So I think about Slipstream fiction a lot. I write Slipstream and I read Slipstream. I’m even taking a class on it! The thing is, no one knows what the hell Slipstream is. Let’s see if we can figure it out together, hmm?
Ok, ok. Slipstream was termed in 1989 by Bruce Sterling. The heart of his definition 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.” (full text) He also points out that the term is a deliberate play on the term “Mainstream”, which I now feel like an idiot for never noticing before.
But here we run into the main problem with Slipstream. “Writing that makes you feel strange” can mean almost anything to anyone. Hemingway can make me feel strange but I doubt that even the broadest interpretation of Slipstream would let Papa in the tent (well, maybe some, but not much).
Slipstream, most agree, questions reality, and it generally does this by juxtaposition of realistic and fantastical elements. But it’s not enough that Slipstream is a realistic world with fantastic elements. This seems to generally be what people mean when they talk about it. Kindred by Octavia Butler is grounded in a realistic world with a fantastical element (time travel), but the fantastical element is merely a tool. It is a plot device. In and of itself it questions nothing. What we learn from the story reinforces reality – whereas in Slipstream, we almost never learn anything, other than to question things we take for granted.
Let’s weld the two together. “Writing that makes you feel strange by questioning reality.” This seems to be pushing farther in the right direction. For now, we’ll leave it at that, but I’m sure we’ll come back to this topic in the future.