Feeling Very Strange
edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel
New genres are funny things. Like quantum phenomena, their appearances and disappearances seem to happen spontaneously, with little or no actual explanation, merely a bunch of kooky theory and conjecture. As with quantum phenomena, their definitions seem to change upon observation. An author who’s been writing science fiction for years can wake up one morning and find out the last decades’ work has been co-opted by some label he’s never even heard.
Which is all to serve as a sort of introduction to the latest enfant terrible of science fiction, “slipstream.” Science fiction seems to be particularly susceptible to this constant fractioning and schisming. The slipstream term is new enough, but the writing it encompasses has been around a while. As expected, there are all sorts of opinions on what it is and isn’t, and in fact this book contains several interesting exchanges excerpted from Internet message boards discussing this. What I gather from this anthology — which most likely reflects the editors’ own particular views — is that slipstream takes what may be ordinary, ‘literature’ type realistic fiction and adds some form of fantastical twist, usually without a shred of further explanation.
It’s that last part that makes it interesting. As a reading culture, science fiction aficionados have been led to expect a carefully orchestrated suspension of disbelief. You can’t just have the space battlecruiser Paul Reubens traveling at an effective speed of 30 light years a second, thereby violating all currently accepted laws of physics. No, there has to be a good reason — some form of yet-undiscovered physical principle, possibly involving wormholes, possibly involving quantum mechanics. Whatever. What’s important is that this loophole in itself is a bit of a stretch, but it provides a relatively decent explanation for all this faster-than-light travel, don’t you think?
This isn’t the slipstream way. In slipstream, a person gets tailed by a suffering-devouring black panther-alien as they try to avenge their brother’s drug woes. What? The slipstream author (Jonathan Lethem, in this case) won’t even attempt to explain, any more than they’d explain why people get shot during drug deals. That’s just the way it is. It’s not a story about weird extraterrestrials, it’s a story about brotherhood, and being terrified, and alone, and maybe not everything being alright in the end.
Feeling Very Strange collects several ‘slipstream’ stories, many written before the word was even coined to describe them. There are several noted authors here — the aforementioned Lethem, Michael Chabon and Bruce Sterling — and just as many new names whose stories are as good, if not better, than those of the heavy hitters. Of note are George Saunders’ “Sea Oak,” in which Aunt Bernie, the joyless source of income in a typical projects trash family, returns from the dead ready to make up for years of blending into the background, and Benjamin Rosenbaum’s piece, whose name is too long to reproduce here but whose content deals with an alternate reality based on Zeppelins and Eastern spiritual principles (as opposed to our Western technological ones), bathed in a miasma of postmodern meta-philosophizing, like Phillip K Dick meeting Miyazaki’s Castle In The Sky.
This book is naturally recommended for those into science fiction and fantasy who find this particular approach interesting. I’ll admit that it’s not for every SF/F fan, as the total escapism factor can be fairly low in some cases. It’s also a logical stepping stone for those who enjoy Latin American surrealism like Marquez and Borges. Spend a few nights thumbing through these short stories and you may start to notice some unexplained inconsistencies in your life. Are you feeling very strange?
Tachyon Publications: www.tachyonpublications.com