I’ve been hearing a lot lately about a literary genre that has been dubbed Slipstream.

Now, I’m not really one to care about literary genres. As far as I’m concerned a good story is a good story regardless of what genre box it is placed into (and to me, Slipstream is the title of a song from Jethro Tull’s 1971 album Aqualung). However, reading about the slipstream genre has got me thinking about this because the definition so ephemeral.

According to Wikipedia, Slipstream is: “…a kind of fantastic or non-realistic fiction that crosses conventional genre boundaries between science fiction/fantasy and mainstream literary fiction…Slipstream falls between speculative fiction and mainstream fiction. While some slipstream novels employ elements of science fiction or fantasy, not all do. The common unifying factor of these pieces of literature is some degree of the surreal, the not-entirely-real, or the markedly anti-real.”

Okay, that sounds good but as a definition it is kind of slippery. So what are examples of writing that can be called Slipstream? Well, apparently Kurt Vonnegut was writing slipstream fiction without even knowing it. His 1969 novel Slaughterhouse 5 is an example of the Slipstream genre. J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun is an example. So is Brian Aldis’ Life in the West and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

Okay, these are “literary” works with somewhat of a fantasy or SF element to them, sure, but let’s go on. Also on the list, apparently, is The Princess Bride by William Goldman and Arthur Rex by Thomas Berger. Huh?

So what gives?

The term slipstream was coined by author Bruce Sterling in an article originally published in July 1989. Sterling, along with William Gibson, was one of the early writers of the so-called “cyberpunk” movement back in the 1980’s. He also seems to specialize in creating literary genres. He is credited with (or at least he takes credit for) creating the literary genre of steampunk along with William Gibson in their 1990 novel The Difference Engine. This was before steampunk was co-opted into a visual esthetic.

Of slipstream Sterling writes: “…this is a kind of writing which simply 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. That doesn’t help much either. I lived most of my life in the twentieth century, so how can living in it feel strange? Strange as compared to what? Do we all feel better now that we’re living in the twenty-first century? Within this broad definition also could fit works as disparate as Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

And what about literature from previous centuries. One feels strange when reading Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Are they slipstream books?

It’s starting to sound like one of those: “…whatever I am pointing to when I say the word” kind of definitions. You know, as I try to chase this slipstream thing down I begin to feel more and more like Alice chasing the white rabbit.

Curioser and curioser indeed!