Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology
by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel
Review by Ernest Lilley
Tachyon Publications Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 189239135X
Date: 28 June, 2006 List Price $14.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Feeling Very Strange is a collection of stories which editors James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel have assembled to give us a taste of the dissonance creating stories which Bruce Sterling (he's got a story here too) dubbed some seventeen years ago as "slipstream." In amongst the tales is the thread, or bits of the thread, of an online discussion of the form, which is pretty darn illuminating. Is this genre fiction trying to break out or mainstream fiction trying to break in? Or is it just storytelling freed from causal conventions?
So, what is slipstream? Yeah, well, read the book. For myself, I regard it as a reaction to fabulous and fantastic becoming the common tongue of all forms of popular media. Like the painters who responded to the invention of photography by creating art forms that spoke more about feeling than reality, I see these "fabulists" doing much the same thing. Though the stories are set in "realities" which seem familiar, if skewed, the only thing that you can count on is that they have been created to illuminate the human condition…not the possibilities of science or spiritualism…but the reality of the human condition. It's all metaphor, all the time, and it tends to leave you feeling, as the editors correctly divine, very strange.
I find that there are three stages in reading a slipstream story. First, there's the coming to terms with the strange new world presented. This phase is marked by a certain amount of head scratching and brow furrowing. Second comes the compulsion to continue. Where are we going with all this? Where indeed? This phase comes with more brow furrowing, occasionally accompanied by a sort of open mouthed abortive attempt at protest. A protest you never quite voice because you knew the rules going in. The author has a full hand of get out of causality cards free, and welcome to discard them at any time. But mostly when it's useful for the story. Then there's the last phase. Which comes along after the last word of the last line has been read and you attempt to consider the parts as a whole. This phase is generally marked by a fit of head shaking, similar to what you might use to wake yourself up on a long drive at night after you find yourself dropping off to sleep. Alternatively you may well find your own way to express the feelings of incredulity, compulsion and dissonance brought about by stories.
It's especially hard for me to talk about the stories themselves, because, like all short stories, they tend to be set-ups for some twist at the end. No, that's not really true, because a number of them are just intriguing from one end to the other, though they may develop an idea throughout. A good example of this is Benjamin Rosenbaum's "Biographical Notes to "A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, with Air-Planes" which functions equally well as a discussion on the possibility of a causal universe, the practicality of a non-causal world view, or a wild action adventure story, complete with zeppelins. All at the same time. Since this story considers the possibility of being a fiction (and the author plays the main character) it fulfills many of the specifications laid out at the beginning of the book for the form of fiction. Others do so less consciously, like Jonathon Lethem's "Light and the Sufferer," which left me knowing where I'd been but not how I got where I was left off. And wanting to recommend the story to a few other folks besides. "Hell is the absence of God" by Ted Chang trots out a number of the usual suspects along the road to heaven or purgatory and wraps them all up most unsatisfactorily at the end, inducing head scratching in the reader. One of my favorites was by Jeffrey Ford, in which his first person narrative made me want to ask if this was all true, and just a factual relation of his literary life (haunted by Kafka) but he answers this for us (mostly, well, partly) by the end. All the same, I'm aware that if I ran into Ford somewhere, the last thing I'd want to do is to ask him about the details. The devil is certainly in them, and I'd hate to take him out of the picture by making it mundane.
If you would like to understand this phenomenon called slipstream, then this is definitely the book for you. On the other hand, if you don't care a fig about whether slipstream is genre fiction unbound or mainstream (which never calls itself that, being a term only genre types use) fiction treading on "our" property, then you are advised to read this collection as well. Still, if you dote on carefully bounded realms such as hard sf, classic fantasy, or alternative history, I should warn you that you will find this visit into the realm of the strange just your cup of tea. Especially if you didn't know that you liked tea.