#113 = Volume 38, Part 1 = March 2011
Of Slipstream and Others: SF and Genre Boundary Discourses
China Miéville’s The City and the City (2009) is ostensibly a murder mystery with several hard-boiled signatures, but its generally realistic facade is complicated by one highly consequential novum. It is set in the twin cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma, presumably located somewhere in Central or Eastern Europe, which mix Hungarian, Balkan, and Turkish influences, with the former being more European and the latter distinctly “Oriental.” Maintained in a precarious balance with a long history of conflicts and wars, Besźel and Ul Qoma occupy largely the same physical space. While some of their streets and districts may be “total”—located only in one of them—many others are “crosshatched”: they simultaneously exist in both cities, having different architectures and different cultures. Because of the delicate political status quo, citizens of each metropolis are forbidden contact with those of the other; from earliest childhood they are taught and conditioned to “unsee,” “unhear,” and “unsmell” the elements of the other city. Although this arrangement seems to be a perfect metaphor of cultural relativity and subjective perception, Besźel and Ul Qoma are materially two cities overlaid on each other within an identical territory. Or are these two territories? How this situation is possible is never fully explained, which positions The City and the City as representative of the type of imagination and narrative strategies characteristic of slipstream writing. Unsurprisingly, this categorization has been frequently used with reference to the novel. Michael Moorcock implicitly sees The City and the City as essentially science fiction, praising the rationality of the text and suggesting Miéville’s reliance on string theory and “the current theoretical physicists’ notion that more than one object can occupy the same physical space,” but most reviewers stress its borderline status. One calls the book a mixture of “dark fantasy, science fiction, pulp, horror, Steampunk, Slipstream, Orwellian dystopia and Dickensian social commentary” (Hamilton), while another sees the novel and its closing lines as “a summary of the present state of what used to be called science fiction” and name-checks slipstream (Gray).1 And Rob Latham, in his review of the novel, claims that it “self-consciously blend[s] (and thus evade[s]) categories” of genre in a way we have become accustomed to expect from slipstream precursors.
The City and the City is hardly the first novel to which the term “slipstream” has been applied, but the text is remarkable for how aptly its warped geography reflects the problematic topography of genres within which slipstream is located. The legal and political maze that citizens of both cities have to negotiate is as fluid and unstable as the genre identity discourses surrounding and permeating texts claimed by more than one interpretative community—science fiction, slipstream, but also many more. In this essay, I attempt to disentangle some of the discussions surrounding slipstream and to locate them in the broader context of sf’s interactions with other literary territories. My goal is not to discuss slipstream’s narrative strategies and techniques. Rather, I see slipstream as not so much a body of texts sharing certain narrative parameters but, rather, as a discourse that is reflective of sf’s internal politics as well as of its changing status in the larger literary landscape. Consequently, whenever I use the word “slipstream” as an adjective with reference to texts, I do not meant to imply the existence of formal or other aesthetic qualities such works may share—even if these common qualities can be found; instead, I merely indicate that a text has at some point been claimed, implicitly or openly, by the voices involved in slipstream discourse. Even if some contributors to this discourse perceive slipstream to be informed by an internal literary logic, I am not interested in verifying such claims, which I consider expressive of the genre identity debates within science fiction, reinvigorated in recent decades by the rapidly changing landscape of literary circulation and reception.
In the online “SF Citations” project of the Oxford English Dictionary, slipstream is defined as “fiction which, while not classified as science fiction, engages to some extent with scientific or futuristic subject matter, esp. such fiction regarded as constituting an identifiable genre; this genre of fiction” (“Slipstream”). Jeff Prucher’s Brave New Words (2007), a reference book largely based on the OED citation database, changes this only slightly to “slipstream n. [after MAINSTREAM] literature which makes use of the tropes or techniques of genre science fiction or fantasy, but which is not considered to be genre science fiction or fantasy; the genre of such literature” (189). Both definitions suggest a certain generic identity, the existence of a discrete body of texts that share certain characteristics. Outside dictionary definitions, there are multiple contexts in which the term has been used, but three among them have acquired literary-critical currency: as the title of an anthology published by Fiction Collective Two, as the description of works produced by non-genre authors using sf tools, and as a genre discourse arising from inside the sf community. Since two of these three highlight the concept of genre, a short detour into sf’s identity politics seems to be in order before I can discuss them in detail. A full discussion concerning what sf is or is not obviously extends well beyond the scope of this essay, so I will address only those aspects of the discourse that are immediately relevant to slipstream.
Writing in 2003 about the ultimate futility of the search for an ur-sf text, Paul Kincaid suggests that
science fiction is not one thing. Rather, it is any number of things—a future setting, a marvelous device, an ideal society, an alien creature, a twist in time, an interstellar journey, a satirical perspective, a particular approach to the matter of the story, whatever we may be looking for when we look for science fiction, here more overt, here more subtle—that are braided together in an endless variety of combinations. (416)
The difficulty with finding a sharp definition of sf is further confounded by a paradigm shift in genre theory, identified by Ralph Cohen, “in the course of which its dominant project ha[s] changed from identifying and classifying fixed, ahistorical entities to studying genres as historical processes” (qtd. Rieder 191). This focus informs John Rieder’s recent essay on the genesis of science fiction, in which he argues that:
studying the beginnings of the genre is not at all a matter of finding its points of origin but rather of observing an accretion of repetitions, echoes, imitations, allusions, identifications, and distinctions that testifies to an emerging sense of a conventional web of resemblances. (196)
Arguably, this approach can be very successfully applied not only to sf genealogy but also to the ongoing questions concerning its generic identity. For a growing number of critics and scholars, genres are never, as frequently assumed, objects that already exist in the world and are subsequently studied by genre critics but rather are fluid and tenuous constructions generated by the interaction of various claims and practices by writers, producers, distributors, marketers, readers, fans, critics, and other discursive agents (see Bould and Vint 48). For Rieder, this new understanding of what sf is points not only to certain “properties of the textual objects referred to as ‘science fiction’” but also to “the subjects positing the category, and therefore ... the motives, the contexts, and the effects of those subjects’ more or less consciously and successfully executed projects” (192). In the process of production, distribution, and consumption of sf by the multiple agents mentioned by Bould and Vint, the genre is constructed “not only by acts of definition, categorization, inclusion, and exclusion (all of which are important), but also by their uses of the protocols and the rhetorical strategies that distinguish the genre from other forms of writing and reading” (Rieder 197).
This approach certainly accounts for generic hybridity and border blurring since probably few writers, readers, and critics interact with a text using hierarchical literary categories. In fact, any text—whether genre or mainstream —will inevitably inhabit more than one and usually multiple generic territories. In his discussion, Rieder calls upon Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of a “collective assemblage of enunciation,” which comprises “lines of articulation or segmentarity, strata and territories; but also lines of flight, movements of deterritorialization and destratification” (qtd. Rieder 196). From this perspective, science fiction—or any genre—is determined less by the presence or absence of specific motifs or scenarios and more by the symbolic enunciation of writers, readers, and intermediaries engaged in the production, circulation, and consumption of texts. Such enunciations may be instantiated verbally in the form of literary manifestoes and writers’ interviews and press releases, but also, probably more often than not, in the choice of paratextual elements and the retail channels and venues in and through which the title is promoted and disseminated.2
This understanding of the genre as a shifting and fluid phenomenon can be very productively applied in the discussion of slipstream and other generic hybrids. At the same time, it runs counter to the dominant critical discourses of sf, whose history is punctuated by acts of dogmatic border policing originating from within the field (see Luckhurst, “Border Policing”). Their influence has impressed itself upon the internal and external understanding of what sf is and does. Regardless of whether we consider 1926 the year of sf’s inception or treat it as a very important but hardly foundational date in a long accretive process,3 Hugo Gernsback’s insistence on specific formulas and modes of writing constituted an attempt to disengage what he called “scientifiction” from an amorphous mass of fantastic production in the pulps. This process, albeit informed by different ideological premises, continued with John W. Campbell’s editorship of Astounding during the late 1930s and 1940s. While Gernsback envisioned sf primarily as a didactic and educational tool, Campbell’s more technocratic approach stressed its predictive accuracy and technical exactitude as well as its strong focus on contemporary concerns such as atomic power. American science fiction of the pulp era was decidedly slanted towards space opera and hard sf; authors writing other brands of sf were not necessarily excluded from the sf marketplace, which was still very fluid and open, but came to be perceived as more marginal in the imagination of sf’s readership and also that of the general public.
Later, the suggestion that certain types of texts were not “really” science fiction, or were “bad” science fiction, began to come from a different quarter: nascent sf criticism. One of the earliest and probably most notorious examples of the critical policing of sf’s borders was Damon Knight’s dismissal of A.E. Van Vogt’s fiction in a 1945 fanzine article (later expanded in his book In Search of Wonder); an early attempt to apply prevailing literary standards to the field, Knight’s polemic had the effect of critically exiling Van Vogt from the genre. The same desire for rigid boundaries, unveiled at full force, underlies what Mark Bould has called “the Suvin event” (18). While there is probably little point in reiterating the importance of Metamorphoses of Science Fiction (1979) for the development of sf’s critical discourse, Suvin’s despotic denial of the sf label to a wide range of texts exemplifies the politics of purity inherent in border policing. Most notoriously, Suvin classifies Ray Bradbury as a “science-fantasy” writer—this would not be derogatory in itself if Suvin did not also describe science fantasy as a “misshapen genre born of ... mingling” (68).4 Suvin does not mention any particular titles by Bradbury, but one can readily guess that among the indicted culprits was The Martian Chronicles (1950)—a text that sheds an interesting light on the relationship of genre sf to slipstream.
Bradbury was never considered strictly a writer of sf; his work often leaned towards fantasy or horror. Already in the early 1950s, the reviewers of The Martian Chronicles noted that the book is not “strictly speaking, science fiction at all” (Isherwood 57) or claimed that it is an example of “social fiction” (Asimov 175). On the other hand, it has long been considered part of the sf canon. The text that is, at least to my mind, very similar in tone, style, and narrative method to Bradbury’s book is Jonathan Lethem’s Girl in Landscape (1998), a novel that nowadays is customarily labeled slipstream, along with the author’s other works. Considering the uneasy reception of Bradbury’s work by purist critics of sf, The Martian Chronicles could be said to exemplify what today is referred to as slipstream. I am not suggesting that this term should be used retroactively to describe works that appeared before Bruce Sterling’s essay on slipstream was published in 1989. What the affinity of Bradbury’s and Lethem’s books demonstrates, however, is that from the moment of its naming sf has always had its slipstream—a steady line of texts that failed to contain themselves within the envisioned borders of the genre. In earlier decades, the slipstream discourse assumed the form of negative demarcations from genre sf rather than affirmative statements of a new transgeneric identity, but it still suggested the awareness that certain texts seemed somehow not quite sf. As a phenomenon, slipstream is thus not a reflection of recent literary developments but a symptom of problems inherent in the very attempt to define science fiction. Although no such name was available, critics must have been well aware of this parallel—or perhaps oblique—line of texts. Writers such as Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon, Cordwainer Smith, not to mention a number of writers associated with the New Wave, were well known and described as sf authors, even if their writing, in various ways, diverged from the paths of more traditional work within the field. Although undoubtedly motivated by the desire to systematize the study of science fiction as a genre, Suvin’s dismissal of Bradbury is thus not merely an act of critical intervention. Its urgency provides some indication of the stakes involved in establishing the border between science fiction and its (then-unnamed) slipstream. These stakes are intimately connected with sf’s ambiguous relationship with the literary mainstream.
As a term, “mainstream” is inherently imprecise, its meaning largely dependent on the intentions of the person uttering it, but in the application commonly employed by the sf community, it denotes all serious prose fiction outside the market genres; in its widest and perhaps most regrettable sense it refers to practically any fiction, serious or otherwise (from National Book Award winners to lowbrow bestsellers), published outside the institutional frameworks of sf, fantasy, mystery, romance, and the Western. The mutual relations between genre sf and mainstream fiction have been problematic since the former’s emergence as a distinct category. For a long time, science fiction was, and still is in many quarters, perceived through the lens of its pulp origins. Simultaneously, “works of fiction which use sf themes in seeming ignorance or contempt of the protocols ... frequently go unread by those immersed in genre sf; and, if they are read, tend to be treated as invasive and alien ... and incompetent” (Nicholls and Clute, “Genre SF” 483). Despite this mutual enmity, “[t]he peculiar sense of ‘literature’ as the category whose members defy categorization is an integral part of the history of the sense of ‘genre’ that is one of sf’s conditions of existence” (Rieder 199).
This complicated relationship is aptly described in Roger Luckhurst’s celebrated essay, “The Many Deaths of Science Fiction,” which argues that sf critics regularly issue “panic narratives” (36) about the genre’s putative “crisis” that conceal a secret desire for its death. This death is understood as the end of sf in the form known up until that point, occasioned by the emergence of a new movement or body of writings that transforms the genre into something else, thereby transporting it into the territory where it is not science fiction but simply fiction. What usually happens instead is the domestication and gentrification of these fresh movements within the field, which then come to establish the new norms for evaluating the genre—just as Campbell’s technocratic sf eventually supplanted Gernsback’s scientifiction, and so on. Consequently, for Luckhurst,
[t]he history of SF is a history of ambivalent deaths. The many movements within the genre—the New Wave, feminist SF, cyberpunk—are marked as both transcendent death-as-births, finally demolishing the “ghetto” walls, and as degenerescent birth-as-deaths, perverting the specificity of the genre. To be elevated above the genre is a transcendent death and the birth of Literature, but as these movements harden, coalesce, are named, they fall back to subgeneric moments of SF. (43; emphasis in original)
This cycle is a manifestation of the project of legitimizing science fiction; as Luckhurst puts it, “[t]he longing for (re)entry to the ‘mainstream’ is the enduring central element of SF criticism” (37). It is not a coincidence that the most concerted attempts to break down the walls of the sf “ghetto” begin in the 1960s, concurrently with the emergence of postmodernism with its “apparent transgressive aesthetic, its erasure of the borders between disciplines, discursive regimes, and crucially for SF the boundary between the high and the low” (37).
In order to gain the respect of the mainstream, sf critics, according to Luckhurst, use three basic methods: they implement internal borders, construct narratives of the genre’s past, and present the genre as informed by scientific (thus respectable) rigor. Luckhurst deconstructs all three strategies, but it is the first that is most relevant to the present discussion. The borders of science fiction or, more properly, of genre sf are drawn to eliminate and exclude texts and authors that do not meet certain expectations of quality, as supposedly expected within the mainstream. Two early examples of such “foundational murders” are Brian W. Aldiss’s indictment of Gernsback as “one of the worst disasters ever to hit the science fiction field” (202) and Suvin’s excision of both Gernsback and pulp sf generally.5 The more contemporary works routinely disavowed by sf’s gatekeepers include a significant proportion of mass media sf. This strategy of border policing is antithetical to the idea of the genre as a dynamic phenomenon, and even among those who dabble in exclusions, the borders are drawn differently by different genre cartographers. Interestingly, some strands of the slipstream discourse have employed a reversed version of this same strategy: in the act of drawing borders, these critics do not banish material but instead drag into the broad field of science fiction certain texts whose inclusion can potentially increase sf’s “respectability.”
It is important to note that Luckhurst specifically discusses the mainstream yearnings of sf critics, many of whom are also associated with academia. While their desire to reconnect sf with the rest of literature may be seen either as emblematic of an inferiority complex or as a genuine ambition to convince the rest of the world of the value of the genre, such projects are not necessarily shared by other groups in the larger world of sf. In “The Squandered Promise of Science Fiction,” originally published in the Village Voice Literary Supplement in 1998, Jonathan Lethem mourns the fact that the 1973 Nebula Award was not awarded to Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Pynchon’s novel was nominated but lost to Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama—a text that Carter Scholz reportedly described as “less a novel than a schematic diagram in prose” (qtd. Lethem 45) and about which Peter Nicholls writes: “[t]o what extent the book deserved it, and to what extent the awards merely celebrated the return of a much loved figure ... is unclear” (“Clarke” 231). For Lethem, who is clearly motivated by the desire described by Luckhurst, “Pynchon’s nomination now stands as a hidden tombstone marking the death of the hope that science fiction was about to merge with the mainstream” (46). He also adds that the 1977 award should have gone to Don DeLillo’s Ratner’s Star (1976), which was not even short-listed. Admittedly, in 2008 Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union (2007), a novel commonly described as slipstream, received both Hugo and Nebula awards, but the 35 years in between were strewn with more squandered opportunities. For example, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas (2004) lost to Lois McMaster Bujold’s Paladin of Souls (2003) in 2005; in 2007, the list of Nebula nominations did not even include Pynchon’s Against the Day (2006), while Jeffrey Ford’s offbeat historical mystery The Girl in the Glass (2005) lost to Jack McDevitt’s competent but quite conventional Seeker (2005).6 The shortlists and winners of other major sf awards include even fewer non-genre sf titles, the only significant exception being the James Tiptree Jr. Memorial Award, which has consistently favored borderline texts. In 2008, the anthology Interfictions: An Anthology of Interstitial Writing, edited by Delia Sherman and Theodora Goss, was short-listed for the Tiptree, while recent winners include Shelley Jackson’s Half Life (2006), Ryman’s Air (2004), and Matt Ruff’s Set This House In Order: A Romance Of Souls (2003). In 1997, a Special Award was given to the late Angela Carter. While there is no point in arguing about the individual or collective tastes of the various awards committees, these results do serve to highlight the distance between the academic agenda anatomized by Luckhurst and the aesthetic priorities of other sf communities.
The internal border policing analyzed by Luckhurst implies another inclination that his article does not directly address: a tendency to think about sf history in terms of periods and schools. Admittedly, in constructing a history of any body of texts, whether mainstream or genre, this approach has enjoyed the greatest popularity because it offers the most systematic and coherent vision of a multiplicity of voices and processes within any given field. Science fiction, like the Western and detective story, lends itself to such treatment because its reliance on formulaicplots and its transformations over time make it possible to suggest relatively neat watersheds and borders. Although literatures of the fantastic, and sf in particular, cannot be so easily partitioned and classified when it comes to narrative components, many accounts of their genealogies nevertheless do fall into similar analytical grooves. Whether this stems from general modes of thinking regarding the history of any literature or evinces a more conscious desire to impose historical models imported from the histories of national literatures may be hard to determine; both rationales have probably been at work in many constructions of the history of science fiction. For better or worse, this methodological approach creates the impression that the history of sf can be neatly recapitulated via a diachronic succession of groupings (early pulp sf, the Golden Age, the New Wave, feminist sf, cyberpunk) as well as the evolution of specific sub-genres, conventions, or motifs (space opera, apocalyptic sf, first-contact narrative, etc.). In reality, such categories are not constructed consistently: cyberpunk denotes both a certain period and a thematic, the New Wave is probably most easily recognized in temporal terms, while “pulp sf,” although tied to a certain period, draws its name from a material form in which narratives were instantiated (and has lent itself by connotation to a mode of writing that continues to be published even after the literal pulps have disappeared). More often than not, such classifications also neglect certain media (e.g., comics) or bunch them together with fiction into decade studies (e.g., sf of the 1970s) without paying attention to the singular specifics of their materiality, reception, or production. This has been changing over the last decade with the publication of historical studies using other methodologies; the organization of material in three recently published companions to science fiction (released by Cambridge, Blackwell, and Routledge) clearly demonstrates the diversity of thinking about the genre and its history.
I want to stress that I do not perceive the above situation as negative, nor do I want to argue against the rationales of various groupings. The approaches mentioned above have many benefits and probably several shortcomings, but they have also produced at least one serious consequence for slipstream texts: the tendency to look at science fiction through the diachronic and synchronic lenses necessarily disadvantages those texts that escape traditional taxonomies. Consequently, texts that deviate from the vast majority of genre sf of a given period are at risk of being underappreciated or simply omitted from official accounts. It is precisely such texts, old and new, that slipstream discourse builds on. This does not constitute a problem if their authors, such as Ray Bradbury or Philip K. Dick, have gained recognition for one reason or another—their texts may not fit any genre identity narrative but may still continue to circulate within sf communities. In the case of lesser-known authors and works, the result may be, if not oblivion, then a serious deficit of critical attention.7 This often creates an impression that borderline texts are a relatively recent phenomenon associated with changing conceptualizations of genre. In reality, however, ambiguously-situated texts, currently constructed as slipstream, have always appeared alongside sf texts. The two can be perceived as existing in a reciprocal relationship—slipstream texts allow critics of genre sf to model their definitions of genre, but in the process their importance, or even presence, becomes downplayed through their exclusion. This process is naturally subject to change over time as definitions are revised and the borders of genre sf are moved outward to include some of the previously rejected elements or motifs, thus also shifting the sense of what may constitute slipstream.
This brings me to a preliminary statement about slipstream. Regardless of specific conceptualizations discussed in the next section of this essay, slipstream is always defined against a reference point of the constructor of genre definitions. Slipstream, as the very designation implies, has no fixed or even provisionally demarcated boundaries. Whether named or not, slipstream is what falls through the cracks of exclusionary definitions of sf—regardless of whether they are constructed on the opposition of sf and mainstream or on the difference between genre sf and non-genre sf. If texts can be considered “objects of practice” and if the sf canon comprises such “boundary objects” that satisfy the requirements of a number of communities of practice, then a slipstream text is a boundary object that relatively few, perhaps only one or two, such communities consider their own object of practice—that is to say, science fiction.8 A relevant list of such communities is by no means short, comprising some obvious groupings (fandom, authors, editors), some less obvious (publishers, booksellers), and some that are not even homogeneous but that would be impractical to subdivide further (academic critics). Thus, a slipstream text can be: a text written by a genre author but informed by some non-sf or even non-fantastic sensibility; or a text whose characters, plot, and thematics are very much science-fictional but which was written by a non-genre or non-sf author; or a hybrid text drawing on a number of genres and conventions, only one of which is science fiction. In any case, within such a large territory as science fiction, encompassing so many communities of practice, slipstream is essential for the very existence of a narrowly defined genre. Consequently, these groups’ respective definitions, of genre sf and of slipstream, are subject to change and variation across time and space.
While the discourse of borderline sf has implicitly shadowed that of genre science fiction for a long time, it only emerged explicitly in the last several decades. Interestingly, its dynamic can be compared to the dynamic of science fiction itself. In the same way in which, for many critics, Gernsback’s act of naming firmly established a discourse about a body of fictions that had existed, in various forms, prior to the advent of Amazing Stories, the three specific conceptualizations of slipstream in the 1980s and 1990s explicitly articulated tensions and differences previously existing among various strands of science fiction. They also testify to the diverse agendas of various sf communities.
The first of these conceptualizations is the most contained in its use and the easiest to recount. To celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of Fiction Collective Two in 1999, Ronald Sukenick and Curtis White edited In the Slipstream: An FC2 Reader, an anthology of fictions, divided into four sections, documenting the activities of Fiction Collective, Fiction Collective Two, Black Ice Books, and the Nilon Award for Excellence in Minority Fiction. In the introduction, Sukenick and Curtis claim that their goal was always to “find worthy fiction outside of the impoverished commercial tastes of mainstream publishing and give it an opportunity” (23); presumably they found such texts “in the slipstream.” Where that slipstream is located or what texts belong there is never clearly defined in the volume, but by inference one can guess that the editors associate it with a kind of literature left behind by the ever-accelerating vehicle of commercial publishing. An overview of the FC2 catalog and the anthology’s table of contents makes clear that the term covers primarily broadly-understood postmodern and experimental fictions written by a younger generation of authors, some of whom were for a time associated with the label of “Avant-Pop” while others published their work at the intersections of the academic and avant-garde/pomo circuit. It is difficult to determine whether Sukenick and Curtis were aware of the word’s coinage in sf circles a decade earlier, but it seems reasonable to assume so, given the presence of sf authors such as Samuel R. Delany and John Shirley in the FC2 volume.
John Clute’s understanding of the term as “stories which make use of sf devices but which are not genre sf” (“Slipstream SF” 1116) exemplifies the second major conceptualization. In his entry on slipstream in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, Clute also cites the basic dictionary definition of the word, suggesting that slipstream “may be strong enough to give non-paying passengers a ride” (1117). Only one such stowaway is mentioned: Paul Theroux, presumably by virtue of the long post-apocalyptic dystopia O-Zone (1986), but the example clearly points in the direction of a number of similar works by various generations of postmodern and experimental writers.
There is a curious slippage in Clute’s definition that does not so much suggest a lack of rigor as prefigure a range of issues connected with boundary discourses in general. On the one hand, “when used to designate the whole range of non-genre sf” (1117), slipstream is deemed a derogatory synonym of fabulation, implying a relationship of dependency with the mainstream. On the other, this designation, originally coined by Robert Scholes but somewhat modified by Clute, becomes in the Encyclopedia an umbrella term for a number of literary categories—postmodern fiction, “absurdist sf, Fictionality, magic realism, slipstream sf and surfiction” (Clute, “Fabulation” 399). Needless to say, Clute is well aware that such a generalization is oversimplifying and justifies his choice by delineating the alternative—becoming mired in thousands of prescriptive definitions. Nevertheless, the definitional glitch persists: slipstream sf is identical with fabulation, but fabulation is slipstream sf and various other literatures of the fantastic whose science-fictionality is minimal or non-existent. This inconsistency is telling, I think, and makes it possible to think not so much about “slipstream sf” as about forms of slipstream that are common to all fantastic literatures. Moreover, Clute appears to understand slipstream as a body of texts rather than a genre discourse, a choice that is hardly surprising given the general structuralist proclivities of the Encyclopedia.
In this understanding, slipstream texts are characterized by a degree of the fantastic embedded in a narrative whose goals and overall character may have nothing to do with agendas typically found in genre sf—more often than not such a narrative would be considered mainstream or “literary” in the sense used by John Rieder. Unlike Sukenick and Curtis’s specific group, which included younger postmodernists who debuted in the 1980s and after, this slipstream encompasses texts by writers of any generation working with sf structures, a group so large that any roll-call will be more a sampling representation than an inclusionary listing. Even the most preliminary examples would include texts as diverse as Ishmael Reed’s Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down (1969), Joseph McElroy’s Plus (1977), Robert Coover’s The Public Burning (1977), Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (1980), William Burroughs’s trilogy opening with Cities of the Red Night (1981), Steve Erickson’s Day Between Stations (1985) and Arc d’X (1993), William Vollmann’s You Bright and Risen Angels (1987), Kathy Acker’s Empire of the Senseless (1988), Lance Olsen’s Tonguing the Zeitgeist (1994) and Time Famine (1996), Richard Powers’s Galatea 2.2 (1995) and Plowing the Dark (2000), David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996), Steve Tomasula’s VAS: An Opera in Flatland (2002), Jonathan Lethem’s Amnesia Moon (1995) and Girl in Landscape (1998), and Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) and Against the Day, which is the subject of an essay in this special issue.
In Britain, the list would be similarly long, with a number of works by Angela Carter, Doris Lessing, Christopher Priest, and J.G. Ballard (the latter two erstwhile authors of genre sf), as well as Anna Kavan’s Ice (1967), Alasdair Gray’s Lanark: A Life in 4 Books (1981), Christine Brooke-Rose’s Amalgamemnon (1984) and Xorandor (1986), David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, and Ben Elton’s Blind Faith (2007). The British use of the term also seems to have percolated outside narrowly academic or critical discourses. In the 1990s, the Forbidden Planet bookstore at the old location on New Oxford Street in London boasted several separate shelves labeled “Slipstream,” where works by writers such as Burroughs and Pynchon could be found. More recently, in 2007, the first London Literature Festival at the Royal Festival Hall held a slipstream night chaired by Toby Litt, who himself published the slipstream novel Journey into Space (2009). The evening’s roster featured the British authors Scarlett Thomas, the author of The End of Mr. Y (2006), and Steven Hall, whose The Raw Shark Texts (2007) is discussed in detail in another essay in this issue.
Internationally, and especially outside the Anglophone world, slipstream could more or less accurately describe such texts as Bernard Werber’s Les Thanatonautes (1994) and L’Empire des Anges (2000), Michel Houellebecq’s La Possibilité d’une île (2005; The Possibility of an Island, 2006), several books by José Carlos Somoza, but especially Clara y la penumbra (2001; The Art of Murder, 2004) and Zig Zag (2006), Albert Sánchez Piñol’s La pell freda (2003; Cold Skin, 2007), Haruki Murakami’s Sekai no owari to hādoboirudo wandārando (1985; Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, 1991), and Michel Faber’s Under the Skin (2000), also analyzed in this issue.
While the plots of such works are naturally wide-ranging, the degree to which sf motifs and tropes have been used by non-genre authors is best exemplified by a number of texts involving clones, once a quintessentially genre-sf motif. Authors as diverse as Naomi Mitchison (Solution Three ), Ira Levin (The Boys from Brazil ), Fay Weldon (The Cloning of Joanna May ), Anna Wilson (Hatching Stones ), Ken Follett (The Third Twin ), Danielle Steel (The Klone and I ), Eva Hoffman (The Secret ), Kazuo Ishiguro (Never Let Me Go ), and Kevin Guilfoile (Cast of Shadows ) have written cloning narratives. Some of these texts, such as Steel’s and Follett’s, treat the figure of the clone in a cursory way, using it as a stepping stone for their own narrative goals, while others—for example, Solution Three or Never Let Me Go—ask profound philosophical questions concerning cloning, social constructionism, and the position of science in contemporary life. Writing about a spate of texts revolving around artificial replication of human beings, Caryn James concludes that
[c]loning, once just a cheap device in thrillers, has become the controlling metaphor in works by serious artists. Far from creating genre fiction, these artists use cloning as a way to get at profound emotions of love and loss, and to address a mechanized culture in which individuality itself sometimes seems threatened. (7)
Referring specifically to Ishiguro’s novel and Caryl Churchill’s play A Number (2002), James declares that “serious artists use cloning for its chilling metaphorical value” (7). James’s article clearly reveals a certain prejudice against genre literature, but her conclusion correctly identifies both the source and the result of this science-fictional fascination—cloning has become a potent literary trope. Other sf elements or motifs in the novels mentioned above perform a similar function. In the face of accelerated technological change and its attendant transformations of society, mainstream writers often turn to science fiction and mine its treasure trove for ready-made ideas or props. Both the writing and reading of such texts is frequently unaccompanied by the use or even awareness of sf protocols, but their recontextualization bears witness not only to their sf sources but also, in some narratives, to agendas extending well beyond those found in genre sf.
The resurgence of cloning and other science-fictional scenarios in slipstream fiction can also be read as the reclamation of these topics by non-genre sf literatures. Technological change was addressed in various forms long before the emergence of science fiction as an identifiable genre. Gernsback’s and Campbell’s appropriation of technoscientific themes as the special domain of science fiction, combined with the generally low opinion of the field held by mainstream critics at least until the 1960s, may have created a cultural atmosphere in which many interpretative communities deemed technological subjects as “naturally” suited to science fiction. The fact that the majority of slipstream texts, as understood by Clute, were published after the 1960s testifies in equal parts to the slow emergence of sf from the literary ghetto, the erosion effected by postmodern theory of the rigid high culture/low culture divide, and an awareness of rapid technological change that called out for narration. All these taken together contributed to an intellectual atmosphere in which the use of motifs and scenarios that for several decades had been “colonized” by science fiction was no longer burdened with prejudice. Now that sf has become one major cognitive framework for understanding the world, the intensified production of texts that Clute describes as slipstream seems if not inevitable then at least predictable.
Unlike the previous two, the third use of the term slipstream is intimately connected with science fiction. Its discourse is tied to several manifesto-like articles that initiated a lively, if not contentious, debate that is still ongoing. The agendas of these documents vary and not all have been equally influential, but together they constitute the most sustained dialogue about slipstream to date. In chronological order of publication, these works are: Bruce Sterling’s essay “Slipstream,” which appeared in his “Catscan” column in the fanzine SF Eye in July 1989; James Patrick Kelly’s essays “Slipstream” and “Genre,” which were featured in his “On the Net” column in Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine in December 2003 and February 2004; and John Kessel and Kelly’s introduction, “Slipstream, the Genre That Isn’t,” in Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology (2006).9 In his agenda-setting piece, Sterling begins by making a distinction between a “category,” which is “a marketing term, denoting rackspace,” and a “genre”—“a spectrum of work united by an inner identity, a coherent esthetic, a set of conceptual guidelines, an ideology.” For Sterling, slipstream is a new genre defined by several statements, some of which are negative, denoting what slipstream is not rather than what it is. Slipstream is a contemporary kind of writing that has set its face against consensus reality; it is fantastic, surreal sometimes, speculative on occasion, but not rigorously so. It does not aim to provoke a sense of wonder or to systematically extrapolate in the manner of classic science fiction.
Compared to an allegedly ailing sf genre, slipstream is “marked by a cavalier attitude toward ‘material’ which is the polar opposite of the hard-SF writer’s ‘respect for scientific fact.’” In a mixture of journalistic and poetic style, Sterling’s subsequent descriptions resort to affective reasoning—slipstream is “a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange,” at the heart of which “is an attitude of peculiar aggression against ‘reality’.... These books tend to sarcastically tear at the structure of ‘everyday life.’” The article does not provide many specific coordinates of this new style apart from mentioning “infinite regress, trompe-l’oeil effects, metalepsis, sharp violations of viewpoint limits, [and] bizarrely blasé reactions to horrifically unnatural events” as the strategies of “screw[ing] around with the representational conventions of fiction.” Sterling also mentions that “some slipstream books are quite conventional in narrative structure, but nevertheless use their fantastic elements in a way that suggests that they are somehow integral to the author’s worldview” (emphasis in original). Even making allowance for poetic flair, these pronouncements hardly project the “inner identity,” “coherent aesthetic,” and “set of conceptual guidelines” mentioned in the article.
Luckily, the manifesto comes complete with a list of books presumably exemplifying this brand new grouping, a list that is crucial to understanding Sterling’s agenda.10 Apart from the usual suspects such as Atwood, Ballard, Burroughs, Coover, Lessing, Priest, Pynchon, Theroux, and Vollmann, the well over 100 items also include Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), Raymond Federman’s Twofold Variations (sic; Twofold Vibration, 1982), Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) and Autumn of the Patriarch (1975), William Gaddis’s JR (1975) and Carpenter’s Gothic (1985), Muriel Spark’s The Hothouse by the East River (1973), Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins (1971) and The Thanatos Syndrome (1987), Fazil Iskander’s Sandro of Chegem (1983), Carlos Fuentes’s Terra Nostra (1975), J.M. Coetzee’s Life and Times of Michael K (1983), Donald Barthelme’s The Dead Father (1975), Patrick Süskind’s Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (1985), and Lawrence Durrell’s Tunc (1968) and Nunquam (1970).11 Mixed in with these are works by several sf authors such as Thomas M. Disch, Jack Womack, and Lucius Shepard. Obviously, this is a very diverse group. Yet, the author claims, attempting to pre-empt attacks from skeptics, that
[s]lipstream might seem to be an artificial construct, a mere grab-bag of mainstream books that happen to hold some interest for SF readers. I happen to believe that slipstream books have at least as much genre identity as the variegated stock that passes for “science fiction” these days, but I admit the force of the argument.
Many—but definitely far from all—of the works included in the list invite the blanket designation of “postmodern fiction,” something that Sterling seems to be well aware of: “We could call this kind of fiction Novels of Postmodern Sensibility, but that looks pretty bad on a category rack, and requires an acronym besides; so for the sake of convenience and argument, we will call these books ‘slipstream.’”
By this point, Sterling’s agenda, a slightly modified version of the legitimation strategy discussed by Luckhurst, becomes transparent. Unlike critics devoted to the project of re-assigning sf texts to mainstream, Sterling detaches a relatively small group of writers whose literary identities were shaped by various literatures of the fantastic and connects them with a hall of fame from the last several decades of world literature. The essay is thus yet another attempt to legitimize science fiction through a partial merger with mainstream literature within a newly invented field.
According to John Frow, genres are constituted by symbolic actions performed by members of relevant communities of practice (see Rieder 197). However much Sterling protests that “slipstream is not an internal attempt to reform SF in the direction of ‘literature,’” the symbolic action of publishing his essay suggests otherwise. The introductory jeremiad against sf, the publication in a cutting-edge sf fanzine, the implied genre readership, the fact that neither Sterling nor SF Eye routinely reviewed the majority of writers from the list, the continuous references to sf and sf readers in establishing the parameters of slipstream, the list’s juxtaposition of a few titles representative of unorthodox science fiction (such as Disch’s On Wings of Song , Scholz’s Palimpsests , or Womack’s Ambient ) with work by Pynchon, Fuentes, and Roth—all these are unmistakable signals that the article is overdetermined by intra-sf concerns. By 1989, it had become clear that cyberpunk had failed to reboot sf in any meaningful way and was not going to produce another Neuromancer (1984)—or, perhaps, was producing too many Neuromancer clones. By inventing slipstream, Sterling clearly hopes to mobilize sf’s energies to establish a fresh community, a literary interface between high-profile postmodernists and more forward-looking (for lack of a better adjective) sf writers. In order to solidify the progressive image of the new genre, he occasionally resorts to statements that are simply not true but that serve to suggest the genre’s nascent cult status:
vast dim marketing forces militate against the commercial success of slipstream. It is very difficult for these books to reach or build their own native audience, because they are needles in a vast moldering haystack. There is no convenient way for would-be slipstream readers to move naturally from one such work to another of its ilk.
It is difficult to believe that Sterling was not aware that many of the writers he listed have enjoyed commercial and critical success since before the time he started to write himself—either in their own right or as members of other interpretative groupings, such as postcolonial fiction (Coetzee), Southern literature (Percy), magic realism (Fuentes), or simply postmodernism. Sterling is certainly right that there is no convenient way to move naturally from one title to another, but perhaps that is so because there is no unified “native audience” for books by 1950s proto-postmodernists (Gaddis), African-American fabulists (Morrison), Abkhazian Mark Twains writing in Russian (Iskander), or modern urban fantasists (Jonathan Carroll).
Sterling’s list and Clute’s definition of slipstream share a reliance on the tangential relationship between sf and the mainstream. Regardless of numerous specific debates about their characters or borders, these categories are deeply embedded in a complex network of cultural and social conditions defined by the literary politics of late-twentieth-century Anglophone writing. Simultaneously, the list accompanying Sterling’s essay and the examples illustrating Clute’s equation of slipstream with postmodern fabulation include a range of international texts from Latin America, France, Spain, and Japan. Their juxtaposition with Anglo-American narratives within the context of specifically Anglophone literary debates either erases or, at best, carries a significant risk of failing to account for their original contextual and generic matrices. Non-Anglophone national avant-gardes and science fictions may be—and, it is safe to assume, almost always are—defined differently. Consequently, their departures from perceived norms—their seeming slipstream-ness—may not be so radical in their native contexts as they seem when they are positioned next to Pynchon or Burroughs.
Even without referring to the social and economic aspects of textual production, which are integral to the functioning of any literature, the intellectual and philosophical vectors of various national literary discourses require at least a competent understanding of each country’s history. Few would argue that the critical analysis of New Wave science fiction does not demand an intimate knowledge of the tempestuous panorama of the 1960s, which for all the cultural crossover developed differently in Great Britain and the United States. One can only imagine how much more complicated these contexts become when the analysis transcends the borders of the culture within which a critic operates. Lumping together Burroughs, Morrison, and Fuentes as expressive of a certain revolt against a typically American arrangement of literary circumstances is a gross oversimplification that cannot be dispelled with a proviso that “many of the books that are present probably don’t ‘belong’ there” (Sterling). The unfounded assumption that texts commonly referred to as “magic realist” (in itself an Anglocentric construction and a hotly debated one at that) function similarly to postmodern American novels of the 1960s only because they feature, for instance, superficially similar textual experimentation. In the same way, the inclusion of an Abkhaz author writing in Russian in the Soviet era completely disregards the incredibly complicated contexts of the choices Iskander faced and consequently the meaning of his fiction. I do not, of course, suggest the abandonment of comparative literary studies, but the mobilization of globally disparate texts as part of native-born literary feuds should be conducted with both caution and a precise awareness of their original contexts.
For all its problems, Sterling’s column initiated a intra-generic dialogue, with Kelly’s essays forming a significant riposte. Unlike Sterling, who attempted to connect sf to postmodernist and mainstream writing, Kelly takes “a parochial approach” in the first of his pieces and attempts to locate this body of work specifically within the sf tradition (11). Very usefully, he identifies writers and online publications that to his mind exemplify a new school of writing—modeled after Karen Joy Fowler and Jonathan Lethem rather than cutting-edge hard sf by the likes of Greg Egan or Sterling himself. While Kelly notes that “many writers who might arguably fit into this literary movement reject the term slipstream” (10; emphasis in original), his survey reveals a lively debate among numerous writers and critics, who may each offer a different taxonomy but who generally seem to agree on the main parameters. Sf reviewer Rich Horton describes the difference between straightforward sf and slipstream as follows:
to me slipstream stories feel a bit like magical realism. The key is—they are unexplained.... In a sense, SF tries to make the strange familiar—by showing SFnal elements in a context that helps us understand them. Slipstream tries to make the familiar strange—by taking a familiar context and disturbing it with SFnal/fantastical intrusions. (qtd. Kelly, “Slipstream” 11)
This perception seems to be shared by sf author Alan DeNiro, cited by Kelly, who sees slipstream as “a science fiction not necessarily rooted in scientific extrapolation, that doesn’t even necessarily pay lip service to the cultural assumptions that SF brings to the table” (De Niro, qtd. Kelly, “Slipstream” 11; emphasis in original). Jeff VanderMeer, interviewed by Kelly, prefers to call it “cross-genre,” admitting, however, that “[t]he problem with talking about cross-genre is that it’s not a single movement—it’s a bunch of individual writers pursuing individual visions that tend to simply share some of the same diverse influences” (qtd. Kelly, “Slipstream” 11). VanderMeer also notes that some of the opposition to slipstream has emanated from “more traditional genre gatekeepers” who perceive it “in opposition to traditional genre, even though it really isn’t” (VanderMeer, qtd. Kelly, “Slipstream” 11).
Collectively, the voices cited by Kelly share with Sterling a certain vagueness in defining slipstream. On the other hand, they all agree that slipstream emerges from sf communities and extends rather than breaks away from more traditional sf; Kelly himself describes it as “close to SF, but ... not the same as it” (13). Horton, VanderMeer, DeNiro, and Kelly clearly subscribe to a conception of sf as fluid and thriving on novelty; slipstream thus appears to be not so much a separate offshoot as an internal discourse channeling new sensibilities and methodologies that have registered in the sf world over the last few decades.
Kelly’s second piece, “Genre,” focuses more centrally on the question of boundaries—both between sf and mainstream and among various genres of the fantastic. One important distinction it makes is “between the genre as an art form and the genre as a commercial product” (10), even though Kelly does not really investigate the consequences of this difference beyond stating that his publisher’s and his intentions are not the same. “Genre” conspicuously introduces the term “interstitial,” a broader category than slipstream that refers to fiction crossing “genres that have nothing to do with SF” (13). The interstitial project is described by Terri Windling as “not seeking to create a new category of fiction, but to establish a better way of reading border-crossing texts” (qtd. Kelly, “Genre” 11). Slipstream theorists and practitioners cited or interviewed by Kelly in both pieces may differ in their terminology and occasionally rely on very tentative definitions, but in one respect they radically diverge from the conceptualization of slipstream presented earlier in this essay. Since they perceive it as a logical development of the sf field, they entirely dispense with the project of legitimation, instead embracing a fresh perception of how literatures of the fantastic function in a wider literary landscape. Generic hybridity and boundary crossing, ideas that recur in various definitions of slipstream clearly owe much to notions propagated by postmodern theory, but neither Kelly nor VanderMeer, Horton nor Windling feel compelled to seek mainstream or high-postmodern lineage or validation. While Kelly agrees with some of Sterling’s parameters for slipstream, he also notes that “most of his inductees into the slipstream club were folks whom we in the genre might actually think of as mainstream” (“Slipstream” 10). This changed perception of what slipstream is reflects the transformations of sf in the fourteen years between the publication of the identically titled pieces by Sterling and Kelly. Sterling’s conspicuous under-representation of sf texts on his canonical list stands in sharp contrast with Kelly’s name-checking of sf authors and online magazines. The former’s slipstream was a putative genre expressive of his aspirations for sf while Kelly’s is organically rooted in a rich field of new writers and texts. (Whether these represent what Sterling was calling for in his essay is another question.)
The last and most critically disciplined of slipstream’s programmatic documents is Kelly and John Kessel’s “Slipstream, the Genre That Isn’t,” which serves as their introduction to Feeling Very Strange. Very careful and balanced, the essay begins with an acknowledgement of many of the issues previously discussed: slipstream’s relationship of dependence with genre sf, the fact that most authors would not identify themselves as slipstream writers, and the legitimizing project at the heart of Sterling’s design. This last recognition is, to my mind, important. In order to proceed with their conceptualization of some of the new writing coming from the sf field (broadly understood), Kelly and Kessel admit that
[n]obody calls mainstream writers “mainstream” except for those of us in the ghetto of the fantastic. The very notion that slipstream writing needed to be placed in a genre of its own comes from measuring it against science fiction and fantasy. Building a wall to pen the mutant up is a very skiffy thing to do; the impulse is generated from an understanding of genre built up over fifty years of category publishing in the United States. (viii)
They go on to note the blurriness the term has acquired since Sterling coined it, claiming that it “has become smeared across several meanings. It is now a would-be literary form, a publishing category, and most recently a fluid but discrete group of writers who recognize in one another a common sensibility” (x). This preliminary brush-clearing sets up the central proposition of “Slipstream, the Genre That Isn’t,” which is encapsulated in its title: for Kelly and Kessel, slipstream is “a psychological and literary effect that cuts across genre, in the same way that the effect of horror manifests in many different kinds of writing” (xi).12 This effect, however, occupies a special position among many available to writers: slipstream “raises fundamental epistemological and ontological questions about reality that most other kinds of fiction are ill prepared to address” and its main tool is “cognitive dissonance” (xi). This conception, reflected in the title of the anthology and the invocation of Carol Emshwiller’s assessment of her own fiction as “estranging the everyday” (qtd. Kelly and Kessel xiii), not only identifies the cornerstone of slipstream’s definition but also engages one of the most influential definitions of science fiction, against which slipstream is inevitably measured. If sf is indeed informed by the psychological double effect of estrangement and cognition, for Kelly and Kessel slipstream appears to be driven by only half of that effect: it estranges but does not provide the means for cognition, leaving readers engrossed in “strangeness triumphant” (Kelly and Kessel xi; emphasis in original). This tactic is not a postmodern game at the expense of the reader; rather, “slipstream is an expression of the zeitgeist” of a world in which “cognitive dissonance is a banner headline in our morning paper and radiates silently from our computer screen” (xii).
Kelly and Kessel offer three tentative qualities of this new literary effect: its violation of realist tenets, its generic distinction from “science fiction stories, traditional fantasies, dreams, historical fantasies, or alternate histories,” and its playful postmodernity (xii). None of these is particularly specific and each could easily be used to describe a wide range of texts. The main value of this fairly general formulation is its explicit acknowledgment of genre as the starting point and its refusal to embrace aspirations toward the mainstream. Although the above points do not necessarily privilege sf as the progenitor of slipstream, several symbolic acts implicitly tie these effects to the genre—for example, Kelly and Kessel’s constant juxtapositions with science fiction or the involvement of both editors and many of the writers featured in the volume in recognizable sf communities. On the other hand, this particular understanding of slipstream is broader than any previously mentioned; for instance, Kelly and Kessel’s slipstream stories may be grounded in fantasy or horror. This makes them closer to the interstitial fiction Kelly mentions in one of his essays, although that term does not appear in the introduction. In consequence, while their description of what slipstream is and does constitutes the most coherent of all the expositions, the editors seem to be well aware that drawing clear genre boundaries is becoming increasingly difficult.
This sense of blurred borders and definitional polyvocality is aptly represented in four sections of the book, collectively entitled “I Want My 20th-Century Schizoid Art.” These intermezzos consist of excerpts from the responses to a blog-post by the writer David Moles, in which he asked about changes in the understanding of the term between Sterling’s original article and the positions cited in Kelly’s “Slipstream.”13 There is little point in summarizing the comments, which predictably do not resolve into any conclusive answers, but they confirm what Bould and Vint have described as the “fluid and tenuous constructions made by the interaction of various claims and practices by ... discursive agents” (48). Generic indeterminacy is also demonstrated by the line-up of writers included in the anthology; only four out of the fifteen stories were published before 1995 (Emswhiller’s, Sterling’s, Fowler’s, and Howard Waldrop’s), and these function as a sort of grounding for an assortment of later writers: Aimee Bender, Kelly Link, George Saunders, Jeff VanderMeer, Ted Chiang, Jeffrey Ford, Michael Chabon, Theodora Goss, M. Rickert, Benjamin Rosenbaum, and Jonathan Lethem.
With these fifteen authors, four of whom belong to an older generation associated with genre sf, Feeling Very Strange is not a large collection compared to other contemporary anthologies. The eleven newer writers are, however, more than sufficient to illustrate slipstream’s position in a much larger landscape of boundary discourses. Like the two cities in Miéville’s novel mentioned at the beginning of this essay, slipstream appears to share at least some of its territory with a number of other border discourses. In their article “21st Century Stories,” Amelia Beamer and Gary K. Wolfe provide a listing that seems almost ironical at the same time as it gives a sense of the multiple claims: “Slipstream. Interstitial. Transrealism. New Weird. Nonrealist fiction. New Wave Fabulist. Postmodern Fantasy. Postgenre fiction. Cross-genre. Span fiction. Artists without Borders. New Humanist. Fantastika. Liminal fantasy” (16). The taxonomic status of these terms is by no means equal. Interstitial and Artists without Borders are both used by the Interstitial Arts Foundation, whose members include writers as well as visual, musical, and performance artists. New Weird seems to be slipstream’s close equivalent in the horror genre. New Wave Fabulism was coined by the editors of Conjunctions for a 2002 special issue edited by Peter Straub devoted to the crossover between (and new developments within) sf, fantasy, and horror. Span fiction was a term invented by Peter Brigg for the purpose of his study The Span of Mainstream and Science Fiction: A Critical Study of a New Literary Genre (2002) but never gained any, even narrowly academic, currency. Fantastika is John Clute’s borrowing designating “science fiction and all the other literatures that SF shares significant characteristics with,” thus replacing “‘the Fantastic,’ partly because, for Anglophones, the term tends to exclude science fiction” (“Fantastika”). Some of these “movements” have produced anthologies or special issues of literary magazines, while others exist only as arbitrary descriptive terms. Among these, slipstream may possess the longest critical pedigree and the most extensive bibliography, including numerous critical articles and two anthologies, but this does not prevent many of its presumed practitioners from being claimed by—or claiming themselves to be part of—other groupings.14 For example, The New Weird anthology edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (2008) features Jeffrey Ford; while both Ford and VanderMeer have stories in Rusty Morrison and Ken Keegan’s Paraspheres (2006), an extended version of the New Fabulist issue of Conjunctions. M. Rickert and Theodora Goss, featured in Feeling Very Strange, appear also in Interfictions 2, edited by Delia Sherman and Christopher Barzak (2009). One could, in theory, attempt to construct various interdependencies, suggesting, for example, that fabulation and interstitiality are superordinate to slipstream, which, in turn, has the same ontological status as the New Weird; but not all of the terms would fit, while new ones are still being added (such as last year’s issue of Conjunctions entitled “Impossible Realism”).15 If viewed within the traditional framework of genre conventions, these multiple allegiances loom as a nightmare for those devoted to elegant literary genealogies. On the other hand, the new genre-studies paradigm adumbrated by Rieder and by Bould and Vint accounts for precisely such situations by acknowledging the participation of variously situated communities of practice in the constant refashioning and reinvention of conventions. Still, the crisscrossing memberships appear to undermine any attempt at a more systematic treatment of this rapidly growing body of texts.
Some suggestions for a way out of this maze of generic subdivisions can be found in two articles by Wolfe: “Evaporating Genre: Strategies of Dissolution in the Postmodern Fantastic” and “21st Century Stories,” the latter co-authored with Amelia Beamer. Tracing the generic instability of sf back to its roots in the 1930s pulps, Wolfe asserts that, due to the uncertainty of genre markers,
the fantastic genres contain within themselves the seeds of their own dissolution, of a nascent set of postmodern rhetorical modes that would, over a period of several decades, begin to supplant not only the notion of genre itself but also the very foundations of the modernist barricades that had long been thought to insulate literary culture from the vernacular fiction of the pulps and other forms of noncanonical expression. (“Evaporating” 15-16)16
Wolfe then discusses how contemporary science fiction, by colonizing other genres or entering into complex generic mixes with them, destabilizes the very notion of genre. His suggestion that “[t]he writers who contribute to the evaporation of the genre, who destabilize it by undermining our expectations and appropriating materials at will ... are the same writers who continually revitalize genre: a healthy genre, a healthy literature, is one at risk, one whose boundaries grow uncertain and whose foundations get wobbly” (Wolfe 27). These comments remain very close to the dynamic described by Luckhurst in his analysis of the agenda of sf critics, the only difference being the lack of an ideological dimension in Wolfe’s analysis. In the second article, considering “crosshatched” territorial claims for individual texts, Beamer and Wolfe suggest that it makes more sense to consider such stories not as belonging to this or that genre or grouping but rather in terms of “specific narrative and rhetorical strategies” (20). Discussing the works of M. Rickert, Elizabeth Hand, Theodora Goss, Kelly Link, and Jeffrey Ford, they identify a number of techniques that help “achieve a kind of emotional and aesthetic coherence of a sort which is rare in contemporary fiction, and particularly in the kinds of fantastic fiction that have been associated with popular genres” (21). These include slippage of genre markers; contingency of narrative worlds; shifts in point of view, setting, or chronology; denial of resolution; meta-narrativity; storyteller’s voice; themes of art and artifice; and the writing process (21-33).
This is, of course, an extremely cogent argument, but it only addresses the aesthetic aspects of the genre, almost completely disregarding its commercial entanglements. “Evaporating Genre” begins with an attention to such material concerns in its analysis of the emergence of sf in pulp and paperback forms, but Wolfe does not extend this approach to his discussion of contemporary fiction. His account of genre mixing and common storytelling strategies narrates the contemporary status quo from the point of view of only a few communities of practice—academics and professional critics, and perhaps certain sections of readership participating in online discussions. At the same time, the narrative of generic dissolution and common literary strategies insufficiently addresses the phenomenon of the marketplace, which has not become as balkanized and variegated as the fiction itself. It seems very unlikely that slipstream, or any of the other groupings mentioned above, will permanently earn a separate shelf in bookstores or a column in specialized magazines; instead, the titles in question will continue to be sold and reviewed as science fiction, fantasy, or horror. While groupings occasioned by a special issue of a literary magazine may arise and disappear in the span of several years, the main marketing categories have not changed for decades.
Admittedly, many ofthe writers in question make their fiction available through independent publishers or online magazines such as those mentioned in Kelly’s pieces for Asimov’s (examples include Strange Horizons, a weekly ezine currently edited by Susan Marie Groppi, and Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, a biannual small-press magazine coedited by Gavin Grant and Kelly Link). Very likely, the readership attached to these independents, and especially that segment that participates in various identity debates online, is more attuned to subtle aesthetic distinctions, but even the independents hardly ever advertise their titles as “21st century fiction.” In fact, they are very much invested in sustaining, inventing, or legitimizing through publication new sub-genres, mostly in the form of collections and anthologies, whose existence is perpetuated online in reviews, comments on the reviews, comments on the comments, and so on. For instance, Tachyon Publications alone is responsible for helping promote at least three such genres through individual anthologies: slipstream, New Weird, and post-cyberpunk. To be fair, many readers probably understand that such labels are primarily marketing strategies and in their reading choices continue to pay more attention to authors’ names or the recommendation of respected authorities.
Slipstream and other border discourses can also be dissected along the axis of multiple communities of practice engaged in shaping genre debates. Their ever-shifting ecology makes most statements concerning genre seem arbitrary, too general or too narrow. While no one of these communities can be determined to be decisively more important than any other, their venues and vectors radically influence the character of their discussions. Given this fluid situation, it might be productive to make a distinction between two realms in which genre discourses can be conceptualized: the official, connected with publishing, marketing, and reviewing practices, which tends to be, if not conservative, then often slow to change; and the unofficial, connected with various fandoms and non-professional critics, which is vastly more flexible but also more open to an ever-fluctuating adoption and abandonment of terminologies and taxonomies. It is not a coincidence that some of the most lively and informed discussions of slipstream or New Weird can be found online—a situation recognized by the editors of Feeling Very Strange, who made selections from such exchanges a theoretical backbone of their anthology.
That so many writers involved in slipstream constantly appear in anthologies of other cross-border groupings (and vice versa), combined with their collective refusal to attach themselves firmly to any of them, is also very telling. The cross-comparison of names associated with slipstream, New Weird, New Wave Fabulism, or postmodern fantasy would probably result in a list of some thirty or forty writers, editors, anthologists, and critics who know each other privately and readily cooperate professionally without attaching much weight to the categorizations. If this sounds similar to the situation of early sf communities centered around Gernsback and Campbell, that is probably not a coincidence. In the same way that the early pulp networks were designing a new genre, attempting to differentiate themselves from the mass of pulps in general and the fantastic pulps in particular, the manically active contemporary networks may be perceived as seeking strategies of differentiation from the settled categories of genre publishing that fail adequately to encompass the explosive development and intensive hybridization of styles taking place today. The fact that large territories of fantastic literature become increasingly tied to corporate media artifacts, whose generic discernment is even less sensitive, may also compel many slipstreamers to dissociate themselves from the “mainstream” of sf and look for new identities. Perhaps the readiness with which they shift in and out of various boundary-slipping projects not only reflects the diversity of their texts but also manifests an anxious search for some sort of literary identity. From this perspective, the entire discourse of slipstream is hardly the birthing stage of a new generic entity—after all, genres are always conceptualized a posteriori. Instead, slipstream texts are responses to—or, rather, symptoms of—science fiction’s evolution, not to mention new marketing and sales practices decisively shaped by networked technologies. (It is significant that many of the relevant anthologies have emanated from small-press publishers such as Tachyon and Small Beer Press and have been promoted through online dialogue.)
One cannot overstate the influence that postmodern theory has had on border genre discourses. The majority of the strategies discussed by Beamer and Wolfe are typically postmodern. A sense of postmodern relativism applied to categories and genre markers on the one hand allows the writers in question to treat old divisions as irrelevant and, on the other, prevents them from becoming locked up in their own invented fields. Finally, postmodernism’s theoretical dismantling of the high/low divide has opened new terrain in which writers of slipstream and other boundary discourses can operate (whether the division between genre and literary fiction has actually become invalidated remains debatable). Irrespective of their varied definitions, slipstream and its sister discourses reflect the twilight of the prescriptive Suvinian paradigm. In “POSTcyberMODERNpunkISM” (whose title—if constructed fully consistently—should probably be “POST-scienceMODERNfictionISM”), Brian McHale described cyberpunk as the end product of the exchange between sf and postmodernism. Almost twenty years later, it is slipstream that appears to combine the energies of these two cultural phenomena—not only as a kind of writing coming out of sf that is infused with aesthetic elements associated with postmodernism but, more importantly, as a kind of writing coming out of sf that thrives on the conceptual shifts effected by postmodern literary and cultural theory.
1. The closing lines of the novel are: “We are all philosophers here where I am, and we debate among other things the question of where it is that we live. On that issue I am a liberal. I live in the interstice, yes, but I live in both the city and the city” (312).
2. Gérard Genette defines “paratext” as elements of a published work that accompany the text, such as the author’s name, the title, preface or introduction, illustrations or covers. As Genette states: “More than a boundary or a sealed border, the paratext is, rather, a threshold ... a zone between text and off-text, a zone not only of transition but also of transaction: a privileged place of pragmatics and a strategy, of an influence on the public, an influence that ... is at the service of a better reception for the text and a more pertinent reading of it” (1-2).
3. Gary Westfahl writes that: “a true history of science fiction as a genre must begin in 1926, at the time when Gernsback defined science fiction, offered a critical theory concerning its nature, purposes, and origins, and persuaded many others to accept and extend his ideas” (8).
4. Suvin also quotes an earlier, equally negative diagnosis of such fiction by James Blish, who ascribed to it “a blind and grateful abandonment of the life of the mind” (Blish 104).
5. I have borrowed the phrase “foundational murders” from the title of the third volume (1989) of the trilogy Apostezjon written by the Polish science fiction author Edmund Wnuk-Lipiński.
6. Due to the arcana of the awards process, the winners are usually announced one year, and sometimes two years, after their original publication dates.
7. At this time there is no systematic history of the New Wave, the moment in which slipstream-like tendencies manifested themselves for the first time with such force. This lack is emblematic of the difficulties encountered by those determined to construct a coherent historical narrative.
8. This terminology, deriving from Geoffrey Bowker and Susan Leigh Starr’s 1999 book Sorting Things Out: Classification and its Consequences, is cited in Rieder: “Boundary objects are those objects that both inhabit several communities of practice and satisfy the informational requirements of each of them.... The creation and management of boundary objects is a key process in developing and maintaining coherence across intersecting communities” (Bowker and Starr, qtd. Rieder 203).
9. The two essays by Kelly were amalgamated and republished as the chapter “Slipstream” in James Gunn and Matthew Candelaria’s 2005 anthology Speculations on Speculation.
10. A more extended “Master List of Slipstream Books,” comprising Sterling’s selections and additions by Lawrence Person from a special slipstream issue of the fanzine Nova Express in Fall/Winter 1999, is available online at <http://home.roadrunner .com/~lperson1/slip.html>.
11. On the Nova Express list the title of Federman’s novel remains uncorrected, while his first name is changed to Richard. There are numerous other mistakes: Steve Erickson’s chronicle of the 1988 US presidential election, Leap Year (1989), is clearly considered a fiction; Ronald Sukenick is credited with the book Down, which should either be Up (1968) or Out (1973); and spelling mistakes are endemic—Mark Leyner’s book is, for example, spelled as My Cousin, My Gastrointerologist.
12. This sense of slipstream as an approach rather than a category is shared by Christopher Priest, who in a review of a reprint edition of Anna Kavan’s 1967 novel Ice wrote that “[t]he best way to understand slipstream is to think of it as a state of mind, or a particular approach, one that is outside of all categorization. It is in essence indefinable, but slipstream induces a sense of “‘otherness’ in the audience, like a glimpse into a distorting mirror, perhaps, or a view of familiar sights and objects from an unfamiliar perspective” (10).
13. The original post, with responses, appears to have been removed from the archives of Moles’s blog at <http://chrononaut.org> but can still be retrieved by inputting <http://www.chrononaut.org/log/archives/000547.html> in the Wayback Machine (<http://www.archive.org/web/web.php>). Another valuable resource pulling together the threads of multiple discussions, most of which were conducted online, can be found at <http://vectoreditors.wordpress.com/2006/09/07/now-all-slipstream-until-the-end>.
14. The other anthology is Nick Mamatas’ and Jay Lake’s Spicy Slipstream Stories (2008).
15. Most of these volumes are discussed in a review-essay in this special issue.
16. Rob Latham makes a somewhat similar argument in his review of Miéville’s The City and the City:
it is virtually impossible fully to disentangle elements of SF, fantasy, horror, and detection in the work of major US and UK popular writers whose careers were launched prior to the advent of the specialty pulps during the 1920s and 1930s…. Indeed, one could argue that the period of genre segregation prevailing between the 1920s and (roughly) the 1980s imposed artificial boundaries on a process of commingling and fusion that was always going on.
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