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On the Net: Slipstream by James Patrick Kelly



In a previous installment I commended a raft of new writers to your attention. One thing that struck me as I took stock of the next generation was how often they practice their craft in the slipstream. Now you should understand that many writers who might arguably fit into this literary movement reject the term slipstream. In the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, John Clute <http://www.johnclute.co.uk> refers to it as fabulation. Some writers prefer to call what they do cross-genre or interstitial fiction, while others bristle at the notion that anyone is trying to label them at all. But it may well be too late to stick another name on slipstream, since the critical term has been around for some fourteen years now and people seem to have a general idea of what kind of writing it points at.

It was in July 1989 that Bruce Sterling <http://www.well.com/conf/mirrorshades> coined the term in his Cat Scan <http://www.eff.org/Publications/Bruce_Sterling/Catscan_columns/catscan.05> column in the late great zine, SF Eye. Here’s the big moment: "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 that 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. 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.’ " While I think Bruce’s provisional definition holds up pretty well, most of his inductees into the slipstream club were folks whom we in the genre might actually think of as mainstream, for instance Kathy Acker <http://acker.thehub.com.au/acker.htm>, Isabel Allende <http://www.isabelallende.com/>, Martin Amis <http://martinamis.albion.edu>, Margaret Atwood <http://www.cariboo.bc.ca/atwood/>, and Paul Auster <http://www.paulauster.co.uk/>. And those were just Bruce’s "A’s"!


our stream

While I certainly acknowledge that there are many mainstream writers whose work "simply makes you feel very strange," I am going to take a parochial approach here. Why? Well, I’ve taught Clarion <http://www.msu.edu/~clarion>, the science fiction writers’ workshop at Michigan State University, six times now. I’ve also taught at Odyssey <http://www.sff.net/odyssey/>, the other six-week genre workshop, held in Manchester, New Hampshire, and Viable Paradise <http://www.sff.net/paradise>, a one-week intensive that takes place on Martha’s Vineyard. I’ve taken a good hard look at the people who are going to be writing your favorite stories of 2013 and what I’ve noticed is that more and more of them are modeling themselves after Karen Joy Fowler <http://www.sfwa.org/members/Fowler/> and Jonathan Lethem <http://www.sinc.sunysb.edu/Stu/dmyers> as opposed to . . . say, Greg Egan <http://gregegan.customer.netspace.net.au/> and Bruce Sterling. Don’t get me wrong; I admire all four of these writers; I say we should pitch as large a literary tent as we can. But there’s something going on here that’s worth paying attention to. So for now, I’m more interested in tracking the folks who start out from our tradition in their journey across genres than I am in mainstream writers who stop in to mess with our tropes. And I’ve invited two of the sharpest minds in science fiction, writer Jeff VanderMeer <http://www.vandermeer.redsine.com/> and critic Rich Horton <http://www.sff.net/people/richard.horton/> along as guides.

So what is slipstream, Rich? "Most commonly defined, I think, as fiction that crosses genre boundaries (lots of people seem to prefer ‘cross-genre’ as a term). However, I’m not sure that’s very satisfying: is The Caves of Steel <http://members.aol.com/firoane/asimov.htm> slipstream because it crosses genre boundaries between SF and mystery? So, thinking about it, I decided that to me slipstream stories feel a bit like magical realism. The key is–they are unexplained. ‘Real’ fantasy or SF has these elements embedded in the background so that they make sense–in slipstream they are just there. 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."

Jeff is uneasy with definitions. "I prefer, like Ellen Datlow <http://www.datlow.com>, to call it ‘cross-genre.’ Today, we have literally many dozens of writers in both mainstream and genre who are working from these influences and creating new forms of cross-pollination. The 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. So it’s difficult to pin down and say ‘this is what it is and what it isn’t.’ That’s what is exciting to me about it–that it is difficult to categorize. In a sense, that means it’s a complex, organic creature."


top two

Perhaps the place to begin looking for slipstream on the web is Fantastic Metropolis <http://www.fantasticmetropolis.com/>. I first mentioned this site last summer, but I’m pointing you at it again because it has burgeoned since then. I will admit to being surprised by the quality of the writing FM offers–both fiction and non-fiction–since it’s not a paying site. Everything you see here is donated. Clearly some of our best practitioners have decided that this is a site worth supporting, in part because it advocates so eloquently for the importance of taking genre in new directions. There is a wealth of fiction here, some original but mostly reprints from the likes of China Miéville <http://www.panmacmillan.com/Features/China/>, Carol Emshwiller <http://www.sfwa.org/members/emshwiller/>, L. Timmel Duchamp <http://ltimmel.home.mindspring.com/>, Paul Di Filippo <http://cambrianpubs.com/difilippo/>, and Kelly Link <http://www.kellylink.net/>, to name but a handful. And as good as the stories are, the critical essays and interviews are equally accomplished, with work from Michael Moorcock <http://www.multiverse.org/>, David Langford <http://www.ansible.demon.co.uk/>, James Sallis <http://www.grasslimb.com/sallis/>, and Jeffrey Ford <http://www.sfsite. com/06b/jf130.htm>.

Here is new writer Alan DeNiro <http://www.taverners-koans.com/ ratbastards/alan.html> struggling to define the relationship of cross-genre writing to the established genres in his original essay published in FM, "The Dream of The Unified Field" <http://www. fantasticmetropolis.com/show.html?ey, unified,1>. "The genre’s new shape might be less of a centralized state and more of a Hanseatic League, a confederation or constellation of different styles, techniques, and even audiences. This is not quite as scary as it sounds; it’s a different but more realistic model for the way the field is already going. The larger magazines will have the central place at the head of the table, but there will be a lot more activity at the side tables–or better yet, in the kitchen amongst the help. There may not be a Next Wave, implying a stable shore, a body of water, and a singular undertow. There might be lots of little waves."

While not explicitly in the slipstream, Strange Horizons <http: //www.strangehorizons.com> has published most of the up-and-coming writers who experiment with genre. As Editor-in-chief Mary Anne Mohanraj <http://www. mamohanraj.com> wrote in "Avoiding the Potholes: Adventures in Genre-Crossing" <http://www. strangehorizons.com/2001/20010702/editorial.shtml>, "I think at Strange Horizons, our editors often choose material that lives in the borderlands between spec fic and other genres. And while it can be tricky navigating these roads, in the long run, I think that border-crossing enriches literature." While in his wonderful "Where Does Genre Come From?" <http:// www.strangehorizons.com/2001/20011203/editorial.shtml>, Senior Fiction Editor Jed Hartman <http: //www.kith.org/logos> wrote, "By a loose definition of slipstream, probably the majority of the fiction that we at Strange Horizons publish could be labeled that way, but calling us a slipstream magazine would probably give the wrong idea. . . . We in the Strange Horizons fiction department are definitely interested in slipstream, but we do generally require that stories we publish have a fairly clear speculative element."

Some of the writers to watch who have appeared recently in SH are Aynjel Kaye <http://www.digital- delirium.org/aynjel>, Benjamin Rosenbaum <http://home.data comm.ch/benrose>, Jenn Reese <http://www.memoryandreason. com>, Jay Lake <http://www. jlake.com>,Tim Pratt <http:// www.sff.net/people/timpratt>, and Timons Esaias <http://timons esaias.com>.



I asked both Jeff and Rich whether slipstream might be the next big thing in our genre, or is it perhaps a successor species to SF? Rich wrote, "I hope not the latter–I don’t want to lose ‘old-fashioned SF.’ But I do think that slipstream techniques can help to describe a world that seems SFnal around us–a world that is changing fast enough, and that is multicultural enough, that everyday life can seem strange in a ‘slipstream’ fashion."

Jeff agrees, "I certainly don’t want it to replace SF. I love SF, too. The problem, the friction or opposition, comes from some of the more traditional genre gatekeepers either being too slow to incorporate these new kinds of writings or totally resistant to doing so–which makes those of us who practice them put more energy into just opening up new ways to find an audience. This energy is perceived as in opposition to traditional genre, even though it really isn’t. My fear, again, is that if this is the wave of the future and genre doesn’t allow it access, it will turn somewhere else, like the mainstream, and we’ll lose energy that would otherwise help create further mutation within genre."

My take? First a confession. I learned everything I know about writing across genre from the three muses of slipstream: Carol Emshwiller, Karen Joy Fowler, and Kelly Link. I’ve had the honor of workshopping with all three. I’ve listened to them react to critiques of their own work and learned from the way they unpack other people’s stories, especially my own. And over the years, because I admire what they do, I’ve tried to do it myself. To hell with the anxiety of influence–I can point to specific stories of mine that are in dialogue with the work of each of these fine writers. The thing is, I know what it feels like when I’m writing science fiction and fantasy; I understand what it takes to build the worlds and complicate the plots. But when I write slipstream, I find myself adopting different strategies, shifting my expectations. I don’t understand everything; the writing feels different. Strange. I suppose that’s not a very useful description, but there it is. So on a personal level, I can say that my slipstream has its own techniques, its own possibilities, and its own rewards. It is close to SF, but it is not the same as it. But as it accretes more talented writers, slipstream is pulling SF in its direction. Where will both of these kinds of writing end up?

That’s a question I’d like to return to next time.

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"On the Net: Slipstream" by James Patrick Kelly, copyright © 2003 with permission of the author.

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