Thursday, June 12, 2014

SCIENCE FICTION AND THE BEATS: American Literary Transcendentalism by Norman Spinrad

  Norman Spinrad
      1 rue Maitre Albert                               about 3600 words
      Paris 75005
                         SCIENCE FICTION AND THE BEATS:
                      American Literary Transcendentalism
                               by Norman Spinrad
           While it is common knowledge that science fiction is not 
      generally admitted into the polite drawing rooms of the guardians of 
      America's version of F.R. Leavis's "Great Tradition," it is now 
      almost forgotten that another alternate American literary culture 
      was never quite accepted with open arms as part of the official 
      canon either, a literary tradition now seems sadly on the verge of 
      extinction, preserved in moribund form in a handful of critical 
      studies, and in a few bookstores like San Francisco's City Lights 
      and Paris' own Shakespeare and Company.
           I'm speaking of what was called the "Beat Movement" at the time 
      of its greatest and most prominent flowering in the 1950s and 
      1960s.  The novels of Jack Kerouac and the poetry of Alan Ginsberg 
      were the core of the Beat Generation, but certain essays of Norman 
      Mailer, notably The White Negro, were central to its esthetic too.  
      Thomas Pynchon's V was certainly part of this alternate literary 
      culture, as was Richard Farina's BEEN DOWN SO LONG IT LOOKS LIKE UP 
      TO ME, Rechy's CITY OF NIGHT, even early Charles Bukowski.  
           And while neither the Beats nor the American science fiction 
      writers of the period nor the critics of the day generally 
      recognized the connection, both are avatars of a characteristically 
      American literary esthetic rooted in the very nature of America 
      itself, an alternate American literary tradition that has always 
      existed outside the literary law.
           The Beats might have seemed to have come out of nowhere towards 
      the end of the 1950s with the publishing of Kerouac's THE 
      SUBTERREANS and ON THE ROAD and Ginsberg's HOWL and the attendant 
      broughaha in the major cultural media, but culturally speaking, they 
      were the spiritual descendants of an old American bohemian tradition 
      that had existed in the Greenwich Village for over a century and 
      that had thrived in exile in Saint Germain and Montmarte in another 
      incarnation in the 1920s and 1930s.
           The literary ancestors of the Beats were Henry Miller, Walt 
      Whitman, Mark Twain, Henry David Thoreau, William James, Ralph Waldo 
      Emerson, arguably even Thomas Paine and James Fenimore Cooper. 
           Far from avidly seeking entrance into genteel literary society, 
      the American bohemians formed a kind of outlaw proto counterculture, 
      and in Greenwich Village, Paris, San Francisco, and the mystical 
      countryside, created their own liberated zone.  
           Liberated from the restrictive sexual mores, conventional 
      politics, and dress codes of "square" society.  Liberated from the 
      grammatical restrictions of conventional prose and the formal 
      restrictions of conventional literary structure.  Liberated to 
      explore human sexuality as a major literary topic.  Liberated from 
      official reality.  Liberated from the notion that "life is real and 
      life is earnest."
           Frankly, Scarlet, they didn't give a damn.
           They were Bad Boys, Subterraneans, Dharma Bums, White Negroes, 
      living in disreputable neighborhoods, eschewing real jobs, dressing 
      to make a statement, engaging in "free love," doing drugs, boogying 

      to a different drummer, taking as their heroes dubious characters 
      like Rimbaud, Billy the Kid, Baudelaire and Oscar Wilde, and their 
      own outlaw demimonde as their literary country.
           In this other America, the Indians, Blacks, Outlaws, and Street 
      People are the Good Guys, and the Cowboys, Cops and Squares are the 
      Bad Guys.  Religion has nothing to do with uptight Christian 
      morality and everything to do with Eastern concepts of satoric 
      transcendence, meaning, among other things, that sex, drugs, and 
      yes, jazz and rock and roll, can be functional sacraments of the 
      godhead, and that, as William Blake had it, "the road of excess 
      leads to the Palace of Wisdom."
           Disreputable as it might be, this mystical libidinal anarchism 
      was as American as Mom and Apple Pie, as old as the myth of the 
      West, as the American transcendentalists of the 19th century, indeed 
      arguably as old as America itself, which, after all, was colonized 
      by European reprobates and remittance men, and led into revolution 
      against the crown by scandalous Deists and Freethinkers like Paine, 
      Franklin and Jefferson.  
           Early literature in this tradition cultivated the notion of the 
      the Noble Redman and in a later more urban mode, the Negro, as 
      paragons, and finally the hipster himself as the self-made White 
      Negro, Third World boddhisattvas liberated from uptight white 
      society, from official culture and official reality, spontaneously 
      in tune with the music of the spheres and living the life of the 
      natural man.
           Whitman sang the song of himself, Miller proclaimed himself Mr. 
      Sexus, Ginsberg howled, and Kerouac took it all on the the road.  
      The literary ultima thule was to make the reading of the poetry or 
      the prose the existential equivalent of real world satori, the 
      reproduction of the peak mystical experience to be found in sexual 
      ecstasy, zen meditation, psychoactive drugs, the contemplation of 
      certain magic landscapes, the right music, or ideally all of the 
      above at once.
           It's not hard to see why such literary outlaws were never 
      exactly welcomed in polite literary company, where they would no 
      doubt do their best to get loaded, seduce the hostess, barf in the 
      punch bowl, and maybe punch out the host.  The Code of the West 
      demanded nothing less.
           Nevertheless American literature would have been pretty dead 
      without the Bad Boys.  These writers made poetry a mirror of the 
      psychic landscape, liberated prose into a free-form poetic medium 
      free to use the real language of the people, and took the novel 
      where angels most certainly feared to tread.  
           Small wonder, then, that when Kerouac and Ginsberg emerged as 
      media icons, and Time transmogrified the Beat Generation into the 
      "beatniks," they became the Pied Pipers of a generation of American 
      college students emerging from the gray years of the Eisenhower era.
           Small wonder that when Bob Dylan, a beatnik icon himself, 
      picked up an electric guitar in 1965 and put it all to the driving 
      beat and adolescent energy of rock and roll the Summer of Love and 
      the Counterculture were just a shot away, as a whole generation 
      found itself dancing to the beat of America's primal different 
           Smaller wonder still that when the Counterculture collapsed 
      towards the middle of the 1970s, when America took a hard right turn 
      during the Reagan era, the Beat Movement followed it into the 
      dustbin of history, that Kerouac and Ginsberg and their crew have 
      had no major literary successors.  As far as the Powers That Be are 
      concerned, even the memory of the whole phenomenon and as much of 
      what led up to it as possible was something upon which to impose 
      cultural amnesia lest official reality be threatened again.
           One may search in vain through the literary magazines and 
      "serious fiction" lines of major American publishers for the next 
      generation of American mystical bohemian writers, and novels dealing 
      with the outlaw culture on anything remotely like its own terms are 
      almost nowhere to be found.
           It would appear that an American literary tradition as old as 
      the nation itself has finally reached a dead end.
           But appearances are deceiving.

           For the place to look for current incarnation of that literary 
      spirit is neither Shakespeare and Company nor the City Lights 
      Bookstore nor Greenwich Village and North Beach but in American 
      science fiction.  And therein lies the tale.
           It may seem strange to have gotten this far without even 
      mentioning William Burroughs.  Burroughs, after all, was the mentor 
      of both Kerouac and Ginsberg, and the stylistic influence of works 
      like NAKED LUNCH is evident in everything they wrote, as well as 
      serving as the conduit for the influence of Henry Miller, whose 
      banned books, like Burroughs', were for many years only available in 
      Olympia Press editions published by Maurice Girodias in Paris. 
           But Burroughs belongs at precisely this point in the discussion 
      because Burroughs is the key figure, the literary point of tangency 
      between the stream of libidinal anarchism that culminated in the 
      Beats and the stream of science fiction which still flows from the 
      same primal source. 
           Burroughs' first major novel, NAKED LUNCH, though unpublished 
      until 1959, was a major influence on Ginsberg and Kerouac, who 
      acknowledged Burroughs as their literary Master.  And NAKED LUNCH, 
      with its biomorphic transformations, its psychedelic street people, 
      its Mayan mind-control obsessions, even its random cut-up formal 
      games, was already bordering on a kind of science fiction.
           NOVA EXPRESS, with its galactic Nova Mob and Nova Police 
      battling in secret for the destiny of the Earth, with its central 
      concept of Word and Image as mind-control viruses, is science 
      fiction by any coherent definition.   One sees its genre mirror-
      image in much of the work of Philip K. Dick, in Michael Moorcock's 
      Jerry Cornelius cycle, in my own BUG JACK BARRON and LITTLE HEROES, 
      in the "condensed novels" of J.G. Ballard, in William Gibson's 
      NEUROMANCER trilogy, and indeed in most of the writers associated 
      with the current Cyberpunk movement.
           And William Burroughs was himself influenced by American 
      science fiction.  He appears to be well-read in the field.  He 
      lifted a whole section of Henry Kuttner's FURY, and rewrote it, with 
      the appropriate acknowledgment, in his own novel.  He even secured 
      the rights to turn Alan E. Nourse's sf novel BLADE RUNNER into a 
      "screenplay" in novel form, which is why the producers of the film 
      based on Dick's DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP? had to buy 
      rights to the title from both Nourse and Burroughs when they decided 
      it was just what they needed to retitle the movie.
           When it came to content and thematic material, it was Burroughs 
      who borrowed from American science fiction, but when it came to 
      prose and form, he paid back the debt with interest.  
           Moorcock's allusive prose line in the Cornelius cycle has 
      theoretical underpinnings in Burroughs.  J.G. Ballard's condensed 
      novels and the terse imagistic style that grew out of them reproduce 

      the major esthetic effect of Burroughs' cut-up techniques in more 
      controlled and coherent form. Delany's semiotic space operas BABEL 
      17 and THE EINSTEIN INTERSECTION deal with the word as a control 
      vector, and DHALGREN owes much to Burroughs in terms of ambiance and 
      form.  Gibson's cyberpunk style has absorbed its lessons from the 
      Beat Secret Master, and even Philip Jose Farmer did a 
      straightforward Burroughs pastiche in "The Jungle Rot Kid on the 
      Nod," as well as a short novel called RIDERS OF THE PURPLE WAGE, a 
      true Beat work written in a style that pays as much homage to Jack 
      Kerouac as to James Joyce and which is surely Farmer's finest work 
      of fiction.
           Which is not to say that the average science fiction reader or 
      even writer even today thinks of anyone but Edgar Rice when the name 
      Burroughs is uttered.  Burroughs' main influence on science fiction 
      came through the New Wave Movement of the 1960s and early 1970s, and 
      its literary successor as sf's own Bad Boys, the Cyberpunks of the 
           Having been something of a central figure in all this myself, I 
      find it difficult to discuss the matter coherently without bringing 
      my own work under consideration, which may be considered bad form.  
      But on the other hand, I am at least in an ideal position to convey 
      the constellation of my own literary influences, and, in a way, I am 
      typical of a school of atypical science fiction writers.
           As a boy, I did indeed gobble up an indiscriminate range of 
      genre science fiction, but I was reading Melville and Twain too, and 
      by the time I was in college, Henry Miller, Kerouac, Pynchon, 
      Mailer, and yes, Burroughs, alongside Dick, Sturgeon, and Bester.
           The point being that even from my adolescent point of view, 
      these two alternate American literary traditions had something 
      common at the core, and when I started to write I knew that where 
      they interfaced was where I wanted to be when I grew up.
           Both American bohemian literature and American science fiction 
      are anarchical; it's always the outsider against the system, with 
      the outsider as hero.  Both literary traditions are much more 
      interested in the peak experiences of society's fringe hipsters than 
      in the quotidian life of the common man.  Both literary traditions 
      are transcendental, that is both traditions deal with heightened 
      states of consciousness, and see them in a positive light.  Both 
      view the official reality of here and now with dubious skepticism.
           Strangely enough, or perhaps not so strangely, both have the 
      same sort of extraliterary dimension, for both have spawned American 
      subcultures, science fiction fandom on the one hand, and the "Beat 
      Generation" and its ad mass transmogrification, the Counterculture, 
      on the other.
           I was entirely unaware of the science fiction subculture of 
      fans, conventions, and fanzines until after I was a published 
      novelist, so, unlike more typical sf writers, its existence as an 
      in-group audience had no effect on my development.
           But in the early formative years of my writing career, I was 
      well aware of the existence of the Beat milieu that was in the 
      process of being transformed into the Counterculture.  I had read 
      Kerouac, Ginsberg, Pynchon, and Burroughs, and even in my college 
      years in New York, I had hung out in the East Village coffee-houses.  
      I did my on the road work in Mexico out of college before renting a 
      crummy cheap apartment in the East Village, worked in a sandal shop 
      and wore the product, had my peyote trips, and was considered a 
      beatnik by my parents.  I moved to California before I wrote BUG 
      JACK BARRON, went to one of Ken Kesey's first acid tests, watched 

      the rise and fall of Haight Ashbury, and wrote for the Underground 
           To me, at least, it seemed only natural.  This was clearly 
      where the future was unfolding, and where better for a science 
      fiction writer to be than at that unfolding edge.  
           Nor was I the only one.  Robert Sheckley, Avram Davidson, and 
      Philip K. Dick, to name a few, had previously traveled in such 
      circles, Samuel R. Delany and Thomas M. Disch followed in their 
      footsteps, and in England, the New Worlds crowd was very much a part 
      of "Swinging London."
           And it was there that the intersection became more than a 
      matter of hip life-style.  For while science fiction was not invited 
      into the staid literary drawing rooms of London either, it was very 
      much a part of the general literary and cultural underground, and 
      visa versa.  People like Moorcock and Ballard moved easily in both 
      circles.  And both were literary theoreticians, who accreted a 
      movement around them, the so-called "New Wave," which aspired to the 
      creation of a hybrid "speculative fiction" that would simultaneously 
      liberate science fiction from its genre conventions and reinvigorate 
      a generally worked out mainstream with new worlds of content.
           This was a science fiction far more self-consciously concerned 
      with style and form than anything that had come before, a science 
      fiction at least as interested in inner space as outer space, a 
      science fiction with street smarts, a science fiction which, like 
      the Beats, saw evolution as a matter of transformation of 
      consciousness and the psychic mutant as hero.
           The conflict within science fiction between the New Wave and 
      the Old Guard was much the same as the conflict between the 
      Counterculture and the Establishment, hip and square, but in 
      retrospect it can be seen that even traditional science fiction 
      shared in the transcendental concerns of the Beats, the difference 
      being that the Beats sought immanent transcendence in the midst of 
      the mundane here and now, whereas writers like Clarke and Bester and 
      Dickson set their satoric transformations in the future or on other 
           This was why subcultures formed around both literatures, for 
      both literatures featured protagonists on the Yellow Brick Road to 
      the Palace of Wisdom, both viewed official reality from the point of 
      view of outsiders, both were in that sense messianic, both offered 
      radical political and social visions, and both opposed individual 
      liberty to social control, Bad Boys to Big Daddy.  Both subcultures, 
      therefore had their inherent appeal to the eternal American 
      adolescent, and indeed both had their input into what became the 
      Counterculture, as witness the Jefferson Airplane and Leonard Cohen, 
      2001, and Easy Rider.
           For what the Countercultural phenomenon was at its core was a 
      generation seeking to free itself from official reality and remake 
      itself in its own self-created image.  Or rather, perhaps, an image 
      that had been created for it by ON THE ROAD, STRANGER IN A STRANGE 
      LAND, the songs of Dylan and the Beatles, DUNE, and its own 
      underground media.
           From this perspective, Van Vogt's Slans and Kerouac's Beats, 
      the followers of Michael Valentine Smith and Bob Dylan, were 
      brothers under the skin, and the prescient psychedelic hero of Frank 
      Herbert's DUNE was the literary soul-brother of Timothy Leary.  
           When the cultural commissars of the Nixon and Reagan eras 
      finally succeeded in reimposing official reality, depriving the Pied 
      Pipers of their natural audience, American literary 

      transcendentalism seemed to fade away. 
           Indeed, the Powers That Be were determined that their children 
      not be led away into the Magic Mountain again.  The novel of 
      mystical ecstasy or bohemian high adventure is no longer to be found 
      in college bookstores except as musty reprints.  The torch that was 
      passed by James and Emerson to Henry Miller, via William Burroughs, 
      to Kerouac, Ginsberg, Farina, and Pynchon seems to have finally been 
      blown out.
           Or has it?
           For while the long tradition that culminated in the Beats was 
      disappearing from the shelves, science fiction was becoming the 
      favorite reading of what youth remained literate, was becoming 
      nearly 20% of all fiction published in the United States.  And while 
      most of it may be dim action-adventure space opera and reactionary 
      retrograde fantasy, there has remained through the 1980s an 
      alternate American science fiction that has kept the American 
      transcendentalist spirit alive.
           You can see it in the thread that runs from Van Vogt's SLAN 
      through Alfred Bester's THE STARS MY DESTINATION, Heinlein's 
      LIONS, much of Gordon Dickson, DUNE, most of Philip K. Dick, on into 
      Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius cycle, my own BUG JACK BARRON and RIDING 
      THE TORCH, right on through the 1980s and the edge of the 1990s,with 
      Kim Stanley Robinson's THE GOLD COAST, Ken Grimwood's REPLAY, 
      Michael Swanwick's VACUUM FLOWERS, my novel LITTLE HEROES, Greg 
      Bear's BLOOD MUSIC, and of course the Cyberpunks, with Gibson's 
      NEUROMANCER, Bruce Sterling's SCHIZMATRIX, John Shirley's ECLIPSE 
      trilogy, and Lewis Shiner's new novel SLAM.
           The protagonist as Joseph Campbell's Hero With A Thousand 
      Faces, Hesse's Siddhartha, Bester's Gully Foyle, Herbert's Paul 
      Atreides--the naif who finds himself outside official reality, on 
      the road along the vector of a vision quest that will transform not 
      only his place in the world but his consciousness.
           And this to be achieved outside of official reality--on a far 
      planet, in a secret demimonde,  even in a discorporate reality like 
      Gibson's cyberspace or Bear's Noosphere--seen as the realm of the 
           Heightened consciousness produced by drugs or their 
      technological transmogrification into electronic devices or 
      biological alterations.  The hero as self-made psychic mutant, and 
      the mutant as Subterranean,  hipster, Dharma Bum, outlaw transformer 
      of the world.  
           And at least to some extent, the free play of prose style and 
      form inherent in the task of conveying the reality of an evolving 
      consciousness moving through an outre environment, form and style 
      driven by function.  
           Not into Bauhaus minimalism, but into the McLuhanated prose of 
      BUG JACK BARRON, the lysergic lyricism of Paul's visionary states in 
      DUNE, the cybernated style of NEUROMANCER, the psychedelic 
      apotheosis of THE STARS MY DESTINATION, where Alfred Bester's 
      already supercharged prose literally explodes out of a purely 
      literary form and into a fantasmagorical symphony of words, concrete 
      poetry, and imagistic illustration, or Bester's more obscure and 
      even more radical GOLEM 100, which utilizes this trans-literary mode 
      from the very first page.
           If American cultural history shows us anything, it is that 
      there has always been a audience for literature that calls these 
      spirits from the vasty deep of the American Dream.  When Whitman 

      sang the song of himself, he was singing of America, Huck Finn's 
      journey down the Mississippi with Nigger Jim led straight to 
      Kerouac's White Negroes on the Road, to Van Vogt's Slans, Herbert's 
      Fremen, Gibson's cyberpunks, for there is something in the American 
      outlaw spirit that always glories in being a stranger in a strange 
           If Einstein teaches us anything, it is that energy can be 
      neither created nor destroyed, only endlessly transformed.  Not all 
      the piety and wit of the guardians of official reality could really 
      stuff this genie back in the bottle, for it was born with America 
      itself, it lives in the very blood and bones of the land.  It is 
      America's dream of itself.
           The collapse of the Counterculture left that collective 
      American dreamtime without a credible here and now for its river-
      raft journey on the yellow brick road.  But energy cannot be 
      destroyed by evolutionary pressure, only forced to mutate into a 
      currently viable form.  
           And so when American transcendentalism found itself all dressed 
      up on Saturday night with no place to go, it did what Earth's 
      bindlestiff metropolises did in James Blish's CITIES IN FLIGHT, 
      strapping on anti-gravity generators to become legendary Dharma Bums 
      of the spaceways, to follow the Eternal Road out among the stars, 
      into the future, into cyberspace, into the literary Noosphere. 
           Thus did American science fiction become sole surviving heir 
      through destiny and circumstance to Twain and Miller and Burroughs 
      and Ginsberg and Kerouac, to Huck Finn and Billy the Kid and the 
      Dharma Bums, to America's own secret song of itself.   
           The Great Wheel turns.
           And what goes around, comes around.
           Those were the days of miracles and wonders.
           This is the long distance call.

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