Slipstream, part 3.

One of my favorite literary genres at this point is what author Bruce Sterling once dubbed slipstream. Slipstream, which includes the work of authors like Steve Erickson and Haruki Murakami, occupies a middle ground between ‘straight’ fiction and science fiction or fantasy. Like fantasy, slipstream stories play fast and loose with the boundaries of what can be considered strict realism, incorporating elements that may appear outlandish or inexplicable (if not actually supernatural) within what is otherwise a realistic setting and tone.

A defining slipstream moment, in my mind, is a scene in Haruki Murakami’s novel Sputnik Sweetheart in which the character Miu describes being atop a Ferris wheel near her vacation hotel, seeing through opera glasses that two mysterious figures are having sex in her hotel room, and realizing to her astonishment that one of the figures is she herself. The novel offers no explanation for this unnerving moment, which leaves the character profoundly disturbed. Was it a bad dream, a hallucination, or something much stranger? The character doesn’t know, and Murakami leaves the interpretation to the reader.

What distinguishes slipstream from standard fantasy (and in this case, I use “fantasy” as a blanket term, encompassing science fiction, speculative fiction, horror, and magical fantasy of the Terry Pratchett variety) is that lack of explanation. When fantasy breaks the rules of what’s generally accepted as realism, it offers an alternative framework in their place. If a character vanishes into thin air in a fantasy story, the author will eventually present a demi-rational explanation. Perhaps the vanished character has been whisked by some form of magical or technological teleportation. Maybe a time traveler has altered history and caused her to cease to exist. Or maybe she wasn’t really there to begin with — maybe she was a hologram or a magical illusion. Whatever the reason, if the protagonist or POV character doesn’t understand it at the outset, he or she will figure it out during the course of the story. The unspoken contract between the author and the reader is that the author will eventually reveal what really happened. In that respect, fantasy is not about unreality so much as alternative reality.

By contrast, slipstream does not necessarily offer that reassurance. Even if the protagonist or another character does provide a coherent (if not rational) explanation of the story’s odd events, there’s no guarantee that it will be the truth. The protagonist is left to draw conclusions based on his or her own first-hand experience.

The effect of that subjectivity is to change the narrative’s center of gravity. A fantasy story’s focus tends to be, to one degree or another, on the characters’ interaction with the mechanics of the story’s alternative reality. (In a sense, it has to be, if the fantastical elements are to have any narrative purpose.) A slipstream story’s focus is on the characters’ experience of the unusual — how they perceive their experience (and sometimes how they reconcile not understanding it).

You might reasonably ask how slipstream differs from magical realism, which also inserts fantastical elements into otherwise realistic settings and stories. The distinction is a subtle one, and there are a lot of slipstream stories that could reasonably be classified as magical realism. For me, the distinction is primarily one of surety. The fantastical elements of a magical realist story may not have an explanation or rules (at least that are presented to the reader), but their reality within the context of the story is not in question. For example, at a climactic moment of Carlos Trillo and Domingo Mandrafina’s satirical graphic novel Cosecha Verde (a.k.a. La gran patraña, or The Big Hoax in English translation), the fictional nation of La Colonia is struck by a night that lasts for several days. The story offers no particular explanation of why this happens, but its reality within the story is not in doubt — all the characters experience and remark on it, even though they find it odd. Slipstream rarely leaves its oddities so cut and dried; they tend to focus more on “relativistic” effects, things that only one character sees, or are only seen by a few among the multitude.

Three things become clear about slipstream as a genre:

  • It’s usually somewhat unsettling.
  • Being unsettling or discomfiting is part of the point.
  • Making such a story dramatically satisfying is tricky, because it involves an inherent lack of closure.

When Bruce Sterling coined the term slipstream in 1989, he said that its central purpose and unifying theme was capturing the strangeness of living in the late 20th century (and now the early 21st). In that sense, it’s a form of speculative fiction. Rather than speculating about a specific sociopolitical trend or technological development, slipstream is principally concerned with the nature of change. It examines the psychological and emotional impact of living in a world whose technology, priorities, and rules can change significantly without notice. This is the reason why most slipstream stories are set in the modern era; the genre’s fundamental discomfiture only really works if the story takes place within a familiar setting.

Why do I like slipstream? As I said in my previous post, I’ve come to find fantasy narratives unsatisfying — they create a cognitive dissonance between my intellectual experience of the story and my emotional experience. Looking at a story intellectually isn’t necessarily bad, but it doesn’t provide the emotional experience that I’m looking for in fiction. I might find the ideas interesting or compelling, but if it’s only the ideas, I’d rather the author wrote an essay about them, rather than a story. Since slipstream is more concerned with experience than ideas, its strangeness can serve to draw me more fully into its emotional journey, rather than throwing me out of it.

The frequent drawback of slipstream is that it doesn’t necessarily provide a lot in the way of closure, and their plots don’t necessarily make a great deal of linear sense. When I was younger, I just thought stories like that were weird, if not infuriating. Coming to embrace them has required a substantial shift in my own outlook.

The world is a weird place. As even a casual reading of modern physics makes clear, the physical universe around us is deeply strange. We can’t routinely perceive a lot of the truly odd stuff because of our scale, but bizarre, deeply counter-intuitive things happen around us all the time. Add to that the potential for vast social and technological change in a remarkably short time, and discomfiture is the rule, not the exception. Contemplating that — which is something that can cause profound vertigo — has given me a new appreciation for the Weird.

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2 thoughts on “Slipstream, part 3.”

  1. Aaron Severson

    Haruki Murakami's books frequently fall into this realm: <strong>Sputnik Sweetheart</strong>; <strong>A Wild Sheep Chase</strong> and its sequel, <strong>Dance, Dance, Dance</strong>; <strong>The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles</strong>; <strong>Kafka on the Shore</strong>. Steve Erickson's <strong>The Sea Came in at Midnight</strong> would qualify (his latest <strong>Our Ecstatic Days</strong>, which involves several of the same characters, is even stranger, but its oddities are more explicit: a giant lake that consumes Hollywood, a woman falling between dimensions), as would <strong>Zeroville</strong>. I'd put Jim Dodge's <strong>Not Fade Away</strong> in this category, because it has the same kind of emotional effect on me, although I'm sure some people would dispute that, saying it's more of a picaresque.

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