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Why ‘slipstream?’

September 6th, 2021 · No Comments · Danblog

I’m a “genre writer,” despite not really having a genre. I look it it this way: Because I write with the intent of entertaining readers, I usually try to tell stories that fall within the broad lanes of distinguishable genres.

Hence, Bokur is a “paranormal erotic thriller,” Another Goddamn Novel About The Collapsing Quantum Multiverse is a “satiric sci-fi romp,” and my two de-published novels — A Madness and Siobeth — were what’s generally called “epic fantasy.”

My new series, written under the pen name D.C. McElroy, is called The Darbas Cycle, and it’s based on the characters and events introduced in those two de-published epic fantasies from the 2000s. I finally got down to work on the series once we relocated to scenic Black Sheep Manor in 2016, and while I was turning out these manuscripts, that’s what I thought I was writing: Straight epic fantasy.

Nice, broad, comfortable, recognizable genre.

It was only after I’d finished the final novel in The Goddess Daughter trilogy that I noticed how the books had a tendency to define themselves, despite their regulation tropes. I’d clearly met all the compulsory requirements for an epic, or “high” fantasy series (imaginary world, epic plot, magical abilities, etc.), but Chene Viqar and the rest of the cast seemed to get into situations you don’t typically see in fantasy stories.

The first book, for instance, is sort of a “high-fantasy legal thriller,” which isn’t exactly a well-established sub-genre, and Book Three opens with the two primary characters on an undercover search for a Gwynyrian spy who’s gone missing in a city-state governed by an organized crime boss.

How do you summarize that as a “genre?”

Finally, and most importantly, my fantasy series talks a lot about an underground library at a Brigadoon-like place called Bal’a’Blos. And its live-in librarians, the enigmatic Qatfablos. And then there’s the archaeology. All those inexplicable ruins…

Because what really sets this fantasy world apart from most of the genre worlds I’ve encountered is its past. This isn’t a Medieval fantasy world, a steam-punk fantasy world, a yada yada fantasy world: Its a young civilization that’s re-emerging in the ruins of a space-faring global civilization. Why did those previous civilizations fall? What destroyed them?

Those are more typically science-fiction questions. I considered this angle little more than a clever twist back in the 2000s when I was writing those first two novels. But after finishing the world-building and complete series summary for The Darbas Cycle here at Black Sheep Manor, I understood that revealing the truth about this world’s oblique, mythologized past formed the arc of the series.

Still epic fantasy, though, right? Sure. But was there a better term to describe it? Something concise, but a bit more expressive? A bit more evocative?

One morning this summer I was going through my Facebook Memories when a picture of science-fiction novelist Patricia Anthony popped up in my feed. That’s because Pat died in the summer 2013, and the way I found out about it was that I woke up one morning “knowing” that she had passed over.

Patricia Anthony

This was sad, but hardly a surprise. She’d suffered a stroke about a year earlier, and — with the exception of one call to her cell phone that she managed to answer — she’d been unreachable ever since.

Plus, the thing most readers didn’t know about Pat was that, back home in Dallas, she was an unapologetic psychic medium. It just made sense that a dead Pat would want let me and her other friends know that she’d moved on, and everything was fine.

I immediately went online to look for evidence, but found nothing. Weeks later I found a mysteriously delayed obituary, validating (to me, anyway) my personal experience of Pat’s nocturnal courtesy call.

Anyway, I could tell Pat Anthony stories all day. But the reason I’m talking about her in this context is that by the end of her career Pat was a science fiction writer who wrote books that were very clearly not science fiction. As our correspondence grew in the early 2000s, she described her emerging genre as “slipstream,” a term I’d never heard before.

To Pat, “slipstream” meant any kind of genre writing that couldn’t be disciplined by traditional genre limits.

She was fully aware that the industry would eventually punish her for failing to churn out popular science-fiction, but she accepted her fate with characteristic grace and humor. She was a fearless, irrepressible, belly-laughing Texas Buddha of a woman. Why would she even consider creating something that didn’t feel true to her nature?

When I saw that photo of her on Facebook, it reminded me of the word “slipstream,” and what it meant to Pat. Wouldn’t “slipstream epic fantasy” do a better job of describing what I was writing in The Darbas Cycle than just safely calling it “epic fantasy?”

But then I looked up the phrase, and what I found made me hesitate. Among other things, the word “slipstream” is now associated with the profoundly annoying term “post-modern.” I’m lots of things, y’all, but post-modern isn’t one of them. Neither is The Darbas Cycle post-modern. It isn’t focused on “otherness,” or “alienation.” It’s not even “weird,” or “New Weird,” whatever that means.

Did I really want to risk those literary associations?

So I sat with that for a few weeks, and in the end, I got my answer: I don’t care.

Pat Anthony was my friend and hero, and if she chose the term “slipstream science fiction” to describe her work, then “slipstream epic fantasy” is a perfectly acceptable term for D.C. McElroy’s new series, too.

To me, “slipstream” in front of a genre label implies a genre that’s evolving and expanding. That’s it.

For me — and I’m only speaking for myself here, not Pat or anyone else — I consider it my job to write genre stories that devoted readers of that genre will love.

But because I also want my stories to stand out, it’s my responsibility to give those devoted epic-fantasy readers a little lagniappe. A little something extra they didn’t expect, but appreciate regardless.

Hence: D.C. McElroy writes slipstream epic fantasy.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.


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