At face value, surrealism and science fiction seem to occupy vastly different positions on an artistic spectrum, and to share little in common. Surrealism typically resists rational interpretations, its works inspired more by dreamscapes and the irrational than by the cold light of real life. Science fiction, on the other hand, has always been rooted in logical extrapolations of the here-and-now, its futuristic worlds undeniably informed by the present-day world. However, if we look beyond these surface impressions and beyond each art form’s immediate associations—if we look beyond the spaceships and aliens of science fiction, and the apple-headed men and melting clocks of surrealism—we begin to see something extraordinary: a similar philosophy of intent and purpose.
André Breton, one of the founders of surrealism, stated in his Manifestoes of Surrealism: ‘I believe in the future resolution of dream and reality, which are seemingly so contradictory, into a kind of absolute reality, a surreality.’ While Breton’s hyperbolic phrasing somewhat obscures his meaning, it is still a relatively easy thing to parse. In effect, he is stating that surrealist artists, no matter whether they’re working in visual art, literature or film, produce incongruous and fantastical imagery by way of irrational or unnatural combinations and juxtapositions, in an attempt to show us a different kind of ‘reality’ than that which we are accustomed to. This is his ‘surreality,’ a place where the logical and illogical exist simultaneously.
This gives context to comments by noted science-fiction critic Frederick Jameson: ‘Science fiction is a genre that restructures and defamiliarises our experience of the present.’ Effectively, Jameson is saying that one of science fiction’s chief concerns is using our present-day world as the basis for logical prognostications and extrapolations typically rooted in scientific and societal developments. This is the ‘restructuring’ part, where our world is shown to us anew by being structured in a different way. The ‘defamiliarisation’ aspect works in other ways: despite their roots in logic, science fiction’s prognostications and extrapolations also often contain any number of illogical elements. The absurd, the nightmarish, the horrifying and the unbelievable have all taken centre stage as chief components in the annals of science fiction, sharing it with the genre’s more realistic components and conceits. These illogical elements serve to take what we know and render it anew, by stripping it of its ordinariness or everydayness and inserting it into a new context. They operate in many different ways: as stand-ins for aspects of our present world (aliens are often stand-ins for ‘the other,’ intergalactic colonists are often stand-ins for imperial colonists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and so on), or as a commentary on aspects of our real world (science fiction’s grotesque mega-corporations, invasive portable technology, etc.), or as a warning of our collective folly in resisting changes to our ways (grotesque depictions of societal collapse, overpopulation and climate change, to name but a few).
We begin to see similarities and connections between the two ‘states’ that Breton believes surrealism is attempting to resolve (dream and reality), and the two states that Jameson believes science fiction is attempting to resolve (the familiar and the unfamiliar/actual reality and restructured reality). In both cases, because these sets of states exist in contrast to each other, any attempt to artistically resolve them will ipso facto result in the creation of works that usually both intellectually challenge their intended audience, and alter the audience’s standard way of thinking about and interpreting such works. To put it simply: by attempting to artistically resolve contrasting states such as dreams and reality, the familiar and the unfamiliar, and actual reality and restructured reality, science fiction writers and surrealist artists create brand new worlds that challenge our expectations and established critical approaches. Even in the most dumbed-down work of science fiction, this way of thinking applies. Take the Transformers movies as an example (which, to be frank, aren’t the most intelligent works of science fiction out there). If we cast our blinkers aside and ignore the films’ predilection for cheap thrills and style over substance, we have to admit that the juxtaposition of our ordinary, present-day reality with talking humanoid robots from outer space that can transform into all manner of vehicles, is undeniably an attempt at resolving the familiar and the unfamiliar and actual reality and restructured reality. Likewise, even the most amateurish work of surrealism is dependant on similar juxtaposition, no matter its quality.
However, at a deeper level, the similarities and connections between the juxtaposed states underlining surrealism and science fiction are much stronger and meaningful. To see this, we must stretch out imagination far enough that we can consider Breton’s juxtaposed states of dreams and reality, and Jameson’s juxtaposed states of the familiar and the unfamiliar and actual reality and restructured reality, as being nigh on interchangeable. And is this such a stretch? After all, in this context both dreams and the concepts of the unfamiliar and restructured reality share common ground: they are concepts and ideas that don’t really exist. Born of the imagination and utterly removed from the nuts-and-bolts of real life, their meanings and interpretations spring from the psychological, the emotional and the unconscious, rather than any form of cause-and-effect or logic. But, when juxtaposed with their contrasting concepts and ideas—reality (as opposed to dream), the familiar and actual reality—a whole new work eventuates, one that asks us to balance these varying contrasts in order to determine its deeper meaning.
While the similarities and connections between the juxtaposed states underlining surrealism and science fiction seem straightforward enough, a vast gulf between both forms arises because of the way that their creators express them. Surrealism, being primarily a visual art form, resists most attempts at narrative interpretation. As they are normally composed of single images, surrealist works have no need for narrative, and even forms that tend to be associated with narratives (literature, film, theatre) typically resist this association, the underlying logic defining narratives becoming dreamlike and cause-and-effect progressions giving way to the unpredictable, the nonsensical and the random. They become anti-narrative if you will.
And herein lies the problem: science fiction is a narrative form, no matter whether its medium is literature, film, television, cartoon or comic. Science fiction writers and creators tell stories, rather than present images. Even in film or any other visual medium, the narrative is the glue that holds their ideas together and gives them their ultimate meaning. This isn’t to say that, despite the similarities and connections between the philosophies underling both surrealism and science fiction, science fiction can’t achieve expressions of surrealism. Far from it—the genre can be as surreal as any of Dali or Jodorowsky’s work. The real difference is that science fiction’s surreal aspects are expressed in a different way, whereby they form part of a whole rather than being a whole unto itself, with the smartest and most ingenious writers actually integrating them into their narratives rather than have them act as mere set pieces or flourishes.
Take 1968’s Planet of the Apes as an example. Its science fiction scenario is both straightforward and wickedly clever: a crew of astronauts crash-land on an alien planet populated by talking primates and oppressed and enslaved humans. Such a scenario allows all manner of science fiction tropes to play out, from a reversal of the typical ‘first contact’ theme to explorations of how evolution might play out on planets other than Earth. However, it also allows its writers and director to successfully combine and balance a standard narrative with surrealist imagery. The talking primates, the mute humans kept caged in a zoo, the primates’ society and culture, all make sense on a contextual narrative level, while also allowing the surrealist imagery and philosophy to shine through. This is a perfect example of Breton’s definition of ‘surreality.’ Talking primates and zoo-exhibited humans are expressions of this juxtaposition between dream and reality—primates, zoos and humans are ordinary aspects of our reality, but the subversive inversion of their statuses and functions perfectly encapsulate the illogical nature of dreams.
However, it is in the film’s climax that this fusion of narrative and surrealism is best exemplified (spoiler warning, for those who haven’t seen it yet). Taylor, leader of the crash-landed astronauts, having finally escaped from the primates, sets off for the ‘Forbidden Zone’—an area taboo to the primates, for fear that it might disprove their historical and cultural narrative. On arrival, Taylor discovers on an isolated shoreline the ruins of the Statue Liberty. While this revelation turns Planet of the Apes’ scenario on its head—the planet isn’t an alien world, but instead a future Earth decimated by nuclear war—it also provides perhaps its most surreal image: Lady Liberty’s upper body protruding from the sand, her torch held aloft as if in futile defiance of the damage wrought upon the world. It is an incredible piece of surrealist imagery that blends reality and dream almost perfectly, while also serving a narrative purpose that elevates the film from standard science fiction fare to something approaching the sublime.
While visual science fiction is the medium that most successfully integrates surrealist imagery and philosophy into its narratives—think of the monolith at the start of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), a jet-black and obviously constructed object juxtaposed with the wild nature of pre-human Earth; or the ‘Oxygen Room’ introduced in the Doctor Who episode The Time of Angels (2010), a vast forest housed within the technological confines of a spaceship; or the ‘recharge mode’ featured in the television series Humans (2015), in which lifelike humanoid robots recharge themselves via a white lead which bears a presumably deliberate resemblance to the ubiquitous white-design of Apple products—written science fiction also employs this same technique, albeit in a way that relies on our imagination rather than the flights of fancy of set designers and directors. In fact, writers such as J. G. Ballard, Jeff Noon and Philip K. Dick employ it as one of the primary techniques in their writing arsenal, with the end results featuring combinations of dream and reality and the familiar and the unfamiliar/actual reality and restructured reality which are frequently beyond comparison.
In Ballard’s The Crystal World, an unexplained evolutionary event is crystallising all manner of African flora and fauna, keeping them in a suspended state of existence that makes them resemble bizarre pieces of alien art; Noon’s Vurt features dreadlocked robots, sentient bipedal dogs, and brightly-coloured, chemically saturated feathers that act as portals to an altered state of consciousness and also transform dreams, mythology and the imaginings of humanity into objective reality, with the end result being a work that is both surreal and psychedelic; while Dick’s oeuvre is crammed with surrealist imagery and often dependant on surrealist philosophy, to such a degree that many of his works have a dream-like logic that often resists logical or rational interpretation. Even a writer like Robert Charles Wilson, who is best known for exploring the emotional, psychological and societal/cultural ramifications of ‘hard’ science fiction concepts, isn’t averse to integrating surrealist imagery and philosophy into his narratives (and his isn’t the only ‘regular’ science fiction to do so). In Spin, perhaps his most acclaimed work, aliens encase Earth in a ‘membrane’ that slows time and protects humanity from the heat-death of the universe, and as a consequence the night-time sky is a black void devoid of stars and the moon which, when seen from space, resemble a jet-black disc surrounded by the myriad lights of the cosmos—a surreal image if ever there was one.
And so, while surrealism and science fiction might seem to occupy vastly different positions on an artistic spectrum and to share little in common, this isn’t actually the case. By integrating surrealist imagery and philosophy into their narratives, science fiction writers and creators can actually elevate their work above the everyday, resulting in books and films that become extraordinary works of art.
(Originally published in Aurealis #110, May 2018)
2 thoughts on “Surrealism and Science Fiction”
I’ve arrived a few years late to the party, but I was glad to have discovered this essay even so. I’ve always loved both science fiction (and fantastic literature in a broader sense) and the works of various Surrealist artists (Dali, Magritte, Tanguy, etc.), and was interested to read about their underlying similarities. (A related subject is SF illustration–which I also love–which began to take on Surrealist qualities in the fifties, with some publishers using the classics of Surrealist art to illustrate SF book covers.)
I was also glad to discover Mr. Walters’ blog, which has a lot of other fascinating commentary on SF.
My apologies–I meant “Mr. Walter’s blog.”