Saturday, September 3, 2016

Review of Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology ed. by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel

As editors James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel admit in the opening line of the introduction to their 2006 anthology Feeling Very Strange, the term ‘slipstream’ may be the most subjective in genre. Working with Bruce Sterling’s initial stab at a definition, as well as some of their own ideas, the pair do, however, come up with a comprehensible set of parameters that may corral the term into a semi-manageable space. Namely a literature of “cognitive dissonance and strangeness triumphant”, they equate the ability to understand two realities within a story to a post-modern cognizance of different levels or perspectives to reality. Selecting fifteen previously published stories they feel representative of the notion, regardless whether the reader agrees with the definition of ‘slipstream’ provided, the stories offered are quality reading material in their own right, even as much as they are dissonantly strange.

A strangeness not always readily accessible, the warning flag waved at the anthology’s opening ‘Beware! Not all is normal!’ is “Al” by Carol Emshwiller. On top of being a superb specimen of writing, it is likewise a James Hilton Lost Horizon conceit covering art, the motivation to create, and the humanity surrounding them both. Existing at the edge of complete comprehension, as perhaps do life and art, it’s a great note on which to open the anthology. Closing the anthology (and the only original story in the anthology) is M. Rickert’s “You Have Never Been Here”. Shifting between fictional and non-fictional perspectives, and, as the title hints, often using the second-person, it’s an hourglass tale—the grains of sands shifting quickly and steadily, rearranging themselves indefinitely. While perhaps lacking the depth of Emshwiller’s story, Rickert readily portrays the subjectivity of existence with appropriate mode and mood.

A short, strange tale, “The Little Magic Shop” by Bruce Sterling tells of young James Abernathy and his discovery of a magic shop selling an elixir of immortality. Continuing to come back through the decades to re-supply, Abernathy indirectly recounts technical developments through the years, even as his relationship with the shop owner, Oberon, disintegrates. Karen Joy Fowler’s “Lieserl” is one of the increasingly numerous revisionings of commonly known histories from a minority perspective. In this case Albert Einstein provides the real-world history, the physicists’ purported daughter the minority perspective. A straight forward ghost story at heart but rendered slippery-strange by Link’s technique, “The Specialist’s Hat” tells of twins, their babysitter, and the haunting of their house at Eight Chimneys. Another (relatively, of course) straight-forward tale is Michael Chabon’s “The God of Dark Laughter”. A murder investigation offset by the fact the victim is an absurd clown, Chabon gently escalates the investigation into a state of cosmologically Weird fiction matching the story’s title—Clark Ashton Smith or H.P. Lovecraft the obvious influences.

But seeming to perfectly fulfill the Kelly-Kessel duo’s notion as to what slipstream is—and brilliantly so—is “Bright Morning” by Jeffrey Ford. Meta-fictional in a few different ways (self-referential, biographical, and real-world characters), story looping through fictional and non-fictional space, spot-on prose, and a superb overview to structure (intro, body, and conclusion that exceeds convention by more than a few degrees), just when I think I’ve read the best story Ford can possibly write, he outdoes himself. Best in the anthology, if not Ford’s career. Another curiously self-comparing and contrasting story, “Biographical Notes to ‘A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, with Air-Planes’ by Benjamin Rosenbaum” by Benjamin Rosenbaum tells of the writer of fabulism, Benjamin Rosenbaum (as the title hints), and the unintended zeppelin adventure he gets caught up in. Self-reflexive in its ponderance of story as much as it is story in itself, it’s solid pulp and existential commentary. (Ironically, this story was nominated for a Hugo. I have a feeling that if Hugo voters really knew what they nominated, they would drop it like a poisonous snake.)

“Hell Is the Absence of God” by Ted Chiang is a story that examines the relativity and value of belief through the lives of three people, Neil, Janice, and Ethan. Heaven and hell, god and angels real, Neil’s wife is collateral damage in the visitation of an angel one day. The juxtaposition of her death against the miracles performed upon those around her throw Neil into a tailspin of belief, something he tries to remediate through group therapy. In the meetings he encounters Janice, a woman born without legs but who was miraculously healed in a separate visitation and now is a motivational speaker. Feeling he is destined for something divine, Ethan has been tracking angelic visitations with the hope of having his purpose revealed, and in the process meets Janice. Chiang resolving the three’s spiritual quandaries in sublime fashion, a sense of universal spirituality rather than anything more narrowly interpreted permeates this fine story. Aimee Bender's "The Healer" looks at two girls, one whose hand burns and the other whose hand freezes. Working with the obvious symbolism, the former is an agent of destruction, the latter an agent of healing. The story gets interesting when the burning hand wants to escape her fate. In Howard Waldrop’s “The Lions Are Asleep This Night”, it’s the late 19th century and an African boy is writing a play about an African king, all the while he reads the history of Europe’s decline. Strange for the ‘alternate history’ aspect, it remains one of Waldrop’s more sedate offerings.

In the end, Feeling Very Strange is an anthology whose entries, and attempt at outlining the definition of ‘slipstream,’ can be discussed and argued about ad infinitum. But the bottom line is: do the stories fit within some fuzzy definition of the idea, and perhaps more importantly, are they good stories? The answer to all of this is ‘yes.’ Far more literary fiction than mainstream genre, readers looking for accessible material adhering to certain formulas and tropes will be very disappointed. Even if Kelly-Kessel are ‘wrong’ in their outline of slipstream, the underlying reality of the stories is anything but concrete, making for, at a very minimum, work that is ethereal than tangible, and that, after all, is what brings a lot of readers to the speculative fiction table to begin with.

All previously published (save the M. Rickert entry), Feeling Very Strange collects the following fifteen stories:

Slipstream, the Genre That Isn't essay by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel
Al by Carol Emshwiller
The Little Magic Shop by Bruce Sterling
The Healer by Aimee Bender
The Specialist's Hat by Kelly Link
Light and the Sufferer by Jonathan Lethem
Sea Oak by George Saunders
Exhibit H: Torn Pages Discovered in the Vest Pocket of an Unidentified Tourist by Jeff VanderMeer
Hell Is the Absence of God by Ted Chiang
Lieserl by Karen Joy Fowler
Bright Morning by Jeffrey Ford
Biographical Notes to "A Discourse on the Nature of Causality, with Air-Planes" by Benjamin Rosenbaum by Benjamin Rosenbaum
The God of Dark Laughter by Michael Chabon
The Rose in Twelve Petals by Theodora Goss
The Lions Are Asleep This Night by Howard Waldrop
You Have Never Been Here by M. Rickert


  1. I've come across this one a lot when adding short fiction to the WWend database. It looks very interesting even if I don't really care to define (sub)genres.

    In the text you refer to Hell is the Absence of God as being written by Liu instead of Chiang ;)

    1. It comes recommended, but do heed the warning in the title: it is very strange. And thanks for catching the Liu/Chiang mistake. And to think I lived in China for four years. Unforgivable. :)