[Note from the Editors: This article was published in the April, 2008 issue of NYRSF. We thought our readers might like to see it again, so we're posting it here in honor of Ray Bradbury.]
The appropriate place to think about the notion of slipstream— and by slipstream I mean those works that fall between genre borders but that either insist on some kind of genre identity even so, or else have defenders as to their genre identity—is in the realm of the short story, for what I think are good historical reasons.
The shaping laboratory of genre fiction seems to be the short story, as lots of people are happy to point out. Many of the most able practitioners of genre fiction have shown their expertise in the shorter realm. In science fiction, that may be because a fiction of ideas is most easily sustained over a short duration.
A few years ago I somehow ended up on a panel about slipstream at the Worldcon in Glasgow, where I offered some of the following notions—for their logic possessed me, and this made me curious if anyone would have the right analytic pin at hand to pop this particular balloon of an idea.
A large crowd filled the room—which was surprising, since you would suspect the core believers in the notion of science fiction would be the ones attending a World Science Fiction Convention, and you might think core believers might have limited interest in writings that struggle for life at the boundaries, or against the boundaries, of sf.
So I presented my observation that these efforts to identify, name, and emphasize New Waves of not-quite-sf stories recur with each new generation of writers, but that these recurring events might have had a beginning.
The particular writer who most stands out, for me, as a model for current generations of writers interested in slipstream, is not one usually trotted out as an artistic model any more—despite the fact that most of the current generation grew up on his writing, and many have struggled, in one way or another, to outgrow it—not that it needs to be outgrown, any more than the notion of genre itself needs to be outgrown.
These collections, with a few novels tossed in, appeared in some numbers, at least when I was a younger reader. I still find it surprising to look back and to realize how decisive the marketing was in this matter. Words to this effect—“by the greatest living master of science fiction”—appeared on the paperback covers.
These books were the collected stories of Ray Bradbury—who also had the stigma during those years, if you want to call it that, of being acceptable to the general world in a “literary” way. It seemed a commonplace sentiment that if you disliked reading science fiction, you could still like reading Ray Bradbury.
Once I considered that marketing approach, I found it easy to believe that the flexibility in defining science fiction demonstrated by these collections created a hunger among young writers to enjoy a similar freedom of expression, unconstrained by genre boundaries but still enjoying the benefits of being marketed to a genre audience.
Bradbury’s identification as a science fiction writer was not an obstacle to his being received by a broader public as a writer worth reading. That act of rising above genre, while still being plainly identified as genre, seemed something well worth aiming for.
This also strikes me: Given Bradbury’s example, the complaints of writers about the restrictions of genre seem a little forced and maybe not unlike ugly-duckling dissatisfactions. Clearly, Bradbury showed that by pursuing one’s chosen work, which in his case happened to be genre writing, a writer can gain recognition on general merit.
He also showed that a writer can gain fine reward by pursuing her or his own chosen work: for his “master of science fiction” titles, or however they were labeled, were Bantam titles available everywhere.
Bradbury could easily have announced that he was boldly setting out to erase genre boundaries, for literary reasons. As far as I know, though, he did not. I think it was simply a marketing ploy with interesting implications and interesting results.
I am not trying to say that the conditions under which Bradbury was working are the same as those that have held lately or in recent decades. All I am pointing out is that Bradbury provided an example of desirable, free-ranging literary freedom—an example to which most if not all imaginative writers in America had some exposure.
Bradbury’s name, it seems to me, is too rarely invoked in this kind of discussion—so I half suspected there must be some reason for the silence, something so obvious that I completely overlooked it. Yet no such matter was thrown back at me, so I still puzzle over this constant reaching for New This and New That—for this constant attempt to add levels of genre-labeling when the more vague and more all-embracing notion of the original genre, as indicated by Bradbury’s example, is large enough to allow as much freedom as any writer could want.
Since Bradbury’s work seems to be read and taught at least as often as Hemingway’s—maybe more!—the notion of stigma being attached to the genre label also seems hard to defend in the larger picture.
Bradbury has rarely offered up his life as a subject for his own nonfiction writing—rarely, that is, in comparison with the example of, say, Asimov, who wrote as enthusiastically about his youth in a candy shop as he did about biochemical processes or fictional robotics. Bradbury’s youth is there, undoubtedly, in his many stories. Yet the retrospective autobiographical fireside refl ections have not appeared from his pen, steadily over the years, to hold out the example to young writers of one method to be applied in approaching the writing life.
Bradbury is one who loved genre writing and fully plumbed its depths as a reader and as a writer. We might say he was one to drink deeply of the bottle before shattering it—even though to many of us who came along later, the evidence we saw of the broken bottle may have seemed more compelling than the fact that the bottle originally offered useful constraints.
Bradbury’s influence on us must have been largely an unconscious one—and maybe it has been powerful because of that, lying mostly unseen within us but giving us a positive spark for our engines, propelling us toward new wave after new wave.
Had it been a more conscious influence—had Bradbury stepped out, making his life-lessons-learnt the subject of how-to-live-the-life essays and books—would that have changed things? Would more writers have taken his approach of simply writing what needed to be written, critics be damned, marketers be damned, book publishers be damned—and genre magazine editors be praised? Would more writers have done the heavy lifting of working through every possible fictional motif that came to mind, to understand the genre at hand, before looking around and wondering what more might be done?
Things might have been no different, had he done so. I have no idea. So many of us responded to the call of the New Wave (whatever that was) and cried out, “Yes!”—and then so many others of us embraced the other notions to come along, enough of us to make me think that our wave-making may be a result of our working within a privileged genre.
I do think our genre is privileged, however be-ghettoed we might think it: privileged because it exists, because it provides some of us a living, because it makes us happy, and privileged because it let quite a few of us grow up spoiled enough to think we deserved more.
No doubt we do deserve more—but so what? I have the feeling Bradbury worried little about fomenting a literary revolution, but rather more about doing what he could, as best he could, and as regularly as he could, with the result that he created one of the true beauties of twentieth-century Western culture, Fahrenheit 451. That book alone could, and should, have started rings of out-rippling new waves . . . but it took his entire output to do that.
Strange, that it takes a single member of a genre to become larger than that genre—yet maybe that is the case.
A wave may not be strong enough.
Mark Rich lives in Cashton, Wisconsin.