I heard the term ‘slipstream’ to identify a certain kind of contemporary narrative effect for the first time a couple of days ago, and since then I have become very intrigued by it. My encounter with it was on a post in Torque Control, and having asked Niall to define it for me, he produced an extremely lucid explanation. The term, he tells me, was coined by Bruce Sterling in 1989 to designate “a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the late twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility.” A kind of writing, it seems to me, that makes the reader feel off kilter, out of their depth, disorientated, vertiginous. Now this is so interesting to me, as my research at the moment is all about figuring out how the fantastic has changed from the end of the nineteenth century (where it was a prominent and important genre) to the end of the twentieth, and one of the fundamental effects of the fantastic is to make the reader feel profoundly unsettled. The classic configuration of the fantastic stages the upsurge of the supernatural into an otherwise realistic setting, provoking radical uncertainty in the reader as to whether the events being recounted can possible be considered ‘true’ and therefore meaningful. One of the trickiest novels of the fantastic is Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (which I will post about one of these days). It is impossible to know whether or not the governess has actually seen the ghosts she contends are maliciously threatening her charges. It is equally plausible that they are products of her overwrought sensibility and her ecstatic guarding of the children’s moral purity. But ultimately we just don’t know what the truth of the matter is, which is probably the reason why more critical analyses have been written about this novella than any other work. Anyhow, having proposed to Niall that ‘slipstream’ as a literary effect was close to the classic characteristics of the fantastic he replied that: ‘Probably the most common usage is something close to yours: use of fantastic elements in an atypical (for the current literary environment) way, to unsettle. As mentioned in the interview, Kessel and Kelly have edited the first slipstream anthology, and include a very interesting critical introduction in which they try to pin down how slipstream does what it does.’ He goes on to quote most helpfully from that introduction:

‘Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that “the true test of a first-rate mind is the ability to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time and still function.” However, it is our fate to live in a time when it takes a first-rate mind just to get through the day. We have unprecedented access to information; cognitive dissonance is a banner headline in our morning paper and radiates silently from our computer screen. We contend that slipstream is an expression of the zeitgeist: it embraces cognitive dissonance rather than trying to reduce it.


1. Slipstream violates the tenets of realism.

2. Although slipstream stories pay homage to various popular genres and their conventions, they are not science fiction stories, traditional fantasies, dreams, historical fantasies, or alternate histories.

3. Slipstream is playfully postmodern. The stories often acknowledge their existence as fictions, and play against the genres they evoke. They have a tendency to bend or break narrative rules. (pp.xii-xiii)’

I really like this idea of ‘cognitive dissonance’, with its implications of a dangerous overload of information, producing a kind of force field of bristling static in the reader’s mind. I’m also fascinated by the way that slipstream is different from the fantastic, although it contains echoes of it. Niall also said that ‘a key point, I think, is that you can get a slipstream effect without using fantastic elements (in much the same way that you can get psychological horror; it’s about the effect more than the tools used to achieve that effect).’ Another blogger, Martin, was kind enough to point me to a post of his own on slipstream that contains a very useful list of novels that are recognised as employing this device, including Don Delillo’s White Noise and Iain Banks’s The Bridge.

This is as far as I have reached with my understanding of this term, and would love to know more about it from anyone who has knowledge or experience of ‘slipstream’ effect in novels. Can you think of a novel that fits this description, and do you have any further insight for me into what slipstream means when it appears in a narrative? I’d be very grateful for litbloggers thoughts on the matter.

20 thoughts on “Slipstream

  1. That IS an interesting term, and it strikes me as very difficult to pin down (this is the first time I’ve heard it). I wonder if Saramago’s novel Blindness would fit, a novel where everyone goes blind, where blindness becomes contagious, and no one knows why? And it never gets explained?

  2. The Saramango novel sounds like just the kind of thing, Dorothy. I really MUST get hold of it – your review made me want to, and perhaps I can now justify it as research!

  3. Wow, that IS interesting! I’d heard the term before but never really read a detailed explanation. Would Kafka not also be another example of turn-of-the-century slipstream? I’d also add David Albahari’s “Gotz and Meyer,” but tentatively, because it doesn’t really have any pretentions to realism to begin with. Ooh, I can’t wait to see what people come up with!

  4. Has anyone read the book “Mrs. Caliban” by Rachel Ingalls?I don’t know if that would be slipstream or what….it’s the first thing I thought of reading your essay.

  5. What I should have added, but didn’t, is that there’s a whole raft of other words out there being used for similar purposes. ‘Slipstream’ is the most prominent, and I think the most relevant to what you’re thinking about, but you may also want to look up:

    — ‘Liminal’ – used by Farah Mendlesohn to describe stories in which the fantastic and the realistic are mingled. She also identifies “portal fantasies”, “Intrusion fantasies” and “immersive fantasies”; there’s a book coming, but the main reference at the moment is an article a couple of years ago in JFA.

    — ‘Fabulation’ is defined by John Clute in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction as “any story which challenges the two main assumptions of genre sf: that the world can be seen; and that it can be told.” I tend to think of this as slipstream without the emphasis on the contemporary. The Encyclopedia also contains an entry explaining why Clute doesn’t think ‘slipstream’ is useful, mostly because he thinks it has negative connotations.

    — ‘Equipoise’ – Clute again, this time in an essay in the ‘New Wave Fabulists’ issue of Conjunctions a couple of years ago, in which he discusses, among other things, The Turn of the Screw (ta-da! You see how neatly this all fits together?). He uses it to mean stories which are “built upon sustained narrative negotiations of uncertainty, without coming to any necessary decision as to what is real”–similar to liminal, in other words.

    — ‘Interstitial‘ – for work that fits between existing literary categories. Championed by a smallish group of writers, hasn’t really caught on.

    Apologies if any of this is familiar. As is probably apparent, it’s quite a fluid area, and different people have their preferred terms for the same sorts of things. On Dorothy’s suggestion, I can certainly see a case for Blindness (which I also loved) as slipstream–and probably the follow-up, Seeing, as well.

  6. I have absolutely no knowledge of the term myself, but while reading your definition, “One Hundred Years of Solitude” immediately sprang to mind (verified when I clicked on the link to Martin’s post), as did “Corelli’s Mandolin.” And since these books tend to be described as “magical realism,” the book that I’ve decided was the father of magical realism “Don Quixote,” (a book whose mere title causes me to sigh with pleasure) was in the forefront. You’ve now given me something new to research. As well as having to read “Blindness.” Between you and Dorothy, I’ll never be in want of something interesting to read!

  7. This is just fantastic – thank you all so much (and Niall you are a star!). AC, LK and Emily – wonderful reading suggesions. I’m ashamed to say I’ve never read Don Quixote, and the other authors are new to me. I shall get to work following these novels up!

  8. I’m grappliong with this idea of slipstream, as I’ve not come across it before. Am I correct in thinking that the fantastic element is somewhat undercover, so that the reader is not actually sure whether to buy in to the story or not? I’m thinking that if the fantastic elements are obviously fantastic – such as in Neil Gaiman’s works (American Gods and Anansi Boys) – then we won’t have this odd off kilter effect, and yet these novels seem to fit the idea of a liminal novel.

  9. The way I’m coming around to thinking of the modern fantastic, Barry, is to think that ‘unreason’ (what drove the 19th century fantastic) is now part and parcel of everyday life. When the fantastic was a big genre in the late 19th century, Freud was gearing up to the discovery of the unconscious, and a lot of those fantastic effects – hallucinations, extreme anxieties, etc, can be seen as unconscious projections. Now we are used to the idea of there being part of the self that we don’t know and can’t control (even if we don’t like it) and so gaps, impossibilities, paradoxes become the everyday. So, yes, is what I’m kind of saying (as far as I understand it), the slipstream is the fantastic as woven into the everyday. And I must read a Neil Gaiman novel…

  10. Hi – have been pointed here by Niall. Very interesting post. I think my first question is what you’re taking as your definition of “the [modern] fantastic”. Certainly most people I know who’d self-identify as scholars of the fantastic (whether inside or outside the academy) would describe it as anything-that-isn’t-mimetic; thus, conventionally but crudely, science fiction, fantasy, and horror are all subsets of the fantastic and slipstream is the borderline case between the fantastic and mimetic. (See, for instance, the writings of Brian Attebery and Gary Wolfe.) My second question is to what extent, in your characterisation of the fantastic as “[staging] the upsurge of the supernatural into an otherwise realistic setting, provoking radical uncertainty in the reader as to whether the events being recounted can possible be considered ‘true’ and therefore meaningful”, you’re influenced by Todorov’s definition of it in very similar terms. The Todorov definition, of the fantastic as the duration of uncertainty about whether a described event is “real” or not, has become widely used but – the joke runs – limits the fantastic to a set containing The Turn of the Screw and nothing else. Certainly, your definition of the fantastic would exclude sf and much fantasy (such as what Farah terms “immersive” or “portal” fantasies. What you may be talking about is what got labelled as the “strange story” with, say, Robert Aickman as exemplar and slipstream as inheritor of the tradition – a rather smaller, but extremely interesting set of works. My third question is whether you’ve ever been to the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts – if not, you should!

  11. Would Italo Calvino’s work fit? Baron in the Trees, for example. I also hadn’t heard the term before. I wonder how it compares to magic realism. I think Calvino’s work, as well as Marquez’s work, has been described as magic realism.

  12. Graham – my working knowledge of this genre comes from Rosemary Jackson’s excellent book ‘Fantasy’, and as she bases her theoretical approach on Todorov, that’s where I’m coming from too. However, I thought there was this category of the ‘marvellous’ which is where you would find Tolkein, Ursula le Guin and so on, which is to say in a world that is clearly and wholly of the imagination. The fantastic is therefore the zone of uncertainty between mimetic and non-mimetic, and whilst (of course) I don’t have the book with me at the moment, I know Jackson analyses works by Maupassant, Dostoevesky and Poe among others (but I don’t think she mentions Henry James), which seems to indicate she thinks it’s broadly applicable. But at the end of the day, I’m a beginner in this and what seemed clear about 19th century fiction is entirely opaque in the modern novel! I imagine that the categorisation has changed of necessity and trying to work out where the lines fall is going to be one of the main things I have to do. The conference you mention sounds fantastic, and I can see I really need to attend it. Any futher help you have gratefully received!
    Nancy Ruth – I’m hoping to read more Calvino for just the reasons you suggest. Magical realism is definitely a genre I need to explore.

  13. It’s a tough question. Adding to the debate from the magical realism angle, I’d like to offer what we had to say about the subject back in 2004:

    SLIPSTREAM: But Is It Magical Realism?

    from MARGIN: Exploring Modern Magical Realism
    Winter 2004 edition

    Certainly not a precise resolution, but food for thought, all the same.

    Tamara Kaye Sellman, Editor
    MARGIN: Exploring Modern Magical Realism
    Since 2000, the world’s only continuous survey of literary magical realism

  14. Borges?
    Maybe Stefan Grabinski (see article on).
    Or Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves?

    Tricky. I think I have a feel for the definition without exactly understanding it. I’m tempted to say Gaiman it too overtly fantastic to produce that vertiginous feeling of unreality. I can see a case for Blindness, but while the plot hangs on a fantastic premise, it’s pretty logical and consistent within that — it didn’t have me feeling unsettled, questioning what is real, experiencing cognitive dissonance (tho’ I suppose the characters did). (So is slipstream an effect produced in the reader or is it an element of the story?)

    Another interesting little novel, Codex, by Lev Grossman, hangs on that feeling after you’ve spent too many hours playing videogames that you go about your life feeling like you’re in a videogame.

    Maybe I’ll have a better idea when I’ve finished reading The Turn of the Screw, of which I’ve read all of 10 pages as it sits in my purse waiting for me to take public transportation.

  15. Hm, I’m reminded of a handful of Philip K. Dick stories – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, for instance. Anyone who hasn’t read it, has still probably seen Blade Runner – an excellent interpretation, but it misses the section in the middle where you feel complete “reality vertigo”. For a chapter or two in the novel, It seems like everybody might be a replicant, not only Deckard. Dick reaches similar points in many novels, but ultimately backs away, opting for more “down-to-Earth” explanations.

  16. Pelotard – that description of ‘reality vertigo’ sounds perfect slipstream to me.

    napfisk – definitely a writer I should read, thanks for the recommendation.

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