|The 2006 cover.|
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).
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.