A Paradigm Shift

Genres, categories and labels for novels can be misleading and unhelpful. The term science fiction is a misnomer when applied to books like Nineteen Eighty Four or Brave New World. Granted, they are both dystopian visions and the latter deals vaguely with scientific advancement, but the label science fiction seems wrong somehow. Perhaps the genres of science fiction and fantasy have had their day and should be put into comfortable retirement. Admitting you read sf today is akin to revealing you go to church: you feel compelled to qualify your confession by insisting you are not like the others and that you ‘just dabble’. Sf fans put up a brave fight but let’s be honest here: science fiction has a bad image. I quite like the paradox it creates, but basically the word ‘science’ is the stumbling block. I have nothing against science, which helps us to understand and appreciate the miracle of creation and the world around us, bringing us a much needed sense of wonder; it’s just that science suggests technology, laboratories, space travel and boring lessons at school.

 It irritates me when sf critics try to claim the likes of Mark Twain, E. M. Forster, Virginia Woolfe, J. B. Priestley, Italo Calvino, Herman Hesse and William Golding as sf authors: I’m sorry, but Lord of the Flies is simply not sf. Likewise oft-cited texts, The Old Men At the Zoo, A Clockwork Orange and Riddley Walker are not sf just because they are set in the near future: they are just great books about people. In fact, they have more in common with fantasy than with sf. What’s most amusing about calling Brave New World science fiction is that the whole point of the book is to warn us against the dangers of science. It’s probably a question of semantics, but the term science fiction is too narrow to be of any real use. When Michael Moorcock edited New Worlds, he understood that what he called ‘speculative fiction’ should not just interrogate science, but also art, religion, psychology, sociology, history and so on: after all this is the purpose of all literature.

On the other hand ‘horror’ is still cool – or it is if you substitute it with the words modern and gothic. Fantasy – as a genre – has been ruined by bad marketing (just like Prog Rock has in the music industry). We know fantasy is a subversive resource available to all writers, but the general opinion of fantasy is a blinkered one – that it is mainly represented by Tolkien and Harry Potter.

It is time for a paradigm shift. Michael Moorcock began the good work in the 1960s with New Worlds, but the job remains incomplete. These big changes take time – like abolishing slavery and achieving equal opportunities. Sf must either become marginalised into its own ghetto – like Christian books and music – or adapt into something more workable and relevant.

Let’s agree then that calling Slaughterhouse 5 science fiction or Midnight’s Children fantasy is just plain silly. Moorcock once wrote; “I don’t believe there is such a thing as fantasy or science fiction or detective fiction and so on. I think there are certain writers who in their field shine and in every one of those fields you’ll get some good writers emerging”. Many readers just like reading fiction and prefer not to get stuck with one form of writing. Good fantasy and sf (or what gets labelled as such) should be read by everyone and sf/fantasy/horror fans should read good realistic literature. I’m glad Will Self’s novel, The Book of Dave hasn’t been consigned to the sf corners of the bookshops.


Genres are useful to booksellers, but even they get confused. Where do you find Iain Banks (without the ‘M’) or Graham Joyce books? Are they fantasy, horror or mainstream? And what is mainstream anyway but an all-embracing term: a safety net for all literature not in an obvious genre, or, at least, fiction that is mostly realistic (whatever that means). Isn’t it ridiculous how Iain Banks has to put an M in his name to write sf? Is the publisher really saying that one writer is not allowed to switch styles or modes?

The meaning of ‘slipstream’ in aviation is a current of air forced backwards by the aeroplane’s propeller. The implication in literary terms is that slipstream feeds off mainstream but forces itself in different directions, drifting or slipping off to dance playfully. Really slipstream is a neat metaphor for works of literature which cannot be categorised – even as mainstream, but which resist the traditional genres or are so original and subversive they demand a new label. Slipstream is an ambiguous bridging word – possibly a temporary one – a stop-gap until the general public (and/or publishers and booksellers) have been re-educated into accepting fantasy/sf/horror elements back into the mainstream. One day slipstream might be mainstream!

Slipstream implies playful experimentation; inviting the reader to dive in and accept the challenge of going in a different direction. Slipstream novels ‘slip’ between genres and marketing categories. Moorcock described fantasy’s relationship with mainstream fiction in the following way: “The fantasy form has been progressing and refining itself for centuries. It has gone through the various stages of borrowing from or influencing ‘Mainstream fiction and is currently starting a phase where it will once again borrow and influence, until at length it is absorbed, for a while, back into the mainstream”. This ‘phase’ could be slipstream.

Bruce Sterling, (in ‘Catscan’, Science Fiction Eye, 1989) coined the term along with Richard Dorsett, explaining how “the heart of slipstream is an attitude of peculiar aggression against ‘reality’ … These books tend to sarcastically tear at the structure of ‘everyday life’” and emphasised the common trait of employing “unique darker elements”. He goes on to explain: “It’s very common for slipstream books to screw around with the representational conventions of fiction”. Slipstream writing is often surreal and darkly comic, using satirical and metaphorical devices. Novelist Christopher Priest added the interesting definition of slipstream as, “the literature of strangeness … a different way of enquiring into the familiar”.

I know many writers hate being pigeon-holed as sf or fantasy writers. It’s like being an actor type-cast in a soap-opera. Most writers want to be free to write what they feel a passion for and where their imaginations take them. Strangely, Moorcock is still labelled an sf writer by some even though he wrote very little sf and broke most genre boundaries. Good writing should break boundaries and defy categorisation. Novels by Mervyn Peake, Moorcock, Graham Joyce and Jeffrey Ford are just bloody good books whatever type or form they are. Once a novel is tagged with a genre it will lose any potential wider readership, but possibly gain readers within its own self-serving ghetto. Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy is a case in point. Fantasy? Gothic? Comedy? Sf? Who cares? Just read the damn books and enjoy their brilliance.

It is vital slipstream remains open-ended and ambiguous as that is the entire point. Slipstream is protean and elusive – like a cry in the night; a shadow flickering in the corner of your eye; that feeling of unease as you awake with a start. The purpose of literature, like any art, is to exhilarate, entertain, scare, fulfil, scandalise and to make you laugh. Reading is catharsis not trainspotting.

So what exactly is slipstream then? I shall attempt to contextualise by exploring slipstream texts, and in doing so will demonstrate how they flirt with other genres and modes. Whilst alluding to related terms and definitions, I shall attempt to avoid academic obfuscation and attempt to highlight the various flavours, shapes and colours that make the term slipstream so elusive. This is not a bibliography or an exhaustive definition, just a starting point, or at least a station on the way.


One term that cannot be avoided when discussing slipstream is the equally slippery ‘postmodernism’. Literary scholar M.H. Abrams, cites Jorge Luis Borges, Thomas Pynchon and Roland Barthes as postmodern writers whose works “so blend literary genres, cultural and stylistic levels, the serious and the playful, that they resist classification according to the traditional literary rubrics … An undertaking in some postmodernist writings is to subvert the foundations of our accepted modes of thought and experience so as to reveal the ‘meaninglessness’ of existence and the underlying ‘abyss’ or ‘void’ or ‘nothingness’ on which any supposed security is conceived to be precariously suspended”.  This is an admirable attempt to describe the indescribable.

Many slipstream works are subversive and ambiguous. None more so than William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch (1959) which employs surrealistic devices and black comedy to express complex psychological (or psychotic) perspectives. Like Franz Kafka and James Joyce, Burroughs creates works of existential angst in an absurd framework.

Naked Lunch perfectly encapsulates the unpredictable psychosis of a junk addict by allowing us into the crazy whorl of the Interzone where junkies trade, “Black meat, flesh of the giant aquatic centipede”; drink with Mugwumps secreting an addictive fluid that “prolongs life by slowing down the metabolism”; a place where a talking arsehole becomes “a novelty ventriloquist act”. These insane events and visions are almost made to seem ordinary but the reader is never allowed to settle into a conventional plot or follow familiar characters thus making the reader experience the randomness and insanity of Burroughs’ world.  It is a novel overloaded with seedy locations, paranoia, sometimes tedious pornography (mostly homoerotic), nightmarish hallucinations, medical terminology and expletives. Drug addiction is closely linked with the sexual act and with death, where “Junk is the ideal product … the ultimate merchandise”. Naked Lunch bridges de Sade and Artaud with Irving Welsh and is either a visionary work of genius or the irrelevant ravings of a washed-up addict. You choose. Burroughs explains in his own introduction: “I do not presume to impose ‘story’, ‘plot’ or ‘continuity’”. However, his use of language is so lifelike and realistic that it is recognisably our world – if a horribly skewed version of it.

Professor Kathryn Hume explained how “Dreams and psychosis create new models of reality. So do the chemical reactions of psychoactive drugs. More clearly than the others, these show us the peculiar unreliability of our senses … Reality is a function of our receptive senses and their physical, chemical condition. This is disturbing perspectivism.” This perspectivism is something exploited by slipstream writers as a way of getting a unique or interesting purchase on that strange thing known as reality. This kind of writing forces us to ask the question: what exactly is reality anyway?

 Magic Realism

Magic Realism is a postmodern genre in which fantastical elements appear in an otherwise realistic setting, using elements of memory, sensuality, symbolism, ambiguity, use of myth, multiple perspectives and richness of sensory details. John Clute in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy adds, ‘the regions of the real may be irradiated with dream imagery, dislocations in time and space, haunting juxtapositions’.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude’(1967) follows six generations of the dysfunctional Buendia family in South America, recounting dreams, memories, miracles, love, loss, ghosts, civil war, death, madness and plagues. The various protagonists appear frustrated, lonely, egotistical, selfish, repressed, reclusive, or are misunderstood victims. The first generation suffer a plague of insomnia, having to label everything to stop the inevitable insanity certain to ensue. Melquiades, the ancient gypsy, “really had been through death but had returned because he could not bear the solitude”. Remedios the Beauty tortures men with her sexual scent, leading to death as one man tries to watch her bathing. Too perfect for this world she finally disappears in a flight of transfiguration. Ursula lives to well over 150 years, goes blind, but uses her intuition to keep an eye on her family. She visits her husband’s ghost daily beneath the nearby chestnut tree. This novel expresses ‘sighs of disenchantment that preceded the most tenacious nostalgia’. Marquez’ style is ambiguous, poetic, surreal and often deliciously infuriating. He reminds us how oblique and inexact the world is around us, whilst breaking literary rules, particularly in the way he reports action by telling, not showing.

Whilst Magic Realism began as a specifically South American genre, the stylistic blending of realism and fantasy influenced a host of authors from around the world such as Angela Carter, Milan Kundera, Toni Morrison, Ben Okri, Salman Rushdie, Jeanette Winterson and Jonathan Carroll.

Speculative Fiction

New Worlds magazine in the 1960s and 70s, edited by Moorcock, became the focus of the ‘New Wave’ of science fiction. Moorcock called on new writers to exercise “passion and craftsmanship” in an attempt to create quality literature that blended fantasy and realism. In his first editorial as editor of New Worlds (#142) he suggested sf could be an acronym for ‘speculative fantasy’, showing a preference for the surreal fiction of William Burroughs. Moorcock had a vision for ‘a different kind of fiction … (which) could come out of a marriage between experimental forms and old-style genre sf’. New Worlds nurtured a completely new direction in contemporary speculative fiction, more concerned with man’s alienation from the world, expressed through imagery rooted in the modern world. The new territory to be explored became known as ‘inner-space’, a concept introduced by J.G. Ballard in New Worlds issue 118, which implies an existentialist condition that explores real life experiences such as alienation, sexuality, drug trips and psychosis. Moorcock was obsessed with the ambition to celebrate inventive, radical and relevant writing, which would go beyond the limited genre of science fiction and cross over into literary and popular culture.

One of the writers most admired in this New Wave was Kurt Vonnegut whose Slaughterhouse 5 (1970) is a first hand account of the Dresden bombing by the Allies. Billy Pilgrim “is spastic in time, has no control over where he is going next”; an existential time traveller. “So it goes” is the fatalistic mantra repeated after every reference to death. Both a work of satire and autobiography, it includes scenes set on the planet Tralfamadore, which involve typical sf trappings of flying saucers and telepathy; but this is never cosy sf. Being a prisoner of war is compared to being experimented on by aliens and whether the experience is real or just a hallucination is never explained. The satire and the absurdity of each situation become more important than the verification of Pilgrim’s story. Vonnegut employs the novel format as cultural commentary, emphasising how Middle America is culturally bereft and how humanity is essentially brutal. Like Burroughs’ writing this is episodic montage as novel.

Moorcock himself developed into a protean novelist, constantly attempting to avoid the sf/fantasy tag which continues to haunt him. His symphonic novel Mother London (1988) possesses a complex structure following is a non-chronological pattern which undulates like a tide to and fro, forwards and backwards, framed by vignettes of the main characters set in the present. Unusually, the climax occurs in the middle with horrific descriptions of the Blitz, which leaves a gradual and anti-climactic ending. Motifs are developed and themes are revisited throughout the novel and this non-linear and seemingly random collage makes it a surreal picture of London and its history. The landscape and inhabitants of the city are explored through an episodic narrative carefully placed around the chorus of the city’s collective consciousness. During the Blitz, Josef witnesses an apocalyptic hallucination of the city coming to life rousing “the sleeping gods of London” like some modern day Blake. These sequences are the most obvious moments of fantasy in which the three aspects of the city combine. He sees angels and giants from the city’s mythology, and hears the voices of all the inhabitants and is aware of “his voice joining the millions to form a single monumental howl”. London contains the ‘inner landscapes’ of memory, dreams and a variety of voices. The irony is that the protagonists are deemed ‘mad’, but as readers, we are shown how true madness comes with war, destroying all that is dear to us: our families, our identity, and our own home. Mother London is a complex novel about love, loss and redemption in which the city becomes a metaphor for faith and salvation. Mother London is also an excellent example of metafiction and fabulation.

Metafiction & Fabulation

Robert Scholes coined the terms metafiction and fabulation in response to identifying a new movement in modern literature. Fabulation, according to The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, “is a novel in which verbal and formal structures are heightened or placed in the foreground, often with an effect of self-conscious play or joyfulness, and generally with the intention of uncovering the exemplary fable-like elements inherent in the ordering which takes place in creating the imaginary worlds of all narrative fiction”. Fabulation foregrounds ‘story’; fantasy and myth is the same as story and narrative which are inextricably linked. A great example is Neil Gaiman’s ‘Anansi Boy’.

In a discussion of romance, allegory, comedy and the grotesque, Robert Scholes identified a form of experimental fable that had turned its back on realism. Scholes explained further that “Reality is too subtle for realism to catch it. It cannot be transcribed directly. But by invention: by fabulation, we may open a way toward reality that will come as close to it as human ingenuity may come”. Writers like Italo Calvino also employ the playful techniques of fabulation in an attempt to transcend the usual laws of fiction.

Metafiction on the other hand overtly draws attention to its own artifice – its fictionality through use of self-reflexivity or intertextuality. Robert Scholes in Fabulation and Metafiction used the term metafiction to describe a growing group of unclassifiable novels refusing to fall neatly into the category of realism or romance. Fabulation for Scholes described the narrative invention of those novelists who experimented with form and genre blurring the traditional boundaries, employing fantastic and mythical infusions in their novels’ heady mixtures. Midnight’s Children (1981) by Salman Rushdie is such a work employing many postmodern techniques and could be described as fabulation and metafiction.

 Saleem Sinai is born at the precise instant of the birth of a new India. Written in a first person, self-reflexive narrative voice, Saleem tells the reader: “whenever my narration becomes self-conscious … like an incompetent puppeteer, I reveal the hands holding the strings”. Somehow, he can smell “truth, beauty, happiness, pain” and has the gift of telepathy, which he calls “All-India Radio”. The superpowers of the other midnight children include transformation, time-travelling, flying, sorcery. These elements are typical of sf and fantasy but Midnight’s Children is clearly neither.

Saleem is egotistical, comparing himself to Gautama Buddha and describing himself as “a would-be-saviour of the nation”, although the novel ends in bathos, emasculation and sterility. A similarly unreliable narrator can be found in Michael Moorcock’s Colonel Pyat quadrilogy, beginning with Byzantium Endures (1981). Pyat also rewrites history to ensure his place in it, and the more he attempts to convince us and himself of his importance the more apparent his self-delusion becomes.

Slipstream or Fantastic Realism?

Rosemary Jackson in her groundbreaking study Fantasy: The Literature of Subversion (1981) identifies a trend in Victorian literature whereby: “mainstream novelists, working primarily with realistic conventions, also relied upon non-realistic modes”. Whilst she mainly cites Gothic texts, the same ‘dialogue’ between the two modes is more commonly occurring in modern texts and a definite trend can be identified within the realms of mainstream, popular and literary novels. Jackson calls this ‘fantastic realism’. There are a number of excellent modern novels still defying categorisation that deserve some mention.

Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) is an unconventional ghost story using poetry, streams of consciousness, magic realism, memory and different narrative perspectives to create a haunting atmosphere of oppression and paranoia. Sethe’s daughter Beloved, killed by her own mother’s hands, returns for retribution as the adult she would have become. But the revenge is subtle and Sethe’s justification for the murder – “If I hadn’t killed her she would have died” – makes her a sympathetic character. Death becomes a form of salvation thus creating a much deeper meaning for the whole slave community which far transcends the story here of a few individuals.

The Child in Time (1987) by Ian McEwan depicts a man’s gradual breakdown. During a car accident he realises time is more a matter of perspective:  “If only he could live in the present he might breathe freely”.  The novel is full of memories, visions, errors of judgement, time stretching out of proportion. Stephen has an epiphany when he finally understands “the mystic’s experience of timelessness … the infinite, unchanging time of childhood”. He even seems to see into the past.  Finally he knows that logic and knowledge can no longer help him – “Since he had exhausted all possibilities on the material plane … then it only made sense to deal on the level of the symbolic and the numinous”. This encapsulates the purpose of slipstream writing: recognising that life is not just material or easily understood using rational thought. McEwan explores loss through the use of ambiguity and lack of resolution.

Graham Joyce is a one-man slipstream factory. Requiem (1995) pre-empts The Da Vinci Code but with a more successfully sensual and psychological content; The Tooth Fairy (1996) incorporates dark humour and the grotesque in a powerful coming-of-age tale; Smoking Poppy (2001) explores paternal love; The Limits of Enchantment (2005) interrogates the role of superstition and magic in our own mundane world. Graham Joyce is a consummate writer whose novels should be best-sellers and his style bears many similarities to that of his American counterpart, Jonathan Carroll.

In Portrait of Mrs Charbuque (2002), Jeffrey Ford creates a decadent atmospheric novel of fantasy, psychology and metaphysics in a realistic setting. Written in an evocative and sensual style, it weaves tales within tales, contrasting dreamy reminiscence with stark brutality. When Piero Piambo is commissioned to paint Mrs Charbuque without being able to see her he discovers as much about himself as he does his subject. The novel is a brilliant work of fabulation and storytelling; a compelling study of the artistic spirit of humanity.


Certain films also seem to encapsulate the mood and stylistic experimentation of slipstream, such as Edward Scissorhands, Twelve Monkeys, Trainspotting, Pi, The Sixth Sense, Memento, Donnie Darko, Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Pan’s Labyrinth, Inception and anything by David Lynch – particularly Eraserhead and Mulholland Drive, whose surrealism and intertextuality create a nightmare on an unconscious level that shrug off all attempts at literal interpretation. It is clear elements of slipstream are feeding into films, many of which are now hybrid genre.

So what is slipstream?

Perhaps slipstream is the same as fantastic realism. It is certainly postmodern. It could just be magic realism produced in the northern hemisphere. Slipstream is a ‘Literature of the Imagination’ for those who are not afraid of escaping from their own lives and of developing their own creativity. Life is not scientific, logical, rational, material or even realistic. Life is emotional, surreal, spiritual and completely unpredictable.

Slipstream is a protean term and that is the entire point. One day, slipstream will be seen as a major tributary back into the mainstream. Hopefully, fiction will follow films and develop more hybrid genre entertainment, loosening the shackles of generic expectations and conventions. These conventions have become constraints, institutionalising certain books and authors, and finally becoming something of a liability. We want writers who use their imaginations, transcending traditions, thus feeling free to experiment. Only then will literature once again exhilarate, amuse, scandalise, terrify, and fill us with a magical sense of wonder.