Tag Archives: Philip K Dick

Transrealism: the first major literary movement of the 21st century

Damien Walter writes on scifi & fantasy for The Guadian, BBC, Wired, Oxford University Press, IO9, Tor.com and elsewhere. He’s a graduate of the Clarion scifi writers workshop, and teaches the Rhetoric of Story.

A Scanner Darkly is one of Philip K Dick’s most famous but also most divisive novels. Written in 1973 but not published until 1977, it marks the boundary between PKD’s mid-career novels that were clearly works of science fiction, including The Man in the High Castle and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and his late-career work that had arguably left that genre behind. Like VALIS and The Divine Invasion that followed it, A Scanner Darkly was two stories collided into one – a roughly science-fictional premise built around a mind-destroying drug, and a grittily realistic autobiographical depiction of PKD’s time living among drug addicts.

“Transrealism aims for a very specific combination of the real and the fantastic.”

It is also, in the thinking of writer, critic and mathematician Rudy Rucker, the first work of a literary movement he would name “transrealism” in his 1983 essay A Transrealist Manifesto. Three decades later, Rucker’s essay has as much relevance to contemporary literature as ever. But while Rucker was writing at a time when science fiction and mainstream literature appeared starkly divided, today the two are increasingly hard to separate. It seems that here in the early 21st century, the literary movement Rucker called for is finally reaching its fruition.

Transrealism argues for an approach to writing novels routed first and foremost in reality. It rejects artificial constructs like plot and archetypal characters, in favour of real events and people, drawn directly from the author’s experience. But through this realist tapestry, the author threads a singular, impossibly fantastic idea, often one drawn from the playbook of science fiction, fantasy and horror. So the transrealist author who creates a detailed and realistic depiction of American high-school life will then shatter it open with the discovery of an alien flying saucer that confers super-powers on an otherwise ordinary young man.

It’s informative to list a few works that do not qualify as transrealism to understand Rucker’s intent more fully. Popular fantasy or science fiction stories like Harry Potter or The Hunger Games lack a strong enough reality to be discussed as transrealism. Apparently realistic narratives that sometimes contain fantastic elements, like the high-tech gizmos of spy thrillers, also fail as transrealism because their plots and archetypal characters are very far from real. Transrealism aims for a very specific combination of the real and the fantastic, for a very specific purpose, that seems to have become tremendously relevant for contemporary readers.

What is the Rhetoric of Story?

The potential list of transrealist authors is both contentious and fascinating. Margaret Atwood for The Handmaid’s Tale and her novels from Oryx and Crake onwards. Stephen King, when at his best describing the lives of blue-collar America shattered by supernatural horrors. Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace, among other big names of American letters. Iain Banks in novels like Whit and The Bridge. JG Ballard, as one of many writers originating from the science-fiction genre to pioneer transrealist techniques. Martin Amis in Time’s Arrow, among others.

This proliferation of the fantastic in contemporary fiction has at times been described as the “mainstreaming of science fiction”. But sci-fi continues on much as it ever has, producing various escapist fantasies for readers who want time out from reality. And of course there’s no shortage of purely realist novels populating Booker prize lists and elsewhere. Both sci-fi and realism provide a measure of comfort – one by showing us the escape hatch from mundane reality, the other by reassuring us the reality we really upon is fixed, stable and unchanging. Transrealism is meant to be uncomfortable, by telling us that our reality is at best constructed, at worst non-existent, and allowing us no escape from that realisation.

“Transrealism is a revolutionary art form. A major tool in mass thought-control is the myth of consensus reality. Hand in hand with this myth goes the notion of a ‘normal person’.” Rucker’s formulation of transrealism as revolutionary becomes especially meaningful when compared to the uses transrealism is put to by the best of its practitioners. Atwood, Pynchon and Foster-Wallace all employed transrealist techniques to challenge the ways that “consensus reality” defined who was normal and who was not, from the political oppression of women to the spiritual death inflicted on us all by modern consumerism.

Today transrealism underpins much of the most radical and challenging work in contemporary literature. Colson Whitehead’s intelligent dissection of the underpinnings of racism in The Intuitionist and his New York Times transrealist twist on the zombie-apocalypse novel, Zone One. Monica Byrne’s hallucinatory road-trip across the future of the developing world and the lives of women caught between poverty and high-speed technological change in The Girl in the Road. Matt Haig’s compulsive young adult novel The Humans, which invites the reader to see human life through alien eyes. Transrealism has 30 years of history behind it, but it’s in the next 30 years that it may well define literature as we come to know it.

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A Scanner Darkly by Philip K Dick

Philip K Dick’s partially autobiographical chronicle of 70s hippie drug culture takes place under the eternal sunshine of southern California. Even the book’s nighttime is saturated with the electric glare of strip mall lighting and the glow of the television screen. And in a society that never switches off the lights, the dark has become internal. A Scanner Darkly is about a descent into the deep fears of our 24-hour consumer society: the twilight of intellectual and emotional collapse. The darkness of insanity.

Read more @ Guardian Books

Who is the wisest Sci-Fi & Fantasy author?

Over on Twitter and Facebook I asked folk to tell me which SF author they would turn to for life advice, for words of wisdom and guidance through the labyrinth of life. And I got quite a response!

[View the story “Wisest of the wise in SF & Fantasy” on Storify]

Popular choices include Neil Gaiman, Ursula Le Guin, Jeff Vandermeer, China Mieville, Kurt Vonnegut, Harlan Ellison, Philip K Dick and Douglas Adams. Is it just coincidence that these are also some of our most enduring writers?

It makes me wonder, beyond a good story, great characters, cool ideas and amazing worlds to explore, is what we really value in our writers is the wise guidance they offer us through life?

GUEST POST: Serious writing must mirror both reality and imagination

Will Ellwood asks the simple question, can serious writing succeed without facing both the real…and the fantastic? Follow Will on Twitter @fragmad

Discovering your voice as a writer is more complex problem than is often acknowledged. This is not a problem of simple replicable craft that can be taught in a classroom, but is instead an aesthetic question which must be reflected on alone. One question that all writers have to face in this prcess is how we write about both about the real world of our experience, and the fantastic world of our imagination.

Our answer to this question will affect not only our voice as a writer, but also how we think about narrative in all its many forms and how we understand the world we live in. Each writer’s answer to this question is the mirror that they will use to observe both the objective reality they live in and their internal subjective imagination.

One source of inspiration for writers trying to find this mirror are the hundreds of very different art manifestos that have been written since the Italian poet Filippo Marinetti published the Futurist Manifesto in 1909. Somewhere in this house I have a book published by Penguin with 100 artists’ manifestos in it. Personally I have sympathy with several different manifestos, including the Stuckist writing manifesto, “The Cappuccino Writer and the idiocy of contemporary writing,” and the first Imagist manifesto. But the manifesto that really gets me excited is Rudy Rucker‘s Transrealist Manifesto.

The Transrealist manifesto was first published in the Bulletin of Science Fiction Writers of America, #83, Winter, 1983 and it adopts the confrontational tone expected of all manifestos. In the essay, Rudy Rucker describes Transrealist fiction as fiction that takes people, places, events and problems from the author’s life and reassembles these components into new fictional narratives. Unlike classical realist fiction, it encourages the use of science fiction and fantasy tropes to exaggerate and satirise the issues the author is exploring.

According to Rudy Rucker, the name comes from cover of the British edition of Philip K. Dick‘s “A Scanner Darkly” which called the novel a “transcendental autobiography”.

It is my belief that Transrealism provides a way to observe the world that allows writers to write fiction that affects me more than the juvenile cartoons contained in most science fiction and fantasy, good or bad, currently do. In Rudy’s A Writing Toolkit, he provides the original Transrealist manifesto along with a commentary of his recent thoughts on the subject. In this commentary he provides a list of features from his first ideas about Transrealism.

  • Use the SF tropes to express deep psychic archetypes.
  • Include a main character similar to yourself. Don’t glorify the character by making him or her unrealistically powerful (not a general in the space navy, e. g.) or well-balanced.
  • Base your other characters on real people you know, or on combinations of them. Avoid stock characters.
  • Don’t lay too much stress on plotting the book in advance; let the interactions of the characters, the thought experiments and the power chords generate the action.
  • Adopt a populist, anti-authoritarian political stance.

It is important to remember when faced with such a list that your version of Transrealism will not be Rucker’s. While manifestos tend to read like strict prescriptions, the value they provide only comes when they are meditated on and modified to taste. For example, from the moment I read the Transrealist Manifesto I disagreed with the requirement to avoid writing detailed outlines for stories. I do write outlines, but I write them and revise them as prototype versions of the final story.

Rudy Rucker’s own opinions on Transrealism have changed over the last thirty years. He no longer considers it a fundamental necessity for him to base all the characters on his friends and family members. (They got tired of it.) Even after dropping some parts of his original version of Transrealism Rudy Rucker still describes the idea of Transreal SF as being: “…the notion of basing SF on real ideas and real emotions that I personally have, and using immediate reality-based perceptions.”

This blending of autobiographical real life with the strange is what SF’s literary crowd should aim for. There will always be a place for mass-market escapism and genre sausages; its purpose is to entertain and distract the reader from the everyday mundane. But that comforting distraction is nearly always reactionary, avoiding the horrible and mundane is avoiding what makes us human. Transrealism offers a readers a glimpses of deeper truths. I would suggest there is more ways to write truthful SF than just Transrealism, there are many different shapes of mirror each with their own reflective properties. Where these other approaches are similar to Transrealism is they are all attempting to answer the fundamental question that all serious writers must face: “How do I write about the world I experience and the world I imagine?” I just happen to be an advocate for the Transrealist agenda.

So, how do you write about the world you experience and the world you imagine?

Rudy Rucker’s latest novel Jim and the Flims is available from Night Shade books.

Is speculative fiction poised to break into the literary canon?

The Booker prize judges have yet to acknowledge the flowering of British SF and fantasy. Will 2011 be a breakthrough year?

Speculative fiction has produced many great works of literature. Even a partial list of SF’s canonical works could fill many blogposts. It would be difficult to talk seriously about the last century of literature without considering HG Wells, or George Orwell, or JG Ballard at the very least. And of the writers working today, how many owe something to the works of Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut or Philip K Dick? In fact, the number of SF authors being retrospectively rolled in to the literary canon seems to grow exponentially year on year.

Read more at The Guardian

A Little Something for Us Clarionauts

Today is the two year anniversary of the start of Clarion 2008. This time two years ago I was being collected by Dan Pinney and Megan Kurashige from a random street corner in San Diego, for the drive up to La Jolla and UCSD where I and seventeen others were going to spend six weeks of our lives writing and workshopping SF stories. And as I write eighteen new Clarion students are heading out on the same journey.

I haven’t written up my Clarion experience. I have often tried to but in the final reckoning I don’t think I can and I don’t think I’m going to now. There was too much, and attempting to express it has always seemed to limit it somehow. I’ve expressed parts of the experience in different contexts, but as the two year anniversary has approached and I’ve been flooded with memories of that six weeks, I want to try and say something about what it meant to me, in the hope that will mean something to the other people who have been and are going there.

Clarion was a very intense experience for me. It was my first trip to America, and to California, which in itself was a wonderfully rich and powerful journey. I find California overwhelming and intoxicating, and have returned twice and will again.

(I would love to live and work there for a time, so if anyone reading this happens to want to offer me a year of work, please do.)

And it marked a separation from the life I had been living up to that point. I went to Clarion with a job to come back to, but knowing I was not going to come back to it. What I did not know was that the very close relationship I was leaving behind was also going to end with Clarion. If you had asked me why I wanted to go to Clarion while I was sitting in the departure lounge at Heathrow airport, I could not have told you. But looking back, I can see that I had for some time had a growing yearning for adventure, and for a space to grow and develop as a person. Clarion became a catalyst that brought those things into my life, and for that reason it will always have tremendous personal significance for me.

But Clarion was and is an intense experience for everyone who attends, whether they bring along the kind of personal drives that I did (many do I think) or whether they are just attending a six week writers workshop. I’m going to try and explain where that universal intensity stems from, and I’d be interested to know if other people who have been there agree.

Speculative Fiction writer is, and I mean this respectfully, a weird career ambition to hold. Like a lot of people, my relationship with SF started with a parent. My mum LOVED science fiction. Arthur C Clarke and C.S. Lewis particularly, and also Lord of the Rings which was almost a bible in our home. And she also wanted to write. So in one way or another, I have been on a journey into the world of SF pretty much since birth.

But the SF world can be difficult to find. It is almost a secret world, invisible even to some of its biggest fans. Millions of people read Hugo and Nebula award winning novels, but only a fraction of them even know about WorldCon or the Science Fiction Writers of America. There are new bestselling SF novels every week, but the short story markets where SF was born and around which much of the community turns are barely known. It took me, and it takes most writers, years of work and effort to find my way into the SF world.

And then, at Clarion, you are not just in SF world, you are at its heart. A world that until then had been built out of books, and internet forums, and weekend conventions and maybe a few real life friendships or a writing group, is suddenly made of eighteen passionate, committed, ambitious, aspiring SF writers who all share much the same vision. A world that had been subjective, ghostly and intangible is now solid and real, and you are in it twenty-four hours a day with no work or other distractions.

The feeling of being at the heart of the SF world at Clarion is incredibly strong. I have had heart-to-heart conversations with Clarion graduates from different years that I had never met before but felt instant friendship with, simply because we had the shared experience of being at the centre of a place that few people get to enter. In contrast, I’ve met professional, published SF novelists who feel much less a part of that world than completely unpublished Clarion graduates.

More than anything else, it is that sense of belonging and community in the SF world that is Clarion’s real gift. Leaving Clarion is very difficult because of it (and because you are leaving behind very real and very true friendships). After those six weeks end you are back in the big bad world, and that can be very hard. But that feeling of belonging never really goes away. In fact it can get stronger. As Kelly Link said to our Clarion group in week one, some of us would go away from Clarion and start reshaping our lives so we could be part of the SF world permanently, whether as writers or editors or committed fans. Its been a pleasure to watch all of my friends from Clarion do that in their own ways, as I’ve been doing it in mine.

I titled this blog post after a short story by Philip K Dick, A Little Something for Us Tempunauts. It’s a story about time travel, but also about leaving home and coming back, and about belonging. Clarion graduates are commonly called Clarionites, like citizens of the state of Clarion. But I think of us as Clarionauts, travellers into the strange and weird and ever so slightly odd world of SF. If we come back from our travels a little strange and weird and ever so slightly odd please forgive us, it’s the nature of the journey itself.

(I want to know all about Clarion 2010! If you are there now and reading this or know someone who is please give me blog / Twitter / Facebook links below or at http://twitter.com/damiengwalter )

(And look, I’ve done a whole Clarion post without mentioning Neil Gaiman once! Oh…darn-it…)

So, like, where’d all the politics go?

Tomorrow I lead the first of three workshops in Science Fiction and Politics.

(The organisers have sold 14 out of 12 tickets, which I take as a good sign.)

I’ve had good fun selecting books to talk about, and looking through the sometimes odd political perspectives SF writers have taken over the years. I’ve also taken a root through the many different definitions of science fiction that have been arrived at over the years. Looking at some of those definitions reminds me how, at times in it’s history, science fiction has had a sense of mission far beyond simple entertainment.

Sometimes that mission was political, the idea that somehow science fiction had a role to play in defending, or perhaps gaining, political freedom. Sometimes it borders on the spiritual, the idea that science fiction aims to illuminate truths that a swiftly changing society has lost sight of. You could argue forever about whether science fiction ever did or does achieve these things, or even whether it should try to. But at its best, science fiction has had those ambitions.

Does science fiction still have those ambitions? Does it have a sense of mission beyond entertaining its audience? A lot of the energy of science fiction was generated before the term had even been coined. Is that energy still out there? Or has it dissipated away to find a different vehicle to attach itself to?

One of my seminal moments in science fiction was reading, over two nights, the final volume of Philip K. Dicks collected short fiction. The collection opens with this quote. It’s one of my favourites.

How does one fashion a book of resistance, a book of truth in an empire of falsehood, or a book of rectitude in an empire of vicious lies? How does one do this right in front of the enemy?

Not through the old-fashioned ways of writing while you’re in the bathroom, but how does one do that in a truly future technological state? Is it possible for freedom and independence to arise in new ways under new conditions? That is, will new tyrannies abolish these protests? Or will there be new responses by the spirit that we can’t anticipate?

Philip K. Dick in interview, 1974

From Only Apparently real

Elsewhere in our truly future technological state:

The Nebula Award shortlist is announced. What was that? Whatever happened to the New Weird you ask? Oh look, there they are!

Things that make Megan Kurashige laugh.

Is Madmen Science Fiction?

Now work with me here. I know its a leap, but I’m starting to think that the hit television show Madmen is a work of science fiction.

I’ve been geeking out over Madmen season two for the last fortnight. And when I say geeking out, I mean obsessing. Having watched season one three times (friends kept wanting to see it, so I had to rewatch it with them) I decided it was time to move on to the second season. Partly its the soap opera aspect of the show, once you get me hooked on the life stories of a good ensemble of characters, I’m likely to keep coming back for more and more. But Madmen goes a long, long way beyond the simplistic writing of most soap operas, and even exceeds the spate of recent excellent TV series including The Sopranos and The Wire. In an era when the TV series has become our strongest storytelling vehicle, Madmen is telling the best stories of all.

It’s on the thematic level that Madmen really triumphs. Through the lens of the advertising industry, Madmen is able to look at individual facets of our modern, ever more materialist society. Each character in the show is in someway complicit in the construction of the amoral society that they are also a victim of. From the lead male Don Draper who harnesses the pain of losing love to sell products even while his own family is slipping from his grasp, to junior copywriter Betty Olsen who understands every sin she is committing even whilst she is committing them. As a beat poet charcater says to draper in season one, the characters in Madmen ‘are making the lie’, and then they have to live in it.

And its because of its critique of materialist culture that Madmen is creeping over some line in my thinking to qualify as science fiction. Not in the rockets and rayguns way of course. No, Madmen is a much more interesting kind of SF than that. Imagine if Philip K Dick had been given free reign to write a television show, with the provision that it had to be entirely realist and mainstream. And imagine that J G Ballard and Harlan Ellison were asked in to consult. They might have come up with something not dissimilar from Madmen. There is a thread of paranoia and hyper-realism threaded through the show, as though the materialist reality the characters are inhabiting is actually some artificial projection a la The Truman Show or a PKD novel like Ubik. In season 2 the show introduces an overt discussion of god and morality, which culminates in the heavy symbolism of catholicism and the tarot playing out to the backdrop of the Cuban missile crisis, as though some greater power is trying to commune with the characters. Its tempting to think of madmen as the most subversive kind of science fiction, one that works by treating reality itself as the biggest fiction we have ever created.

I’m saving Madmen season 3 for a rainy day, so now what the hell do I watch?

Philip Jose Farmer, rebel against reality

Philip José Farmer, who passed out of this world yesterday, was among the last of a generation who emerged from the revolutionary literature of science fiction. Along with contemporaries including Robert Heinlen, Isaac Asimov, Philip K Dick and and Kurt Vonnegut, Farmer dedicated his life to writing stories that forced their readers to confront and question many of their most basic assumptions about life, the world, and that slippery beast called “reality”.

Read more on the Guardian book blog