Posts Tagged ‘slipstream’
I had come back to investigate rumours of a mysterious impending emergency in this part of the world. But as soon as I got here she became an obsession, I could think only of her, felt I must she her immediately, nothing else mattered. Of course I knew it was utterly irrational. And so was my present uneasiness: no harm was likely to come to me in my own country; and yet I was becoming more and more anxious as I drove. (p. 6)
From the outset it is obvious that Ice is a novel about
obsession but it rapidly becomes clear that it is overwhelmingly about illness. Our nameless narrator has returned to this country from business overseas and is involved with this brewing civil emergency but it is not clear what this is or what his role in it is. Government? Military? He is somehow an insider yet he seems to fear the police. It is a defining feature of the novel that the narrator is both victim and agent of authority.
It is unseasonably cold and the man at the petrol station warns him of ice as he sets off up the country lanes to visit the girl. Ethereal, blonde to the point of translucency, she is never named either. They knew each other when they were younger but she married another man:
This was past history. But the consequences of the traumatic experience were still evident in the insomnia and headaches from which I suffered. The drugs prescribed for me produced horrible dreams, in which she always appeared as a helpless victim, her fragile body broken and bruised. These dreams were not confined to sleep only, and a deplorable side effect was the way I had come to enjoy them. (p. 8-9)
So he is traumatised, hallucinating and addicted. The waking dream occurs again and again; it is always the same: she becomes trapped, entombed, in ice. “Motionless, she kept her eyes fixed on the walls moving slowly towards her, a glassy, glittering circle of solid ice, of which she was the centre.” (p. 7) Early on, the imagery recurs again and again – “Great ice-cliffs were closing in on all sides.” (p. 13); “The masses of dense foliage all round became prison walls, impassable circular green ice-walls, surging towards her.” (p. 19) – culminate in an extraordinarily intense evocation:
“Despairingly she looked all round. She was completely encircled by the tremendous ice walls, which were made fluid by explosions of blinding light, so that they moved and changed with a continuous liquid motion, advancing in torrents of ice, avalanches as big as oceans, flooding everywhere over the doomed world. Wherever she looked, she saw the same fearful encirclement, soaring battlements of ice, an over-hanging ring of frigid, fiery, colossal waves about to collapse upon her. Frozen by the deathly cold emanating from the ice, dazzled by the blaze of crystalline ice-light, she felt herself becoming part of the polar vision, her structure becoming one with the ice and snow. As her fate, she accepted the world of ice, shining, shimmering, dead; she resigned herself to the triumph of glaciers and the death of her world.” (p. 21)
It is impossible not to reach into Kavan’s own life when faced with this. The short biography in my edition notes that “she was, at best, evasive about the facts of her life” but the facts we do know are telling. Born Helen Wood at the turn of the last century, Kavan was a pseudonym she adopted from one of her own characters following a nervous breakdown. She became addicted to heroin in her twenties following a painful illness and struggled with the drug for the next forty years. The failure of psychiatry and pharmacology is written clearly in this novel. There are also points were the narrator seems to know the girl from the inside, the first person narration appearing to give way to the third person and the author and the girl merge. Given this, we can wonder about the fact that Kavan repeatedly tells us that the girl was a victim during childhood, was brutalised and haunted by the experience of her youth.
The first chapter gives us the intrusion of the dream-like into what we initially perceive to be our world with the encroaching ice acting as a metaphor. But it becomes rapidly more real, plunging us into a Ballardian disaster novel in which entropy inexorably claims the Earth. From the second chapter, it also becomes clear that the world itself is uncertain; it shifts – or should that be slips since this is quintessential slipstream – entirely into the realm of dreams. As one mysterious character puts it later, “the hallucination of space-time, and the joining of past and future so that either could be the present, and all ages.” (p. 123) Within this context, the landscape is reconfigured, repeatedly; shrinking the world and crushing the actors. The loose triumvirate of narrator, girl and husband remains, although changed, but there are hints that it is not a triumvirate at all.
The narrator knows things about the pair of them that he cannot know, describes events as if he is there when he is not. Is he actually the husband? Is the “I” of the narrative a disassociated state that allows him to stand outside of himself and criticise his own behaviour? As the book progresses the character of “the husband” becomes instead “the warden”, her jailer and both the narrator’s antagonist and a figure he finds strangely attractive. Again, there is a inexplicable bond between them:
“In an indescribable way our looks tangled together. I seemed to be looking at my own reflexion. Suddenly I was entangled in utmost confusion, not sure which of us was which. We were like halves of one being, joined in some mysterious symbiosis. I fought to retain my identity, but all my efforts failed to keep us apart. I continually found I was not myself, but him.” (p. 98)
This split personality is explicitly suggested by a police officer when the narrator is arrested in one of the small towns he visits as he moves towards the girl and away from the ice: “I wish to state that the witness is a psychopath, probably schizoid.” (p.77) At one point he finds (or dreams he finds) the girl after having been brutally beaten: “I felt I had been defrauded: I alone should have done the breaking with tender love; I was the only person entitled to inflict wounds.” (p. 54) His obsession is a sickness.
My copy of the novel is the 2006 Peter Owen edition with an introduction from Christopher Priest. I think you can see a lot of Ice in Priest’s most recent novel, The Islanders – the unreliable narrator, the twisted travelogue, the undercurrent of obsession – and John Self makes a similar point with respect to The Affirmation. In his introduction, Priest says: “To work as allegory there has to be an exactness that the reader can grasp. In Ice the symbols are elusive, mysterious, captivating. It ends as it begins, with nothing that is practical or concluded.” If it is not an allegory, perhaps Ice is simply a wound; a raw insight into Kavan’s illness.
This Nebula Award-winning short story stands in complete contrast to the rest of The Ascent Of Wonder, it would be more at home in a Kelly & Kessel volume than this Hartwell & Cramer one (and not just because chimps feature heavily). H&C rather confusingly describe Wilhelm thus:
She is one of the relatively few sf writers who have consistently attempted (and often succeeded) in incorporating science fiction into the non-genre forms of the contemporary short story and novel, of which she has a sure commend.
I’m not really clear what they mean by this but it sounds like they are struggling towards describing the type of stories collected in The Secret History Of Science Fiction. Equally, the bold, surreal use of hallucination and fantasy throughout the story make it far closer to slipstream than hard SF and more suitable for an anthology like Feeling Very Strange. Regardless of this, it is perhaps the first of the stories contained within The Ascent Of Wonder that I will re-read (and even if I don’t, it certainly deserves to be).
The vagueness of the term allows logical and heuristic slippage. Is slipstream an sf subgenre or a new genre outside sf? Is it genre fiction or literary fiction? Is slipstream sf part of mainstream literature or is mainstream literature being parasitical on sf? Is it a type of writing or a sensibility? Is it a genre or a marketing strategy? Such slippages allow a widening of the materials to be included in critical discourse around sf, fantasy and utopian fiction, and obliterated the high/low culture divide of mainstream/genre fiction.
Victoria de Zwaan, ‘Slipstream’ in The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction
Ah, so many questions! My review of Subtle Edens, a slipstream anthology edited by Allen Ashley, is up now at Strange Horizons. (A shorter version of this review will appear in Vector later in the year.)
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.)
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”.
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.
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.