Defining the Odd: An Exploration of Slipstream
When Bruce Sterling published his article “Slipstream” in SF Eye #5 (n.pag..), he defined a genre that from then on would be characterized by a variety of words. He said that slipstream “is a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility”. He described this new kind of writing as “a fantastic, surreal sometimes, speculative on occasion, but not rigorously so”. The whole of the article narrates how the literary science fiction genre’s chance at being “worthy literature” has passed, and explained that this is so because other writers have learned to adapt the genre’s best techniques to their own ends. Sterling’s definition thus derives the slipstream from science fiction.
Other writers besides Sterling have, of course, come up with definitions of the slipstream themselves. Others more have practiced the genre without even providing their own definitions. This essay will attempt at a critical review of key texts within the slipstream in order to formulate the defining characteristics of the genre. In so doing, this author hopes to contribute to the growing literature regarding slipstream fiction.
In studying the texts in the genre, it appears that there are three defining characteristics. One, slipstream is not science fiction. This first characteristic is negative, in that it explains what the genre isn’t. This negative characteristic is a consequence of the second one in the list –which is that slipstream is postmodern. Texts within the work acknowledge their existence as literary works. And finally, its effect must be that of cognitive dissonance. It uses its surrealism to separate the reader from the text. These characteristics will be discussed subsequently.
Although the genre arose out of sci-fi, it is crucial to take note that it is a genre that is markedly distinct from the latter. Case in point: Ted Chiang’s “Hell is the Absence of God” (Chiang 123), which contain elements of science fiction, but doesn’t have any science. On the contrary, it’s has deeply religious overtones, and asks “What if Hell and God and Angels were a visible, tangible part of our everyday world?”. As aforementioned, this quality of slipstream was first championed by Bruce Sterling. In fact, he uses it in his writing, as shown in “The Little Magic Shop” (Sterling, 14), which narrates the encounters of James Abernathy with a shop full of – well, magic. Although the plot is mired in the mystery of the magic shop and its owner, the story never delves into a scientific explanation of the magic substances in the shop. Many slipstream texts appear in print alongside works of science fiction, such as magazines and anthologies, but slipstream is not science fiction.
Such genre conventions are in fact oftentimes played with by slipstream authors and their works. James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel, in their seminal anthology of slipstream fiction, describe this postmodernity, “The stories often acknowledge their existence as fictions, and play against the genres they evoke. They have a tendency to bend or break narrative rules” (xiii). In some ways, this description is similar to that of Dan Chaon’s characterization of slipstream fiction as “to take out what was compelling and exciting about so-called genre fictionand add to it a dash of the so-called literary story’s love of language and depth of characterization, and some of the lit professor’s clever postmodern intellectualism, and out of this mix create something really fresh and new” (Chaon, n.p.). This postmodernism (as well as the blending of science fiction) is distinctly seen in Jonatham Lethem’s “Light and the Sufferer” (53). It talks about aliens, but Lethem does not make them a central part of the story, and instead uses them to comment on a character. In so doing, Lethem breaks conventions of the science fiction genre to further a story. Similarly, Kelly Link’s “The Specialist’s Hat” reinvents the classic ghost story (39). One wonders, doesn’t this confuse the reader? Will breaking genre conventions turn the reader off?
Kelly and Kessel argue that this is the main point of the slipstream genre, while again comparing it to other genres: “Where horror is the literature of fear, slipstream is the literature of cognitive dissonance and of strangeness triumphant” (xi). Cognitive dissonance is when we are faced with competing cognitions. In achieving this goal, slipstream uses many techniques to estrange the reader. For example, Carol Emshwiller’s “Al” intertwines James Hilton’s Lost Horizon with a satire of New York city culture (3). Norman Spinrad discusses such technique and labels it as “weirdness” (n.p.). Slipstream, therefore, uses this kind of weirdness and oddity in its narratives and writing styles that distances the work from the reader. Unlike genre literature, slipstream makes itself known.
The birth of a new genre is hard to define. There are seldom exact dates, exact places, or even exact events that signify that a genre is already born. Nonetheless, by characterizing the elements of slipstream, we may see that genre is named post-natally – that is, it is named after its birth. Such is what happened in slipstream. Upon examining the relevant texts and characteristic works that have already been labeled “slipstream”, we may identify recurrent themes and modes of literature that shape what is to become a genre. In sum, we may see that slipstream is a postmodern movement aimed at cognitive dissonance, that is born out of science fiction, but is not science fiction.
Chaon, Dan. “An Introduction”. The Best of Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. Ed. Kelly Link & Gavin Grant. New York: Ballantine Books, 2007. E-book.
Chiang, Ted. “Hell is the Absence of God”. Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology. Ed. James Patrick Kelly & John Kessel. San Francisco: Tachyon Publications, 2006. 123-150. Print.
Emshwiller, Carol. “Al”. Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology. Ed. James Patrick Kelly & John Kessel. San Francisco: Tachyon Publications, 2006. 3-13. Print.
Kelly, James Patrick; Kessel, John. “Slipstream, the Genre That Isn’t” Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology. Ed. James Patrick Kelly & John Kessel. San Francisco: Tachyon Publications, 2006. vii – xv. Print.
Lethem, Jonathan. “Light and the Sufferer” Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology. Ed. James Patrick Kelly & John Kessel. San Francisco: Tachyon Publications, 2006. 53-86. Print.
Link, Kelly. “The Specialist’s Hat” Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology. Ed. James Patrick Kelly & John Kessel. San Francisco: Tachyon Publications, 2006. 39-52. Print.
Spinrad, Norman. “On Books.” The New Weird. Ed. Michael Moorcock. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2004. Print.
Sterling, Bruce. “The Little Magic Shop.” Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology. Ed. James Patrick Kelly & John Kessel. San Francisco: Tachyon Publications, 2006. 15-26.. Print.