Williams S. Burroughs, festin de science-fiction

Mardi Science-Fiction dossier

Every Tuesday, find a column, an interview or a portrait linked to a science fiction text that makes the news. Today, an essay on Williams S. Burroughs, presented as a science fiction writer.

William S. Burroughs should be read as a science fiction writer. This is the thesis of Clémentine Hougue, associate researcher of the 3L.AM at the University of Le Mans, specialist in the author of No feast (1). This is often not the case. We take him for an experimenter and a member of the Beat Generation. We see him as a brilliant avant-garde, inventor of cut-up with Brion Gysin at the end of the 1950s, a protest technique based on the division and rearrangement of texts. A fragmentary writing, that “His many science fiction readings may have spurred on”.

On the cut-up, a gateway with SF exists with the Frequently Asked Atrocities (1969) by the British JG Ballard, prefaced by Burroughs himself. But the text is more akin to formal, kaleidoscopic research into the 1960s than to anticipation. In any case, this is the sign that Burroughs has marked or even influenced the authors of the genre, and in this way he has privileged the currents of New Wave and cyberpunk in a privileged way. While many anthologies or dictionaries of the genre do not cite William S. Burroughs, some critics have approached him from this angle since the 1970s. Thus Roger Bozzetto: “The presence of science fiction in this author is massive, recognized, and it is at various levels, thematic and formal. Despite this the science fiction critics, who are generally ready to annex to their field authors less imbued with speculative culture, have neglected it ”, he wrote in 1994.

The Feast is not, published in 1959, a nightmare descent into the mind of a junkie, shows a science-fictional dimension reinforced in the Nova trilogy (the soft machine, The Ticket That Exploded and Nova express) published at the end of the 60s. In this trilogy “visionary”, we can find, says Clémentine Hougue, in addition to a cycle, dystopia, scientific anticipation, space opera. And a political critique of a world in the making, with the excesses of information and communication technology.

Burroughs’ imagination was nourished by the golden age of SF, pulps. He mentioned his favorite SF authors and works, including the cosmic trilogy of CS Lewis, Venus and the Titan by Henry Kuttner, HG Wells, Frank Herbert, Theodore Surgeon or Arthur C. Clarke. Clémentine Hougue highlights the echoes, the themes, the characters of her SF readings in her texts, in particular the presence of the planet Venus and the viral motif as a political instrument. Burroughs’ inventiveness also found ideal ground there, for what the author calls the “Linguistic-fiction”, which makes the Nova trilogy, with the cut-up, a performative work. Exciting movement of a writer from the field of experimental literature to science fiction “Sort of, from poetry to pop culture”, where he drew the most political aspects of his work.

(1) William S. Burroughs Cut-up: History of a Language Revolution, Les presses du Réel, 2014.

William S. Burroughs by Clémentine Hougue, SF machine, Editions Jou, 180 pp., 18 euros