Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology
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.)