Feeling Very Strange, edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel
Reviewed by Niall Harrison
05 September 2006
"Fantasy is evaporating." So wrote Gary K. Wolfe in 1995, at the head of a review of the seventh installment of the Datlow/Windling (or Datlow/Grant/Link as it is now) Year's Best Fantasy and Horror. It wasn't that the genre was disappearing, he said, "but that it's growing more diffuse, leaching out into the air around it, imparting a strange smell to the literary atmosphere, probably even getting into our clothes." (Soundings, p. 172) In 2006, the same is true of science fiction, horror, and indeed any subdivision of speculative literature we care to name. The overlap between (say) science fiction the storytelling mode and science fiction the self-conscious genre and science fiction the marketing category is much less than it once was, while the distinction between the works we might point to as science fiction and those we might recognise as fantasy is harder to maintain; or to paraphrase John Clute, there are mutants everywhere. Hence, perhaps, the belated arrival of Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology, only seventeen years after Bruce Sterling coined the term. We may have had New Wave Fabulists and Interstitial Arts in the interim, it seems to say, but this time you're getting the Real Deal.
Except that there are problems aplenty with the concept of a slipstream anthology. Most obviously, slipstream is not a genre, and does not have the codification and sense of established tradition that being a genre implies. A slipstream anthology risks seeming arbitrary in its selections. Even if it's a form on its way to becoming a genre, "slipstream" can be seen as an imperialist coinage, a land-grab by the ghetto. It seems unlikely, for instance, that a writer such as Michael Chabon considers his writing slipstream, inclusion here or no.
Kessel and Kelly's introduction gamely addresses these questions (and others), but fittingly it's from the fiction that we can draw the most succinct mission statement for the book. The protagonist of the first story, Carol Emshwiller's bewitching "Al" (1972), having crash-landed in a mysterious valley where the search for meaningful art is almost the be-all and end-all of life, argues for "a new world for art where each work is judged by its own internal structures, by the manifestations of its own being, by its self-established decrees, by its self-generated commands." (p. 9) Similarly with this book. It's not really about making a new genre, or staking any sort of claim: it's about carving out a space in the literary world where genre doesn't matter.
As the book's title suggests, Kessel and Kelly follow Bruce Sterling's lead, arguing that slipstream is a literary form characterised by effect, by reader response: "the literature of cognitive dissonance and strangeness triumphant" (p. xi). So in principle, it makes as much sense to talk about book X as a slipstream science fiction story as it does to talk about Alien as a science fiction horror story. But the characteristics of other effect-based categories are familiar to us; we can tell that something is meant to be funny, for example, even if it leaves us stony-faced. Pinning down the characteristics of slipstream is a taller order. To their credit, Kelly and Kessel acknowledge that definition is out of the question, and instead offer a three-point description of how they think slipstream is done:
1. Slipstream violates the tenets of realism.
2. Although slipstream stories pay homage to various popular genres and their conventions, they are not science fiction stories, traditional fantasies, dreams, historical fantasies, or alternate histories.
3. Slipstream is playfully postmodern. The stories often acknowledge their existence as fictions, and play against the genres they evoke. They have a tendency to bend or break narrative rules. (pp.xii-xiii)
Seems simple enough. But in practice, to be useful this sort of description has to give us some sense of the mechanics of the stories it describes; it has to differentiate the stories it is applied to from other speculative fiction in a way that gives us a unique path to understanding them. It has to do more than just sound cool. So it's 282 pages to the end of the book: the editors have 15 mostly-recent stories and a reprinted weblog comment thread to make this description convincing. We're in the dark, and they could be wearing sunglasses.
Let's look first at Aimee Bender's "The Healer" (1998), which is beautiful and brutal, and neatly fits the three criteria above. It's the story of two girls who violate realism quite thoroughly: one has a hand that burns, the other a hand that freezes. They don't live in a traditional fantasy environment, but in a vaguely delineated town, of the sort that hasn't changed for the last fifty years. And the story is playful, teasing the reader with its resistance of metaphorical interpretation—sure, the fire girl gets in trouble and the ice girl turns out to be the titular healer, but the way their mutations are treated pays attention to literal considerations. Similarly, look at Jeffrey Ford's "Bright Morning" (2002), which is the tremendously self-aware tale of a writer's obsession with a "lost" (read: nonexistent) Kafka story called, yes, "Bright Morning," which may or may not cause those who possess a copy to dissolve on the wind. Playfully postmodern, check; pays homage to genre, check; violates realism, check. Both stories are somewhat insular, and both have backdrops of generic Americana, but both are engaging, and both meet Kessel and Kelly's criteria. So far so good.
Admittedly, those were softballs. What about "The Rose in Twelve Petals" (2002) by Theodora Goss? That's a retelling of a fairy story—Sleeping Beauty, to be precise—and surely fairy stories, even twice-told ones, have to be considered traditional?
Here comes the Prince on a bulldozer. What did you expect? Things change in a hundred years. (p. 239)
Guess again. Goss's tale is astonishing; it would be worth slogging and hacking through the overgrown bramble of every other reimagined fairytale out there to get to, but here it is served up on a plate. As the rose has twelve petals, the story has twelve parts, and though they start traditionally enough—a witch, a king, a queen, a princess—that doesn't last. While the Beauty sleeps, time really passes. Things change. The transition to now is vertiginous, almost harrowing: we are forced to watch the old world thinning, and our modern world coming into being. These days we have to find our own ending, Goss is telling is; may we all be lucky enough to escape from our own pockets of time.
Very nearly as good is Benjamin Rosenbaum's "Biographical Notes to 'A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, with Air-planes'" (2004), in which a plausible-fabulist, coincidentally also called Benjamin Rosenbaum, who really only wants to work on his latest commission, is caught up in a thrilling adventure involving airships, pirates, and Rajas, oh my! The crosswiring of existential dilemma and high pulp adventure openly invites us to read the story on two levels at once: the level of what's happening, and the level of why it's being told. Does he live in a world of meaning, Our Hero wonders, or a blind machine? Which is scarier? "It is said that fabulists live two lives at once" (p.195), he thinks, and at some point we realise that in these terms we are all fabulists now: that living in the modern world, with its complexities and contradictions, has forced us to become so.
Not all of the editors' choices are so convincing. Howard Waldrop's "The Lions Are Asleep This Night" (1986) reads like just another one of Waldrop's curiously flat-footed alternate histories to me. (I lack the Waldrop appreciation gene, I think.) And if Michael Chabon's "The God of Dark Laughter" (2001) is slipstream, then so is all Lovecraft, and any other horror that depends on the argument that the world is knowable, but not by us. This is a worrying possibility: we do not need more Cthulhu fanfic.
Two of the best-known stories in the book are also failures. (This is failure purely in the sense of not matching up to Kelly and Kessel's description of slipstream, by the way. The quality of the stories in this book, with a couple of exceptions that can probably be attributed to personal taste, such as the above-mentioned Waldrop, is not in doubt. If there are any of them you haven't read before, this is as good a place to get them as any.) Kelly Link's "The Specialist's Hat" (1998) is a more than proficient ghost story, about twins, Samantha and Claire, and the Dead game they play with their babysitter. What makes it so effective is that we stay in the children's perspectives throughout—the ending is not new, but seeing it from this particular angle is—and that the big old house they live in, Eight Chimneys, is so precisely evoked. But it is, ultimately, still a ghost story, and does not break the conventions of the form in the way that Goss's story breaks those of fairytale, or Rosenbaum's reinvigorates pulp adventure. The curious thing is that Link is clearly a writer who should be included in the book. Stories like "The Hortlak" (2003) or "Some Zombie Contingency Plans" (2005)—stories that are more engaged with the mess of the world—would have fit here perfectly. Unfortunately, the same cannot, I think, be said of Ted Chiang. If you're going to make a case for Chiang as slipstream, "Hell is the Absence of God" (2001), with its angelic visitations and old-fashioned style, is certainly the story to choose. But it's still not convincing. Like most of Chiang's fiction, "Hell" is so committed to the old-school science-fictional approach of rational exploration of its world—and is so awe-inspiringly thorough about its task—that it makes no sense as slipstream.
Still, four stories out of fifteen that I disagree with isn't bad going, and reading the other eleven with Kelly and Kessel's introduction in mind is enough to demonstrate that something is Going On. Like the New Wave Fabulists issue of Conjunctions, Feeling Very Strange is a tidemark left behind by the receding waters of genre; a marker in a new landscape.
Naming is useful, so getting the names right is important. Accepting that the work that Kessel and Kelly have presented here exemplifies whatever is Going On, we are left with a secondary question: is slipstream the right name for it? All of the above assumes that it is, but I'm not so sure. Go back to "Hell is the Absence of God" for a minute. You could argue, perhaps, that the sense of dislocation induced by the story's stunning opening paragraphs is a form of strangeness, and that that is a valid basis for including it in this anthology. But then, what would you do with a book like David Marusek's 2005 debut Counting Heads? That novel plunges you into one of the most densely-imagined futures written this decade: does future shock make something slipstream? Heck, according to Darko Suvin all SF is about cognitive estrangement; why, then, are we accepting Kessel and Kelly's exclusion of traditional genre stories from consideration? Conversely, look again at "The Healer": does it make you feel particularly strange, in ways that more traditional fantasy tales don't? The same question could also be asked of what is probably the most overtly postmodern entry in the book, Jeff Vandermeer's entertaining (if minor) Ambergris story, "Exhibit H: Torn Pages Discovered in the Vest Pocket of an Unidentified Tourist."
In picking these nits, I'm circling round to talk about the elephant in this anthology's room, which is Bruce Sterling's original 1989 essay on slipstream from Science Fiction Eye. Although Kelly and Kessel quote the most famous passage in their introduction (and David Moles quotes part of it again in his reprinted blog post, of which more later), the absence of the full essay from an anthology that aspires to be the slipstream anthology is conspicuous and baffling, not least because it clearly informs much of the editors' argument. Still, here's that same passage again, just so we're all at least somewhere in the vicinity of the same page:
This genre is not "category" SF; it is not even "genre" SF. Instead, it is a contemporary kind of writing which has set its face against consensus reality. It is fantastic, surreal sometimes, speculative on occasion, but not rigorously so. It does not aim to provoke a "sense of wonder" or to systematically extrapolate in the manner of classic science fiction.
Instead, this is a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the late twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility. We could call this kind of fiction Novels of Postmodern Sensibility, but that looks pretty bad on a category rack, and requires an acronym besides; so for the sake of convenience and argument, we will call these books "slipstream."
Kessel and Kelly's description clearly takes this into account, but is not quite the same. And here's the thing: there have actually been stories like most of those in this anthology for some time. In the mid-twentieth century we had "weird stories" or "strange stories"; in the years since Sterling's essay was written labels have been springing up at regular intervals. Liminal; interstitial; fabulation; even, in this very book (albeit less-than-seriously), infernokrusher; take your pick. Arguably they are all better, cleaner words than "slipstream." My pick is "fabulation," in the specific sense used by John Clute in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction: "any story which challenges the two main assumptions of genre sf: that the world can be seen; and that it can be told" (1993). As Kessel and Kelly note, this uncertainty is central to slipstream as they understand it. But then, you have to ask, why call it slipstream at all?
This is essentially the question that David Moles poses at the start of the reprinted comment thread—a smart inclusion by the editors that brings the book to life—"I Want My Twentieth Century Schizoid Art":
When, exactly, did "slipstream" stop meaning... a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the late twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility [Bruce Sterling, Catscan 5]
and start meaning stories thatFeel a bit like magical realism ... [that] make the familiar strange—by taking a familiar context and disturbing it with SFnal/fantastical intrusions [Rich Horton, quoted in Asimov's]
And it is, as they say, the question. Even if it's cherry-picking Sterling's words slightly, even if the literal answer to Moles's question is "five minutes after the essay was published," even if it's now the early twenty-first century: that expression of contemporary strangeness is surely still slipstream's unique selling point, not the way it handles the fantastic. Again, although Kessel and Kelly position slipstream as a form with contemporary relevance, they take a different slant to Sterling:
Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that "the true test of a first-rate mind is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time and still function." However, it is our fate to live in a time when it takes a first-rate mind just to get through the day. We have unprecedented access to information; cognitive dissonance is a banner headline in our morning paper and radiates silently from our computer screen. We contend that slipstream is an expression of the zeitgeist: it embraces cognitive dissonance rather than trying to reduce it. (p. xii)
That's the key. For Kessel and Kelly, slipstream isn't as vague as it is for Horton, but their description is still very general. The strategies they highlight can be used to make the reader feel very strange, but strangeness doesn't follow axiomatically from their use. As a result, what they've identified is a broad set of fiction that emerges as a response to the condition of living in the present. In contrast for me, and perhaps for Moles and Sterling, slipstream is more interesting when it's fiction that that isn't just a response to that condition, but is also a more conscious examination of it. For Kessel and Kelly, there's something about living now that inspires this kind of fiction; for me, slipstream is whatever makes you feel strange in ways that are specific to the time in which it was written. It's a persnickety distinction, but in terms of the usefulness of slipstream as a concept, I find it makes all the difference in the world.
Take George Saunders's "Sea Oak" (2000), which is not the best story in the book but which might seem at first glance to be one of the more obviously slipstream stories. It takes place in a present so satirically exaggerated it almost has to be read as the near future, and is about a squabbling extended family living on the poverty line somewhere in urban America. Two thirds of the way through the story their aunt Bernie dies, and then comes back to life—not as a ghost, but as a decomposing corpse who bosses them around. Clearly a cross-genre story (elements of both fantasy and science fiction), clearly a fabulation (the reasons behind the reanimation remain obscure), but not, I think, slipstream: as a satire, it points out the absurd trappings of contemporary consumer life (the family watches shows such as How My Child Died Violently), but it never challenges them. We stand outside the story; it never attempts to draw us in to feel the strangeness for ourselves.
Part of the problem here is that all fiction is a response to the time in which it's written. The most ambitious stuff is likely to mirror our times most accurately, but that shouldn't mean that it's all slipstream—and I don't think that Kelly and Kessel intend to say that it is, but it might be a consequence of using their description. To put it another way, I'm arguing that the lens-flare of the present is always distinctive, and that it gives a story a quality of strangeness that we can point to; a quality that can be found not just in post-cross-between-genre work, but in traditional genre work as well. If we're going to talk about slipstream as a reader-response genre in any coherent fashion, it seems to me we have to talk about it top-down: start with the ends, and accept that many different means can be used to achieve them.
Inevitably there is an overlap between the two kinds of tales, which is good, because I need to give some examples. Indeed, for the most part, the slipstream I'm arguing for is a subset of Kessel and Kelly's slipstream. The four stories in Feeling Very Strange that don't meet their criteria don't meet mine either. (Admittedly usually for different reasons: "The Specialist's Hat" fails their test, it seems to me, by being too conventional, whereas it fails my test by being too isolated from the world.) Of the remainder, I'd keep about half. These are the stories that, I suggest, examine the present ambitiously and relevantly in the way that stories like "Sea Oak" or "Bright Morning," good as they are, do not. Benjamin Rosenbaum's and Theodora Goss's stories I've already discussed. In addition to these, there is Bruce Sterling's "The Little Magic Shop" (1987), which demonstrates a corollary to my argument: if slipstream stories derive their strangeness from interaction with the present, it's possible for a story to stop being slipstream, or at least for most peoples' frames of reference to change sufficiently that they no longer naturally read it as slipstream. James Abernathy's gaming of a standard fantasy trope ends with the '80s love of wealth and success heartily undermined; we can see that, but it doesn't strike a chord with us now in the way that it might have done then. On the other hand, Karen Joy Fowler's haunting "Lieserl" (1990) demonstrates that you can embody the contemporary by looking at the past. Despite being set in 1902, the story re-creates its chosen historical moment as seen from the vantage point of its writing. The narrator is clearly a modern woman who knows that Einstein is standing on the brink of the twentieth century, and imagines what it might be like for him to (metaphorically) look down, and what kind of vertigo he might experience.
Two other stories should be mentioned. Jonathan Lethem's "Light and the Sufferer" (1995) is the tale of two brothers, Paul and Don. We're in the early '90s, in Manhattan, in drug culture. Unlike the Sterling, it still seems near enough to be familiar. The Sufferer is an alien that seems to have decided to follow Don around for some inscrutable reason or other: curiosity or protection or something else. The brothers are trying to escape to California. More specifically, they are the down-and-outs in a dystopian spaceport trying to escape to the paradise planet.
The freeway roared above us, but the nearby streets were vacant. The people in the cars might as well have been in flying saucers, whistling past stragglers in the desert.
"Okay." I was defeated, by the two of them. It was like they were in collusion now. "Just don't talk about California like it's Mars, for God's sake." (p. 62, 65)
Why not? is Lethem's argument. For these characters, in this place, at this time, it might as well be. The inscrutable presence of the Sufferer drives the point home. And though there could be a logical explanation for how the world got this way—as a mild alternate history—it's never given, and not important. The story derives its power from the refraction of a situation we think we know through a science-fictional prism; it's not about the science fiction of it, it's about how the juxtaposition of the familiar and unfamiliar pushes us away and draws us in at the same time.
And then there is the quintessential slipstream story—by my lights, and by Kessel and Kelly's—the last story in the book, and the only original: "You Have Never Been Here" by M. Rickert. It casts you as an observer of the world, looking in, life happening around you. Unlike "Sea Oak," however, it is told in the second person, making you unavoidably involved, a part of the story from the start. And something is not right. You don't look at people's faces, because:
faces can be deceiving, faces can make you think there is such a thing as a person, the mass illusion everyone falls for until they learn what you have come to learn (too young, you are too young for such terrible knowledge), there are no people here, only bodies, separate from what they contain, husks. (p. 270)
David Moles, come on down! We've got some twenty-first century schizoid art right here. Read on, and sooner rather than later you find yourself in a hospital that is "one of the mysteries" (p. 271): a rumour hidden in the cracks of the present. They're offering a treatment for which the unorthodox first step is love, and which when revealed—if the story really happened—explains your malaise as a heart-rendingly modern loneliness, or—if it didn't—damns you to be who you're afraid you really are. Rickert's story embodies cognitive dissonance, but it also forces you to examine it, and in doing so, to examine the distance between yourself and the world. Our world, today. The two readings are buttressed against each another, in tension: commit to one and the world falls apart.
Here we are, then, on the other side of the book, with just four more points for me to make before we can all go home. One: In case it got lost in the above, you should read Feeling Very Strange, if only so you can argue with it (and me). Two: If, as I'm arguing, the stories making up the trend that this book identifies might more accurately be thought of as (Clutean) fabulism than slipstream, we might also suggest that part of why twenty-first century genre fiction is evaporating at all is that it's started to doubt its authority. Its practitioners may no longer believe that they can see the world entire, and tell it in words. The stories in this book are mapping the revealed land at the water's edge, and the clouds above; and while to me slipstream is a part of that exploration, I don't think it's all of it.
Three: If we're looking for the stories that we should be describing as slipstream, I think Benjamin Rosenbaum's observation that "People with content-based definitions of genres are going to find themselves increasingly bewildered. It's all about traditions and communities" (p. 243) is important. If I'm right, and the most useful application of slipstream is to describe stories that examine the condition of living in the present—if only some of these stories are slipstream—then it follows that not only can slipstream stories be a part of any genre, traditional or otherwise, but that there's no reason slipstream has to be fantastic at all. So we need to widen our gaze: you can have psychological horror; similarly, you can have realistic slipstream. And we do. Hence the science-fictional present of William Gibson's Pattern Recognition (2003); hence the dislocated unease of Michel Faber's short stories, or the poised immediacy of much of Ali Smith's work, such as The Accidental (2005); hence the deadening effect of the modernising world on the characters in Simon Ings's The Weight of Numbers (2006). These sorts of stories can often be understood as part of the dissolution of genre, but they are all also something else.
Which leads us to the fourth and final point. Sterling included stories like those above in his original list of slipstream works. Indeed, the term was originally coined as a parody of "mainstream," in full awareness that nobody outside the SF community would use either word. You can argue—Hal Duncan has—that this sort of image of the relationship between the two communities is restrictive, rather than freeing, but I think it's the right basic metaphor, all the same. It's just that mainstream fiction isn't what slipstream is slipping in the stream of; at least, not slipstream as written by Gibson and Goss, Ings, Link and Smith, Rickert and Rosenbaum and the others I've mentioned. Rather, slipstream stories swim in the wake of the world. And the best of them surf all the way to the shore.