I have recently been browsing my way through Brave New Words, Jeff Prucher’s dictionary of science fiction words. Rarely have I been a happier geek. There’s just something satisfying about reading through detailed citations for skimmer, skinsuit, slan, slash (although can the first usage of “slash” as a noun really be as late as 1984?), sleeper ship, slidewalk, slideway … and then coming to that most contentious of terms, slipstream.
slipstream n. [after MAINSTREAM] literature which makes use of the tropes or techniques of genre science fiction or fantasy, but which is not considered to be genre science fiction or fantasy; the genre of such literature. Hence slipstreamer, n., slipstreamish, adj., slipstreamy, adj.
1989 B. Sterling SF Eye (July) 78/2: We could call this kind of fiction Novels of Postmodern Sensibility, but that looks pretty bad on a category rack, and requires an acronym besides; so for the sake of convenience and argument, we will call these books “slipstream.
1992 Locus (Aug.) 11/3: “In Concert” is a slipstream story about an amateur rock musician in Sevastapol trying to gain entry into the stadium.
1995 SFRA Rev. (May-June) 54: A slipstreamy science fiction story about a virus that causes a rather peculiar neurological dysfunction with satisfyingly serendipitous results.
1995 Interzone (61/2): Territories issue four is subtitled the sf and slipstream journal. In this context, the meaning of “slipstream” is refreshingly unpretentious, something along the lines of “non-SF things that are likely to interest SF readers.”
2002 Locus (Sept.) 15/1: The January issue of The Silver Web is their fifteenth, and editor Ann Kennedy chooses a decidedly slipstreamish mix.
2003 D.G. Hartwell & K. Cramer Intro. in Year’s Best Fantasy 3 xv: On noticeable trend evidence in some of these is toward non-genre, or genre-bending, or slipstream fantastic fiction.
2003 P. Di Filippo Asimov’s SF (Apr.) 132/1: The British fantasist Steve Erikson (not to be confused with US slipstreamer Steve Erickson) extends the vision of his fantasy land of Malazan.
2003 C. Priest Guardian (London) (Internet) (June 14): It includes rather than categorises — while not being magic realism, or fantasy, or science fiction, slipstream literature includes many examples of these.
See the definition change before your eyes! We’ll have to see if the panel at this year’s Readercon agrees …
(I wonder what the rationale is for giving the author for the cites from Asimov’s and The Guardian not not those from Locus or Interzone? Must have a poke around in the notes at the front to see if this is explained. Although I’m guessing the 2002 cite is Rich Horton.)
15 thoughts on “Brave New Slipstream”
I am bothered by the dictionary precisely because the citations very often do not seem to include the earliest use. There are in fact several words where the first citation says something along the lines of ‘this is now generally termed X’ – which as good as says that X was in common use for some time previously.
As for slipstream – and interstitial and all the rest of them – the first thing to note is that all of these terms come from within sf. Nobody outwith the genre seems to feel any need for such a category. The second thing is that the very existence of the terms seems to suggest a profound sense that there are lots of stories out there that we’d really like to claim as our own but somehow can’t.
Personally, I think that if you see literature as occupying a continuum with realism at one extreme and the fantastic at the other, then there are bound to be lots of works that occupy the middle ground and cannot definitively be gathered into one camp or the other. And in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter a damn.
the first thing to note is that all of these terms come from within sf.
Well, that is one of the criteria for inclusion in the dictionary…
I’ve just checked, though, and “interstitial” doesn’t make the cut.
See the definition change before your eyes!
What!? Virtually none of those are definitions so what are you seeing change? Hardly any of those references even describe slipstream and idiotic one quoted in Interzone is the only one that really differs from Sterling (and not by that much.)
Virtually none of those are definitions so what are you seeing change?
Well, you can infer definition from usage. But I was specifically thinking of the difference between the Sterling quote and the Priest quote, and the fact that the latter seems to be taken as the basis of the actual dictionary definition.
Niall: I meant words like slipstream and interstitial and the like, all those attempts to define a genre that doesn’t exist.
And the citations are not definitions, they are examples of usage. The definition is no more than the sentence immediately after the word ‘slipstream’ at the top of the entry. I have no real problems with the definition (or with any of the definitions in the dictionary), but I do have a problem with the citations.
Paul, I agree that partly this is to do with the massive chip on the genre’s shoulder. However those outwith do come up with words like “magical realism” and “post-modern” for the same reason as the genre came up with slipstream: to point at a bunch of stuff that shares similar features and say “these sort of books are quite interesting in a particular way”.
Well, you can infer definition from usage.
Can you balls.
the difference between the Sterling quote and the Priest quote,
Does it make that much difference?
“It includes rather than categorises — while not being magic realism, or fantasy, or science fiction, literature of a post-modern sensibility includes many examples of these.”
In that I can see how to get from the Priest quote to the dictionary definition but can’t see how to get from the Sterling quote to the dictionary definition, yes, I do think it makes a difference. But we’ve been round this loop many times now. :)
I always figured that the term is useful not so much as a description as for charting an aspiration. By this I don’t mean an aspiration to get away from genre sf, but an aspiration to produce fiction which does something to reality. This is certainly how I took Priest’s definition – an attempt to find a way to explain what he does in his fiction: wearing away at the boundaries of everyday life.
Okay, okay, I’ll stop. But not before noting that the Sterling quote is a very small snippet from a long (and pretty incoherent) essay.
…Every time I hear the word slipstream, I think of the movie with Mark Hamill–a movie I love and think is very underrated.
Sometimes I wonder why humans bother using verbal language; it’s a recipe for mass confusion when so many can’t seem (refuse?) to agree on the meanings of most words, not just in the slipstream case. Even basic used-in-nearly-every-sentence words may be defined differently in different dictionaries.
I’ve never been a dogged follower of current events so usually lag behind time-wise: I only recently realized what slipstream was/is supposed to mean, and I also realized half the stuff I write should probably be categorized that way too, assuming anything should be “categorized,” which I’m not crazy about doing.
But maybe slipstream’s the kind of thing you have to feel but can’t necessarily define in specific, like you’ll know it when you read it. I think slipstream could be science fiction, just maybe a subset of science fiction, the way science fiction could be viewed as a subset of fantasy (sometimes I think the supposed lines between fantasy and science fiction are dotted lines, not solid ones). In that Sterling essay, he classified Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale as being slipstream, which it would be according to his definition, but I always thought of AHT as science fiction, at least in part.
To me, science fiction is a broad category, probably a lot more broad than most of today’s regular readers of science fiction think. “Science” fiction doesn’t require science-speak; it may have that, it may not. SF usually contains a logical, clinical and/or philosophical approach to the fictional universe being described, or a logical approach on the characters’ parts, or both, and often within a trying-to-figure-something-out context, like something strange or unusual or “other” has been happening in those worlds, and a methodical approach is necessary to understanding the occurrences. I’ve been reading/rereading a bunch of Ray Bradbury’s stories, and I think people today would say most of Bradbury’s stories aren’t science fiction. But I’d probably disagree with a bunch of their choices. I also think some of his stories fit into slipstream.
At the same time, I like and agree with what Paul said, “Personally, I think that if you see literature as occupying a continuum with realism at one extreme and the fantastic at the other, then there are bound to be lots of works that occupy the middle ground and cannot definitively be gathered into one camp or the other. And in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter a damn.”
Good writing is good writing–that’s the only label that counts in the end.
Good writing is always welcome but it can hardly be taken as the be all and end all – in any case there are no objective criteria for making that call. Genre is important. Historically, for instance, epic and drama are different things and should be judged on different criteria. Likewise, I would argue that sf has different criteria to other genres including so-called ‘literary’ fiction. Otherwise, a situation arises in which the self-appointed arbiters of taste are simply able to dismiss whole categories of stuff on the grounds that there is one possible framework and everything must follow it (rounded characters, convincing dialogue, believable plot, finely-turned prose etc etc).
One reason that people don’t like the term ‘slipstream’ (which, note, I do not claim as a hard and fast category – I think Priest calls it an attitude) is because it calls into question a number of hierarchies, that otherwise are allowed to continue exercising their little tyrannies.
When I read Sterling’s original essay at the time I was thrilled by it, somebody was highlighting that huge range of books that seemed SF-ish to me but were ignored by Vector and the other reviewzines. There was something wooly about Sterling’s definition of slipstream but there is something woolly about any definition of SF I’ve ever seen too.
What I would say is that this Dictionary cites Sterling’s first usage, but ignores his subsequent attempt at definition. You cannot therefore compare Sterling to Priest, they’re doing different things in those quotes.
Last word from Sterling himself:
“A “slipstream critic,” should such a person ever exist, would probably disagree with these statements of mine, or consider them peripheral to what his genre “really” does.”