The New Surrealism

Jeff VanderMeer • August 12th, 2011 @ 8:58 am • Culture

I’m going to selfishly say what I want to discover is more strangeness in fiction, and by more strangeness I mean the rise of a new surrealism that looks at science fiction and fantasy both askance and and with affection, but is less concerned with building causality and logic and more concerned with restoring a “sense of wonder” without the baggage of the golden age of SF. A sense of wonder that’s both ironic and cynical at times and that relies upon huge imaginations blasting out of the traps of “how would that happen” and “I have to figure out how that would work” and letting the dream-logic of charged images and amazing concepts flow. Anchored by compelling characters and stories that wormhole within each other and bestriding the landscape with confidence. We see some of this already in the most mind-bending of manga and anime, and in other manifestations of the imagination that understand there’s always a backstory that will work because we live in a multiverse. There’s always a reason, an explanation, for anything. On some level, in these post-post times explanations are less useful to us than journeys that expand consciousness, get at psychological truths, and convert the dross of the everyday into something amazing.

48 Responses to “The New Surrealism”

  1. Mike Ankorite Casey says:

    That’s my main goal. Good to know that I may be on the right track.

  2. Mike Ankorite Casey says:

    It is hard, though, to not fall into the reasons and explanations and stuff.

  3. Network Geek says:

    The first author who leaped to mind after reading this was H.P. Lovecraft and his tales from the Dreamlands. They’re all a little surreal, but so, so compelling, too. Logical, within their own structure, but vaguely impossible out in our world.

  4. Nicole Cushing says:

    The revolution won’t be analyzed!

  5. Nicole Cushing says:

    Great post, Jeff. Less minutiae, more myth. The revolution won’t be analyzed!

  6. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Nicole: I like that slogan!

    (I’m not saying causality, etc., shouldn’t exist, of course. This isn’t a call for formless surrealistic dream-poems.)

  7. Joshua Levesque says:

    If I had a thousand tongues & a voice of iron i could not agree more.

  8. Sam M-B says:

    YES THIS. I want a Debussy of modern, self-aware sf. No, wait. That’s impressionism. That’s what I seem to like. I was never as into Ernst or Dali as I was into Monet, Risarro, Degas, and Guillaumin, even Whistler, and later post-Impressionists like Cezanne, Van Gogh, and Redon. I guess I’ve always felt that surrealism (and the upswing in Bizarro) just doesn’t connect with me too much; the “formless surrealistic dream-poems” seem less a distillation or condensation of the dross into meaning, but a journey into the meaningless. I’d love to read something of what you’re describing here. (I may already have, and will send something to you.)

  9. Sam M-B says:

    Hm. I think it’s almost more that I really still respond to romanticist ideals, which weren’t completely filtered out of impressionism. (Actually my favorites of the impressionists are those whose work contains a great deal of romanticism still, Rachmaninoff and Debussy’s music in particular, particularly Rachmaninoff who also has symbolist influences which also really still work for me. Sibelius as well, though more modernist perhaps, still greatly influenced by Wagner, etc.)

  10. Manu Zolezzi says:

    Like I said on Facebook, Jeff: try John Shirley’s “Really, Really, Really, Really Weird Stories,” or the second half of his “Black Butterflies” anthology. He has some really amazing, surreal sci-fi.

  11. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Yep, got all of Shirley’s work somewhere here in the house.

  12. Graham Lowther says:

    Less explanation leaves more room for awe, mystery, and wonder. I do have a liking for some fairly formless surrealistic dream-poems but I think beyond some extent of formlessness it becomes more difficult to hold a reader’s interest. I am interested in fiction that creates an illusion of logic that breaks down upon close inspection; a sort of Wonderland logic.

  13. Patton McGinley says:

    Jeff: can you cite any examples of what you think comes close to this, including manga and anime? I’m extremely interested in this since it’s where I tend to “go” when I try to write anything remotely approaching a linear narrative.

  14. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    I’d cite Stepan Chapman’s The Troika, which is influenced by manga and fractals. As for manga/anime, the easy response is some of Miyazaki’s early work, but there are of course others. I’m actually making a huge generalization because there are so many categories of manga/anime.

  15. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    I should also expand that to include some of Jodorowsky’s work in the graphic novel form. And even something like the Moonshadows graphic novel has that feel to it.

  16. Shaun Duke says:

    Sounds like a good call to me. Do you think some of Jason Sanford’s short stories fit into this? Some of his stuff is undeniably strange/surreal and brings about much of the sensawunda you’re talking about. But that’s my opinion…

  17. Justin Patrick Moore says:

    There are some great “New Surrealist” stories over at http://www.flurb.net, Rudy Rucker’s Webzine of Astonishing Tales. Issue Eleven was guest edited by Eileen Gunn. Some of my faves from that issue were Robert Guffey’s “Bring Me the Head of Andre Breton”, Minister Faust’s “The Ghost of Carnivores”. Rucker’s “Dispatches from Interzone” was a treat and I still have plenty more to read.

    In my own writing I channel my love for not only SF and F, but all the other literature I enjoy, melded through the blender of my own brain and dreams. When the Muse strikes it is because two ideas connect to form something different. Onwards to the Muse! May Mnemosyne be with us all!

  18. sniffy says:

    For mind-bending/dream-logic anime off the top of my head: Paprika (movie), Texhnolyze (22 episode series), Paranoia Agent (13 episodes), and FLCL (6 episodes of utter brilliance).

  19. Patton McGinley says:

    I was thinking of Miyazaki and FLCL, too. (For some inexplicable reason, FLCL reminds me of Views From the Oldest House.)

  20. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Sniffy–good calls! Shaun–I like Sanford’s work but (and I hope he won’t kill me for saying this) I don’t find his work strange at all. I feel he, like Paul B. is basically operating from a base of naturalism. Nothing wrong with that, but I don’t get that sense from his fiction.

  21. Willow Fagan says:

    This is very much what I want too.

    I think Patrick Somerville’s short stories might be along these lines, especially “The Machine of Understanding Other People”. Also maybe Aimee Bender and M. Rickert. But, while I love all of those writers, I feel like I want to read work that is even more like what you describe–I want stories that sail further into the dreamsea of strangeness.

  22. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Perhaps in part I’m talking about a visionary quality of the imagination. This is a tricky thing. It can’t really be faked–you either have it or you don’t–but you can coax it out more or less depending on how you treat the ideas that come to you.

    And visionary fiction has dangers. If it is too ungrounded, it just bursts into flames and readers observe the pretty sparks. If it too bound and constrained by structure, it becomes sullen and muted. If it stays too long in one place it becomes boring. If it goes on too long it ends on a fizzle. There’s this high-wire act where you need exactly the right balance and pressure of foot on wire. Ability to understand how to deploy exposition is incredibly important to this quality, speaking from just a craft point of view.

  23. Spike Shepro says:

    It seems like this post is taking the stance that understanding and explanation is antithetical to a sense of wonder, and that bothers me because it is both a very sad and very untrue thing to believe. (Not that I think that’s what Jeff Vandermeer was actually trying to say, but that is the initial impression I get).

    Admittedly, I’m probably just expressing personal preference here, but I think that good exposition will heighten the sense of wonder in a story, not weaken it. Surrealism can fall just as flat as not-surrealism, and I think it does so more easily, though in a different way.

    I’m not really sure where I’m going with this. I guess I’m just leery of the expectation that surrealism is the future of (good) speculative fiction.

  24. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Spike: Um, yeah, that’s not what I’m saying at all, but go on believing that.

  25. PhilRM says:

    Hear hear! (To your mini-manifesto, that is.) I’ll drink to that. (Of course, if it’s from Stone Brewery, I’ll drink to almost anything.)

  26. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Phil–woo hoo!

  27. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Spike: Here’s a serious question. Does someone saying they want to see more of something mean to you that they want to see less of something else, or nothing of something else? This is what always bemuses me in these kinds of comments. My saying I’d like to see more of something doesn’t mean I think it’s the future of anything or that I’m stopping anyone from reading or writing anything else. That I even have to explain that strikes me as farcical.

    JeffV

  28. Spike Shepro says:

    @Jeff

    No, I don’t, and I should apologize for my earlier post, since it was poorly thought out and made a strawman of what you said. I take issue with some of the opinions you expressed, but my intent was not to tell you that you’re wrong for liking something and wanting more of it. So please accept my apologies.

  29. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    no worries!

  30. Larry says:

    What about those works that are looking for weirdness in other genres besides SF/F? When reading your post, I thought of Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, which is certainly a quirky/strange take on the Western as well as Kevin Wilson’s The Family Fang, which references performance art as a means in and of itself and how it replaces certain traditional plot structures to create an odd yet enjoyable reading experience. Neither are exactly surreal in the sense you seem to be referring to in your post, but both certainly are creative efforts that did surprise me on occasion (especially true for the Wilson book, which I might review this weekend).

  31. Paul Jessup says:

    I know what you mean- I think with Manga/Anime they have an outsiders approach to the western F/SF cannon, so they don’t have the same explanation/Hard SF fetish that the US audiences have. One of the most frustrating experiences I have is telling people how AWESOME a book is and then have them read it and be all, “I didn’t got frustrated and gave up! They didn’t explain anything! They don’t have rigour, etc etc etc!”

    Books like Darin Bradley’s Noise, things like that. It’s frustrating. Although I do like what Rajaniemi’s Quantum Thief, since he actually does surrealism with a hard SF bent. And he doesn’t explain half of it, and that he does is mostly through the book, not near the start at all.

  32. Paul Jessup says:

    Whoops canon, not cannon. Literature doesn’t go Kaboom…at least not yet.

  33. Patton McGinley says:

    Paul, your points about manga/anime are refreshing. I sheepishly admit that I’ve often wondered — with anime, in particular — “did something get really effed up in translation?” I know it comes off as potentially ethnocentric — though the blame could be easily thrown at English-speaking translators working FROM Japanese, and doing a bad job of it. But, the idea that perhaps other cultures don’t have the overwhelming need to have everything in a fiction be explained, or be logical, is something I, stupidly, did not consider with anime.

  34. PhilRM says:

    Paul – I think your “Open Your Eyes” is a perfect example of what Jeff is calling for. And that is definitely a book that went Kaboom – in the best possible ways!

  35. PhilRM says:

    Paul – I think your “Open Your Eyes” is a perfect example of what Jeff is looking for. And that is a book that definitely went Kaboom – in the best possible ways!

  36. Syed says:

    On the other hand, a lot of manga/anime tends to be without any explanation whatsoever even if the story isn’t surreal, dreamlike or wondrous in any way. That often seems to be more a case of bad writing (or possibly bad translation) than a cultural thing.

  37. Jeff VanderMeer says:

    Paul–thanks for that. I agree.

    Larry–for what I’m talking about here, I think what you’re discussing isn’t really part of it.

  38. Larry says:

    I thought it might not be, but sometimes I go on tangents regardless :P

  39. Willow Fagan says:

    I thought of a great example–Jim Woodring’s Frank comics! They’re so dreamlike.

    It seems like most of the works that people are talking about are comics/manga or anime. I wonder if there’s something about visual storytelling that makes it easier to get away with surreality and lack of explanation… like something about the fact that you can see it all together in one page (or screen). I think maybe that reinforces that even really strange juxtapositions are part of the same fabric of (fictional) reality. I’m not sure quite how to say what I mean, but hopefully the gist is clear.

  40. PhilRM says:

    Paul – I think your “Open Your Eyes” is a perfect example of what Jeff is talking about. And that is definitely a book that went Kaboom – in the best possible ways!

    Another example would be Richard Kirk’s excellent “The Lost Machine”.

  41. PhilRM says:

    Paul – I think your “Open Your Eyes” is a perfect example of what Jeff is describing. And that is definitely a book that went Kaboom – in the best possible ways!

  42. Mrs G says:

    when I want more strangeness in fiction, especially that which lets “the dream-logic of charged images and amazing concepts flow” I’ve found it on the literary shelves – Javier Marias’ Your Face Tomorrow, or Sebald’s The Emigrants (you’ve read both of them I think). That might seem strange to you, but surrealism in painting is images, while surrealism in books (to me) is word patterns that make concept-patterns. Having said that, I’ve just now got around to laboriously ordering The Troika and Cyclonopaedia online (some places won’t shop to my address, as though I live at the bottom of the world, which I do now… :( because I’ve never heard of most of the books you’ve cited. But the really, really, really, really weird and surreal, the kind of surreal that goes on forever, is all about the ‘real’ world – that place of which Werner Heisenberg remarked: the reality you see around you is not the real world. (Hmm, perhaps I just undercut my own argument, there) But the real world is where all the horror and fantasy actually happens.

  43. Paul Jessup says:

    PhilRM-
    LOL. I don’t know. I will say it’s influenced a lot by manga/anime (the doll’s of Itsasu are basically dressed in Goth Lolli clothing)…but I have a feeling it edges more towards random dream poem than what’s being talked about here? I am flattered you said that, however. I’m just hesitant to include my own work, since I think this is a different idea all together…

  44. PhilRM says:

    Paul – The reason I singled out “Open Your Eyes” (aside from its all-around excellence) is that I came away from that story with the impression that there was an underlying logic to the universe in which it took place, even if I, as a reader, didn’t necessarily know what that logic was. I admit I interpreted portions of the story (e.g., the first two pages) as metaphorical expressions of a deeper, perhaps even inexpressibly complex reality, which may have been over-rationalization on my part.

    In any case, I think there’s a continuum here: if we put “Open Your Eyes” at one end of it, at the other end would be works like Richard Kirk’s excellent “The Lost Machine”, a novella which (this was my impression of it, anyway) is at least as much concerned with the presentation of images as it is with straightforward narrative, and yet pretty clearly has edged into Book of the New Sun territory, in which the story’s inhabitants are surrounded by technology that they no longer recognize as technology.

  45. Shaun Duke says:

    Jeff: I’m sure Sanford wouldn’t kill you for saying that. Maybe I’ll poke my eyes into some of the stuffs being mentioned here to get a better sense of what you mean when you say “strange,” and why you think Sanford’s “strangest” stories don’t fit there.

    All these ” “s are confusing…

  46. Patton McGinley says:

    Willow – great call on Jim Woodring. Even some of his pre-Frank stuff, that actually uses words, have a similar quality. AND, you make an interesting point regarding “visual storytelling” and surrealism. Last night I came up with something while drifting off to sleep. When I thought about it in the morning my first reaction was, “well, that would be easier to pull off as a comic book or a cartoon… in fact, if I wrote it as is, it would probably seem like really weird children’s lit., with patches of ‘inappropriate’ content.”

  47. Master Bassface says:

    Thank you for this wonderful post and the wonderful comments. I am an audacious surrealist of fine arts/music and have new surreal films and arts to share.

    the23live.com has just launched and is consistently posting new surrealism from their creative adventures travelling through depths of the ‘multiverse’ (a term we’ve also used for many years).

    Help save surrealism from what it’s becoming it’s not.

  48. New wave « Elias Siqueiros says:

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