Speculative fiction is a field preoccupied with categories, involved in a constant effort to catalog its narrative strategies, aesthetics, and influences: hard SF, New Wave, cyberpunk, mythic fiction, magic realism, slipstream, interstitial fiction, deep genre, New Weird, what have you. In ParaSpheres: Extending Beyond the Spheres of Literary and Genre Fiction, the preoccupation extends to the boundaries between "genre" and "literary" fiction. This collection, edited by Rusty Morrison and Ken Keegan, seeks to occupy that liminal place between fiction categories and blow raspberries at the borders on all sides. As Keegan explains, the anthology picks up a project started in the Fall 2002 issue of the literary journal Conjunctions #39, edited by Bradford Marrow and guest-edited by Peter Straub. The premise of ParaSpheres is that literary writing can draw on the narrative strategies of genre literature and create something utterly new.
Considered simply in terms of its fiction, it is a gem of a collection. Not only is there a lot of material—more than fifty stories in this 600-page volume—but much of it is rich and strange, a phantasmagoria fashioned into print. The stories run the gamut from earnestly numinous to raucous and playful. And many are quite memorable. L. Timmel Duchamp's "The Tears of Niobe," for instance, portrays a girl who has visions of lost worlds and must grapple with the masters who try to harness her ability. As the tale progresses, the narrator slowly learns the truth of what has happened to the lost worlds she sees, and their relationship to her own past. It is a contemplative examination of the nature of belief and cultural intolerance, conveyed in luminous prose.
Alasdair Gray's 1979 "Five Letters from an Eastern Empire," originally published in Words Magazine, is an epistolary account of poet-to-be Bohu, who serves the Emperor alongside his competitor, the Emperor's other poet, Tohu. When Tohu is called to write a poem about the destruction of the old palace, Bohu gradually realizes he himself will be called to participate in something he wants no part in. The tone of the story shifts from hilarious to deeply poignant. Its interrogation of the mechanics of power is unnerving and illuminating, and makes this one of the most politically pertinent stories in this collection. Or there's Shelley Jackson's "Short-Term Memorial Park," which, in her inimitable weird and affecting style, depicts the groundskeeper of a war memorial park who is himself a living memorial. One of his prosthetic legs constitutes war memorial No. 17, and the story takes a meandering stroll around his longing to have back this prosthetic leg.
But the anthology isn't just the stories. There's also the editorial commentary. The Editor's Note, and an essay at the end of the book, first of all frame the collection in a way that dismisses existing speculative fiction with the familiar defamation "escapist," and second, overlook the cross-genre work that's been going on in speculative fiction for at least a couple of decades now.
Keegan's editorial commentary attempts to work through the idea that literary and genre fiction can meet in the middle to new, dynamic ends. The Editor's Note starts from the assumption that "genre fiction" bears no "cultural meaning and value" (p. 11), as this is something found solely in realistic literature. Right off the bat, it's clear that the anthology's intended audience is folks invested in the idea that realistic fiction is the only "literary" (that is, worthwhile) fiction. A particularly interesting moment occurs when the introduction invokes Kafka's Metamorphosis, Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm, and Huxley's Brave New World, as examples of "literary" works that draw on non-realist (that is, genre) strategies. Keegan says, "The genre categories do not hold these works well" (p. 11); in other words, these are genre fiction works, but we can't consider them such because they are of "literary quality." Admitting that genre fiction can in fact be culturally relevant and artfully written would disrupt assumptions about genre, so these texts are claimed for "literary" fiction.
And yet, contradicting his own stance, Keegan seems to want to challenge the idea that fiction with speculative/magical/non-realistic elements cannot be literary. He gets caught in the trap of equating "the literary" to realism—and non-realism to "worthwhile" fiction—tangling himself in a mess of uninterrogated clichés he takes for genre definitions. We learn that "escapist formula novels dominate the world of genre fiction publishing, accounting for over ninety percent of all fiction sales," and that "it is much faster to write formula than to write more creatively" (p. 626)—generalizations and clichés that deny the intellectual and cultural worth of much fantasy and science fiction (and have no grasp of the creative work that goes into speculative fiction worldbuilding, etc.). The editorial commentary is so embedded in the assumption that non-realist/genre fiction can't have anything illuminating to say that the whole shebang gets relegated, once again, déjà vu, seen it all before, to the ghetto—undermining what could have been a refreshing take on genre definitions.
Furthermore, the commentary fails to acknowledge that speculative fiction writers have been at this blurring of realism/genre boundaries since at least the 1980s (and likely it could be traced even earlier). "Slipstream" (coined by Bruce Sterling in 1989) was identified as a type of fiction that stands somewhere between speculative and mainstream fiction, drawing on surrealist and magical realist strategies. These stories take place in the "real world" (rather than invented worlds) and inject the inexplicable/weird/unfamiliar into everyday life. So as a mode, slipstream troubles our sense of normality and creates a sense of disorientation from the real world. (John Kessel and Jim Kelly's anthology Feeling Very Strange examines these questions further).
The Interstitial Arts movement takes a different tack to blurring boundaries, seeking to traverse and cross-pollinate genre categories rather than create a new one. According to the Interstitial Arts Foundation, "Interstitial literature can fall into the cracks between genres or it can bind two or more genres together." This movement expresses an interest in confounding the "rules," conventions, and expectations of literary genres—fantasy, mystery, fairy tales, and myth, along with, yes, realism.
In short, there has been quite a bit of interrogation within the speculative fiction community of how "categories" of literature might inform each other, how fantastical non-realism in a "realistic" setting might look—and the resulting thought experiments have been published in speculative fiction venues for decades.
In fact, ParaSpheres reprints several stories originally published in spec fic markets. Ursula K. LeGuin's "The Birthday of the World" (2000) first saw print in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. It takes place in an imagined culture on an imaginary planet and recounts civilization's gradual demise, which is attended by the arrival of an alien race. This breathtaking story indubitably occupies the category of speculative fiction, yet the editorial commentary invites us to see this story as something other than genre literature because of its quality. Similarly, Jeffrey Ford's "The White Man" was first published in Aberrations in 1995. This is a story about events that are connected in the way things in dreams are connected, and affecting in the way dreams so often are. It is told from the perspective of a boy whose sister has a hole in her heart, and a White Man who comes one night and plagues the family. And Angela Carter's brilliantly told "The Cabinet of Edgar Allen Poe" first appeared in Interzone in 1982, and recounts Poe's mother's life, then Poe's early years, the loss of his wife, on through to his last breath. Interestingly, "The Cabinet" does not contain a prominent speculative element, but was nonetheless printed in a decidedly spec fic venue.
All of these stories and several others point to a spec fic heritage of playing with established literary modes. This heritage gets erased because Keegan and Morrison are specifically after "literary" works that have "lasting meaning and value." And since it's a foregone conclusion that what's happening in speculative fiction is devoid of that, they have to reinvent the wheel. And find it a snazzy new name. "Speculative fiction" does not suffice because it has already been tarnished (as far as Keegan is concerned) by associations with "all forms of the genres of fantasy and science fiction, as well as much horror" (p. ii); thus "speculative fiction" couldn't point to the "literary" quality of fiction drawing on non-realist strategies. Instead, the editors use terms coined by Robert Scholes in his 1967 The Fabulators, developed in Structural Fabulation (1975), and further explored by Peter Straub in Conjunctions #39—"Fabulism" and "New Wave Fabulism." In the latter work, these terms denote writers who are "rooted in the genres of science fiction, fantasy, and horror have been simultaneously exploring and erasing the boundaries of those genres by creating fiction of remarkable depth and power" (p. ii). In The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, Clute and Nicholls suggest that a fabulation is a story which challenges the notions that the "world can be seen; and that it can be told," undermining assumptions within some speculative fiction that reality is knowable and describable through language.
Generally speaking, these terms could indeed be useful for illuminating literature rooted in speculative fiction that blurs generic boundaries, and interrogating what the ParaSpheres stories are doing in relation to "realism." However, Keegan misses his chance to explore these issues in any depth. Instead, he mobilizes "Fabulism" and "New Wave Fabulism" to dismiss the generic heritage of these stories with all the aplomb of Columbus stepping on unfamiliar shores, overlooking that this territory is already known to many, and designating it New Land for literary-kind.
Indeed, the body of stories in ParaSpheres do not strike me as a radical departure from the kind of work being done in speculative fiction in recent years. "Nobody Walks in London" by Terry Gates-Grimwood presents a man whose wife's soul must be rescued from the Houses of Parliament because he didn't pay his taxes on time (a grave warning to us all). He must brave the rarely-traversed streets of London and encounters with Commuters, as well as face the city's Poor to find out what happened to his wife. The story interweaves wry social commentary with lively narrative.
"Old Flames in New Bottles" by Michael Andre-Driussi is about a man who tries to save an ex-girlfriend from a house fire, only to be drawn back into a relationship with her and put under a decade-long spell of marriage and family. He is thrown from the spell through the fire of his own infidelity. This is not a metaphor-made-literal story, though, but a modern tale of enchantment that draws on old folk motifs. Justin Courter's "The Town News" is a cancer story, which would normally put me off; but this is a captivating read. It portrays a young man who foresees how people he meets will die. He perceives the undiagnosed illness of a new acquaintance, an older woman, and gets wrapped up in her life; the resulting narrative entwines the tender with the strange to good effect.
Stories working in this vein can be found in many SF publications. Polyphony, for instance, has been going since 2002 and is now in its fifth volume. Small press ventures such as Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet and Flytrap also come to mind, along with Ideomancer, the occasional Alchemy, Strange Horizons, and ... I could go on. These and others are publications interested in the encroachment of the phantasmal upon "the real world," and have a level of quality we might call "literary," if we had to keep that word around. The new anthology Mythic, edited by Mike Allen, also draws on myth for its inspiration, coalescing the oldest mode of storytelling with modern modes; likewise, Cabinets des Fées, edited by Erzebet Barthold-YellowBoy, Helen Pilinovsky, and Catherynne M. Valente, draws on stories with fairy tale motifs, structure, sensibility, etc. A forthcoming anthology entitled Interfictions, edited by Delia Sherman and Theodora Goss, will also (we are promised) engage with the idea of producing thoughtful cross-genre literature.
Which brings me to my next point. Let's be honest here. "Realism" is as much a narrative strategy as any of the non-realist strategies used in genre literature, and is as replete with its own ideological assumptions. To say that realism has a greater claim to literary legitimacy is arbitrary at best, and at worst delegitimatizes a fuller, richer vocabulary for illuminating human experience. Nothing inheres in non-realistic narrative strategies that precludes them from producing emotionally resonant or culturally illuminating literature—there's no reason why discussing a fantastical creature or events on an invented planet, for instance, can't elicit a deep emotional and/or intellectual response from its readership. Numerous stories between ParaSpheres's covers are clearly genre SF—I've already mentioned many. Kim Stanley Robinson's "The Lucky Strike" (1984) is an alternate history that explores another outcome for the WWII atom bombings of Japan. Leena Krohn's "Son of Chimera" is a novel excerpt that tells the tale of a woman who kidnaps/frees a human-animal genetic experiment and subsequently gives birth to the inter-species narrator. (A captivating read, the excerpt whets my appetite for the full novel). Jeff VanderMeer's delightful "The Secret Paths of Rajan Khanna" presents a man who has the ability to find paths where they don't exist, and the effects it has on his experience of the mundane. Without genre tropes, these stories would not have interrogated the human experience in the same way, to the same degree. Why legitimate one mode as "literary" and discard the other?
Keegan hangs much of his case against genre on dismissing it as poorly written. Indeed, you're going to find poorly executed fiction in genre fiction—just as you'll find it in realistic literature. So the "need" to give non-realist fiction a new name that sets it apart from genre fiction—fiction that Keegan says is "based on proven formulas" (p. 626), lacking "cultural and artistic value" (p. 627), and replete with "profit motivations" (p. 628)—is a political move that erases the full reality of what's going on in speculative fiction.
Though the editors claim to want to inspire fiction that blurs the boundaries between the literary and the speculative, in the end their commentary buttresses the categories of "genre" and "literary" rather than showing these are value-laden political categories that are ultimately arbitrary and artificial—categories that can and do shut down cross-pollination and conversation between sets of writers and readers. Instead of calling into question the usefulness of or the political undercurrents that attend notions of "literary" and "genre," or exploring what "Fabulist" and "New Wave Fabulist" have to offer in illuminating genre definitions, the discussion reinforces clichés. Keegan says, "By presenting this fiction as neither literary nor genre, but rather as something else, we are avoiding the pitfalls of claiming literary status for these works" (p. 635). Unfortunately, they run headlong into another trap: that of insisting that the literary and genre are contrary impulses in fiction. A more subversive and radical approach to all this talk about spheres and categories—the effect Keegan and Morrison are actually after—would have been to hold up the ParaSpheres stories as evidence that the category of "literary" is an artificial one.
All is not lost. Rikki Ducornet's introduction, "A Memoir in the Form of a Manifesto," captures what about speculative fiction is dynamic and important, and why those whose usual fare is "realist" or "literary" fiction should be interested in it. Abandoning the question of how to classify works and whether we can call these stories literary or not, Duconet points out why speculative fiction is necessary:
A criminal lack of imagination is making of our fragile world a flatland. We are told that flat, like fear, is good for us, somehow suitable ... A world worth wanting cherishes the risks of wildness, and this includes not only the lavish elephants and meteoric crabs, but the stars we can no longer see. (p. 21)
First, speculative fiction is a literature that causes us to see our own world more clearly—it arguably does nothing better than show the fragility and un-inevitability of our social structures. Second, spec fic can provide the tools for rethinking social structures and envisioning new approaches to them. If this is not fiction that has "cultural meaning and value," than I don't know what is. And if the anthology gives folks invested in "literary" fiction permission to delve into non-realist literature, then it does a second worthwhile thing (the first being collecting the stories themselves). The literary cosmos can only benefit from such conversation. The editorial remarks don't do anything to make a "literary" readership think differently of speculative fiction, but I expect these stories will speak for themselves for those who pay close attention. I hope that such a readership will look more deeply into what is going on speculative fiction, rather than accepting the editorial discussion out of hand.
Read ParaSpheres. It's not the revolutionary departure from existing literary trends the editors make it out to be, but it does present a ripe opportunity for considering what keeps the "literary" and "genre" in separate spheres. This collection of stories suggests that it's not so much readers' interests that maintain these different spheres, but rather, entrenched attitudes about the spheres. And if there's anything here that lays the groundwork for resisting these attitudes, it's the stories themselves.
Darja Malcolm-Clarke attended Clarion West in 2004, and her fiction and poetry appear or will appear in TEL: Stories, on the Cabinets des Fées webzine, and in Mythic Delirium, among others. She holds master's degrees in Folklore and in English from Indiana University. Her study of grotesque bodies in recent fantasy won the 2006 IAFA grad student paper award. She is currently studying for doctoral exams and hopes to survive this process.