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An Introduction to Techno-Surreal Fiction

by Stephen P. Brown

First off, let's get one thing clear: techno-surreal fiction isn't a technique for social change. It isn't the first glistening droplet exuded from the needlepoint of progress. It isn't a schematic for future structures. It is rarely even an accurate reflection of the ongoing mutation of reality.

The techno-surreal fiction of the last century (Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, et al.) DID fill some of those functions. But then, at that time fiction was a primary tool. Charles Dickens rubbed the world's collective noses in the stink and depravity of the lower echelons of society, and caused genuine changes to be made thereby. There were no movies, no TV (no MTV), no computers, few photographs. There were newspapers, art, and theater. But, newspapers were highly subjective and agenda-ridden; art was filling quasi-journalistic functions; stage plays were entertainment for the elite; and photography was a curiosity. The novel engendered social change, turned fresh ground, and provided blueprints.

This century saw the arrival of photography, movies, computers and MTV. One after the other these media took on the functions of the novel. This had a liberating effect on fiction. The more roles other media took over from the novel, the more the novel was allowed the freedom to express ideas in different ways -- a process that took place with art, plays and photography as well.

Today fiction is a distorting mirror. If you grew up in the fifties, and you began to worry about ICBMs and peculiarities of the clotted military mind, you could read "Gravity's Rainbow" and "Catch-22," and see your fears turned into conceptual monsters beyond your imagination, drilling home to you how justified those fears were. Fiction no longer leads the charge, that's what we have computers and other electronic media for. Fiction today -- at least the kind of fiction under discussion here -- takes what has ALREADY occurred and alters it into a fevered approximation that helps us understand a reality rapidly multiplexing beyond anyone's ability to comprehend.

This is an introduction, so there will be lots of other people rattling on about books elsewhere in the stack. I'm sure that there will be no need for me to add yet another voice to the clamor of discussion about the impact of Burroughs, Gibson, Sterling, Ballard, et al. There are also about twenty nonfiction books that are absolutely essential reading, if you are to make any sense at all of today's fiction, techno-surreal or otherwise. I assume at least some of these are discussed elsewhere.

But, the title "Beyond Cyberpunk" notwithstanding, (where are discussions of Mary Shelley, Raymond Chandler, Olaf Stapleton, James Tiptree, Jr., Thomas Disch, Donald Barthelme, Bernard Wolfe, Alfred Bester, Robert Coover, Robert Stone, or Barry Malzberg - for a minimal historical perspective - or Ted Mooney, Don DeLillo, William T. Vollman, Denis Johnson, Madison Smartt Bell, Iain Banks, Joseph McElroy, or Richard Powers -- for a minimal modern perspective?), this stack seems to be topheavy with cyberpunks.* Therefore, I'm going to use up a little space talking about the grandfather cyberpunk novel. But first, there is a crucial observation about the cyberpunks that must be kept in mind -- they did not originate a new kind of fiction. They were a group of SF writers who read widely in literature outside the field (see the brief and incomplete list of writers above), paid close attention to what was going on, and reflected what they saw and learned in their own fiction. To understand these writers and their work, you MUST cast your reading net as far afield from the clubby, inbred SF field as you can.

At the beginning of the seventies, post-hippy and pre-disco, a cultural fog enveloped the land. In a few years, a Mr. John Rotten of the UK would give a primordial shout that would blast that fog away, allowing a merciless actinic light to shine through. But before that, in Portland, Oregon, a skinny hyper kid named John Shirley had just been kicked out of his high school for writing and distributing a seditious newspaper. He hit the streets with his typewriter and began a series of remarkable short stories filled with his own unique brand of surrealism: vat-grown meat guitars that screamed in harmonious pain when you caressed their exposed tendons; eight people surgically joined into a ring (facing in) -- a Siamese starfish -- engaging in peculiar combinatorial sexual activity; locomotives describing precise arcs across a solid sky over a bone-strewn landscape. Many of these stories have been collected into the indispensable anthology
"Heatseeker" (Scream/Press).

Soon Mr. Rotten arrived and blasted the fog away. Shirley embraced the new music with the religio-sexual delight of a penitent monk being handed a hunk of the True Cross. He quickly formed and dissolved several bands, writing songs like "Sex-Change Bitch," and "God is Dead and I want his Job." He sang like a lysergic-bathed Ba'al, gyrating and contorting around the stage in a series of riveting performances from Oregon to San Francisco to CBGB's in New York.

But the typewriter never stopped. The stories, the blistering essays, and then the novels flowed unceasingly throughout his most excessive periods. This was a time during which the urban machine found its most appropriate metaphor in the music that had stopped singing and begun to scream. John Shirley resonated with this down into the innermost ganglia of his lizard-brain.

In 1978, Shirley began writing a book called "City Come A-Walkin'". To him, it was no different than any of his previous projects. But there WAS a difference. In this book, the cracked and distorted lens through which Shirley viewed the world now focused on the jackhammer music and the inner-city street scenes in which he was so thoroughly enmeshed. Though no one knew it at the time, he began creating the style, the flash, the soul which resided not in the heart, but in the viscera of the cyberpunks to come.

"City Come A-Walkin'" was published by Dell Books in June, 1980 -- a cheap paperback original which has been criminally out of print ever since. In this book, Shirley transformed the tropes of the music and the city streets in which he lived into an image of indelible power. The "City" in this book happened to be San Francisco, where he lived at the time, but in reality it was everycity. Shirley's unique talent at anthropomorphisizing the unanthropomorphizable created a City made literally manifest.

The novel begins at the Club Anesthesia, during a raucous and bruising average night of angry music and surly patrons. The door opens and San Francisco walks in. The city has coalesced its gestalt into an embodiment of a single, man-shaped being. During the course of the jittery, jerky plot, City is revealed as a truly modern supernatural power. It dispatches driverless cabs; it alters the programming of computer-driven construction machinery; it causes pipes to erupt from the street to stop a bus, and:

"Streetlamps snapped down like slapped rulers, blocking the way. Six vigilantes ran in panic. Two were stopped by metal talons raking through the asphalt... thick utility pipes, crushing them instantly."

Throughout the novel, City is an implacable and quite literal "deus ex machina." Though it aids and hinders various groups in the story, it has its own agenda. It is concerned primarily with its own self-preservation (the abstract "self" of the entire decaying urban environment).

"City Come A-Walkin'" had disappeared from the shelves before Gibson began writing "Neuromancer." Yet, its influence is seminal and crucial to understanding the currents that flow through the writing of the cyberpunks. A few years after City had been released, John Shirley attended a convention in the Northwest, and met William Gibson. Gibson had given up on reading SF in despair, hadn't yet thought of trying to write the stuff himself. Shirley's hypertectonic personality, and his genuine streetstench, galvanized Gibson, who saw to his amazement that there "were" people in the culturally dated science fiction field who actually paid attention to the world around them. Shirley saw a kindred spirit and badgered Gibson mercilessly until he began producing his own visions.

Much later, when Gibson, Sterling, Rucker and Shiner began cross-fertilizing each other, John Shirley provided the soul. It was his attitudes that breathed the protocyberunk embers into radioactive life. Mirrorshades became the cyberpunk totem from the beginning. Here's how Shirley described this essential accessory in "City Come A-Walkin," on the face of City itself, who wore wraparound mirrorshades with stems "that reached a half-inch behind the frames and there sank into his temples, fusing seamlessly into skin and bone. The frames for the opaque lenses reached to meld with the skin over the eye-sockets... the mirrorshades were part of his skull."

If by "techno-surreal fiction" you mean cyberpunk, you can't begin to understand why and how these writers began to create the kind of fiction discussed herein without somehow finding yourself a copy of "City come A-Walkin'." If you, like I, take a broader view of the term, one that stretches beyond SF into all forms of culturally aware literature, then you must also apply yourself to the works of the authors listed in the sixth paragraph of this essay.

But, just as important as the works of fiction, you must listen to the music. You must walk the streets of the decaying core of the big industrial cities. You must haunt the odder art galleries, the tattoo parlors, the mom'n'pop software shops, the proliferating computer networks and bulletin boards.

You must open your eyes, ears and minds to the river of information that is growing exponentially, flowing thicker, faster, in raging turbulence, interconnecting and recombining beyond anyone's ability to comprehend. You must plunge into that river, hold your breath and ride it out. It is possible, just possible, that you may find yourself washed up onto an alien shore someday, and you'd better be ready.

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Gareth Branwyn -

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