James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel, eds., Feeling Very Strange -- The Slipstream Anthology (Tachyon Publications, 2006)
Jonathan Lethem, How We Got Insipid (Subterranean Press, 2006)
Douglas Lain, Last Week's Apocalypse (Night Shade Books, 2006)
It seems, after reading Feeling Very Strange, edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel, that no one is exactly sure what the term "slipstream" in fiction really describes -- not even those who write it (if, indeed, that is what they are writing). Taken with the two novellas in Jonathan Lethem's chapbook, How We Got Insipid, and Douglas Lain's stories in Last Week's Apocalypse, I'm beginning to get an idea. (Add in some of the stories in Kage Baker's Dark Mondays -- but not all -- and even some selections from the James Tiptree Award Anthologies. They fit.)
However, for purposes of discussion, I have to make use of some particular concepts. First, the contract in genre fiction between author and reader: in any genre, the reader is entitled to the fulfillment of certain expectations -- dashing heroes, brilliant detectives, tough cowboys, creepy aliens, happy endings (boy gets horse?). Or whatever. These expectations in turn inform the protocols of the genre, the conceptual base on which the story is built -- FTL, for example. (If you don't know what that means, you're on the wrong page.) Get those two things in hand and everyone's happy.
In a column published in July, 1989, in SF Eye, Bruce Sterling wrote: "It is a contemporary kind of writing which has set its face against consensus reality. . . . 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 that simply makes you feel very strange, the way that living in the late twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of certain sensibility. . . . [F]or the sake of convenience and argument, we will call these books 'slipstream.'"
Slipstream doesn't necessary fulfill the expectations of genre (in this case, science fiction) and it doesn't explain anything. Consider Jonathan Lethem's contribution to Feeling Very Strange, "Light and the Sufferer," which portrays the seamier side of contemporary life with the addition of an alien whose motivations and very existence in this story remain complete mysteries to the reader. (And, as regards slipstream's relationship to science fiction, you will usually find Lethem's books, for example, with the science fiction at your local bookstore. Unless, like me, one of your local booksellers considers his work to be simply "fiction" and shelves it accordingly.)
There's a lot of distanced narrative in the stories in this collection, even those told in the first person. Possibly the best example is the final selection, M. Rickert's "You Have Never Been Here," which separates the personality from the body completely in a bizarre and horrific tale of medicine and the state in an unholy alliance -- or it may be coincidence -- in which the horror hits home about ten minutes after you finish reading.
Expectations of genre are taken apart and put together in different ways, whatever suits the needs of the story -- for example, in Theodora Goss' rendering of the Sleeping Beauty story, "The Rose in Twelve Petals," in which time and legend seem to fall into the modern world. (I was reminded of nothing so much as Karen Joy Fowler's story in the first James Tiptree Award Anthology. It's no real surprise that collection has a strong feel of slipstream to it: Fowler, who is also included in this anthology, was one of the editors.)
Contemporary life is the basic ground for slipstream, and the usual and expected science-fiction extrapolation takes some weird turns. Jonathan Lethem notes that the basis of "How We Got Into Town and Out Again," the first story in his chapbook, was They Shoot Horses, Don't They? for a story that is really an attack on virtual reality. This being a Jonathan Lethem story, we're ultimately not sure exactly how we got here. Even more bizarre is "The Insipid Profession of Jonathan Hornebom," according to Lethem a parody of Heinlein -- with the help of Max Ernst, André Breton, and a grown-up Harriet the Spy.
Like the other authors in this survey, Douglas Lain's stories exist in a place where, in the words of Eileen Gunn, "reality is labile, a space that has its own rules and expections." I would add, however, that, as in Samuel R. Delany's Dhalgren , while the space has its own rules, the expectations are not all that plain. Come to think of it, neither are the rules. In "The Subliminal Son," for example, we are treated to a story ostensibly about a father's struggle to teach his young son to speak properly. The only problem, as we quietly realize as we progress through the story, is that the child resists actually learning to use his voice. It's much easier to make himself understood using just his mind. The father's memories of his own difficulties in this regard are sort of the icing on the cake.
In the case of Douglas Lain, especially, I can't help but think of Philip K. Dick's kind of present-day dystopias (most evident in A Scanner Darkly, but it's pretty much an given in all of his work, I think), although there is some flavor of that throughout this new "genre." (Granted, it's not that new, and there's some dispute as to whether it should be considered a genre, but that's for the critics to hash out. Someone may even pay attention.) The nightmare quality is that subtle -- most often, it creeps up on you. The frightening part is that it starts to seem so normal.
So, in these three excellent anthologies (and I do consider them excellent -- the stories are uniformly well written, imaginative, immediate, and I found them tremendously exciting, but then, Iím enthusiastic about new things) we can touch the surface, at least, of slipstream. Kelly and Kessler's anthology has the added advantage of including transcriptions of online discussions among some of the authors who are writing these stories. I do have one quibble -- Kelly and Kessel note that they take their title from Sterling's comment about these stories making you feel very strange. I got used to feeling this way with Dick, Delany, and all the way back to J. G. Ballard, to the extent that I'm going to point to those authors, among others, and say "ancestors, spiritually if no other way." And, considering how the world has turned in the past seventeen years, at this point slipstream is a lot closer to watching the news.