Edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel, Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology (2006) is an engaging anthology of stories which the authors have defined as “slipstream”—stories by mainstream authors such as Jonathan Lethem, George Saunders, and Michael Chabon as well as more speculative authors such as Kelly Link, Ted Chiang, and Aimee Bender.
Many of the stories in this book are excellent, and some—such as the Saunders story “Sea Oak” which was published in The New Yorker in the 90s—are canonical by this point.
But what is “slipstream” fiction? The word was coined in 1987, when cyberpunk author Bruce Sterling wrote that slipstream was:
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.
Given the curious features of Sterling’s definition, the term “slipstream” has in recent years come up for discussion, revision, and reinterpretation, at the same time it has also come into wider use.
In fact, the Feeling Very Strange anthology contains excerpts of a message-board discussion entitled “I Want My 20th-Century Schizoid Art” about what slipstream is or might be. (Awesomely enough, this message-board discussion is still available online here.)
Among the questions you could ask about the definition: do you have to be “a person of a certain sensibility” to understand the definition? And given the time frame cited by Sterling, is the definition now invalid; did the ability to write slipstream fiction end on January 1, 2001, with the close of the 20th century? Is the slipstream “period” effectively over?
This is just my two cents, but after reading the anthology and doing some online research, I have come to believe that the term “slipstream” is mostly meaningless for writers today; nevertheless, the attempt to understand the slipstream phenomenon is very important because it serves as a sort of marker representing the demise of the genre perceptions that dominated much of the 20th century—a demise that is ongoing, and perhaps even accelerating.
A quick history lesson: before the rise of the pulps in the 1910s and 1920s, notable American writers like Edgar Allan Poe and Jack London just wanted to write cool stories regardless of whether they were set in the future or involved the supernatural. In a matter of several years, for example, Jack London wrote the realist-adventure novel White Fang (1906) followed by the proto-human adventure story Before Adam (1907) followed by the dystopian-future book The Iron Heel (1908) before turning solidly to realism with his semi-autobiographical Martin Eden (1909).
With the dominance of pulp fiction, however, writers who wanted to be taken seriously stayed away from genre themes such as science fiction, horror, adventure, detective, romance, and other aspects of “low art” and focused on a sort of domestic realism that often relied heavily on symbolism. Many of these realist writers also wanted to push the boundaries of the art form, and so rather than turning to genre to do it, they tried to inherit and evolve modernism into postmodernism. Some postmodern authors adopted genre elements and created genre-influenced renderings (such as the postmodern ur-text Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon), but many veered into extremely experimental and self-referential narrative forms.
There is perhaps something having to do with the rise of the academy and of Master of Fine Arts (MFA) programs during this time period, but all the evidence points toward the fact that all “serious” or “literary” writers remained cagey about moving their stories too far in the direction of science fiction or fantasy, worried that they would no longer be taken seriously if they did—despite examples to the contrary such as Ray Bradbury, who effectively straddled the literary-genre divide.
The age of the pulps ended in the 1960s, and yet some pulp-like storytelling remained in the various genres. It wasn’t until the 1980s that a number of media innovations began to crush these genre markets nearly out of existence—the rise of video games, comic books, and collectible trading-card games among them—to the extent that, today, the only remains of pulp-like culture can be seen in the tie-ins associated with popular television series such as Star Trek. The market can support nothing else.
Now, at the dawn of the 21st century, the back pressure that forced literary authors away from certain speculative tropes has been reduced, allowing them to reclaim much of the territory they held in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Not only has it become more common to see authors flipping back back and forth between realism and genre—it’s now common to see authors ignore the existence of boundaries entirely, writing fiction that exists in an ambiguous space containing elements of both.
Although it came out in 2006, the Feeling Very Strange anthology, to me, is already somewhat dated. We can argue about words like “slipstream” until we’re blue in the face, but the bottom line is that serious literature can now delve comfortably into genre and still be taken seriously: because pulp no longer exists as such, strong writers with strong voices can use the tropes established by science fiction, fantasy, horror, and other genres to convey their message and their vision without fear of being taken for inferior writers.
And thank God for that. Because I will maintain, unto my dying day (hopefully far in the future), that some of the best writers of the 20th century just happened to be writing science fiction.