CATSCAN 5 "Slipstream"

In a recent remarkable interview in _New
Pathways_ #11, Carter Scholz alludes with pained
resignation to the ongoing brain-death of science
fiction. In the 60s and 70s, Scholz opines, SF had a
chance to become a worthy literature; now that chance
has passed. Why? Because other writers have now
learned to adapt SF's best techniques to their own
"And," says Scholz, "They make us look sick.
When I think of the best `speculative fiction' of the
past few years, I sure don't think of any Hugo or
Nebula winners. I think of Margaret Atwood's _The
Handmaid's Tale_, and of Don DeLillo's _White Noise_,
and of Batchelor's _The Birth of the People's Republic
of Antarctica_, and of Gaddis' _JR_ and _Carpenter's
Gothic_, and of Coetzee's _Life and Times of Michael
K_ . . . I have no hope at all that genre science
fiction can ever again have any literary significance.
But that's okay, because now there are other people
doing our job."
It's hard to stop quoting this interview. All
interviews should be this good. There's some great
campy guff about the agonizing pain it takes to write
short stories; and a lecture on the unspeakable horror
of writer's block; and some nifty fusillades of
forthright personal abuse; and a lot of other stuff
that is making _New Pathways_ one of the most
interesting zines of the Eighties. Scholz even reveals
his use of the Fibonacci Sequence in setting the
length and number of the chapters in his novel
_Palimpsests_, and wonders how come nobody caught on
to this groundbreaking technique of his.
Maybe some of this peripheral stuff kinda dulls
the lucid gleam of his argument. But you don't have to
be a medieval Italian mathematician to smell the reek
of decay in modern SF. Scholz is right. The job isn't
being done here.
"Science Fiction" today is a lot like the
contemporary Soviet Union; the sprawling possessor of
a dream that failed. Science fiction's official dogma,
which almos

t everybody ignores, is based on attitudes
toward science and technology which are bankrupt and
increasingly divorced from any kind of reality. "Hard-
SF," the genre's ideological core, is a joke today; in
terms of the social realities of high-tech post-
industrialism, it's about as relevant as hard-
Many of the best new SF writers seem openly
ashamed of their backward Skiffy nationality. "Ask not
what you can do for science fiction--ask how you can
edge away from it and still get paid there."
A blithely stateless cosmopolitanism is the
order of the day, even for an accredited Clarion grad
like Pat Murphy: "I'm not going to bother what camp
things fall into," she declares in a recent _Locus_
interview. "I'm going to write the book I want and see
what happens . . . If the markets run together, I
leave it to the critics." For Murphy, genre is a dead
issue, and she serenely wills the trash-mountain to
come to Mohammed.
And one has to sympathize. At one time, in its
clumsy way, Science Fiction offered some kind of
coherent social vision. SF may have been gaudy and
naive, and possessed by half-baked fantasies of power
and wish-fulfillment, but at least SF spoke a
contemporary language. Science Fiction did the job of
describing, in some eldritch way, what was actually
*happening*, at least in the popular imagination.
Maybe it wasn't for everybody, but if you were a
bright, unfastidious sort, you could read SF and feel,
in some satisfying and deeply unconscious way, that
you'd been given a real grip on the chrome-plated
handles of the Atomic Age.
But *now* look at it. Consider the repulsive
ghastliness of the SF category's Lovecraftian
inbreeding. People retched in the 60s when De Camp and
Carter skinned the corpse of Robert E. Howard for its
hide and tallow, but nowadays necrophilia is run on an
industrial basis. Shared-world anthologies. Braided
meganovels. Role-playing tie-ins. Sharecropping books
written by pip-squeaks under the blazoned name of

shed authors. Sequels of sequels, trilogy
sequels of yet-earlier trilogies, themselves cut-and-
pasted from yet-earlier trilogies. What's the common
thread here? The belittlement of individual
creativity, and the triumph of anonymous product. It's
like some Barthesian nightmare of the Death of the
Author and his replacement by "text."
Science Fiction--much like that other former
Vanguard of Progressive Mankind, the Communist Party--
has lost touch with its cultural reasons for being.
Instead, SF has become a self-perpetuating commercial
power-structure, which happens to be in possession of
a traditional national territory: a portion of
bookstore rackspace.
Science fiction habitually ignores any challenge
from outside. It is protected by the Iron Curtain of
category marketing. It does not even have to improve
"on its own terms," because its own terms no longer
mean anything; they are rarely even seriously
discussed. It is enough merely to point at the
rackspace and say "SF."
Some people think it's great to have a genre
which has no inner identity, merely a locale where
it's sold. In theory, this grants vast authorial
freedom, but the longterm practical effect has been
heavily debilitating. When "anything is possible in
SF" then "anything" seems good enough to pass muster.
Why innovate? Innovate in what direction? Nothing is
moving, the compass is dead. Everything is becalmed;
toss a chip overboard to test the current, and it sits
there till it sinks without a trace.
It's time to clarify some terms in this essay,
terms which I owe to Carter Scholz. "Category" is a
marketing term, denoting rackspace. "Genre" is a
spectrum of work united by an inner identity, a
coherent esthetic, a set of conceptual guidelines, an
ideology if you will.
"Category" is commercially useful, but can be
ultimately deadening. "Genre," however, is powerful.
Having made this distinction, I want to describe
what seems to me to be a new, emergent "genre," which
has not yet become a

This genre is not "category" SF; it is not even
"genre" SF. Instead, it is a contemporary kind of
writing which has set its face against consensus
reality. It is a fantastic, surreal sometimes,
speculative on occasion, but not rigorously so. It
does not aim to provoke a "sense of wonder" or to
systematically extrapolate in the manner of classic
science fiction.
Instead, this is 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. We could call this
kind of fiction Novels of Postmodern Sensibility, but
that looks pretty bad on a category rack, and requires
an acronym besides; so for the sake of convenience and
argument, we will call these books "slipstream."
"Slipstream" is not all that catchy a term, and
if this young genre ever becomes an actual category I
doubt it will use that name, which I just coined along
with my friend Richard Dorsett. "Slipstream" is a
parody of "mainstream," and nobody calls mainstream
"mainstream" except for us skiffy trolls.
Nor is it at all likely that slipstream will
actually become a full-fledged genre, much less a
commercially successful category. The odds against it
are stiff. Slipstream authors must work outside the
cozy infrastructure of genre magazines, specialized
genre criticism, and the authorial esprit-de-corps of
a common genre cause.
And vast dim marketing forces militate against
the commercial success of slipstream. It is very
difficult for these books to reach or build their own
native audience, because they are needles in a vast
moldering haystack. There is no convenient way for
would-be slipstream readers to move naturally from one
such work to another of its ilk. These books vanish
like drops of ink in a bucket of drool.
Occasional writers will triumph against all
these odds, but their success remains limited by the
present category structures. They may eke out a fringe

owing, but they fall between two stools. Their
work is too weird for Joe and Jane Normal. And they
lose the SF readers, who avoid the mainstream racks
because the stuff there ain't half weird enough. (One
result of this is that many slipstream books are left-
handed works by authors safely established in other
And it may well be argued that slipstream has no
"real" genre identity at all. Slipstream might seem to
be an artificial construct, a mere grab-bag of
mainstream books that happen to hold some interest for
SF readers. I happen to believe that slipstream books
have at least as much genre identity as the variegated
stock that passes for "science fiction" these days,
but I admit the force of the argument. As an SF
critic, I may well be blindered by my parochial point-
of-view. But I'm far from alone in this situation.
Once the notion of slipstream is vaguely explained,
almost all SF readers can recite a quick list of books
that belong there by right.
These are books which SF readers recommend to
friends: "This isn't SF, but it sure ain't mainstream
and I think you might like it, okay?" It's every man
his own marketer, when it comes to slipstream.
In preparation for this essay, I began
collecting these private lists. My master-list soon
grew impressively large, and serves as the best
pragmatic evidence for the actual existence of
slipstream that I can offer at the moment.
I myself don't pretend to be an expert in this
kind of writing. I can try to define the zeitgeist of
slipstream in greater detail, but my efforts must be
It seems to me that the heart of slipstream is
an attitude of peculiar aggression against "reality."
These are fantasies of a kind, but not fantasies which
are "futuristic" or "beyond the fields we know." These
books tend to sarcastically tear at the structure of
"everyday life."
Some such books, the most "mainstream" ones, are
non-realistic literary fictions which avoid or ignore
SF genre conventions. But hard-c

ore slipstream has
unique darker elements. Quite commonly these works
don't make a lot of common sense, and what's more they
often somehow imply that *nothing we know makes* "a
lot of sense" and perhaps even that *nothing ever
It's very common for slipstream books to screw
around with the representational conventions of
fiction, pulling annoying little stunts that suggest
that the picture is leaking from the frame and may get
all over the reader's feet. A few such techniques are
infinite regress, trompe-l'oeil effects, metalepsis,
sharp violations of viewpoint limits, bizarrely blase'
reactions to horrifically unnatural events . . . all
the way out to concrete poetry and the deliberate use
of gibberish. Think M. C. Escher, and you have a
graphic equivalent.
Slipstream is also marked by a cavalier attitude
toward "material" which is the polar opposite of the
hard-SF writer's "respect for scientific fact."
Frequently, historical figures are used in slipstream
fiction in ways which outrageously violate the
historical record. History, journalism, official
statements, advertising copy . . . all of these are
grist for the slipstream mill, and are disrespectfully
treated not as "real-life facts" but as "stuff," raw
material for collage work. Slipstream tends, not to
"create" new worlds, but to *quote* them, chop them up
out of context, and turn them against themselves.
Some slipstream books are quite conventional in
narrative structure, but nevertheless use their
fantastic elements in a way that suggests that they
are somehow *integral* to the author's worldview; not
neat-o ideas to kick around for fun's sake, but
something in the nature of an inherent dementia. These
are fantastic elements which are not clearcut
"departures from known reality" but ontologically
*part of the whole mess*; "`real' compared to what?"
This is an increasingly difficult question to answer
in the videocratic 80s-90s, and is perhaps the most
genuinely innovative aspect of slipstream (s

cary as
that might seem).
A "slipstream critic," should such a person ever
come to exist, would probably disagree with these
statements of mine, or consider them peripheral to
what his genre "really" does. I heartily encourage
would-be slipstream critics to involve themselves in
heady feuding about the "real nature" of their as-yet-
nonexistent genre. Bogus self-referentiality is a very
slipstreamish pursuit; much like this paragraph itself,
actually. See what I mean?
My list is fragmentary. What's worse, many of
the books that are present probably don't "belong"
there. (I also encourage slipstream critics to weed
these books out and give convincing reasons for it.)
Furthermore, many of these books are simply
unavailable, without hard work, lucky accidents,
massive libraries, or friendly bookstore clerks in a
major postindustrial city. In many unhappy cases, I
doubt that the authors themselves think that anyone is
interested in their work. Many slipstream books fell
through the yawning cracks between categories, and
were remaindered with frantic haste.
And I don't claim that all these books are
"good," or that you will enjoy reading them. Many
slipstream books are in fact dreadful, though they are
dreadful in a different way than dreadful science
fiction is. This list happens to be prejudiced toward
work of quality, because these are books which have
stuck in people's memory against all odds, and become
little tokens of possibility.
I offer this list as a public service to
slipstream's authors and readers. I don't count myself
in these ranks. I enjoy some slipstream, but much of
it is simply not to my taste. This doesn't mean that
it is "bad," merely that it is different. In my
opinion, this work is definitely not SF, and is
essentially alien to what I consider SF's intrinsic
Slipstream does however have its own virtues,
virtues which may be uniquely suited to the perverse,
convoluted, and skeptical tenor of the postmodern era.
Or then again, m

aybe not. But to judge this genre by
the standards of SF is unfair; I would like to see it
free to evolve its own standards.
Unlike the "speculative fiction" of the 60s,
slipstream is not an internal attempt to reform SF in
the direction of "literature." Many slipstream
authors, especially the most prominent ones, know or
care little or nothing about SF. Some few are "SF
authors" by default, and must struggle to survive in a
genre which militates against the peculiar virtues of
their own writing.
I wish slipstream well. I wish it was an
acknowledged genre and a workable category, because
then it could offer some helpful, brisk competition to
SF, and force "Science Fiction" to redefine and
revitalize its own principles.
But any true discussion of slipstream's genre
principles is moot, until it becomes a category as
well. For slipstream to develop and nourish, it must
become openly and easily available to its own
committed readership, in the same way that SF is
today. This problem I willingly leave to some
inventive bookseller, who is openminded enough to
restructure the rackspace and give these oppressed
books a breath of freedom.


ACKER, KATHY - Empire of the Senseless
ACKROYD, PETER - Hawksmoor; Chatterton
ALDISS, BRIAN - Life in the West
ALLENDE, ISABEL - Of Love and Shadows; House of
AMIS, KINGSLEY - The Alienation; The Green Man
AMIS, MARTIN - Other People; Einstein's Monsters
APPLE, MAX - Zap; The Oranging of America
ATWOOD, MARGARET - The Handmaids Tale
AUSTER, PAUL - City of Glass; In the Country of Last
BALLARD, J. G. - Day of Creation; Empire of the Sun
BANKS, IAIN - The Wasp Factory; The Bridge
BANVILLE, JOHN - Kepler; Dr. Copernicus
BARNES, JULIAN - Staring at the Sun
BARTH, JOHN - Giles Goat-Boy; Chimera
BATCHELOR, JOHN CALVIN - Birth of the People s
Republic of Antarctica
BELL, MADISON SMARTT - Waiting for the End of the
BONTLY, THOMAS - Celestial Chess

LE, T. CORAGHESSAN - Worlds End; Water Music
BRANDAO, IGNACIO - And Still the Earth
BURROUGHS, WILLIAM - Place of Dead Roads; Naked Lunch;
Soft Machine; etc.
CARROLL, JONATHAN - Bones of the Moon; Land of Laughs
CARTER, ANGELA - Nights at the Circus; Heroes and
CARY, PETER - Illywhacker; Oscar and Lucinda
CHESBRO, GEORGE M. - An Affair of Sorcerers
COETZEE, J. M. - Life and rimes of Michael K.
COOVER, ROBERT - The Public Burning; Pricksongs &
CRACE, JIM - Continent
CROWLEY, JOHN - Little Big; Aegypt
DAVENPORT, GUY - Da Vincis Bicycle; The Jules Verne
Steam Balloon
DISCH, THOMAS M. - On Wings of Song
DODGE, JIM - Not Fade Away
ELY, DAVID - Seconds
ERICKSON, STEVE - Days Between Stations; Rubicon Beach
FEDERMAN, RAYMOND - The Twofold Variations
FRANZEN, JONATHAN - The Twenty-Seventh City
FRISCH, MAX - Homo Faber; Man in the Holocene
FUENTES, CARLOS - Terra Nostra
GADDIS, WILLIAM - JR; Carpenters Gothic
GARDNER, JOHN - Grendel; Freddy's Book
GEARY, PATRICIA - Strange Toys; Living in Ether
GOLDMAN, WILLIAM - The Princess Bride; The Color of
GRASS, GUNTER - The Tin Drum
HARBINSON, W. A. - Genesis; Revelation; Otherworld
HILL, CAROLYN - The Eleven Million Mile High Dancer
HJVRTSBERG, WILLIAM - Gray Matters; Falling Angel
HOBAN, RUSSELL - Riddley Walker
HOYT, RICHARD - The Manna Enzyme
IRWIN, ROBERT - The Arabian Nightmares
ISKANDER, FAZIL - Sandro of Chegam; The Gospel
According to Sandro
JOHNSON, DENIS - Fiskadoro
JONES, ROBERT F. - Blood Sport; The Diamond Bogo
KINSELLA, W. P. - Shoeless Joe
KOSTER, R. M. - The Dissertation; Mandragon
KOTZWINKLE, WILLIAM - Elephant Bangs Train; Doctor
Rat, Fata Morgana
KRAMER, KATHRYN - A Handbook for Visitors From Outer
LANGE, OLIVER - Vandenberg
LESSING, DORIS - The Four-Gated City; The Fifth Child
of Satan
MAILER, NORMAN - Ancient Evenings
MARINIS, RICK - A Lovely Monster

A - Autumn of the Patriarch; One
Hundred Years of Solitude
MATHEWS, HARRY - The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium
McEWAN, IAN - The Comfort of Strangers; The Child in
McMAHON, THOMAS - Loving Little Egypt
MILLAR, MARTIN - Milk, Sulphate and Alby Starvation
MOONEY, TED - Easy Travel to Other Planets
MOORCOCK, MICHAEL - Laughter of Carthage; Byzantium
Endures; Mother London
MOORE, BRIAN - Cold Heaven
MORRISON, TONI - Beloved; The Song of Solomon
NUNN, KEN - Tapping the Source; Unassigned Territory
PERCY, WALKER - Love in the Ruins; The Thanatos
PIERCY, MARGE - Woman on the Edge of Time
PORTIS, CHARLES - Masters of Atlantis
PRIEST, CHRISTOPHER - The Glamour; The Affirmation
PROSE, FRANCINE - Bigfoot Dreams, Marie Laveau
PYNCHON, THOMAS - Gravity's Rainbow; V; The Crying of
Lot 49
REED, ISHMAEL - Mumbo Jumbo; The Terrible Twos
RICE, ANNE - The Vampire Lestat; Queen of the Damned
ROBBINS, TOM - Jitterbug Perfume; Another Roadside
ROTH, PHILIP - The Counterlife
RUSHDIE, SALMON - Midnight's Children; Grimus; The
Satanic Verses
SAINT, H. F. - Memoirs of an Invisible Man
SHEPARD, LUCIUS - Life During Wartime
SIDDONS, ANNE RIVERS - The House Next Door
SPARK, MURIEL - The Hothouse by the East River
SPENCER, SCOTT - Last Night at the Brain Thieves Ball
THOMAS, D. M. - The White Hotel
THOMPSON, JOYCE - The Blue Chair; Conscience Place
THOMSON, RUPERT - Dreams of Leaving
THORNTON, LAWRENCE - Imagining Argentina
UPDIKE, JOHN - Witches of Eastwick; Rogers Version
VLIET, R. G. - Scorpio Rising
VOLLMAN, WILLIAM T. - You Bright and Risen Angels
VONNEGUT, KURT - Galapagos; Slaughterhouse-Five
WALLACE, DAVID FOSTER - The Broom of the System
WEBB, DON - Uncle Ovid's Exercise Book
WHITTEMORE, EDWARD - Nile Shadows; Jerusalem Poker;
Sinai Tapestry
WILLARD, NANCY - Things Invisible to See
WOMACK, JACK - Ambient; Terraplane

D, BARI - The Killing Gift
WRIGHT, STEPHEN - M31: A Family Romance