When I first obsessed about the idea of being a science-fiction writer, I was captivated by the Slipstream movement, which aimed to bust genre boundaries and shatter expectations. And reading about 1975's science fiction boom makes you realize how great the New Wave was. So maybe it's time for a new movement with a zany name?
Every once in a while, it seems like science fiction benefits from a push to revitalize — whether it's just an ambitious editor like John W. Campbell, or a group of authors who want to push the genre further than it's gone before.
And the New Wave was truly astonishing, especially in hindsight. Spurred by editors like Judith Merrill, Michael Moorcock and Harlan Ellison (in Dangerous Visions
), this drive towards more experimental work arguably helped give us some of the genre's most enduring classics. Just look at that Newsweek article linked above — in 1975, The Dispossessed and Dhalgren were new. Philip Jose Farmer and Kurt Vonnegut were in their prime. Anything must have seemed possible.
The Slipstream movement also felt like a shot in the arm — when I first read Bruce Sterling's famous 1989 essay, a decade after it was published, I was like "Yes. This is totally what we need." Here's how Sterling described Slipstream, back then:
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 that 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.
The essay was accompanied by a list of slipstream works, everything from Kathy Acker to Alice Walker. I immediately rushed out and bought as many of them as I could from the used book stores, tearing through them in roughly alphabetical order. That's how I found Giles Goat-Boy and Uncle Ovid's Exercise Book.
The thing both of these movements had in common was their commitment to strangeness, and to inward-looking as opposed to purely outward-looking storytelling. They wanted science fiction and fantasy to be more "literary," in the sense of stylistic experimentation but also in the sense of more personal exploration. As opposed to cyberpunk and steampunk, which — I know I'm generalizing wildly here — were more about exploring specific ideas and settings, which may have called for some stylistic innovation along the way.
Since then, there have been other subgenres bubbling up. Like the New Weird, Mundane or New Fabulist movements, for example. But in the past decade, as every other literary author has been trying his or her hand at speculative fiction, you seem to hear less about a specific movement among speculative authors, aimed at making genre more literary. Because that would just look like... regular literary fiction. Right?
We need crazy ambition
But here's the thing about fancy literary movements like the New Wave or Slipstream — they give individual authors a license to go a little more nuts. Maybe they make editors slightly more likely to accept off-the-wall works, too, if they're perceived as being part of a Trend. Anything that makes people more ambitious, even a little arrogant.
It takes a lot of arrogance to say, "I want to be the next Ursula K. Le Guin." Or, "I want to be the next Kathy Acker," for that matter. It feels a lot less presumptuous to aim lower, to strive to be just another inhabitant of the comfortable middle ground. But somehow, there's something slightly less presumptuous about a group of people saying "We want to push the envelope and explore really way-out stories and worlds, that raise questions about society and personhood, in the way Le Guin did back in the day."
The thing is, I want to read more books by people who want to be the next Ursula K. Le Guin. I feel like I could never see enough books like that. We owe it to readers and future writers to be bold now, to try and be the next Le Guin or Butler or Ballard, not just to serve up delicious comfort food. The moment is right for a new New Wave of daring worlds, challenging ideas and cultural collisions. Or another Slipstream.
I don't honestly care what we would call this new movement, as long as it kicked a lot of our most talented authors in the ass. Maybe "boodle." How does "boodle" sound to you?
Time to rethink "literary"?
We tend to think of two opposing poles of speculative fiction writing.
At one end, there's self-referential genre fare. It's self-referential, because it's written by people who've inhaled decades of past works in the genre, and it assumes you already know a lot of stuff about spaceships and worldbuilding. Or castles and dragons. This is a barrier to entry to new readers (many of whom flock instead to young-adult fiction) and hence we get the call for "entry-level SF."
At the other end, there's literary storytelling, which if anything assumes that you know almost nothing about science fiction tropes. Often, in more literary works, things are left unexplained for the opposite reason of self-referential SF: instead of assuming the audience already knows, the author assumes the audience will get overwhelmed by any explanation. The best literary SF may reach either a broader or more highfalutin audience, because it requires no genre knowledge and because it has more stylistic ambition and emotional resonance.
If you see those two things as opposing points on a spectrum, then you're bound to judge works (to some extent) based on two qualities: how beholden they are to the genre's past, and their stylistic traits. But those are just two strengths among many — and what if you tried to create genre works that were beholden to neither past science fiction or present literary fiction?
Here's the thing. Nostalgia for science fiction's past is increasingly an exercise in retro-futurism. So much media SF is about nostalgically gazing back at the 1980s, whereas a ton of SF books are still paying tribute to the classics in one way or another. We no longer live in the Space Age, and much of the Space Age optimism is looking less scientifically plausible. Meanwhile, much of literary SF deals either with the craziness of our current smartphone-equipped, biotech-altered world (Super Sad True Love Story, The Word Engine) or imagines a post-apocalyptic future brought on by our accelerating progress.
In other words, literary SF is doing a reasonably good job of capturing our early 21st century anxieties, whether it's the melting of our selfhoods in the face of social media and 23andme or the fear of some kind of climate disaster. It's doing, in fact, pretty much what Sterling called upon Slipstream fiction to do: capture the strangeness of living in our accelerating present. The self-referential SF, meanwhile, is finding new ways to portray our old cherished dreams.
(Again, massively generalizing because this is a bit of a rant and I could write a book about this.)
So maybe our hypothetical new literary genre movement could try being both less relevant and less reverent? Instead of either dwelling on the fears and neuroses of this exact instant in time, or finding new ways to retell some classic tales, maybe we can be bolder than that. Leapfrog over the immediate anxieties of this exact instant into a weirder future, but at the same time plunge into character and emotion with more depth and commitment?
It's just a thought. We don't have to call it "boodle," either.
Top image: Janus Art. Other images: Jose Arias and Chris Cold.