The Best of Slipstream Stories

shelved under Sci Fi & Fantasy

Slipstream is uncomfortably defined as fiction that crosses the divide between mainstream and the speculative literatures of science fiction, fantasy, and horror. Personally, I like to think of slipstream as simply weird. It feels weird in a way that's weirder than a standard weird sf/f/h story. Physical laws are broken but no one wonders about them. The science is not rigorous or even questioned. The typical strange characters of speculative fiction — wizards, zombies, and aliens — are not usually present so you can't count on them to impart the weirdness. The humans themselves must do that, but they don't do it by being weird. They are usually the very model of normalcy. They are average, common humans like you and me. It's their very normality in the face of strange circumstances that marks a slipstream story.

Slipstream usually has a "literary" feel to it. The authors take risks with style. Often there is a "message." A lesson, perhaps, if not a downright political or social statement. Form, theme, and emotion rise above character and plot. Not that there isn't a plot, it's just that what the author is saying and how she or he is saying it is more important than the mere sequence of events. Often the characters are allegorical. The most famous example of a slipstream story is Shirley Jackson's The Lottery. The setting is what seems to be an average small American community. There is no underlying evil lurking like in a regular horror story. It is a horror story, for sure, but the naturalness of the setting and the characters never gives way to unleashed terror. There's no monster to fear. The story's plausibility is never questioned. The Lottery feels real even though the circumstances are unbelievable. That's slipstream. The line between reality and fantasy is quite simply, obliterated.

Because defining slipstream is so... well, slippery, I contacted some of the experts in the field to get opinions. The experts include: Annalee Newitz, chief editor and contributor to io9.com, the wildly popular science fiction site which mostly features news about movies but also some of the best criticism of the literature as well. Matthew Kressel and Gavin Grant are the editors of Sybil's Garage and Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet respectively. See info on their publications in the list. Martin Lewis has strong opinions on the subject and voices them well. Jacob Weisman is the owner of Tachyon Publications, publisher of a number of slipstream titles. And finally I contacted the man who invented the term, Bruce Sterling. I thank all of them for giving me their opinions.

Below is my list of Flashlight Worthy slipstream stories. Enjoy.

Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology

Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology

edited by John Kessel, James Patrick Kelly

This anthology edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel is first on the list for two reasons. First, it's the best place to start if you want to figure out what the slipstream genre is all about. Not so much for the stories — because there is disagreement on whether or not the stories are the best examples — but because the editors give a detailed explanation of slipstream. Not wanting to play the god card and leave you with a two-person-only perspective, Kessel and Kelly included a running Internet conversation between various other slipstream experts. They interspersed it between the stories. It's fun and funny, and very slipstreamish. A weird little extra self-aware tidbit. Another reason this book comes first is because two of the experts, Gavin Grant and no less than the originator of the term, Bruce Sterling, suggested it. I'd like to point out that the aforementioned Martin Lewis does not care for the book, but I enjoyed it immensely and the writing is first-rate.

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The Cyberiad

The Cyberiad

by Stanislaw Lem

Much of Stanislaw Lem's work is slipstream. It's generally classified as science fiction, but it is much more than that. The Cyberiad is a collection of short stories set in a universe populated by robots. The main characters are Trurl and Klapaucius. They are "constructors," meaning they construct robots. They are themselves robots. The stories detail their adventures as the selfish and sometimes cruel pair go about the galaxy seeking riches and fame. Their stories read like fantasies at times, fables at other times with lots of jokes that seem like they were written by a calculus instructor: the terms are familiar, but they're not easy to understand. There is no mention of where this universe exists in time and space, but the reader does get a hint that the robots were initially invented by humans, the pale albuminoids that are almost completely extinct. Trurl and Klapaucius argue about whether or not such pitiful creatures could have been their ancestors. In fact they don't believe in evolution. The arguments mirror our own about intelligent design and what fossils really are. Incredibly great prose and a wonderful sense of humor with a setting in the far future satirizing modern culture and the icons of our mythology lands this book in the slipstream milieu. It's great literature to boot.

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The Mount

The Mount

by Carol Emshwiller

Like Stanislaw Lem, much of Emshwiller's work is slipstream. The Mount is a sad tale of humanity turned into a race of slaves. An alien species has invaded the planet and now humans have been demoted to the role of the horse. If we're lucky we get born into a nice family that patiently teaches us how to obey commands and go to the bathroom in the right part of the barn. We learn early on how to carry our masters on our shoulders. Some unlucky individuals, born with a nasty temperament, experience a cruel fate. They are subjected to the harsh punishments and painful constraints. Resistance means death. The prose in The Mount is simple as the story is told from the viewpoint of a young person who is without benefit of formal education or anything that challenges the human mind. The simple story holds a deeper meaning though: not only could this be you, but it should be you. We deserve it. Endowing a human with the mind and plight of one of our most "cherished" animals puts this story clearly in the slipstream camp. Extra credit for the lessons taught.

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Fugue State

Fugue State

by Brian Evenson, illustrated by Zak Sally

These stories could perhaps be listed as horror stories, but they are not gory nor will not induce heart attack. The usual horror characters: vampires, monsters, and werewolves are not found here. Instead, the horror comes from the psychological off-kilteredness of the characters. They seem to be normal people but placed somehow in uneasy situations. They're unreasonably paranoid, but as the story moves on, their paranoia appears well founded, but further on the reader himself begins to frequently look behind as he walks down the street. Evenson's interesting methods of storytelling are used to great effect. For example the first story takes an important moment in time and has the character relive it for about twenty years. Reading these stories makes me think I might know what descending into senility feels like. You often wonder who is the sick-minded individual, the narrator or the antagonist, or maybe even the reader herself. For the psychological fears traveling over subnormal terrain, Evenson's stories are prime examples of slipstream.

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Beloved

Beloved

by Toni Morrison

Morrison's book usually would be classified as a ghost story. The beautifully descriptive prose alone, though, sets this above the rest. Morrison makes the reader sympathize with the most hated creature in the world: the mother who murders her own child. What balls. But further, she is not content with telling a story of a victim coming back to haunt the accused. She's not interested in shocking us, or merely coming up with something worse than we've seen before, although she could easily have left it at that. Morrison's story is much more. It's a history lesson, an illustration of society gone wrong and making bad choices. The subject matter, the cruelties of slavery, has been done before. But where Uncle Tom's Cabin is sanctimonious and obvious, Beloved is realistic and subtle. The brutality is not witnessed so much as felt. Morrison elegantly justifies murder of a child. She not only depicts the circumstances, the consequences, the aftermath, the price to pay, she also puts the reader in the shoes of the murderer. Not to witness the events, but to feel them. We feel the anguish, the pain, the humiliation, the knowledge of what is to come. We viscerally understand and react in a way that's far beyond wringing our hands over Simon Legree. We go to bed sick at heart, depressed, despondent as if things haven't changed after all. It's a slipstream sort of manipulation that happens without us seeing it creep up on us.

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Breakfast of Champions

Breakfast of Champions

by Kurt Vonnegut

Halfway through this book, the author inserts himself as the narrator, not by name but by recognizable circumstances. The story itself is hard to follow, but we hang in there and read the book for Vonnegut's wit and cultural lampoons. Especially revealing are references to the failed career of the narrator. Is Vonnegut bitter? Is he bemoaning the plight of the author? Perhaps, but the cultural clutter that is modern life's loud and tasteless commercialism is what the story is about. Like Morrison's Beloved, there's a big lesson here beyond the events of the story. It's not a slight book, even though the plot seems slight. The hand drawings peppered throughout the book give it an impressionistic feel. Vonnegut looks quickly at the world and this is the impression he gets. And like an impressionistic painting, if you look closely you're not going to get the details, you're only going to get blobs. Stand back, and view the thing as a whole to get the idea. Perceive the book this way and you understand it. Some slipstream requires you do that.

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The Best of Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet

The Best of Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet

edited by Gavin Grant, Kelly Link

It seems to me most of slipstream is written in the short form and therefore some of the best slipstream is found only in literary zines or magazines. Longer novels tend to be more constrained by commercial limitations, maybe. Short story writers are allowed to stretch out and experiment. Or perhaps it's harder to sustain the strangeness for a full length novel. At any rate short stories of slipstream abound. One of the best outlets is Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet well as Sybil's Garage. The content of any fiction magazine is a reflection of the editors' tastes. Both the editors for these pubs, Gavin Grant and Matthew Kressel respectively, have exquisite taste. They give us stories that are not just weird, but very well written. Any author that makes it into either one of these magazines has arrived. I pick up copies whenever I come across them.

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Invisible Man

Invisible Man

by Ralph Ellison

Annalee Newitz finds things in books that most of us overlook. She sent me a list of slipstream books that included Ellison's Invisible Man. I include it here on her recommendation: "It's a literary classic which uses metaphors from B-grade horror movies and science fiction to explain what it's like to be a black man in white-dominated America during the first half of the twentieth century."

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Zeitgeist

Zeitgeist

by Bruce Sterling

Back in 2001, Martin Lewis came up with a list of important slipstream books. I enjoy his viewpoint even though I don't always agree with it. Here's a fine book I wouldn't have included as slipstream, but Lewis insisted: "In Sterling's essay he claimed he did not write slipstream but he clearly does. Zeitgeist is the full length debut of his recurring character Leggy Starlitz, avatar of the Twentieth Century. Managing a girl group as the Millennium nears he finds that his time is running out along with the century." So Sterling, who invented the term is saying it's not slipstream, but a critic disagrees, so we must consider. I'm finding I agree with Lewis. The story has a realistic feel with lots of identifiable culture artifacts such as the cult of personality and back room maneuvers of the global stage, but included are very unreal elements which, for all their unrealness don't fit the science fiction mold. There's a smattering of weird tech gizmo here, but the unreal elements more fit into fantasy. If nothing else the fact that we can't all agree about what genre the book is in addition to Sterling's excellent writing and subtle humor, indicates that this is a slipstream book.

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The Secret History of Science Fiction

The Secret History of Science Fiction

edited by John Kessel, James Patrick Kelly

I'm finishing up this list with another anthology from Kelly and Kessel. I've only just started reading it and I'm finding the book to be astounding. It's not outwardly a book of slipstream stories, but with the literary and experimental nature of what I've read so far, I can tell it belongs in this category. I've actually stopped reading it because Ursula Le Guin's story, The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas, is so profound and has struck me in such a way that I'm finding it impossible to go on until I think through it completely. It's not a difficult story to understand, but like Jackson's The Lottery, it's making me wonder. And if there's one thing slipstream stories do better than any other form of writing, it's to make you wonder.

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