…AND YOU SPIN IN THE SLIPSTREAM

I’ve been hearing a lot lately about a literary genre that has been dubbed Slipstream.

Now, I’m not really one to care about literary genres. As far as I’m concerned a good story is a good story regardless of what genre box it is placed into (and to me, Slipstream is the title of a song from Jethro Tull’s 1971 album Aqualung). However, reading about the slipstream genre has got me thinking about this because the definition so ephemeral.

According to Wikipedia, Slipstream is: “…a kind of fantastic or non-realistic fiction that crosses conventional genre boundaries between science fiction/fantasy and mainstream literary fiction…Slipstream falls between speculative fiction and mainstream fiction. While some slipstream novels employ elements of science fiction or fantasy, not all do. The common unifying factor of these pieces of literature is some degree of the surreal, the not-entirely-real, or the markedly anti-real.”

Okay, that sounds good but as a definition it is kind of slippery. So what are examples of writing that can be called Slipstream? Well, apparently Kurt Vonnegut was writing slipstream fiction without even knowing it. His 1969 novel Slaughterhouse 5 is an example of the Slipstream genre. J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun is an example. So is Brian Aldis’ Life in the West and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

Okay, these are “literary” works with somewhat of a fantasy or SF element to them, sure, but let’s go on. Also on the list, apparently, is The Princess Bride by William Goldman and Arthur Rex by Thomas Berger. Huh?

So what gives?

The term slipstream was coined by author Bruce Sterling in an article originally published in July 1989. Sterling, along with William Gibson, was one of the early writers of the so-called “cyberpunk” movement back in the 1980’s. He also seems to specialize in creating literary genres. He is credited with (or at least he takes credit for) creating the literary genre of steampunk along with William Gibson in their 1990 novel The Difference Engine. This was before steampunk was co-opted into a visual esthetic.

Of slipstream Sterling writes: “…this is a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility.”

Okay. That doesn’t help much either. I lived most of my life in the twentieth century, so how can living in it feel strange? Strange as compared to what? Do we all feel better now that we’re living in the twenty-first century? Within this broad definition also could fit works as disparate as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

And what about literature from previous centuries. One feels strange when reading Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Are they slipstream books?

It’s starting to sound like one of those: “…whatever I am pointing to when I say the word” kind of definitions. You know, as I try to chase this slipstream thing down I begin to feel more and more like Alice chasing the white rabbit.

Curioser and curioser indeed!

A LESSON IN SUSPENSE

Portrait of Madame X, painted in 1884, is the informal title of a portrait by John Singer Sargent of a young socialite named Virginie Amélie Avegno Gautreau. Madame Gautreau was an American expatriate who married a French banker, and became notorious in Parisian high society for her beauty and rumored infidelities.

As it was originally painted the portrait caused a scandal because of one shoulder strap that was off the subject’s shoulder. The portrait, which, you must remember, was merely canvas and paint, was the cause of much consternation among Paris society. There were calls for Sargent to remove the painting from the exhibition.

Imagine crowds of young Parisian men gathered around the canvas in breathless anticipation of the moment when gravity does it’s thing and causes Madame X’s dress to fall to the floor. Of the painting one critic wrote: “One more struggle and the lady will be free”. It is sexual titillation at it’s most piquant and it all happens in the mind of the viewer.

Above you see the painting as it was repainted by Sargent with the strap back in its safer position. Here a photo shows the painting as it hung at the salon of ’84 with the strap off her shoulder:


With Sargent repainting the strap, he successfully took much of the sting out of the painting.

To see how the painting might have looked, take a look at an altered image done by Mike Pieczonka:

To me, the whole incident is amazing and shows just how powerful a painting can be. How provocative are these images made up of an arrangement of pigments! In and of itself the object is harmless, yet what it depicts enflames desire or outrage. Whether it is a Sargent portrait or a controversial comic in a French newspaper, images have amazing power.

And yet, as Robert Crumb observed almost 100 years later “It’s only lines on paper, folks!”.

Lines on paper, words on a page, yet so full of power.

MUSINGS ON MUSIC

Something that I have realized about myself lately is that music is very important to me. Now that is not very odd at all. Music is important to a lot of people, but I am not musical at all. I have never been musical, nor can I play any instrument (not proficiently, anyway). Other than piano lessons when I was little (lesson that I hated every minute of) I have never been exposed to the mechanics of music. That is still somewhat of a mystery to me.

However, I love music and I have what could be charitably described as an eclectic taste in it. I have a wide ranging interest from Classical to Heavy Metal, from Top 40 to obscure Indie bands to Jazz and, of course, the Blues.

I have to have music while I write. The music that’s playing doesn’t necessarily have to have anything to do stylistically or thematically with what I’m writing, but when it happens it is a nice bit of serendipity. One of the greatest things to happen to music in the 21st century, I think, is the advent of itunes.
itunes, and the attendant technology of the ipod, is like a great big musical melting pot. Into the mix goes everything I like — every .mp3 file that I can buy, beg, borrow, download, copy, whatever — it all goes into the mix.

I like to have the “shuffle” feature on which plays files randomly. I have no idea what’s going to come up but it’s all my music and I listen indiscriminately. I know some folks (my wife and daughter for example) who have the shuffle feature on but will skip songs they don’t want to listen to. I prefer to listen to whatever comes my way whether I am in the “mood” for it or not. I let it wash over me.
I’m not big on lyrics or the meaning of songs. I find I can’t decipher most lyrics anyway, so I just enjoy the feeling that each piece gives me. The combination of tunes, the juxtaposition of different — sometimes discordant — musical styles is surprisingly stimulating. Robert Johnson, The Walkmen, The soundtrack from Torchwood, Jethro Tull,Wagner, Adele. The Moody Blues. Nina Simone, XTC, Lenny White, Klaatu, Arctic Monkeys, Black Sabbath — It all mixes up like a musical jambalaya.

Naturally I have some I like better than others but on the whole it’s all good and I find it helps the writing process when the words stop flowing like white hot lave. The music can help stimulate it and take it in surprising directions.

So the question is: do you write to music? Does it help the work to have a particular kind of music, or do you listen to an eclectic mix? Or do you need to write in silence?
Or do you just like music, period? What’s some of your favorite music?

OPENING PARAGRAPHS

Most writers now the importance of an opening paragraph. Writers are keenly aware (or they should be) that they only have so much time to interest a reader in investing his or her attention in your work. You’ve got to hook them — intrigue them — right away.

First paragraphs are usually crafted very carefully and are usually one of the last things a writer does. The crafting of an opening paragraph, unless you are lucky enough to come up with a doozy in your first draft, is usually something that is worked on, filed, cut, honed and polished many times before you publish and/or submit to a publisher.

An opening paragraph — heck, an opening sentence — can make the difference between reading the book or putting it back on the shelf (or throwing it on the floor which was my reaction to the opening sentence of The Hunger Games, but the less said about that the better).

Here, in no particular order, are some of my favourite opening paragraphs:

When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special magnificence, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien

 

He was one hundred and seventy days dying and not yet dead. He fought for survival with the passion of a beast in a cage. He was delerious and rotting, but occasionally his primitive mind emerged from the burning nightmare of survival into something resembling sanity. Then he lifted his mute face to Eternity and muttered” “What’s a matter, me? Help, you goddamn gods! Help, is all.”

The Stars my Destination by Alfred Bester

 

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

 

IT WAS ABOUT ELEVEN O’CLOCK in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

 The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

 

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him.

 1984 by George Orwell

 

Mr. Sherlock Holmes, who was usually very late in the mornings, save upon those not infrequent occasions when he was up all night, was seated at the breakfast table. I stood upon the hearth-rug and picked up the stick which our visitor had left behind him the night before. It was a fine, thick piece of wood, bulbous-headed, of the sort which is known as a `Penang lawyer.’ Just under the head was a broad silver band nearly an inch across. `To James Mortimer, M.R.C.S., from his friends of the C.C.H.,’ was engraved upon it, with the date `1884.’ It was just such a stick as the old-fashioned family practitioner used to carry – dignified, solid, and reassuring.

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle

 

You see, I had this space suit.

Have Space Suit – Will Travel by Robert A. Heinlein

 

In the week before their departure to Arrakis, when all the final scurrying about had reached a nearly unbearable frenzy, an old crone came to visit the mother of the boy, Paul

Dune by Frank Herbert

 

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

The Dark Tower by Stephen King

And, of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t include one of my own opening paragraphs. I’ve been working on this one for quite a while now (several years, in fact) and I have changed it many times since that first draft. Here is the opening paragraph for my forthcoming novel DEBT’S PLEDGE:

Jefferson Odett found the alien skull on a tiny backwater world covered with heat blasted rocks and little else. He sat on one of those rocks, waiting for Colonel Lightyard and his division. He’d seen the Colonel’s shuttle land some ways off and he was growing impatient waiting in the merciless heat.

So what are some of your favourite opening paragraphs? Or do you have an opening paragraph to one of your own novels that you are particularly proud of? Post them in the comments below.