Fantasy Checklist Challenge: Slipstream & Surreal

     – posted by David W.

Oh no, they’ll tell you, they don’t read fantasy. They have no idea where the fantasy section is at the library, let alone where to find Westeros or Xanth, or how to get into Mordor – doesn’t one simply walk? Oh sure, they read the Harry Potter books, but when it comes to their own reading they consider themselves firmly in the muggle camp.

Then they tell you about their favorite books, stories brimming with glowing unicorn skulls and talking cats, magical changelings, a woman with two shadows, vampires and zombies and mermaids, people who fly or bring back the dead or turn into bugs. Coming from many traditions and traveling under many names – magical realist, surrealist, new wave fabulist – these are stories that break all the rules of naturalism and fantasy, stepping outside the everyday world to give us a look from the outside.

In 1989, cyberpunk writer Bruce Sterling coined the term “slipstream” to describe an emergent genre that had “set its face against consensus reality.” He suggested that slipstream books did not create new worlds so much as twist and scramble the world we know, and that rather than creating a sense of wonder, “. . . 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.” Here we are in the early 21st century, with things feeling even stranger, and slipstream has gone mainstream.

The voices of slipstream are diverse – here’s a small sampler; you’ll find many more on this list in our catalog.

Surrealism works especially well in short fiction, where striking images and ingenious conceits quickly destabilize the reader with effects ranging from humor to horror, and often both at once. Kelly Link’s stories are filled with curious and quirky elements that draw the reader in with an irreverent sense of playful fun, only to leave a much more disconcerting aftertaste. Etgar Keret’s tales have a similarly disarming simplicity, luring unsuspecting readers into uncanny places. Although he is also a Pulitzer-Prize-winning novelist, Steven Millhauser’s short fiction features his own distinctly North American style of magical realism, calling to mind not just Jorge Luis Borges, but Ray Bradbury as well. Many neo-fabulist tales pick up the strange and often disturbing reality of fairytales, as seen in such collections as My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me.

Many of these books revolve around a striking or curious premise dropped into an otherwise normal world, where its effects play out in revealing ways. In Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, a woman is able to taste in food the emotional lives of those who made it. Kevin Brockmeier’s The Illumination imagines a world where pain gives off light. Jose Saramago’s Death With Interruptions tells what happens when people suddenly and inexplicably stop dying, while in Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabetchildren start speaking in a strain of language that proves toxic to adults.

It is not unusual for slipstream fiction to feel like a dream – or a nightmare – where the most absurd or unusual things happen as a matter of course. In works such as Hardboiled Wonderland at the End of the World and A Wild Sheep Chase, Japanese author Haruki Murakami has shown just how wildly popular bizarre dreamscapes can be. Kathryn Davis’ Duplex is a concise masterpiece of shifting realities that continually keeps the reader guessing about just what they are reading, and where it is taking them. Christopher Priest’s The Adjacent plays a similar game of subtle misdirection with the reader, weaving together seemingly discrete narratives into a whole that never fully emerges until after the book has been put down. Jonas Karlsson’s bureacratic nightmare The Room pays homage to the great progenitor of slipstream, Franz Kafka.

Have you explored the weird world of slipstream fiction? What are some of your favorites?

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