Synopsis from ArmadilloCon program book. A plethora of new markets for what we used to call slipstream has blossomed over the past two years, with all sorts of new monikers like “The New Fabulists,” “Interstitial Arts,” and “Ambient Fiction” — Conjunctions 39, Sweeney’s Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales (with a new volume appearing in the fall), Polyphony, Album Zutique, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and so on. What distinguishes the work appearing in these journals from more conventional SF, fantasy, and mainstream fiction? Has slipstream finally arrived as a genre in its own right?
Before the panel, Lawrence explained to me that slipstream is literature that has fantastic elements that nevertheless can’t be characterized as science fiction, fantasy or horror. The literature of the fantastic that’s left after you remove the defining characteristics of those three genres. The negative space, in other words. Naturally, I was intrigued. Something that’s defined by absence? I had to hear more about it.
As befits a genre that’s defined by absence, the structure of discussion itself was at best, eclectic, even nonexistent at times. Lawrence observed that 50 minutes of any slipstream panel is trying to define slipstream, and we saw this principle in action. The definition of slipstream — via its differences from and overlappings with other genres — was debated sporadically all throughout the discussion. The second major concern of the discussion was how to market this elusive non-genre.
Slipstream definitions and background
Rick Klaw. Slipstream is an emerging non-genre, if you will, that’s occupying the borderland between SF and fantasy and mainstream.
Lawrence Person. You can actually date the creation of the word “slipstream” very specifically to Bruce Sterling’s column in Science Fiction Eye, which I think was 1990. That’s the first evidence of it in print we actually have, you know, taxonomically classified and pinned to the bulletin board. Entomology etymology.
Apparently, slipstream isn’t actually a new trend in literature, it’s been around long before there was the name. Latin American magic realists, e.g. Gabriel Garcia Marquez are counted among slipstream writers too, although they’ve always been marketed as mainstream. Other names would be Vonnegut, Steve Erickson, Jonathan Carroll, the latter also marketed mostly as mainstream. And that brings us to another major point of the discussion: how do you market slipstream, this non-genre in-between genres?
The elusive non-genre actually has sub-genres, or sub-non-genres, if you will! A big part of discussion revolved around the question of how slipstream overlaps with and spills into other genres.
Slipstream vs The New Weird
Rick Klaw. In M. John Harrison article it was called “The New Weird”.
Lawrence Person. New Weird is different than slipstream.
Chris Brown. New Weird is more like Mieville. It has a heavy fantasy element. When you think about Mieville’s work, there’s a much more heavier narrative component, it’s usually set in an identifiable alternative world, whereas the stuff that I think about as New Slipstream is more typically set in a parking lot, occupying far terrains in the backside of their forehead (?) (Panelists giggle.)
Rick. I kind of disagree with you. That’s what slipstream has become. It’s all of it. I mean, look at people like Jeffrey Ford who has definitely written novels in contemporary [settings] or even historical novels. And “The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque” is definitely a slipstream novel, there is no question.
Chris. Slipstream is usually novels that have no identifiable genre but use tropes from other genres. I often refer to it as “kitchen sink writing”. OK, let’s just throw everything in. It doesn’t matter. And the funny thing is, people talk about it [as a modern invention], but the writers in the 19th century all did this. They would all write like “OK, I’ve got this idea, I’ll write it.” It didn’t matter, they didn’t have the genre categories. I was doing research on something else, and James Fenimore Cooper, in a book called “The Monikins”, which is considered the worst book he ever wrote…
Lawrence. Which is saying something.
Chris … it’s a book about a lost world of intelligent gorillas, intelligent apes. And he’s the first person to ever do this. Now, I doubt James Fenimore Cooper was sitting and thinking “I’m writing a science fiction novel”, you know what I mean?
Lawrence. Or just like Shakespeare didn’t think he was writing fantasy when he wrote “The Tempest”.
Chris. Exactly. So this is not a new thing. H. Rider Haggard’s work is littered with other genre tropes all throughout it.
Lawrence. Yeah, but you’re looking at something that’s pre-genre, and analyzing it in terms of genre.
Slipstream is violently antirealistic
Lawrence. I want to touch on one thing, which Sterling emphasizes more than I: the postmodern, or violently antirealistic element of slipstream.
Rick. Which would put the New Weird guys in it.
Chris. I think there’s a unifying element to this: [they use] fantastical element, but they don’t bother to explain it. It’s more of achieving the sense of wonder without the kind of reductionist step from SF of explaining it all, giving it a kind of credible, rational [explanation] It’s more about the wonder just inherent in the language and the imagery, in living this kind of dreamscape even beyond plot.
Rick It’s also the way the story told. The storytelling methods are very different. There is no linear story a lot of times. There are footnotes, there are sidebars.
Back to slipstream vs. New Weird
Lawrence: Actually, I can put my finger on the difference between New Weird and slipstream, given my limited exposure to the New Weird, which is China Mieville and M. John Harrison’s “Light”, which is in New Weird, the weirdness is pointed out as weirdness. He (?) points out the fact that all these different [civilizations] have different and mutually exclusive faster than light drives. Whereas in slipstream the weirdness is never pointed out, or actually, it’s part of the fabric.
Rick Yes, but then there are writers like Jeff Vandermeer, who is definitely a New Weird writer.
Chris: Well, he is all over the place.
Lawrence. He is also sort of post-facto incorporated.
Rick. No, he’s not. When they started talking about it, he was the one of the people who came up with the idea of The New Weird. He was right before Mieville.
Chris. But there’s a difference between, I mean, you think about Mieville, the first New Crobuzon book, where it opens up…
Lawrence. “Perdido Street Station”.
Chris. Right, right. “Perdido Street Station”, where th opening scene is this giant sort of fantasy city, where it’s kind of geriatric, worn out professor having… making love to his insectoid wife, versus Richard Butner or one of those Small Beer Press Trampoline writers, who’s got a bunch of early thirty-something slackers hanging out putting on a puppet show and nothing really happens, and…
Relationships between slipstream and other genres
Lawrence. There’s also a marketing change. It used to be that fantasy, what we think of as fantasy, used to be a lot more open to form. Now, when we think of fantasy, we think of extruded fantasy product. It’s Gresham’s law: bad money drives out good. In this case, bad fantasy is driving good fantasy into slipstream. It’s like, I can write an original fantasy novel, but it can’t get published because people want me to write a three-volume trilogy with, you know, elves and knights.
Rick. Remember the books that I was just talking about, they’re bestsellers? […] And they are! I mean, come on, Jasper Fforde? That’s a fantasy novel! He writes about a world where literature is a dominant form of entertainment. (Laughter in the audience.) There is a group of people who protect the purity of literature. Like, they make sure people don’t abuse Shakespeare by using him too much. They have developed a technology where they can actually go into the books and meet the people in the books. And things happen in the books that affect the reality outside the books. And I’m really simplifying here.
Lawrence. Commercial metafiction.
Rick. Yeah! But you think, wow, these books are huge! Huge sellers! But they’re not packaged as fantasies at all! And everyone [who has read them] goes “That’s a fantasy novel!” They’re very well done, they’re really creative, but there’s no question what they are, except to the publishers.
Mikal Trimm. Who’s the guy, Gregory…? You wouldn’t find him anywhere in the fantasy section. “Confessions About My Stepsister”?..
Rick. Oh, Gregory Maguire.
(They exchange a few sentences about Gregory McGuire.)
Rick. They call it post-modernism. And of course, post-modernism [emerges from] science fiction.
Chris. I want to hear some backup on that one.
Rick. Well, look at the writers. Where do you think your post-modern writers came from? J. G. Ballard was a science fiction writer. You could argue Vonnegut — science fiction writer.
The point is that a lot of it emerges from that [postmodernism from science fiction]. Even if you don’t agree that it emerges directly, it definitely comes from the same lineage.
Slipstream vs The New Weird vs The New Wave Fabulists
Chris. There is this Conjunctions 39 that came out a few years ago, a very well regarded mainstream literary magazine. They had Peter Straub guest-edit an issue. Some of them were more commercially known writers, but a lot of the same suspects. And they moniker they use is “The New Wave Fabulists”. What is “The New Wave Fabulists”?
Rick. The same thing.
Lawrence. It’s science fiction and fantasy that literature professors can buy without people laughing at them.
Rick. It’s “The New Weird” — it’s the exact same set of writers, almost. The exact same set of tropes, the same rules.
Chris. In Conjunctions 39, we had Paul Park, Kessel, Nalo Hopkinson, Gene Wolf, Morrow, Karen Joy Fowler, Joe Oldeman, Jonathan Carroll, Kelly Link, Mieville, Jonathan Lethem. Is Jonathan Lethem an example of how this kind of writing is the…
Lawrence. I like Jonathan’s work, but I’ll say one thing: the reason why Jonathan Lethem is a classical slipstream writer, [why he went] from being a science fiction writer to being just a writer, mainstream writer, is: Jonathan Lethem writes wonderful prose about science fiction ideas that really suck. You look at it, and Jonathan’s ideas are just really, really stupid. Basketball players wearing exoskeletons with Michael Jordan’s skills. It’s a great story, but it’s a really stupid science fiction idea, because it makes no sense on a really logical level.
Rick. But isn’t that the point of how this is different — that the fantastical element does not need to be explained, does not need to be credible. Exoskeleton is maybe a little too science-fictional… But I agree with you, it doesn’t matter. To me, this is wonderful, where this stuff goes. To me, it never matters in a science fiction novel how science works. I don’t give a shit. OK? As long as it’s consistent, the writer’s logical within their book, I don’t care how the science works. I don’t care if this science would be believable in the real world. I’m not reading the real world. If I want to read a science book, I’ll go read a science book. I want to be entertained. So this kind of stuff…
Lawrence. We need to get you and Stan Schmidt on the same panel. (Laughs)
Rick. Chris and I had this discussion. Chris writes great slipstream stuff. He doesn’t explain how things work, and you find you don’t care how it works.
Chris. That’s not the point (apparently he means the way things work is not the point in his stories — E.), it’s all about atmosphere and sort of ambience of, you know, contemporary life.
Rick. Or an agenda, a political thing, a social thing you wanna say. But it’s not about the science.
Lawrence. The other problem is that anything you say “slipstream is X”, you always gonna find slipstream examples that don’t fit X.
Rick. That’s like in anything.
Lawrence. Yeah, but even more so in slipstream.
Tom Becker (from the audience). I want to make a couple of critical comments. One comment was made about how there is a revolution in science fiction every 20 years. And actually it’s every 10 years, but we don’t talk about the odd number decades. (Panelists laugh.) The other thing is, I’m not sure if I got your point correctly about the quality of science in science fiction, but if you establish any sort of strong criteria for quality of science in science fiction, then, you know, you’ll have to throw out most of the science fiction.
Rick. Right, it doesn’t matter. I mean, Lawrence and I disagree on this big time, we always have. I do not think science matters at all in a science fiction novel. It’s the least important element in a science fiction novel to me. To me, it’s the [fantastic] that’s important, not the science.
Is plot important in slipstream?
Mikal Trimm. The thing that’s gonna make slipstream as it… I still don’t believe it, but as it becomes a stronger force, the thing that’s gonna make it hard on readers, is it’s just like the horror. I actually think it’s more like what happened to horror about 10-20 years ago, […] where you saw a lot of authors suddenly start writing this really dense, atmospheric stuff, with no payoff whatsoever. You could read a story and have no clue what it was about. But boy, it freaked me out! But I couldn’t tell you what it was about to save my life.
Rick. The thing is, plot is just as important in slipstream as it is in anything else. Sometimes it’s important in a book and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes you have a book that has great characters but the plot’s not that good. And sometimes the characters are not that strong, but the plot is excellent. There’s no rule that a slipstream novel needs not have plot. And again let’s go back to, we were talking about Bishop’s “Brittle Innings”, which we could all agree is a great slipstream novel. It has a great plot. It’s a strongly plotted book. So why […] ? I don’t think it really matters. That’s not what defines it. That’s the difference between experimental, I think, and traditional fiction.
Lawrence. But traditionally in genres plot has been more important than in the mainstream fiction over the last [n number of years or decades].
Chris. A genre is a type of books defined around a type of plot.
Rick. Except if you look at the New York Times bestseller list, the books that sell are the ones where the plot is important.
Slipstream is influenced by other forms of art and popculture
Rick. Another feature of slipstream is that the stories are fast paced. A lot of writers of slipstream have influences that are not just literary. Part of slipstream is popculture. TV is so much faster paced than literature. And pop culture in our society is very fast paced.
Mikal. There is a very sentence-level difference between most of these [slipstream] writers and traditional SF. (He was once an editor and to him it seems most stuff is written very lazily.)
Chris says he once talked with Dan Brown, the author of Da Vinci Code, and Dan Brown said he intentionally dumbs down his prose to sell more books.
Chris. Is there a reason why all those writers don’t write about the fantastic future or the past, but focus on the present?
Lawrence. It’s really hard to write cutting edge SF, since you need to be on the edge of where the popscience is.
Rick says that cutting edge is a new way to tell a story. He doesn’t care about science. He thinks the future has become so uncertain, the war seems to never end, so why would you care about the future? He sincerely believes that Bush’s coming to office is a big reason why slipstream has become more popular.
Chris. In this slipstream dating back to the nineties, everyone was talking about it, but nothing was really happening, in terms of there being any identifiable markets for that, and now it seems there’s a lot going on, there is a small press explosion going on as far as I can tell.
Rick. The other thing I think that sort of started helping this, is one of the things that sometimes just happens: you have to have a megaseller, something that brings it to the mind of the people. And you had that with Chuck Palahniuk’s work, who is definitely slipstream writer.
Chris. People who come from outside the genre, like McSweeney’s Mammoth Treasure…
Lawrence. How about David Foster Wallace’s “Infinite Jest”?
Rick: Right, but that doesn’t have the same […] Foster Wallace is a small niche of people who are buying it.
Lawrence. “Infinite Jest” actually made the lower reaches of New York Times bestseller list.
Rick. What happens is you get that kind of thing where everybody is reading this kind and going, “Oh wow…” People like Jasper Fforde. These are people who are writing that kind of stuff and they are hitting bestseller list. And suddenly everybody’s going “wow”.
You have to have that element too. You have to have something that people can see and identify. One thing that helped cyberpunk was “Bladerunner”, because people could put it in a context they could understand. Even though “Bladerunner” is not technically a cyberpunk film, it has a lot of the same elements. So you can put it in the context in those terms. So now, when “Fight Club” the movie was a huge hit too, it put it in terms they could understand.
Chris: How well “The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque” [by Jeffrey Ford] did?
Rick. Horrible. Horrible, horrible, horrible. The publishers marketed it as a historical romance novel. And that, of course, was the big problem.
Chris: Would you explain what the book is about?
Rick. The book — it’s Jeffrey Ford — takes place in a Victorian New York, the 1890 New York City, and it’s about a portraitist. Did I say that right? The guy is a portraitist. And he gets hired to paint a portrait that could pretty much let him retire and go paint whatever he wants. But the trick is, this Mrs. Charbuque, he’s not allowed to see her. And the crux of the novel is her telling him stories, and he has to draw her based on what she tells him. It’s a fantastic book. And they marketed it as a historical romance novel. People who bought it because they wanted a historical romance, would go “I don’t wanna read this”. People who would like it, would go “I’m not gonna buy this”.
Marketing: so is there a way to market slipstream, after all?
Lawrence. So the question becomes, how do you market slipstream so it sells?
Rick. You don’t.
Lawrence laughs and yells: “Slipstream: your ticket to starvation!”
Chris: Actually, there is a way to market slipstream, and there are examples obviously: again, Chuck Palahniuk, Jasper Fforde — these are selling. So obviously they figured out some way. […] Maguire? Who’s buying Jasper Fforde? What else do those people buy?
Rick. I think the way you sell it is you don’t betray it as it is. That’s why they’re not genres. If Jasper Fforde’s book was marketed as a fantasy novel, I don’t think it would have sold that well. If you put it in a science-fiction section… Cause what happens is that people who don’t read science fiction…
Chris. Science fiction reader, an Analog reader, does not want to read Jasper Fforde…
Rick. But I’m using “science fiction readers” as encompassing it all. To me, that’s a fantasy reader, that’s all of it. You don’t define it that narrowly, cause that’s the way the genre is seen. Tolkien, in the world at large, is part of the science fiction genre, because for them, science fiction and fantasy is all one thing. You can’t look at it from inside science fiction. So when you market a book like that to sell to the masses, you have to think what appeals to the masses. That’s why Jonathan Lethem sells so much better now than he did before. And he’s not necessarily a better or a worse writer. That’s not even an issue. It’s because his book has been put in fiction [section in bookstores]. A lot of fiction people would not go into science fiction. Science fiction writers would go into fiction.
Lawrence. That brings up a problem: how do you find in this greater search space of fiction, how do you find what you’re looking for?
Rick. That goes into the different issues of promotion, educating booksellers. That’s why independent booksellers are so important. Because they’re the ones who know the books better. Online helps a lot, because people are reviewing it. Nightshade Books message board […]
Chris. Now, but we’re still never gonna have a slipstream section in a bookstore.
Rick. No, and I don’t think we ever should, because it’s too hard to define.
Lawrence. Howard Waldrop once said that there should be a sui generis section in a bookstore.
Rick. Just like we’re not gonna have cozy mystery section in a bookstore. But it’s a major subsection of mystery fiction. We’re not gonna have a noir section. And again, it’s a major subsection of mysteries. We’re never gonna have those sections, you know, so…
Tom Becker (from the audience). I was just thinking, actually, that there ought to be interstitial sections at a bookstore, where the books would be filed in between shelves.
Lawrence. Graham Joyce at the 2002 World Fantasy Convention said that there should be 3 sections in a bookstore: big words, no plot. Small words, lots of plot. And the gray area. And that’s the one […] would be shelved: the gray area.
Rick. No no, he has never worked in a bookstore. Anyone who has worked in a bookstore would tell you you should have the red books, the blue books, and the green books. (Laughter in the audience.) Because people come in a bookstore and ask for it: “I saw a book, and it was red.”
Lawrence. That explains why Jasper Fforde books sell: because in the UK edition they’re published in big bright primary colors.
Rick. Actually, primary color books sell better cause they’re more identifiable.
The panelists being all writers, the discussion quickly drifted into the waters of publishing. So who is publishing slipstream? Like Chris Brown said earlier, there has been an explosion of small press slipstream publishers.
Chris. Let’s talk about what goes on in the small press. One distinction we might make is between the stuff that’s really commercial successful, like Mieville and Harrison, and stuff that’s a little more…
Lawrence. M. John Harrison — commercially successful! Those two phrases are never used in the same sentence.
Chris: I mean, the stuff that’s kind of like British New Weird stuff, and the stuff that I think is sort of what I’m talking about, what’s really going on here now… Wheatland Press who’s putting out the Polyphony anthologies; Jay Lake, who used to live in Austin; putting out Howard Waldrop’s “Dream Factories Radio Pictures”, which is film and television stories; and Small Beer Press, which Kelly Link, who also happens to be the reader, the first slush reader for Ellen Datlow at Scifiction; she and Gavin Grant are putting out Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, which is this booklet-style or pamphlet-style little Journal that comes out about every quarter, and they’re putting out all those wonderful little chapbooks; like they had this one of Richard Butner’s work; and they’ve got a new one by Theodora Goss with Charles Wess cover. Books as well. I might put into this category Argosy and Nightshade, because they are doing things to Cory Doctorow’s… Charlie Stross’s book.
And a lot of this is facilitated by things like Nightshade has this little message board where all of these writers and people like Rick go and…
Lawrence laughs. “Writers — and Rick!”
Rick, sarcastically: Thanks!
Mikal: But what’s weird is, a lot of these small presses are coming not from people who just want to play the editor, but writers, that are and saying, you know, there’s just not enough places for us.
Chris. I think there’s something about the web that’s finally really facilitating this kind of high quality small press happening. Simple, rudimentary things that have been around for a long time, like desktop publishing, people’s ability to crank these things out cheaply, just simple e-commerce’s presence for these people, so that they could go and order their 5-dollar chapbook or whatever; and these message boards which let people know what stuff is coming out, and where it’s coming from and where they can go to get it — you don’t need to have any kind of front line retail…
Mikal I also think one reason why this is polinating, or spreading out, is that the Internet changed the way people write books. The actual writing books… people like to use footnotes in the books now. It’s very common. It’s very common to see footnotes in novels, and sidebars, because we are all information junkies. And if you’re writing online, you can do a hyperlink. Well, the example of a hyperlink in a book is a footnote. And so it changed the way people are writing books, the way they are thinking about it. And also because the Internet has information in this nebulous way, where everything’s just there, people are seeing so much of this stuff. You go jumping from thing to thing. I think it’s affecting the way people write.
Chris addresses Mikal Trimm: […] you had a Polyphony story. I want you to tell me a little bit more about that story, sort of as example of the kind of stuff that’s selling into these small press markets we are talking about.
Mikal: My story is mostly set in a bar. This guy — regulars buy him drinks, because they’ll get a newbie in the bar, get him a little bit drunk, and they’ll tell him: “any movie, any character — this guy can do him perfectly”. They’ll set it up, they’ll call him over and they’ll go over, and it’s a big scene in the bar where this guy does Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil”. And this guy just becomes him, almost physically. […] He has no life, he has nothing — he’s just a loser. He’s living with a girl who’s pregnant with another man, just ’cause the other guy doesn’t have room for her, so she just came live with him for a while, because she used to be his girlfriend. But he’s got an internal narrator. The narrator narrates a story from his head. So that’s the way he sees the world — through this narrator telling him how crappy his life is. And after […] that’s just a side effect. His thing is, he can go watch a movie, and project himself into the movie and become a character in the movie. But he has to do it alone. He can’t [take anyone else] with him. That’s his life, that’s the way he lives. And he has a flat affect of emotion, so whenever he needs an emotion, he’ll pick a movie, pick a character, pick a situation he wants to be in, so he’ll know how to feel. [He wants to know how to feel after the girl left], so he goes and he finds “Wuthering Heights” and puts himself in there when Cathy is gone. That’s the way you should feel when someone leaves — ha, I get it!
Chris. And does this fantastic element manifest itself at the end of the story as opposed to…
Mikal. You can read it. To me, it’s fairly obvious that yes, he did it. I mean, the room changes temperature. (Snicker in the audience.) But […] is going, “it’s all in his head”.
Chris. A common element in a lot of these slipstream stories seems to me is, that there is this one fantastical element, and it usually doesn’t appear until about at least 2/3rds of the way through the story, without any real explanation…
Lawrence. Sort of like “Land of Laughs”. That’s Jonathan Carroll’s book, where halfway through the book the dog talks.
Rick. Yeah. Everything is normal, you’re reading, you’re reading, you’re reading, “ah, this is a good mainstream fiction”, […] it’s a great casual thing — the dog talks, and you go back and […]
Lawrence. “Did I miss a page where he dropped the acid?”
Rick. Or you decide “or maybe I misread who’s speaking”. You go back and — no, the dog talks! And, you know, that’s what the character reacts too: “Did I hear the dog talk?” It’s a really good book.
Does slipstream have special relevance today?
Rick. One of the arguments in SF, more than in any other genre, is about every 20 years it has a renaissance of some sort. Something happens and there will be a new movement. And so twenty years ago you had cyberpunks. Twenty years before that you had the new wave. You get the futurists before that. You get these renaissances where people go, “you know, I’m just tired of the way it is. I’m tired of the same old shit. And there’s a lot of stuff and influences that doesn’t have to do with books. Political climate influences it. There’s no question that the political climate of the world influences the writing.
Rick. Now, of course…
The panelists observe that as a form of escape from the uncontrollable world, some writers write multi-volume world-building fantasies; others write slipstream, literature where the characters don’t have any control over the bizarrely twisted reality…
Chris. So what’s the political influence driving people to write dreams of suburbia and, you know, suburban surrealism?
Rick. You live in the world, the world itself is scary, OK? So you write about things that are not the world we have no control over.
Chris. Most of the protagonists of these works don’t have any control over the fantastic element…
Chris. Why is it that “surreal” is a dominant adjective to describe contemporary life? [It is often used on the news, etc.]
Rick. What goes on in Iraq is very surreal.
Chris. What do you mean? There are no melting time pieces.
Rick. It’s not happening the way you expect reality to happen. That’s your melting timepiece. Surreal means losing control.
Chris. A SF convention is a pretty surreal event.
Rick. Well, yes, it doesn’t correlate much with the rest of reality [or something like that]. (Rick reiterates that Bush’s coming to office is a big reason why slipstream has become more popular.)