interstitial Arts" <http://www.endicott-studio.com/IA/IA-intro.html> Delia Sherman <http://www.sff.net/people/kushnersherman/sherman> imagines a continent called Literature filled with countries called Mystery and Romance and Thrillers and Regional fiction. She writes "Historical fiction, Literary Realism, African-American fiction, and Regional fiction have formed an alliance, Mainstream Literature, which allows them to pass freely over one another’s borders." Other countries, including Fantasy and Science Fiction, are isolated. She argues that certain writers whose work we might be tempted to call slipstream are, in fact, interstitial, that is, they prowl the borders between these literary countries. This is a useful conceit because it keeps the slipstream from becoming a genre unto itself. Interstitial writers sign no genre contract–or rather, the contract is that rules will be broken and genre expectations thwarted.

You can find Sherman’s essay on Interstitial Arts <http://www.endicott-studio.com/ia.html> the official site of a group calling themselves artists without borders. Many of these folks have strong ties to SF and might well be considered slipstream writers. However, they claim that not only do they cross borders between science fiction and other genres, as slipstream traditionally does, but they cross genres that have nothing to do with SF. Terri Windling <http://www.endicott-studio.com/bioterri.html> lays out the Interstitial Arts agenda <http://www.endicott-studio.com/IA/IA-welcome.html> "We’re not seeking to create a new category of fiction, but to establish a better way of reading border-crossing texts. In fact, we’re not seeking to create a new movement at all, but to recognize a movement that already exists."

And that, I think, is a telling point. Slipstream may be hot at the moment, but is it new? Haven’t SF artists been crossing boundaries for some time? The theory of interstitial arts and its subset, slipstream, is that these forms inhabit the territory between our genre and various other genres. But the best minds of our genre can’t agree on what SF is, and without a coherent definition, how does a writer know when she’s crossed a boundary?

Consider Carol Emshwiller <http://www.sfwa.org/members/emshwiller> who has just, as I write this, won her first Nebula <http://www.sfwa.org/news/03nebwin.htm> for her story "Creature." Her work is brilliant and idiosyncratic and much of it is undeniably slipstream. Carol started selling stories in the fifties. Here’s Carol on her writing process: "Whenever I sit down to write too consciously (and I do sometimes) it ends up with no resonance. It looks and feels planned. When I do that it has no . . . what? Underwear? Underside? This is why Kafka is my favorite writer. Kafka’s stories aren’t about what they’re about. I like them for what they don’t say. Sometimes Steven King stories sound like Kafka stories but they’re only about the stories you see. They’re only about their surface . . . about what happens. Kafka’s stories are not about their stories."

How about Jonathan Carroll <http://www.jonathancarroll.com> whose wonderful first novel The Land of Laughs was published twenty-four years ago?

He writes: "Over the years my work has been described as Fantasy, horror, SciFi, mainstream, slipstream, Rap, House, and Cha Cha Cha. In the end who cares what it is so long as it is worth reading? Categories often, sadly, keep people from experiencing things that would enrich their lives."

Then there’s Karen Joy Fowler <http://www.sfwa.org/members/Fowler> who has been delighting readers since the mid-eighties. Although her recent story "What I Didn’t See" <http://www.scifi.com/scifiction/originals/originals_archive/fowler> touched off a firestorm among some of the self-appointed guardians of genre purity, it is of a piece with most of her earlier work. Karen’s stories are complex and deep; even her subtext has subtext. As she writes, "I cannot reduce my themes to a single sentence. They are not messages but constellations of issues and questions. It takes the whole story. If I could say what I wanted to say in a sentence, I would do so and save us all a lot of time."

It’s true, however, that we have seen a flurry of new genre crossings in the last few years. In addition to online ‘zines like Fantastic Metropolis <http://www.fantasticmetropolis.com> Strange Horizons <http://www.strangehorizons.com> and the promising new Singularity <http://www.sfsite.com/singularity>, three print sources stand out: the Leviathan anthologies <http://www.ministryofwhimsy.com> formerly edited by Jeff VanderMeer <http://www.vandermeer.redsine.com> and now by Forrest Aguirre, the Polyphony anthologies <http://www.wheatlandpress.com/polyphony/index.html> edited by Deborah Layne and Jay Lake < http://www.jlake.com> and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet <http://www.lcrw.net/lcrw/index.htm> edited by Gavin J. Grant <http://www.endicott-studio.com/biograntlink.html#gavin>.

A frequent contributor to Lady Churchill’s is Kelly Link <http://www.kellylink.net> who last year won the Nebula for her novelette "Louise’s Ghost." Kelly talks about her struggles with genre: "I’ll start out thinking, ‘I’ll write a ghost story’ or ‘I’ll write a detective story.’ Then I’ll begin and think, ‘I can’t do this. I can’t put this together.’ So I’ll write around the ghost story, vaguely sort of a ghost story, but not really. I’ll know when it’s not the story that I meant to write, but if people ask me questions, like, ‘What exactly happened here?’ my brain will shut down and I’ll say, ‘I don’t know!’"



In his provocative 1998 essay, "The Squandered Promise of Science Fiction" <http://www.sinc.sunysb.edu/Stu/dmyers/lethems_vision.html> sometime slipstreamer Jonathan Lethem <http://www.sinc.sunysb.edu/Stu/dmyers> proposed an alternate history of our genre. "In 1973 Thomas Pynchon’s <http://www.hyperarts.com/pynchon/index.html> Gravity’s Rainbow was awarded the Nebula, the highest honor available in the field once known as ‘science fiction’ - a term now mostly forgotten." In our reality, Arthur C. Clarke <http://www.lsi.usp.br/~rbianchi/clarke> won for Rendezvous with Rama. Jonathan’s essay was a thought experiment about what would have happened if SF merged with the mainstream. He argued that it might be better for all concerned if there were no genres, if Delia Sherman’s continent of Literature had no boundaries. In such a literary utopia there would be no SF or slipstream or mainstream. We’d all be just one big happy family.

Yeah, right. That’ll happen just about the time that a robot becomes Pope.

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"On the Net: Genre" by James Patrick Kelly, copyright © 2003 with permission of the author.

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