“Slipstream” is a genre of fiction. Or it isn’t—that seems to be the big debate. I’ve been sending fiction to get published for the last year or so, and “slipstream” is a term that keeps coming up, alongside “cyberpunk,” “dystopia,” “military scifi,” “science-fantasy,” “weird fiction,” and all the other subgenres of science fiction or speculative fiction that are well established. So what is “slipstream?” The Wikipedia page linked here offers an explanation, as does the anthology Feeling Very Strange, published in 2006. It’s edited by James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel, and as you can see where this is going, this is the book I’m currently reading.
The editors’ definition of what slipstream is consists a lot more of what slipstream is not, with a bit of “you’ll know it when you see it” thrown in for good measure. Or it seems like slipstream is weird science fiction (that’s an actual genre) that is literary. I like their test, that “reading slipstream makes you feel very strange.” So far—I’m halfway through—the anthology is, however, a mixed bag in that regard. For example, the first story, “Al,” is very strange. It’s surreal and well-written, though it would be a hard sell in a scifi magazine. Honestly, I’m not sure how to describe it, except to say that an airplane crash victim joins a circus. He joins because his plane just crashed next to the circus. There’s also a lot of shifting perspective. It makes me feel like… it’s magic realism. Actually, I’d wager it is magic realism (opinion: its magical realism).
The second story, “The Little Magic Shop” (1987) is hilarious. It’s one of the best stories I’ve ever read, and it’s about a man who keeps buying a life-elongating elixir from an unscrupulous magic shop. This story isn’t unlike Stephen King’s Needful Things, or even that “Rick and Morty” episode “Something Ricked This Way Comes” (which is just a spoof of Needful Things). I’ll read “The Little Magic Shop” many times again in the future, I’m sure—it’s that funny. But it didn’t make me feel strange, and it isn’t like magical realism. The third story is “The Healer” (1998). It’s about one girl with a hand made of ice, and another with a hand made of fire. They become friends, but then they stop talking, and then they become friends again, and I’m not sure what to exactly make of it.
Did “The Healer” make me feel strange? A little more than the story “Al,” I guess. But I also think a lot of stories from many other genres could make someone feel strange, as neat as that definition sounds. Perhaps it is dangerous to have a genre or subgenre defined by feelings rather than the more objective conventions, along the lines of what defines scifi, or fantasy, or romance, or detective fiction. Obviously, Feeling Very Strange was published over thirteen years ago. I’m going to come back to this topic once I finish the anthology, and I know neither Kelly nor Kessel are the arbiters of what this genre consists of. For now, I’ll enjoy these short stories—and short stories are my very favorite type of literature—and if you have your own thoughts or feelings (strange feelings?) on slipstream fiction, I’d love to hear them.
–Jeff and Leah