Norman Spinrad 1 rue Maitre Albert about 3600 words Paris 75005 France 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 drummer. 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 1980s. 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 Press. 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 planets. 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 STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND, Poul Anderson's THREE HEARTS AND THREE 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 transcendent. 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 land. 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. end