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Fantasy Now!

More About Slipstream Interstitial Fiction

In the absence of a sufficiently common language, it makes sense that one would feel the need first to invent a world or frame of reference in order to make communication possible, and fantasy is a ready tool to hand for this purpose.
Good fantasy has less to do with the macronarrative than it has to do with the incidental details that make the other world real. The precedent comes from historical fiction — maybe chiefly from Scott — and the literature of the past, such that one might now read Dickens more for the sense of his time than for his plots. With a contemporary observer, we have the benefit of a contemporary selection of those details which will make the time-picture. In either case, whether or not the author represents the totality of the world from the top down, as an entirely detached observer, is a purely incidental thing. In contemporary fantasy, the sort of story, often allegorical, in which the author distributes elements of the world like God gridding out his universe seems to be losing ground.
Attention to and domestication of detail in fantasy is one of the emerging hallmarks of what must be necessarily unsatisfactorially labelled “slipstream” or “interstitial” fiction. If we approach exemplary samples thinking in terms of multiple genres or genres as vectors bundled into a story, we can advance the question of genre a bit further; specifically, we can say that fantasy is now more commonly decoupling from adventure and exploring other modes not yet associated with it. This makes it possible to be tempted to write a fantasy with no adventure, simply a purely social novel in a fantasy setting — but it might not be possible to write a fantastic Anna Karenina without turning it into a mere exercise. Such a work, to be successful, would require exceptional characters and as a rule the fantastic does not tend to put its mark too deeply on characters. Someone — I wish I could remember who — commented that the presumptive reader of fantasy demands at once all manner of improbable and impossible events involving characters who never deviate from psychologically realistic behavior. Anna Karenina is about the interactions of three characters; the world in which they live is minimally involved. It would be difficult to write a fantasy version of such a story in such a way that the fantasy elements wouldn’t become merely arbitrary and distracting bits of scenery. It’s not clear what if anything would be gained by transposing a story of this kind to a fantasy setting, unless, for example, one were to write about a love triangle involving human and nonhuman characters in such a way as to make an issue of this difference...
Why turn to fantasy now? In part, because Americans live in fantasies largely generated by television, movies, mass market radio, marketing, and especially the news, and because American society is unusually atomized now (even for America). There are local, miniature societies, but at the national and in places even the statewide level there is no society but television. We don’t have elaborate triple-decker Dickensian or Proustian novels about the present moment because our society has thinned out and its charge is dispersed; the intense social duelling we find in nineteenth-century novels is not really possible now for all sorts of reasons (there are fewer layers of status, scandal and shame are no longer the powerful checks on behavior they once were, people are more mobile, there’s less privacy, conformity is subtle and largely indifferent to anything but branding, women have less cause to guard against “ruin,” etc).
Society is simpler, but media has become fantastically more extended. So, modern fiction seems to replace the nineteenth-century concern for socializing with the development of different methods for organizing climates or regimes of signs that are neither strictly personal or impersonal.
In a way, fantasy is more conservative in that it establishes a stable idea of the world; modern nonfantasy fiction volatilizes the world. Some writers seem to think that representing this volatility in some way or other is sufficient, but it may be this involves taking the novel too far in one direction and not far enough in the other. The result will likely be unsatisfactory and noncommittal. The worldbuilding operation of fantasy is usually not so much a matter of dictating to the reader what his or her world is, but rather about experimenting with possible worlds in a more external way. What modern fiction does internally, by thematizing volatility both in content and in form, fantasy and science fiction will do externally, in what-if terms.
I’d be interested to know if other people believe, as I suspect, that what is called “slipstream” or “interstitial” comes about when the external and internal approaches are both employed; or maybe it’s a third approach which appears as the internal and external are compressed tightly against each other. Or maybe it’s a matter — and this I would say is more likely to occur in literary horror — of making the boundary between the internal and external indiscernible.
The cinematic strategy to deal with the simplification of American society is to minimize the social and ignore the symbolic or inner activity of characters while emphasizing the physical as much as possible. English actors are flown in to play the parts demanding interiority – villains or sensitive types – because they come from a more complicated and repressive society. Their idea of “demonstrative” is far subtler, they are much more sensitive to the expressive power of small gestures. American actors are physically categorized — either they look strange (character actor), pretty (romantic lead), variable/funny (comedian), average, or tough (action). The content of film is more physical, in that sex and violence come with less narrative around them, but more to the point the films are presented to audiences as a visceral spectacle of flashes, loud amplifications, incoherent editing, and shocks. The film takes place on the surface of your body.
Horror films make this especially obvious. The handful of atmospheric horror films produced in recent years were anachronisms when they debuted. Pauline Kael’s review of “The Exorcist” accurately predicted the relegation of the supernatural to special effects and empty threats. The remake of “The Haunting” is an object lesson. As was the case with “Poltergeist,” the ghosts are merely visual information to coincide interestingly with the sound effects. They could just as readily be aliens or dinosaurs. Their supernatural characteristics are indifferent, because supernatural folklore is largely played out and the invention of new folklorisms very swiftly deflects into fantasy or science fiction. Alternately, closed, very small worlds of Cenobites or Freddy/Jason are invented ad hoc. I’ll bet that Lovecraft’s continually refreshed popularity is rooted in the endurance and openness of the “mythos,” which, by dint of its age and its strange intermediate status of obscure perenniality, has acquired enough history and independence to act as new folklore.

Michael Cisco
13 October 2006


Michael Cisco is the author of The Divinity Student, which received the International Horror Guild’s award for Best First Novel of 1999, as well as The Tyrant (2004), and a number of other forthcoming novels. He’s just finished his PhD at New York University, and considers himself “The Melville Guy.” His Web site goes by the name of Prosthetic Libido. His column Jungle Mind appears on The Modern Word.

For Michael Cisco’s previous columns, visit the Jungle Mind Archive.

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