Strange Fiction 9
9. The Old Weird and the Slipstream: or, Estrangement and Modernity
If it's all strange fiction, if a conceit is a conceit (and can be explained, excused or exploited) regardless of whether it's counterfactual, hypothetical or metaphysical, we have problems, I think, in sticking to Suvin's term "novum". I'm going to avoid it from here on in, partly because it narrows the focus, I would argue, to the exploited hypothetical (when a hypothetical conceit is conventionalised as a trope, can we really describe it as a novum?), and partly because it becomes horribly problematic if we want to turn novum into an adjective to decribe this type of narrative in similar terms to those established, with an adjective describing an abstract quality. If the comic narrative exploits the absurd and the tragic narrative exploits the unheimlich, do we have to then say that these strange-fictional narratives exploit the... "novel"? That doesn't put us in a good position to discuss, well, novels that exploit the "novel" and not end up tying ourselves in knots.
There is, of course, the old tried and tested "weird", but in its origin in ideas of fate, in its application to the uncanny and supernatural rather than just the queer or unusual, and in its associations with the religious and fictional conventions of tropic creatures, I think we risk narrowing the focus to the excused metaphysical here, rendering it no better a fit than "novum". The history of this word within the commercial genre also establishes it as a sub-generic term, calling up associations with particular pulp writers like Lovecraft or magazines like Weird Tales. This is very much the reason why I'm wary of the term "New Weird", that "New", in fact, tacitly acknowledging that the label is sub-generic and commercial, placing this fiction in relation to the New Wave as another "movement" within the genre.
We need a term, I think, which can be applied beyond the commercial strictures of genres and movements, one we can apply analytically to those works published before or outside the marketing labels, such that the application is not political and subjective -- as are so many attempts to say that this work or that is SF or Fantasy -- but rather critical and objective. Another option is the French term fantastique, which has a similarly wide application but which is, like "weird", hard to disassociate from the supernatural. This is, I think, perhaps better applied to the metaphysical narrative, as a counterpart to "parallel" and "future" as descriptors of these narratives as (largely overlapping) types.
"Strange", on the other hand -- with its etymological roots in the Latin "extraneous", meaning "of external origin", and its modern application to the foreign, the alien, the queer, the other -- is, I think, an eminently suitable term, with much less conceptual baggage. Personally I would prefer to keep it uncapitalised -- strange fiction rather than Strange Fiction -- to make it clear that this refers to an aesthetic form rather than a commercial genre, but I suspect the habitual use of capitals for SF will be hard to break. So I'm sure I'll forget myself and call it Strange Fiction from time to time.
Anyway... fitting all this into the original three-axes-of-story idea, what I'm positing is a third axis which can be analysed in terms of elements which actively challenge suspension of disbelief, which play with subjunctivity, invoke incredulity:
1. Story elements
2. Craft techniques
3. Estrangement techniques
conceit (concrete, unmoored metaphor)
--counterfactual (parallel narrative)
--hypothetical (future narrative)
--metaphysical (fantastique narrative)
There are doubtless other such techniques we could identify, and other genres which might well be made explicable in terms of how they use conceits. One might well look at the occult-history novel in these terms. Like comic, tragic or strange fiction, THE DA VINCI CODE or THE NAME OF THE ROSE exploit a sense of the incredible which challenges our suspension of disbelief. Where these other modes utilise the absurd, the unheimlich or the strange, the occult-history uses the arcane. Like tragedy and comedy there is no dislocation to a non-existent elsewhen; rather it is the links between historic events that are used to weave large scale patterns of conspiracy, to build these up to a point of collapse, at critical mass, into a sense of (incredible) hidden truths being revealed -- the arcanum to Suvin's novum.
One might even look at the occult-history's relative, the mystery novel, where the events are not incredible -- they do not challenge our subjunctivity -- but are intriguing. Like a mundane tragedy we have at least one event, a crime, that "should not have happened" and, while the mystery novel remains a pathetic narrative, in the "could have happened" subjunctivity, rather than going full-steam for terror and destruction, offence to the laws of god and man, how often are the clues it throws at the reader anomalies, things which don't fit, which "should not have happened" (the enigma of the object-out-place) or which "could not have both happened" (the contradiction of different versions of events)... and how much of the very purpose of the book is to reconcile those clues into the solution of "how this could have happened, how it did happen"?
But these are getting beyond my scope. What I'm interested in here is strange fiction, that fiction of elsewhens. Because with this theoretical basis, I want to look at a type of fiction which a lot of people don't even agree exists, but which is constantly labelled and relabelled by writers and critics who have at least a vague sense that there is something to point to, even if they can only point in the general direction. Yes, it's that interslipcrossgenrestitialstream stuff otherwise known as infernokrusher.
Of course, it should probably be obvious from everything that's gone before that I'm not really a fan of sub-genres or movements. Hell, the reason I like the term infernokrusher is that as a movement it revels in its own de(con)struction, it's about romping wildly across all territorial boundaries rather than defining a niche, carving out a territory within or between existing genres. Slipstream? That would require we recognise a boundary between genre and the "mainstream", positioning ourselves in a smeared zone of detritus caught between. Cross-genre? That would require we recognise the same boundaries, characterising ourseles as magpie-style gatherers, sourcing one element of our work here, another there. Interstitial? That still requires we recognise those boundaries but positions us in the cracks between, like weeds between paving-stones.
All of these terms are rendered meaningless, when it comes to strange fiction, by the implicit content-based taxonomies that confuse marketing categories and aesthetic forms. Take a work which uses, say, the counterfactual conceit of a rival 20th Century ideology, the hypothetical conceit of nanotech and the metaphysical conceit of a magical language. Splice in a domestic narrative that focuses on WW1, the Red Clyde and the Spanish Civil War. Do you end up with something that sits across genres, in a gap between genres, or in a zone between genre and mainstream? Or is it just the same strange fiction that writers such as Bester and Bradbury were writing back before these terms were invented, before even SF and Fantasy had been separated out as marketing labels? Maybe even the same strange fiction that other writers were creating long before the whole rift between realist novels and pulp romance, between literary and paraliterary, was opened up and stabilised by the processes of commerce and academia, and then relabelled as "mainstream" and "genre", a nomenclature defined more in terms of commercial and critical marginalisation than in terms of literary form, more politics than aesthetics.
But maybe it's not exactly the same strange fiction. Aeschylus's PROMETHEUS BOUND, Shakespeare's HAMLET and Miller's THE CRUCIBLE are all tragic dramas, but they're not the same type of tragedy. Aristophanes's THE CLOUDS, Shakespeare's MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING and Orton's WHAT THE BUTLER SAW are all comic dramas, but they're not the same type of comedy. Likewise, Shelley's FRANKENSTEIN, Bester's THE STARS MY DESTINATION and Burroughs's THE NAKED LUNCH can all be seen as strange fiction, but each is a quite different type. The latter is one of those novels which appears on Sterling's list of "slipstream" works, and it's a book which I consider more of a precedent for my own work than more commercial strange fiction. Peter Ackroyd, J.G. Ballard, Angela Carter, Guy Davenport -- I could virtually go through Sterling's list from A to Z and pick out, or add to it, authors that spark a sense of recognition, a feeling that, yes, they are doing something similar, something specifically similar. So if it's not about being situated across genres, between genres, or between genre and mainstream, what is it?
Well, what is it that these works do?
Kessel and Kelly, in their anthology, FEELING VERY STRANGE, follow Sterling in their view of slipstream as a literature of the postmodern condition, of cognitive dissonance, the estrangement that comes simply of living in the 20th / 21st century. How then does this differ from your common or garden strange fiction? Doesn't Suvin say that SF is all about cognitive dissonance? So what's the difference?
In that anthology Kessel and Kelly quote a slipstream discussion that ran on David Moles's blog, the one in which the term infernokrusher was coined by Meghan McCarron. I ended up writing an essay from it, in an attempt to rearticulate Sterling's thesis, or at least to articulate it the way I understand it, my version of it. Rather than go over all that territory again I'm just going to point you to that essay, Why Do I Infernokrush, heretofore to be known as Strange Fiction 9a:
There are problems with that essay, not least in my tendency to fall into the use of dichotomies like "genre" versus "mainstream" or "fantastic" versus "domestic" that are either absurdities or approximations in the schema of strange fiction I'm proposing. But let's just say that, in the infernokrusher spirit, we put a bullet through every instance of those terms, blast them the fuck out of the text. Let's say we give it a lead injection of the incredible -- the absurd, the unheimlich and the strange -- take a flamethrower to it and burn away all that pertains to strange fiction in its general sense, all the commonalities of slipstream works that are, in fact, simply the product of their being strange fiction, whether sold as genre or as mainstream. Explode the very terms "conventions" and "constraints".
By doing so, I think, we can get to the heart of a type of fiction which is not just strange but strange in a particular way. In that essay I break down Sterling's characterisation of this type of fiction into features of attitude, composition and style. Attitudinally there is nothing infernokrusher does that any other type of strange fiction doesn't. Compositionally, many of Sterling's characteristics are simply those of strange fiction which exploits rather than explains with rationalism or excuses with romanticism; and his focus on irrationality, "darker elements" which refuse to be made sense of, simply point towards an overlap between the strange and the unheimlich, the natural co-occurence of the subjunctivity of "could not happen" and "should not, must not happen" and the unease which our inability to resolve this engenders. But stylistically, Sterling is identifying additional techniques of estrangement we have not touched on -- collage narrative (think Burroughs), metafiction (think Borges), typographical layout (think Bester). These are the techniques of the modernists and postmodernists, of course, so perhaps all we are talking about here is a subset of (post)modernist strange fiction.
Maybe so, but there's more to it than a little stylistic experimentalism. Going back to the compositional features he identifies, Sterling's characterisation of the elsewhens of this type of story as not "clearcut departures from the known world", as "integral to the author's worldview", as "in the nature of an inherent dementia" point us to something other -- or something more -- than the dislocations of parallel, future and fantastique narratives. It's clear that he's rejecting any idea that the reader's way out is to reposition the narrative in an elsewhen in which they "could have happened". Does this type of fiction simply not perform these dislocations then? One way to put it might be to say that the reader is indeed dislocated but left hanging in the subunctivity of "could not have happened", that they are refused the stability of an artificial elsewhen under their feet. I think we can look at another way though. We can say that it does dislocate the reader to an elsewhen, it's just that it does something extra. It does indeed rip the reader sideways and forward and up to a parallel, future, fantastique elsewhen.
It's just that it brings the whole fucking reality we live in with it.