Slipstream, slipstream, we all got slipstream. It's been a hot topic these last few years, at Tangent Online, in the pages of Asimov's, and elsewhere in print and across the Internet. What is slipstream and why do we care?
We have Bruce Sterling to thank for the nomenclature. In his seminal essay on the topic in SF Eye #5 sixteen years ago, the Bruce defined the new genre as follows:
This genre is not "category" SF; it is not even "genre" SF. Instead, it is a contemporary kind of writing which 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.
Instead, this is a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange...
Sterling goes on to provide a substantial reading list of authors, from Kathy Acker to Salman Rushdie to Edward Whittemore—each noted, like Sterling himself, for having a powerful and distinctive sense of voice. Sterling says that writers like these "offer some helpful, brisk competition to SF, and force 'Science Fiction' to redefine and revitalize its own principles." It's not clear how serious Sterling was in this essay, and he seems to have disavowed some portions of it in the years since—his argument about slipstream may have been more of a Swiftian Modest Proposal than a serious critical sally.
Keeping Sterling's words in mind, let's rewind the wayback machine another twenty-five years before the SF Eye essay to May, 1964 when the British SF magazine New Worlds was taken over by Roberts & Vinter and a young writer named Michael Moorcock became the new editor. Borrowing a term from film criticism, the fiction being published in New Worlds soon became known as "New Wave" and included such writers as Brian W. Aldiss and J.G. Ballard, working with sometimes tortured extremes of style.
Meanwhile, in the United States, Judith Merril became closely associated with the New Wave through her promotion of the movement in her "Books" column in F&SF in the mid sixties; she was ably furthered on this American shore by Harlan Ellison and a cast of well-known co-conspirators. While—contrary to popular belief—Merril never used the term "New Wave" in her column, referring only to a "new thing," she too saw the surreal and experimental elements as essential to this movement and praised the writers involved for their "impatiences with the artificial limitations of genre or 'category'" (Merril, 42).
Thirty-five years later, in his excellent essay "Where Does Genre Come From?" Jed Hartman described his interest in "fiction that crosses genres, or that falls into the interstices between genres. Such fiction is sometimes known as slipstream or interstitial fiction."
This sounds very much like praise for very similar types of fiction.
Today, fifteen years after Sterling's slipstream essay and forty years after the beginnings of New Wave in British science fiction, we have slipstream as a hot topic once again. In an essay which has since achieved a certain amount of fame or notoriety, depending on how you see it, Dave Truesdale of Tangent Online criticized some "new" tendencies that he saw as a threat to science fiction:
The new crop of kids writing today are led to believe that it is all the rage to write cross-genre short fiction, to "blur the boundaries." They think it's cool, and an end all and be all to do this. What they don't realize is that when the boundary between (let's say) mainstream short fiction and SF short fiction is blurred, SF is by definition diluted, and weakened.
Whatever one may think of the rage for crossing genre boundaries, the practice is certainly not new, as observers of the genre since Merril have demonstrated over and over—science fiction appears to still be alive and well after at least forty years of cross-genre miscegenation.
There are, however, observers whose sympathies lie with the cause of literary sensibility and stylistic experimentation who would agree with Truesdale's prognosis, while seeing it in a very different light. In his provocative essay "The Old Equations" published at Strange Horizons in March of this year, Matthew Cheney, a rising contemporary commentator, pronounces unequivocally in the first sentence, "science fiction no longer exists." He goes on to state:
...science fiction as a genre [has] pulled back from the earlier experiments and settled into recycling the old techniques, subject matter, and definitions.
Working opposing sides of the argument, Cheney and Truesdale come to strangely similar conclusions, although they interpret them differently. While Truesdale bemoans cross-pollenization, Cheney celebrates it, going so far as to declare science fiction dead without such changes. The call to genre-bending is essentially the same argument Sterling was putting forth in the late 1980s, and the same argument Merril voiced when promoting the "new thing" back in the 1960s. As Qoholet the Preacher tells us:
The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us.
So what are we to draw from this rambling discussion of parts and pieces, drawing a dotted line from New Wave to slipstream-as-Sterling-conceit to slipstream/New Weird/genre piracy today? Like many of the arguments in this field, it is full of sound and fury, but it hardly signifies nothing. One of Sterling's other theses, echoed by Cheney more recently, is that our field's stylistic excesses—or, if you will, extremes of voice—are leaking into the mainstream, escaping to go free range. Cheney again:
The ripples of the New Wave flowed into the mainstream, but not the mainstream of SF. The New Wave writers, it turns out, were ahead of their time in mixing the subject matter of science fiction with the techniques of modernist writers, fusing scientism with surrealism, escapism with absurdism, William S. and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Today the lessons learned from the experiments of New Worlds and Dangerous Visions are most clearly visible not in the pages of Asimov's or F&SF, but in the fiction published by The New Yorker and Harper's...
Is this a bad thing? As remarked before at this site, millions of people who wouldn't be caught dead reading science fiction enjoyed that nice Mr. Crichton's book about cloned dinosaurs. Writers from Iain Banks to Kelly Link to Jonathan Lethem cross genre boundaries with impunity. Within genre, writers such as Karen Joy Fowler, Greer Gilman, and Ray Vukcevich whack away at stories which give traditionalists like Truesdale a bad case of the jollops—as do many of the rising newcomers: Alan de Niro, Theodora Goss, Chris Rowe and their ilk. Some of their work gets published in the major markets. A lot of their work gets published in markets such as Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, Leviathan, Strange Horizons, and Trampoline—markets which are frequently pointed to as purveyors of slipstream, or litfic SF.
And more to the point, markets that are growing in critical and reader recognition even while readership for the traditional core of SF continues to dwindle, as Cheney points out. As a genre, it may turn out that we have won all the battles but lost the war. As a literary tradition, we're doing fine. And a big part of that literary tradition, what has kept us turning and churning at least since the 1960's, are the periodic outbreaks of transgressive voice—forms of style and methods of experimentation that currently aggregate under the slipstream rubric.
It would be excessively optimistic to refer to slipstream as a movement. Most writers involved would deny that with some alarm. It is, however, as both suggested and bemoaned by various commentators, a style. Slipstream, slipstream, we all got slipstream, but that is just a fancy word for voice. Why do we care? Because, as that voice has done since the early days of Moorcock and Ellison, it will continue to point us toward one future or another, growth paths for our field. Relax, enjoy the ride, and read some good fiction on the way.