11 March 2011

James Kelly & John Kessel's "Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology"

The 2006 cover.
Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology certainly is a great crash-course introduction to the slipstream genre, filled with many gems and coals of stories I can discuss, but I’m going to hone in on Bruce Sterling’s short story, “The Little Magic Shop.”
Clues in “The Little Magic Shop” make me think there is more to this than just a weird little story, but maybe the story of slipstream itself (or at least some good commentary on the genre).

Bruce Sterling is featured in Feeling Very Strange not only with his short story, but also in James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel’s introduction to the genre. They credit Bruce Sterling with coining the phrase “slipstream,” as well as attempting its first thoughtful definition, in 1989 (Kelly and Kessel viii). Sterling wrote that slipstream is a “contemporary kind of writing which has set its face against consensus reality. It is fantastic, surreal sometimes, speculative on occasion, but not rigorously so. […] Instead, this is a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange” (viii).

This illustrates that slipstream is a genre that defines genre boundaries, blending literary and fantastic together with a flavor of realism thrown in. These facets create the dissonance Kelly and Kessel describe in the introduction. Upon further reading about cognitive dissonance, I noted with interest that people have an innate tendency to promote harmony, a “motivation drive to reduce dissonance” (Wikipedia). So part of the reason that slipstream is so uncomfortable to readers and writers is that it’s discordant; and it would seem that if we could just define slipstream in simple terms (either this-or-that, either genre or literature) and with simple names, we’d sit nice and easy with slipstream. Of course, such is not the case. Slipstream seems to pride itself on being vague and mostly indefinable, with few consistencies.

Because Bruce Sterling coined the phrase “slipstream" I decided to pay extra attention to his story, “The Little Magic Shop.” As I read it, I reflected on the idea of dissonance, weirdness, and the desire for harmony, and I found it in the story.

The basic premise: James Abernathy from the get-go would’ve been a normal child with a normal life, but due to “ominous portents” (14) we know immediately that such will not be the case. James’ father disappears, most likely at sea, while his mother marries an upstate New Yorker who has theories and opinions about Masons and Mormons and paranoid fantasies.

James’ mother disappears (a vague story about scarlet fever is the only clue we get) and then James’ stepfather suffers from a sudden brain hemorrhage and dies. There’s more drama afterward, but the point is that throughout these events, James strives to be as normal as possible. He obeys his stepfather, he doesn’t pry into family details, he dutifully studies scriptures at a Calvinist boarding school, and he has an “equable, reasonable temperament. […] a tall studious young man with a calm disposition” (15). Weird circumstances take him out of the boarding school (the deacon and his wife were chopped to death by an unknown killer) and he heads to New York City to further his studies.

To me, James seems to be a personification of slipstream itself. James seems normal, bound by the rules of society at the time (he lives in the 19th century based on Sterling’s descriptions), bound to rules laid down by his parents, stepfather, and teachers. And yet, for all of this “mainstream” behavior, and for everything he tries to do to maintain an unremarkable life, his existence is peppered with very odd occurrences. James’ life therefore is in conflict--his weird life versus his normal life.

James finds the magic shop when he moves to NYC and it is with this discovery that James continues to grapple with the two lives he leads--the secret, weird one, where he bargains with the shop owner for Dr. Heidegger’s Patent Youthing Waters, and the life he leads outside the magic shop, where he assumes a normal life as a self-made businessman. The cost for the Youthing Waters, according to shop owner Mr. O’Beronne, is everything James owns. James happily accepts, and the Youthing Waters do their work, prolonging James’ life.

The initial transaction (and later transaction in the 1960s) is interesting, because when James entered the store, the shopkeeper automatically assumes that because James is young, he will want a Love Potion--the typical choice for a man his age. James defies this by focusing only on the Youthing Waters. He also surprises Mr. O’Beronne by not drinking the Waters all at once, but carefully rationing it by taking teaspoon a year. James is showing Mr. O’Beronne that he is not confined by expectations or unspoken rules, but in fact is capable of living extraordinarily (eternally young) in the most ordinary way (making a living in the public, a thoughtful investor and businessman. Example: his money didn’t come from the gold rush, but from grocery stores).

James is straddling the line between weird and ordinary…for the most part, appearing to be mainstream, and all the while, his life is filled with these strange moments in the magic shop. James’ life is dissonant--how can he be totally normal but totally weird at the same time? This is why I think James is a personification (or commentary) of the slipstream genre. He is the literary (mainstream) wedded to the fantastic (spec genre).
The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania (1846)
by Sir Joseph Paton.

Mr. O’Beronne, to me, is not slipstream, but represents the clear-cut constraints of genre. Because he owns the magic shop, he is a clear representation of the fantastic in the story. In fact, I think O’Beronne is a wordplay on Oberon, the king of the fairies in medieval and renaissance literature. With that in mind, O’Beronne is the personification of magic.
O’Beronne is very clear: “I am in the magic shop business” (20). Notice it’s not magic business but magic shop business. O’Beronne is a head honcho; he doesn’t just deal magic, but deals the stores that deal the magic. He’s an orchestrator on a larger scale (but not the largest--there’s an unnamed wholesaler of magic in this story that James pursues). It’s important to note, all of this magic and potential to do otherworldly things has limits: “There are certain unwritten rules,” he tells James (20). O’Beronne can’t sell the Youthing Waters to just anybody; he can’t reveal the identity of his wholesaler; he can only be a dealer, not a distributor…there’s a hierarchy as well as a system of unwritten laws.

O’Beronne therefore represents genre fiction (in this case, spec fiction--fantasy). He specializes in the fantastic, deals in the extraordinary, but it’s not for everyone. It’s only for certain types of people, and there is a strict set of unspoken rules in genre fiction (Michael Arnzen describes this as the “reader contract”). Fantasy , sci-fi, and horror do not have universal appeal, even if it may strive for it from time to time, but there is a very specific audience that lives for these types of fiction. If spec fiction does not have certain elements of the genre (the fantastic, the uncanny, the sense of wonder) present in it, then it is not genre fiction.

So what happens to O’Beronne and James? The whole purpose for O’Beronne to sell to James was the “be careful what you wish for” motif. James was supposed to learn a valuable lesson about mortality, predestination, time itself…but James is nonchalant about it--he has no regrets for his long life and O’Beronne has strived during every transaction to see proof that James is troubled by a “burden of unnatural life” that is “insupportable” (20). But James is happy with his choice. After a few visits, O’Beronne finally agrees to give James the entire stock of Youthing Waters that he has, instead of selling bottles every twenty years to him. O’Beronne admits defeat to James, “I never thought it would come to this, but you’ve beaten me, I admit it. I’m done in” (24). Nothing went the way O’Beronne planned it to; James didn’t learn his lesson…all because of a series of unwritten rules that O’Beronne adheres to as a magic shop businessman. James decides to further test the unwritten rules by snatching a now wheelchair-ridden O’Beronne and bringing him outside of his shop, then placing him in his car, and inviting him to share the Youthing Waters with him… all rule breakers: “You can’t do this! […] I belong behind walls, I can’t go out into the world […] I was safe in there […] I can’t. I’m an owner, not a customer. I’m simply not allowed to do this sort of thing” (26).

In the end, O’Beronne breaks the rules by riding with James to Florida (the goal is to meet the maker of the Youthful Waters), and drinking the Waters to recover his lost youth.

What has happened here? James (mainstream) and O’Beronne (spec genre) are on the same team now. James got there first before O’Beronne did, but in the end, both became rule breakers of their assigned genres and chose to embrace bits of each other to become SLIPSTREAM.


Sterling, Bruce. "The Little Magic Shop."  Feeling Very Strange: the Slipstream Anthology by Kelly, James P., and John Kessel. San Francisco: Tachyon Publications, 2006. Print.

Thoughts on Slipstream

Just an everyday event in the slipstream world.

Have you remembered to hug your unicorn?

Domenichino, Virgin and Unicorn.
I pride myself on being generally knowledgeable when it comes to genre fiction, and all of its delightful subgenres and cross-genres. But I was completely at a loss when I first heard the phrase slipstream. My instinct said, "It's got to be science fiction, just by the sound of it." I'm only partially correct.

There seems to be little agreement on what slipstream is, except that it’s a relatively new type of weird literature that crosses boundaries between literary and genre forms. I’m going to focus on the idea that slipstream is the fiction of “cognitive dissonance” (Kelly and Kessell, xi) and how this fits into the debate over slipstream’s analysis and definitions.

Cognitive dissonance is the idea of knowing and perceiving chaos, the chaos being created by differing thoughts and feelings. More specifically it’s defined as “the uncomfortable feeling caused by holding conflicting ideas simultaneously” (Wikipedia). In the case of slipstream, the dissonance is created when this form concurrently functions as speculative, literary, and genre fiction.

It’s much easier for readers and writers to pick one type and run with it…there’s a reason labels such as genre (sci-fi, romance, fantasy, horror) and mainstream (literary) fiction exist. Publishers put it there for ease of marketing; readers look for it because they know exactly what they want from it; writers like it because it makes the work easier to classify (and in some cases, write--you know what expectations need to be filled). So not only is slipstream’s dissonance created by functioning as multiple things simultaneously, but the discord is also generated because it is difficult to name, classify, and describe.

The very nature of slipstream is to be indefinable, since it blurs the lines between the ordinary and extraordinary in fiction.

I once read somewhere, and I apologize that I can’t find the source, that the main difference between literary fiction and genre fiction is that one focuses on producing ideas, and the other seeks to produce emotion. Since literary and genre fiction always seems to be at odds with each other, one would think that “idea versus emotion” would be a strong example of the conflict between lit and genre. However, I don’t think these notions are at odds with each other at all--in fact, one leads into the other quite naturally, and hardly seems to come across as inharmonious with each other. An idea can create an emotional response, and an emotional response can spark an idea.
 In the slipstream world, this is totally normal.
Waterloo (1906) painting by C.M. Coolidge.

The only thing I can think of that may be closer to the dissonance with emotions and ideas (again, the purpose of lit versus genre) is that the emotional response genre fiction (especially speculative fiction) seeks to evoke is wonder. Literary/mainstream fiction can be just as creative, but certainly wonderment is not ascribed to literature; again, lit’s purpose is not to build awe. In fact, literary fiction seeks to distance itself from genre by being considered the “serious” one of the two. Literary fiction is also described as having an emphasis on style, psychological depth and character…whereas genre doesn’t?!? What?!? The age-old battle of literary versus genre continues!

What’s so interesting about slipstream is that it takes the awe-inspiring sense of wonder that’s created in spec fiction and instead takes it very seriously. Thus dissonance is again created: But how can someone take aliens in the city seriously, or angelic visitations seriously, or your dead aunt cursing at you in the rocking chair seriously? All of these are fantastic elements, and yet slipstream doesn’t seek to treat these events as fantastic at all. The fantastic and strange are everyday occurrences in the world of slipstream, and slipstream itself doesn’t seek to overtly acknowledge that something weird is going on.

Slipstream manages to be a genre excelling in the art of nonchalance. The dead rising? Mehhh. Aliens in NYC? Mehhh. Angels on Earth? Mehhh. Slipstream’s seen it all before. It’s fiction where anything goes…but anything goes is not the point of slipstream. It’s something else, and many other things at the same time, and because it can’t be labeled or pinned down, we can only identify that slipstream is different, that it’s weird, and yes…it will always be a source of conflict!


Kelly, James P., and John Kessel. Feeling Very Strange: the Slipstream Anthology. San Francisco: Tachyon Publications, 2006. Print.

10 March 2011

Robert Charles Wilson's "Spin"

The 2006 cover.
Spin is a novel reflective of the hard science fiction genre. As a recap, hard science fiction employs sound scientific principles, studies, methodology, and thinking in its work. The goal is to make the science of science fiction seem tangible, even if it isn't.

I have to admit, I always had difficulty with hard science in general. It's not so much that I doubt its truth or principles, but I've never been a logical person who can successfully analyze data, and sometimes I'm still unable to grasp everything about it. In terms of the sciences, I'm average with geology, OK with biology and psychology, and bad with chemistry and astronomy. I just never grabbed onto science strongly enough for me to retain a lot of it, which is unfortunate, because it is so interesting!

Science is about possibilities, asking important questions, and finding the answers to those questions. I'd forgotten this; I'd reduced it to being facts, studies, and protocol, essentially sucking the wonder out of it. It took a novel like Spin to remind me that science is all about the joy of the exploration of ideas and phenomena. It is the basic notion of producing awe and wonder by asking the simple question, "what if?"

Robert Charles Wilson's Spin has plenty of hard science (physics, space-time theory, medicine, human biology, social science, etc) in its pages. It is a testament to the author that I was able to follow it and understand it, even when I usually am unable to. 

My brief summary doesn't do the book justice...Elisabeth Carey does a better, succinct one here. But let me go with it anyway; the premise of Spin is this:

On a night like any other, young Tyler Dupree and his best friends, twin siblings Jason and Diane, look up at the sky...and the stars go out. They completely disappear, leaving black nothingness above them. The world is never the same after this event.  Though the Sun rises the next day and all seems normal, it's anything but. Scientists discover that the Sun in the sky is an artificial construct, and a strange membrane has encased the Earth. Though the membrane is slightly permeable, it nonetheless is the culprit for blocking the stars from the sky (essentially, the "outside" from the "inside").  Even more disturbing, the membrane (nicknamed the "Spin") has slowed time on Earth, making one of its days equal to a hundred million years in the universe outside the Spin. What this means: the death of the Sun and Earth will occur in Tyler, Diane, and Jason's lifetime!

Imagine that you'll be alive for THE END. It's absolutely terrifying. I can't even begin to wonder what I would do in this situation, let alone how the world would cope and prepare. Though Spin employs scientific methodology to explore the nature of the event, Spin is still faithful to the main proponent of speculative fiction: the promotion of wonder. It's Spin's evocation of wonder and horror that I'd like to explore.

As I mentioned above wonder leads to asking, what if? (Of course, we can add more questions to this, such as how and why). But wonder isn't only for creating curiosity and asking questions, it's also to meant to produce awe.
Home sweet home.

What I find skillful in Wilson's Spin is how he is able to produce the sense of awe and wonder and simultaneously elicit fear. It reminds me of the older meanings of words like "terrific:" what we view as a positive word, a compliment even, also suggests something extraordinary and horrifying. It's not a coincidence that "terror," "terrifying," "terrible" and "terrific" share the same Latin root which means "to frighten."

Wilson's writing deftly reveals the terrific, or what I term "dreadful wonder" of Spin. A particular passage I found to be haunting in imagery occurs when the Chinese detonate nuclear weapons against the membrane of the Spin. Jason is privileged to receive information and is aware of these plans ahead of time, but mistakenly believes it is not set in stone yet, and China may be talked out of releasing the weapons. He at least believes there would be plenty of warning before the risky procedure would occur...but he is wrong. The nuclear warheads are detonated out of the blue.

History has shown us that mankind should fear nuclear weapons. So just even talking about their destructive force, and the plans to detonate them, is terrifying. In Spin, the general population doesn't know about China's plans. So it's even scarier when they detonate and no one knows what they are, and they produce a strange image in the sky:

"There was no setting sun. Or rather, there were several. The entire Western sky was alight. Instead of a single orb of the sun there was an arc of reddish glow that stretched across at least fifteen degrees of the horizon, containing what looked like a flickering multiple exposure of a dozen or more sunsets. The light was erratic; it brightened and faded like a distant fire, [. . .] We sat hip to hip as the sky grew darker. Then the stars came out" (Wilson 76).

Star system Z Camelopardalis. 
The imagery is beautiful and scary, especially since the stars had not shone in the sky since the Spin occurred...what would suggest a return to normalcy is actual more fear-inducing because in this case, it could suggest that the Spin membrane protecting the Earth was gone and that the protection from the Sun and time itself was gone. However, if this happened they all would've died immediately...so all that's left for the characters (and the reader) to do is observe. Even though the image of multiple suns has faded, there is still some horror in the sky above:

"Stars are born, live, die, and bequeath their elementary ashes to newer stars. The sum of their various motions is not simple but unimaginably complex, a dance of attraction and velocity, beautiful but frightening. Frightening because, like an earthquake, the writhing stars made mutable what ought to be solid" (Wilson 78).

Time outside the Spin membrane passes differently than time on Earth, one year in ten seconds, five years in five hundred million years (a "temporal gradient"). When the sky is opened up to reveal the stars, it's not just the stars that are shown. The movement in the sky reveals the creation, birth, and death of stars, all in a matter of seconds. It is essentially taking an immeasurable, abstract notion (eras and eons of time), and making it tangible. It makes Man, who only views time relative to himself, for the first time capable of getting a true sense of omniscience, the God-like power of being able to see everything (all that is, and all that is as it is).

In many theistic religions, God (or the gods) is attributed as being both beautiful and frightening, the same as Wilson describes the episode of the stars. In Christianity, God is cited as "awesome in His works" and "terrible in His works" (Psalm 66:5). In Hinduism, Kali (interestingly, one of the meanings of her name is "time") is both beautiful and terrible (Ramakrishna Paramhansa 1836-86). The god-like ability therefore matches God itself. It is only fitting that when Tyler and Diane look up at the sky and see eternity pass before their eyes through the life cycle of stars, that the imagery Wilson employs likewise is awesome and terrible; or, as I call it, full of "the dreadful wonder."

Wilson, Robert Charles. Spin. New York: Tor, 2005. Print.