Tag Archives: Rudy Rucker

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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The spy who came in from the multiverse

Will Ellwood is a member of The Speculators writing group, which is now accelerating towards its two year anniversary. This week Will has had his first professional publication in issue 12 of Flurb, edited by Rudy Rucker. It’s a hell of a way to start a writing career, being published alongside cyberpunk legends Bruce Sterling, John Shirley and Paul DiFilippo. Expect to hear a lot more from Will Ellwood in the future.

Walls Between Worlds by Will Ellwood

Arkady left the Ministry of Defence building in Whitehall and encountered a demonstration outside. Most of the protesters Arkady recognized. This crowd assembled everyday on Horse Guards Avenue holding home-made signs with the names and photographs of missing loved ones. They chanted for answers. Scattered amongst the grieving protesters the expected bloc of Socialist Workers Party protesters joined in, giving the Ministry an excuse to do nothing.

From the Victoria Embankment he watched the wheel of the London Eye turning against the sky. In another London he had been responsible for the growing of a memorial garden in its place.

Read more in Flurb issue 12

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.