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Feeling Very Strange
edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel
Tachyon, 286 pages

Feeling Very Strange
James Patrick Kelly
James Patrick Kelly has been a full-time writer since 1977. He has won Hugo Awards for his stories "Think Like a Dinosaur" (1995) and "1016 to 1" (1999) and a Locus Award for short story "Itsy Bitsy Spider" (1997). He has also published four novels, the latest being Wildlife (1994). He lives in Nottingham, New Hampshire, with his wife and children.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Strange But Not A Stranger

John Kessel
Multiple-award-winning writer and scholar John Kessel is the author of Another Orphan, Freedom Beach (with James Patrick Kelly) Good News From Outer Space, Meeting In Infinity, and The Pure Product, as well as many short stories, articles and plays.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Corrupting Dr. Nice
SF Site Review: The Pure Product

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

Feeling Very Strange is the second "please don't call us science fiction or fantasy" anthology of the summer. Unlike the "new wave fabulists" in Paraspheres, this collection is more firmly rooted in the genre; editors James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel are well-recognized SF&F authors in their own right, as are most of the anthologized writers (the exceptions are Aimee Bender, George Saunders and Michael Chabon, though the latter has of late made a point of writing in the genre). Moreover, the subtitle employs a term originated by cyberpunker Bruce Sterling back in 1989. This is "The Slipstream Anthology," though the stylistic variations among the selections don't help to clarify exactly what slipstream is. The editors themselves note that they weren't sure "there was such a thing as slipstream... In fact, it's probably safe to say that very few if any of the writers we include here -- even those aware of the debate over slipstream -- would acknowledge that they set out to write in this brave new genre. Several contributors to this book expressed surprise that we thought their work might be slipstream."

Indeed, a unique feature of this anthology is the inclusion of transcripts from Chronoautic Log, the blog of David Moles, in which folks debate what the hell slipstream might be. Particularly funny is when participants decide to start their own movement, "infernokrusher." As Benjamin Rosenbaum puts it, "We must now all swear to a solemn vow to say everywhere with a straight face, 'Slipstream? Never heard of it. Do you know about infernokrusher fiction, though. Exciting new movement.' We can do this, people."

To put this is some context, Sterling's original rant in the SF Eye #5 proposed "slipstream" as the anti-science fiction, a backlash against "Shared-world anthologies. Braided meganovels. Role-playing tie-ins. Sharecropping books written by pip-squeaks under the blazoned name of established authors. Sequels of sequels, trilogy sequels of yet-earlier trilogies, themselves cut-and-pasted from yet-earlier trilogies. What's the common thread here? The belittlement of individual creativity, and the triumph of anonymous product." In its place, he proposed an anti-category, slipstream: "a contemporary kind of writing which has set its face against consensus reality. It is a fantastic, surreal sometimes, speculative on occasion, but not rigorously so. It does not aim to provoke a 'sense of wonder' or to systematically extrapolate in the manner of classic science fiction. Instead, this is a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange (my emphasis); the way that living in the late twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility."

Fiction that makes you "feel very strange" is the titular catchall by which Kessel and Kelley define slipstream, whatever that is; consequently, unlike its "competitor" volume of "paraspheres," whatever that exactly is, it seems something more readily identifiable. Though it still leaves us in the same state as what a Supreme Court judge once famously said of pornography that, lacking a precise definition, "I know it when I see it."

Perhaps the best definition, even while it is poking fun at all this academic meditation, is offered by Jeffrey Ford's meta-fictional "Bright Morning," in which a writer meets his alter-ego in a series of Kafkaesque events, the irony being that the narrator's work is typically described as "Kafkaesque." (A synergistic sidenote is that the cover of Feeling Very Strange carries this quote from Kafka: "A story should be an axe to break the frozen sea within us.")

Here's how the non-Ford narrator of the story Ford wrote describes his (and presumably Ford's as well) œuvre:

My novels are fantasy/adventure stories with a modicum of metaphysical 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 pantopticon that floats in the clouds, a monster that sucks the essence out of hapless victims through their ears, what the hell else can you call it? At first glance, it would seem that any writer would be proud to have their work compared to that of one of the twentieth century's greatest writers, but upon closer inspection it becomes evident that in today's publishing world, when a novel does not fit a prescribed format, it immediately becomes labeled Kafkaesque. The hope is, of course, that this will be interpreted as meaning exotic, when, in fact, it translates to the book-buying public as obscure. Kafka has become a place, a condition, a boundary to which it is perceived only the pretentious are drawn and only total lunatics will cross.
While Ford plays with the idea of genre tradition in becoming his own character in a Kafkaesque story, Benjamin Rosenbaum takes the notion of genre definition as the foundation of an alternate reality in which a "plausible-fabulist" returning from the "Plaus-Fab Con" in Wisconsin via zeppelin (the story originally appeared in All-Star Zeppelin Adventure Stories for which said aircraft was a mandated plot element) is caught up in an assassination attempt. Ensuing events in "Biographical Notes to "A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, with Air-Planes'" require our hero to save the victim, all of which hinge on improbable and unlikely circumstances that result in favorable outcomes. But in this reality, the improbable and unlikely are the governing forces. Even in the face of danger in the best tradition of cliffhangers, the narrator still has time to ponder the wondrous construct of this reality. He imagines a "shadow reality" that is governed by materialism, "the primacy of Matter over Mind. What successes might some other science, in another history, have built upon its bulwark?" and then goes on imagine writing a story based on this premise (meaning a reality more like ours) even as he battles pirates while hanging from a tether. "Maybe it is not a matter of knowing the correct philosophy. Maybe the desire that burns behind this question is the desire to be real. And which is more real -- a clod of dirt unnoticed at your feet, or a hero in a legend?"

I'm not really sure about that anymore than what relationship there is among these 15 stories that makes them slipstream. In terms of strangeness, some are decidedly more strange than others, but not necessarily always in fantastical sense. While Howard Waldrop's "The Lion's Sleep Tonight" is set in an alternative Africa, the young protagonist's discovery of his talent and redemption of himself through playwriting is powerfully realistic. On the other hand, Chabon's contribution, "The God of Dark Laughter," is horror in the tradition of H.P. Lovecraft. Yeah, it's strange, but slipstream? Not in the way Aimee Bender in "The Healer" depicts how the relationship between two mutant girls, one with a hand of ice, the other with a hand of fire, in an otherwise normal suburban community, results in a sacrifice that, while seemingly turning out for the best, leaves some lasting residue -- just like in real life.

Similarly, it seems only fitting for a slipstream anthology to include a story by Sterling. Yet the amusing riff on the "guy goes into a place to get a wish granted and unintended consequences result" in "The Little Magic Shop" weighs in as more of a hip joke than fiction intended to evoke any sensibilities about life in the modern age, to use the author's own defining terminology. What is decidedly, and depressingly, about the modern age is the Saunders contribution, "Sea Oak." The title refers to a downscale housing development and the limited lives of the residents, which become illuminated when an hitherto uncomplaining aunt returns from the dead to try to improve their situation before she completely decomposes. Required reading, as is Ted Chiang's much-recognized "Hell is the Absence of God," which similarly questions the fairness of inscrutable cosmological machinations. Jonathan Lethem's "Light and the Sufferer" tackles the same sort of ontological pondering, though in a more puzzling fashion, which was perhaps the point.

The remaining contributors constitute the "usual suspects." Kelly Link's "The Specialist Hat" is an Angela Carter exercise in babysitting children pretending (perhaps) to be dead; Jeff VanderMeer (who along with fellow slipstreamer Ford also earns new wave fabulist honors in Paraspheres) contributes a travel warning for anyone venturing to Ambergris in "Exhibit H: Torn Pages Discovered in the Vest Pocket of an Unidentified Tourist"; in, "Lieserl," Karen Jay Fowler portrays Einstein receiving letters from a daughter who grows up in relative time; and Theodora Gross reinterprets Sleeping Beauty in "The Rose in Twelve Petals" -- whatever the ending may be, it's not "happily ever after."

The one story original to this anthology is M. Rickert's "You Have Never Been Here Before" about poor luck in reincarnation. If Rickert's title for her dreamy afterworld setting seemed fitting to conclude a collection of the vanguard of the strange, it may have seemed equally fitting to start things off with a 1972 story from Carol Emshwhiler. Normally, I'm a fan of her work, but I confess to not getting "Al," which has something to do with an alien who crash lands near an arts festival and becomes a visiting artist in residence until he tries to escape with a local girl in tow. In the interim, the alien artist develops a radical manifesto "[un]shackled by outmoded laws[.] Let us proclaim, here and at once, a new world for art where each work is judged by its own internal structures, by the manifestations of its own being, by its self-generated commands." Which is perhaps yet another definition of slipstream.

Whatever that is.

Copyright © 2006 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.

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