What is a slipstream book? According to Bruce Sterling, the term first came into use by Richard Dorsett when the two were discussing a subset of fantasy novels that they couldn’t easily categorize. Sterling elucidated further on the subject in a 1989 article in SF Eye, in which he described slipstream as “a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the 20th century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility.”
Clear as Martian mud, right? To clarify, Sterling was talking about what he saw as “the ongoing brain-death of science fiction.” For writers like Sterling, Asimov, Le Guin, and their ilk, science fiction was a high-brow art form using SFF genre tropes to speak to the human condition. They were seeing an influx of stories using these tropes simply to tell fun, if vapid stories.
However, Sterling was also seeing some novels that weren’t strictly science fiction or fantasy using these tropes to tell compelling literary stories. These were stories of complex characters, deep personal stakes, and real-life human tragedy. So, Sterling and Dorsett labeled them as slipstream.
Here are 10 of the absolute best slipstream books.
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Morrison’s masterpiece is dark, brutal, and a must-read for everyone. It focuses on Sethe, a woman born into slavery who escaped to Ohio. Once there, she is haunted by the ghost of her baby. Suspenseful and full of shocking surprises, the ghost element is what makes this a towering example of a slipstream book.
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
This time-and-space-hopping novel was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize and still Mitchell’s most famous work. Connected by strands of ancestry and generational trauma, this novel hops between a voyage across the Pacific in the 1850s, a California journalist during Reagan’s time as governor, a young islander at the end of civilization, and so much more. This novel explores what connects us all across blood and time.
The Cyberiad by Stanislaw Lem
This collection of short stories is considered a pillar of slipstream and consistently one of the best slipstream books. These stories share protagonists: Trurl and Klaupacius, a pair of robots taking on freelance jobs and constantly trying to out-invent each other. While funny and adventurous, these jobs involve the powerful realism of human trauma.
Ice by Anna Kavan
Set in a world beset by ice, Kavan’s novel features a nameless protagonist searching the frozen world for a “glass-girl” with silver hair. Written in 1967, the novel has gained ground and become more prescient with its warnings against totalitarianism and climate change. It’s also an allegory for Kavan’s own struggled with addition, bringing a dream-like quality to the narrative.
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
No, this isn’t the H.G. Wells novel with a similar name. Invisible Man is the story of a Black man who journeys across America and all of its racist foregrounds and back rooms, political upheaval, and personal identity. Why is this one of the best slipstream books? This novel uses satire to create a parallel universe, putting a spotlight on just how ridiculous and horrific America’s racist and political problems were and can be.
The Mount by Carol Emshwiller
Charley wants to be the fastest runner in the world, just like his father. He wants to win races and medals. Unfortunately, alien invaders called The Hoots have taken over the world. Charley isn’t a runner: he’s a mount living in a stable. If he wants to chase his dreams or even his humanity, he’ll have to join the revolution and rise up against his captors first.
Never Have I Ever by Isabel Yap
Here is another collection of short stories, all of them magical in nature. They’re slipstream because they’re all grounded in the human condition. Immigrant tales blend with magical realism. The tragedy of human life weaves into urban legends. There’s magic in these pages, yes, but also very real aspects that every reader can connect with.
The Passion of New Eve by Angela Carter
This one is extremely dark and basically requires all of the content warnings, but it’s also a towering example of slipstream. Evelyn is a male English professor who takes a new job in New York. Except in this novel, NYC is a dystopian nightmare. After a horrifying turn through the city, Evelyn decides to flee for the desert, but only finds more torment there when he is enslaved by Zero, a cult leader. Weaving through spiritual awakening, gender and sexual identity, and dark satire, this novel is well worth it if you have the stomach.
The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
Part detective story, part tale of a dissipating marriage, this novel is as hallucinatory as it is tragic and real. Toru is searching for his wife’s missing cat. What begins as a simple search around Tokyo soon evolves into a twisted mystery through a mystical netherworld. Full of larger-than-life characters, dreamlike sequences, and even hidden secrets of World War II, this is definitely one of the best slipstream books.
Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy
This narrative has been done so many times that it’s basically a trope now, but here is where it was done best. Connie Ramos is widely considered to be insane. But she’s not; she’s just able to communicate with the year 2137 (this novel was published in 1976). While she keeps trying to convince her doctors that she isn’t mad, she’s also like Cassandra, trying to convey information and messages that nobody will listen to.
These are far from the only slipstream books out there. Some predate Sterling’s designation, and many have been published since. What are some of your favorite slipstream books?