11 March 2011

Thoughts on Slipstream

Just an everyday event in the slipstream world.

Have you remembered to hug your unicorn?

Domenichino, Virgin and Unicorn.
I pride myself on being generally knowledgeable when it comes to genre fiction, and all of its delightful subgenres and cross-genres. But I was completely at a loss when I first heard the phrase slipstream. My instinct said, "It's got to be science fiction, just by the sound of it." I'm only partially correct.

There seems to be little agreement on what slipstream is, except that it’s a relatively new type of weird literature that crosses boundaries between literary and genre forms. I’m going to focus on the idea that slipstream is the fiction of “cognitive dissonance” (Kelly and Kessell, xi) and how this fits into the debate over slipstream’s analysis and definitions.

Cognitive dissonance is the idea of knowing and perceiving chaos, the chaos being created by differing thoughts and feelings. More specifically it’s defined as “the uncomfortable feeling caused by holding conflicting ideas simultaneously” (Wikipedia). In the case of slipstream, the dissonance is created when this form concurrently functions as speculative, literary, and genre fiction.

It’s much easier for readers and writers to pick one type and run with it…there’s a reason labels such as genre (sci-fi, romance, fantasy, horror) and mainstream (literary) fiction exist. Publishers put it there for ease of marketing; readers look for it because they know exactly what they want from it; writers like it because it makes the work easier to classify (and in some cases, write--you know what expectations need to be filled). So not only is slipstream’s dissonance created by functioning as multiple things simultaneously, but the discord is also generated because it is difficult to name, classify, and describe.

The very nature of slipstream is to be indefinable, since it blurs the lines between the ordinary and extraordinary in fiction.

I once read somewhere, and I apologize that I can’t find the source, that the main difference between literary fiction and genre fiction is that one focuses on producing ideas, and the other seeks to produce emotion. Since literary and genre fiction always seems to be at odds with each other, one would think that “idea versus emotion” would be a strong example of the conflict between lit and genre. However, I don’t think these notions are at odds with each other at all--in fact, one leads into the other quite naturally, and hardly seems to come across as inharmonious with each other. An idea can create an emotional response, and an emotional response can spark an idea.
 In the slipstream world, this is totally normal.
Waterloo (1906) painting by C.M. Coolidge.

The only thing I can think of that may be closer to the dissonance with emotions and ideas (again, the purpose of lit versus genre) is that the emotional response genre fiction (especially speculative fiction) seeks to evoke is wonder. Literary/mainstream fiction can be just as creative, but certainly wonderment is not ascribed to literature; again, lit’s purpose is not to build awe. In fact, literary fiction seeks to distance itself from genre by being considered the “serious” one of the two. Literary fiction is also described as having an emphasis on style, psychological depth and character…whereas genre doesn’t?!? What?!? The age-old battle of literary versus genre continues!

What’s so interesting about slipstream is that it takes the awe-inspiring sense of wonder that’s created in spec fiction and instead takes it very seriously. Thus dissonance is again created: But how can someone take aliens in the city seriously, or angelic visitations seriously, or your dead aunt cursing at you in the rocking chair seriously? All of these are fantastic elements, and yet slipstream doesn’t seek to treat these events as fantastic at all. The fantastic and strange are everyday occurrences in the world of slipstream, and slipstream itself doesn’t seek to overtly acknowledge that something weird is going on.

Slipstream manages to be a genre excelling in the art of nonchalance. The dead rising? Mehhh. Aliens in NYC? Mehhh. Angels on Earth? Mehhh. Slipstream’s seen it all before. It’s fiction where anything goes…but anything goes is not the point of slipstream. It’s something else, and many other things at the same time, and because it can’t be labeled or pinned down, we can only identify that slipstream is different, that it’s weird, and yes…it will always be a source of conflict!


Kelly, James P., and John Kessel. Feeling Very Strange: the Slipstream Anthology. San Francisco: Tachyon Publications, 2006. Print.

1 comment:

  1. yet again, a fantastic insight into the world of genre unknown. as a reader who simply looks at a title or cover or author and chooses a selection your blog and reviews have made me personally more insightful, looking into deeper meanings behind what is said. in the idea of slipstream I can see it as the battle between as you put it and I am more interested every time I read this post thank you kristina.


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