Nova ExpressWilliam S. Burroughs
Other Works by William S. Burroughs Published by Grove Press
Junky: The Definitive Text of “Junk”
Naked Lunch: The Restored Text
The Soft Machine: The Restored Text
The Ticket That Exploded: The Restored Text
The Adding Machine: Selected Essays
The Wild Boys: A Book of the Dead
Word Virus: The William S. Burroughs Reader
Last Words: The Final Journals of William Burroughs
The Restored Text
William S. Burroughs
Edited and with an Introduction by
Copyright © 1964 by William S. Burroughs
Copyright renewed © 1992 by William S. Burroughs
Copyright © 2013 by the Estate of William S. Burroughs
Introduction copyright © 2013 Oliver Harris
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First revised edition published by Grove Press in 2014.
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So Pack Your Ermines
From a Land of Grass Without Mirrors
Gave Proof Through the Night
This Horrible Case
It is a privilege to edit works by William Burroughs, and a pleasure to thank James Grauerholz for making it possible and for all the support he has given. It’s also a pleasure to thank the following for their expert help: Jed Birmingham for assistance with little magazines; Barry Miles for his knowledge of Burroughs’ artwork; Jeffrey Miller for insights into the finer points of printing; Keith Seward for razor-sharp feedback; and above all, Véronique Lane, for working with me from start to finish, being by my side in the archival vaults, sharing ideas, reading every word I wrote, and living with the Fish Boys and the Vegetable People for two years.
* * *
For the great archival assistance they have provided, I also want to thank: John Bennett of the Rare Books and Manuscript Library at Ohio State University, Columbus; Rob Spindler of the Archives and Special Collections at Arizona State University, Tempe; Isaac Gewirtz, curator of the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library, and his staff; and Michael Ryan and all his staff at the Rare Books and Manuscript Library, Columbia University. I would also like to acknowledge the support of the Research Institute for the Humanities at Keele University. Thanks finally to Jeff Posternak of the Wylie Agency, a great guy to have on your side, and to Peter Blackstock at Grove Press.
“THE FUTURE LEAKS OUT”
“THIS IS A BURNING PLANET”
Nova Express begins with a chapter called “Last Words” in a messianic voice warning of End Times. It is a stunning overture to a terminal scenario that after fifty years has lost none of its ferocity. “Newsweek says I am basically an old fashioned fire and brimstone preacher,” Burroughs noted on the day the book was published; “The Reverend Lee rides again” (ROW, 170).1 Nova Express is actually a mixing deck of many voices—cutting from a hardboiled detective drawl to the comic rhythms of a picaresque villain, and from the convulsive beauty of a Surrealist poet to a tempo as hard and electrical as the clicking of a Geiger counter—but Burroughs would have been pleased to sound like a sulphurous Old Testament authority. For Nova Express is nothing if not an analysis of and tribute to the apocalyptic power of The Word.
Marshall McLuhan, whose own classic Understanding Media appeared the same year, got both the medium—“an endless succession of impressions and snatches of narrative”—and the eschatological message: “It is amusing to read reviews of Burroughs that try to classify his books as nonbooks or as failed science fiction,” he concluded his own review for The Nation in December 1964; “It is a little like trying to criticize the sartorial and verbal manifestations of a man who is knocking on the door to explain that flames are leaping from the roof of our home.”2 Nova Express appeared at the height of the Cold War and the Space Race, when Armageddon was rarely out of the news or off the screens. 1964 had opened with the release of Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and would climax the week Nova Express was published with a U.S. presidential election over which mushroom clouds had hung, Lyndon Johnson’s famous “Daisy Girl” TV advert linking the prospect of a Barry Goldwater victory with the countdown to nuclear annihilation. In short: “This is a burning planet—Any minute now the whole fucking shit house goes up.”
Nova Express begins with the blistering Last Words of the mysterious Hassan i Sabbah because time is running out: the book is not just a call-to-arms against those who brought us Hiroshima and Nagasaki, mentioned several times, but a manifesto for global resistance against the 1 percent who run our planet like an alien colony. The book predicts what cataclysms are being “summoned up by an IBM machine and a handful of virus crystals” and describes what dystopian futures are being made on a “soft calculating machine geared to find more and more punch cards.” The mainframe in Dr. Strangelove was an IBM, but the corporation that bore the Burroughs family name, a major rival to IBM in those days, had already featured in such disaster B-movies as The Night the World Exploded (1957), in which a Burroughs B205 calculates the exact time of the planet’s destruction. In the month Nova Express appeared, November 1964, the Burroughs Corporation supplied NASA with a B5500, an upgrade of the model that had inaugurated “third generation” computer systems; the room-sized solid state machines using transistors and mylar tape magnetic drums that were the first truly self-governing “mechanical brains.” Updating his 1952 novel Queer, which references “thinking machines,” as well as “the electronic brain” that goes berserk in Naked Lunch, Burroughs uses the “sound of thinking metal” as one of the voices of Nova Express. In 1968 Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey made the HAL 9000 the sinister star of his sequel to Dr. Strangelove, and the following year the Burroughs computer helped launch the Saturn rockets that put a man on the moon. Using technology no more advanced than a pair of scissors, Nova Express was a launch vehicle in William Burroughs’ own Space Program, his rival mission to invent a “Mythology for the Space Age.”
/> Along with the other volumes of his Cut-Up Trilogy—The Soft Machine and The Ticket That Exploded—Nova Express is a Time Machine, and it’s about time we caught up. But despite the wide reach of Burroughs’ image across popular culture—or maybe because of it—very little is known about the trilogy. How much of these “cut-up novels” are “cut-up”? What order should they be read in, and how exactly should we read them? Why is there so little sex in Nova Express compared to the other books, and what does its title mean? Since most of what is known about the trilogy turns out to be wrong, anyone who thinks Nova Express was the last one and the simplest of the three will need to think again.
“I BRING NOT PEACE BUT PIECES”
Nova Express fires the reader into a textual outer space that escapes linear time through montage methods applied at both a structural and syntactical level. As an assault on what Burroughs calls the “Reality Film,” the method resembles an accelerated form of cinematic editing, as we’re invited to recognize: “Time and place shift in speed-up movie.” Repeated across the book, the rapid-fire fragments of text induce a recurrent sense of déjà vu that is deeply disorientating, as is the uncanny sense that Burroughs may have borrowed techniques from one medium to update another but that he is also predicting the media of the future. When “The Subliminal Kid” takes over jukeboxes of the world and cuts in the music with the movies, he precisely replicates the sampling of a digital cultural environment. Likewise, the action of Nova Express is modeled on old-fashioned penny arcade pinball machines, “jolting clicking tilting,” and yet simulates a console for fantasy video games in codex form: “K9 was in combat with the alien mind screen.” With a pun on “canine” that evokes the “human dogs” now in a state of global revolt against their alien masters, “Pilot K9” or “Agent K9” is a technical upgrade of the 1930s comic strip hero in Secret Agent X-9 scripted by Dashiell Hammett, but today the K9 tag is also immediately recognizable as a science fiction gaming identity.
Traveling in time isn’t a theme in Nova Express; it’s the aim of the form. This is why it’s hard to say what is or isn’t a “reference,” since the text’s viral signifiers find their signifieds not only in the past but in the future. Faced with cut-up passages, the reader can only learn to wait for the “original” words, at which point they take on meaning by discovering new referents. However, since the process happens in both directions at once and the permutations are incalculable, and since the reader’s point of intersection with the text changes on every reading, new combinations always keep appearing. As well as being wide-open and open-ended, Burroughs’ writing is future-oriented, which is why science fiction was the ideal genre for his cut-up methods.
It wasn’t mimesis and it wasn’t magic: “I am a chemist not a prophet,” says a technical sergeant for The Lazarus Pharmaceutical Company, speaking for Burroughs. The chemistry is a mix of the cryptic, the haunting, and the intertextually impossible: “Good night sweet ladies”? Is that Shakespeare, or T.S. Eliot quoting Shakespeare? “Migrants of ape in gasoline crack of history”? What? Does it really say “Lens googles stuttering light flak”? And Uranian Willy “heard the twittering supersonic threats through antennae embedded in his translucent skull”? Google and Twitter? Does “No bueno” come from Naked Lunch or The Soft Machine or both? Sometimes a word clicks, a bell rings and the future leaks out (and “his face lights up like a pinball machine,” to borrow from Naked Lunch), but the reader’s flippers can’t keep up with the pell-mell rush of verbal steel balls.
Narrative episodes drive the text on while cut-up passages “flow out on ticker tape,” and yet Burroughs left most of his material on the cutting-room floor. This is the first revelation about Nova Express: just how much more there was of it—including collages of literary quotations (Shakespeare, Eliot, Rimbaud, and Joyce in particular) and of newspaper reports about Polaris missiles, the Mariner II Venus probe, A-bomb tests, and high-tech terms: “videosonic—Inertial guidance units—Voice integrators—Direct view control systems—inter valometer computers,” and on and on.3 Burroughs kept only fragments, and it’s fascinating to discover in the archival sources that the single word “capsule” in one passage belonged to John Glenn, who piloted his Mercury spacecraft into orbit in 1962 and was feted on his return with one of the largest ever ticker tape parades. A “founding text of the information culture” informed by probability theory and first wave cybernetics,4 Nova Express uses “extremely small particles” of data to experiment with noise and redundancy, to see how much can be left out of the message, and also to show how to get from vacuum tubes to nanotech microchips: “It’s the microfilm principle—smaller and smaller.” Burroughs juxtaposes the subatomic with the astronomical, referencing white dwarf stars and the Crab Nebula while citing the astronomer Robert Kraft. When K9 says “the human nervous system defines the physics I have constructed,” we’re invited to see that the book combines extremes of scale to construct its own kind of textual physics.
Nominated for a Nebula Award in 1965, Nova Express inspired 1980s cyberpunk writing such as William Gibson’s, but it has cut up literary history by continuing to remain more radical than the science fiction it made possible.5 The book’s stream of literary fragments, sampled narratives, shifts in point of view, clips from B-movies and subliminal single frames of current events uncannily maps the digital environment of the Internet that has made Google-eyed cultural DJs of us all. The “futuristic” form of Nova Express, which builds on the hybrid geographies of “Interzone” in Naked Lunch, doesn’t appear antiquated because it’s not clean and pure like most 1960s visions of the future, but mixed and dirty. In cinematic terms, it’s closer to the tech-noir world of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), which it influenced, than to Kubrick’s Space Odyssey, although it also has something in common with one of Kubrick’s sources: Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville, released six months after Nova Express and featuring the gravel-voiced Alpha 60 computer. Significantly, Alphaville’s secret agent Lemmie Caution drives a Ford Galaxie but wears a private eye’s trench and fedora, and while the film may be set in a dystopian “Zone” it is shot entirely in the night-time streets of Paris in a bleak monochrome, to insist that the future is not in the future; it’s already here.
Looking back half a century, Nova Express appears both of its times and uncannily prophetic, not just aesthetically, but politically. A Book of Revelations, in it Burroughs plays the role of Willy the Rat, a defector from the American ruling class determined to “call the law” on its true criminality. For Burroughs, revealing “how ugly the Ugly American can be” started at home: alternative drafts of “The Last Words of Hassan i Sabbah” openly invoked his “proud American name” (“Proud of what exactly?”), while one of its earliest versions addressed both sides of his family in accusatory block capitals: “MR ADDING MACHINE BURROUGHS MR ZERO BURROUGHS MR VIRUS BURROUGHS LEE THE PRESS AGENT.”6 His paternal and maternal heritage tied Burroughs to pioneering capitalists not only in business and military computing (the Burroughs Adding Machine) but also in public relations (Uncle “Poison” Ivy Lee, son of the “Reverend Lee” and press agent for Rockefeller and Standard Oil). Burroughs put his privileged haute-bourgeois, classical education to good use by turning it back on itself. He was thinking of Shakespeare’s The Tempest in the title of his book’s penultimate section, “Melted Into Air,” but Nova Express is born of the insight Karl Marx had into the world market (“All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned”), updated to include the role of the media to aggravate conflicts and sell back what it steals from us. It wasn’t prophecy to Burroughs, it was just straight reportage: “Yep its all there in Nova Express,” he observed of mid-1960s America, “word for stupid ugly word” (ROW, 191).
This is the way Nova Express begins, by reversing the duplicitous use of word and image that defines the role of the PR agent and the Mad Man: ratting out the Cold War national security state (“Top Secret—Classified—For The Board”), b
lowing the whistle on toxic consumer capitalism (“For God’s sake don’t let that Coca-Cola thing out”), and exposing global ecological disaster (“Not The Green Deal—Don’t show them that”). Reviewing Nova Express, McLuhan had declared, “We live science fiction.” Now, we live Nova Express: replace Lazarus Pharmaceuticals by Monsanto, with its genetically modified “terminal seeds”; swap the monopolistic magazine empire of Time, Life, and Fortune (referenced several times) by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation or the Walt Disney Company; and for Death Dwarfs (“manipulated by remote control”) read hunter-killer combat drones over Asia. Nova Express is not a book from the past: it addresses our present-time disaster, our still burning planet.
However, history is no more simply a “content” of Nova Express than it is a “context” for it. In part, this is because Burroughs mixed up levels of reality as deliberately as he mixed his genres, to make ontologically preposterous hybrids: “Not The Cancer Deal with The Venusians.” Lines that didn’t make the final cut included: “President Kennedy virtually admitted that at least two known Venusian molluscs were sitting on his cabinet,” and “Ben Gurion denied yesterday that any connection exists between what he termed ‘the Jewish people’ and the crab powers of Minraud.”7 This is one reason the book has not dated and become domesticated as either “historical” or “allegorical”: the big picture is always bigger and weirder than any particular history. “The death dwarfs are weapons of the nova mob,” Burroughs explained in an interview with the Paris Review, two months after his book came out, “which in turn is calling the shots in the cold war.”8 Presidents Kennedy and Johnson are accordingly named in Nova Express, but they are not even bit-part players in the galactic conflict led by “Mr. Bradly Mr. Martin.” As Inspector Lee insists, “history is fiction,” a confidence trickster’s “Big Store” operation, involving elaborate sets and a cast of millions. Once they are seen for what they are, however, all the false fronts of the received cultural texts, all the media myths, political theater, and advertising spin can be rewritten, chaotically scrambled, and subjected to ridicule until they lose their power to create solid “reality” and dictate the future. Nova Express is not “about” history; it treats history as paper and cuts it up.