The term ‘slipstream’ fiction was coined by Bruce Sterling in 1989 as a counterpoint to both ‘mainstream’ literary fiction and ‘traditional’ science fiction, which, some claimed had become moribund and clichéd. People have been arguing about it ever since. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction calls it ‘fabulist,’ a kind of magic realism written by non-Latinos. Others say it is nothing more than a particular voice, akin to weird. Still others use it to describe a kind of urban fantasy which uses science fictional or noir writing styles. It is sometimes dismissed as nothing more than ‘style’ and, at others, elevated to the most successful form of literary speculative fiction.
I’ve recently read two fine novels that have confused the hell out of me. Lauren Beukes’ “Zoo City,” which won the Arthur C. Clarke Award and G. Willow Wilson’s “Alif the Unseen,” which should be on a number of genre award lists this year, both have the feel of science fiction but are clearly fantasy in content – or are they?
Both are set in the present day, though ‘Zoo City’ is clearly an alternate reality with a different history than our own. In ‘Alif the Unseen,’ the setting is an imaginary Middle Eastern city, but the world for the most part is that of the Arab Spring. Technology, especially information technology, plays a major role, but so do magical or fantastical elements. Both are written with the clean clear journalistic style and fast moving plots we usually associate with SF. And both address fairly sophisticated questions of self and society. Interestingly each are early novels by young women – one a native of South Africa, the other an American feminist who converted to Islam and lived for a while in Cairo.
In Zoo City, crime or moral failure is rewarded/punished by having an animal appear – seemingly out of nowhere – as one’s companion until death. Quite literally – lose the animal and you get sucked into the darkness. And you also get a super power – sometimes trivial, sometimes quite powerful. And after that you basically go about your normal tawdry life.
‘Alif the Unseen’ explores the intersection of surveillance technology with religion (“He sees every sparrow that falls”) where magic books, written by the Jinn (as described in the Quaran) may provide the coding for new and more powerful computers. It is also a whole lot more – including an interesting exploration of the role of religion in an increasing technological world.
I could go on but this isn’t meant to be a book review but rather an exploration of my confusion as a publisher who wants to focus on science fiction. Would I have published either of these books?
They are both great books (go read them!), well written and fascinating, but are they science fiction? I don’t know. With Zoo City, my friend, Derek Kunsken, had to point out to me that it was really urban fantasy. And with Alif the Unseen, replace Jinn with aliens and it would be hard to say it wasn’t SF. And here’s why, I think. In both novels the parallel to modern times and modern problems is clearly drawn – one of the most powerful tropes of SF. Instead of escaping today’s reality into fantasy, these books twist modern society around and rub your face in it. Although the magic in the magic realism removes us from the issue of consequence (i.e. nothing I do could actually cause those worlds to happen), the ‘realism’ element does raise those types of questions that seem to be demanding answers right now.
So, yes, if you have a beautifully written fast-paced modern day magic realist novel where the realism is as or more important than the magic, please send it along. I’d be happy to publish it and call it slipstream science fiction.