“Category” is a marketing term, denoting rackspace. “Genre” is a spectrum of work united by an inner identity, a coherent esthetic, a set of conceptual guidelines, an ideology if you will. “Category” is commercially useful, but can be ultimately deadening. “Genre,” however, is powerful. Having made this distinction, I want to describe what seems to me to be a new, emergent “genre,” which has not yet become a “category.”
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. It is a 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.”
Jim Kelley writes a response.
Bruce Sterling hosts a party at sxsw every year, and this year apparently he was showing off fab designs from his design class. He is a genial guy but impossible to have a straightforward conversation with, especially when is playing with his toys. Sterling and Doctorow did a keynote address together in 2002 which was funny and profound at the same time. After exchanging literary smalltalk about Italo Calvino and Cosmicomics (Sterling apparently knows Calvino’s wife or daughter, I forget), I mention my desire to read Schismatrix Plus (which I’d read stories from in another volume, only to learn that it was subsumed in the larger work). I pronounced it “Schism–matrix.” Later I find the correct pronunciation to be Schis-muh trix (with the accent on trix). Damn you, Mr. Sterling, I’m reading your books; must you make my life so difficult? (Also: Can you tell me the right way to pronounce Ingres?)
Two other embarrassing moments with luminaries: I once paraphrased for novelist John Barth my friend’s thesis that after postmodernism would come a sort of “prepostmodernism” where writers returned to conventional narrative techniques. Barth nodded his head quietly, and it was only later that I learned he had already published an essay about this, (called I think “The Literature of Replenishment“) in either the New York Times or Atlantic Monthly. (Btw, here’s a fascinating article by John Barry about the acrimonious debate between John Gardner and John Barth on literature ).
Embarrassing Encounter with a Luminary Number 3: Richard Stallman gave a speech at sxsw. He’s quite a character, but I know all about him, and I wanted to make a remark or two afterwards. So later, when shaking his hand, I complimented his emacs manual (a model of technical writing), as well as his essay about How to Ask Questions the Right Way. Stallman was nonplussed, saying he had no idea what I was talking about. (I later realized that it was Eric Raymond, not Richard Stallman who had penned that fine essay).