A "slipstream critic," should such a person ever come to exist, would probably disagree with these statements of mine, or consider them peripheral to what his genre "really" does. I heartily encourage would-be slipstream critics to involve themselves in heady feuding about the "real nature" of their as-yet-nonexistent genre.
—Bruce Sterling, "Slipstream," CATSCAN 5
You have one great country called Mimesis, you have another great country called Fantasy, and between them you have the border. It isn't a well-defined border: the two countries bleed into each other, the borderland is marshy and boggy and through the middle runs a muddy stream. That, then, is what I mean when I point at slipstream, and I am comfortable in my belief that I am right (whatever that means). After all, it is not as if Bruce Sterling ever pins down exactly what the word is meant to mean in his infamous essay setting out slipstream's stall. As the quote above makes clear, that was not where his interest in slipstream lay.
Equally, I've never been convinced by any of the rival definitions that have been proposed. Chief amongst these is the titular argument advanced in Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology, edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel, that it is a literature of effect that makes you feel, well, very strange. In his otherwise poor review of Feeling Very Strange in Science Fiction Studies, Doug Davis memorably describes Sterling's progenitor piece as a "panicked screed about the impending brain-death of science fiction." Kelly and Kessel—taking their cue from David Moles—latch onto one piece of this screed and strip it of even its most immediate context:
Instead, this is a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the late twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility. We could call this kind of fiction Novels of Postmodern Sensibility.
Feeling Very Strange is important because it is the first—stunted—attempt to definitively map out the territory, but as a work of persuasive criticism it is a failure. Happily though, the introduction to Subtle Edens by editor Allan Ashley suggests any possible anxiety about what slipstream might be in the context of this review is immaterial because his views are in accordance with mine. Since this is an original anthology, rather than a retrospective canon-forming endeavour, everyone should be singing from the same hymn sheet.
Ashley's anthology makes an interesting contrast to Feeling Very Strange in a number of ways. In his introduction he places slipstream in a very British context—moving from the New Wave in the sixties to magazines like Back Brain Recluse in the nineties—which is a nice change since Kelly and Kessel excluded all work from outside North America. He also sets it in a much more personal context, never attempting to rigorously explain the history or meaning of slipstream as Kelly and Kessel do, but simply discussing how it intersects with the lives and work of him and his peers. Whilst there is something quite touching about this, it gives his brief introduction a rambling, unbalanced quality that reaches its nadir when he states:
A genre-bending, self-referential TV programme such as Life on Mars would have been unthinkable without us poor saps chipping away at perceived limits out on the boundaries for all these years. (p. iii)
Life on Mars is indeed a good example of slipstream, but to suggest it is in any way influenced by himself and his band is ridiculously self-aggrandising. This perhaps also explains the most unfortunate difference between Subtle Edens and Feeling Very Strange: if Kelly and Kessel erred too much on the side of familiarity, stuffing their collection with the usual suspects, then Ashley goes too far in the opposite direction. These are the smallest of the small press writers. The best-known contributor is probably Joel Lane, which tells you something. Of course, it is true that little-known writers can produce work every bit as good as that of their better-known peers, but the sad fact is that they usually don't.
Given this, let's look at Lane's story first. "Alouette" gets off to an inauspicious start. In the first paragraph we have:
So when my new Nokia phone burst into song before dawn, with Monday morning just a few hours away, I shook off whatever dream of unrealised sexual opportunity I was having that night and grabbed it. The phone I mean, not the opportunity. (p. 33)
This is frankly lame. The first sentence has twice as many words as it needs, the second sentence should never have been committed to paper. What follows is equally lame. "Alouette" is a short horror story about a mysterious group of kids who beat up passersby whilst filming it on their mobile phones. This is the sort of thing the papers call happy slapping, and we know this because on page 34 Lane writes "Happy slapping, the papers call it," and because on page 36 Lane writes "What the papers call happy slapping." Why the italics? Why the pointless appeal to the authority of the papers? Most of all, why the repetition?
By mysterious means these kids send these videos live to (seemingly) the whole world, causing a ratcheting up of terror in the narrator and the rest of the population. My repetition of "mysterious" is deliberate because Lane simply tells us this is so and leaves it at that. Since this is a horror story, we are supposed to ignore whether its contents are plausible in favour of the fact they convey a vague sense of the unheimliche.
It is a poor story, but one that Nicholas Royle praises in a dreadful afterword where—like Ashley—he places the collection squarely in a personal context. They share the same touchstones, but if Ashley is vague, Royle is slack beyond belief. He was originally to have written the introduction but, as he confesses, he forgot and so has turned in this shoddy afterthought instead. Taken together, these pieces made me wonder if I had been mistaken in thinking my understanding of slipstream coincided with Ashley's. Was Subtle Edens aiming to collect a literature of effect after all? Was it actually a horror anthology?
Well, no. The choir members have definitely all been issued different hymn sheets, though, because from "Alouette" we veer straight into "Adrift," a floating fantasy by Ian Shoebridge with a beginning but no middle, end, or point. Presumably the desired tone here is comical whimsy, but instead it just sounds smug. Then we have what must be—amongst stiff competition—the worst story in the collection, "Mind-Forged Manacles." David A. Sutton's science fiction story does not pass within a light year of anything that might be considered slipstream or, indeed, good. It reads like one of Eric Brown's romantic paeans to primitivism, but bereft of even Brown's meagre talents. Sutton's treatment of gender and race are utterly cringeworthy; his heart is clearly in the right place but his brain and his hand are somewhere else entirely. Douglas Thompson's "Icarus in Nouvelleville," which has germinated from the same seed of anticonsumption and sits next to "Mind-Forged Manacles," can't help but look good in comparison.
It isn't all bad. The anthology opens with a story by Mike O'Driscoll, whose excellent nonfiction I admire but whose fiction I'd never read before. "And Zero at the Bone" tackles a similar (but more interesting) idea to "Alouette," but with the length and skill to do it justice. Nina Allen's M. John Harrison-inflected "Darkroom" demands intense engagement from the reader, something conspicuously lacking elsewhere. Unlike a lot of the slightly risible one-idea stories in this collection it is not really reducible, but it involves the staple of a reader presented with the work of a fictional author whose work seems to offer strange insights. Allen is excellent at depicting London—"You can do what you like here and nobody notices" (p. 18)—at conjuring up a sense of place, physical and emotional, at pulling out a character's essential nature in a few brisk lines. It is a story that takes pleasure in incisive detail, in mapping the world, whilst at the same time suggesting the world is ultimately unknowable. The influence of Harrison looms even larger over Daniel Bennett's enjoyably chewy "My Copy of Robinson." Perhaps they have never read him—the game of influence is a risky one to play—but they are mining the same uncanny seam he has so masterfully exploited, a seam that does resonate with what I (and, I thought, Ashley) consider to be slipstream. There is just far too much lumpen incompetence on display in bog-standard genre fare elsewhere.
To pick another example, Jeff Gardiner brings us a tale of creeping horror inspired by the unholy dread of, er, looking at a lightbulb whilst flicking the switch on and off. The appallingly titled "Phobophilia" is set in a nameless university where student life is captured with a shocking lack of veracity and awful, robotic dialogue such as:
"If you can face your fears head on—confront them and deal with them—then life holds no dread for you."
"But surely fear is a defence mechanism to stop us getting hurt or dying." (p. 56)
It is the polar opposite of "Darkroom": if you wish to compellingly present a broken world you have to be able to convincingly build it first, and Gardiner's characters aren't even believable when doing normal student things, let alone accessing a secret universe of unspeakable terror. Gardiner has two pieces in the anthology, so I flicked through to what I thought would be his second story. In fact, it is a critical article on slipstream that is bizarrely squirreled away, unannounced, on page 161. Since Ashley's introduction doesn't really provide it, the anthology could certainly use an "attempt to contextualise" slipstream, but why bury the lede?
Gardiner covers postmodernism, magical realism, speculative fiction, metafiction, fabulation, and fantastic realism in a broad sweep that is less comprehensive survey than smash and grab. He disdains "academic obfuscation" (p. 164), but this leaves his referencing of other texts incongruous and useless; for example, "Professor Kathryn Hume explained how..." (p. 165). Who? When? Where? What? As that "explained" suggests, the essay is also blighted by clumsy prose ("Fabulation, according to The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, is a novel in which..." [p.168]) and dubious assertions ("Hopefully, fiction will follow film and develop more hybrid genre entertainment" [p.171]). He repeatedly returns to the idea that slipstream is protean, but has a pretty limited conception of what this might mean:
Slipstream is protean and elusive—like a cry in the night; a shadow flicking in the corner of your eye; that feeling of unease as you awake with a start. (p. 163)
This certainly helps explain "Phobophilia," but I'm not convinced that it's useful to apply everything after the dash to slipstream, or even to the word "protean." We are again heading into horror-as-literature-of-effect-territory.
So—who would have thought it?—slipstream is a slippery beast to pin down. Even when explicitly asked to produce such a story the results vary wildly. In terms of showing any coherent thread that links the collected stories in a unique way, Subtle Edens is as much a failure as Feeling Very Strange. Slipstream stories are easy to get wrong, and perhaps, counterintuitively, deliberately setting out to write one is the worst thing you can do. This leaves Subtle Edens as just another small press anthology stuffed with half-stories by second-rate writers.
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