Archive for October 2008
I went to see Sweet Cider, the new production from Tamasha, at the Arcola last night. It is a fairly familar bunch of elements – interracial, interreligious relationships, honour, family, gender – but it is a good balance of weight, simmering frustration and humour, only slightly shading off into melodrama at the end. A very good young cast too.
Afterwards I re-watched Lilo And Stitch. God, that film is awesome. Okay, it slightly tails off when it focuses on ohana but it is simultaneously more adventurous and more grounded than most disney films and the individual scenes involving Lilo and Stitch are wonderful. The only real misfire is Bubbles, a social worker who happens to be an ex-CIA agent and looks like Ving Rhames. It is one weirdness too far.
Earlier in the week I watched Cloverfield and Iron Man. Both suffer from having feeble, idiotic plots but whilst Cloverfield is every bit as bad as I expected, Iron Man is as good as I’d hoped. Much of this is down to Robert Downey Jr, who, like Johnny Deep, he has the personal presence to inject life into what could otherwise be a typically soulless Hollywood commercial property. The film wisely focuses on him and (much more than I was expecting) the creation of the suit, including lots of nice incidental detail. It is interesting to see a depiction of an engineer hero rather than an action hero in a blockbuster. The plot is still stupid though.
It’s a huge misfortune, this will-o’-the-wisp attraction exercised by London on young men of brains. They come here to be degraded, or to perish, when their true sphere is a life of peaceful remoteness. The type of man capable of success in London is more or less callous and cynical. If I had the training of boys, I would teach them to think of London as the last place where life can be lived worthily.
George Gissing, New Grub Street, 1891
Somehow, without me really noticing, this month marked the end of a decade spent living in London. God knows how this happened. I promised myself when I moved here that it was only for ten years, tops, but now I imagine I will be here for the Olympics at least.
“London’s kind to the confident. Otherwise, what is there? Get on the tube in the morning and people stare straight into your face from less than one foot distance. That’s no way to live.”
M John Harrison, ‘The Good Detective’, 2007
I’ve had a west, north, south and east postcode. I’ve been bombed on my birthday. I’ve been sad and I’ve been happy and I’ve been in limbo. I guess I’ve changed a lot over this period but the only think that comes to mind when I think about how living in London has changed me is this:
I can now use chopsticks
Every time I see this advert I can’t help but think of this notorious Tori Amos promo photo and then I can’t shake the feeling that Knightley has smuggled a little piglet under her bowler.
A “slipstream critic,” should such a person ever come to exist, would probably disagree with these statements of mine, or consider them peripheral to what his genre “really” does. I heartily encourage would-be slipstream critics to involve themselves in heady feuding about the “real nature” of their as-yet-nonexistent genre. Bogus self-referentiality is a very slipstreamish pursuit; much like this paragraph itself, actually. See what I mean?
Bruce Sterling, ‘Slipstream’, CATSCAN 5
Introduction by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel
‘Biographical Notes to “A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, with Air-planes” by Benjamin Rosenbaum’ by Benjamin Rosenbaum
‘Hell Is The Absence Of God’ by Ted Chiang
‘Light and the Sufferer’ by Jonathan Lethem
‘The Little Magic Shop’ by Bruce Sterling
‘Lieserl’ by Karen Joy Fowler
‘The God of Dark Laughter’ by Michael Chabon
‘Al’ by Carol Emshwiller
‘The Healer’ by Aimee Bender
‘The Specialist’s Hat’ by Kelly Link
‘Sea Oak’ by George Saunders
‘Exhibit H: Torn Pages Discovered in the Vest Pocket of an Unidentified Tourist’ by Jeff VanderMeer
‘Bright Morning’ by Jeffrey Ford
‘The Lions Are Asleep this Night’ by Howard Waldrop
‘The Rose in Twelve Petals’ by Theodora Goss
‘You Have Never Been Here’ by M. Rickert
Regardless of what slipstream may or may not be, Feeling Very Strange is much like every other SF anthology I have read: a couple of good stories, a couple of rubbish ones and an awful lot of filler. The Chiang, the Emshwiller and the Ford are all worth reading but many of the others aren’t and several – like Link, Lethem and Vandermeer – have done far better work elsewhere. So if you are not Sterling’s hypothetical slipstream critic I can’t really recommend this book to you.
And what if you are? Well, I can’t really recommend it then either. Obviously, I disagree with Kelly and Kessel about what constitutes slipstream which is reflected in the fact I gave the stories an average of two stars for slipperiness compared to three stars for quality. However, even judged by their own criteria I am not sure quite a lot of the stories stand up. A lot of these stories don’t make you feel particularly strange and that is even jettisoning Sterling’s rider that slipstream should make you feel strange in a specific way, “the way that living in the late twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility”. (The fact that Sterling’s essay is not included here is puzzling and suggests perhaps a lack of faith that their audience will find their reading of it persuasive.) As Alan DeNiro points out Greg Egan can make a reader feel very strange and, in fact, a great deal of core SF is far stranger than, say, ‘The God of Dark Laughter’.
The inclusion of some of the stories here is just baffling. Whilst I was reading around for this post I came across this interview with Kelly and Kessel about the anthology. In it they were specifically asked about ‘Hell Is The Absence Of God’ and the fact it clearly isn’t slipstream. Kessel says something deeply weird in response:
The thing that makes Ted’s story slipstream is the way it evades normal storytelling structures — or maybe harks back to old-fashioned ones. For instance, this is a novelette without a single line of dialogue in it. People just don’t do that in conventional fiction. It adopts the so-called “God’s-eye view” more common to a parable or tale.
Not a single line of dialogue! My God! The idea that the story is better read as a fable seems to me to completely ignore Chiang’s whole mode of story telling. Kelly also asks an odd question in the interview:
Sure, he may think it’s a fantasy, but a key question for me is, what other fantasy is it like?
To which the answer is surely: Ted Chiang’s fantasy. They seem to be saying that if you can’t immediately categorise something it is far game to toss it in the cupboard marked slipstream. I was hoping for something more than this.
Then there are things which are presumably at least partially outside of Kelly and Kessel’s control. Chiefly, that definitive article in the subtitle is a bit much for an anthology which can make no claim to be definitive when it excludes so much. As they say:
The ideal version of this anthology would include such precursors [as Kafka, Borges and others]. Instead we have confined ourselves to writers active today, primarily in the period since Sterling’s essay… We have taken only stories published in the United States, though it would have been easy to extend the selection to Great Britain and Canada, and to work not originally published in English
Given the subject matter of the anthology this is astonishingly paraochial. I had imagined that their hands were tied by the publisher but no, in the same interview linked above Kessel places the blame with the two anthologists:
Before speaking about novels, let me add that, though we tried to cover a broad spectrum, we had to leave a lot of great stories and writers out. We somewhat arbitrarily confined the anthology to U.S. writers. For the most part we picked only those writers a substantial portion of whose work can be seen as slipstream. In the end we found it necessary to leave out such excellent writers as Rikki Ducornet, Jim Shepard, Terry Bisson, Michael Swanwick, Eliot Fintushel, Richard Butner, Andy Duncan, Doug Lain, Jay Lake, Ray Vukcevich, Molly Gloss, Barry Malzberg, Leslie What, Lucius Shepard and a dozen others we considered — including, against the demands of ego, ourselves.
Other exclusions are more understandable. For example, Steve Erickson – for my money the quintessential slipstream writer – has published mostly at novel length and it is hard to immediately think what could represent him here. The anthology doesn’t even provide a survey of novelists though. Writers like Erickson and core texts like Lanark by Alasdair Gray are completely ignored and even magical realism is only mentioned briefly in passing. I have many problems with the slipstream canon proposed at the 2007 Readercon but at least it does give some idea of the breadth of the field. Feeling Very Strange‘s narrow focus on contemporary American short fiction means that the definitive slipstream collection is still to be written.
(As a reference point I should probably close this post with a link to Niall’s depository of slipstream links which I’m sure will soon link back here in true bogusly self-referential slipstream/blogging style.)
You can now do polls in WordPress!
This is very good news for me but probably bad news for you.
I read this immediately after finishing Falling Man and it has that same sort of rhetorical, inward, yearning style. Unfortunately Rickert doesn’t have the same level of control as DeLillo. This is one of the few stories in the collection I can happily accept as slipstream but it falls victim to the problems that Kelly and Kessel identify as occassionally besetting the style: a tendency to “idle noodling”, to “uncommited allusions”. Idle noodling is too harsh for this story but it is certainly unsatisfying.
I went to see John Clute be interviewed by Andrew McKie for the BSFA last night. It was a very interesting interview, I scored a copy of Michael Swanwick’s The Dragons Of Babel (as reviewed by Clute here) and I learnt three important things:
1) McKie has grown an alarming new beard
2) Appleseed was originally conceived as an Elite spinoff novel!
3) Clute thinks the concept of mundane SF is “inherently wacko”.
I was ready to castigate ‘Twelve Petals’ for just being another alt history too – which it is – but it blends this with the fairytale of Sleeping Beauty to some effect. It is still a fairytale though and it would be nice to think there is more to slipstream than ironic folklore.
It hit her hard when she first saw it, the day after, in the newspaper. The man headlong, the towers behind him. The mass of the towers filled the frame of the picture. The man falling, the towers continuous, she thought, behind him. The enormous soaring lines, the vertical column stripes. The man with blood on his shirt, she thought, or burn marks, and the effect of the columns behind him, the composition, she thought, darker stripes for the nearer tower, the north, lighter for the other, and the mass, the immensity of it all, and the man set set almost precisely between the rows of darker and lighter stripes. Headlong, free fall, she thought, and this picture burnt a hole in her mind and heart, dear God, he was a falling angel and his beauty was horrific.
Don DeLillo, Falling Man, 2007
DeLillo’s character is discussing Richard Drew’s infamous photo from which the novel takes its name. It is the obvious cover for the book but at the same time it is not the sort of image that you can slap text over and use a sales pitch. Instead the publishers have used a photo by Katy Day Weisberger which takes the opposite approach, moving back, rising up, relegating the Twin Towers themselves to the back cover. It is an equally fitting companion to the work DeLillo has produced. (The UK paperback cover also removes the clever but perhaps ill-judged typographical trick from the original cover.)
Well, at least it isn’t about Hitler winning the war. The only reason I can guess that this alt history was included is, er, because it has a love of 16th Century plays. Yeah.