An Introduction to Slipstream

It’s been pretty quiet on CreativInfluence lately, and we’re not going to make any excuses for that. But as a sort of comeback post, it seems appropriate to discuss one of the “newer” genres of literature – “newer,” because it’s less of an actual genre that has surfaced and is negotiating its own generic boundaries, and more of something that has been pieced together from existing genres. Which, one may argue, is basically the case for a lot of genres in writing. But I digress.

What we have here now, folks, is a neat thing called slipstream, which sounds like a pretty slick genre. A quick look at the Wikipedia page on this subject gives you this:

Slipstream is a kind of fantastic or non-realistic fiction that crosses conventional genre boundaries between science fiction, fantasy, and literary fiction.

The given definition doesn’t sound quite as helpful as it should be, as it still does sound rather vague. How does slipstream cross “conventional genre boundaries” between genre fiction and literary fiction? In fact, we exist in a world where writing has become experimental in terms of genre identity. What defines science fiction? What defines fantasy? There are things we call science fantasy, even, and military fantasy, to name a few. How tenuous are the so-called conventional genre boundaries of these genres, and how does this tenuousness affect slipstream’s attempt to challenge these boundaries?

That may be a story for another day. The answer for the penultimate question in the previous paragraph, interestingly, may just simply be slipstream. We are already questioning genre boundaries anyway. Are science fiction texts defined by their settings, their features – aliens, space, the like? Likewise, fantasy fiction? How can genre fiction be literary? Slipstream tries to answer that. There are texts that are elusive enough that they cannot fit a single genre, and so have to make one “new” genre to encompass that.

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.

The main thing about slipstream is that it has to be unreal. So perhaps one can also consider it magical realism. Or fantastic literary. A lot of names and words can be used to describe slipstream, but one cannot truly feel what it is until one is given a sampling of the genre’s texts. British writer Christopher Priest (who is, apparently, and incidentally, a slipstream writer himself) offers his own list of top ten slipstream books, and the list is marked by names like J.G. Ballard, Angela Carter, and Jose Luis Borges. Priest also gives Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale – a dystopia that does not necessarily carry the traditional elements of science fiction (incidentally, it won the 1987 Arthur C. Clarke Award, which is a prestigious award given to the best science fiction novel among a list of nominated texts) – as an example of a slipstream text, and cites authors such as Haruki Murakami and Gabriel Garcia Marquez as slipstream authors.

If it gets a little confusing, that’s alright. The authors mentioned, as well as the texts given, all test boundaries of the genres they’ve been fit into. They go outside of their generic boundaries – J.G. Ballard’s Crash, for example, is not necessarily science fiction, but it carries elements that invite your suspension of disbelief – and define their own settings and content. If you can’t define slipstream with a clean definition, you can at least get a sense of what it is through the authors and the works associated with it. Here is a great article called Slipstream 101 by the Science Fiction Research Association, and introduces you to the basics of slipstream. You may want to look at that post and read through all of it.

What one can get from slipstream, though, is this: that you can also test your writing boundaries, or the boundaries of the genres that you know. Let elements of other genres bleed into your own writing, because that can add zest and flavor to your piece. And not just your own piece – it’s amazing what you can find when you run through a list of books and read through them, the common feature of all these texts being that they refuse to be confined to one specific genre. This allows for the luxury of experimenting with the text. Try to expose yourself to slipstream – it might yield some interesting results.

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Future Imperfect: The Creative, Profound Ways Cyberpunk Deals With Crime and Humanity

Cyberpunk is one of the many subgenres of science fiction, and primarily deals with dark, futuristic locales, cyborgs, and criminal intent, and often takes on a noir feel. Think about urban nightlife, populate it with a lot of cybernetic things, flying cars, and outrageously outfitted criminals, and you’re probably going to get the feel of it.

It’s an interesting subgenre, because it deviates from the instantly conjured image when science fiction comes to mind – that is, stars, space, robots, colonies on other planets, and aliens. Cyberpunk grounds science fiction perhaps a little closer to home. In fact, a lot of the early cyberpunk works are interesting because to us, they’re familiar now. Take Synners, or Neuromancer. While not familiar in the sense that what they’re showing is reality, we have at least reached the level of technology where what has happened in early cyberpunk fiction is not impossible by today’s standards.

But sure, the Internet is not a mystified spectacle, and we’ve all had our fair share of visuals and virtual realities, experienced in different ways. The one thing that cyberpunk deals a lot of with is crime, since a lot of cyberpunk fiction anchors events in seedy underbellies with black market technology, and cyberpunk is able to negotiate with crime in so many creative with.

Take the Japanese anime Psycho-Passfor example. The premise is intriguing: in a futuristic Japan, the Public Safety Bureau solves crimes and attempts to preempt crimes by analyzing an individual’s Crime Coefficient – that is, the likelihood of him or her committing crime. Machines are everywhere in the series, and much of the technology the viewer is presented with figures out a person’s psychological state, this being the basis of whether or not one has criminal tendencies and the means to kill. And certainly it’s a brutal series, and certainly it challenges ideas and morals. Is it unethical to capture someone who’s only likely to commit a crime, but has not actually been caught red-handed? Is it alright to just rely on Dominators – guns that determine someone’s Crime Coefficient, and depending on the Coefficient, choose whether what you shoot is a paralyzing shot or a lethal one? The dependence on technology is obvious, and one questions whether the approaches are humane, whether there is even room for a human thread to run in the Public Safety Bureau’s line of work.

Psycho-Pass reminds me of a – not necessarily cyberpunk – short story by one of science fiction’s biggest and most influential names, Philip K. Dick. You might be familiar with the movie, but [The] Minority Report started out as a story about a Commissioner John Anderton, and the Precrime system, which predicts – through the help of people called ‘precogs,’ essentially people who can see into the future – which crimes will be committed in the future. And, accordingly, apprehend the criminals before a glimmer of criminal intent even sparks in their minds. It’s an interesting concept that deals with the question of whether or not someone should already be arrested before the crime is even committed. If, without a doubt, an individual would be guilty of a certain crime, then is it humane to arrest the individual while he or she is still innocent? But of course, it’s not that simple, because you will find out in the text that the Precrime system is not actually a hundred percent accurate.

There’s also the film, Blade Runner, which is based on Philip K. Dick’s book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? It involves an authority figure – a Blade Runner – called Deckard who’s tasked to apprehend renegade Replicants – essentially androids (and they look like humans – no immediate, on-the-spot way to figure out of they are Replicants) made to be shipped off to colonies where they’re supposed to do menial work. The film puts into question ideas of humanity, and what makes one really human.

There are, of course, much, much more cyberpunk works worth reading and seeing, and many of them – like any good piece of fiction – unsettle and make the individual questions things which are otherwise taken for granted. Cyberpunk is amazing, because it’s unrealistic but also realistic, in the way that the worlds and what is happening in them are familiar, in the way that the dynamics presented in them are familiar, except clothed in a lot of neon, grime, and cybernetic fixtures.

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Dead Worlds or Dying: The Realism of Science Fiction and Fantasy

Speculative fiction, in general, does not have the tendency to be realistic. Fantasy is suffused with the elements of the magical, and science fiction may feature improbable – but not impossible – technology to the reader whose real-life experience with tech is only really dominated by audio-visual media. There are no elves in real life, no unicorns, no hellspawn climbing out of the cracks in the earth. No one knows if aliens are real. Humanity hasn’t even reached the point where lunar or Martian communities are a reality, so the immediate idea is that speculative fiction and realism do not go together well.

Interestingly, though, speculative fiction, for all the fantastic, improbably, and supernatural things that happen within the genre, can afford to do one thing effectively. That is, to expose a spectrum of truths, and to talk about society and its flaws, without subjecting the reader to the entire heft of such serious topics. One of the pieces that I would consider early speculative fiction – or what I would refer to here as proto-spec fic – is Thomas More’s Utopia, which details the culture, geography, and general habits of the Utopians, who live in the titular Utopia. (Interestingly, and this is included as a note in Utopia, More may have derived the word “Utopia” from eutopia or outopia, meaning ‘good place’ and ‘no place,’ respectively.) It is a work that is several centuries old, though if one reads the text right now, it still sounds as improbable as it might have sounded back when More first worked on it. The Utopians keep a strict population count, keep to themselves, keep to a strict set of working hours and leisure hours, and are never idle. Utopia sounds solidly conceived, and everyone can afford to be happy – which was a fantasy then, and which is still a fantasy to us now.

Speculative fiction has grown since then, of course. Under the fantasy genre, sub-genres abound. Urban fantasy, young adult fantasy, and high fantasy all exist. Science fiction has spawned a range of subgenres like space operas, cyberpunk, and steampunk. Texts like Gibson’s Neuromancer, Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World are just some of the popular science fiction texts today.

All these examples and I haven’t even expounded on my point yet. One time, my professor asked the class why fantasy is an effective tool in tackling philosophical topics like existentialism. I’m broadening the scope to include science fiction in the picture. In general, speculative fiction manages to talk about problems that the world is tackling right now without letting the reader bear the entire weight of the implications, possibilities, and realities presented within speculative fiction as a genre. Take Brave New World, for example. Immediately obvious is its critique of mass production – among other things – mass production being something that the world was being preoccupied with at the turn of the 20th century, of course. Pat Cadigan’s Synners concerns itself with the marriage between human and technology, through the use of sockets of music videos, both essentially dehumanizing the human being and blurring the line between being man and being machine.

The point is, in broad strokes, speculative fiction can afford to be vocal or critical on issues that society chooses not to view. Clothing societal issues in the guise of other worlds – worlds that are not our own – makes our reality easier to digest, without having the message get lost on the reader. Hopefully, sometime later, I will talk about this in more specific terms, but the idea is, I hope, there. Even in the guise of the unrealistic, speculative fiction has the ability to show us what our realities are like, and to drive home these realities and the implications that they have.

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