Monday, January 26, 2009

Ashley (ed.), Subtle Edens (2008)

Allen Ashley (ed.), Subtle Edens: An Anthology of Slipstream Fiction. Elastic Press, 2008. Pp. 320. ISBN 978-0955318191. £7.99.

Reviewed by Steven Pirie

What exactly is slipstream? From the back cover of Subtle Edens: “Slipstream may use the tropes and ideas of science fiction, fantasy and horror but is not bound by their rules. Slipstream may appear to be conventional literary fiction but falls outside the staid boundaries.”.

So, this definition suggests, some stories are most definitely literary, and some are most certainly genre, and between the two there lies a kind of buffer zone, where each may dip into the other’s tropes and ideas. But not quite with impunity, because the progeny of this mixed marriage can no longer be thought purely genre nor literary, and so needs a name of its own: Slipstream.

I can understand, perhaps, a distinction being required between say the high fantasy of elves and swords and sorcerers with what might be called more mundane fantasy. But I wonder whether further degrees of genre within this broad division are truly needed. Is slipstream not just urban fantasy, or Mundane SF, or magical reality, or any of the other nomenclatures of the day to describe genre fiction based primarily in the real world? Or is there more here, and this is this some subtle attempt to allow ‘mildly’ genre stories legitimately into the more approved world of mainstream, literary fiction?

After all, there’s always been the thought that literary denizens and readers look down upon their genre counterparts. Audrey Niffenegger’s Time Traveler’s Wife, for example, was marketed to great success as literary fiction yet would qualify as slipstream by any definition offered by Subtle Edens. I wonder whether it would have had the same success were it labelled fantasy, or dare I say it, slipstream? Given that the answer is likely no, it’s not hard to see how genre writers might take any route into literary fiction they can get. Of course, all that might be somewhat cynical.

And the above may seem moot, but I think it’s worth clarifying such labels as Subtle Edens, by the editor’s foreword, is itself a study of this supposed sub genre. The twenty-one stories and one essay are offered as examples of slipstream. And again from the back cover we have the somewhat pretentious claim: “Genre is dead; long live the genre that is not a genre!”.

So, does it work? Is Subtle Edens filled with genre stories that bang upon the very doors of the literary world? To answer that fully I think we’d need to also go down the route of defining what exactly is literary/mainstream fiction, and there are as many opinions on that loitering about the Internet as for slipstream itself. The short answer, though, is... sometimes. There are no bad stories; all are entertaining in their own way. But some of the stories are more rooted in reality than others, yet it’s these others that make me wonder, why slipstream? To be fair, I feel all aspire to evocative language as embellishment rather than rely purely on shock value or genre tropes as their raison d’être, so yes, there is certainly literary value there too. And maybe that’s the point.

One thing that struck me throughout is the number of stories that have sudden, ambiguous endings, as if it’s a feature of slipstream that it’s easy to bend reality to the premise of the story but far harder to bring things full circle and end the story back in reality, with real and plausible explanations of the genre elements.

The anthology opens with Mike O’Driscoll’s 'And Zero at the Bone'. It’s a strong opening that weaves an unfolding mystery message delivered in various ways to Cloud. That Cloud’s wife and daughter are ‘away’ adds emotion and confusion until eventually all is revealed, the message is decoded and Cloud is reunited at least with his daughter. Happily, the dog makes it to paradise too. There should be more tales in which the family dog makes the cut!

'Darkroom', by Nina Allan, is a gentle but compelling tale, lovingly crafted in fine detail, yet somehow it managed to leave me cold with such an abrupt ending. The story meandered a little, but that was fine as I couldn’t help but bob along with the currents of love and loss. But in a way it meant I felt the abrupt ending more keenly given the gentleness of the preceding tale. The fantasy element is slight, and so this is probably a good example of the literary end of slipstream. This, along with “The House Beneath Delgany Street” and “Jasmine”, I feel to be amongst the best stories in the anthology.

'Alouette', by Joel Lane, is much more unashamed genre than “Darkroom”. It’s a horror offering that tells the story of ‘Happy Slapping’ video being sent at regular intervals to the protagonist’s mobile phone. Each call is accompanied by the song of the title. Each call exceeds the previous in the level of violence. Probably not a story for the squeamish, but nevertheless full of colourful imagery and with a nice ending that turns the tale somewhat back upon itself.

'Adrift', by Ian Shoebridge, is an odd tale based on no reality I’m familiar with. The protagonist, like the story, drifts on an ocean having succumbed to the mysterious and unexplained sinking of his ship. Despite clinging to a plank without food or water he survives great journeys. It’s the places he arrives at that raise the story. Shoebridge certainly has a vivid imagination, and the ports of call he creates are wonderful and entertaining. A disappointing ending, perhaps, but one in keeping with the constantly changing tack of the story. The ending has the feel that the writer merely got bored and stopped. The whimsical nature of the tale hints at a deeper allegory, of society’s outcasts and deserters, and possibly even global warming/flooding. Or maybe it’s just sheer entertainment. I can be an Emperor’s New Clothes kind of person sometimes!

'Phobophilia', by Jeff Gardiner, tells the tale of two social misfits pushed together as roommates when starting at university. Phobophilia – the psychological love of fear. From the wonderful opening line, the tale becomes a little heavy-going as lots of back-and-forth dialogue tries to be both vague and enlightening about Toby’s obsession with fear, read death, itself. It’s when the unnamed narrator separates from his roommate I felt the tale become more interesting, possibly because the back and forth is replaced by much introspection and I felt I was getting inside the narrator’s character more. The ending is both depressing and upbeat at the same time—a neat trick—with midlife crises battling the narrator’s determination to conquer the fears that led to Toby’s demise.

In 'Mind-Forged Manacles', by David A Sutton, Wellman, along with his robotic bodyguard ‘Ghost’, is an E-Col operative sent to serve a Compulsory Use Land Order on Miriam Warangula, she who has illegally cultivated ‘Gardenzone’, verdant parkland in the industrial outback. Wellman, rather easily it has to be said, falls in love with Warangula, and the story develops about how the two can disable the formidably armed Ghost. Despite the fact the story writes itself into a one-of-two endings scenario—he either saves the day and gets the girl or he doesn’t—I rather enjoyed this story. It’s nicely written and holds the interest. Why it should be slipstream and not merely science fiction, though, I’m not sure.

'Icarus in Nouvellville', by Douglas Thompson, takes the classical mythology of Icarus flying too close to the sun to explore how the Gods might view the modern world were it thrust upon them. Icarus is borne on broken wings and tradewinds and ocean currents to Nouvellville, whose occupants ride ‘...silver land ships that hurtled by on invisible winds...’ and talk to each other by ‘silver birds... pressed against their ears...’ mobile phones. I love the metaphor and poetic language, though Thompson gets carried away at times with women’s ‘sacred places’ as a euphemism for their, erm, doodahs, and the fact that Icarus’s eyes seem unduly mobile when bathers/water-nymphs run screaming up the beach as his ‘eyes followed after them’. I’d do the same, I fear. It’s an interesting tale, with even a hint of 9/11 for a finale, and is perhaps unusual in the collection in that it turns around the concept of reality. I mean, telling the story from Icarus’s point of view, it’s our reality that’s alien, rather than in the other stories that generally start with our reality as the norm and then warp it slightly into slipstream. Retrograde slipstream? No, don’t get me going again.

'The House Beneath Delgany Street', by Scott Brendel, is another piece most definitely slipstream by Subtle Edens’s definition. This is a glimpse into the harsh world of tramps and hobos, and their search for the almost mythical house on Delgany Street, with its grail-like comforts of roast dinners and gravy; surely the last refuge for down-and-outs before they depart this world. I love the sinister feel to the story, that the house is both salvation and damnation. This is also among the best stories in the collection.

'Overturned', by Neil Ayres and Aliya Whiteley, is one of the longer stories on offer. The story is told from a number of points of view, each overlapping at first as we witness events from each character before each then moves the story forward in their own way. The genre element is slight, revolving around Sammie finding the mysterious and much sought after egg from the “diamond crab”. But the meat of the tale is in the differences and hardships of the characters’ relationships, and the battle young Sammie has in finding her place amongst them. A tale certainly toward the literary end of slipstream, and certainly well worth the read.

'Man, Who Considers The Cosmos', by S J Hirons, I found a little confusing at first, not feeling I knew whose story it was nor what was going on until well into the tale. But, when things did come together, the story took on a new life, became quite dark in tone and was well worth the effort in perseverance.

'Nose Piercing', by D W Green, I think strays too far from reality to qualify as slipstream. It’s a satirical journey into the world of puppets and the strings that constrain them, and the conflicts amongst those who might shake them off. In true Pinocchio style, one soon learns it’s not the noses being pierced but the noses doing the piercing! Possibly it’s the symbolism to real society restraining ourselves that brings in the slipstream element, though the premise of the story to my mind sees it as firmly genre. An entertaining piece just the same.

'Saxophony', by Marion Pitman, is a smooth, pleasant read that I must confess I didn’t understand. Louise has strong feelings she’s known Steven for some time, though from where and when she can’t recall. When the two embark upon a somewhat stop-start relationship one feels it’s only time before all will be revealed of their past. But Steve’s sax playing somehow rescues summer, and behind him when he plays the city becomes verdant. Whether this is a literal return to Eden or a subtle metaphor that he can bring summer back into Louise’s life I wouldn’t like to call. But it’s certainly a piece of writing that lingers after it’s gone.

'My Copy of Robinson', by Daniel Bennett, is the story I pondered longest over in writing this review. I couldn’t quite make my mind up if it worked or not for me. It has an element of describing fiction within fiction, the writing of Robinson of the title and how it applies to the narrator, that perhaps slows things down. Then again that nested quality also adds complexity that might be missing in some of the other tales in the anthology. The attention to detail is superb, yet it still has that slipstream vagueness I’ve come to expect by now.

'Silent Emergent, Doubly Dark' is the rather oddly entitled piece by Richard Thieme, and follows the life of an alien in its quest to understand consciousness and self. There’s some very imaginative writing here, and a complexity that probably raises what’s essentially a story deeply set in science fiction to the fringes of slipstream. We’re left wondering what’s real and what’s not real, and that’s not a bad way it seems to end a slipstream story.

'God’s Country', by A B Goelman, tells of Sammy and Will, both ‘sensitives’ employed by the Department of Industry and Development in laying railway tracks across God’s Country. The sensitives can see the Old Gods, malignant spirits bent of mischief, so their role is one of consultation. But Will is missing, and Sammy sees his real role in finding him. In doing so Sammy’s loyalty to his friend is severely tested. A fine piece of writing, this. I found myself held throughout by the delicious prose and the interesting storyline. Futuristic, perhaps, but solidly slipstream, I think.

'Welcome to Rodeomart', by Steve Rasnic Tem, takes consumerism to entirely new levels as the battle to obtain the latest gadget involves intense cunning, extreme violence and having a decent aim with a lasso. A strange ending involving a heavenly warehouse and the appliance to end all appliances makes for a very entertaining and unusual story indeed.

'The Upstairs Room', by Kate Robinson, is a superbly written piece in which the reasons Coralie is reluctant to spend time in her bedroom is skilfully revealed; from adolescent angst, to hidden voices, to, well, adding more would mean me including spoilers to some extent. Robinson has a deft talent with words, and I love the way this tale begins almost mundanely in the ordinary but ends up decidedly slipstream as the plot progresses.

'Luxury Flats', by Josh McDonald, has the wonderfully imaginative concept that one may ‘rent out’ parts of one’s brain to well-to-do but terminally ill tenants. Of course, as in life, one can not always choose one’s neighbours, and all is soon found to be ‘not well’. Great stuff.

'Conspiracy Courts the Maiden', by Toiya Kristen Finley is a bold experiment with form that sadly doesn’t work for me. Apparently it’s part of the definition of slipstream that writers are allowed to tweak form as well as reality, but here I found the page split in two and two threads of the story told simultaneously too much of a distraction, and the merits or otherwise of the tale became second place. I didn’t feel I knew where I was to read next. Was I to read each thread through in its entirety? And if so, why not just set it out conventionally? Was I to read to each juncture and then go back to start again on the other side of the page (when the idea of turning pages backwards to read a story seems so alien)? I’m a Philistine, I know, but I like my fiction to start top left and end bottom right. Surely even slipstream stories have to be readable else what’s the point?

'Out of Time', by Gary Fry, was a blessing after the form induced headache of 'Conspiracy'. Jim is a self-confessed hypochondriac who discovers he really is ill with a dodgy heart (would that be a joyous thing for a hypochondriac or the ultimate fear?). Jim’s wife is herself terminally ill. They take a trip with a hiking club to Malham, where the town’s famous rift fault becomes symbolic of Jim and his wife’s torn world. And here be monsters. The tale emerges as an extended metaphor to Jim facing his mortality, as one by one each of his hiking companions are taken by the monsters. Derek is a teacher, so education can’t help Jim. Peter is a scientist, Kevin a technologist and Jane deeply religious, and none of them can help. In a way, there’s an underlying pessimism in the tale, that ultimately nothing we can do will cheat the inevitable, and eventually we all must face death alone. And the tale is set to a backdrop of some rather tasty horror writing. But is it slipstream or Horror?

The final piece of fiction is 'Jasmine', by Andrew Tisbert, a profoundly poignant story in which the protagonist, escaping from a failed marriage, takes a job at the Willowbrook Institution, a run-down, under-resourced home for the disabled. Here he meets Jasmine, and is captivated by her simple charms. But with her imperfections, he knows Jasmine can never be his, and only by stepping into alternative universes can he possibly find the ‘perfect’ Jasmine. Too late he realises it’s those very imperfections that make ‘our universe’ Jasmine what she is. And he learns things about his own parallel self that are best not known. A fabulous piece of writing—quite possibly the best kept until last—packed with emotion and as surely as slipstream as it gets.

'Nomads of the Slipstream' is Jeff Gardiner’s one piece of nonfiction in Subtle Edens. It’s an interesting idea to include an essay championing the cause of one’s genre (even when it’s not a genre) in the middle of the book. It allowed time to draw breath, to stand back from the stories read so far and examine the idea of this thing called Slipstream, now that we’ve enjoyed a sample of what it offers. Gardiner argues eloquently and forcibly, and cites a number of literary luminaries to the cause. I wonder, for the sake of balance, whether further essays should have been included, possibly from those fiercely loyal to genre or to literary fiction, just to hear why they might prefer their arenas undiluted by the other’s tropes. All of which is merely my musing, and not to be taken as criticism of Subtle Edens in any form.

My apologies for the length of this review. If you’ve read this far, I hereby award you the Slipstream Medal of Honour (It’s not quite real, so don’t ask The Future Fire for it. :-) ), as truly you are an aficionado of the genre that is not a genre.

Whilst I was writing this report, it was announced Subtle Edens is to be Elastic Press’s last publication. In some ways the news made me pause. It felt as if I was to write something of a eulogy here, too. It’s certainly sad in that over the years I’ve not read a poor offering from Elastic Press. I can empathise with the publisher’s desire to find more time to further his own writing career. I wish him well. Congratulations, Elastic Press, on a fine stint. They ask that readers continue to support the press until the end. I hope this is reflected in the continuing sales of Subtle Edens. Slipstream? Literary? Mainstream? It doesn’t matter when all’s done; at £7.99 for 300+ pages of quality fiction, it’s well worth the entry price.

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1 comment:

Djibril said...

This is a fine review; thanks, Steve! I have always wondered if there is a useful definition of the term "slipstream" anywhere (even though I use the word myself). Does it include both writing by genre authors that has pretentions to literary respectability (a market definition) and writing by mainstream authors that touches on genre themes without truly becoming genre writing (an inclusive definition)? How really is it different from Ellison insisting that he wrote "speculative fiction" because "scifi" was a by-word for puerile crap? It isn't a genre on bookstore catalogues, so what function does it actually serve?