Neither and/or

“The term slipstream was coined by Bruce Sterling in a column he wrote for a fanzine called SF Eye in 1989. Sterling was attempting to understand a kind of fiction that he saw increasingly in science fiction publications and elsewhere. He quite rightly asserted that it was not true science fiction, and yet it bore some relation to science fiction. In a key passage of his essay, Sterling wrote:

‘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; 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 a Postmodern Sensibility… for the sake of convenience and argument, we will call these books “slipstream.”‘

“Two points need to be made about Sterling’s essay. First is that it includes a reading list of writers, of whom only a vanishingly small fraction were identified with a genre. From the outset, Sterling defined slipstream as largely a mutant form of the mainstream. The second point is that the essay was addressed to an audience of science fiction writers and readers. Nobody calls mainstream writers ‘mainstream” except for those of us in the ghetto of the fantastic. The very notion that slipstream writing needed to be placed in a genre of its own comes from measuring it against science fiction and fantasy. Building a wall to pen the mutant up is a very skiffy thing to do; the impulse is generated from an understanding of genre built up over fifty years of category publishing in the United States.

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“This is primarily a social distinction. Science fiction, since the birth of the genre magazines in the 192os, has been seen as a category of pulp publishing more than as a literary form, and still carries this meaning (and associated stigma) despite fifty years of scholars and writers attempting to define it as a mode of writing rather than a mode of publishing. As such, sF was isolated from developments outside of pulp genres. Although the writers themselves may have been well read and educated in other forms of fiction, the genre for better or worse retained its separate identity.

“So when the New Wave SF writers of the 1960 and 1970s adapted techniques and attitudes of literary modernism to SF materials (stream of consciousness, fragmented narrative, cinematic techniques, intense concentration of the sensibility of the protagonist, psychological ‘realism”), it was seen within the genre community as a revolution, even though these techniques had been commonplace in Dos Passos and Hemingway and Stein and Joyce since the 1920s.

“Slipstream as a publishing category has meaning only to those coming from the genre side of the divide. Sterling, chief propagandist of the cyberpunk movement of the 198os, was trying to come to grips with other forms of ambitious visionary fiction being written in the 198os that could by no means be categorized as cyberpunk. In a way, his essay was an attempt to identify a form of fiction in opposition to cyberpunk so as to differentiate it. In the ensuing seventeen years, many writers in the genre who have been trying to establish an identity separate from category SF and fantasy, and in relation to literary fiction, have seized upon Sterling’s formulation. They have taken it to places that Sterling did not intend, and created a subcategory of publications, editors, magazines, and critical opinion within the world of SF discourse and yet separate from it. But in all discussions of slipstream we have seen, at some point the relationship of slipstream to genre science fiction is entertained and defined.”

James Patrick Kelly & John Kessel, eds. Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology. San Francisco: Tachyon Publications. 2006. pp iix-ix.

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