Trickster in the Modern City

In Science Fiction Studies’ “Symposium on Slipstream,” authors and critics spill a fair amount of vitriolic ink raging against the codification of the slipstream genre (when not raging against the genre itself). Neil Easterbrook quips that the impulse to create a stable and static definition of it is the point at which “taxonomy becomes taxidermy” (13), and Jonathan Lethem urges us to reject “…brand new nomenclatures, apparently expressing the yearning for brand new self-referential politics of exclusion, defiance, caste-shame, and resentment” (15). So censorious is the polemic against slipstream that these authors do more to prove its dastardly hold over the psyche of the millennium than to reject it. It’s a genre that has, apparently, hit a nerve. Perhaps, like jazz, if you have to ask what it is, you’ll never know. We know—and many of us are affected by—slipstream when we see it. And boy do we see it in Michael Swanwick’s Dragons of Babel. Dragons is a novel that, through its fusion of realism and mythology, suggests slipstream might be an emergent phenomenon, rising organically from the ashes of modernity in order to synthesize the two halves of our fragmented modern souls.

Joseph Campbell can be seen everywhere in Dragons. His hero-orphan thwarts the dragon, discovers his noble parentage, and is apotheosized when he assumes the mantle of king. In parallel to this template of the monomyth, in almost every paragraph, our protagonist Will navigates our world: the dismal hyper-realism of late capitalism, full of urban blight; democratic principles stagnating in a swill of bureaucracy; institutionalized bigotry; and relentless, brutal, and meaningless war. We know this latter world—we recognize it as our own—even as we yearn for the former, the mythic. We have gritty, indifferent New York City. We long for its magical analogue, Babel. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell warns us that in current progressive societies around the world, “…every last vestige of the ancient human heritage of ritual, morality, and art is in full decay,” and that, within such a structure, “the timeless universe of symbols has collapsed” (Hero 334). He talks about the deterioration of social cohesion: that which served as the ethical, religious and mythological memory-keeper has been replaced by individualism and the secular state, engaged in “…hard and unremitting competition for material supremacy and resources” (Hero 334). Where is the magic—where are the heroes—in this world of “rationalized avarice” (Hero 337)?

Most fantasy novels (The Lord of the Rings is a prime exemplar) provide respite from the “real.” Readers, nostalgic for something they sense but haven’t experienced, seek refuge in fantasy in order to luxuriate for a time in a world alive with “grand narrative”—Campbell’s “human heritage of ritual, morality, and art.” Such novels replace the modern with a world unified and organized by myth. What Swanwick gives us—what perhaps the best of slipstream fiction gives—goes beyond pleasurable escape. He asks us to imagine our contemporary world with our old coordinating mythologies intact, by superimposing one upon the other. We know dragons don’t exist in this world of science and rationality, but we still have what dragons are a metaphor for—violence, greed, the seductively dangerous will to power. Swanwick literalizes the metaphor, making the dragon at once a sentient animal, capable of malice, persuasive discourse, and abuses of power, and a war machine, running on jet fuel and requiring a pilot: he is both the potential evil in the human mind and the machines of war such a mind creates. John Kessel, co-editor of Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology, notes that one of the hallmarks of slipstream fiction is the literalizing of metaphor (“Symposium” 15), and Swanwick literalizes everywhere, from the crusty old drunk who has fused bodily with her seedy downtown bar to the solipsistic power-monger who creates a whole army out of thin air so he can watch his soldiers die. With such literalization, Swanwick strives to resurrect Campbell’s “universe of symbols,” but his signifiers aren’t mere backward-pointing diversions. Rather, he endeavors to make these hieroglyphs legible in today’s world. It’s no surprise that when Will slays the dragon he merely internalizes the evil—he doesn’t vanquish it—a particularly modern trope of psychology’s “control and mastery” theory. Through narrative maneuvers like this, Swanwick shows us that our metaphors still have juice, still have the power to unify and organize our experience into coherent, interpretable shape. He invents a hero who, in Campbell’s words, attempts to “bring to light again the lost Atlantis of the co-ordinated soul” (334). Our souls may be different now, but they can still be understood—co-ordinated—through metaphor; through pointing to the signified (which is modernity-proof) with the rich signifiers of our heritage.

In addition to literalizing the god-and-monster metaphors, Swanwick literalizes the holistic nature of Campbell’s monomyth. His characters are self-consciously drawn from mythologies the world over. Classical Centaurs, Germanic elves, Japanese onis and Southern American haints coexist—often imperfectly—in the melting pot that is the novel, and the city Babel (like the languages in its biblical namesake). Such democracy evokes Campbell’s “hero’s journey,” which transcends any particular tradition, touching on the universality of human experience. This is our story, all of us, this negotiation between our heritage, in the form of myth, and the bleak here-and-now, in the form of progress and modernity. There isn’t a single place on earth—no remote forest tribe, no Himalayan village—safe from the encroachment of industrialization, a reality to which we have no choice but to adapt. Now that our world has globalized, and we all face many of the same enemies, our belief structures must negotiate not just with industrialization but with each other. Rationality has freed us all from what Campbell ironically calls the “bondage of tradition” (334): it strives to jettison myth—all that is “untrue”—from our lives. But, Dragons suggests, we might just need our myths, our resplendent metaphors, to guide us through the rites of passage in a world where individualism has replaced the group. In “Symposium on Slipstream,” Lance Olsen suggests that the art that connects us to earlier forms of reality-representation offers antidotes to the “hypermediatized, late-stage capitalist ‘reality’ that is no longer perceived as real” (16). Though we know they aren’t strictly “true,” our myths can lend a foundational reality the “real” no longer has; and by not privileging one mythological pantheon over another, Swanwick suggests that it hardly matters which symbolic framework we choose to organize our experience: we just need one of Campbell’s myths, those “spontaneous productions of the psyche” (Hero 2), or many of them—or all of them.

Campbell describes an emergent phenomenon when he says myths emanate spontaneously from the psyche, because the psyche, in this case, stands in for both the individual’s psyche and the collective one (2). In Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software, Steven Johnson explains that emergent phenomena are decentralized processes whereby millions of units of individual input make, collectively, decisions for the good of the whole, without benefit of leaders, or “pacemakers” (17). Myths, like cities, grow of their own accord out of the needs of the many. Intelligent decisions appear like magic, but “who,” asks Johnson, “is doing the conjuring?” (33). Once again, Swanwick literalizes the metaphor, here in the form of the emergent city. An urban denizen informs Will that Babel was built not as a city, but “…the framework of one—a double-helix of interlocking gyres…” where “Buildings are thrown up and torn down as needed, but the city goes on” (Swanwick 122). The city, in essence, is a character with a will (Will?) and a genotype, and at the same time it isn’t—it’s a swarm of self-interested individuals doing what they do to get ahead. Like the dragon, it exists as two things at once, its scientific taxonomy and the living idea for which it’s a metaphor. Johnson reminds us that even in science this “couple-coloredness” can exist, for a city is literally the sum of its residents, and also “…more than the sum of its residents—closer to a living organism, capable of adaptive change” (52). The process of myth-making, like the living city, arises out of the collective unconscious, and it’s just possible to see slipstream as a manifestation of a very specific human gene: our myth-making gene, our need for an organized social cohesion, sired not by our “pacemakers” but by our hearts.

To this end, Swanwick conflates two hero archetypes in the novel: the king and the trickster. While traditionally the king is a “pacemaker” who restores order and inculcates the law, the trickster’s job is to queer the pitch, or, as Campbell notes in the short film “Mythology of the Trickster,” he serves as the “Disruptor of Programs.” The trickster is the best man for the job of synthesizing the modern and mythological, because, by operating “bottom up” rather than “top down,” he endeavors to integrate a new way of thinking, not replace the old one. He is a catalyst for emergence. In “Trickster: Shaman of the Liminal,” Larry Ellis calls the trickster, “a creature of low purpose who establishes precedent, [and] dabbles in the creation of the world that will be” (55). Moreover, he notes the invaluable place of the trickster in myth:

The world of myth is a place of creation in which things and events, from the seemingly insignificant to the momentous, are altered in preparation for the world to come. Trickster is a figure of myth, and in singular fashion sets out to change the mythic landscape in every area imaginable (Ellis 57).

Nat, Will’s father and the novel’s absent king, primes his son to be this catalyst, ready to reach “every area imaginable.” He explains the role of the trickster this way: “We keep things stirred up. Without us, the world would grow stale and stagnant. Every life we’ve touched today has been made richer and stranger” (Swanwick 234). What Will learns about kingship is that its main function is not to embody justice and power, as his advisors counsel; nor to destroy the evil Babylon, as the dragon within him urges; nor to impose order over a chaotic city, as the citizens of Babel expect. No. Nat puts the king’s role best when he contends that, “It isn’t for me to increase or decrease the total amount of virtue or vice in the world—just to keep things stirred up. To keep us all from dying of predictability” (Swanwick 234). Swanwick could be teaching us to negotiate a world whose prime directive is to slaughter magic and erect the static “real” in its place. Or, correspondingly, he could be writing a treatise on slipstream itself.

Whatever we call slipstream—magical realism, metafiction, experimental fiction, counter-realism—it is, like the trickster himself, our agent provocateur, the “Disruptor of Programs,” the creature “of low purpose” who changes the world. Many signifiers, the rational and the irrational, can point to the same signified, and no single definition is sufficient—is even possible. No wonder the folks of the slipstream symposium are enraged with the necessity of pinpointing, of defining a category genetically blueprinted to resist stasis. How do you create a taxonomy when the basis is manifold, when the genre emerges out of spiritus mundi to fulfill whatever collective need produced it? Pinning it down changes it—makes it taxidermy rather than taxonomy. Will realizes that after he changes the world he must disappear, because the world needs a disruptor, not a pacemaker. So he does, only to resurface later, as legends do, when they’re needed, to start the cycle over again. He, and slipstream itself, are Campbell’s modern heroes, “…rendering the modern world spiritually significant” (Hero 334) by allowing the myth-making half of our soul to sooth the restless, rational, post-modern half, the one hungry for co-ordination, for our lost “universe of symbols.”

Cited Sources

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Novato, California: New World Library. 2008. Print.

Campbell, Joseph. “Mythology of the Trickster.” Magic, Myth and Folklore Videos. BOAS Network. Feb 17 2014. Web. Dec 6 2015.

Easterbrook, Neil. “Symposium on Slipstream.” Science Fiction Studies. Vol. 38, No.1. March 2011. Print.

Ellis, Larry. “Trickster: Shaman of the Liminal.” Studies in American Indian Literatures. Ser. 2, Vol. 5, No. 4. Winter 1993. Print.

Johnson, Steven. “The Myth of the Ant Queen.” Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software. New York: Scribner. 2001. Print.

Kessel, John. “Symposium on Slipstream.” Science Fiction Studies. Vol. 38, No.1. March 2011. Print.

Lethem, Jonathan. “Symposium on Slipstream.” Science Fiction Studies. Vol. 38, No.1. March 2011. Print.

Olsen, Lance. “Symposium on Slipstream.” Science Fiction Studies. Vol. 38, No.1. March 2011. Print.

Swanwick, Michael. The Dragons of Babel. New York: Tor Books. 2007. Print.