Slipstream

A 1989 essay by Bruce Sterling:

In a recent remarkable interview in New Pathways #11, Carter Scholz alludes with pained resignation to the ongoing brain-death of science fiction. In the 60s and 70s, Scholz opines, SF had a chance to become a worthy literature; now that chance has passed. Why? Because other writers have now learned to adapt SF’s best techniques to their own ends.

“And,” says Scholz, “They make us look sick. When I think of the best `speculative fiction’ of the past few years, I sure don’t think of any Hugo or Nebula winners. I think of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, and of Don DeLillo’s White Noise, and of Batchelor’s The Birth of the People’s Republic of Antarctica, and of Gaddis’ JR and Carpenter’s Gothic, and of Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K… I have no hope at all that genre science fiction can ever again have any literary significance. But that’s okay, because now there are other people doing our job.”

“Science Fiction” today is a lot like the contemporary Soviet Union; the sprawling possessor of a dream that failed. Science fiction’s official dogma, which almost everybody ignores, is based on attitudes toward science and technology which are bankrupt and increasingly divorced from any kind of reality. “Hard-SF,” the genre’s ideological core, is a joke today; in terms of the social realities of high-tech post-industrialism, it’s about as relevant as hard-Leninism.

Consider the repulsive ghastliness of the SF category’s Lovecraftian inbreeding. People retched in the 60s when De Camp and Carter skinned the corpse of Robert E. Howard for its hide and tallow, but nowadays necrophilia is run on an industrial basis. Shared-world anthologies. Braided meganovels. Role-playing tie-ins. Sharecropping books written by pip-squeaks under the blazoned name of established authors. Sequels of sequels, trilogy sequels of yet-earlier trilogies, themselves cut-and-pasted from yet-earlier trilogies. What’s the common thread here? The belittlement of individual creativity, and the triumph of anonymous product.

Science Fiction–much like that other former Vanguard of Progressive Mankind, the Communist Party–has lost touch with its cultural reasons for being. Instead, SF has become a self-perpetuating commercial power-structure, which happens to be in possession of a traditional national territory: a portion of bookstore rackspace.

Sterling follows with a long list of books he considers “slipstream.” I’ve only read a few of these books. These include “Replay,” by Ken Greenwood; and Anne Rice’s vampire novels. I’m familiar at second hand with a few more: “The Handmaid’s Tale,” by Margaret Atwood, and “Shoeless Joe,” by W.P. Kinsella, became the movie “Field of Dreams.” I’d categorize all these works as science fiction, fantasy, or magic realism, rather than creating a separate category for them and calling them “slipstream.”

I dug up this essay recently because it was mentioned on a podcast—possibly this one. I remembered that the essay was a big deal 30 years ago, but I never got around to reading it. And now I have.

As for today: I can’t speak to the state of the written genre; I don’t keep up. But Sterling’s dystopian description certainly seems to apply to the mainstream of science fiction movies and TV, with its endless sequels, superheroes, and clones. And yet lots of good stuff also gets made: “For All Mankind,” “Severance,” “Guardians of the Galaxy,” “The Umbrella Academy,” etc.

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