Posts Tagged ‘feeling very strange’
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.)
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 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.
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.
My novels are fantasy/adventure stories with a modicum of metaphsyical whim-wham that some find to be insightful and others have termed “overcooked navel gazing”. Granted, there are no elves or dragons or knights or wizards in these books, but they are still fantasies, none the less. I mean, if you have a flying head, a town with a panopticon that floats in the clouds, a monster that sucks the essense out of hapless victimes through their ears, what the hell else can you call it?
A unnamed writer who seems much like Jeffrey Ford is writing a story called ‘Bright Morning’, inspired by a lost Kafka of the same name. Later a writer called Jeffrey Ford does show up as the unnamed writer’s rival. With so recursive a plot it could easily have been overcooked nazel gazing but it is so perfectly controlled that it is actually the finest stories in the collection by some margin. Ford blends autobiography, writer’s memoir and literary criticism with an almost pulpish piece of modern folklore to produce a beautifully measured story that exists in the cracks of what is real and what is not.
This is how you should do it, Benjamin Rosenbaum.
Ford on slipstream in an interview with Matt Cheney:
Fictional hybrids are always more powerful than genre purebreds — they are more resilient, they have the potential to surprise, the power to escape the gravitational attraction of tradition. Until, of course, they themselves become accredited purebreds, as is now happening with what some call “slipstream”.
Rubbish satire in which the narrator’s aunt comes back to life for no reason.
One girl has a hand of fire, one girl has a hand of ice, everything is as literal as you would think. This is another straight fable, like Sterling’s ‘The Little Magic Shop’ it is essentially a modern fairytale. This would fit very nicely in a collection called, oh, I don’t know, The New Wave Fabulists but this is because it plugs into a much older tradition than slipstream, it doesn’t make you feel very strange in the way living in the late Twentieth Century does because it could have been written any time in the last 500 years.
Little did I realise then, or I might not have felt so energetic, the hardships I was to encounter here in this strange, elusive never-never land.
Success! I should have started with the first bloody story! This is what I pointed at when I point at slipstream.
Al crashlands in a valley which is a true liminal space, the first we have seen in this collection. His short, pithy paragraphs (as quoted above) are counterpointed by a much more open, winding narrative from one of the natives. But these are not the sort of lost valley natives you would expected from, say, one of Chabon’s pulps. There is a nice low key interplay between the two which becomes deeper and richer and odder as the story progresses.
The inclusion of ‘Al’ does raise some questions about Kessel and Kelly’s selection criteria though.They exclude quintessential slipstream writers such as Donald Barthelme on the dubious grounds that they are no longer active (ie dead.) Yet Emshwiller’s story is from 1972, considerably pre-dating Sterling’s coining of the word slipstream, and she was born before Barthelme. Since both writers are clearly working in the same tradition – as are SF contemporaries of Emshwiller such as Damon Knight and Barry Malzberg, according to their introduction – it seems perverse to include one and exclude the others.