Posts Tagged ‘john kessel’
My long review of The Secret History Of Science Fiction, edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel (and previously mentioned here, is up now at SF Site. The introduction is blunt but to the point:
The Secret History of Science Fiction is a very good collection of short stories. It is not, however, a very good anthology.
It is a problem I’ve had more than a few times – the gap between the individual stories and overall of aim of the editor – and it is a problem I’m sure I will have again.
Speaking of which, for the next of my story by story reading projects I’m planning to read The Ascent Of Wonder: The Evolution Of Hard SF, edited by David G Hartwell and Kathryn Cramer. It is an absolute monster: just under 1,000 pages. It has three introductions, for God’s sake, one for each of the editors and a bonus one for Gregory Benford. Having read Paul Kincaid’s review of the anthology – in which he takes strong issue with the editors’ definition of hard SF – and sharing similar concerns to him, I suspect this will be another anthology which I find frustrated by its editors. We shall see.
I will start with Benford’s introduction later this week but the whole thing will probably take me until the end of the year.
Edit: The last paragraph of this post accused Kelly and Kelly of including their own stories within Feeling Very Strange, an anthology they edited. This is incorrect and I should have checked this prior to publishing this post. I apologise to both James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel.
I’ve just received a copy of The Secret History Of Science Fiction, edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel, to review. It is the third in a series of themed anthologies they have edited for Tachyon, following Rewired: The Post-Cyberpunk Anthology and Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology. It looks interesting but as yet I’ve only had a chance to flick through it. There is one immediately apparent flaw though: Kelly and Kessel have included stories by themselves. Paul Witcover raised the same issue in his review of the book for Locus and helpfully John Kessel popped up in the comments to explain his actions:
We probably should not have included our own stories in the book–that was my doing. I explained how that happened in an interview we did with Matt Cheney, which has not come out yet. And we had a list of at least 20 other writers we would have liked to include in the book, including most of those you mention as we should have taken. We did not have money or space to include everything we wanted (one reason Kelly and I are in the book is that we did not get paid for our stories), and we did not want the book to be overweighted with writes from “within” the genre.
Fair enough that that they didn’t get paid but then again I never thought their primary aim was to line their pockets, I just wasn’t sure what there aim was at all. Now it appears it was simple expediency. At the same time this explanation doesn’t really stack up. They ran out of space? Why was there exactly space for two stories by them then? They ran out of money? Why does this matter if they didn’t have the space to publish anything? They didn’t want too many writers from within the genre? What are they if not genre writers?
It is a pretty weak excuse and admits that the stories are nothing but filler. Including your own stories is always a bad idea but, as Witcover says, in is particularly unseemly when it is in an anthology with a polemical purpose.
The fact they are repeat offenders only makes it worse; apparently the exact same set of circumstances arose whilst they were putting together Feeling Very Strange.
I don’t attend conventions and I don’t read SF magazines so usually my interest in this award category is quite low. However, in the last couple of years those responsible for publishing the nominated stories have increasingly made them available to the public at large. This year all the stories are available and Torque Control have been running a discussion so although I’m still not voting I do feel informed and involved for the first time. Here is my ranking with links to the commentary:
1) ‘The Gambler’ by Paolo Bacigalupi
2) ‘Pride and Prometheus’ by John Kessel
3) ‘Shoggoths in Bloom’ by Elizabeth Bear
4) ‘The Ray-Gun: A Love Story’ by James Alan Gardner
5) ‘Alastair Baffle’s Emporium of Wonders’ by Mike Resnick
It is nice to feel like part of the community and I’m hoping to take part in the follow up discussions as well. Of course, if Resnick wins I will feel a lot less like I am part of the community…
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.)
Before I start talking about the slipstreaminess of the stories in Feeling Very Strange is is only fair to say that I have a substantially different conception of what slipstream actually is to Kessel and Kelly. This is evinced by the title of their introduction: “Slipstream, the genre that wasn’t”. Personally I am closest to a position that they dismiss early on:
To assert that it inabits the space between otherwise-accepted genres and realistic fiction is to say it is nowehere.
Kessel and Kelly, on the other hand, persist in seeing slipstream as a genre, find it wanting in those terms and so turn to another hypothesis, that slipstream – like horror – is a literature of effect. Hence the title of the anthology. To me this seems to prioritise one aspect of Sterling’s tangled, off-the-cuff original piece in a way that is not necessarily helpful to a discussion of how slipstream has evolved since. In this they take their cue from David Moles in a discussion on his blog which they reproduce as interstitial text between the stories in this collection.
Where we can find some agreement is their checklist of traits:
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.
Simply put these are works that aren’t wholly realist, aren’t wholly fantastic and are pretty postmodern. So let’s see, shall we?
Actually, one more comment: even taking into account the (presumably publisher dictated) constraint that the anthology only contains US writers it does look a lot like the usual suspects. None would look particularly out of place in an issue of F&SF.
I don’t really want to prescribe the remit of this blog as I am sure it will evolve in ways I can’t predict. One things is certain though, it will contain some writing about books.
I thought I would start things off by looking at the stories in Feeling Very Strange, an anthology edited by John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly. I was sent a review copy of this for Strange Horizons but in the end their reviews editor, Niall Harrison, decided to review it himself. The book has since languished on my shelf.
Feeling Very Strange is an anthology of slipstream stories and I am aiming to look at them as both works of fiction and works of slipstream. Hopefully I will manage to post about one story a week.