I nearly gave this 4 stars, but going back through and averaging my ratings for each story, I came out closer to 3.5 stars. All the stories have someI nearly gave this 4 stars, but going back through and averaging my ratings for each story, I came out closer to 3.5 stars. All the stories have some interesting, inventive features, but like so many anthologies, it is a bit of a mixed bag and only a few of the stories really stand out.
As far as the effort to lock in on a definition of "slipstream," Kelly and Kessel stumble around in their introduction--consciously so. And this effort is made a focus in subsequent sections featuring text from an online discussion on the subject. They get into the history of the term, which was coined by Bruce Sterling in 1989 to describe a trend he was noticing in speculative fiction at the time. Much of the difficulty of slipstream is due to the fact that Sterlin's definition is pretty ambiguous, more descriptive of a feeling or approach that hints at a modern sort of strangeness that's rather hard to pinpoint. While Kelly and Kessel admit to this ambiguity, they go ahead and dare to pin it down to a few features, which along with the strangeness include a certain post-modern attitude to genre and narrative.
Whether all the stories in their collection actually meet their proposed (albeit still general) definition is debatable. A number of the stories are not what I'd call strange or weird in a distinctly modern sort of way and read more like vaguely post-modern takes on traditional speculative genres. I say "speculative," because despite what the cover says, most of the stories aren't science fiction. On the one hand, it's hard to fault them for struggling to put forth a cohesive group of works for such an ambiguous grouping. But they seem to shoot themselves in the foot by attempting to even pose it as a genre or style and then failing to present a cohesive body of stories.
As someone struggling to even understand the term "slipstream," this didn't really help me pin anything down. It did confirm my notion that oftentimes "slipstream" denotes a weird-ish SF with literary ambitions, or vice versa (weird-ish literary/mainstream w/some SF elements). In addition, I got the sense that meta-fictional devices and a generally "post-modern" outlook seem prevalent, but then those things in themselves are not necessarily strange or strictly modern. So I'm back at square one.
As to the stories themselves, I was only familiar with the one by Ted Chiang, which I'd recently read. Several of the writers were familiar to me, though I would say they have better works. The ones I rated in the 3.5-4.5ish range include:
"The Specialist's Hat," Kelly Link I have surprisingly not read any of her work, but have generally heard good things. While not mind-blowing, this was a solidly written ghost story with a somewhat expected twist. Not what I would call strongly post-modern, though it plays with a familiar ghost story format. For me, it fits more in that range, or in that strange/weird tales tradition, with some self-awareness for good measure. 4 stars.
"Light and the Sufferer," Jonathan Lethem I have read another Lethem story and found this one to be weak in comparison, but there is still that grittily elegant style and insight into characters and human behavior that I liked. Unfortunately, the science fiction element is so incidental that it fails to add much, and the effort at symbolism seems a bit weak. 3.5 stars.
"Exhibit H...," Jeff Vandermeer I've already Vandermeer, albeit not the Ambergris material that this fits into. It's a sliver of a story in the form of a chapter from a travel guide. Weird in his usual fashion, though less atmospheric and more cheeky than his work in Veniss Underground. Solid 4 stars for amusing me.
"Hell is the Absence of God," Ted Chiang Great story, brilliant concept, 4-4.5 stars easily. Not sure it fits "slipstream," being that it's a basically science fictional take on religious concepts. As I said in my review of Chiang's Stories of Your Life, he is definitely in a classic SF tradition, not really strange or sneeringly post-modern (though certainly acquainted with Borges).
"Lieserl," Karen Joy Fowler I'm torn about this story, as it's beautiful written and a really clever concept based on Einstein, his wife, and the child they had before they were married. It's a bit puzzle-like and kinda confounded me, so 3.5 stars. I really don't get how this fits the definition of "slipstream," though. Mildly unsettling, I guess, but nothing really genre.
"Bright Morning," Jeffrey Ford This guy is on my to-read list. I loved this story, best one in the collection IMHO. Post-modern meta-narrative is so hit-or-miss with me, but he pulls the self-reference off very well without forcing the issue. Also, it's about a mysterious lost story by Kafka, and I love Kafka, so that made me all squishy. I was almost convinced this story existed. Damn. Strange, though. Great writing that got me itching for more. Solid 4.5 stars.
"The God of Dark Laughter," Michael Chabon I really just love the way Chabon writes. This was less overwrought than the last story of his I read and was just a really effective tidbit of strange, unsettling mild horror with an overtone of the ridiculous. A modern strangeness? I dunno. It makes use of fictional text, reminding a bit of Lovecraft. 4 stars.
"Rose in 12 Petals," Theodora Goss Ironic, post-modern take on "Sleeping Beauty" with some alternate history for good measure. Slipstream? I don't know. I kinda loved the way it was written, with this subtle self-aware irony to offset the aching beauty of some language and imagery. This is a very difficult balance to strike, but she manages it. The only writer I didn't really know that made a strong impression. 4 stars.
So about 8 of the stories worked some magic on me, issues with definition aside. The rest, as I said, had interesting elements and some clever bits but failed to excite. Actually, I liked the way Carl Emshwiller's "Al" was written, I just felt it was *too* ambiguous to be read. Though I believe she might have been going for that irreal sensibility that cares not for congruity. This kind of ambiguity is rampant throughout the book, revealing the difficulties of pulling off this kind of thing. Beautiful language or a clever twist can only do so much. Other stories simply suffer from not leaving a strong impression, like Sterling's own "The Little Magic Shop."
The only two stories I did not care for much at all were George Saunder's "Sea Oak" and Benjamin Rosenbaum's "Biographic Notes to a Discourse...." The former fits into a variety of post-modernism I've read before, with a self-aware, satirical take on modern life that creates displacement through sheer ridiculousness. Happily, it isn't intolerably sneering in its approach, and I think Saunders was implying sympathy for the poor "white trash" family. But then it also keeps them as the butt of the joke. No clear SF elements either, confused why this is slipstream. I wanted to like Rosenbaum's rich, quasi-archaic style and surreal/irreal approach to imagery, but it went almost too far and loses itself in the dreamlike and confusing shifts in action and scenery. It attempts to be self-referential and ponder the nature of causality and narrative, but feels more like rambling than anything profound. Disappointing. These both got about 2-2.5 stars.
All in all, this collection contained a few good tidbits and might be worth reading for anyone like me, looking for new stories by writers they don't know so well. Otherwise, you may already know the writers or stories well enough to pass. Those seeking clarity in terms of defining or learning about "slipstream" will likely be as lost, though it might help clarify the difficulties of definition and ongoing discussion on that subject.
By the way, I do recommend another anthology from Kelly and Kessel, "A Secret History of Science Fiction." For some the content might be mostly familiar, but I thought it was a more consistent collection that provided some deeper pleasures and introduced me to a few writers of note. Also, the scope is intended to be broader and clearer in terms of genre. I wrote a review of it, which can be read here....more
This is the dense, messy sort of novel that's difficult to summarize in a tidy synopsis, so I'm not even going to try. Some readers are going to findThis is the dense, messy sort of novel that's difficult to summarize in a tidy synopsis, so I'm not even going to try. Some readers are going to find that messiness and density offputting, while others (like me) will appreciate the richness of Bacigalupi's world-building and lack of tidy solutions for the problems he's set up.
One of my GR friends made a a comment on his rating for this book that the world-building here solidly compares to Miéville's world-building in the Bas-Lag books, which I find pretty apt overall. True, Bacigalupi is dealing with a possible version of our own world 300 years from now, not a secondary world, but emphasis on total immersion in a complex world and lack of the typical info-dumps are quite similar. The tone is also gritty, often dark, and free of definite heroes or villains, all things Miéville's work is also noted for. Of course, it's my view this approach to setting and its relationship to the story has its most notable antecedent in the work of Dickens, who was at his best when he immersed the reader in his vision of Victorian society, rather than telling you what it was like. While Miéville's style and approach to novel structure seems to consciously hearken to this tradition, "The Wind-Up Girl" feels more contemporary, with its present tense prose and rotating POVs. Bacigalupi's prose is more workman-like as well. He makes good use of foreign language and future neologisms, allows himself a few moments of beauty, but mostly focuses his attention on elegantly communicating the POV of his character and immersing us in their world. A comparison that has come up more often is Gibson, which I can see very much in the use of multiple POVs and again, the grittiness of the story.
Obviously, an immersive approach to world-building is useless if the world itself is not intriguing and (most important for science fiction) does not cause us to ponder some big ideas. The world here is quite interesting, hitting on a number of issues that have been at the forefront of ecology and the agriculture for the last decade or two. Bacigalupi imagines a world after a dramatic environmental collapse, probably after peak oil and many of the resources we now take for granted are depleted, after climate change and genetic engineering have wreaked their havoc, after nations at the brink of survival are forced to adapt. The Kingdom of Thailand, as depicted in the book, as managed to survive and even thrive, by investing in a seedbank and careful managing its resources and food supply, both autonomously and through careful alliances. All this makes it a target of envy and ripe for exploitation by outside forces (namely the Empire of America).
Three of the five characters the novel focuses on--Anderson Lake, Emiko, and Hock Seng--are each foreigners for whom Thailand have a difference resonance and meaning. Sneakily, the novel seems to present Lake as the ostensible protagonist, but it's clear that he's only there to exploit the rich seedbanks full of genetic material for AgriGen. Hock Seng and Emiko, refugees just trying to survive, turn out to be the more sympathetic characters, certainly more complex and dynamic. The other two characters, Jaidee and Kanya, are enforcers with the Thai Environment Ministry, who become disillusioned with the change in direction of the ministry policy and political in-fighting. The differences in each of these characters' view of the world adds to the overall nuance and complexity of the story. There is no one conflict to serve as the primary focus of the narrative, just as there is no definitive position from which to view the issues Bacigalupi raises, and in each case the slant is always influenced by the society and personal leanings of the character in question. So Lake is prone to seeing AgriGen's goals as right, even if we question it, particularly from Jaidee's point of view. Likewise, we see Emiko as a figure of suspicion, of otherness for the other characters, while she struggles to figure out how to break free of her programming.
This, I think, is the underlying theme and subtext of the concepts Bacigalupi is grappling with. While the story is undoubtedly about the future of the environment with genetic engineering and resources in mind, there are other issues being raised. Science fiction is not only about what the future will look like, "what would happen if?", it's also about what's happening now, how one lives and what it means to be human. The reason why the book is titled "The Windup Girl" is not, as one might be inclined to think, because Emiko is some object to be won, but because she signifies a problem we already deal with, albeit in a more exaggerated form. Throughout the novel, she tries overcome her "programming" and struggles to make her own choices in order to become an autonomous individual. Is she ever free of that conditioning? Are we? The other characters similarly are faced with the choice of whether they can overcome their "programming," and Kanya continually grapples with her kamma (or karma) as she ponders whether she has made the right choice in deceiving Jaidee (she is literally haunted by it). Relating back to the environmental issues, it would seem that Bacigalupi is showing how choices we make now might potentially impact future generations, while questioning the nature of choice itself.
Because this novel open itself up to these layers without me having to fight to get there, I came away quite impressed and for the most part enjoyed the book. Despite the messiness of the plotting, the lack of a strong arc, Bacigalupi wraps the threads up nicely, while leaving many ambiguous ends to ponder. As far as science fiction novels go, this one is quite solid, hitting all the sweet spots I long for, and leaving an impact that won't soon be forgotten....more