by Gary K. Wolfe and Amelia Beamer
Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction #103
Suffice to say that a bewildering array of terms has been suggested to describe recent fiction outside the traditional categories of the fantastic, and that some of these terms are being promoted and treated as actual literary movements. We’ve come a long way since Michael Swanwick, writing in Asimov’s in 1986, could note, “The generation I want to talk about hasn’t been named yet” (Swanwick 314). By now it’s been named with a vengeance. Let’s take slipstream as an example, since many of the stories that we’re discussing in this essay have been called slipstream. The original term, meaning a region of low pressure and forward suction in the wake of a fast-moving vehicle, provides an obvious source for the “piggybacking” that Clute referred to back in 1993. Jeff Prucher, in his Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction, traces the first use of “slipstream” as a back-formation to a Bruce Sterling piece in SF Eye in 1989, where he proposes as shorthand for what he describes as “novels of Postmodern sensibility” (Prucher 189). But the word is also a parody of “mainstream”, according to Bruce Sterling in that same essay (in a column called Catscan). It’s difficult to trace when “mainstream” became a kind of derogatory code term among genre writers, but its first use in critical discourse about science fiction is likely an essay by Rosalie Moore, “Science Fiction and the Main Stream,” which appeared in Reginald Bretnor’s early critical anthology Modern Science Fiction: Its Meaning and Its Future, in 1953. To everyone else, it’s just general fiction—anything shelved in the Fiction & Literature section at your local chain bookstore.
By 2003, in a column in Asimov’s, James Patrick Kelly could describe slipstream as “a type of writing that crosses genre boundaries in and out of science fiction” (Kelly 343), suggesting that it’s a conscious strategy on the part of a number of authors and identifying three in particular—Kelly Link, Karen Joy Fowler, and Carol Emshwiller—as the “muses” of the movement (351). And by 2006, it had all coalesced to the point where Kelly, with his collaborator John Kessel, could edit a slipstream anthology, Feeling Very Strange, only now they defined it as an effect rather than a genre, characterized by a violation of the tenets of realism, an abjuration of specific genre identity, “playful postmodernism,” and above all the quality of (another term from Sterling) “feeling very strange” (Kelly and Kessel, xii-xiii). In Kelly’s terms, slipstream is
a literary effect—in the same way that horror or comedy are literary effects achieved by many different kinds of dissimilar stories. What is that effect? We borrowed the term cognitive dissonance from the psychologists. When we are presented with two contradictory cognitions—impressions, feelings, beliefs—we experience cognitive dissonance, a kind of psychic discomfort that we normally try to ease by discounting one of the cognitions as false or illusory and promoting the other to reality… We think that what slipstream stories do is to embrace cognitive dissonance (Adams interview).
Kessel added, “Many people feel that the world doesn’t make sense according to the structures that held during the 20th century.” By way of example, he described a story by Mary Rickert, “You Have Never Been Here,” as follows: “It is both clearly written and profoundly disorienting. It does not resolve itself easily into any simple category. At times it seems like a dream. At times it seems like a dystopian fantasy. At times it seems to be a rational story told from the point of view of a madman. Just when you think you’ve got it figured out, it takes a left turn. Yet it does not feel arbitrary. This story makes me feel very strange” (Adams interview). Kelly and Kessel’s much-discussed anthology included not only the slipstream “muses” Link, Emshwiller, and Fowler, but also newer writers like Rickert and Benjamin Rosenbaum, writers with “mainstream” credentials like Michael Chabon and Jonathan Lethem, and comparative old-timers like Sterling and Howard Waldrop (not to mention Emshwiller herself, who had been doing something like this since the 1950s). Specific reference to any privileged association with science fiction in particular was omitted from this new definition. Slipstream was no longer viewed as an offshoot of genre SF, but as a mode of writing that might freely allude to all the genres of the fantastic, sometimes even within the same story.
To Read the Rest of the Essay