The slipstream canon –- at least as decided by a panel at Readercon –- has been posted by Paul DiFilippo here.

I have a number of comments to make about the list.

Actually, the fact that I have a number of comments rather than one coherent response is part of the problem. But I’ll come to that later.

The first thing to say is that this is a good list. Practically every one of the works listed that I am familiar with is something I like and admire. A number of the authors included are among my all-time favourites. If you simply want a list of good stuff that you should read, this is for you.

It’s when you try to have it saying something else that the problems arise. For a start, this list, as a canon of slipstream, is somehow supposed to be definitive: from this list you know what slipstream is.

Well, I don’t. I don’t know what, for example, puts the Collected Stories of Jorge Luis Borges into the same camp as Perdido Street Station by China Miéville, or for that matter how Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany is to be seen as part of the same enterprise as Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler, or why The Trial by Franz Kafka or His Monkey Wife by John Collier or Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett should be considered to be doing the same thing as Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon or The Collected Stories of J.G. Ballard or Conjunctions 39 edited by Peter Straub (and others). This list does not define slipstream for me, all it does is suggest works that one person or other has difficulty fitting into pre-existing categories. That does not mean that we need to invent a new category. Nor does it mean that works excluded from other categories necessarily all belong or might conceivably fit in that same new category.

I do not happen to believe there is or can be such a thing as a pure and unadulterated example of any particular literary genre. So I have no problem with works that do not fit neatly into prescribed pigeonholes. Which is perhaps why I react so strongly against the notion of a new pigeonhole.

For me, genre categories like ‘science fiction’ or ‘fantasy’ or ‘crime’ or ‘romance’ are conveniences. There are sets of characteristics (certain tropes or plot devices or bits of furniture) that we tend to associate with one category or other, and as a work will display more of one set of characteristics than another, so we will incline to call it by that genre name. But in fact most fictions contain characteristics we might associate with several genres, and we tend to assign a work to one category or another more because of how it suits us to read the work. And indeed we might well read or discuss a work as a representative of several different genres at different times depending on our circumstances. Thus a novel like Perdido Street Station partakes of characteristics we might associate with science fiction and fantasy and horror. That does not mean it really belongs in a different category, slipstream. It just means it can be read as science fiction or fantasy or horror.

There are many books on the list that deliberately break genre boundaries, or that use elements from more than one genre (this may or may not be the same thing). This is actually one of the defining characteristics of postmodern literature, and an awful lot of the works on the list clearly belong to that very self-conscious literary enterprise. Does that slipstream was devised simply to spare the blushes of those who don’t want to be caught reading anything as posy or as pretentious as postmodernism? Maybe. All I know is that for all its use of postmodern techniques, I have absolutely no difficulty reading Dhalgren as straight down the line science fiction. And until I saw it featuring on this list, I had absolutely no reason to believe that anyone else did.

My problem is that as I look down the list I keep seeing works that I have no difficulty reading as science fiction, or as fantasy, or as horror, or as mainstream, or as postmodern, or as ‘experimental’ (Finnegans Wake by James Joyce is exuberant word-play that really does not need to be slotted into some new category). I do not see works that fit together in any clear and logical way; nor do I feel that my reading of them is in any way transformed or refreshed by saying that Lanark by Alasdair Gray (in which a boy growing up in Glasgow finds himself increasingly isolated from human contact due to the twin demands of his father’s religion and his own commitment to art) shares a category with Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard (in which a boy growing up in the Far East learns about fellow-feeling with his captors in Japanese prison camp) –- there are certain things in common between them, but to read them exclusively or even primarily in terms of these features would be to seriously misread both books.

First published at LiveJournal, 13 July 2007.