The First Line Game was originally introduced to us by Jo Walton back in 2008 and we tend to bring it back out about once a year for fun during holidays. Come play it with us!
Easily best know for his comic literary novels like Lucky Jim and That Uncertain Feeling; Kingsley Amis nonetheless had strong connections to genre fiction. In 1964, under a the nom de plume “Richard Markham” he wrote Colonel Sun, the first James Bond novel not written by Ian Fleming, aspects of which were later used in the films The World is Not Enough and Die Another Day. Amis also wrote a non-fiction text on SF called New Maps of Hell: A Survey of Science Fiction as well as being the editor on an 1981 anthology titled The Golden Age of Science Fiction. Cleary the guy loved genre fiction, but how often did it show up in his own novels?
The lesser-known Kingsley Amis novel, The Green Man (1969) is almost a straight-up ghost story, featuring life after death, communications with the dead, and a lot of crazy sex.
Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer Among The Indians is Twain’s first attempt to directly parody one of the nineteenth century’s most popular American genres – the Indian adventure story. The unfinished novel begins where every other sequel to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn begins – after the boys and Jim return to Missouri and Tom becomes restless.
Rather than amusing romps through popular contemporary genres, this unfinished Twain novel is an illustration of Tom’s bad habit of confusing genre fiction for reality and Huck’s generously indulging him to the point of no return. It’s also a kind of assualt on James Fenimore Cooper.
The special February double-issue of The New Yorker (on stands now) contains a short-story from the only author to have won both the Hugo Award and the Pulitzer Prize; Michael Chabon. Though much could be written about Chabon’s genre-bending career, and love of science fiction, fantasy and its related subjects, this piece of short fiction is brand new and quite poignant. In “Citizen Conn” Chabon explores the notions of old friendships forged out of the love of the fantastic, and how those creators effect the lives of fans, and even people who’ve never heard of them.
While riding in the back seat of a friend’s car on the way to Thanksgiving, another friend turned around from the front seat and began relating to me how she’d attended a recent panel discussion at the Center for Fiction called “Why Fantasy Matters.” This friend is a writer and editor of mainstream literary fiction.
“Why are you guys always talking about the definition of genre?” she asked, “Why does it matter? Why can’t science fiction and fantasy writers just do their thing and shut up about genre definitions?”
To me this question had at its root another question: why is the discussion about genre definition valuable to writers and readers? With the new year upon us, and a slew of genre-bending books inbound for 2012, I thought I’d pause for a moment and talk about what we talking about when we talking about genre in the mainstream.
(Video: Book trailer for The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus)
Literary offerings that dabble in the fantastic will continue into 2012 and beyond, with this January seeing the release of two such books, with more confirmed for later in the year. As part of the ongoing conversation on genre crossover, here’s a very brief look ahead into what’s coming in 2012. Genre in the Mainstream will likely be covering all of these books, but I’d like you, the readers, to have some titles in the backs of your minds as you try to fulfill that all-important New Year’s resolution: “I need to read some new books...”
Though crossover between mainstream literature and the genres of science fiction and fantasy has been going on for quite some time, 2011 was a big year for books traveling from one genre dimension to another. But as Margaret Atwood said in her 2011 release In Other Worlds, “…the membranes separating these subdivisions are permeable, and osmotic flow from one to another is the norm...” There were a lot of books this year which took that action and Genre in the Mainstream has endeavored to be part of the ongoing conversation about genre divide and crossover. Here are a selection of books published last year which deserve the attention of anyone interested in this phenomenon. They’re also all great reads too, regardless of your genre leanings!
Stephen King was my first literary love. Between the ages of ten and sixteen I read every book he ever published — most of them twice, and some (his masterpiece, It; the novella The Mist) more often than that. I liked his talky style, and that he wrote a lot about kids, whose concerns and motivations carried equal weight with those of the adults. (Naturally, I also liked all the violence and sex.) But my love of King faded as I got older, for all of the usual reasons — evolving taste, discovery of what else was out there, a need to distance myself from anything that smacked of childhood. And so it went. By the time I graduated high school in 2000, King was largely off my radar.
I remember walking into a Barnes and Noble and seeing his then-newest, From a Buick 8 (2002), on a front table display. The cover depicted a blue car with lightning coming off of it and teeth for a grille. The tagline was, “There are Buicks everywhere…” I about laughed myself out of the store, thinking that King had finally jumped his shark and confirmed in the knowledge that I’d done the right thing to leave him behind.
There’s a scene relatively early in Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 where Aomame, one of the novel’s two central characters, walks into the sunroom of her wealthy patron, who she finds “seated in her reading chair and listening to John Dowland’s instrumental piece ‘Lachrimae,’” which “was one of her favorite pieces of music,” we’re told: “Aomame had heard it many times and knew the melody.”
As I suggested to the mainstream readership at Shelf Awareness when I reviewed 1Q84 there last week, I’m just about convinced that this is an Easter egg for Philip K. Dick fans, obliquely referencing Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said—and I’m not just talking about the fact that “Flow My Tears” is a version of “Lachrimae” with lyrics. The thematic overlap between the two novels is so significant that to me it’s not a question of whether Murakami has read Dick, but when. And, as we’ll see, Flow isn’t the only point of resonance.
Before we start, though, I should warn you that (a) I may be telling you more about 1Q84 than you want to hear if you’re planning to read it later or haven’t made it all the way through yet, and (b) I’ve spent most of the last month reading the new abridged edition of The Exegesis of Philip K. Dick at home and 1Q84 on the subway, so my head has been in a really, really interesting place lately.
Mark Twain, like most writers of any quality, had preoccupations. Mistaken identity, travel, Satan, ignorance, superstition, and childhood are all pretty obvious ones, but the most fun one is Twain’s almost obsessive preoccupation with what other writers were doing and why they should (or shouldn’t) have been doing it. Occasionally he wrote essays and articles to this effect (if you haven’t read “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses,” please do so this instant), but he also spoofed writers all the time.
Though many of us might recall the more serious aspects of the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn from sophomore English, Tom and Huck were some of Twain’s favorite spoof tools, and the four little known late novels about the duo (two complete and two incomplete) are what I want to make sure you know about: Tom Sawyer Abroad, Tom Sawyer Detective, “Huck Finn And Tom Sawyer Among the Indians,” and “Tom Sawyer’s Conspiracy.” First up: our duo board a balloon in Tom Saywer Abroad.
With a publication date of 1818, Frankenstein predates the efforts of Jules Verne as the first English-language novel possessing many qualities which would be called “scientific romance” and later “science fiction.” The emphasis here (like its very loose 1931 film adaptation) should be on the word romance because a fan of hard SF probably wouldn’t find much recognizable. The specific science of this fiction is hardly explored at all. While there is a narrative excuse given for this, as a science fiction writer, Mary Shelley probably fits in closer with Alfred Bester and Ray Bradbury than she does with Arthur C. Clarke or Isaac Asimov. Just as we don’t know why Bradbury’s rockets fly, we similarly don’t know the exact procedure and apparatus which gave Shelley’s creature life. No lightning bolts, neck bolts, or giant levers here!
Instead, for the contemporary, uninitiated reader, Frankenstein would appear to have more in common with a pop literary mash-up, like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. In fact, if I were to describe Frankenstein the novel with such a lens I’d assert that it’s a mash-up between Wuthering Heights and the film version of Frankenstein!
In this year’s season finale of Doctor Who, a rupture in time and space caused a lot of anachronistic events to occur simultaneously, the briefest of which was the appearance by Charles Dickens on a morning television show talking about his latest Christmas special project. While this featured a famous author as a science fiction character (which I explored in a recent article) it also briefly touched on the notion of the sensibilities of a long-dead author being applied to a contemporary audience. If the nature of speculative fiction is to explore other dimensions of how stories are told, then Ben Greenman delivers an astounding work of speculative fiction with the short story collection Celebrity Chekhov.
If this column were a tiny mom and pop pizza-by-the-slice joint, and the articles ruminating on literary/genre crossovers were slices of nifty pizza, then the release of Margaret Atwood’s In Other Worlds: SF and the Human Imagination would be like a gourmet style pizza place with even lower prices opening up across the street. I’d be out business! Luckily, no parties involved are in competition or in the pizza business, and instead I can devour this book with pleasure. But unlike pizza, the subject matter won’t make your mind fat or bloated because Atwood’s non-fiction graceful dives into the discussion of genre and literature are beyond sharp. They’re revelatory.
When more and more literary authors adopt science fiction tropes, are we heading to a point where genre will, stripped of its commercial importance, cease to be a useful classification?
The Center for Fiction kicked off its month-long Big Read on Monday evening with a discussion of utopia and dystopia with authors Anna North (America/Pacifica), Kathleen Ann Goonan (This Shared Dream), and Charles Yu (How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe). Moderated by DongWon Song, an editor at Orbit Books, the discussion quickly turned to the science fiction genre as it applies itself increasingly to books that would be considered literary, or mainstream.
The discussion benefited greatly from the dual perspectives of North and Yu, who are just beginning their careers from outside SFF, and Kathleen Ann Goonan, who brought a wealth of experience within SFF to the table. By the end, one had to wonder whether literary books might, in years to come, be considered a gateway to SFF.
Last week, public radio mainstay STUDIO 360 featured a conversation with Lev Grossman on the trend of fantasy elements creeping their way into conventional literature. The introduction of the segment briefly alluded to current Game of Thrones-infused fantasy popularity boom, but also the Tom Perellota book The Leftovers. (You can read an excerpt at the link.) In the span of about ten minutes, STUDIO 360’s Kurt Anderson attempted to probe just what is going on with this trend, and the ever-venerable Lev Grossman delivered some striking answers. Perhaps the most interesting quip was when Grossman said that “coming out as a fantasy writer” was like his “punk moment.”
Does incorporation of the fantastic constitute a punk moment of defiance for writers?
Over the weekend, Genre in the Mainstream took a field trip to The Brooklyn Book Festival to soak in some conversations about the very questions that preoccupy this column. What are the relationships between mainstream literary fiction and the genres of science fiction, fantasy, and horror? Why is there so much more crossover now than ever before? And the most interesting question: why do non-genre writers choose to incorporate elements of the fantastic into their stories? This past weekend, I sat in on a discussion between Steven Millhauser, Emma Straub, and Steve Stern and discovered a little more about the ever-blurring lines between the genres.
Since the publication of Ellison’s Dangerous Visions back in 1967, anthologies containing speculative fiction have been slipping into our world from various other dimensions. In recent years, anthologies slanted with a slightly speculative angle are materializing more and more. Science fiction mainstays like John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly have recently given us the excellent The Secret History of Science Fiction, as well as the more recent The Secret History of Fantasy. Like Dangerous Visions, the key to a good SFF anthology is to have a specific enough thesis for why the fiction belongs together, but not too limiting as to make the anthology one-note. A recent release from literary magazine Tin House accomplishes just this. The anthology Fantastic Women is exactly what it claims to be: fantastic!
In the intersections between mainstream literature and genre fiction, certain fanciful concepts seem to translate better than others. Ghost stories drift in and out of a variety of genres, haunting us in Victorian romances, scaring us out of our wits in traditional horror, as well as showing up in contemporary urban fantasy.
The notion of a ghost might be the most mutable of all fantasy concepts, a survivor among genre tropes. But what else? Do certain imaginative ideas have a greater ability to sneak into mainstream literature than others? In terms of crossover potential, the conflict can be clearly defined between time travel and the space travel. “Regular” literature seems to like time travel a whole lot more than space travel. But why?
If there were a delegation of ambassadors between the nation of mainstream of literature and the islands of genre fiction, we’d certainly want Jonathan Lethem to head up that delegation. I’ve already talked a little bit about the SF world of Lethem’s debut novel Gun, With Occasional Music, but what about its noir elements? Essentially, the entire novel operates on a science fiction conceit with noir twist. And without this narrative device in place, the book probably wouldn’t even exist.