You know: in a foolish, undiscriminating way, I've been happy these last few months. I don't know why. I just am. I love my friends; I love my pupils; I love what I read; I -- dammit -- love my thoughts. I love the taste of oranges.
Thornton Wilder in a letter to Gertrude Stein, Aug 14, 1936

Wednesday, April 11, 2012


(Science fiction author Bruce Sterling wrote an article in 1987 that defined "Sliptream" as those novels that incorporated elements of genre fiction into literary fiction. In other words, novels that at the time gave a sense of what it felt like to live in the late twentieth century, and could be even more descriptive of daily life now in the 21st. INTO THE SLIPSTREAM will take a look at some of these novels.)

I know this will be difficult, but try to imagine a world where millions of common, everyday people live their lives vicariously by following the fashion trends, the sex lives, and the day-by-day doings of a select group of super glamorous, super wealthy people.

Wait a minute! That's our world. But do not despair, the world Jon Armstrong creates in his debut novel takes all our fascination with celebrity and wealth and cranks it up several notches. (TMZ would seem as sober as C-SPAN in this world.) We are in an unspecified future with society divided between members of the elite, ruled over by families whose aristocratic status is determined by their corporate holdings and the amount of publicity they can generate, and then, down below, well, everybody else. The slubbers. Those who live in the slubs -- the vast wastelands of housing developments and thrown-together shacks visible some twenty feet below the highways were the families travel in luxury conveyances at jet propelled speeds. (Slubs is my favorite neologism of recent science fiction.)

Enter Michael and Nora, dream couple. Michael, once famous as a teenage dancer on programs watched by millions, is scion of the River Group. Nora family is older, possibly more distinguished, but not so loaded. The slubs and really everyone else in the world seem to watch the couple's every move. As the novel opens they are returning from a highly formalized date that took them around the Pacific Rim. Michael and Nora, however, are also rebels of a kind. In a world where you are defined by what fashion magazines you read, Micheel and Nora are dedicated followers of Pure H, a magazine of excruciatingly subtle layouts complemented by enigmatic statements. Devotees of Pure H reject the gaudy flamboyance of the world around them and wear only shades of gray, brown, and a few carefully chosen color accent pieces. It sounds like that want to live in a Calvin Klein shop from the 1980's, but they do go to extreme. Each has chosen to burn out the rods in one eye so that by closing the other they see the world only in shades of gray.

In a way you can't fault Michael and Nora for their revolt into tastefulness. Michael's father epitomizes the vulgarity of this society. His fashion crimes go far beyond mixing stripes and checks. He is always in what would be some ridiculous costume were it not accepted as high fashion by those around him. His mouth is a fountain of enthusiastic obscenities that would give Judd Apatow pause. He has a cameraman in charge of documenting his every move and a hairdresser, with the marvelous name Xavid, who never leaves his side.

This book does have a plot, taken loosely from Romeo and Juliet. As star-crossed lovers Michael and Nora may be rather tedious, but that's part of Armstrong's joke. Their coupling while on the run is left discretely off stage. It is impossible to imagine the two of them involved in anything as squishy as sex.

There are assassination attempts, betrayals, daring escapes, and a Mr. Toad's Wild Ride shortcut over the North Pole. And Michael's estranged mother runs a carnival. She's quite a character.

I can imagine people either loving this book or thinking it is too clever for its own good. I am obviously in the first camp.

(Follow the "slipstream: label for reviews of other slipstream novels,)

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