Response to Jeff VanderMeer on SciFi Strange

Jeff Vandermeer comments on my noticing of SciFi Strange. Basically, he's not convinced there's anything to SciFi Strange and that my description of this type of science fiction lacks "an understanding of how style and texture help determine the weirdness of a story." He specifically mentions this in relation to my story "The Ships Like Clouds, Risen by Their Rain," saying "There’s nothing strange about Sanford’s story on a style level--theindividual paragraphs are, if anything, straightforward, invisible, serviceable, and a little bit mundane. (The story’s better than the style used to tell it, but I still didn’t find it at all strange.)"

I should note that Jeff isn't mocking SciFi Strange. He's simply kicking the tires--seeing if there's anything to this, which is a fair question, especially from one of the leading supporters of the New Weird. On the issue of style and texture, the SciFi Strange stories I've noticed and loved are, by and large, not an attempt to be avant-garde simply for the sake of literary pretentiousness. This isn't to say they don't employ a literary style of writing (they do), or experiment with language where dictated by the story (they sometimes do). But stylistic mannerisms simply aren't the sole focus of SciFi Strange.

To me, the New Weird is similar to SF's New Wave movement from decades ago--both movements revitalized and opened new frontiers on how language could be used in genre storytelling. But while fantasy and horror only recently began coping with these issues through the New Weird, these battles were long ago fought in the SF genre. Writers of SciFi Strange don't have to prove themselves by writing avant-garde prose, and only use such a style if the story demands it.

For example, Nnedi Okorafor's story "From the Lost Diary of TreeFrog7" is as post-modern and experimental as any fiction out there. It's also a great example of SciFi Strange. Eugie Foster's "Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast" is another SciFi Strange story where an experimental storytelling approach is needed, and pays off. But not all SciFi Strange stories use such experimental styles. Ted Chiang and Paolo Bacigalupi write lyrical stories, but rarely employ avant-garde prose. As for Jeff's mention of my story, it is not an experimental story from a stylistic point of view. Instead, the story demanded an ordinary style of prose so the strangeness of the story's worldview could be felt more intensely by the reader.

What makes SciFi Strange "strange" isn't necessarily the style of writing. Instead, it's the focus of the writing. It's how these authors explore today's rapidly changing multicultural world and the basic human values and needs which bind us together. And at the heart of these stories is the basic strangeness, the basic uniqueness, the wide-eyed "gee-whiz" wonder and/or sense of horror which the golden age of SF displayed when it knocked upon the doors of reality back in the '40s and '50s. Except now this sense of awe is being told with the full range of writing styles and cultural understandings embraced by the New Wave movement of the '70s. And where golden age SF writers dealt with a worldview which was white-bread and analog, SciFi Strange deals with an every-changing scientific understanding of life and the universe--an understanding which is unnervingly close to being philosophical in nature.

I'm not sure if any of this addresses Jeff's concerns. I trust he'll let me know if it didn't. But I do agree with a point he made--SciFi Strange as a movement or subgenre or whatever you call it only exists if writers and readers are the driving force behind these types of stories. If they start identifying stories as SciFi Strange, it will exist. If they don't, then the term is simply the rambling of this writer's fiction-addled brain.