Monica : Like you, your Secret of Life character Conrad Bunger goes to a Catholic school even though he’s not Catholic. Given that my Catholic background has had a profound impact on my writing, I wondered: what effect, if any, did observing that culture influence yours?
Rudy : As an Episcopalian, I was very much an outsider at my Catholic high school. But I relished the feeling. Given that I felt alien anyway, it was nice to have the situation made real and objective and externally observable. It’s like the way that a paranoid might feel relieved when the police really are following him.
In terms of me putting quirky religions into my transreal SF novels, I was more heavily influenced by the experience of living in Lynchburg, Virginia, in the early ’80s. At that time Lynchburg was the center of the right-wing evangelist Jerry Falwell’s empire. God’s little joke to put me there, with cyberpunk aborning. A long joke. We lived in Lynchburg for six years.
Monica : The Secret of Life is, to me, a very touching portrait of adolescent alienation—in this case, expressed as being an actual alien who chooses to stay on Earth. I’ve often had the same feeling—that I don’t really belong here, but am choosing to stay for the time being. Do you still feel that way, as you get older?
Rudy : Ah yes, the continuity of the ongoing Venusian space-probe sensation. Forever hovering eight feet off the ground with nobody noticing.
When I was younger, it made me uneasy to realize that I see the world differently than most people. Or at least I see things differently than most people admit to. And my oddball impressions of reality are something that I happen to be eager to talk about. Even though, at times, it feels like society’s forces are working to silence me.
How likely is it that we tiny creatures in this tiny backwater of the vast cosmos would so quickly have found a path to an ultimate answer?
But I was never the only outsider. I always have few bitter, rebellious friends whom I can relax with. Generally these are fellow mathematicians or hackers or SF writers.
At another level, I’ve come to realize that pretty much everyone alive has strange, idiosyncratic views. People pay lip service to the mind-controlling propaganda imposed upon them by the media—but deep down they don’t believe much of it. And that’s why there’s an audience for those who dare to step forward and speak.
Unconventional and transgressive ideas—they resonate with people. Momentarily surprised and awakened—an audience will laugh. It’s a laugh of recognition. My books tend to seem funny. But I’m not exactly a humorist. I’m trying to tell the truth.
Monica : Ah, “truth.” A word that means something vastly different in different disciplines. You’re both a scientist and an artist–do you think everything in the universe is ultimately knowable by the scientific method as we currently understand it?
Rudy : Oh, of course not. We’ve only had what we now call “science” for a couple of hundred years. How likely is it that we tiny creatures in this tiny backwater of the vast cosmos would so quickly have found a path to an ultimate answer?
If we could fully open our eyes to the world around us, perhaps we might begin asking better questions about it. I’m fond of hylozoism, that is, the ancient doctrine that everything in the world is alive. We’re educated to think this isn’t true. But it makes for an interesting program of thought experiments to imagine that the things around you are not only alive, but conscious, and perhaps even able to talk with you. My novels Postsingular, Hylozoic and The Big Aha are a transreal product of such ruminations.
Monica : Fantastic—I need to read them. You helped found a tradition I identify with, after all. In an October, 2014, column in the Guardian, Damien Walter proposed that transrealism might be called “the first major literary movement of the 21st century.” What’s your take on that?
Rudy : These days, a large number of literary novels are using tropes drawn from SF. The reviewers tend to avoid that label as—not entirely without historical justification—SF is reflexively viewed as being subliterature and beyond the pale. Instead of being tarred with the SF brush, these new mainstream novels are termed visionary or speculative.
So, what the hey, why not call them transreal? Transrealism might be regarded as a modernistic literary mode that’s a bit like magical realism. But instead of magic, we’re using SF. For my own taste, magic or fantasy are a little too gauzy, a little too anything-goes. I enjoy the SF tropes because they give us something concrete and seemingly logical. Instead of yearning for the past, a character uses a quirk of spacetime to go there. Rather than being crazy, someone has a brain parasite. A loving couple attain a state of mutual radiotelepathy. Not only is a young person alienated, they’re actually from a UFO.
The Trail is like insight meditation. You’re perfectly unencumbered, and at the same time, you have no place to escape yourself.
Using SF tropes in a novel gives an author a sense of perspective on things, a way of backing off just a bit from the bewildering present, a way to get something of an overview. As William Gibson put it in a 1997 interview on CNN, “I actually feel that science fiction’s best use today is the exploration of contemporary reality rather than any attempt to predict where we are going… The best thing you can do with science today is to use it to explore the present. Earth is the alien planet now.”
Monica : Amen to that. And thanks, Rudy.
Rudy : Before we wrap this up, Monica, I’d like to ask you a couple of questions. I just read your excellent novel The Girl In the Road. It has two interwoven threads, a pair of journeys by two women. In one thread, a woman walks thousands of kilometers along a sea-spanning structure called the Trail. Taken a transreal tack, what are some of the things that the Trail represents to you and/or to your character?
Monica : Ah yes. To me, The Girl in the Road is a translation—transrealization?—of my twenties. Specifically how I dealt with losing my mother to cancer at the beginning of it. And the Trail itself is a transrealization of the round-the-world trip I went on when I was twenty-seven, where I finally learned to take care of myself instead of giving that responsibility to others—I “grew my own mother,” in a way.
There’s also something about the simplicity of the Trail—metal, sky, sea, nothing more—that echoes the meditation practice I started during that decade, when I realized the Catholic tradition I’d grown up in was no longer meeting my needs. The Trail is like insight meditation. You’re perfectly unencumbered, and at the same time, you have no place to escape yourself. Perfect solitude, and the fruits and flowers of it, is a theme that has always appealed to me.
Rudy : In the second thread of your novel, a girl is journeying across northern Africa on a freight truck. To me, this journey had a science-fictional feel—as we have a character passing through territories that are wildly unfamiliar. Like travel writing by an alien. Can you tell me a bit about how the novel’s African journey relates to the your experiences?
Monica : Being a tourist is a lot like being an alien! It’s also like any experience of radical newness. Writing from the perspective of a runaway seven-year-old girl who’s never been outside Nouakchott (my character Mariama), is a transrealization of the perspective of a twenty-seven-year-old tourist woman who’s never been to Africa and will never really belong there (me). I drew on the senses of wonder, alienation, and apprehension common to each. Of course, the correspondence only goes so far: I also had to do extensive research on Mauritania, modern-day slavery, early trauma psychology, and so on.
People sometimes ask me what’s “real” and what’s “not real” in The Girl in the Road. And they don’t mean what’s autobiographical/not—they mean what’s really happening to Meena and Mariama, as opposed to what they’re perceiving. But I just don’t really see a difference. Meena encounters a hot dog stand in the middle of the ocean; Mariama sees a little girl with black wings. Both of those are entirely in keeping with my lived experience. We see breaks in consensus reality all the time, but only some of us choose to register them. I just want to say, “Have you been paying attention? Do you know how weird this world is!? Let the strangeness in. It’s real, too.”