25 November 2009

Genre Benders: How Interstitial Fiction Is Bringing Speculative Fiction and Literary Fiction Together

This is a lightly edited version of my article of the same name in the journal English in Aotearoa, Issue 67, April 2009. Keen readers of the genres I discuss will be aware that I have missed out much more than I have included!.

1. What is Interstitial Fiction?

What do you call a short story that incorporates the Soviet Politburo of the mid-1980s, the early science fiction of Arthur C. Clarke, consensus decision-making techniques, matter transmitters, the KGB and emissaries from the Galactic Federation?

You might call the story "Win a Day with Mikhail Gorbachev!", as I did when I wrote it. You might call it science fiction. You might call it satire, or metafiction, or even literary fiction.

But these days, especially in the United States, you're most likely to call a story like "Win a Day with Mikhail Gorbachev!" interstitial fiction. It's not a term that rolls off the tongue, and there probably aren't many people who go to their local bookstore and ask to be shown to the interstitial fiction shelves. Yet it's helping stories that previously fell in the gap between literary fiction and speculative fiction (a portmanteau term for science fiction, fantasy and horror) to find a home.

In this article, I'm going to look at what interstitial fiction is, how it has developed out of science fiction and fantasy, how it relates to both speculative fiction and literary fiction, and what it's like to be a writer who straddles genres in this way. I will also take a look at New Zealand science fiction and fantasy, and close with a few comments on the significance of interstitial fiction.

What is interstitial fiction? The Interstitial Arts Foundation defines interstitial art as "literature, music, visual and performance art found in between categories and genres — art that crosses borders." Thus, interstitial fiction crosses the borders between fiction genres, or exists in multiple categories at once.

Of course, in the very act of a defining a term such as interstitial fiction lie the seeds of creating a new genre, locked into its own rules, its own critical conventions, its own magazines and anthologies and publishers. Indeed, the Interstitial Arts Foundation has two collections of interstitial fiction stories, Interfictions I and II. Most literary movements start with innovation and end in ossification; fortunately, interstitial fiction is still very much in the innovation phase.

In the early twentieth century, literary fiction and speculative fiction became divided from each other. The impetus behind the concept of interstitial fiction came from the speculative fiction side. To see why, it's necessary to look back at the roots of that division.

2. The Great Divorce

In his magisterial history of science fiction, Trillion Year Spree, Brian Aldiss makes a strong case that what we now call science fiction begins with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus (1818). Though Dr Frankenstein's anguished creation had Gothic antecedents, the spark that brought him to life was scientific, not supernatural: thus, Frankenstein marked a break from its Gothic predecessors, and was the first novel which set out to investigate the powers, limits and moral challenges of the scientific method and scientific experimentation.

In the 19th and early 20th century, many novelists, the most famous of whom were Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, wrote science fiction. Wells, in particular, initiated many of the characteristic tropes of the genre, such as time travel in The Time Machine, and interplanetary war in The War of the Worlds — which was also an early critique of colonialism, with the invading Martians playing the part of the colonists.

The term "scientific romance" was sometimes used in the UK to describe such books, but H.G. Wells was free to move between novels of time and space on the one hand, and social comedies like The History of Mr Polly on the other. It was the growth of pulp science fiction magazines in the United States which established the reputation of science fiction as a distinct, and inferior, genre in much of the English-speaking literary world.

The pulps! How beautiful the brass-bra'ed heroines depicted on their covers, and how hideous the many-tentacled monstrosities that menaced those heroines in brazen defiance of morality and logic alike! How breathless the adventures within their pages, how unimaginably powerful the super-weapons, how dastardly the villains, how stalwart the heroes!

They may have been fun, but they certainly weren't literature. The pulps, so-called for the cheap paper stock they used, were cheap and cheerful, but the science fiction pulps were disastrous for both the literary reputation and the literary ambitions of aspiring science fiction writers. At the very time when literary fiction was moving to new heights — or depths — of complexity, the most easily visible examples of science fiction were not the sophistication of Mary Shelley and H.G. Wells, but the "super-science" of E.E. "Doc" Smith and co.

While literary fiction underwent the convulsions of late modernism, science fiction and fantasy, now severed from the mainstream, underwent their own, separate development. The pulp SF writers and their readers formed a community that had its own meeting places — science fiction conventions; its own critical literature — science fiction fanzines; and its own argot and set of conventions.

Increasingly, SF writers assumed that their audience understood the core conventions of the genre: faster than light travel through "hyperspace", time travel, the many-worlds interpretation of quantum theory which allows for the possibility of multiple, simultaneous, slightly different universes. If you were an SF reader, you didn't need these things explained to you; if you weren't normally an SF reader, you quickly became baffled. Thus, the divide widened.

Though SF would be dismissed as "pulp fiction" for decades to come, the actual pulp SF era was largely brought to a close by World War II paper shortages. At about the same time, magazine editors such as John W. Campbell of Astounding Science Fiction began to insist that science fiction stories be based on credible science, while other editors pushed for a higher standard of writing. The result was the so-called Golden Age of science fiction, from the late 1930s through to the 1950s: the period when the defining tropes of science fiction as a distinct genre were fully developed.

At the time, the distinction between fantasy and science fiction as publishing categories was less marked than it is today. Fantasy tended to be written by science fiction writers, who applied the same extrapolative disciplines to systems of magic in their fantasy that they did to science and technology in their SF. Though stories of magic and the fantastic had a pedigree long antedating SF, it was the explosive success of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, published in the mid-1950s, which inaugurated high fantasy, with its own conventions of halflings and orcs and talking trees, as a separate genre, a genre that is now far more successful than science fiction in commercial terms.

Meanwhile, science fiction has undergone several more waves of innovation, which have had the net effect of increasing its sophistication and bringing both its concerns and its sensibility closer to that of literary fiction:

1960s: The New Wave. A movement, led by British writers, which infused the techniques and sensibility of European experimental fiction, such as the French nouveau roman, into science fiction. The results were wildly uneven, but this was the movement that brought authors such as J.G. Ballard and Brian Aldiss to prominence.

1970s: Feminism. While other aspects of SF had become more sophisticated by the 1970s, its treatment of women hadn't progressed much beyond the brass-bra'ed heroine-in-peril stage; and the New Wave was characterized as much by its sexism as its experimental techniques. Female, and feminist, authors such as Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ and James Tiptree, Jr (real name Alice Sheldon) introduced realistic, complex women characters and a turn away from masculine preoccupations with the size, shininess and general thrustfulness of spaceships.

1980s: Cyberpunk. Authors such as William Gibson married thriller narratives and a noir sensibility with near-future SF in tales of how pervasive information technology interfaced with human life and culture. The result sometimes read like Raymond Chandler with extra swearing, but the significance for the genre was to bring its concerns closer to the present day and to the harsh realities of life on an overcrowded Earth.

I've simplified, of course, in associating each of these movements with a specific decade: each movement had antecedents, each continues to have an influence on the field. But, to follow the pattern, we may say that the 1990s saw the beginnings of interstitial fiction, and hence the beginnings of a sustained attempt to tear down or break through the wall dividing speculative fiction from literary fiction.

3. Tearing Down the Wall

One of the peculiar features of this wall was that it only worked one way. It was almost impossible for science fiction authors to make the transition to becoming respected authors of literary fiction — though J.G. Ballard was a notable exception — but perfectly possible for literary authors to spend a while "slumming" on the SF side. Some, such as Doris Lessing in her "Canopus in Argos" series were clear about what they were doing; others, such as Margaret Atwood in writing The Handmaid's Tale and Oryx and Crake, refused to admit that they were writing SF at all, much to the frustration of authors within the SF field.

Given this imbalance in the ability to cross the literary fiction-speculative fiction boundary, it's not surprising that the initial impetus for interstitial fiction came from the speculative fiction side: from a group of young American authors of speculative fiction, the majority of them women, whose work was not easy to categorise into science fiction, fantasy or horror, were frustrated that, despite their stories sharing common territory with what was known on the literary side of the fence as fabulation, metafiction or magic realism, they found it hard to reach a sympathetic audience.

One of these writers was Kelly Link, best known for her short story collection Magic for Beginners (2005). She and her husband Gavin Grant founded a small-press magazine with the improbable title Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, and the publishing company Small Beer Press, to provide venues for interstitial fiction. Despite the small scale of these ventures, they quickly attracted a lot of critical attention, and writers published by Link and Grant soon gained attention and sales in bigger magazines and anthologies.

Since, then, an Interstitial Studies Institute has been set up at the State University of New York, and various people involved in the interstitial fiction movement have created the Interstitial Arts Institute, which publishes the Interfictions anthology series. Interstitial fiction hasn't yet had the dramatic impact that cyberpunk had in the 1980s, but it is providing a pathway into literary fiction for genre authors, and into the less "techy" end of speculative fiction for literary fiction readers.

4. Writing Interstitial Fiction

Transported is my second short fiction collection. The first, Extreme Weather Events (HeadworX, 2001), collects my early short stories, which were mainly science fiction, with a couple of horror stories and one hard to classify — perhaps interstitial? — story about a man whose obsession it is to walk every street in Dunedin, on both sides, in anticipation of the reward he believes awaits him when he completes his task.

The scope of Transported is much wider. The underpinning themes and motifs of the book — transport and journeys; climate change and its effects on individuals and countries — are expressed via a wide range of styles and genres, from the interstitial bonanza of the aforementioned "Mikhail Gorbachev", through humour, satire, good old mimetic realism, cautionary tale (in "Filling the Isles", it is literally true that all we have left is each other), alternate or counterfactual history ("A Short History of the Twentieth Century, with Fries"), science fiction, fantasy, and fable.

Many of the stories in Transported were written before I conceived the idea for the collection, and some were initially published in magazines and anthologies in New Zealand, the US and elsewhere. But, looking back, it seems that I have used genre as a tool to look at a recurring set of concerns in different ways: to look at climate change, for example, as an approaching threat ("Robinson in Love"), an imminent reality ("Going Under") and a done deal ("The Wadestown Shore").

What about the interstitial stories? Well, I know they are among the most enjoyable stories to write: it is very liberating to put the conventions of genre to one side — and here I count literary realism as a genre, with its own conventions, critical terminology, and markets. It's fun to mash up two very different genres or topics: the political history of the Soviet Union with 1950s science fiction, say, or the trauma suffered by New Zealand workers under the New Right reforms of the 1980s and 1990s with the perils and pitfalls of crossing the South Island's Main Divide, as in my story "Best Practice" — and to create a story out of the clash of narratives that results. I also note that there is often a historical component to these stories: though I have never written 'straight" historical fiction, I love to use anachronism, to juxtapose the morals and concerns of one era with the morals and concerns of another.

For me, interstitial fiction is more of an impulse or a mood than a genre, and I'm therefore cautious about the prospect of its becoming overly codified. I've only once set out with the intention of writing an interstitial fiction story, and I found it hard to do deliberately — "have I got the proportions right? Are the fantastic elements too prominent, or not prominent enough? Does this story really count as being interstitial fiction?" These are hard traps to avoid. Spontaneity, and a willingness to let the story have its head, are better guides.

The interstitial fiction movement has been mainly characterized by short fiction, and though I have read some novels that fit the template (for example, Jeffrey Ford's The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque), I've yet to be convinced that interstitiality works as well at novel length as it does in short fiction. This is something I may put to the test before long: I've had one fantasy novel published, and the novel I'm working on at the moment is near-future science fiction, but the idea I have for the novel after that is distinctly interstitial. Writing an interstitial novel is a challenge I'm looking forward to.

5. New Zealand Science Fiction and Fantasy: Emerging from the Shadows

How are speculative fiction writers faring in New Zealand, and are there signs of rapprochement between the speculative fiction and literary writing scenes?

The strange thing about New Zealand publishers is that they are more than willing to publish science fiction and fantasy for children and young adults, but very reluctant to publish it for adults unless it comes from writers already well established in other fields. Therefore, New Zealand speculative fiction writers have usually had to look for publication overseas. Doing so has been made much easier by the Internet, and in recent years there have been some notable successes: for example, Christchurch writer Helen Lowe has recently had her first novel, children's fantasy Thornspell (2008) published in the US, and has another standalone novel and a four-volume adult fantasy series under contract there, while author Russell Kirkpatrick is doing very well in the US with his fantasy novels, such as Across the Face of the World. A glimpse at the list of science fiction and fantasy novels by New Zealand authors published in 2008 shows that there is a lot of work being done in the genre.

With the exception of science fiction novels by such recognised literary authors as Ian Wedde (Chinese Opera) and Kevin Ireland (The Jigsaw Chronicles), however, most of this work remains unnoticed by the wider New Zealand literary community. The New Zealand science fiction field has its own set of annual awards, the Sir Julius Vogel Awards, and its own annual conventions, but they don't yet make much of a ripple outside the SF community.

Yet there are signs of change. The Royal Society of New Zealand recently instituted its Creative Science Writing prize, which has non-fiction and fiction components; each year's fiction winner is ipso facto a science fiction story. New Zealand's most venerable literary magazine, Landfall, devoted Issue 216 (2008) to the theme of utopias and dystopias, a theme which has long roots in the science fiction tradition.

I got the chance to contribute to this process when I was asked to guest-edit Issue 26 of JAAM magazine. JAAM (Just Another Art Movement) is a Wellington literary magazine that publishes fiction, poetry, and essays. In the call for submissions for Issue 26, I said that I would be giving equal weight to speculative work as to literary work — and I was pleased to receive and publish many good speculative fiction stories, and even more pleased to get some that moved between genres; that were, in other words, interstitial.

[TJ adds: Lots more has happened in the science fiction field in New Zealand since I wrote this article, including the publication of Voyagers: Science Fiction Poetry from New Zealand, and all the exciting developments that people wrote about in NZ Speculative Fiction Blogging Week.]

6. Conclusion

It's become a cliché to say that we live in a science-fictional world. Many ideas that were the province of science fiction as recently as the 1970s, such as personal communicators and personal computers, are now part of everyday life, while even those science-fictional concepts once derided as impossible have now been demonstrated on a small scale in the lab (teleportation) or are under active development (cloaking devices that render an object invisible at certain wavelengths).

Yet the literary reputation of science fiction, and speculative fiction in general, have not risen in parallel. SF remains a genre walled off from the rest of the literary community, sequestered into its own shelves in bookshops and libraries. Those who love it, love it; those who do not, disregard it. Conversely, many science fiction and fantasy readers disdain literary fiction, finding it too snobbish, too obscure, too slow-moving, and lacking in the virtues of narrative.

The interstitial fiction movement offers the possibility of tearing down this wall, or perhaps, more accurately, tunnelling through it, so that authors from each side cane make unexpected but welcome appearances on the other.

Part of the reason I loved reading science fiction so much when I was a teenager and young adult was that it was all about ideas and story. My English teachers wanted me to appreciate characterisation, and style, and thematic subtlety, but what I wanted was a story I could immerse myself in, characters I could identify with and some thought-provoking ideas about the nature of the universe to take away with me.

Interstitial fiction can offer the best of both worlds: story, but also style; characters, but also concepts. I hope this article encourages you to seek out work in this new and fluid field.


Aldiss, B., with Wingrove, D. (1986). Trillion Year Spree. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd.

Clute, J., & Nicholls, P. (1995). The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. New York: St. Martin's Griffin.

Fenkl, H. (2003). The Interstitial DMZ. Interstitial Arts Foundation. http://www.interstitialarts.org/why/the_interstitial_dmz_1.html. Viewed on 12 March 2009.


Kay said...

I found this to be very helpful - informative and enlightening. Having previously been bewitched, bothered and bewildered re all the different genres and categories being bandied about re this very subject, I now feel much more straightened-out, clearer and knowledgeable. Thanks Tim for this well-written, useful, and necessary, article.

Sulci Collective said...

I'm always a little cynical about new genres and subgenres- to me they represent marketing opportunities and fair enough. I think if SF & LitFic don't respect one another, this is a failure within both camps: SF might need to embrace language more and LitFic might want to consider why in 'real science', it is scientists who are coming up with new metaphors such as string theory, wormholes and the like - seems scientists are able to make these imaginative leaps of logic and find the language to enflesh them, yet novelists are lagging behind. A novelist has the power to leap from the micro, through the human and into the cosmic scale within the same sentence! It is all just potentially metaphor. SciFi writers know this, but their language tends to not do justice to these huge sweeps and distortions. Their metaphors too, tend to be flat and lifeless.

Just to give you an idea, I wrote a piece about an astronomer looking through his telescope and talking on a planetary scale, even while his language also conveyed him as a voyeur looking through lower resolution through a window opposite him and with references to teeming city life below as if they were microbes. There's a video snatch of it http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cwWOS1SDaMk

Just as an addendum, early William Burroughs crossed both the LitFic and the SciFi boxes as does the contemporary Russian writer Victor Pelevin. Is he interstitial?

It is a live debate and one worth having. I would prefer to use it as a call to arms to all fiction writers to consider their language and their metaphors in this rapidly changing world of technology, logic and even reality.

Cascade Lily said...

What an excellent essay. You should consider pitching this to Blood-Red Pencil (http://bloodredpencil.blogspot.com/) or Editor Unleashed (http://editorunleashed.com/)

I am definitely going to use 'interstitial' now I know what it means, as it applies to quite a few of my stories. Cheers!

Cascade Lily said...

Oh, and one more thing.

Iain M. Banks v. Ian Banks. I love that his pen name for SF is one letter more than his litfic.

However, Orwell's 1984 could be said to cross the SF/litfic divide.

Tim Jones said...

Thanks for all these comments!

Kay, I'm glad that I managed to clarify the various genres - in the context of an article for English in Aotearoa, this is one of the things I was trying to do.

Cascade Lily, thanks for those suggestions - I'll follow those up. And, good luck with your interstitial (and other) fiction!

Sulci Collective, thanks for this thoughtful response. Yes, I think Viktor Pelevin is an excellent example of an interstitial fiction write - well worth checking out.

Grandma said...

Look forward to reading this new fiction. Should get it on a book platform like Amazon or newfiction.com