So Preacher’s another cool dark AMC show – but will it ever be more than another of the same?

Church signboard in AMC's Preacher: Open Your Ass and Holes to Jesus

Looks like Texan vandals aren’t without a sense of humour.

Even those of us who’ve never read a Preacher comic have probably all been hearing the name lately. After some weeks of AMC pushing their new series without respite, the TV adaptation’s pilot episode aired last Sunday; we can expect the season’s second episode shortly. I review the first episode, with some thoughts on the show’s future, for those of you wondering whether Preacher‘s worth your time (and to be clear, since I’m not a reader of the Preacher comics, I here discuss the series on its own merits alone). Fairly spoiler-free.

Joe Gilgun as Cassidy in Preacher's first episode

Meet everybody’s new favourite vampire.

In Preacher‘s premiere we’re handed a troubled hero, a maverick priest who possesses some sort of dark history – the specifics of which will doubtless be dragged out for a while, though at least in outline it’s all roughly apparent already. And meanwhile, some kind of a hell-force from space is entering, then exploding, various religious speakers worldwide (including Tom Cruise as a proponent of Scientology, a clever little touch that had me chuckling for a fair time). There’s a most enjoyable vampire, who’s an admittedly well-written/well-acted example of a shameless drunken-Irishman stereotype, and there’s a rather adorable mass-murdering female, with a mysterious (OK, let’s be honest, a plainly romantic) involvement with the hero in his aforementioned criminal history. The hell-force comes round to our titular preacher eventually, but leaves him both unexploded and with supernatural powers; we’ll have to wait for future episodes to show us the exact extent of these. The supporting characters are one of the strengths of this story, most of them having some level of interest or complexity, from the local sheriff who’s the father of a disfigured boy – a boy who I’ve been informed is Arseface, which might mean more to others than to me – to the abusive relationship that’s more complex than it seems initially. And another strength is the overall high quality: smart well-crafted scenes/dialogue, lots of fast-paced action, some skilled performances, a slick visual style.

Jesse Custer in the Preacher pilot

This dude doesn’t make a model preacher.

Thing is, though I found Preacher‘s pilot intriguing to some degree and entertaining to a great degree, it’s also a blatant effort by the network AMC to repeat the success of its shows Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead, and perhaps to rival HBO’s Game of Thrones, with something aimed at a similar audience, something that’s graphic and far-out and gritty. It owes a lot to The Walking Dead particularly, being a comics-based character-driven visually-similar horror-fantasy. So is Preacher a mere imitator of these phenomena that exist already, or does it have the potential to become a phenomenon in its own right in the future? In this it seems to me that it has one disadvantage: whilst it has the surface elements of the shows it emulates, it might struggle with what in fact makes these shows distinctive: character change. If you think about it, each series I’ve listed develops its main players significantly (from lighter to darker, specifically). Preacher seems centred around the character of Jesse Custer, and our self-doubting hard-drinking priest can’t fall a whole lot further; nor in view of the show’s tone is he too likely to rise, meaning he’ll have to stay about the same. Of course there are a lot of shows which aren’t Breaking Bad or The Walking Dead, which aren’t based around character transformation – but Preacher seems to set out to be the next Breaking Bad or TWD, while not being strong in the same places as these. That said we’ve only seen one episode, so hopefully the series will either include more than the superficial elements of its influences, or better still become its own thing by finding an equally compelling way to evolve its tale; it’s reassuring that the comics seem to be well-thought-of for their story.

So if you’re a fan of shows like The Walking Dead, of shows that are smartish and stylish and not shy about violence, I’d totally suggest giving Preacher a try. But though it lives up to most of the hype, it maybe leans too much on its influences; and maybe not in those respects that have most importance. If you’re after more of the same, so far Preacher seems to be attempting to be more of the same. Though there’s hope that it will progress from being that merely.

The upside-down church from Preacher.

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Liked Durarara!! ? You’ll love Durarara!! x2

Headless rider Celty Sturluson without helmet in Durarara!! x2

Sometimes a girl struggles to get a-head in life.

Durarara!! has been in the thoughts of English-speaking lovers of anime lately, with the dub of the second season nearing its end round about now if I remember rightly (I couldn’t wait when I ran out of dub watching this second season recently, so I continued on to the end by means of the already-released subbed episodes). When thinking of writing this article, I wondered if DRRR!! qualifies for a speculative fiction site; in a sense a curious doubt to have, considering we’re discussing a show which features a headless Irish fairy astride a motorbike and a mind-controlling demon blade in love with humanity. But that’s DRRR!! for you – concepts which could in themselves form the premise of an anime are details merely, constituting single strands in an endlessly diverting cat’s-cradle of storylines, all as delightfully wacky. And that’s why an article on the latest offering from this franchise does in fact deserve to be on a website devoted to the innovative – it’s speculative fiction without restricting itself to being that alone, throwing this together with other genres crazy in their infinite variety (crime/caper, psycho-thriller, comedy, romance…).

Shizuo Heiwajima carries Varona's motorbike in Durarara!! x2

Who doesn’t love Shizuo?

DRRR!! has always called for a fair amount of concentration, in view of its continual changing between stories and perspectives; there’s that tendency for each episode to focus on a character while being narrated by another one completely, and also the frequent jumps back and forth in time, an episode often occurring before the events of the previous one – perhaps explaining/leading to these in some way. With regard to this occasionally confusing quality, I find the second season, DRRR!! x2, rather easier to follow; not actually because of any decrease in complexity, but because of knowing the people by this stage. Or some of them, for the cast in fact becomes bigger than before – new characters are introduced, with old characters sometimes removed from the action to draw attention to these. I did miss Dotachin, leader of that lot in the van, one of my favourites, who spends much of DRRR!! x2 incapacitated; and likewise Shizuo, the lovable hothead, one of pretty much everybody’s favourites, who’s confined to a prison cell for a not-insubstantial portion of the time. But the new characters are sufficiently compelling that it matters little (with particular mention to the Russian assassin/badass book-lover Varona, and the full-of-himself but also oddly likeable ladykiller Rocchi). And certain older cast-members do receive their share of screentime, schoolboy turned internet-gangleader Mikado especially. I’m loving Mikado’s arc in DRRR!! x2, an arc which takes him to ever-darker places. Also, rest assured that even those favourites who leave the screen for a while will soon be back in force.

The finale of season one, though not unsatisfying in its way, clearly wasn’t the end of the tale. Without revealing too much here, DRRR!! x2 has much more sense of conclusion, rounding off the stories and the ideas meaningfully. For example, Irish dullahan Celty’s search for that missing noggin of hers finally leads somewhere. So too, at least to a degree, does that never-ending, ever-entertaining, feud between Shizuo and Izaya. In terms of themes, DRRR!! Seiji and Mika in Durarara!! x2introduces itself, in the prologue of that first light novel that began the franchise, as being ‘a tale of twisted love’. The obsessive loves in this series are many, from Shinra’s long infatuation with Celty, to the strange triangle that forms around Seiji, who despite feeling romantic interest only in Celty’s severed head finds himself constantly pursued by his stalker Mika and his sister Namie. (If it so happens you haven’t seen season one, then… yeah, you did indeed read that last sentence correctly.) DRRR!! x2 resolves the theme, with attention to the Shinra – Celty and Seiji – Mika relationships particularly. Other ideas which dominate DRRR!!, e.g. urban rumours/urban mythology, are tied up in a fulfilling manner also. My sole complaint is that things between Mikado and Masaomi and Anri, between Mikado and Anri especially, don’t advance much from the first season’s finale.

DRRR!! was a whole lot of fun, and DRRR!! x2 is essentially more of the same. In fact, perhaps I enjoyed DRRR!! x2 to a still greater degree. The second season benefits from our having had the chance to settle into the show over the course of the first one, introduces new characters while maintaining the old ones most (if not all) of the time, and concludes the story satisfactorily. So if you haven’t seen DRRR!!, then watch it, and watch x2; if you’ve seen DRRR!! already, and liked it, you’ll love x2 also.

Shizuo and Izaya fight in Durarara!! x2

Here, have some more Shizuo.

Tokyo Ghoul: these ghouls are better vampires than most vampires are

Ghoul attacks in Tokyo have increased in frequency of late, but these flesh-eaters remain a mere urban rumour to student Ken Kaneki – or at least until his promising date Rize proves to be one. After she has almost killed Kaneki, Tokyo Ghoul Kaneki maskfalling beams crush Rize; her organs are transplanted into Kaneki to save his life, turning him into a ghoul (a half-ghoul, specifically). Thus starts Tokyo Ghoul, which in its original manga form began in 2011, but which has found increased success since then due to a recent anime. The second season aired last year, with a possible third season this year sometime. It’s obvious that the titular ghouls – an humanoid species essentially, but one whose diet is nonetheless in the human blood and/or meat line – owe a non-inconsiderable amount to the vampire genre. But this is no criticism, for the franchise’s handling of this content recaptures what vampires themselves often lack today.

Vampires are much altered from the demonic beings of folklore, and even from Dracula. Anne Rice pioneered the repentant vampire; a creature with humanity as well as with monstrosity, a creature torn between these two extremes. Since then the demonic side has been taken increasingly less seriously, relegated to giving vampires a reason for getting a little bit angsty. (Let’s not even talk about Twilight – please.) Hellsing, a vampire anime about vampires per se, pulled off its own impressive take through returning to the origins in a sense, showing antihero Alucard/Dracula as a monster exultant in his own monstrosity. Tokyo Ghoul does something else; its ghouls are more human than most vampires are, as well as more monstrous than most vampires are, restoring importance to the struggle between the two. To explain this: the ghouls are not undead, nor are they nocturnal, nor do they differ from humans in many ways except for their dietary requirements and their possession of a predatory organ called a kagune. At the same time the absence of the romantic traditions surrounding vampires emphasises their feeding’s brutal nature – no slender white necks in moonlight, in fact it’s all a bit messy.

Given that the ghouls, half-ghoul Kaneki particularly, are so human save for their involuntary flesh-eating tendency, Tokyo Ghoul is in part a depiction of people impelled to desperate measures by that primal imperative of the will to survive. Nothing but human flesh keeps them alive, animal meat being no substitute; while some compromise by eating the dead, few have this opportunity. This urge – this theme of hunger, and of appetite – drives the first part of the manga and the anime particularly. The need to feed is the force behind the plot here, ghoul-on-ghoul fights erupting over prey, some ghouls grouping based on feeding preferences (binge-eater or gourmet, for example). Further into the anime – this being further than I’ve read in the manga – the conflicts become much more political ones, and increase a lot in scale. It’s the ghouls versus the government anti-ghoul operatives known as the Doves, as well as disputes between ghoul factions who differ in their aggressiveness towards humanity. The ghoul versus human conflict’s rather tragic, a war few want to be fighting, one with sympathetic characters on both sides, an inevitable war over an insoluble issue. And with regard to the arguments between the ghoul organizations, another benefit of ghouls not being undead loners is that this allows them to have complex affiliations including familial ones.

Tokyo Ghoul tells a compelling story filled with characters whom it develops all the time, and whom it’s not afraid to transform drastically; this last applies to its hero especially. Furthermore it delivers visually, the kagune battles inTokyo Ghoul Kaneki kagune particular being impressive. But above all it reinvigorates the vampire – or vampiric creature – genre, and approaches its subject matter intelligently. It questions humans’ position in the food chain, questions our right to see ourselves as the species of greatest importance; in a sense it exposes the anthropocentric nature of human morality, in this much like that other excellent recent anime Parasyte. I also appreciated the texture provided by the frequent literary references in the manga, in particular the comparison of Kaneki with the protagonist of Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Perhaps not for the faint-hearted, but a must-read/must-watch for manga/anime fans with no objections to a fairly dark horror-fantasy.

The House of Shattered Wings

Aliette de Bodard has been in the upper ranks of speculative-fiction writers for a while, having claimed the Nebula Award a couple of times. However, her most recent novel – The House of Shattered Wings – was the first introduction to this author’s work for me.

De Bodard’s novel is set in Paris, in a world that’s ruled by fallen angels; thanks to their residual magic these Fallen have come to constitute an aristocracy. They run almost all of the numerous Houses around which the city’s feudal society revolves. It was these Houses which brought about the recent war that’s left Paris in ruins, left areas strewn ‘with spells… primed and ready to explode in your face, with the ghosts and the hauntings and the odor of death that still hung like fog over the wrecks of counters and the faded posters for garments and perfumes from another, more innocent age.’ The book concerns a mysterious curse causing deaths within House Silverspires. In addition to House head Selene, it focuses on the junkie alchemist Madeleine, the naive newly-Fallen Isabelle, and most of all an immortal loner who comes not from Christian mythology but from Eastern mythology.

One of the novel’s strengths is its sense of history. The best fantasy worlds tend to be those which are conceived of temporally as well as spatially. Details of the past are woven into this work’s present, adding to the depth of the story considerably. Customs and traditions; the war’s still-felt impact; the characters who dominate the book despite being long-gone, notably the original founder of House Silverspires – the first of the Fallen, Morningstar (Lucifer). The past’s weight presses upon those alive, finding its outlet in the murderous curse affecting Silverspires. The explicit parallel that’s drawn with Aeschylus’s ancient tragedy The Oresteia, which shows the generations of cyclical strife within the House of Atreus, is an apt one.

The House of Shattered Wings is vast in scope, many members of its extensive cast having their own subplots and backstories. Yet de Bodard balances the different perspectives, and the different storylines, most professionally. Though her work proceeds at a stately pace, it holds the attention consistently, can border on the unputdownable. This is a book composed with skill and care; while responses to it are of course a matter of taste, there’s the incontrovertible impression that it achieves what it sets out to achieve.

This novel is one of power, and of history, and of the power of history. It’s an atmospheric tale, due more to its abundance of contextual detail than to an abundance of sensual detail (for in fact its descriptions tend to be done with broad brushstrokes thanks to its scale). Assuming that its concept sounds like something you’re into – a setting of loss and ruined splendour and decadence, in which unfolds a slow multi-layered mystery story – be assured that this concept is executed with competence. De Bodard’s prose style’s not overly remarkable, but it gets the job done; and her command of plotting really is commendable, demonstrating why she’s become acclaimed among the speculative-fiction authors of today.

Zoo City: enter a Johannesburg filled with Pullman-esque familiars and Gibsonian mystery

The genres of sci-fi and fantasy as we know them today had their main origins in Europe and America; they still remain dominated by Westerners, and for that matter by men too. Which makes Zoo City, an urban fantasy set in author Lauren Beukes’s homeland South Africa, a bit of a change. In recent years Beukes has received critical praise both for this novel and for other works, notably Moxyland (her previous book) and The Shining Girls (her subsequent one). Lately I got around to giving Zoo City a go.

Zoo City takes place in an alternate history; in this reality animal companions are linked to humans spiritually. An idea that’s not quite unique, since Philip Pullman did it already. In Beukes’s version, animals only attach themselves to those humans responsible for the loss of another person’s life. Inevitably, this has led to much discrimination being directed at these ‘animalled’ by other people. The details and the implications of the phenomenon are worked into the book convincingly, giving much depth to the setting, a nice touch being the multimedia element added by excerpts from fictional articles, websites, etc. In fact the book’s world as a whole, in terms of other aspects as well as its spec-fic ones, is brought to life compellingly – the shamans and street-vendors, the descriptions and conversations, everything working to provide a real sense of place. Both the fantasy details and the real-world details contribute to the impression of a problematically stratified society. It brings to mind District 9‘s use of the South African location for its real-life parallels with that film’s depiction of anti-extraterrestrial intolerance.

In terms of plot, Zoo City‘s a mystery story revolving around a child pop-star’s disappearance. That said, it’s no tight slick thriller; in honesty, this sprawling tale withholds secrets less through clever twists than by digressing into numerous subplots while sitting on info as long as possible. Some scenes, particularly the climactic one, also seem a little contrived and melodramatic to me. I’m more impressed by some of the novel’s less significant passages, those smaller parts where Beukes uses her keen observations to create character or atmosphere, than I am by the try-hard feel of its over-the-top set-pieces.

Whatever else it is, Zoo City‘s something a bit out of the ordinary. And in some respects, such as its creation of its setting, it’s really first-rate. It has some flaws common to works written early in novelists’ careers, is sometimes a bit of a mess, but it’s a fun read on the whole. Yes – a loud, messy, fun story.

Five great spec-fic games

Uh huh, this list has Metal Gear Solid in it.

I’ve sometimes mentioned the snobbishness occasionally encountered by science fiction and fantasy. Yet that does decrease continually, at least in terms of spec-fic works in media with widely-accepted artistic validity. Games, however, are unfortunately far too often excluded from these favoured media. Entertainment’s of course every game’s main purpose, just as it’s debatably most works’ main purpose; this has no bearing on the medium’s ability to demonstrate artistic qualities, among them innovation and intelligence.

So, getting straight to it, some great games in the sci-fi and/or fantasy genre. Games which, besides being a lot of fun to play, are first-class works of speculative fiction too.

5: Final Fantasy VII universe.

Let’s start by getting Final Fantasy VII out of the way. This much-loved 90s RPG has become legendary – it most often appears at the top of lists like this one. And given its great influence historically, and the continued appeal of some aspects today, it does merit some mention in this article. That said, as a younger gamer for whom it lacks nostalgia value, I have to say a few aspects of it have aged awfully.

Final Fantasy VII has always been acclaimed for the vast complexity of its world and story. While by present standards its format’s a limited one, it still retains some of that sense of epic size. A setting of corrupt corporations, eco-terrorism, different peoples, varied places. An emotional tale which includes dramatic staples like fallen heroes and tragic heroines, touches on some modern themes such as mental health and environmentalism, and throws some mindbending twists in there too. But it becomes a bit of a mess, this sprawling story, admittedly. Plus the graphics can look unbelievably dated to us spoilt players of the present day. The first part of the game, in dark urban Midgar, I really did enjoy. But, after departing the city, well, there’s only so many blocky representations of forests I can cheerfully take.

Later spin-offs – Dirge of Cerberus, and Crisis Core – got me into the franchise. And I’d recommend these to the others who struggle with older technology. They allow this beloved universe to realise its full potential with their less old-fashioned graphics etc. Hopefully something the upcoming FF VII remake, to which I look forward, will also do.

4: Beyond: Two Souls.

This interactive drama’s as much movie as game in a sense. I refer to its focus less on action than on narrative, as well as to its extensive use of motion-capture. (Beyond: Two Souls shares a designer, and similarities in format, with the also-excellent – but not spec-fic – Heavy Rain.) Initially, Beyond: Two Souls‘ story can sound a bit on the naff side. To summarise, it consists of non-chronological scenes from the life of a girl psychically linked to a ghostly entity. The aforementioned danger of naffness aside, the concept develops in interesting ways, a tale told and acted thoughtfully.

Some missions are more engrossing that others are; personally I preferred the special-ops stuff, shutting down condensers, to that lengthy sojourn among the Navajo. And choices lack considerable impact until towards the end of the game; this is emphasised by the to-ing and fro-ing in time, letting us know our future in advance. But, overall, Beyond: Two Souls is a pretty fine piece and a pretty unusual piece. (There’s also an extra element added by a two-player feature, which lets the second player take the part of the heroine’s entity.)

3: Deus Ex: Human Revolution.

Cyberpunk, cyberpunk, cyberpunk. Did I mention the cyberpunkness of this one? Seriously, if Gibson novels were games, Deus Ex is what they’d be. Corporate intrigue, high-tech and low-life, neon-lit cities filled with hookers and hackers and cybernetically-enhanced people. And it’s not only Deus Ex‘s world-building which is worthy of praise, but also its innovative playing style. It mixes the RPG with the stealth-shooter, combining open-world sections with more linear stealth missions, and it is to a fair extent interactive. That free chip upgrade that seems too good to be true? Spoiler: it is, take it from me.

Granted, the main corporate-espionage storyline perhaps isn’t fully compelling until it comes together eventually (which, come to think of it, is a characteristic of a lot of Gibson novels too…). I’d also have liked to see more of my weighty final choice’s consequences. But these are quibbles beside Deus Ex: Human Revolution‘s impressively-realised vision of a future impacted by advanced technology, and beside the originality of its gameplay style. I tried the previous Deus Ex games after this one; it left me keen for more. Sadly, I thought these two early 2000s games pretty primitive even for their time. Guess I’m going to have to wait for the next one, Mankind Divided, which looks from its trailers as if it won’t disappoint me.

2: The Last of Us.

As I start to describe The Last of Us – as a zombie-apocalypse tale, as a man’s reluctant redemption through a child’s love – I realise that this superb game doesn’t even have a particularly unique premise. What it has is storytelling and character development of a sophistication to which most works merely aspire. Though it might not have a wholly original premise, its detailed characters are indeed unique, depicted with real emotional intelligence. We become invested in the story, and are left truly torn as it concludes; we’ve longed for Joel to feel an affection for his charge, but when he does so he vindicates his earlier survival-conscious self as he risks far more than his own life.

In line with the story, the gameplay’s not showy, but is simply of solid quality. And the balance between stealth and shooter, with the scavenging for ammo etc, is so managed as to genuinely give a sense of some guy trying to stay alive in this harsh post-apocalyptic place. (Sometimes failing to stay alive. Prepare to see clickers tear your throat out, a lot.) The Last of Us stands as an example of what attention to narrative’s importance, and to craft, can achieve. It’s a game which affects you as a good novel can do; it’s what such a lot of games ought to be, what so few of them are.

(I’ve decided not to discuss both The Last of Us and The Walking Dead by Telltale Games in this article, given their – coincidental? – similarities of content and themes. But I’ll take this opportunity to recommend The Walking Dead series too.)

1: Metal Gear Solid franchise.

Metal Gear Solid, from Japanese designer Hideo Kojima, can occasionally have more violence – and can often have more blatant ‘look, boobs!’ sort of stuff – than some Western games would dare to include. MGS also has far more erudite discussion, far more politics and philosophy, than frankly any Western game would dare to include. Anime lovers, perhaps, will have some sense of the sort of mix I’m attempting to describe here. (I should stipulate that I’m talking MGS 1-4 in this article; MGS 5 does remain something I’m meaning to play, but I always preferred Solid Snake’s stories to the Big Boss prequels honestly, besides this latest instalment looking a tad Assassin’s Creed for my personal taste.)

MGS is set in a sci-fi alternate history, with mecha and cyborg ninjas and massive organisations which work behind the scenes, and tells a staggeringly complicated political story encompassing about half a century. (Some would call it over-complicated; a complaint that’s not completely unjustifiable, at least in terms of MGS 2‘s exceedingly lengthy sections of expository dialogue.) The simultaneous societal influences both on individuals and of individuals are one major theme throughout the franchise – there’s much mention of memes, in the word’s older sense. There’s also a lot of meditation on war; a subject games seldom address seriously, central as war is to many.

MGS shows continual self-awareness, with a whole lot of breaking-the-fourth-wall in there. So in MGS 2 the Colonel messes with the minds of both the player and the protagonist; I have a friend who actually fell for his instruction to turn off the console, no joke. In the (pretty cool) hack-and-slash spin-off Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, the doctor on your team’s keen to chat with you about the psychological reasons for these hack-and-slash games’ popularity. MGS is also bursting with idiosyncrasies and Easter eggs and humour – from ketchup-based escapes, to those cardboard boxes.

Of course, I can’t close without some discussion of MGS‘s gameplay. It’s been claimed, with slight exaggeration, that this franchise invented the stealth game; certainly it popularised the genre almost singlehandedly. Its self-described tactical-espionage-action style – focused on avoiding rather than killing foes, on taking down even bosses through not strength but strategy – was a new idea at the time. MGS games are still excellent examples of this now-extensive genre. Unavoidably, the earlier games have dated to some degree (particularly the first one, though I’d still consider it a fine game, and this comes from somebody whose minimal patience with 90s technology you might have noticed already). But MGS 4, my favourite one, needs no allowances made for its age, despite even this one having come out half a decade ago. To those out there who haven’t got into the MSG games already, let me recommend this franchise wholeheartedly.

Slipstream, weird fiction, & cities & cities: genres between genres

Magic realism, slipstream fiction, weird fiction, New Weird fiction. Confused as to what exactly these are, or at least as to what exactly the differences between them are? If not, if you have shelves stacked with VanderMeer and Miéville, then perhaps you’re not in need of this article. But the answer’s doubtless a yes for a lot of people out there, for these words were invented to define works which resist definition; they’re less names of genres than efforts to name what falls outside the genres.

To be honest, there’s heaps of overlap between the terms I’ve used above. For example, I mentioned M. John Harrison’s Signs of Life in a recent article. It combines a realistic setting with unexplained, or half-explained, elements reminiscent of sci-fi and fantasy. I described it as magic realist, but I could make a case for most of the other terms above too. It might be helpful to think of magic realism as literary fiction with some speculative fiction in there, and of slipstream and weird fiction as the reverse. Notwithstanding hard-to-place books like Signs of Life, much magic realism’s clearly on mainstream / lit-fic’s side of the line, and doesn’t count as slipstream fiction or as weird fiction at the same time. Consider the Latin American magic realists, from Gabriel García Márquez to Laura Esquivel, or consider the works of Angela Carter. In fact, I’ll take Angela Carter’s Wise Children as an instance. It’s evident enough that this novel, a British chorus-girl’s account of the extravagant lives and loves of her performing family, isn’t a speculative fiction one. This is despite its constant development of its larger-than-life scenarios in directions too ludicrous to believe.

Since the subject of this blog is sci-fi and fantasy, it’s slipstream fiction and weird fiction more than magic realism which concern me here. Bruce Sterling came up with the word slipstream; Sterling’s better known for his connections to cyberpunk, and was the editor of the famed Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology. Mirrorshades does in fact include some stories more slipstream than cyberpunk, of which 400 Boys and Petra are the most notable; the latter involves a half-statue living in an age when Mortdieu (God’s death) has filled the world with entropy. In 1989, a couple of years after this anthology, Bruce Sterling used the term slipstream for the first time; he defined it as ‘a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange.’

Christopher Priest’s 2006 introduction to the Anna Kavan novel Ice – a novel first published in the 60s, considered slipstream retrospectively – expands upon Sterling’s explanation pretty handily. He writes that ‘slipstream induces a sense of otherness in the audience, like a glimpse into a distorting mirror… or a view of familiar sights and objects from an unfamiliar perspective.’ And – perhaps the make-or-break rule here – ‘Nothing is given a pseudo-scientific explanation (which would make it science fiction), but the strangeness is laid plainly before the audience so that they, like the characters in the drama, take everything at its face value.’ Priest also emphasises that slipstream is nothing so simple as mere allegory. Kavan’s novel shows us an unnamed man’s pursuit of a fairy-tale-like female across a landscape encroached on by walls of ice; interpretations have ranged from its being a metaphor for heroin addiction to its being a metaphor for Cold War Russia’s encroachment over Europe. There’s nothing stopping readers from taking it as either, even as both, but nor is there anything compelling them to do so. This novel never commits itself to representing something so specific. ‘It ends as it begins,’ as Priest puts it, ‘with nothing… concluded.’

Now let’s talk about weird fiction. Originally that word weird was meant in its old sense, as referring not to oddness alone, but to supernatural oddness, to the eerie. Think H. P. Lovecraft. Nowadays, the New Weird is a thing; in some works New Weird’s supernatural-horror origins are visible, but this fashionable term also tends to be applied to works which would pretty much have been described as slipstream previously. And when New Weird appears in a sentence, you can count on China Miéville’s name appearing in the next one (critics will debate what’s New Weird all day, but that Miéville is they always agree). I can’t argue; China Miéville, particularly since his Mervyn-Peake-influenced early days, has become an excellent writer who does indeed exemplify what’s best about this genre. His 2005 short story collection Looking for Jake, of which the highlight is the novella The Tain, still has connections to old weird fiction or horror-fantasy. The Tain might over-simplistically be considered a monster or vampire story, though these beautifully-described monsters are in fact reflections come alive. But his 2009 novel The City & City shows the New Weird’s full newness and its full weirdness; a Kafkaesque police procedural that’s set across two cities which exist in the same space, but which nonetheless remain separate. It’s a page-turner of a whodunnit in a setting which, though it rejects exact comparisons, is intriguing politically and sociologically.

It’s contradictory to obsess too much over the technicalities of the slipstream genre or the weird fiction genre, to label that rejection of labels which characterises the work I’m talking about here. What these works have in common is most of all their feel, and I’ve tried to provide at least a rough sense of that in this article. Doubtful as the exact differences between these areas can be, what’s not in doubt is that they encompass some of the smartest, and the newest, spec-fic out there. And if you’re after an entry-point into these genres between genres, then I’ll be another to make the well-deserved, if predictable, recommendation of Miéville; of The City & the City, at any rate.