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April, 2005 : Feature:

Is Slipstream Just a Fancy Word for Voice?

Slipstream, slipstream, we all got slipstream. It's been a hot topic these last few years, at Tangent Online, in the pages of Asimov's, and elsewhere in print and across the Internet. What is slipstream and why do we care?

We have Bruce Sterling to thank for the nomenclature. In his seminal essay on the topic in SF Eye #5 sixteen years ago, the Bruce defined the new genre as follows:

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...

Sterling goes on to provide a substantial reading list of authors, from Kathy Acker to Salman Rushdie to Edward Whittemore—each noted, like Sterling himself, for having a powerful and distinctive sense of voice. Sterling says that writers like these "offer some helpful, brisk competition to SF, and force 'Science Fiction' to redefine and revitalize its own principles." It's not clear how serious Sterling was in this essay, and he seems to have disavowed some portions of it in the years since—his argument about slipstream may have been more of a Swiftian Modest Proposal than a serious critical sally.

Keeping Sterling's words in mind, let's rewind the wayback machine another twenty-five years before the SF Eye essay to May, 1964 when the British SF magazine New Worlds was taken over by Roberts & Vinter and a young writer named Michael Moorcock became the new editor. Borrowing a term from film criticism, the fiction being published in New Worlds soon became known as "New Wave" and included such writers as Brian W. Aldiss and J.G. Ballard, working with sometimes tortured extremes of style.

Meanwhile, in the United States, Judith Merril became closely associated with the New Wave through her promotion of the movement in her "Books" column in F&SF in the mid sixties; she was ably furthered on this American shore by Harlan Ellison and a cast of well-known co-conspirators. While—contrary to popular belief—Merril never used the term "New Wave" in her column, referring only to a "new thing," she too saw the surreal and experimental elements as essential to this movement and praised the writers involved for their "impatiences with the artificial limitations of genre or 'category'" (Merril, 42).

Thirty-five years later, in his excellent essay "Where Does Genre Come From?" Jed Hartman described his interest in "fiction that crosses genres, or that falls into the interstices between genres. Such fiction is sometimes known as slipstream or interstitial fiction."

This sounds very much like praise for very similar types of fiction.

Today, fifteen years after Sterling's slipstream essay and forty years after the beginnings of New Wave in British science fiction, we have slipstream as a hot topic once again. In an essay which has since achieved a certain amount of fame or notoriety, depending on how you see it, Dave Truesdale of Tangent Online criticized some "new" tendencies that he saw as a threat to science fiction:

The new crop of kids writing today are led to believe that it is all the rage to write cross-genre short fiction, to "blur the boundaries." They think it's cool, and an end all and be all to do this. What they don't realize is that when the boundary between (let's say) mainstream short fiction and SF short fiction is blurred, SF is by definition diluted, and weakened.

Whatever one may think of the rage for crossing genre boundaries, the practice is certainly not new, as observers of the genre since Merril have demonstrated over and over—science fiction appears to still be alive and well after at least forty years of cross-genre miscegenation.

There are, however, observers whose sympathies lie with the cause of literary sensibility and stylistic experimentation who would agree with Truesdale's prognosis, while seeing it in a very different light. In his provocative essay "The Old Equations" published at Strange Horizons in March of this year, Matthew Cheney, a rising contemporary commentator, pronounces unequivocally in the first sentence, "science fiction no longer exists." He goes on to state: fiction as a genre [has] pulled back from the earlier experiments and settled into recycling the old techniques, subject matter, and definitions.

Working opposing sides of the argument, Cheney and Truesdale come to strangely similar conclusions, although they interpret them differently. While Truesdale bemoans cross-pollenization, Cheney celebrates it, going so far as to declare science fiction dead without such changes. The call to genre-bending is essentially the same argument Sterling was putting forth in the late 1980s, and the same argument Merril voiced when promoting the "new thing" back in the 1960s. As Qoholet the Preacher tells us:

The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun. Is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us.

So what are we to draw from this rambling discussion of parts and pieces, drawing a dotted line from New Wave to slipstream-as-Sterling-conceit to slipstream/New Weird/genre piracy today? Like many of the arguments in this field, it is full of sound and fury, but it hardly signifies nothing. One of Sterling's other theses, echoed by Cheney more recently, is that our field's stylistic excesses—or, if you will, extremes of voice—are leaking into the mainstream, escaping to go free range. Cheney again:

The ripples of the New Wave flowed into the mainstream, but not the mainstream of SF. The New Wave writers, it turns out, were ahead of their time in mixing the subject matter of science fiction with the techniques of modernist writers, fusing scientism with surrealism, escapism with absurdism, William S. and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Today the lessons learned from the experiments of New Worlds and Dangerous Visions are most clearly visible not in the pages of Asimov's or F&SF, but in the fiction published by The New Yorker and Harper's...

Is this a bad thing? As remarked before at this site, millions of people who wouldn't be caught dead reading science fiction enjoyed that nice Mr. Crichton's book about cloned dinosaurs. Writers from Iain Banks to Kelly Link to Jonathan Lethem cross genre boundaries with impunity. Within genre, writers such as Karen Joy Fowler, Greer Gilman, and Ray Vukcevich whack away at stories which give traditionalists like Truesdale a bad case of the jollops—as do many of the rising newcomers: Alan de Niro, Theodora Goss, Chris Rowe and their ilk. Some of their work gets published in the major markets. A lot of their work gets published in markets such as Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, Leviathan, Strange Horizons, and Trampoline—markets which are frequently pointed to as purveyors of slipstream, or litfic SF.

And more to the point, markets that are growing in critical and reader recognition even while readership for the traditional core of SF continues to dwindle, as Cheney points out. As a genre, it may turn out that we have won all the battles but lost the war. As a literary tradition, we're doing fine. And a big part of that literary tradition, what has kept us turning and churning at least since the 1960's, are the periodic outbreaks of transgressive voice—forms of style and methods of experimentation that currently aggregate under the slipstream rubric.

It would be excessively optimistic to refer to slipstream as a movement. Most writers involved would deny that with some alarm. It is, however, as both suggested and bemoaned by various commentators, a style. Slipstream, slipstream, we all got slipstream, but that is just a fancy word for voice. Why do we care? Because, as that voice has done since the early days of Moorcock and Ellison, it will continue to point us toward one future or another, growth paths for our field. Relax, enjoy the ride, and read some good fiction on the way.

Works Referenced

Cheney, Matthew. "The Old Equations." Strange Horizons, March 7th, 2005.

———. The Mumpsimus.

Ellison, Harlan. Dangerous Visions. New York: Doubleday, 1967.

Hartman, Jed. "Where Does Genre Come From?" Strange Horizons, December 3, 2001.

Kelly, James Patrick. "On the Net: Slipstream." Asimov's, November, 2003.

Merril, Judith. "Books." The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, January, 1966.

Sterling, Bruce. "Slipstream." SF Eye #5, July, 1989. Available in reprint through the Electronic Freedom Foundation.

Truesdale, Dave. "Idiocy from the SFnal Left." Tangent Online, September 9th, 2003—now available only in cached form.

Copyright © 2005, Joseph E. Lake, Jr. and Ruth Nestvold. All Rights Reserved.

About Jay Lake

Jay Lake lives in Portland, Oregon, where he works on numerous writing and editing projects. His 2008 novels are Escapement from Tor Books and Madness of Flowers from Night Shade Books, while his short fiction appears regularly in literary and genre markets worldwide. Jay is a winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and a multiple nominee for the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards. Jay can be reached through his blog at or his Web site at

About Ruth Nestvold

Ruth Nestvold has published in Asimov's and Realms of Fantasy, and was a recent finalist for both the Tiptree and Sturgeon awards. She holds a PhD in literature with specializations in genre issues, gender issues and hyperfiction. After getting out of academia, she switched to translation and software localization to feed the writing bug. She maintains a web site at


Apr 4, 21:44 by Bluejack

Welcome to the first feature in a new series from Jay Lake and Ruth Nestvold. Now: slipstream. Have at it.

(Read the article here.)
Apr 5, 03:25 by Mike O'Driscoll
Enjoyed your article on Slipstream, but apart from referencing Moorcock's New Worlds, you demonstrated little awareness of what slipstream means in terms of British genre writing. There's been a lively debate in these parts too, about it and related terms such as interstitial fiction or the new Weird, but for alot of Brit writers and readers, the genre whose boundaries are being transgressed is not so much SF, as the broader category of fantasy. In the early to mid 90s, there was a tremendous cross-fertilization of ideas between writers who took either horror, fantasy or SF as their starting points, and who chose to ignore the limitations of their particular genre and stray not just into associated areas, but beyond into mainstream and realist territory. These were people like Conrad Williams, Nicholas Royle, Joel Lane, Michael Marshall Smith, Justina Robson, Rhys Hughes, Tamar Yellin and others, whose concerns were less with the artificial constraints of genre - who decided what constituted a work of SF or horror, and how does one apply? - and more with utilising the tropes, themes, conventions and styles from competing narratives forms and combining them in new and interesting ways. Quite a few American writers were mining similar terrain, with their 'slipstream' stories appearing in UK small press magazines, which is where I first encountered Don Webb, Jeff Vandermeer, Wayne Allen Sallee, Martin Simpson and Misha. The magazines that published these kind of genre-slippery stories, including BBR, nemonymous, Works, and most notably over the last few years, The 3rd Alternative. In fact, Chris Kenworthy's article, 'The Movement of Hands', from TTA #1, offers as good a description of what British slipstream is, as any other I've come across. The three anthologies he edited back in the mid 90s - The Sun Rises Red, Sugar Sleep, and The Science of Sadness - were an attempt to articulate those ideas in fictional form.
The resistance to the infiltration of new modes of storytelling by those who position themselves as guardians of SF is hardly surprising. It fits in with the commercial interests of publishers view of genre as nothing more than a signifier of the target audience. Why would they want to complicate things? Why would writers who make a comfortable living writing fiction that fits into easily recognisable categories, want to jeopardise their income by confusing their readers by giving them something other than the same old 'same old'? Let them keep their ball to themselves - slipstreamers have moved on to a whole new ball game.
Apr 5, 03:49 by Jetse de Vries
I heartily agree with (Herzan?) Chimera. Of late, when slipstream (or interstitial, or whatever the name) became hot in the United States, the utmost of the American articles about it were so America-centric it was almost nauseating.

As Chimera mentioned above, the UK small press was there way before Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, Polyphony (whose editorial in the first volume also made no mention of the UK small press), and the rest.

In this matter, the USA is lagging behind, again. While cross-genre writing is now becoming generally accepted (and this is certainly no bad thing), the UK "small press" is moving on.

Watch developments in The Third Alternative...
Apr 5, 08:32 by Lois Tilton
The path that Jay Lake takes in this essay is becoming well-worn these days, but it is still a path leading nowhere, despite the traffic. Here again we see the identification of two disparate tendencies in fiction: the use of experimental language and the "blurring of genre boundaries." Why these should be thought to be the same, I can not say, but the blurring of this distinction has led to much confused discourse recently, and this essay is not likely to provide clarification.

On the contrary, matters of style [slipstream vs traditional narrative forms] and matters of subject or material [cross-genre vs genre] have nothing whatsoever to do with each other. If the fiction of the New Wave showed us anything, it was that the subject matter traditionally associated with science fiction could be treated in untraditional language. And likewise, it is entirely possible to write across, between and within the genre barriers using both the most staidly traditional and the most incomprehensibly experimental narrative devices.

There is nothing that is new in any of this. Indeed, and contrary to Lake's claim, the experimental forms of New Wave fiction were not particularly novel at the time, and far from serving as a Light Unto the Mainstream, were nothing more but an application of existing literary technique upon the more usual material of the genre.

Indeed, the example of Chrichton does nothing to advance Lake's thesis, for Chrichton has done no more than apply the mind-numbing traditional narrative style of the mainstream to the usual material of SF, damping down the flavor to the level of the mass audience's taste.

I do not really think this is where Lake wishes SF to go, although it may well be the path it must take in order to survive as a commercial genre.
Apr 5, 09:55 by Jay Lake
Man, I love it when people pick apart our assertions. Keeps us honest and keeps the discussion rolling. More comments from me later when I have time to carefully read and consider the holes you guys are shooting in our essay, but on our behalf I especially plead guilty to not going deep enough into the British side.


Apr 5, 10:07 by Deborah Layne
Jetse is right -- it was an oversight on our part to not mention the UK small presses in the introduction to the dirst Polyphony. In our defense, many of these publications are very hard to find over here. Nemonymous started about the same time as Polyphony, incidentally, so failing to mention that one was quite excusable. But, since that essay was written, I have certainly become more aware of other publishers and editors whose vision overlaps ours and whenever possible, I mention them and give them their due.

Apr 5, 14:18 by Ruth Nestvold
If I understood what we were trying to do, by citing New Wave, we were merely showing that what folks call slipstream nowadays and claim as something really cool and new is a form of genre cross-pollinization that has been around for a long time and is hardly anything to get excited about.

But, hey, maybe I misunderstood us. *g* And when you send a text out into the world, it has to fend for itself ...

Apr 5, 18:02 by Lois Tilton
My apologies to Ruth Nestvold for omitting to credit her as co-author.

Apr 6, 06:51 by Jeffrey Ford
Discussions about who came first are indications that you're already shipwrecked. The New is elsewhere my friends. This discussion is as stale as last year's bread, because it focuses on vague generalities instead of the uniqueness of individual voices. It practices the fascism of herding idiosyncratic literary imagination toward ultimate slaughter.
Apr 6, 09:41 by Bluejack
Where do you think the New is, then? Don't leave us hanging! Give us some tips!
Apr 6, 10:14 by Jeffrey Ford
The New is elsewhere and potentially anywhere there is a writer writing, but not where there are discussions of miasmatic and illusory concepts like Slipstream, etc.
Apr 6, 12:32 by Michael O'Driscoll
So what, let's not talk about writing? And speaking of vague generalities, they don't come much more vague than your suggestion of where one might locate the new, nor more general than the suggestion that all those writers keeping their gobs shut, or who haven't been mentioned in this and related discussions, are like, cultivating the uniqueness of their indiviual voices. What's really stale here are lame accusations of fascistic practices, my friend.
Apr 6, 13:18 by Jeffrey Ford
I wasn't suggesting anyone keep their gob shut, what I meant was that the new can only come from the uniqueness of a writer's, any writer's, vision, even ones with their gobs open, but can not be found in catchall phrases that try to corral idiosyncratic visions under a banner. These detract from the power of unique visions and empower reviewers and critics but do not explore the works as they are. They take individual creation and always compare it to a paradigm, and that paradigm becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I'm more interested in how writers are different than how they are alike. Take a few deep breaths there. I wasn't impugning your obvious brilliance.
In addition, I enjoyed Jay and Ruth's article, and I think to an extent they would agree, but in the essay, where there's a great opportunity to completely dismiss the term, it instead ends up being more of an apology for it.
Apr 7, 11:30 by Michael O'Driscoll
Fair enough, breath taken.
Apr 29, 21:17 by Pete Blackwell
Thanks for the article; however, it DID NOT clarify anything for me or change my mind one whit.
I've been reading SF and Fantasy since back in the 1940s, and I love to see new authors with new ideas come along: Call it what you like, I still love it.
Apr 30, 09:42 by Bluejack
What? You like reading? And you don't care what literary club the writer belongs to? Are you some kind of commie or somethin'?

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