Are You Feeling Strange?
If youíre already familiar with the term "slipstream", thatís good. If not, please donít expect me to be able to define this genre (or non-genre?) for you. Iíve twice read the Introduction to Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology by the editors, James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel, and Iíve finished the book itself, without fully grasping the meaning of that term. Iím not a literary critic, just a reviewer, but Iíve never been considered a moron. Yet I still donít get it. "Visionary strangeness" and "cognitive dissonance" are fascinating expressions, but do they mean something so definite and specific as to identify a given type of fiction? Again, I donít know.
With the present anthology the editors have tried to select a canon, by picking up stories from various sources (magazines and books), published in the last twenty years or so, which may represent outstanding examples of the "slipstream" genre. Do the selected stories really exhibit a common ground? Do they share an element (theme, style etc) which may make them recognizable as pieces of fiction belonging to the same genre? I think not, unless you accept that their all being "strange" is sufficient basis from which to state that the stories have similar roots.
But how do we define what is "strange" and what is not? SF may appear strange to the reader used to mainstream fiction. Fantasy and alternate history are strange to people who want to read about fictional events taking place in the real world they know and inhabit. So what? Moreover, to be frank, I didnít find the stories included in this book more weird or offbeat than the stuff I usually read. A few may sound a bit strange, but most donít.
But enough of this. Letís talk about quality, instead. Sadly, only a few stories in the anthology are good (actually, very good). The rest are just ordinary, forgettable material that could have easily remained buried within the yellowed pages of old magazines. One of the most accomplished stories is "The Little Magic Shop" by Bruce Sterling, the very man who created the term "slipstream". Ironically the tale ó a delightful yarn with a supernatural undercurrent, describing a peculiar deal carried on through the centuries ó has a very traditional structure and doesnít appear to break any new ground.
Another excellent story is Jonathan Lethemís "Light and the Sufferer" a cruel (and strange!) piece set in the Manhattan world of pushers, addicts and petty criminals, portraying the fate of a young man haunted by an undecipherable alien, a kind of atypical guardian angel.
Jeff VanderMeer contributes "Exhibit H: Torn Pages Discovered in the Vest Pocket of an Unidentified Tourist", an enjoyable but, alas, all too brief fragment of his Ambergris saga.
"Hell is the Absence of God", by Ted Chiang, is a compelling, outstanding piece offering a bitter view of the presence of God (and of His angels) in human life. An unusual theological puzzle, the story pinpoints the subjective aspect of any religious belief by reporting the paradigmatic fortunes of three different people.
In Michael Chabonís "The God of Dark Laughter", an atypical whodunit investigating the ritual murder of a clown living in a cave with a baboon, we discover an unexpected truth: strange indeed. On the other hand, "The Rose in Twelve Petals" by Theodora Goss doesnít seem strange at all. It is simply an excellent, very enjoyable, fairy tale featuring a doomed princess: a typical fantasy tale.
In short, if youíre a nut for literary debates go ahead, buy this volume and try to solve the "slipstream" puzzle. If youíre just a layman, looking for something good to read youíre warned: youíll find some excellent stuff in there, but not as much as youíd want.