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Thursday 13 March 2003

A Rose by Any Other Name?

  • Conjunctions 39: The New Wave Fabulists
    edited by Peter Straub
    (Bard College, 2002)

  • Reviewed by David Soyka

The Sunday New York Times Book Review recently ran a cover review of William Gibson's latest novel, Pattern Recognition. What struck me was not so much the prominent placement it received outside of the monthly genre ghetto column by Gerald Jonas — Gibson's cyber culture prescience long ago forced the mainstream to recognize him, like it or not — but that even as the review discussed the novel in science fictional terms, in one respect the novel doesn't sound like science fiction. Not in the sense that science fiction is thought to be about the future, an extrapolation of where technology is headed. However, according to the review (and, not having read the book yet, this is all I can base my observations on), Pattern Recognition seems to be realistically set in Summer 2002. While this is perhaps yet another example of the future having caught up with us, still, if technology is somehow integral to the story — as, not surprisingly given that this is Gibson, the Internet and other data gathering tools seems to be — then it doesn't really matter what era it is set in. Similarly, Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon wasn't strictly speaking science fiction in the conventional sense, but had science fictional sensibilities — instead of rockets and space jockeys, you had cryptography and code-breakers.

Now, by that loose definition of SF as fiction in which technology underpins the storyline, one of the darlings of the literary establishment, Don DeLillo, could be called a science fiction writer. For that matter, given that his latest novel, The Body Artist, is a sort of ghost story, you could also all him a fantasist. Meanwhile, in mainstream circles, the hottest seller of the year, The Lovely Bones, is narrated by a dead girl. But nobody calls it fantasy.

Right about now is when we get into the "Science fiction/fantasy don't get no respect" discussion that everyone is tired of but keep bitching and moaning about anyway. Don't worry, I'm not going to bore you with that (well, maybe a little, but only to make a larger point). Things have improved, witness the column inches given to Gibson. However, though there is an established branch of academia devoted to science fiction, the notion continues to linger that the genre is somehow an alien life form to "real" literature. Not so long ago I overheard a university advisor trying to steer away a student from taking a seminar in SF because prospective doctoral programs wouldn't consider it "serious study." Why the academy gives Mary Shelley's Frankenstein respect as a Gothic novel, but not SF, is something I've never understood.

That said, the genre isn't exactly helping itself, is it? What with the endless Star Trek/Star Wars novels, dumb "sci-fi" movies, and Tolkien rip-offs. Again, we've heard this all before. Some would add to this that what's missing is a codified movement to stake out new literary territory and push the envelope. To do something SIGNIFICANT that will force everyone to take notice.

Last year marked the publication of the 35th anniversary edition of Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions anthology. There was also a sort of follow-up collection to Bruce Sterling’s seminal "manifesto" anthology Mirrorshades, called The Ultimate Cyberpunk (though it is hardly that). Yet the New Wave writers that thumbed their noses at the establishment (both SF and literary) have by now reached senior citizen status. The Cyberpunks jacked-in over twenty years ago. So where are the New Young Turks, where is the next movement demanding literary recognition as it reinvents the form?

All of which brings me to Conjunctions 39, latest issue of a bi-monthly literary magazine (though it's more like a trade paperback) published by Bard College, which for this edition offers up "The New Wave Fabulists."

Could this be the next big thing in the genre that, given the academic publisher, finally fulfills the declaration of literary equality some forty years ago?

Well, not quite.

Which is not to say that this compendium of literary pretensions does not have literary qualities. Quite the opposite. But there are a number of curiosities here, beginning with Peter Straub as guest editor, not someone who'd immediately come to my mind, at least, as the leader of the next vanguard. In fairness to Straub, that's probably pointing out my own shortcoming rather than his, since I'm not familiar with his work. Indeed, the first and only thing of his I've read is his contribution to this collection, "Little Red's Tango," which is one of several stories I wanted to like more than I did. The titular "Little Red" is a record collecting recluse (a character I can certainly relate to, as I sometimes ponder why I need to add yet another book or CD to my groaning shelves, but go ahead anyway) who provides cryptic advice to pilgrims in search of a certain obscure track that could potentially change their lives. The story takes on Christ-like proportions that strike me as overreaching; its intriguing atmosphere is padded by unnecessary details; and it has a beginning that takes awhile to get started.

Now, Straub has certainly written more books than I have, so what do I know, but he's also been plying his trade for 30 years, so it's hard to see what's "new" — wave-ish or otherwise — here. Indeed, a glance at the Table of Contents reveals only a handful of relatively "newish," though hardly unknown, writers — Kelly Link, China Miéville, Nalo Hopkinson, Andy Duncan, Jonathan Lethem — while the rest are familiar old hands.

So where does the "New Wave" reference come from? Well, obviously it's a play on the New Wave movement of the 1960s. In other words, it's going to get genre fans interested, intrigued, perhaps, that this might be some long sought declaration by a band of literary rebels — in which case they will be disappointed. "Fabulist" is in part an accurate description of the contents — no straight SF or sword and sorcery stuff — as well as an acceptable academic term for folks who admire the fantastic when it is written by Latin Americans such as Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but who take little notice of Gene Wolfe or James Morrow. (Maybe it has something to do with authors having three names instead of two.)

So the problem with the title is that to call it "New Wave" is misrepresentative, and though "Fabulist" is more or less an accurate description, it seems purposely, and perhaps condescendingly, dressed up. Moreover, the title detracts from what the book actually is: a wonderful and powerful collection of first-class fiction (no need to label it), one that's on my personal "Best of" list. And yet the editor's introduction starts out by apologizing for the book's contents, urging the uninitiated to put aside their prejudices and persevere.

To further underline that the book is intended to be taken seriously, two critical essays are provided to help orient those unfamiliar — or put off — by this genre stuff. Gary K. Wolfe provides an historical overview of the various genres of SF, fantasy, pulp, and horror. Though of interest even to fans, it is intended to justify legitimacy. Towards this end, Wolfe points out that familiarity with genre tropes and techniques is necessary to understand them in a way the neophyte reader will misinterpret, probably a code phrase for "consider trash."

Wolfe concludes by noting what he describes as the "courageous" tendency of writers to draw upon multiple genre conventions to create new literary hybrids. He warns that, "There is perhaps a certain danger in this, in drawing so freely on material that was once condemned to exile, in assembling story-machines that demand a wider repertoire of sensibilities on the part of readers..." The implication is that genre fiction requires serious reading and those who dismiss it are doing so primarily out of ignorance.

What's curious about the inclusion of Wolfe's essay, other than to try to impress academicians and other lit crit types, is that the fiction in this collection is not, with few exceptions, representative of such cross-pollination. Which isn't to say that the stories here are inferior, because certainly they aren’t.

(The exceptions, as far as I can guess, might be John Kessel, whose disturbing "The Invisible Empire" depicts vigilante feminists in a 19th century America, which could conceivably be combining the Western with fantasy; on the other hand, it might just simply be called alternate history. Problems with labeling aside, this is a damn good thought-provoking story. A better example is Joe Haldeman's "Guardian," which brews together various elements of folktale, hard SF, Twilight Zone allegory, and frontier stories. Curiously, however, as one familiar with these conventions, and therefore according to Wolfe able to appreciate them better, this was one of the less intriguing stories for me — another one I wanted to like more than I did — precisely because the conventions were so familiar. Part of the reason may be because I had just finished reading Stephen Baxter's Evolution, which deals in great depth with some of what Haldeman covers here in only a cursory way. To be fair, the other problem is the work is taken out of context, being an excerpt from a novel, albeit one that provokes interest in where the author may be going with these materials in a larger tableau. Similarly, Gene Wolfe's “Knight” is also a novel excerpt that whets your appetite for the larger work, but is more successful as a standalone story. As usual, you're not quite sure what Wolfe is getting at. While seemingly a medieval fantasy, the protagonist has vague recollections of life in the modern world, and there's also some talk of alternate worlds or realities. So I guess there's some cross-genre stuff going on here, as well, though knowing that doesn’t make it any easier to decode.)

John Clute advances Wolfe’s notion further. Clute is ideal for impressing the academic audience, since he writes like a literary theorist. For those of you who haven't endured graduate English study, this involves often abstruse arguments that have to be re-read several times to gain even partial comprehension. Unlike a lot of critics, Clute is usually worth the effort. Reading him increases my vocabulary. Still, I'm not always sure what the hell he is talking about.

As best as I can figure out, Clute's essay "Beyond the Pale" picks up from Wolfe in describing the grammar of genre. As an example, he employs the old trick of picking something out of the literary canon as actually representative of genre, in this case Conrad's "Heart of Darkness." Here we have a seeming adventure story that actually resonates dismal philosophy; moreover, it is the structure of the story, the way it calls attention to itself as a fictive artifice, a person relating an unverifiable story, that distinguishes it — and other genre works — as something Clute calls the "Ocean of Story," by which I gather he means something somehow more authentic than mere realism. Thus, "Heart of Darkness" is a work of the fantastic, so therefore the genre should be treated as respectable literary tradition. Okay, so far, so good, I think. Another feature of the fantastic is that it provides some portal for the protagonists (and/or the reader) to cross over into, if not an outright fantastic reality, then one that is recognizably different. And that there may be a different way for the story to end, or that it may have multiple endings (which is a common enough feature of post-Philip Dick literature, notably Baxter), and that the whole point of fantasy is to posit alternate narratives by which to more fully understand where the "real" narrative we find ourselves trapped in has gone wrong.

With me, so far?

Thus, by the broad application of this theory, the book’s lead story, John Crowley's "The Girlhood of Shakespeare's Heroines" — a poignant tale of two Midwestern misfits who meet at a camp for aspiring teen-aged Shakespearians, upon whom tragedy befalls, and who are reunited in bittersweet middle-age — could possibly be considered "fabulism." The first-person narrator has omniscient knowledge of the other main character, which draws attention to itself as a piece of fiction. Perhaps more significantly, this is also a story of falling through unknown portals, both when the "heroine" unwittingly falls through a stage trap at the Shakespeare camp and when she later discovers the trap her life has fallen into. Yet there are no rabbit holes here to Wonderland. So I still wouldn't classify this as a work of fabulism (and neither, after bringing it all up, does Clute, though for reasons I haven't figured out yet). I'd just call it a great story that is quite moving. That this story, which could appear in any literary magazine, is positioned here as the opener suggests that it’s intended to reassure snobbish readers that this genre stuff isn't so bad after all. That’s not only kind of insulting, it’s unnecessary, since there is plenty of quality work available that is the genuine article.

From Elizabeth Hand's New England Gothicism to Kelly Link's metaphorical mediations on a suffering marriage to Nalo Hopksinson's take on the Tempest (there's that Shakespeare, that fantasist of fairies and noble princes, again) in which Caliban gets some advice from a modern woman to Morrow's bizarre love story to Miéville's riff on Frankenstein to Paul Park's UFO abduction-who's-really-crazy paranoia to Andy Duncan's dramatization of the old folk song, "The Big Rock Candy Mountain," demonstrating yet again that what appears to be material for children is anything but. Jonathan Carroll's "Simon's House of Lipstick" requires some patience, because just when you wonder where this rambling tale of a no-good guy living in a strange world where an octopus can drive a bus is going to end up, it winds up nicely in a very cool and unexpected ending. There's also Karen Jay Fowler's "The Further Adventures of the Invisible Man," which except for one slight incident — which I'm not even sure is necessary — is barely fantastic, but is a nicely structured and funny coming of age tale.

Indeed, the least effective stories here are those which draw the most attention to themselves by proclaiming, "Lookee here, this is fantastical allegory!" Thus I yawned a bit at Lethem's, "The Dystopianist, Thinking of His Rival, Is Interrupted By a Knock at His Door," which struck me as heavy handed as the title. Patrick O'Leary's "The Bearing of Light" is one of those post-ironical parables involving a jaded Satan, although it redeems itself with an ambiguous ending. M. John Harrison is the sort of author that if you don't get him, you figure it must be you. I had a hard time understanding the point of "Entertaining Angels Unaware" in which a pleasant sort of fellow has dreams of murdering people, while his co-worker acts it out, but only in a metaphorical way. Even if I haven't quite gotten it, the fact that I keep thinking about it is itself a mark of the author's accomplishment.

Perhaps the clunkiest story here is Neil Gaiman's "October in the Chair," which specifically draws attention to itself as a story about storytelling. Tellingly, it's dedicated to Ray Bradbury, the great granddaddy of genre fabulists. This is particularly ironical considering that, the famous Clifton Fadiman introduction to The Martian Chronicles notwithstanding, literary critics tend to pick on Bradbury's prose tics as evidence of a lower art form; Ray's avuncular effusiveness sometimes gets out of control and his morality tales can stray to the tediously trite. As much as I idolize Bradbury, I admit that these critics sometimes have a point. Gaiman's tale is actually better than some late Bradbury, but it exhibits the same hoary eccentricities of the master in trying to be profound in a way that isn't quite as endearing to readers once past a certain age.

I don't think any of this, however, is representative of a movement, New Wave, Fabulist, or otherwise. I once asked China Miéville if there might be a club of writers that drank brandy together and make disparaging comments about people like David Eddings. (There's an amusing scene in Hand's tale in which the protagonist recalls, "I first met him when he was twelve or thirteen, a gangly kid into Dungeons & Dragons and Star Wars, who'd recently read Tolkien and had just started on Terry Brooks. 'Jesus, don't read that,' I'd said, snatching away The Sword of Shannara...") He responded not only that there wasn't any such thing occurring, but that the whole idea of a movement was a label imposed on writers rather than their own self-conceptions. It just so happens that some writers' self-conceptions dovetail because they have the same literary interests.

Which is as good a way as any of classifying this collection. My guess is that anyone interested in the people listed here is going to seek it out (as I did, and recommend that you do). That will be good for a temporary increase in Bard College's revenues to subsidize its publication. But I also suspect two things: one, that most hard-core genre readers aren't likely to take out a Conjunctions subscription for the fiction that's normally published here, and, secondly, that regular Conjunctions readers after a glance at the Table of Contents might be prone to put it aside as an issue they're not overly interested in.

Which is the way it always has been. Maybe the New Wave had some effect on the literary mainstream, but that effect was channeled through the counter-culture sensibilities of the era in which everything was percolating. I don't know if anyone really cared about the Cyberpunks per se outside of the genre; that Gibson, the cyber high priest, today gets mainstream recognition may in part be thanks to the larger dotcom phenomenon. I don't think The New Wave Fabulists makes any fresh literary declaration other than asking to the point of pleading for legitimate membership in the larger literary club.

But to paraphrase the words of that great fabulist, Groucho Marx, is any club that would invite such membership worth joining?

David Soyka is a freelance writer whose essays and reviews have appeared in The New York Review of Science Fiction, Nova Express, SF Site, and other publications. His website is at

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