Earlier in 2014 I declared that “transrealism” was the first major literary movement of the 21st century in my regular column for The Guardian. The piece got quite a response, from defensive sci-fi fans bellowing IT’S ALL SCIENCE FICTION, to interested literary readers recognising transrealism as something they had enjoyed for a long time without putting a name to it. Fiction and stories have taken a big step away from pure realism in recent years. In this interview Monica Byrne, author of The Girl In The Road, one of the writers leading that twist away from pure realism, sits down with the original author of the transrealist manifesto, Rudy Rucker himself. The discussion that follows is startling and revelatory. Read on.
Damien Walter, 2014
Let The Strangeness In : Monica Byrne and Rudy Rucker on the transreal revolution
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Monica : When I read your “Transrealist Manifesto” it was an uncanny experience, like I was reading a step-by-step description of my writing philosophy for The Girl in the Road. Except you’d written it when I was two. So first of all, thank you for articulating that mode of expression, then and now.
Can you point to a moment in time when you realized that science fiction literature wasn’t saying what you wanted to say—that there was a niche that needed filling?
Rudy : In the’70s, when I was trying to publish my very first novel, Spacetime Donuts, I got a provoking comment from the SF master Frederik Pohl: “This is a fascinating read, but it’s not science fiction.” Naturally my feeling was that SF had to change. Indeed, much of the SF of that time seemed flat and uncool to me.
I was coming from a place where my favorite writers were Kerouac, Pynchon, Borges, and William Burroughs. I wanted to do the Beat thing of having my novels reflect my life; I wanted to have fabulous yet logical twists in my stories; and I wanted to use rich language. I believed in SF the same way I believed in rock’n’roll. Selling to the mainstream literary market wasn’t something I even wanted to try.
Eventually I was able to get Spacetime Donuts serialized in an SF zine. And then, early in the ‘80s, with White Light and Software, I was able to start publishing my SF novels in paperback. And then cyberpunk hit, and I had a few good years. My cyberpunk novels had a transreal core. Like in Software, the old man Cobb Anderson is modeled on my father. And the mad Sta-Hi Mooney, he’s a guy I used to hang around with. Of course, to some extent, both of these characters are me. As Phil Dick wrote in the afterword to his transreal A Scanner Darkly, “I myself, I am not a character in this novel: I am the novel.”
Part of the appeal of getting high may be that it makes reality feel like science fiction.
Monica : Your novel The Secret of Life—the first book of the Transreal Trilogy—follows Conrad Bunger, an alter ego, through adolescence and early adulthood. He has a lot of experiences with drugs, including a peyote trip I don’t envy. I’m very square in comparison—the most serious thing I’ve ever done is pot, and the most exciting thing that happened was that I fell asleep to Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” on repeat. But I remain very curious—reality is already pleasurably surreal to me, and it seems like drugs would make it even more so.
Do you think you would have conceived of transrealism without drugs?
Rudy : Oh, I would have thought of transrealism anyhow. It’s not useful to try and reduce an artist’s ideas to drugs. Like, was Hieronymus Bosch high? Would it matter? You don’t really see other people painting like Bosch, no matter what they ingest.
This said, in the old days I did like smoking pot after hours, and I took psychedelics three or four times. Part of the appeal of getting high may be that it makes reality feel like SF. We tend to maintain an ongoing subconscious narrative about the world—naming and classifying the things we hear and see. When you disrupt that, you’re in a position to see the world raw, rather than seeing it as you’ve been taught.
And, as you mention, it’s possible to get into this mode of perception without being high. My writer friend Gregory Gibson terms this “the ongoing Venusian space-probe sensation.” It’s the sense that you’re seeing the world as if you’re a space probe sent by “Venusian” aliens, and you’re observing humans and their customs from the outside.
Monica : Speaking of observing from the outside, traveling is a sure way to unglue my mind from consensus reality. I remember my first time traveling abroad to Sorrento, Italy, and thinking that the very soil and air were different, but in ways I couldn’t articulate. What was your first experience traveling abroad?
Rudy : Travel gets you into that special mode of seeing reality bare. In my daily life, many of my thoughts and actions are like computer macros or like automatic apps. I’m half asleep. Travel wakes me up. It nudges me into my alert Venusian space-probe mode.
My first trip to Europe was in 1953. I was seven. My mother, brother and I went to visit my grandmother. They still hadn’t finished cleaning up from WWII—there were great mounds of rubble that I was warned not to play on And I encountered a man who scared me. If I were to write a story about this time, I might chose to sharpen the strangeness with transrealism. Like: alien eggs were lurking beneath the rubble, and the scary bum wanted to implant an alien larva into my flesh. More expressive that way, less been-done.
Monica : You’ve said before that your wildest dream is to be able to fly, and that you dream about it a lot. So do I. In fact, I’m pretty sure I flew down the stairs once when I was really little. That seems very common in children (and adults who still admit it to themselves).What are your flying dreams like?
Rudy : I know exactly what you mean about having the feeling that you once really did fly down the stairs. And that’s a good idea for a transreal story—I think it’s been used before, but you could make it your own.
I have a habit of pondering the objective correlatives for the events in my dreams and in my transreal novels. I don’t try to do this in any doctrinaire sense of hammering every nail home. It’s more a way figuring out what I’m doing, so that I can fatten up the texture of my fiction a bit more.
I’ve noticed that in many of my flying dreams, I’m hovering about eight feet off the ground, perhaps lying horizontal in the air, and I’m talking to my family and acquaintances who are, as usual, standing on the ground. And the galling thing in these dreams is that none of the people ever notice that I’m flying. I’ll mention it to them, even yell about it, but they obdurately refuse to acknowledge that I, Rudy the writer, am in fact floating at a level slightly above their heads.
Let The Strangeness In continues on the next page.