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The Vintage Book of Amnesia cover

You're a neurosurgeon, a leader in your field, operating on the brain of a woman called Lucinda Roosevelt. She is afflicted with severe and uncontrollable epilepsy, and the surgery is intended to isolate the tissue that causes the seizures so it can be excised. Lucinda remains conscious under local anaesthetic for the procedure—as she has to be, if her responses are to be recorded. At a certain point in the work, she smiles at you, and you reply: "Hello, Sarah. Remember me?" Your assistant nudges you: she's called Lucinda, not Sarah. You realise that maybe there's something wrong with your own brain. Other dysfunctions follow during the surgery: you begin uttering unconnected phrases like "Unless I'm mistaken," and you feel the urge to laugh inappropriately. Moreover, because this is the field in which you work, you realise what these symptoms indicate. You are beginning to suffer from a particular kind of brain dysfunction which will progressively and untreatably impair your life. As you continue the surgery (perfectly competently), your self-examination proceeds; one of the most worrying symptoms is that you are feeling a sense of exultation about the impairments. Your account of these events, written later, carries these dysfunctions into its structure. It alternates, for instance, between calling the patient on the table Lucinda and Sarah, so that unless the reader remembers or checks back, they too are unsure what the patient's "real" name is. Reading your piece (which is non-fiction, by the way) has the same effect that the experiences themselves presumably had. It leaves you, to coin a phrase, feeling very strange.

This account, Lawrence Shainberg's "Memories of Amnesia" (1988), is included in Jonathan Lethem's The Vintage Book of Amnesia, an anthology of stories, essays, and novel extracts that deal with the subject of memory loss. Lethem's book was originally published in 2000, and has seemed to me since then a touchstone for some peculiarly contemporary concerns in fiction, not a million miles from the debates which have been going on about "slipstream" fiction the last few years.

One of Lethem's other selections—in fact, the last one in his book—is Kelly Link's story "Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose" (1998), which Link later used to lead off her first collection, Stranger Things Happen (2001). In the story, an unnamed man whom we're soon told is dead wanders along the shore of an unknown place, addressing letters to his wife. But he cannot remember her name either, and keeps trying different ones out to see if they'll stick. The story's structure, like that of Shainberg's essay, echoes the condition of forgetting. The narrative is fragmented and uncertain, couched mostly as the man's letters to his wife; he doesn't know whether they will reach her. In the end, no certainty is granted to him about who his wife is or about the life he lived, although we do know him better.

Other pieces included in Lethem's book will be familiar to genre readers—for instance, Philip K. Dick's "I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon" (1980), Thomas M. Disch's "The Squirrel Cage" (1966), and Robert Sheckley's "Warm" (1953). Others are well-known in a more general context—Borges's "Funes, His Memory" (1944), Nabokov's "That in Aleppo Once ..." (1943), and extracts from Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman (1967) and Martin Amis's Other People (1981). There's another neurological case history, Oliver Sacks's "The Last Hippie" (1992). And there are further items from what we in the genre would regard as the disputed territory between us and the mainstream: the extract which opens the book, for instance, from Thomas Palmer's superb Dream Science (1990). What they share, beyond the motif of memory loss, is the overwhelming sense that there's no way out. We're stuck, trying to reconstruct ourselves, in a world that won't allow us to do so. This is in obvious opposition to the aesthetic of science fiction, which maintains that the world can (and should) be figured out. Even if the consequences of that aren't quite as triumphalist for the protagonists of Charles Stross as they were for Doc Smith's, both share what might be called the positivist aesthetic. If you spend enough time studying or describing the resolutely objective world out there, you will in some sense be able to use it. But how can you do that (say Lethem's authors) if neither "you" nor "the world" are stable entities, if your knowledge of both is fragmentary and suspect?

Lethem also provides a thoughtful introduction, identifying Kafka and Beckett as the fathers of his genre: they "suggest that amnesia can be seen as a basic condition for characters enmeshed in fiction's web. Conjured out of the void by a thin thread of sentences, every fictional assertion exists as a speck of a background of consummate blankness." (p. xiv) What distinguishes amnesia fiction, one might suggest, from other kinds of work is that the author doesn't try to kid you about the scope of that blank. Lethem argues that the tradition became richer throughout the 20th century as the vocabularies of Freud and of neurology found their way into fiction (as with Shainberg); amnesia also found a home in the work of writers like Cornell Woolrich and John Franklin Bardin: "But what about that sharp blow to the head? And who fired this smoking gun if it wasn't me? Amnesia is film noir, too, a vehicle made of pure plot, one that gobbles psychoanalysis passingly, for cheap fuel." (p. xiv) The other great swerve in amnesia fiction is towards what we'll call for the moment the explicitly postmodern—stories which play with the notion that their authorship should itself be the subject of fiction. As Lethem observes, if you spend too long thinking about this stuff, you get snow-blind:

As I reread and weighed the fiction on my list, it was possible at times to enter into a state of forgetting what I'd meant by distinguishing amnesia from fiction—by declaring one the modifier of the other—in the first place. Genres are also like false oases, only visible in the middle distance. Get too close and they atomize into unrelated particles. Eventually, though, I achieved editorial déjà vu, remembering what I couldn't have already known: I had in mind fiction that, more than just presenting a character who'd suffered memory loss, entered into an amnesiac state at some level of the narrative itself—and invited the reader to do the same. Fiction that made something of the white spaces that are fiction's native habitat or somehow induced a dreamy state of loss of identity grip. (p. xvi)

He also provides a thoughtful reading list of other amnesia-related work, citing novels such as Delany's Dhalgren (1974), Ishiguro's The Unconsoled (1995), and Anna Kavan's Ice (1967); rightly (I think) he suggests that the Los Angeles-based novelist Steve Erickson is central to any understanding of amnesia fiction. A chunk of Erickson's Days Between Stations (1985) is included in Lethem's book, but one really needs to read him at full stretch to feel the apocalyptic force of his dislocations, his sense of America as a country fractured by forgetting. But as a sample, here's a bit from Lethem's extract:

He found an American passport in the drawer. He opened it and looked at the picture, and then looked at the face in the mirror. They were the same face, the same black hair. The name on the passport was Michael Sarasan. This surprised him, because a second before opening the passport the name Adrien ran through his mind. Even now, after reading Michael Sarasan, the name Adrien resounded. It felt familiar to him, as though it should have been written on the passport. Sex: M. Wife/husband: XXX. Age: 29. Birthplace: France. Bearer's address: Los Angeles. (p. 344)

So. What does all this have to do with slipstream? Bruce Sterling's original article defining it, from Science Fiction Eye #5, has been quoted and debated so much that it's now like one of the controversial passages from the Bible, worn smooth by discourse so that the original meaning is unattainable and we can only see the interpretational arguments that have grown up around it. Let me try to return to the text:

This genre is not "category" SF; it is not even "genre" SF. Instead, it 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. 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 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, but that looks pretty bad on a category rack, and requires an acronym besides; so for the sake of convenience and argument, we will call these books "slipstream."

You can make an argument that in the fifteen or so years since Sterling's article, the big story in US speculative fiction has not been the death of science fiction (or fantasy or horror) per se, but the boom in work that blends genres, or hovers on the edge of the fantastic and the mimetic. It's perhaps not surprising, then, that Sterling's term has been appropriated for this widening slick of oil-and-water mixtures—some of it among the best fiction of the period. But it's clearly not what Sterling's text is actually telling us to look at.

In the introductory matter to their anthology Feeling Very Strange, James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel bravely try to wrassle this beast, accepting both what Sterling says and the fuzzier meaning it's acquired since. Their criteria for slipstream are that it violates the tenets of realism, partakes of other genres but does not belong to them, and exercises postmodern playfulness about their tropes. Much as I admire Kessel and Kelly's work, and much as I think Feeling Very Strange contains a terrific set of stories, I have to disagree. The Shainberg and Sacks pieces I describe above feel consummately slipstream-ish to me, and yet they're not even fiction. I get the slipstreamish effect of contemporary strangeness from some pure SF works, such as Philip K. Dick's "A Little Something for Us Tempunauts," or from some stories from the horror canon, like almost anything by Robert Aickman. We cannot just accept that slipstream means "stuff that's difficult to categorise because it's not easily identifiable as one genre or another." Some stories Kessel/Kelly have picked do, indeed, leave you feeling very strange: Carol Emshwiller's "Al" (1972), for instance, whose protagonist finds himself on the first page walking away from a plane crash "a stranger, wandering in a land he doesn't remember and not one penny of our kind of money, creeping from behind our poster, across from it the once-a-year experience for art-lovers." (p. 3) Or M. Rickert's "You Have Never Been Here" (2006): "They list the crimes he's committed. You insist it was never you. You never did those things. You are incapable of it. You tell them about the hospital, the Doctors, you tell them how Farino tricked you. They tell you terrible things. They talk about fingerprints and blood. But it wasn't me." (p. 283)

I want now to suggest a very much more restrictive characterisation of slipstream, one not primarily based (as is Kessel/Kelly's) on the overall structure of works but on their effect on the reader. (So slipstream, in my scheme of things, becomes a genre like horror or the thriller where the success or otherwise of a given work depends on whether it achieves a given kind of reader response. It also allows for hybrids, slipstream-SF or slipstream-mimetic, in the same way that one can have horror-SF or SF-thriller.) The other way of doing this, I guess, is a tradition-based definition like Damon Knight's assertion that science fiction "means what we point to when we say it." Which may have been tenable in the days when everyone in SF knew everyone else (if there ever were such days); but these days the field is so diffuse that there's no unitary "we," and so no unitary way of defining the genre through our subjective sense of it.

Much as I dislike definitions, since they always simplify the territory they describe, here's a first stab at some. Science fiction, we might say, works on the assumption that the world is comprehensible, that it can be figured out. Indeed, the action of almost any SF story can be viewed as an attempt by the protagonist to figure out (a portion of) the world and then play out the consequences. Fantasy worlds are not there to be figured out, we might say, but to be recognised. A fantasy protagonist must recognise the true shape of the story they are in and act accordingly. (Horror is that subset of fantasy where you recognise the true shape of the story, and it tries to eat you.) Slipstream, I'd suggest, is different. A slipstream world, or story, cannot be figured out. Moreover, this is not due to any incapacity on the part of the protagonist but because (it seems) we have forgotten how to do the figuring out.

So, for instance, Thomas Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49 (1966), from Sterling's original slipstream list, stops at the very moment when Oedipa Maas is about to find out whether her growing paranoia is founded or not. This is, to put it mildly, not a science-fictional ending. The author refuses to allow us security about the true nature of the world because, we might suggest, he feels that the true nature of the world is not describable in stories.

Or take, for instance, the novels of Christopher Priest—on Sterling's slipstream list and with The Affirmation (1981) represented in Lethem. That book, with a "mundane" narrative writing a "fantastic" one which writes the "mundane" one, is dizzying in its refusal to provide epistemological certainty. Its effect, of undermining both worlds through narrative uncertainty, seems to me quintessentially slipstreamish.

To be clear, I'm not saying that the terms "amnesia fiction" and "slipstream" are equivalent for me. The former covers work involving literal depictions of memory loss, with Lethem's proviso that the structure of the story must somehow embody that sense of forgetting itself. The latter is a broader term, covering stories perhaps without literal treatment of amnesia. But slipstream stories do, for me, have to include some sense that the world cannot be seen entire, both in their surface story and their deep structure. And that's why the dread word postmodern has to be attached to them. The most useful characterisation of postmodernism I know is that it reflects a suspicion of master narratives—whether provided by science, or a dominant cultural force such as patriarchy, or a storyteller whose authority isn't questioned. Postmodernism always asks the question "Who is telling me this story? And why?", with the implicit corollary that no story can claim an absolute viewpoint on truth. That puts it at odds with the scientific worldview, as manifested in SF, and with fantasy's assumption that nothing is more central than seeing and recognising the story. Knowledge is partial and subjective and—to return at last to the book in hand—subject to the whims of memory. Slipstream is fiction which embodies that, and which moreover acknowledges that our contemporary world is a fractured one built on our fractured knowledge.

One final example, from Lethem. He includes an extract from Karen Joy Fowler's first novel Sarah Canary (1991), the story of a woman wandering nineteenth-century America who may or may not be an alien. That ambivalence—what John Clute has taken to calling equipoise—is never resolved in the novel. It gains its power, I'd suggest, from the encounters between her and a (male-run) positivist world of science which needs to classify her, place her in ways that she utterly resists. She is offering a critique not just of male structures of power but also, I'd suggest, of the whole idea that we can know or remember how to fully describe the world. Slipstream asserts that the blank of our not-knowing, or of our forgetting, is more important to describe than some delusion that we can figure it all out. If our not-knowing can be called a territory, Lethem's book is one of its first maps.

Graham Sleight lives in London, U.K. He writes for The New York Review of Science Fiction, Foundation, Locus, and SF Studies, and will become editor of Foundation from the end of 2007.

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