Genre Focus – Slipstream

by Caleb Sica

While browsing the depths of the genres science fiction and fantasy I came across a particular inhabitant that was quite intriguing—Slipstream. An unorthodox category, Slipstream’s embodiment of its identity derives from the virtue of its vagueness. Made recently popular to those previously unaware by a Wall Street Journal Article, (which I cannot read due to my lack of a subscription) Slipstream was first coined by the science fiction author Bruce Sterling in his 1989 publication in the Science Fiction Eye. Heavily critical of the detrimental direction his practiced genre was taking, he shamed the vastness of it, saying that “SF has become a self-perpetuating commercial power-structure, which happens to be in possession of a traditional national territory: a portion of bookstore rackspace.”

In order to reestablish its exclusiveness with certain boundaries, which aren’t explicitly clarified, he developed Slipstream. Severing its previous sci-fi ties he stated “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 a 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.”

Now there are obvious subgenres in any major classification of literature as well as combinations of them. The primary hypothesis would be that, if Slipstream falls in between both fantasy and science fiction that it would be a sort of hybrid “science fantasy” if you will. But with both science fiction and fantasy under the same umbrella of fiction, what separates the two? According to Rod Serling, best known as the creator of The Twilight Zone. “It is said that science fiction and fantasy are two different things. Science fiction is the improbable made possible, and fantasy is the impossible made probable.” (1962) Instead of concocting the perfect ratio of sci-fi and fantasy into a particular “recipe,” Slipstream is rather a collection of the qualities that fall into the cracks of the two’s explicit definitions.

One of the first elements to address from the subgenre of “slipstream” is the awareness that the name is a play on the word mainstream. Ronald Sukenick and Curtis White stated it best in their editing of In the Slipstream: An FC2 Reader. In 1999 they stated that their goal was to “Find the worthy fiction outside of the impoverished commercial tastes of mainstream publishing and give it an opportunity.” Rather than strictly complying with ‘mainstream;’ fiction’s established processes, slipstream takes the ‘speculative’ road less travelled, and that has made all the difference.

The Oxford Dictionary defines the term “speculative fiction” as a categorization inclusive to three historically located meanings:

  1. A subgenre of science fiction that deals with human rather than technological problems
  2. A genre distinct from and opposite to science fiction in its exclusive focus on possible futures
  3. A super category for all genres that deliberately depart from imitating

The literary world, in the act of creating genres has concentrated stories into respective residencies. But in reality fiction will inevitably cross the established boundaries of genre rules. However even a developed genre can be too vague or possesses too many various elements to accurately dubbed in a specific. This was exactly the case in Sterling’s criticism, which voiced a practical truth that, “When “anything is possible in SF” then “anything” seems good enough to pass muster.” In 2011 Pawel Frelik wrote a phenomenal journal article Of Slipstream and Others: SF and Genre Boundary Discourses and stated “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.” This is not just limited to SF and can be frequently seen in a multitude of other genres, and in attempts to name these variations there are sometimes senseless discrepancies given to literature. That is why, although categorizations are important, readers must be wary of the common ridiculousness of its scrutiny as well.

A basis of slipstream is that, due to its unconventional manufacturing, its digestion inevitably manifests a peculiarity with its readers. In 2006 James Kelly and John Kessel published an anthology of the genre and argued that the centrality of slipstream was that it was: “the literature of cognitive dissonance and strangeness triumphant” And rather than its genre being formulated by its content it should rather be formulated by the content of the readers’ feelings after its digestion. So, regardless of a dragon equating to fantasy’s spectrum or a robot equating to science fiction’s spectrum, the argued determinant of a literary works inclusion to the genre is simply its capacity to make you feel uncomfortable.


Image: Relativity (1953) – M C Escher

Bruce Sterling stated something rather intriguing in his essay birthing the genre regarding it, “Instead, this is a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the late twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility.” Sterling argues that even in the modern time that was the “late twentieth century” in which he lived, strangeness was a rather perpetual dissatisfaction with life. And that key point in the few decades after this publication now in the early twenty first century are still very applicable.

However some may argue that it’s rational to feel strange in our perception of reality, and that slipstream may inversely be a path towards feeling “un-strange.” To those few enlightened individuals, slipstream is but a manipulation of entertainment used to “slap some sense” back into conventional society. A tool if you may, wielded to turn the sheep in society into wolves. “Slipstream tends, not to “create” new worlds, but to quote them, chop them up out of context, and turn them against themselves.” (Sterling 1989)

A few good reads which fall under this umbrella would be:


(If you check out Bruce Sterling’s Science Fiction Eye, He has created an entire list of even more works for you to reference)

I believe in the end, Slipstream is simply a literary criticism of the world including both speculation, and a societal consensus made to question the fabrics of our realities. Through the avenue of fiction we are entertained, and through that entertainment and development of character attachment as well as our esteem of their fictional world’s, we are even more so obligated to sympathize with the same criticism the author conveyed which we may have often overlooked. And thus, awareness of universal dissatisfaction spreads through the joy of story rather than the tragedy of truth.

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