Thursday, February 17, 2011

William S. Burroughs: Body Modification and Biologic Courts

This continues the series on interviews with SF writers in the Paris Review. Yesterday, I posted about the 1960 interview with Aldous Huxley. Today, I'll take a look at the 1965 interview with William S. Burroughs

William S. Burroughs was interviewed by the Paris Review in 1965. His weird and controversial novel Naked Lunch had been published in the United States in 1959. At the time this interview was published, its sale was still banned in Boston.

Burroughs was interviewed the year after publication of his Nebula award-winning novel Nova Express. Nova Express was the third book in his Nova Trilogy, and was assembled using the cut-up method, in which "existing texts ... cut into various pieces and put back together in random order." Definitely not what most people would think of a standard science fiction novel.

The plot summary for Nova Express makes it sound hallucinogenic:
The Nova Mob—Sammy the Butcher, Izzy the Push, The Subliminal Kid, and others—are viruses, "defined as the three-dimensional coordinate point of a controller."[...] "which invade the human body and in the process produce language." These Nova Criminals represent society, culture, and government, and have taken control. Inspector Lee and the rest of the Nova Police are left fighting for the rest of humanity in the power struggle. "The Nova Police can be compared to apomorphine, a regulating instance that need not continue and has no intention of continuing after its work is done."

The novel also apparently involves biologic police agents and legal battles between competing life forms are fought "Biologic Courts".

As Mac Tonnies described it, it's "the literary equivalent of downing a few vials of choice LSD".

In the Paris Review interview, Burroughs expands on the idea of that the future of the human race will involve genetic engineering and require some sort of "biologic law" and courts to mediate the changes.
Science eventually will be forced to establish courts of biologic mediation, because life-forms are going to become more incompatible with the conditions of existence as man penetrates further into space. Mankind will have to undergo biologic alterations ultimately, if we are to survive at all. This will require biologic law to decide what changes to make. We will simply have to use our intelligence to plan mutations, rather than letting them occur at random. Because many such mutations—look at the saber-toothed tiger—are bound to be very poor engineering designs. The future, decidedly, yes. I think there are innumerable possibilities, literally innumerable. The hope lies in the development of nonbody experience and eventually getting away from the body itself, away from three-dimensional coordinates and concomitant animal reactions of fear and flight, which lead inevitably to tribal feuds and dissension.  
I'm struck by how much that last part  - about the future of the human race eventually "getting away from the body itself"  - sounds like some modern proponents of transhumanism who see the divorce of the mind from the limitations of the body as one of their ultimate goals. A man ahead of his time, perhaps? or is it a simply reworking of Buddhist ideas of mind-body separation within a scientific frame? I don't know enough about Burroughs' ideas to tell the difference.

In the interview, Burroughs also talks a bit about the inevitable cross-fertilization of science and art:
In the first place, I think there's going to be more and more merging of art and science. Scientists are already studying the creative process, and I think the whole line between art and science will break down and that scientists, I hope, will become more creative and writers more scientific.
Perhaps inspired by this notion is the "Mutate or Die" project, which involves isolating and manipulating DNA from a preserved sample of Burroughs' poop.  It definitely involves science, and it's meant to be art.

Read the whole interview for more from Burroughs about cut-ups, addiction, and how he created his fictional characters.

Tomorrow: Interview with Kurt Vonnegut.

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