Amy Pond: Look where?
The Doctor: Exactly where you don’t want to look, where you never want to look. The corner of your eye. Look behind you.
–“The Eleventh Hour,” Doctor Who
Disclaimer: I’m using a British quote to close out our American month. Don’t judge. It fits.
There is something in the darkness, something around the corner. It makes your skin crawl. You can hear it breathing, yet it has no need for air. This is a world quite like your own, but half a second off. Or tilted just slightly differently on its axis. Whatever it is, you can’t quite touch the strangeness with your mind (for here, the only way to touch is within the mind). But you know it is strange. There is something lurking very near, very close. Don’t look back.
All right, so there’s nothing lurking behind you (that I know of). But that eerie feeling is central to the genre we’re focusing on today: slipstream. A relatively new genre, there is something uniquely American about slipstream. By no means does this mean all the authors in this genre are American. Far from it. But I think this is the genre that could define contemporary American lit.
Slipstream is ill-defined in some sense. It’s most pronounced characteristic is strangeness. That’s it. Strangeness. Practically, that falls somewhere between science fiction and fantasy, perhaps with a bit of horror mixed in. It’s a genre that straddles the real and the bizarre, taking from both whatever it wishes. It’s related to magical realism, which is primarily a Latin and South American genre. It can be dark. It can be exciting. Every story is different, caught up in a world that is just different than ours.
So what makes “strangeness” the American genre? I’ll posit a few things here, but you are welcome to do your own digging.
First, slipstream opens new frontiers. It’s hard to think of American literature without a frontier to conquer, be that the West or space or liberties. Slipstream stories literally create new frontiers in familiar spaces. We can explore the world we’ve always known with altered eyes.
Actually. Less literary detour here. This is what Pokemon GO does. Yes, I just went there. But stick with me. Pokemon GO has opened up a different world hidden in our own. It’s a lighthearted imposition on the streets and places that we normally just drive by. We actually enter into a different world without ever leaving our own. We pick up our phones and find Pokemon and are transported somewhere that’s just a bit weird, if we really stop to think about it. And then we stick our phones back in purses or pockets and step back into a world without Pokemon, or rather, without Pokemon that we can see. We slip in and out of what we consider real and what we consider imaginary. Pokemon GO is the app version of this genre.
Leaving behind the frontier, let’s move on to American rebelliousness. Slipstream is the genre that refuses (thus far) to be thoroughly defined. It’s the rebellious child of Sci-fi and Fantasy, taking some traits from the shifty looking guy from down the street named Horror and whatever other influences it picks up as it hitchhikes around the world (or maybe Slipstream’s doing the Airbnb thing; that seems likely). There is a restlessness in America, a desire to not be tied down or defined. We want to be weird. We want to be noticed. Slipstream is a reflection of that, highlighting the abnormal and leaving us haunted by ourselves.
Ready for a postmodern adventure? Slipstream is coming for you, oozing into the books you’re reading, the movies you’re watching. Keep your eyes open–you don’t want to be caught off guard.