Introduction (Rob Latham)
In July 1989, in his “Catscan” column in the fanzine SF Eye, Bruce Sterling published an essay entitled “Slipstream.” This brief piece combined a polemic against the moribund state of the sf genre with an analysis of an emerging literary mode that engaged the contemporary world with the ideational boldness sf had allegedly abandoned. This mode Sterling dubbed “slipstream,” rather nebulously defined as “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” (78). The essay was capped by a “Slipstream List” that gathered a wide array of talents, from Kathy Acker to Lawrence Durrell, Russell Hoban to Stephen Wright, with a handful of sf authors (J.G. Ballard, Thomas M. Disch, Jack Womack) tossed in for good measure. For all its sketchiness, the essay did at the time seem to capture a prevailing sentiment—visible in the critical work on cyberpunk being done by the likes of Larry McCaffrey and Brian McHale—that the cutting edge of the sf genre and the “mainstream” of postmodern literature were converging in a significant and powerful way. The term slipstream entered the lexicon as a fuzzy shorthand means for referring to this complex convergence (even though, for Sterling, slipstream, though deeply speculative in its way, lacked the extrapolative rigor of the best sf).
Now, more than twenty years later, it seems a good time to assess the fallout of Sterling’s term and its critical value as a tool for analyzing the current literary scene. A consensus seems to be building that we have reached some sort of post-genre plateau—that the traditional lines demarcating science fiction and the contemporary novel have been so blurred and transgressed in recent fiction as to render the categories meaningless. Sterling’s ideas would appear to have been borne out by the careers of such crossover talents as Jonathan Lethem and Michael Chabon, well-regarded by both the literary establishment and the sf community (Chabon’s novels have won a Pulitzer Prize and a Hugo Award). James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel’s 2006 collection Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology showed the range and diversity of this new mode of writing, which at times seems like sf, at times like magic realism, at times like postmodern metafiction, but mostly a compound form all its own. Meanwhile, claims have been advanced for crossbreedings between the literary mainstream and other popular genres, but also for interminglings among the genres themselves, with terms such as New Wave Fabulism, the New Weird, and Interstitial Fiction generating their own sets of debates and semi-canonical anthologies (surveyed in one of the review-essays in this issue). The bibliography that follows this introduction gathers material relevant to an understanding not only of slipstream but also of these affiliated and competing categories.
This special issue of SFS is not designed to resolve the various debates but rather to descry their current state of play, to bring the discussion of slipstream (and its offshoots) to bear on a range of recent postmodernist novels in order to assess the relationship between such fictions and the sf genre. We begin with a second essay on slipstream by Sterling, reprinted from the Fall/Winter 1999 issue of the fanzine Nova Express (his SF Eye essay is widely available online), which updates some of his original ideas by a decade and sets the stage for this issue’s further discussions. A symposium on the topic gathering major authors and critics follows, showing the ongoing contentiousness of the term as well as its critical vitality; this symposium is supplemented by a Notes item featuring lists of recent slipstream texts recommended by members of our editorial board. The seven articles break down into three broad categories: Pawel Frelik provides a careful anatomy of slipstream debates in terms of the boundary discourses that have always been a part of sf history; Justin St. Clair and Brooks Landon offer readings of two recent novels that engage with pre-pulp sf, raising the question of whether there is such a thing as proto-slipstream; and the remaining essays by T.S. Miller, N. Katherine Hayles, Sarah Dillon, and Andrew Wenaus analyze four other contemporary works whose perspectives align with slipstream as defined by Sterling. Above all, these articles provide SFS with an opportunity to address a rich array of fictions—by Thomas Pynchon, Michael Cunningham, Junot Díaz, Steven Hall, Michel Faber, and Jeff Noon—and thus expand the critical discourse about sf’s relationship to postmodern literature.
In his 1989 essay, Sterling imagined a time when “would-be slipstream critics” would “involve themselves in heady feuding about the ‘real nature’ of their as-yet-nonexistent genre” (80). Despite the irony in this challenge, we hope this issue does that and more, and that you find its engagement with the critical ramifications of slipstream enlightening and compelling.
Secondary Bibliography on Slipstream, Transrealist Fiction, New Wave Fabulism, Interstitial Fiction, New Weird, Avant Pop, and Other Crossover Forms
Online lists of primary texts
Master List of Slipstream Books, compiled by Bruce Sterling and Lawrence Person, originally published in the fanzine Nova Express in 1999: <http://home.roadrunner. com/~lperson1/slip.html>.
A Working Canon of Slipstream Writings, assembled by a panel at the 2007 Readercon featuring F. Brett Cox, Paul Di Filippo, Ron Drummond, Theodora Goss, John Kessel, Victoria McManus, Graham Sleight, and Catherynne M. Valente: <http://community. livejournal.com/theinferior4/91464.html>.
Brigg, Peter. The Span of Mainstream and Science Fiction: A Critical Study of a New Literary Genre. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2002.
Broderick, Damien. Transrealist Fiction: Writing in the Slipstream of Science. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2000.
Tatsumi, Takayuki. Full Metal Apache: Transactions Between Cyberpunk Japan and Avant-Pop America. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2006.
Essays and Critical Articles (all online materials were accessed by 15 Dec. 2010)
Amerika, Mark. “The Avant-Pop Manifesto: Thread Baring Itself in Ten Quick Posts.” Alt-X.com. Online.
Beamer, Amelia, and Gary K. Wolfe. “21st Century Stories.” Foundation 103 (Summer 2008): 16-37. Available online.
Bradley, Darin. “Self-Weird World: Problems of Being as the Fantastic Invasion in Small-Press Speculative Fiction.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 18.1 (2007): 5-22.
Cisco, Michael. “New Weird: I Think We’re the Scene.” The Modern Word: Jungle Mind. 4 May 2004. Online.
Clute, John. “Slipstream SF.” The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. New York: St. Martin’s, 1993. 1116-17.
Davies, Alice. “New Weird 101.” SFRA Review 291 (Winter 2010): 6-9.
Davis, Doug. “Slipstream 101.” SFRA Review 290 (Fall 2009): 3-6.
Niro, Alan. “The Dream of the Unified Field.” Fantastic Metropolis. 15 Feb. 2003. Online.
De Zwaan, Victoria. “Rethinking the Slipstream: Kathy Acker Reads Neuromancer.” SFS 24.3 (Nov. 1997): 459-70.
------. “Slipstream.” The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction. Ed. Mark Bould, Andrew M. Butler, Adam Roberts, and Sherryl Vint. New York: Routledge, 2009. 500-504.
Di Filippo, Paul. “Queen of the Slipstream [Kathy Acker].” Science Fiction Eye 2.2 (Aug. 1990): 17-19
Fenkl, Heinz Inku. “Towards a Theory of the Interstitial [Version 1.0]: The Interstitial DMZ.” The Interstitial Arts Foundation 2003. Online.
Frost, Gregory. “Coloring Between the Lines.” The Interstitial Arts Foundation 2004. Online.
------. “What’s in the Wind.” The New York Review of Science Fiction 15.12 (Aug. 2003): 6-7. Available online.
Hartman, Jed. “Where Did the Genre Come From?” Strange Horizons. 3 Dec. 2001. Online.
Hayles, N. Katherine, and Nicholas Gessler. “The Slipstream of Mixed Reality: Unstable Ontologies and Semiotic Markers in The Thirteenth Floor, DarkCity, and Mulholland Drive.” PMLA: Publications of the Modern Language Association of America 119.3 (May 2004): 482-99.
Jenkins, Henry. “On the Pleasures of Not Belonging.” Interfictions 2: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing. Ed. Delia Sherman and Christopher Barzak. Boston, MA: Interstitial Arts Foundation, 2009. v-xviii. Available online.
Kelly, James Patrick. “Slipstream.” Speculations on Speculation: Theories of Science Fiction. Ed. James Gunn and Matthew Candelaria. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow, 2005. 343-51. Originally published as two installments (“Slipstream” and “Genre”) of Kelly’s “On the Net” column in Asimov’s Science Fiction in Dec. 2003 and Feb. 2004; available online.
Kessel, John, and James Patrick Kelly. “Slipstream, the Genre that Isn’t.” New York Review of Science Fiction 18.9 (May 2006): 1, 4-5.
Lake, Jay, and Ruth Nestvold. “Is Slipstream Just a Fancy Word for Voice?” Internet Review of Science Fiction 2.3 (Apr. 2005). Online.
Lethem, Jonathan. “The Ecstasy of Influence: A Plagiarism.” Harper’s (Feb. 2007): 59-71. Available online.
------. “The Squandered Promise of Science Fiction: Close Encounters.” Village Voice Literary Supplement (June 1998): 45-46. Available online.
Luckhurst, Roger. “Border Policing: Postmodernism and Science Fiction.” SFS 18.3 (Nov. 1991): 358-66. Available online.
Mannone, John C. “Slipstream: The Convergence of Speculative Fiction and Literary Fiction Streams.” Flash Fiction Chronicles. 28 July 2010. Online.
McCaffery, Larry. “The Avant-Pop Phenomenon” ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes, and Reviews 5.4 (1992): 215-20.
McHale, Brian. “POSTcyberMODERNpunkISM.” Storming the Reality Studio: A Casebook of Cyberpunk and Postmodern Fiction. Ed. Larry McCaffery. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1991. 308-23.
“Movements in Science Fiction: A Symposium.” Nebula Awards Showcase 2005. Ed. Jack Dann. New York: Roc, 2005. 42-64.
Olsen, Lance. “Omniphage: Rock ‘n’ Roll and Avant-Pop Science Fiction.” Edging into the Future: Science Fiction and Contemporary Cultural Transformation. Ed. Veronica Hollinger and Joan Gordon. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2002. 31-56.
Pieczynski, Therese. “Slipstream 2: Eclectic Boogaloo.” Nova Express 5.2 (Fall/Winter 1999): 14-15.
Pilinovsky, Helen. “Borderlands: The Who, What, When, and Why of the Interstitial Arts.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 15.3 (Fall 2004): 240-42.
Rich, Mark. “Thinking about Slipstream: The Example of Ray Bradbury.” New York Review of Science Fiction 20.8 (Apr. 2008): 22-23.
Rossi, Umberto. “From Dick to Lethem: The Dickian Legacy, Postmodernism, and Avant-Pop in Jonathan Lethem’s Amnesia Moon.” SFS 29.1 (Mar. 2002): 15-33.
Sherman, Delia. “An Introduction to Interstitial Arts: Life on the Border.” The Interstitial Arts Foundation 2003. Online.
Sterling, Bruce. “Slipstream.” SF Eye 5 (July 1989): 77-80. Available online.
-------.“Slipstream 2.” Nova Express 5.2 (Fall/Winter 1999): 12-14. Reprinted in this issue.
Sweeter, Eve. “Categories, Genres, and Labels, Oh My: Thoughts on Art and Categorization from a Cognitive Linguist.” The Interstitial Arts Foundation 2003. Online.
Thompson, Stephen. “Irrealism and the Bizarro Movement.” The Specusphere. 19 Aug. 2008. Online.
Vallorani, Nicoletta. “Slipstream London: The City of Apocalypse in Martin Amis and Will Self.” Textus: English Studies in Italy 14.1 (2001): 163-78.
Vandermeer, Jeff. “The New Weird: It’s Alive?” The New Weird. Ed. Ann and Jeff Vandermeer. San Francisco, CA: Tachyon, 2008. ix-xviii.
Webb, Don. “My Stream Slips More Than Yours.” Nova Express 5.2 (Fall/Winter 1999): 18.
Winter, Jessica. “Make It Weird.” Boston Globe 8 Oct. 2006. Available online.
Wolfe, Gary K. “Evaporating Genre: Strategies of Dissolution in the Postmodern Fantastic.” Edging into the Future: Science Fiction and Contemporary Cultural Transformation. Ed. Veronica Hollinger and Joan Gordon. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2002. 11-29.
Interviews with Authors and Editors
Cheney, Matthew. “Casual Readers Welcome: An Interview with James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel.” Rain Taxi (Winter 2009/10). Online.
Clute, John. “Fantastika.” Locus Online Perspectives. 27 Sept. 2009. Online.
Datlow, Ellen, et al. “Surfing the Slipsteam: A Mini-Interview with Steve Erickson.” Nova Express 5.2 (Fall/Winter 1999): 16-17.
Lincoln, K. Bird. “A View from Outside: A Genre Conversation with Yoshio Kobayashi and Christopher Barzak.” Strange Horizons. 1 Aug. 2005. Online.
Marshall, Polly. “Avant Pulp: Jeff Noon Interviewed.” Interzone 142 (April 1999): 19-23.
“Michael Chabon: Streams in a River.” Locus 61.2 (Aug. 2008): 6-7, 60-61.
Pilinovsky, Helen. “Interstitial Arts: An Interview with Delia Sherman.” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts 15.3 (Fall 2004): 248-50.
“The Space In-between: Delia Sherman and Theodora Goss Interviewed.” Yatterings. 12 June 2007. Online.
Selected Book Reviews
Frelik, Pawel. Review of Feeling Very Strange, edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel. SFS 34.2 (July 2007): 346-49. Available online.
Harrison, Niall. Review of Feeling Very Strange, edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel. Strange Horizons. 27 May 2009. Online.
Kessel, John. “Books.” The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (January 2007): 42-49. Review of Paraspheres: Extending Beyond the Spheres of Literary and Genre Fiction, edited by Rusty Morrison and Ken Keegan; In Persuasion Nation, by George Saunders; The Nimrod Flipout, by Etgar Keret; Skinny Dipping in the Lake of the Dead: Stories, by Alan De Niro; and Slipstreams, edited by Martin H. Greenberg and John Helfers. Available online.
Kincaid, Paul. Review of The New Weird by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer. SF Site. 2008. Online.
Miller, T.S. “A Look Back at a Tributary of the Slipstream: Review of McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories, edited by Michael Chabon.” Internet Review of Science Fiction 7.1 (January 2010). Online.
Rosenfield, Eric. “The Future of the Fantastic: New Wave Slipstream Fabulism.” Wet Asphalt. 1 Mar. 2007. Online. Review of Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison; Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology, ed. James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel; Conjunctions 39: The New Wave Fabulists, ed. Peter Straub; and Paraspheres: Extending Beyond the Spheres of Literary and Genre Fiction, edited by Rusty Morrison and Ken Keegan.
Soyka, David. Review of Paraspheres: Extending Beyond the Spheres of Literary and Genre Fiction, edited by Rusty Morrison and Ken Keegan. SF Site. 2006. Online.
Tomaselli, Susan. Review of The Bizarro Starter Kit. 3:AM Magazine. 16 Dec. 2006. Online.
Slipstream was a literary term that needed to be coined, but the phenomenon doesn’t actually exist. Back in the 1980s, I noticed that there were a lot of books being written and published that had fantastic elements, or nonrealistic elements, or (and maybe this is the best term) antirealistic elements. They had none of the recognition symbols of genre science fiction or genre fantasy.
They didn’t play to the sf fan base. They were not at all associated with the Great John Campbellian Tradition. They had no puns in them. They weren’t aimed for a Hugo sweep or a Nebula. They were written by people who were outside of the genre and perhaps only vaguely aware of its traditions. But clearly the standard, literary, “realistic narrative” had soured on these people.
So, the first step in studying this was to go out and do a little fieldwork. I asked friends of mine to help me compile a list of works that might fit under this circumstance. I vacuumed up everything on the literary landscape that was most loosely attached. Then I wrote a critical article about it, in which I presented the evidence. I said, “Look how much there is,” and “What are we to make of this?”
So, “slipstream” was a catchall term that I made up, along with my friend Richard Dorsett, who is a bibliophile and rare book collector, and who now lives in Boston where he is quite the literateur. So, I published the article in Science Fiction Eye, and the term did in fact see considerable use. But, in my opinion, slipstream has never come to real fruition, and perhaps it will never come to fruition.
I don’t think that slipstream is a “genre” yet, and it certainly has never become a publishing category, a marketing category.
If slipstream had done what I imagined it doing when I wrote that article, there would in fact be wire racks at the Borders and Barnes & Noble that said slipstream on them. You’d be able to go in there and buy these fantastic, antirealistic novels of a postmodern sensibility, and they would have their own awards, and their own little fanzines, and conventions where groups of writers would get together and say, “Well, I’m more antirealistic than you.” There would be a certain amount of solidarity within the genre; they would have a generic sensibility. But they clearly don’t. Trying to get slipstream writers together is like herding cats. I don’t think they have a temperament with which they can unite.
John Kessel is a very dear friend of mine, someone with whom I’ve had very fertile discussions. We’re both professional science fiction writers, with, yes, strong sidelines in academia and journalism, but nevertheless we’re primarily sf writers. He and I disagree violently on the most fundamental tenets of our genre, but we have a common ground in which we can at least agree on definitions and actually get somewhere with our disputes.
Slipstream has never managed to achieve that. The closest it has ever come to that….Well, there’s a mail-order bookseller named Mark Ziesing, out of Shingletown, California. He has a very well-known catalog and he is also a small-press publisher. This guy is the closest thing to a slipstream retailer that the planet has. He features slipstream-type books in his catalog and has a rather well-developed core audience of people who are willing to move from one such book to another.
That is the great strength of a marketing category. If you’re at the science fiction rack and you look at the “S’s,” you’ll see “Stephenson” and “Sturgeon,” and you might pick up one of my books by accident, thinking that I’m Theodore or Neal. This is of considerable commercial use to me. If you’re trying to buy a slipstream book, though, there is no way to move from Pynchon to John Calvin Batchelor to Gabriel García Márquez to Kathy Acker to Robert Coover. They’re just not in a spot where it would be suggested to you that they have a commonality or any relevance to one another. This damages them. At one point (or so I understand), Forbidden Planet Books in London went out and built a Slipstream rack. People just came in, looked at it: “what in the hell is this?” I think they soon gave up on the experiment.
But the reason I think it’s still interesting, and is still compelling public attention years later, is that I think our society has room for a new genre. A genre arises out of some deeper social need; a genre is not some independent floating construct. Genres gratify people, they gratify a particular mindset. They gratify a cultural sensibility, and there is a cultural sensibility that is present today that would like to have a literature of its own and just can’t quite get it together to create one. This would be a nonrealistic genre of a postmodern sensibility. But since it doesn’t exist, I think slipstream is probably best defined by talking about things that it isn’t.
So, first of all, slipstream is not science fiction that is written to high literary standards. John Kessel writes science fiction to high literary standards. He is not a slipstream writer. He is a science fiction writer who can punctuate properly. I really think this is a vital and important distinction. The mere fact that you understand grammar, that you can express yourself fluently, that you have some awareness of the literary canon, does not make you a slipstream writer. Because slipstream does not have the intellectual tool-kit of science fiction. It is not extrapolative. You’re not going to find slipstream interested in positing something and methodically exploring its consequences and its social and technological implications.
Slipstream is not futuristic. It’s not really interested in 2050, 2090, the Twenty-Seventh Century. It is not enamored of sense-of-wonder. It does not make you wonder; it is not intended to make you slack-jawed with astonishment. It’s not spectacular, grotesque, or widescreen. In other words, slipstream doesn’t have a science-fictional thematic. It doesn’t intend to blow your mind by confronting you with super-objects. It is not going to march a dragon across the stage; a giant kraken is not going to rise up out of the river and level London. (Unless, perhaps, it’s some ironic, knowing reference to a giant kraken leveling London.)
Slipstream is not written with an engineer’s temperament. It’s not interested in a gizmo and how it becomes more gizmo-like. It’s hard to describe what an engineer’s temperament is, unless you’ve spent a lot of time with engineers; but an engineer has a hands-on relationship with the technological environment. This is reflected very strongly in the classic hard-sf story, the Analog story. Engineers are really interested in the transcendent poetics of a device per se. A device, for an engineer, is a romantic and inspiring thing; it demands a kind of immediate, tactile engagement, where you are powerfully driven to get into this thing, and to change its parameters, and experiment with it. Engineers have a unique and very intense personal fascination with gizmos qua gizmos. You’re not going to see that in slipstream. So there will be no gadget stories, no puzzle-solving stories, no twist endings, no technological instrumentalism. We’re never going to ask: “What is this thing good for? How can I make some money from it? How is this device going to empower me?” You just don’t see that approach in a slipstream story.
There are other forms of fantastic literature that slipstream also is not. For instance, slipstream is not magic realism. García Márquez was included in my original slipstream list, but I really don’t think he’s a core slipstream writer. The South American writers probably came the closest to creating an “antirealistic genre which is not science fiction”; but in point of fact, magic realism stalled. Because there is no arc of development there. You can’t become “more magic” or “less magic,” or discuss how exactly magic to become. Magic realism is a very intuitive, left-handed thing; and, as with surrealism, in some ways the imagination of magic realism is impoverished. You can’t build on the tradition.
Nor is slipstream New Age writing. New Age stuff is very fantastic, but that’s because it’s written by people who are mentally dominated by superstition. New Age writing is all about people who really do think that middle-aged housewives in Ohio can channel Atlantean warlords. That’s very fantastic, and nonrealistic, and antirealistic; it’s people who are asserting that reality is not all we know; but unfortunately these people are sort of, well, chumps. They’re dumb losers begging to be robbed, begging to be taken advantage of. And people do take advantage of them, and it’s bathetic, and therefore sort of sub-literary. Slipstream is not New Age mystical writing. What slipstream is—or ought to be … I don’t know.
It’s post-ideological, first of all. We’re now in a post-ideological epoch. The twentieth century really is over, and the kind of totalizing, world-solving, single, central, dominant narrative really has been called into question to the point of disintegration. The United States at the moment is having an ontological civil war in the Clinton impeachment. Which centers around blowjobs, oddly enough; but you know that’s it; that’s the rallying cry. Are you willing to condone an act of sexual deviance, or is this something that is so far beyond human comprehension that it should cause the Republic to collapse? That’s what’s going on, and a genuine contemporary literature would be written from a perspective where this would make sense. We don’t really have that being done; but I can imagine it done.
So, it would have to be a literature with no central dogmas, that was polyvalent and de-centered. It would not be about alienation; it would be very much at home in the mess that we have. It would be a native literature of our cultural circumstances. I think it would probably be mostly about subjectivity fragmentation, because that is the postmodernist mindset. The modernist mindset is alienation. You’re looking at Henry Ford’s machine system, and you can’t deal with it, and you want to retreat to some interior creative space. But in a postmodern stance you are so infiltrated by the various shattering aspects of the postmodern condition that your own core identity fragments. You become a kind of multi-tasking personality: you’re handling this contingency and that contingency, but there’s no real way to reach a single, consistent, overarching, philosophical stance.
So, who the hell talks in opaque ways like this? Well, Cultural Studies people talk like this. So I think that what we’re talking about in slipstream is something that has some of the underlying dynamics of science fiction as a genre, but instead of being based, however remotely, in science, it’s probably based in cultural studies. In other words, it’s “Cultural Studies Fiction.” For instance, instead of paying respectful attention to Einstein and Newton, we’re going to really take Lacan and Baudrillard seriously.
If I had to pick two examples of classic slipstream writers—not necessarily the best writers per se, but core examples of the genre sensibility—they would be Mark Leyner and Kathy Acker. Mark Leyner has such an intense hold on his material that he is something of a sui generis writer. Leyner is a former ad copywriter turned novelist, so his books read rather like Max Headroom “blipverts.” There’s ad slogan, ad slogan, ad slogan; there’s a lot of jumping back and forth; there’s no real character buildup; and there’s eighty thousand words of the stuff. Leyner books read like a drum and bass disco track. Like electronic pop music, it’s very much yard goods; you can lay down tracks for three minutes, five minutes, eight minutes; the DJ will just continue to introduce new riffs, and new kinds of squeaks, honks, and breakbeats. It’s all bits and pieces, but it’s cemented by its attitude.
That’s also what Acker’s work was like. She would take bits and pieces of stuff, just grab it, rip it off; she chewed up Neuromancer in one of her better-known works. She’d appropriate things, jam them together; the force that holds the work together is not the plot, not the structure, not the underlying philosophy, but just a sense that these people are in tune with the realities of culture in an advanced way that other people are not. It’s a sensibility. I think Mark Leyner is a very gifted and perceptive guy. I’m a big fan of his.
But in order for slipstream to really work, I suspect that mainstream writing would have to lose all its hegemony. We call things “mainstream” in science fiction; people who write mainstream don’t call it “mainstream,” they merely assume that they are the unquestioned center of the literary universe. But the greatest enemy of slipstream is not science fiction, which slipstream mostly ignores. Science fiction isn’t in any position to do slipstream any harm. Sf can’t challenge slipstream for the cultural territory that slipstream would most like to have. Slipstream’s real enemy is mainstream lit, because that’s the dominant narrative that they would most like to become, and that’s what they’re unable to become, almost by definition. Science fiction is increasingly stale and self-involved, and unwilling to move into the cultural territory that slipstream should be occupying. I don’t believe that science fiction is likely to become more slipstream. It does seem to me that there is a need for slipstream, and a possibility to invent a genre along this line, but I don’t think the opportunity has ever been successfully taken up.
One thing that is problematic for slipstream: being based in quote, Theory, unquote, it has a very hard time taking creative effort seriously. You can see this in certain pop-culture critics, like (say) Steve Beard or Mark Dery, who are pop music people, and culture studies people. Although you can see them straining to become fiction writers, and you can sense a potential literature behind the push there, they’re just not ever going to become literateurs. They really want to be two steps back from what’s going on. They want to be analytical; they want to understand the structure of society on some higher, abstract level. They’re not really interested in embodying culture, or enlivening it, in the way that a major work of literature can. A major work of literature can embody its period and bring it to life, conjure it into being and give it a creative vitality that critique does not have. Even the best critique can’t do that; it can cut a corpse to pieces, but it can’t put the holy fire into the cadaver on the slab.
So, if I were looking for an emergent slipstream literature, I might look in pop-culture critique. It would probably be European rather than American; many writers of slipstream are from outside the US; they have less techno-enthusiasm than the US does. It would be very intimate and subjective; it would have to be about internal sensibilities. It would not be twentieth century, which is, I think, slipstream’s greatest challenge. It would not be of the fin-de-siècle. It would not be mainstream writing with a polite whiff of rocket fuel. This is really fatal: the muddled attempt to domesticate science fiction by robbing it of its krakens. This practice is debilitating to all concerned, and is a sad hopeless act.
Slipstream would be about new meanings and new feelings and new structures of experience. It would not be better than the writing that had gone on before; it would just be different, because our culture is different. So: if slipstream were to really work and succeed, I would think that it would have to be the literary reflection of a new way to be alive. We don’t yet have that. But I suspect that it will come.
Acknowledgment. This essay was first published, in a slightly different form, in the Fall/Winter 1999 issue of Nova Express.
Symposium on Slipstream
The problem with slipstream or, rather, slipstream criticism, is that it always risks negating itself. It’s too much like a scab that demands to be picked at when it really should be left alone to heal. For a start, too many critics seem to assume a generic purity to sf (or whatever) that is simply unsustainable. At countless convention panels recently I’ve heard how steampunk, for example, “mixes genres” or “doesn’t fit into a single genre.” Nor does anything else, because each aspect of a text can fit into a particular genre. Is the focus on narrative, or mise- en-scène, or audience response, or theme, or form of communication, or iconography? In other words, is the given genre about the form, the content, or the impact it has on an audience? Even a conservative text such as Star Wars (1977) lurches from Western to noir to romance to Second World War movie in search of a context in which its moral imperatives will seem convincing. The notion of an interstitial genre is even worse, if only because some critics list genres—albeit not very helpfully—as narrative, documentary, animation, and avant garde. What else would there be? There is no text that is not part of a genre, and there is no text that is only part of one genre. The useful question is: which is the dominant genre, and how does the text interact with what we might think of as emergent or residual genres?
And yet there is something that, à la Damon Knight, we can point to and call slipstream, although we tend to be waving our hands around rather a lot. It’s that whatsit, thingie sort of thing.… It’s defined as indefinable, we confidently state, defining it in the process. We define the slipstream or the interstitial (or whatever the non-genre du jour is) as being outside the market as we compile anthologies of representative stories and in general market what has been declared to be rejecting the market. The definition disappears in a puff of logic. Bruce Sterling defined slipstream as fiction of “Postmodern Sensibility”—which rather postpones a definition until we have all agreed what is postmodern (or was postmodern) and, if we take pomo to be the cultural logic of late capitalism, covers pretty well every work of fiction from the last fifty years. If pushed, I might look at my own fuzzy set of slipstream volumes and suggest it is fantasy or science fiction without the rigor, or without the courage of its own convictions. But that’s far too negative a characterization and I don’t really believe that. I’m left with a sense of texts with an openness to the non-realistic, but that assumes I understand what realism is—and my sense of that decays the more I think of it. I’m not even sure I have a reading protocol that is different for slipstream than it is for any other genre, except some sense of openness and undecidability … which all sounds rather like the Todorovian fantastic anyway.
Scratch, scratch. Pick, pick.—Andrew M. Butler
It is a tenet of the ruling post-Saussurean constructivist and anti-foundationalist paradigms of contemporary academic life that it is not the object that defines the viewpoint, but the viewpoint that defines the object. Further, the signifier points, not to an object, but to a concept subject to mutability as its contexts change. At the same time, once the sign/term has come into focus—named, defined, and set into cultural contexts of shared meanings—it can come to seem inevitable and to refer with precision to something objective in nature. Of course, in academic life, there is no category or concept that cannot be (and has not been) interrogated for its legitimacy in relation to the real on the one hand and for its usefulness to the academy on the other; but if any given term is to have lasting power, it needs to coalesce into a meaning that cannot apparently be conveyed by an alternative term, and that becomes, therefore, discursively indispensable.
At age 21, its ostensible “age of maturity,” the slipstream has stood the test of time for the sf critical community, but not because it refers to or engages a stable set of objects/texts. Rather, in my view, slipstream discourse continues to be active because it reflects, or at least signals, in complex ways the current state of sf discourse, with its ongoing (political) anxiety of legitimacy in relation to the mainstream, and a related (aesthetic) desire to open up the field of sf to allow the recognition and exploration of family resemblances across different genres, starting with Sterling’s claim in 1989 that his list of “slipstream” works might constitute a new avant-garde hybrid genre of mainstream fiction and sf.
In the slipstream discourse since Sterling, there has been something of a confusion of genre and style, and it is this more than anything that makes the term simultaneously highly problematic and generative. Many advocates of the term think of this new “genre” as what Brian McHale calls “postmodernized SF,” while others (see, for example, the current Wikipedia entry on slipstream sf) focus on stylistic and formal features exhibited in different texts, some in and some outside of acknowledged sf, and sometimes implying that slipstream could be a sub-category of sf (or any other genre).
The problem as I see it is that literary-critical discourse has in it a number of well-established, widely recognized, and far more “indispensable” terms for the estranging stylistic and formal elements now defined inside sf as slipstream. Metafiction, magical realism, counter-realism, experimental fiction: these terms come to mind as interchangeable with the term slipstream as it currently makes its appearance in its different guises. The proof is, as they say, in the pudding, however: that we are participating in a round table on slipstream in 2010 in itself “proves” that there is something “there,” even if the relations between sign, concept, and object continue to be defined as precisely uncertain and endlessly mutable.—Victoria de Zwaan
I want my malt whiskey smoky, my capicola aged, my eggs scrambled with chilies, and my slipstream slippery. Very slippery. The viscosity amped up way out the wazoo. So slippery that when I ask it to stay put it still squiggles away, escapes my taxonomic hook, and falls back into the oblique and elliptical literary stream from whence it came, to spawn whatever it will rather than end up fixed and wriggling on a pin. Things are much more fun this way.
Most of Sterling’s original discussion also revels in a permeable genre without final, formal definition, or with borders so porous as to render any definition incomplete, by definition. That’s not a failure to define, but a victory over pedantry. There have actually been few attempts to codify a rigid, rigorous definition. Thank god. As Victoria de Zwaan remarks in The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction, “the most notable element of the continuing story of the slipstream is the apparent indeterminacy of the term.”
Last year in an essay for Fifty Key Figures in Science Fiction, I said this: “Initially coined by Bruce Sterling to denote when mainstream writers appropriate SF tropes, images, and themes, I invoke the term in its loosest sense as designating any non-sf literature that contains many sfnal elements—in short, a liminal genre in-between mainstream and sf.” Most of us use the term this way, as a general marker for any text (or textual economy) that is generically hybrid or genetically heterogeneous.
The second most common use of the term also comes from Sterling, and was recently emphasized in John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly’s decision to use the phrase for the title of their anthology: “feeling very strange.” Defining a genre by its affect has been done before—horror is the obvious case—although I’m reluctant to think of slipstream this way, since doing so would necessarily exclude some of the more analytic examples, with Richard Powers’s Galatea 2.2 as paradigmatic.
Other parts of Sterling’s conception aren’t of much use, especially the polemic against the moribund Genre SF of the moment. At one point, he mocks a recent author for whom “genre is a dead issue,” seeming to think that without deliberate taxonomy writers have failed their tribe.
A mercurial and mutable subgenre is vastly preferable to something static and stable, something ready to be catalogued and exhibited on Power Point slides—however powerful, that’s the point where taxonomy becomes taxidermy. I don’t think we should be cranky with books such as The Road or Never Let Me Go, and to spend time fretting about pedigree or genealogy is to waste time. I love such challenges to standing convention and category. That sort of slippage innovates by creating cognitive dissidents, and we can always use more of them.—Neil Easterbrook
The question of what exactly it is that I write has come up many times throughout my career, sometimes overtly, sometimes so cleverly disguised I only realize later what was really at issue. When I was trying to sell my first novel, a number of editors said they wouldn’t know where to put it in the bookstore. The one who finally bought it, the mighty Marian Wood, told me by the time I’d written six, it wouldn’t matter anymore. My sixth novel would simply be a Karen Joy Fowler novel. I’m writing my sixth novel now. I have my doubts.
Since I often publish in science fiction markets, I’m often asked if I think I write science fiction. My answer is that I’m writing for a particular kind of reader and this kind of reader probably loves science fiction. That aside, I have no loyalties to any narrative mode. I don’t mean to be flippant; I understand these are not trivial matters. But I’ve always felt that labeling my work is someone else’s job. In all honesty, the whole thing bores me a bit. Story by story, I use whatever I think the piece needs, and I don’t care what genre I’ve plundered to get it.
Like everyone else, I live an aquarium life; I live in a world within a world. The smaller, inner world is the world of my personal life. It contains all the people I actually know, the landscapes I walk, ride, or fly through. Although I may not understand everything and everyone in it, given more time, more information, more acumen, I believe it would all make sense. Chance and chaos play their parts, but this world feels fundamentally comprehensible.
The bigger, outer world is the one I read about or see on tv, the world I experience only through glass. This world contains genocides and wars, heart transplants, cloned sheep, history and religion, ghost, angel, UFO, and Elvis sightings. This is the world in which a sea of trash the size of Texas floats in the Pacific and Christ returns in the burn marks on a tortilla. This is where Arnold Schwarzenegger can be elected Governor of California, where someone can actually describe Sarah Palin as a breath of fresh air. When I was a child, I imagined both worlds, the small and the larger, were run by competent adults.
Then I grew up. I turned out more political than spiritual. I don’t believe in gods or ghosts (even though I’ve seen one). I don’t believe in magic or miracles. I scarcely believe in competent adults. What I do believe is that the world will always exceed my ability to understand it.
When I write, I try to invoke not only the small world of my story, but also the larger, indifferent, crazy world in which that story happens. I think as much about negative space—what I won’t say, what I won’t explain—as what I’ll include. I am trying to invoke the inexplicable. I am trying to be true to the real world as I experience it. Ironically, the realist mode is rarely sufficient to the task.—Karen Joy Fowler
Despite the fact that I co-edited Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology with James Patrick Kelly, and have taken part in many discussions about slipstream, I have never been entirely comfortable with the term. More accurately, I was unsure whether a new term was needed when, in 1989, Bruce Sterling’s essay was published in SF Eye. It seemed to me that there were already a half-dozen labels for the kind of fiction he was trying to describe. I was not convinced that slipstream was a new form, so terribly different from previous fictions that were called surrealism, or expressionism, or absurdist fiction, or metafiction, or fabulism, or deconstructive fiction, or magic realism.
The list of slipstream works that Bruce included with his defining article is a hodgepodge whose common thread is difficult to find. The “Slipstream Canon” (<http://www.wired.com/beyond_the_beyond/2007/07/the-core-canon/>) created in 2007 by a poll of a number of different critics, writers, and observers (in which I participated) is no easier to pull under any single conceptual umbrella. In what sense can Gravity’s Rainbow, Sarah Canary, “The Metamorphosis,” and Ficciones (all of which are in the “core canon” of slipstream as defined by that 2007 list) be said to share a genre?
That said, in the last thirty years there has been in the Americas and Europe a move toward fiction that undermines our sense of reality, that violates various expectations both literary (form) and ontological (content). But if slipstream exists (and I guess, if you allow that this is only the most recent name for it, it does), it’s a slippery quasi-genre.
It’s the slipping that interests me now more than the stream, the mechanisms and effects rather than the genre.
In the introduction to our anthology, we quoted John Clute’s description of fabulation and applied it to slipstream: such fiction abandons the assumption, common to both realism and science fiction, that the world can be “seen whole, and described accurately in words.” I came up with a list of techniques writers have used to create this ontological anxiety: allegory; borrowing forms from non-literary sources; literalizing metaphor; injecting genre elements into decidedly non-genre milieus; playing metafictional games; inventing faux-autobiography and mixing it with real events; using pastiche, parody, and collage; or externalizing psychological or ontological distress.
How do we create this feeling? Why do we do it? What pleasures does it give? Because, when it comes down to it, I’m interested because it gives me pleasure, a pleasure unlike what I get from, say, The Great Gatsby or The Big Sleep, Lolita or The Left Hand of Darkness.—John Kessel
Because so many people whose opinion I respect have latched onto the definition, and because so much writing I feel proprietary about (including my own) has been proposed for the category, I’ve done my damnedest to invest some belief in the need for the slipstream label. But for me it just hasn’t taken—worse, if I dwell on it, I find I’m against it. Like “magic realism,” though less onerous, the term seems to contain in it embedded assumptions I’ve always found queasy or wobbly at best, completely misguided at worst, and corrupted by a certain kind of bogus literary-identity-politics—and have written my various fictions despite. (“Take some of this ‘realism’—and we all agree on what realism is, don’t we?—and sprinkle some of this lovely, funny ‘magic’ on it—et voila!” “Take the mainstream—and all agree that this exists and that it is solid, durable, a category with not only verifiable contents inside it, but an ‘establishment’ shoring it up, right, right?—and now, write some of this stuff that makes it slippery around the edges—yummy!”) Of course, I’ve bristled at inherited taxonomies as well: “Science Fiction” (I always wanted at least to rename it “fictions of cognitive estrangement,” but fat chance I suppose of that catching on with librarians or the SyFy Channel), “Mystery,” et al; but at the very least these were doing the sturdy if homely work of referring to large and tangible extant subcultures, publishing strategies, traditions of paracritical discourse, et al. If you banished those words, where would the Science Fiction People go to hang out, and what would we call ourselves when we got there? But brand new nomenclatures, apparently expressing the yearning for brand new self-referential politics of exclusion, defiance, caste-shame, and resentment: why on earth not avoid those? In a world where the chimerical “mainstream” has, after all, more-or-less comfortably made room for Kobo Abe, Joseph McElroy, Tom Robbins, Aimee Bender, Barthelme, Calvino, Saramago, Coover, Angela Carter, Auster, Pynchon, Nathanael West, Shelley Jackson, Percival Everett, Will Self, etc., etc., etc. (I don’t claim that these writers all share purposes, or are equally interesting to me, but they do collectively delineate freedom-of-trope), who needs to build a clubhouse? It might turn out to be a den or a library, or it might turn out to be an attic or dungeon, but really, why not just come out-of-doors? I don’t even feel the need for an umbrella.—Jonathan Lethem
Rereading Sterling’s essay 21 years after the fact, I’m surprised by how dated it sounds, how theoretically myopic, even naïve, both in its anxious impulse to peg and pigeonhole and in its complicity in perpetuating the McDonaldization of the American publishing industry. Is there really anyone these days who doesn’t acknowledge that one of the defining characteristics of twentieth- and twenty-first-century writing is its post-genre awareness? Who still cares about which corporate author Manhattan just brought out, who has written yet another novel that wants to be a movie when it grows up, or upon which shelf said novel appears at the local Barnes & Noble? Once upon a time—and long before Sterling’s essay—we already knew these things.
In “Critifiction: Imagination as Plagiarism” (1978), Raymond Federman argues for a conception of text as perpetual intertext traversed by multiple discourses not its own, a zone of “pla(y)giarism” where “I do not know ... where my own language [begins] and where it converge[s] with that of others”—an idea itself pla(y)giarized from the poststructuralists, most notably Barthes, who in his notorious “The Death of the Author” (1967) conceives of the text as “a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash.” Such pla(y)giarist ecologies have been innovative art’s principle formal tactics for at least the last century, evinced in everything from junk aesthetics (Duchamp’s found art; Kenneth Goldsmith’s uncreative writing) to collage/montage/quotation practices (Braque, Eliot, Burroughs, Michael Graves) and sound sampling/mashup (rock’n’roll, hiphop, industrial and electronic music). Appropriation and manipulation of sf (and myriad other genre) tropes by avant-garde writing is a given, especially for those authors beginning their work in the late 1960s forward—viz., the first generations raised primarily on pop-cultural genres, TV, B-films, and digital modes of entertainment. Many of them also studied philosophy and/or theory as undergraduates and/or graduates, and their exposure to emerging theoretical discourses, from Deconstruction to Cultural Studies, Post-Coloniality to Gender Theories, has revealed itself in their undertakings as a sophisticated recognition of themselves as consuming subjects in the late-capitalist pluriverse described by Fredric Jameson, citizens of Guy Debord’s society of the spectacle, the result being a deep and deeply conflicted relationship with pop-cultural apparatuses. Their projects mark, not the advent of an anti-realism, but an array of neo-realisms for a hypermediatized, late-stage capitalist “reality” that is no longer perceived as real; neo-realisms that seek to problematize/critique conventional notions of representation and the subject position.
What I am suggesting, then, is that Sterling has misread the crossbreeding of sf tropes with postmodern strategies as a unique gesture, when in fact it is simply one manifestation among others of a much larger tendency in experimental writing to generate what Jonathan Culler dubs “non-genre literature”—writing, Philippe Sollers claims, for which “no method of reading has yet been worked out”; writing that envisages itself as possibility space that allows one to imagine the text of the text and the text of the world other than they are, and thereby to contemplate fundamental change in both ... and this in an age when serious (para)literature—the sort that doesn’t structure and thematize itself primarily as entertainment and distraction—continues to locate itself in profound theoretical and practical crisis.—Lance Olsen
The beginning of the twenty-first century saw the rise of the provocative vision of planetarity as defined by one of the leading postcolonial critics, Gayatri Spivak. Planetarity will undoubtedly invite us to question the artificial discursive framework of ethnicity, giving birth to new ways of rereading slipstream literature. For example, a major Native American slipstreamer, Gerald Vizenor, once mocked the Western racist discourse of “Indian” by calling himself “post-indian,” and I once coined the term “Japanoid” in order to speculate on the rise of a fake Japanese or neo-Japonistic or simply Japanophilic culture globally cherished by younger Japanese and non-Japanese alike. In these ways, the discourse of ethnicity has been revealed to be an effect of modern Western culture from the beginning. The political stance that remains to us is no more than “strategic essentialism,” as Spivak pointed out.
As a born-Catholic Japanese boy, I feel deep sympathy with my favorite Asian-American feminist slipstreamer Karen Tei Yamashita’s radical critique of the concept of “pure Japanese” in her fourth novel Circle K Cycles (2001): “What could it mean to be a ‘pure Japanese’? I felt hurt and resentment. I came from a country where many people, including my own, had long struggled with the pain of racism and exclusion. Purity of race was not something I valued or believed to be important, and yet, in Japan, I was trying so hard to pass, to belong.” Yamashita’s third novel Tropic of Orange (1997) attempts to displace the tropic of cancer and the Monroe Doctrine’s very order of hemispheres, another project that impresses me as brilliantly planetary. However, what is most striking is that Yamashita’s first two novels, Through the Arc of the Rain Forest (1990) and Brazil-Maru (1992), share so many elements with major Japanese science fiction writer Komatsu Sakyo’s early novels, especially The Japanese Apache (1964) and Japan Sinks (1973). Through the Arc of the Rain Forest describes a new Gold Rush in Matacao, the Brazilian holy land located near the equator, which produces a rigid magnetic polymer capable of mimicking any object. The novel’s hero is Kazumasa Ishimaru, whose bosom friend is a tiny prophetic satellite whizzing inches from the boy’s forehead. This idiosyncratic setting cannot help but remind us of Komatsu’s The Japanese Apache, which transforms the real postwar scrap thieves haunting the Osaka Army factory in Sugiyama-cho between Osaka Castle and the Nekoma River (at one time the largest munition plant in Asia) into a new species of radically cyborgian and weirdly metallivorous posthuman beings.
As I examined in my own book Full Metal Apache (2006), we should note that this picaresque community originally consisted not simply of Koreans but also of Japanese and Okinawans, ranging from bank robbers and bicycle thieves to get-rich-quick schemers. Although it is Japanese journalists who made the analogy between the action of Hollywood “Apache Indian” movies in the 1940s and 1950s and the activities of the postwar Japanese scrap thieves, the self-proclaimed Japanese Apache community consists of multiethnic and multicultural tribes. However, this abuse of the term “Apache” automatically invites us to notice that the ethnic category of American Indians should have been put into question much earlier. The rise of the Japanese Apache in the Eastern hemisphere rather convinces us of the fake structure of ethnicity itself, questioning the generic tradition and foregrounding the literary and cultural frontier of slipstream as well as the slipstream of transpacific consciousness.—Takayuki Tatsumi
Sterling coined the term slipstream at the same moment Larry McCaffery argued that contemporary postmodern literature was converging with sf in compelling ways. Thus the term is deeply connected to the late-twentieth century’s shifting literary cultures, their rejection of high/low distinctions, even as marketing departments continued to brand their wares as belonging to distinct genres. From one point of view, slipstream is just one of a number of terms that suggest how frequently creative literary production exceeds the narrow terms by which we seek to grasp and categorize texts. As with any attempt to impose purity upon the multiplicity of the world, genre categories inevitably produce hybrids. Slipstream has been likened to postmodernism, sf, magical realism, and interstitial fantasy. Is it merely the site of the Venn diagram that marks their overlap? Or is it something other and distinct?
In their anthology Feeling Very Strange, James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel argue that what distinguishes slipstream from its literary neighbors is that it “embraces cognitive dissonance rather than trying to reduce it.” Their title comes from Sterling’s contention that the twentieth century makes one feel very strange and that slipstream is the literary expression of this experience. Yet in the twenty-odd years since Sterling coined the term, the times have ceased to feel as strange; indeed, for many the cognitive dissonance, questioning of consensus reality, shifts in point of view or setting, and denial of narrative resolution that have been deemed characteristic of slipstream remain signs of how we feel, but this feeling is now familiar rather than strange. For a generation of readers and writers who grew up in a context of postmodernism, an eroded high/low boundary and a growing body of work celebrating experimental and avant-garde cultures, slipstream simply coincides with the category of twenty-first century literature.
In this context, does the term slipstream still have any critical value? Sterling’s original list was composed largely of postmodern writers and a few recognizably sf ones, and it seemed to be an intervention intended to find a marketing label for this kind of writing that lacked the implied elitism of “postmodern” and the potential taint of “science fiction.” Many of the writers using the term today seem to warmly embrace their genre roots but also strive, as did the New Wave before them, to pull the genre in exciting new directions. Others, it seems, want to use the techniques of sf while insisting that their literature is something else, something that must be taken more seriously. Thus, “slipstream” as a critical category may mark a useful neutral ground between the armed camps of “genre sf” and “mainstream literature,” but it equally may perpetuate such retrograde attempts to impose generic purity on a vibrant and motley world of literary production.—Sherryl Vint
In the decades since Bruce Sterling first abducted the term for genre purposes, “slipstream” has had a rather confused and confusing history. Apparently a back-formation from “mainstream” (an equally imprecise term), slipstream originally seemed to refer to mainstream works that take advantage of sf tropes, presumably gaining heft by riding in the backwash of the genre’s energetic flight path. Later it sometimes referred to any sf- or fantasy-like work published or marketed outside the genre, or written by non-genre writers. If that’s the emerging consensus, it’s a fairly shaky one, since it tells us very little about the actual characteristics of this sort of writing, and certainly provides no basis for defining a genre or subgenre. Adding to the confusion, we find that Sterling and Lawrence Person’s “master list” of slipstream titles, compiled a few years after that original Catscan essay, includes such familiar names as Aldiss, Ballard, Moorcock, and Gene Wolfe, along with the Morrisons and Pynchons, while John Kessel and James Patrick Kelly’s slipstream anthology Feeling Very Strange includes Kelly Link, Jeffrey Ford, Ted Chiang, and Sterling himself—all writers quite comfortable with genre materials.
So if anyone can write slipstream no matter their relationship to genre, is it then simply a mode of presentation? If that’s the case, slipstream is nothing new at all; we can find fantastic short stories by everyone from Truman Capote and John Cheever to Ray Bradbury and Jack Finney in slick magazines in the 1940s and 1950s. But this seems to be another dead end: surely a story by Le Guin in Playboy or by Heinlein in The Saturday Evening Post isn’t enough to qualify it as slipstream, just as a story by T. Coraghessan Boyle in Asimov’s or Omni doesn’t place it at the heart of the sf genre.
If slipstream is ever going to become a useful critical term, we’ll need some better defining characteristics than who writes it or where it appears. For the moment, that leaves us with little more than the “very strange” feeling that Sterling talks about and that provides the title for the Kessel/Kelly anthology. Describing how that feeling is achieved is another problem entirely. It’s not enough to say that these are works that combine science-fictional ideas with traditional mainstream virtues of character and style; sf writers have been doing that from Sturgeon to Robert Charles Wilson, without being called anything other than sf writers.
There’s hardly space here to begin outlining a theory of slipstream, but here’s what I suspect: in the end, upon examining many works cited as exemplars of the form, we’ll discover that slipstream is neither a genre nor a subgenre, nor even a specific set of techniques, but rather an effect, achieved by the careful modulation of postmodern, genre, and traditional literary elements, all undermining each other, all augmenting one another, but without quite resolving into the authority of any single mode. In short, it may simply be what is implied by the subtitle Richard Powers affixed to his 2009 slipstream novel Generosity: an “enhancement.”—Gary K. Wolfe
Of Slipstream and Others: SF and Genre Boundary Discourses
Abstract. -- This article offers a survey of theories of slipstream writing, a literary phenomenon that has been variously conceptualized as a school within science fiction, a literary interface between sf and mainstream or postmodern fiction, and a new fantastic genre aligned with a range of other such modes. Providing an overview of slipstream manifestoes and essays by Bruce Sterling, John Clute, James Patrick Kelly, and John Kessel, the article presents slipstream not as a fixed body of texts sharing certain aesthetic parameters but as a discourse intimately connected with the issues of sf’s inherent generic instability and its mainstream legitimation. I also locate slipstream in relation to other boundary discourses within the broadly understood literatures of the fantastic such as the New Weird, Fantastika, and New Wave Fabulism, cross-border categories with which slipstream frequently shares literary territory.
Justin St. Clair
Borrowed Time: Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day and the Victorian Fourth Dimension
Abstract. --Thomas Pynchon’s 2006 novel Against the Day, which runs from the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 through the First World War, contains a preponderance of references to late-Victorian and Edwardian hyper-spatial hypotheses. From 1880 to 1910, the concept of the “fourth dimension” appeared in numerous cultural realms—including literature and the arts, science and mathematics, and religion and metaphysics. This essay considers how Pynchon reclaims and recycles these bygone dimensional discourses, arguing that his “cavalier attitude toward material” (to borrow Bruce Sterling’s phraseology) marks the novel as slipstream.
The essay’s first section offers a broad overview of the Victorian era’s three most prominent popularizers of the fourth dimension: Charles Howard Hinton, Edwin Abbott Abbott, and Herbert George Wells, who—in Scientific Romances (1886), Flatland (1884), and The Time Machine (1895), respectively—rendered the “fourth dimension” a household concept. The section that follows examines how Pynchon pulls elements from each of these Victorian texts to construct a dimensionally hierarchical world consisting of two-dimensional groundlings (the majority of the novel’s characters), three-dimensional boy aeronauts (the Chums of Chance), and four-dimensional time travelers (the Trespassers). The balance of the article considers additional fourth-dimensional discourses incorporated into the text, and suggests that narrative dimensionality might be a particular hallmark of slipstream fiction.
Slipstream Then, Slipstream Now: The Curious Connections between William Douglas O’Connor’s “The Brazen Android” and Michael Cunningham’s Specimen Days
Abstract. -- Slipstream is a transitional literature that arises either from a shift from one historical narrative paradigm to another or from a move beyond a given set of narrative protocols when they come to seem inadequate to the writer’s purpose. Slipstream may invoke narrative protocols associated with sf, thus making the literature “strangely familiar” to those who know the genre; but it does so without pursuing sf’s codified agendas. William Douglas O’Connor’s “The Brazen Android” (1891) offers an example of a slipstream work avant la lettre that transitions from the gothic/supernatural mode associated with the fictions of Hawthorne and Poe toward a new emphasis on scientific explanation and method soon to be associated with sf. Michael Cunningham’s Specimen Days (2005) offers an example of a contemporary slipstream text, literally giving fresh voice to Walt Whitman’s views through three distinct historical periods, for which sf narrative protocols and topoi provided a formal vehicle not otherwise available in mainstream writing. Both O’Connor and Cunningham use a patently science-fictional metaphor—the talking head—to advance agendas not limited to those of sf, in the process giving their fictions the “strangely familiar” feel of science fiction.
Preternatural Narration and the Lens of Genre Fiction in Junot Díaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Abstract. -- This essay examines the relationship between Junot Díaz’s 2008 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and the genres of science fiction and fantasy, which number among this decidedly mainstream novel’s most important subjects. In the end, Oscar Wao’s greatest debt to genre fiction lies not in the narrator’s presentation of ambiguously supernatural explanations for certain plot events, but in his incessant use of metaphors from sf—such as the Watcher and the Lensman—to describe and understand his own position as narrator-author of the sprawling family saga he relates. The ubiquity and complexity of other genre allusions in the novel prove them to be more than throwaway pop-culture references, testifying to the narrator’s deep engagement with the genre as a legitimate “lens” by which to understand human experience. The essay concludes with an attempt to situate this perspective on science fiction in relation to the current trends within the genre, with particular reference to other contemporary “literary” authors such as Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem. prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS.
N. Katherine Hayles
Material Entanglements: Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts as Slipstream Novel
Abstract. -- Characterizing the slipstream genre, Bruce Sterling locates it between mainstream and science fiction; it “sets its face against consensus reality” and makes us feel “very strange.” A strong slipstream candidate is Steven Hall’s The Raw Shark Texts (2007). Manifesting as a distributed literary system, the text has as its core a print novel, but other internet and real world sites also contain fragments or “negatives.” One of the text’s two villains, Mycroft Ward, has transformed into an online database; a posthuman subjectivity, he appropriates “node bodies” that upload their information and download new instructions. This separation of content (online database) from form (node body) is, according to Alan Liu, one of the primary characteristics of postindustrial knowledge work. To this extent, Hall positions his narrative not only against databases but also against knowledge that is, in Liu’s terms, autonomously mobile, transformable, and automated, having lost its material instantiation and been pulverized into atomized bits of information. The text’s second villain—a “conceptual shark,” the Ludovician—represents the complete fusion of form and content; the typographical symbols used to describe the shark also comprise its flesh in verbal and graphic representations. The text thus positions its protagonist, Eric Sanderson, as caught between twenty-first-century forms of knowledge and the implosion of signifier into signified. In this sense, the novel functions as a parable for the contemporary human condition, looking toward a posthuman future but incarnated within an ancient biological heritage.
“It’s a Question of Words, Therefore”: Becoming-Animal in Michel Faber’s Under the Skin
Abstract. -- This essay reads Michel Faber’s debut novel Under the Skin (2000) in the context of contemporary philosophical and literary-critical debates about the ethical relation between human and nonhuman animals. It argues that Faber’s text engages with, but deconstructs, the traditional division of “no language, no subjectivity” by a heretical act of renaming human beings as “vodsels,” and by an extensive process of figurative transformation. The paper then proceeds to a sustained analysis of the main character in the novel, Isserley, in the light of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s theories of becoming-animal, the anomalous, and becoming-molecular. The paper concludes that the novel engages in the limitrophy—Derrida’s neologism—required to negotiate the abyssal limit between the human and nonhuman animal.
Fractal Narrative, Paraspace, and Strange Loops: The Paradox of Escape in Jeff Noon’s Vurt
Abstract. -- This article examines how Jeff Noon grafts concepts from chaos theory to literature in order to develop a playful narrative form appropriate to representing multiple ontological levels. I argue this by looking closely at the roles of form, metaphor, and content in Noon’s stylish debut novel, Vurt (1993). The novel’s movement from order to disorder and finally towards a new order suggests that the structure of Vurt may operate mimetically according to the vision of reality proposed by chaos theorists. In this way, Noon experiments with literary form by reinterpreting the narrative spaces of virtual reality through the metaphors of fractal geometry, a spatial phenomenon that so delighted the popular imagination at the time of the novel’s publication. I explore the relationship between metaphor and content through the trope of conflict between order/chaos and meaning/hopelessness, and by applying Douglas Hofstadter’s theory of consciousness and his concept of the paradoxical “strange loop.” These tropes may cast light on the complexities of the characters’ intense desires for transcendence and how the form of the novel itself makes this ambivalent quest difficult, if not impossible. Accordingly, chaos functions not only as a reminder of the turbulence inherent in human experience but also of the exciting aesthetic possibilities this theory extends to literature.