How Much Slipstream is on Your Shelf?

Do you even know what Slipstream is?


By J L Canfield



In 1989, Bruce Sterling, a cyberpunk author, coined Slipstream, to create a genre that mixed the boundaries of science fiction with fantasy, mainstream literary, and horror. What is Slipstream by definition? To quote Sterling, “this kind of writing makes you feel very strange, the way that living in the twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility.”

Okay, but what is Slipstream you ask. It has been called “the fiction of strangeness,” probably the clearest definition we’ll ever have. James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel, editors of Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology, argue Slipstream  is best described by having cognitive dissonance as it’s heart and that it is “not so much a genre as a literary effort, like horror or comedy.”

Slipstream resides betweens speculative and mainstream fiction if you consider it a genre but without a good definition it’s easier to tell what slipstream is not, rather than is. 

Slipstream is not New Age, futuristic, magic realism, techno tempermented, pure science fiction or filled with central dogmas. It does not extrapolate. The author will not write then explore the consequences or social and technological implications he has placed his characters in. 

In the twenty-three years that have passed since slipstream was first used, symposiums have been held to cement a definition, and pick literature or authors that fall into the category. So far the best they can decide on is: no definition will be available for fifty years at least, most slipstream writers are European because they apparently don’t love technology like we Americans do and  it is intimate, subjective, internal, in the writing. Put it this way, you “feel strange” after reading a slipstream novel. It is not held to high literary standards and just because you write well both linguistically and grammatically you can’t call yourself a slipstream writer.

Bruce Sterling will admit, Slipstream has not become a genre, marketing or publishing category even though room exists for it. The fact that this discussion continues now that we have moved into the twenty-first century muddles all minds and leaves everyone feeling very strange.

The best way to define slipstream to me is, normal characters who have fallen into  strange circumstances but behave with total normality. In other words, people dealing with bizarre abnormal occurrences so often it become normal everyday life for them.

Using that definition  check your shelves for these books, The Lottery by Shirley Jackson, Breakfast of Champions, By Kurt Vonnegut, Beloved by Toni Morrison, Zeitgeist, by Bruce Sterling and the following collections, The Best of Lady Churchill Rosebud Wristlet, Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology.

 Other noted slipstream writers include, Mark Leyner, Kathy Acker, Stanislaw Lem and Carole Emshwiller.

If twenty-three years of dialogue has not cemented Slipstream into a defined  literature genre, then personally I don’t think fifty more years of discussions will make it a publishing category or give it a named shelf at Barnes and Noble or Amazon. 





 Slipstream 2,  Bruce Sterling,

Symposium on Slipstream.

Slipstream, Wikipedia

The Best of Slipstream Stories, by Sue Lange