The Next Generation
I like slipstream/fantasy/magic realism a great deal. I like Carol Emshwiller, Howard Waldrop, Kelly Link and Karen Joy Fowler. I read Crank. I've written some (and it's been pretty well received.) But I found myself dismayed. Some of it was good, some of it was not so good. I particularly liked a piece by Nick Mamatas in Rabid Transit: A Mischief of Rats (copyright 2003) called "joanierules.bloggermax.com" where a fairly normal girl, who posts things in her blog about how she went to a friend's party and got hit on by a creepy guy, has a post one day as follows.
3.10.05 - OH MY GAWD!!!
Really sorry I haven't updated this in awhile, but I have been very busy... [some good stuff cut for space. -Onyx]
...I was walking up 6th Ave and then I saw God filling up the sky. Really! GOD! He was everywhere all at once; beard, muscles, blazing eyes, streams of light coming out from behind his back, arms from horizon to horizon. And He pointed at me and told me He wanted me, Joanie, to raise an army and drive the English out of France! The voice, it was like sitting on a thunderbolt, I felt my whole body, the whole street, shake, but nobody else seemed to notice it, or when I fell to my knees. I'm agnostic!
The blog turns to being the story of a present day Joan of Arc. It's wry and funny and surprisingly poignant by turns. It's a clever idea story, but it feels the right length for a clever idea story.
Also good, David Moles' "Five Irrational Histories" and David Lomax's "How To Write an Epic Fantasy Novel" (the latter suffers from being a bit too long, I think, but does the postmodern thing of telling a story while pretending to just be informing the reader on how to do their own story--again, strange and poignant by turns.) (Both in Rabid Transit: Petting Zoo, copyright 2004.)
Flytrap: a little zine with teeth (number 4/May 2005) has a story by Jeff Ford (about a kind of performance artist--did I mention that I am immediately a bit suspect of stories about artists? China Mieville does it a lot, but he at least seems to be aware that he is echoing the cliches of the 19th century.) Although nothing stood out for me like the Mamatas piece of the two from Rabid Transit: Petting Zoo, it was a good read. The magazines were all uneven, but Asimov, Analog and F&SF are uneven.
Bittersweet Creek and Other Stories (copyright 2003, Small Beer Press) is a short, swift read. Christopher Rowe can write the socks off a snake as evidenced by "The Voluntary State", his Nebula nominated story. The five stories in Bittersweet Creek are all set in rural Kentucky and Tennessee except for the last, "Men of Renown". They are all before pre-telephone and although they are lyrical about life, they are also unflinching about things like girls getting married at fourteen and the violence of rural society. They are ghost stories and revenge stories. They don't have the wild, strange and funny quality of "The Voluntary State" and unlike "The Voluntary State" none of them are science fiction. (You could argue with me on the first story, "Baptism at Bittersweet Creek" but it reads to me as a kind of faery story reversed, where the denizen of some other world gets trapped in ours. He could be from an alternate universe, but his special skills, whistling and communing with animals, as well as his muteness, all feel fantastical to me.)
Other Cities, by Benjamin Rosenbaum (copyright 2003, Small Beer Press) is equally a treat. Fourteen short shorts, each an evocation of a different fantastical city, that is more than the sum of its parts.
Amea Amaau--or Double A, or Dub, or Dub-Dub, or DB, or Popstop, as it is also sometimes called--is a new and gleaming city in a matrix of six hundred and forty-three cities exactly like it. Somewhere in the terribly exciting part of the world. The citizens of Popstop--but there are no citizens, for everyone who slept in Amea Amaau tonight will be moving on in the morning. They will roll out of silver water beds, vacuum the night's spit and eye good and wrinkles from their faces with handheld vacuums considerately installed in every wall...
Each is short (that's nearly half of "Amea Amaau", which is one of the shortest) and each turns on a wry note at the end. They are literary magic tricks and I read to see what he would do with each one, and with each one he did something different.
So why am I dismayed?
After I'd read the lot (over the course of a day, mostly) I came away feeling a little as if I'd had cookies for dinner. The stories were often fairly smart stuff. But the majority of them felt neither fish nor fowl. We're post Borges and the although these stories were often clever, they weren't astonishingly clever. They often were about things I already knew. That sex is mysterious. That when we are titillated by pain, we lose a little piece of our humanity. There are stories about the need for self-actualization, affirmations of the things we all believe. Most of these stories play at being strange, but underneath, a lot of them aren't very strange at all. Somehow they end up falling between literary and genre rather than, well, slipstreaming. They often felt like literary-lite. They had lovely images, competent writing.
I thought about Kelly Link and what makes her stories stand out, and part of what they have is a narrative voice. I'm thinking, for example, of the narrator of "Carnation, Lilly, Lilly, Rose" who is dead and stuck in a afterlife which consists of a rather creepy hotel by an even creepier sea. He can remember he's dead, and he misses his wife. He can't remember her name and he keeps trying names, hoping one will sound right. The feeling is of barely contained anxiety and tedium--a common enough experience in life (it's been said that war, for example, consists of long periods of boredom punctuated by periods of terror) but there's no affirmation. Not even escape. No self-actualization. No heavenly 12-step program after which the protagonist gets to deliver some affirming life-lesson. Other than "joanierules.bloggermax.com" I found very few stories where the author seemed in control in that way, where the writer was setting a tone, maybe a different tone than the first person narrator. I wanted more artifice in these stories ('artifice' comes from the same root word as 'art'--it's what we writers do.)
The stories weren't really doing things that would make them publishable by the commercial magazines. Fine, neither was James Joyce, which was why he was published by a friend rather than, say, Knopf. I'm tickled to death that people who can't find a commercial publisher are publishing themselves. I think this is the place where many of the brightest and the best of the next generation are polishing their craft. I find it interesting to note that Chris Rowe's fiction became more interesting, more powerful, more strange and new, when he added science fiction into the mix. I want to push a lot of these young writers--not towards sf per say, but to something more. Do something with your fiction--narrator, science fiction, strangeness, unsettling truths, humor. Push a little harder.
It's the same thing I tell myself I have to do with my own work.