Wright, Ronald. A Scientific Romance. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 1998. 308pp.
This is what we used to call a slipstream novel – a work sitting on the fence between genre sf or fantasy and mainstream. Often, these would include genre works by mainstream authors or mainstreamy books by genre authors. What would most likely define a slipstream work is that it uses a genre approach to attempt a more mainstream thematic purpose. To me, there are really two kinds of slipstream works: those that are comfortable literalizing their genre metaphors and those that aren’t (if you’ll forgive me a Delanyism). Like I said above, slipstream works almost always have a mainstream thematic structure but, since they use some genre tools to build that structure, the amount of respect they will have for those tools will dictate how successful the whole structure is. Perfect examples, on both sides: Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children is perhaps the most successful slipstream novel ever written (and certainly one of the greatest fantasy novels of all time). Rushdie’s main genre conceit, that the children born at the hour of India’s independence have magical powers, works beautifully with his exploration of character and setting. And I think that it is so successful because that magical element is so believable within the confines of the novel -- and so crucial to its success. Those children aren’t just metaphors, they’re real children too. On the other side of the ledger is Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale. Without going into details, it’s pretty clear to me that Atwood doesn’t like or care about the genre tools she is using and is mostly interested in the Huxley/Orwell branch of mainstream dystopias. Witness the lengths she’s going to to make sure we all know that Oryx and Crake isn’t that nasty sf stuff but more respectable speculative fiction. (And lampooned by Chris Lawson) Of course, we all know it’s tried and true sf, denials or no denials. Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow (reviewed below) is another case of a slipstream novel abusing it's genre tools to make a mainstream point.
What does all this have to do with Wright’s A Scientific Romance? Other than trying to frame my approach to slipstream novels in general, not that much. In brief: Wright's novel is a somewhat successful slipstream novel A brief plot synopsis doesn’t really tell much: Well’s time machine really existed, it appears in 1999, terminally ill guy uses it to travel to the future to explore the themes of love, loss, memory, grief and despair, mostly through flashback. Wright seems to sort of believe in his literalized metaphor, but to me it seems a bit of a split personality novel. It’s a bit of a time travel adventure and a bit of a story of regret and lost love, without seeming that integrated. All in all, not bad but could have been better.
Oh, and to pick up what I said earlier about what we use to call slipstream – so what do we call them now? “The New Weird” “Genre crossover” “Whatever”