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Books
by John Kessel

Paraspheres: Extending Beyond the Spheres of Literary and Genre Fiction, edited by Rusty Morrison and Ken Keegan, Omnidawn Publishing, 2006, $19.95.

In Persuasion Nation, by George Saunders, Riverhead Books, 2006, $23.95.

The Nimrod Flipout, by Etgar Keret, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2006, $12.

Skinny Dipping in the Lake of the Dead: Stories, by Alan De Niro, Small Beer Press, 2006, $16.

Slipstreams, edited by Martin H. Greenberg and John Helfers, DAW, 2006, $7.99.

Where, today, do the boundaries of fantasy and science fiction lie?

Over the last twenty years, a number of people have tried to acknowledge sf or fantasy of literary quality without calling it sf or fantasy. In the 1960s and after, in the wake of the "discovery" by U.S. readers and critics of writers like Gabriel García Márquez, Maria Vargas Llosa, Mikhail Bulgakov, and Jorge Luis Borges, "Magic Realism" was the popular label. But the term never fit comfortably on Anglophone writers. Some people tried "Speculative Fiction" but the term smelled of science fiction (it was originated by Robert Heinlein and popularized by a later generation of sf writers). In the 1970s, academic critic Robert Scholes tried the term "Fabulation" (and later "Speculative Fabulation"), but that never caught on. The Interstitial Arts Foundation, as we might expect, talks about "interstitial" fiction. And, as much to divorce such work from true science fiction as to promote it, Bruce Sterling, in 1989, invented the term "Slipstream" to define this non-genre of fantastic works written mostly (but not always) by non-sf writers.

The good news is that an increasing amount of such fiction has been published in the last twenty years. And so here comes Paraspheres, an anthology that attempts to understand and promote this fuzzing of the borders.

Editor Ken Keegan's afterword covers some of this history. He comes from the mainstream side of the mainstream/genre divide, yet he accepts the value of the fantastic and is trying hard to find a way to bring it to readers who do not normally like this sort of thing. Keegan identifies two forms of fiction, "Genre" and "Literary." Genre is formula fiction, not interested in character, written to provide escape. Literary fiction is "that which has recognized cultural and artistic value." (He leaves unspoken who it is who decides this). This primary meaning of literary fiction, Keegan says, has been equated, in the commercial publishing industry, with "narrative realism." And narrative realism depends on deep characterization.

Therefore any fiction that does not place character development at its center has not been judged literary, and has no cultural and artistic value. In Paraspheres, Keegan and co-editor Rusty Morrison attempt to collect fiction "which does have cultural meaning and artistic value and therefore does not fit well in the escapist formula genres, but which has non-realistic elements and settings that exclude it from the category of literary fiction. This third type of fiction may not be character based." They call such fiction "Fabulist" or "New Wave Fabulist" (a term used by guest editor Peter Straub for an issue of the literary magazine Conjunctions in 2002).

I confess that this whole discussion makes me a little tired—anyone who has been committed to sf of the highest order (i.e. me) has heard these arguments—has made these arguments—hundreds of times, and the result never seems to change. But maybe a new name will help. So by all means, let's put Ursula K. Le Guin and Rudy Rucker and Kim Stanley Robinson in a book of "New Wave Fabulists" and maybe someone will read them with unprejudiced eyes.1

Paraspheres contains a generous fifty stories, twelve of which are reprints. Those of us familiar with genre publishing, in particular the more avant garde small press magazines of the last decade, will find familiar names like L. Timmel Duchamp and Shelley Jackson and Jeffrey Ford, and Jeff VanderMeer, along with Le Guin, Michael Moorcock, Angela Carter and Rudy Rucker. But the majority of the anthology, and most of the originals, are by writers who do not associate themselves with genre, and here there is evidence that the fantastic is widespread in contemporary fiction.

Many of the stories are fragments of larger works, and thus a little unsatisfying as stories. Leena Krohn, a Finnish writer, has three excerpts from a forthcoming novel, no two of which seem connected, but unnerving nonetheless. In "The Ice Cream Vendor," a mother and daughter visit a strangely deserted beach, where the only other person is an ice cream vendor writing on an old typewriter. The story has intimations of disaster (tidal wave, atomic war?) that never resolve.

Rikki Ducornet's "Who's There?" is a three-paragraph conceit about advertising slogans being beamed directly into people's minds against their will. An sf writer might have used this as a premise for a story with characters and plot, but here it is merely a metaphorical protest against commercialization.

In Ira Sher's two-page "Lionflower Hedge," adults go back to the old house where they grew up, crawl through the hedge, and in doing so become children again. In K. Bannerman's "Armegedn, or The End of the Word," people suddenly lose ability to speak or read. They then discover if they destroy a printed word, someone may speak that same word. But a printed word, once destroyed, may only be spoken once, and so language becomes a limited resource, like oil, as the store of books printed throughout history is gradually destroyed. This is a clever conceit, but in three pages Bannerman does not go beyond setting it before us.

Other stories have more narrative heft. In Bradford Morrow's "Gardener of Heart," an archeologist brother returns home for his twin sister's funeral, only in the end to discover it is his funeral. In "Jubilee Dreams" by Karen Heuler, Jubilee and her sister Clarice are rivals. One stayed home, the other traveled. Now they compete in Jubilee's dreams, which Clarice sabotages—but Jubilee turns the tables in the end.

"The Cloud Room" by Kevin Reardon tells of a gay computer consultant in Seattle on business, pining after his old lost lover Liam. He meets a destitute boy in a hotel bar. The boy reads his dreams, they share a hotel room, and the boy reveals something to the man that he has been keeping from himself. The story ends with a beautifully prepared-for surprise.

"An Accounting" by Brian Evenson is set in what appears to be a post-holocaust U.S. devolved to a rude village culture. In this world a man goes west from Pennsylvania to the midwest, becomes "Jesus" to Christians there who misread him. He finds himself drawn to that role, and the story moves toward atrocity, and then a final accounting.

Randal Silvis's "The Night of Love's Last Dance" is magic realism in a Latin American setting, very reminiscent of some of Márquez's stories of his mythical town of Macondo. An old man looks back on the story of how, when he was a boy, the town beauty slept with a mysterious stranger. Though it ends inconclusively, we can tell that the man's life has never been the same.

Some of the strongest stories are the reprints. Angela Carter's "The Cabinet of E. A. Poe" dissects Poe's psyche and fiction and tells a horror story at the same time. Kim Stanley Robinson's "The Lucky Strike" is one of the finest short alternate histories ever written. Rudy Rucker's horror comedy "The Jack Kerouac Disembodied School of Poetics" tells us how he became a writer. And Le Guin's "The Birthday of the World" soberly tells of the destruction of an alien planetary culture by the advent of human visitors, recalling the Spanish conquest of the Inca.

Paraspheres shows that, indeed, a lot of non-genre writers are working with materials that once were the exclusive domain of genre sf and fantasy, but it also shows that the way they do so, for better or worse, bears little resemblance to the storytelling techniques of genre fiction. It's a worthwhile anthology; non-genre readers will find a lot of fiction that demonstrates that narrative realism is not the only measure of literary worth, and genre readers will be introduced to dozens of writers whose fiction of the fantastic is invisible to normal sf publications.

 

George Saunders has somehow managed to develop a considerable literary reputation while writing stories that, for their off-the-wall ideas, comedy, and ultimately affecting conclusions, would not be out of place in a Terry Bisson collection. These are not quite genre stories, but they frequently draw on fantasy and sf premises. They are often hilarious. Plus, Saunders writes the most convincingly human dumb people in contemporary fiction.

In Persuasion Nation takes up where Saunders's previous collections CivilWarLand in Bad Decline and Pastoralia left off. "Jon," about teenagers raised in a facility for market research, takes a premise similar to the Rikki Ducornet conceit mentioned above and elaborates it to telling effect. Hard disks are implanted in the heads of these kids. Commercials are projected directly into their minds. The teenagers are celebrities to the world, but naïve about it, their every thought dominated by brand names. Randy (who is called Jon for PR reasons) is in love with Caroline and gets her pregnant. She wants to leave the program, but Randy/Jon is not so sure. The story is both hilarious and touching in Jon's struggles (he is about as quick on the uptake as someone who has been hit in the skull by a two-by-four) to comprehend a situation outside the world of commercials that constitutes his reality. Is he willing, for love, to have his implant removed, live in a dull world among ordinary people who don't have things, and possibly suffer brain damage in the process?

"The Red Bow" is an allegorical story like Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery." In an unnamed village, diseased dogs have killed a child. The girl's father and Uncle Matt pursue the dogs and kill them. Then, with the support of the community, they pursue other dogs that may be infected. To make sure, they proceed to cats and other animals. Some owners protest this treatment, and they come under suspicion. The town meets to decide, in this atmosphere of fear, what to do. Without a moment of preaching, the story becomes a parable on the War on Terror.

"93990" is a horror comedy in the form of a clinical report on testing a new drug on twenty apes, all but one of which die horribly. The one that doesn't die seems unaffected, so the scientists try higher and higher doses to evaluate the drug. This is one of the most damning indictments of the human race I have ever seen. It is also brutally funny.

"Commcomm" starts when the PR man at army base gets called in to cover up a toxic spill. Things, as they tend to do in Saunders's stories, get out of hand, and what seems like satire turns into a sort of ghost story with a sweetly contemplative ending.

Saunders likes to use metafictional forms as the basis of his satire. Besides the lab report, we get "Can I Speak?," a letter from the marketing department in response to a customer complaint about a mechanized mask for infants that allows them to speak. "My Amendment" is a letter to the editor proposing a new constitutional amendment to prevent "quasi-same sex marriages," that is, marriages of feminine men to masculine women.

A few of these pieces are more joke than story, but most combine satirical excess, emotional engagement with the characters, and even the narrative suspense of conventional fiction. It's a bit of a miracle that Saunders can merge these incompatible impulses, but he pulls it off more often than not. This one is a treat.

 

Etgar Keret, with whose work I was not previously familiar, is apparently "one of the leading voices of Israeli literature and cinema." His collection The Nimrod Flipout contains quite a few comic fantasies, most of them very short. Like some of the stories in Paraspheres, most of these fables are there and gone quickly, but the best of them linger in the mind beyond their length.

In "For Only 9.99 (Inc. Tax and Postage)" a young man answers a newspaper ad offering him the meaning of life. He gets it, and it is indeed the meaning of life. But no one wants to hear about it, until he sees another ad offering a foolproof way to get people to listen. But some people get mad when they listen, and so he needs to send off to find out ways to convert your enemies to friends. And so on to the newspaper's final offer.

In "Fatso" another young man finds out his girlfriend turns into a coarse, beer swilling, soccer-obsessed fat man every night. The problem admits of a simple solution: they go out and raise hell in the evenings, but he still has his beautiful girl during the day.

Few of these stories go beyond five pages. The title story is the second-longest in the book. Three Israeli friends, Miron, Uzi and the narrator Ron, are haunted by the ghost of their friend Nimrod, who killed himself when they were in the army. Nimrod's spirit haunts them by making each of them go crazy in turn, in different comic ways, for a couple of weeks at a time. They cope. But when Uzi gets married to his girlfriend the Turnip, then only Miron and Ron are haunted. What happens if one of them drops out? Beneath this humorous knockabout is a melancholy non-political observation of everyday life for rootless contemporary young urban men.

 

About fifteen years ago, in an essay I wrote comparing sf and mainstream fiction, I quoted Raymond Carver's assertion that short stories are more like poems than novels. I protested that you would be hard pressed to find more than a handful of sf stories published every year of which this was true.

I don't think that's true anymore. Alan DeNiro has the sf pedigree. He is a graduate of the Clarion Writers' Workshop, has spent the last decade exploring the odd underworld of small press slipstream fiction. He edited poetry for Christopher Rowe's eccentric magazine "Say…" and is a member of the self-named Ratbastards, four young writers of the fantastic from Minnesota. Skinny Dipping in the Lake of the Dead is his first collection.

De Niro in his best work is unsettling. The title story, for instance, is a sort of love story between the narrator, Gregory, who lives in some unspecified future in the town of Suddenly bordering the "Lake of the Dead," and Jane, a girl with gills who lives on a parking deck that protrudes from the middle of the lake. De Niro is not funny like Saunders and Keret, but there is a wrong-stepping grace to his work. The story is rife with footnotes and asides and oddball notions like the Gnostic takeover of Pittsburgh and a rock song with the lyric,

"Honey, your love makes me feel like Geoffrey Chaucer
Stuck without a tale on a flying saucer."

De Niro is not always in control of his sentences. In these stories, one thing haphazardly leads to another, and when it doesn't work, his fiction is precious or even incomprehensible. But when it does work, as it does more often than not, it's haunting, more like a poem than a novel.

 

Finally, Slipstreams is a collection of twenty original stories that sets out to demonstrate what slipstream might be. But editor John Helfers in his introduction pretty much throws up his hands and gives up before starting: "When the idea for this anthology occurred to me, I will confess that I had at best an infirm grasp on what the definition of 'Slipstream' literature is. After looking over this collection of stories, I'm not sure I have any better understanding of the term now."

His charge to the writers was "for stories that combined two (or more) genres of any kind." The result is a collection of stories like Sarah Hoyt's "Hot," about a werewolf hardboiled detective seeking a clutch of dragon's eggs, or "Venting," where Alan Dean Foster's comic Western backwoodsman deals with demons in a national park, or Robert Sawyer's "Biding Time," where another hardboiled detective, this one on Mars, pursues the killer of an uploaded grandmother. The strangeness quotient in these stories is low and the storytelling conventional. There is nothing here that is likely to unsettle you, just a kind of mix-and-match retake on various familiar story moves. Not to say that these stories can't entertain, but they are not likely to test any reader's conceptions of the boundaries of genre.

 

My conclusion based on this brief dip into the slipstream, or whatever you call it, is that yes, the geography of fantastic fiction has changed around the edges. Writers who never would have considered sf and fantasy tropes as the basis of serious fiction are taking to it more and more. But the result is not much like the genre fiction I grew up reading and coming to love. This is not a complaint. As with any change, it has its plusses and minuses. When the ghetto walls were strong, everyone knew where they were and what to expect when visiting either side. There was a certain order to the streets and the customs. Now that rigor is fading. The resulting neighborhoods offer some new beauties, and some pretty clumsy eyesores. I'll have to leave it to you to figure out which are which.

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