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Surreal Sci-Fi: How to Write a Mind-Bending Slipstream Tale


Slipstream, as a subgenre of science fiction, is niche. Called the Fiction of Strangeness by Bruce Sterling who coined the term, slipstream fiction is not mainstream, but it is compelling. Despite its relative obscurity, you may have read some of the works commonly described as slipstream. Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five is a work of slipstream science fiction, as are Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer and Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, both of which have been adapted to the big screen and have seen commercial success. So how can you write successful slipstream fiction, and what are the advantages of the subgenre?

No easy answers

A common distinction between works of science fiction is between "soft" and "hard" science fiction. Hard sci-fi is concerned with the mechanics of the technology in the setting. Stories may revolve around finding the proper tool to repair an engine; or surviving on Mars using innovative but realistic techniques as in The Martian by Andy Weir. Soft science fiction is concerned with elements such as character, or narrative, and uses technology as a backdrop in front of which a story is told – think Star Wars.

Slipstream is science fiction with a soft candy coating, and a hard crunchy center. Rather than foregrounding technologies in terms of the protagonist's ability to understand, slipstream sci-fi highlights confusion and incomprehensibility. Though Slipstream fiction often implies that it is possible to understand the weirdness of the narrative, it rarely gives readers the satisfaction of fully revealing the mechanics of the world. In an almost Lovecraftian way, slipstream fiction conceals the mechanics of the world from the reader. How can you write compelling stories where the answer to the readers' questions is always another step away?

An inquisitive protagonist

Slipstream narratives benefit from a protagonist that asks questions. Readers often find it easy to connect to protagonists that want answers to the same questions which they are asking themselves. While by no-means necessary, a character trying to understand the unexplainable is often the first step in writing successful slipstream narratives. Consider equipping your protagonist with a profession that has them searching for answers as their day job: researcher at an alien crash site, private detective tracking unexplainable disappearances, or engineer aboard a starship trying to understand why the life support has cut out. Further, because protagonists tend to be strong stand-ins for the reader in slipstream, it is likely a good choice to make the protagonist intelligent – it will grow frustrating for your reader if the protagonist fails to find answers due to their incompetence rather than the immensity of their opposition, or the difficulty of solving the mystery.

Embrace the weirdness

Foreground the weird parts of your story. In Annihilation we are almost immediately informed that the soldiers and researchers who enter Area X never return. Moments later we discover that Area X is expanding, and poses a threat to humanity – this generates a host of questions: Why enter Area X at all? Why would the protagonist risk her life? What skills does the protagonist have that make her presence in Area X important? How can the weirdness of Area X be stopped?

When you foreground the weirdness, it forces you to answer questions about your protagonist's place in that weirdness. Why is the character interested in the weirdness? Perhaps the weirdness is the source of some kind of tragedy; perhaps this is a way for the protagonist to prove themselves; perhaps the protagonist's natural curiosity has gotten the better of them and pulled them in over their heads.

What is the danger in exploring the weirdness? Perhaps there is an organization or individual who doesn't want people understanding the weirdness; perhaps the weirdness itself is dangerous, distorting understanding/perception or simply lethal; perhaps the protagonist is a danger to the weirdness and their interference might make things worse with or without their knowledge.

What is the primary tool the protagonist will use to attempt to understand the weirdness? Perhaps the protagonist is a scholar in a field related to the weirdness, a botanist investigating a weird plant or an astrophysicist investigating a weird phenomenon is space; perhaps the protagonist has a particular status, physical ability, investigative skills, or destiny which gives them special insight into the weirdness; perhaps the protagonist has a special tool, an alien scanner, a symbiote which controls their movements, or some other esoteric reason to interact with the weirdness.

Whatever the case, the protagonist is going to be shaped by the type of weirdness that your story features, rather than vice versa – start with the weirdness and answer questions which that weirdness raises.

Every answer generates more questions

Slipstream can often be about stringing your reader along, but unlike a typical surrealist narrative – think Alice in Wonderland – questions are answered satisfactorily. Often, when Alice asks a question, the answers don't have a logical explanation. Why must the Red Queen be sated by the death of her playing cards? The reader never learns. Slipstream diverges from this by answering each question in turn, not in a manner that obscures information, but with answers that raise more questions.

Perhaps the protagonist is investigating a strange red lichen which cannot be poisoned, burned, or otherwise removed. It is spreading slowly but does not seem to photosynthesize. Why is it spreading? Where does its energy come from? Perhaps it drinks blood, feeds on dreams, or perhaps it is growing in some other manner – perhaps its growth is not linked to energy. In any case, the answer should raise more questions. If the lichen feeds on blood, then where is the blood coming from? If the mold feeds on dreams, then what happens to the dreamer? With each answer, the weirdness should grow deeper. If the red mold drinks blood, perhaps this blood is donated by a cult which worships the plant, and their religious texts point the protagonist in a new direction.

Don't sweat the distance

Surreal works – slipstream sci-fi is no exception – tend to care very little for time and space. In some ways slipstream fiction resembles stream of consciousness writing. Due to the inherent weirdness of the subgenre, readers tend not to be concerned with how distances are crossed, and the regular narrative structure of the work can be suspended. Take Cloud Atlas for example, which tells several stories and moves forward in time across the first half of the novel, and then backwards in time across the second half of the novel. Feel free to play around with time and ignore distance entirely. Trust your readers to figure out what you are saying – describe in detail, but don't over-explain. The mystery – and the unsolvable nature of that mystery – is part of the fun.

A few extra tidbits

Slipstream as a subgenre is a meeting point for several literary concepts: surrealism, science-fiction, stream of consciousness, and literary fiction. A slipstream narrative will always be science fiction, and will always be surreal, but the other common elements are less consistent.

Since it is surreal, you can take liberties with time and space. You can move characters vast distances without acknowledging the travel time. You can use flashbacks and flashforwards. You can intentionally obscure how much time has passed. All of this with the caveat: do not employ these flourishes for their own sake. If your character is moved, ensure there is a reason; if your story is told out of chronological order, be sure there is a reason – Cloud Atlas, for instance, could not be told without the strange chronology which David Mitchell employs.

Since it is science fiction, be sure that you understand the mechanics of your setting, even if your readers do not. Establish rules for yourself, and do not break them. Reveal these rules in-part to your readers, but do not solve the mystery for them. At the end of a slipstream narrative there should still be plenty of questions for your reader to ask themselves.

If your slipstream work is stream of consciousness, be sure to center the reader, and explain the reason behind this sort of construction. Clarity is often lost in stream of consciousness writing, and though this sort of style is compelling to some, you run the risk of damaging your marketability if your work is incoherent.

If your slipstream work is literary – that is, high-minded and dealing with complex concepts – then be sure that you understand the concept. If your protagonist quotes Nitezsche, for instance, be sure you understand what the character is quoting. Try to address ideas from unique angles which have not been explored previously.

Finally, be careful with slipstream. This subgenre is not widely published, and that is because writing surrealist narratives is incredibly difficult. Where possible, make your meaning clear. Choose which elements of the work are obscure – usually the weirdness – and make other elements clear. If your chronology is unclear, make your setting and characters stable and easily understood; if your character is the source of the weirdness, try to make your chronology more comprehensible. Slipstream science fiction runs the risk of confusing or frustrating the reader, but when well executed it is one of the most enjoyable subgenres to read.

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