Science friction

Dallas author Patricia Anthony's sci-fi caught Hollywood's interest. But her decision to chuck the whole genre caught New York's wrath.

As well-crafted, probingly philosophical, and multi-layered as her best science fiction has been declared, nothing before has prepared readers for the visceral thrust of Flanders, in which one smart-ass adventurer discovers his soul through bruising, repetitive English-German confrontations on the especially difficult terrain of Flanders Fields.

It's one thing to imagine a future world overrun by insectoid creatures, rebel humans, and a beleaguered alien go-between who simultaneously tries to save a dying alien species and deal with a new, unsettling emotional dependency on a human female, as the protagonist Reen must do in Brother Termite. It's quite another to pore through news clippings, scholarship, and first-person accounts of an actual event and glean not only overarching themes about the human experience from all of it, but apply a see-smell-touch-taste verbal texture that convincingly speaks the unspeakable.

For most of us, it's easier to picture an alien invasion than it is to imagine shooting a stranger across a field and watching him flop around like a fish, blood spraying from his throat. Narrator Travis Lee Stanhope does this, and we peer with the same nausea through his sights.

The book is a harrowing triumph...and, if you listen to the whispers coming from New York, career suicide. Way down here in the Texas prairies, you can hear publishers and agents wondering why a woman who may soon rocket into the stratosphere of brand-name recognition, thanks to James Cameron's courtship, would throw it all away. They are quick to declare her a "genius" to inquiring reporters, but mutter behind closed doors about her rationality.

And so life is a queer mixture of heaven and hell for Anthony these days. She's on anxiety medication to help bring down a blood pressure that's risen off the charts because of stress. Friends call regularly to make sure things are OK.

"As a person, I think I'm pretty nice to be around," Anthony says. "But as an author, I can be hell."

In 1994, Anthony read a review of Happy Policeman in which the critic used a description she'd never heard before, and she embraced it warmly: slipstream. It's a word that has circulated in literary journals for a good 15 years, but is appearing more and more in the book sections of daily and weekly publications.

Slipstream refers to authors who slip in and out of genres, but most importantly, it classifies the unclassifiable. It is Kryptonite to the marketing that drives the New York literary houses to make their editorial decisions.

The term was originally coined by sci-fi writer Richard Dorsett, but was made manifesto by cyberpunk pioneer and Austin resident Bruce Sterling, who started writing semi-traditional sci-fi in the late '70s, got pissed off, then began to circulate a self-published one-sheet called The Cheap Truth that promoted his friends' writing and kicked traditional "skiffies" (his nickname for sci-fi writers) in the ass every chance it got.

When he began speaking out in the early '80s, Sterling was even more blunt than Anthony in his assessment of the genre from which he, too, eventually weaned himself. "Protected by the iron curtain of category marketing," Sterling writes, hardcore sci-fi is "gaudy and naive, possessed of half-baked fantasies of power and wish fulfillment." Slipstream--a designation that would house authors as various as Don DeLillo, William Gaddis, Margaret Atwood, and Will Self--is as a potential genre the target of "vast dim marketing forces" that would "militate against its commercial success."

Radical literary amorphism or paranoid conspiracy theory of letters? Maybe some of both, but it's hard to underestimate the role of market considerations in contemporary fiction. Patricia Anthony is more precise describing slipstream.

"Slipstream is fiction that might be considered mainstream, except for one small but important element, usually a genre element," she explains. "Flanders includes the appearance of ghosts. The fiction of Amy Tan and Toni Morrison does too. But we don't write 'ghost stories.' I think of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, or John Updike's new book [Beach at Bay: A Quasi-Novel]. Both of them are set in post-apocalyptic worlds. Those authors created these settings, then said, 'Fuck the post-apocalyptic world; I'm going to write about people.'"

After the release of Happy Policeman, Harcourt Brace decided to divest itself of its sci-fi line in 1994. Anthony has no bitterness about the move. Her explanation comes as a denunciation of the genre that never suited her: "They publish literary fiction," she says. "They had a reputation to protect." Putnam Berkley's sci-fi division, Ace, which had always handled her paperback rights, assumed both hardback and soft-cover duties at that point.

It was only three years before Anthony's association with Ace would also begin to sour. The trouble began with the hardcover publication of God's Fires in 1997. Anthony says that when she saw the cover Ace had planned, she went into a tizzy. The book is set in Portugal during the Spanish Inquisition and deals with how Catholic leaders and peasants react to the appearance of a "glowing acorn" that zooms down from the sky.

Ace's hardcover jacket features a small, pulpy illustration of a reddish yellow beam of light shooting into a gloomy, H.P. Lovecraftian castle overlooking gigantic crevices in the ground. Nothing about the picture suggests Portugal or the 17th century or even Earth. Anthony has dubbed the illustration "Death Ray Attack on the Planet Zandor." She dismisses it by saying, "People have to be able to buy something they're not ashamed to read on the bus."

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