a rickety bridge of impossible crossing

transreality and parafiction

  1. transrealism
  2. parafiction
  3. the montreal screwjob
  4. frank shook
  5. consensus reality
  6. the line
  7. weaponized parafiction
  8. conclusion

transrealism

In 1983, science fiction author Rudy Rucker wrote an essay titled A Transrealist Manifesto. It was published in The Bulletin of the Science Fiction Writers of America, so it was sort of an open letter to his peers. I recommend reading it first. It's pretty short, it's interesting, and it'll give you context for what I'm about to talk about. It identifies a big problem in sci-fi at the time, and offers a strange solution. His basic premise was that sci-fi would never be taken seriously as art until authors start writing about people. He laments that characters in sci-fi are "so obviously puppets of the author’s will", that the protagonist is so often just a one-dimensional self-insert with no real character development. This was a big problem in sci-fi for a long time.

Today it might seem strange that anyone draw a distinction between artistic or "literary" fiction and "genre" fiction. People younger than me1 might not even know why "genre fiction" is a term, or why it was seen as pejorative. Isn't all fiction genre fiction? Doesn't every story have a genre?

For the first nine-tenths of its existence, sci-fi and fantasy existed in a bubble totally separate from mainstream fiction. Horror was usually part of that bubble too. There were a few notable exceptions, Tolkien and Bradbury, some of Kurt Vonnegut's work, Orwell, Shirley Jackson, anything that would've ended up being taught at a high school level in the 80s or 90s. Also, anything published before the 20th century was grandfathered into the "classics" canon, so you had Mary Shelley, Poe, Jules Verne, they were all respected names in early genre fiction. But in general, genre fiction was something you bought for a dime at the newsstand and maybe threw away; literature was something you bought in hardcover and passed down to your kids.

Genre fiction wasn't reviewed in magazines or newspapers (hence the rise of fan zines to fill the niche), and overall was treated about as seriously as comic books. The reason for this, besides marketing, is the problem that Rudy was trying to address: literary fiction was seen as serious stories about people, genre fiction was silly stories about fantastic worlds and events where the people in it don't really matter.

Genre protagonists were mostly copy-pastes of the author's straight white male experiences with very little emotional depth, what we might today call a "Gary Stu", and the stories very rarely had the character grow in a meaningful personal way. It might seem weird, then, that Rudy would suggest the solution is for the author to literally insert themselves into the story, but it makes sense to me:

In a Transrealist novel, the author usually appears as an actual character, or his or her personality is divided among several characters. On the face of it, this sounds egotistical. But I would argue that to use oneself as a character is not really egotistical. It is a simple necessity. If, indeed, you are writing about immediate perceptions, then what point of view other than your own is possible? It is far more egotistical to use an idealized version of yourself, a fantasy-self, and have this para-self wreak its will on a pack of pliant slaves. The Transrealist protagonist is not presented as some super-person. A Transrealist protagonist is just as neurotic and ineffectual as we each know ourselves to be.

If you're literally writing about yourself, it's embarrassing to write as if you're a perfectly competent superhuman who is the only important person in reality. If an author literally writes about himself, maybe he'd be primed to write about other characters as if they were actual people. I understand the rationale. In some ways I think the essay was just a way of saying "for the love of god, straight white male sci-fi authors, write about someone who isn't a straight white man" without making himself a target for reactionary blowback. Maybe literally writing about themselves could be the first stepping stone on the path to greater empathy and understanding of people who aren't them.

Straight white men have never been the only people writing sci-fi and fantasy—sci-fi was invented by a woman, of course—but society being what it is, their books are the ones that dominated the culture, the ones most of the largely straight white male fandom focused on. I wish he called out this fact a little more explicitly in the essay, but I think his intentions were good.

Nowadays, it seems weird that the essay was ever necessary at all. I don't know if it ever made a big splash, but it's clear that's the direction the culture has moved regardless, more because people who aren't white men have been allowed to have a voice than because white men as a whole got better, but I think most readers would agree that things are better now than they were in 1983 (Sad Puppy nazis aside.)2

That said, there are a couple lines in the essay that raise my alarm hackles. I want to talk about how transrealism relates to what I'll call parafiction.

parafiction

"Parafiction" is loosely defined by art historian Carrie Lambert-Beatty as an emergent genre of artwork that plays in the overlap between fact and fiction.3

I'll be using "parafiction" to mean any media where the line between fact and fiction is blurry. There may be a more academic way to talk about this, but if there is I'm not familiar with it. When I say the line is blurry, I'm not just talking about metafiction, or fiction where the author or a character breaks the fourth wall to speak directly to the audience: when that happens, it's generally made clear that the break is scripted and intentional.

If you were watching a play where every character was speaking theatrically in Elizabethan English, and an actor suddenly went out of character and started addressing the audience in their authentic voice, and talking about how they "can't take this fucking drama shit anymore" and seeming to have an authentic breakdown, it'd make the audience viscerally uncomfortable. They would assume it wasn't part of the play and the actor was legitimately hurting.

What if all the other characters, in their theatrical Elizabethan voices, reacted to the person as if they were still their character? Said that the person was possessed by demons, or speaking in tongues, or some other Elizabethan interpretation of what happened? What if they just escorted the actor off the stage, and the story continued as if the character was taken to a sanitarium and never seen again? Would you believe it was a legitimate lapse and they were trying to salvage the play? That'd be impossible, right? There's no way they'd continue the play if that happened, no matter how realistic it might've seemed. It must've been scripted. Or was it? Your brain believes in a reality that your gut can't accept.

This cognitive dissonance probably wouldn't go over well in a play, but it's what saved professional wrestling.

the montreal screwjob

The Montreal Screwjob was an infamous unscripted professional wrestling incident that occurred on November 9, 1997, at the Survivor Series pay-per-view at the Molson Centre. Vince McMahon (World Wrestling Federation owner) and his employees covertly manipulated the outcome of the match between Bret Hart, the reigning WWF Champion, and Shawn Michaels. The manipulation – a "shoot screwjob" in professional wrestling parlance – occurred without Hart's knowledge and as a result he lost the title to Michaels in his last WWF match before departing for rival promotion World Championship Wrestling (WCW). The "screwjob" is generally believed to be an off-screen betrayal of Hart, who was one of the WWF's longest-tenured and most popular performers of all time.4

Pretending that the fights aren't scripted has been a part of "Professional Wrestling" since it was invented. Actual professional wrestling exists; sumo wrestling is real, wrestling has been an Olympic event since the beginning, it can be a legitimate competitive sport, but when you talk about scare-quotes capital-P-capital-W "Professional Wrestling" (henceforth PW), what you're talking about is sports entertainment. It's a sideshow attraction, something people watch for fun. People have broadly known it was scripted since the 30s, but maintaining kayfabe has always been part of the business.

"Kayfabe" is a weird word. No one's quite sure how or when it originated. Wikipedia suggests it was documented in the 1937 book Fall Guys: The Barnums of Bounce by Mark Griffin, but there's no citation and I don't have access to a copy of the book to verify that. Other sources believe it was invented in the 80s and came out of the WWF, which I find much more plausible, since it's hard to find examples of the term being used before then. It seems likely that it was invented as a sort of pseudo pig-latin version of fake, i.e. ake-fay but not as obvious. No one really knows, though.

Kayfabe means scripted. Part of the act. Planned in advance. In-character. Breaking kayfabe was a huge taboo in wrestling for a long time, and if you suggested that wrestling was fake in front of someone in the business, they had to aggressively rebuff that assertation.5 They had to protect the business at all costs.

This taboo has relaxed a bit over time, and it's largely thanks to the Montreal Screwjob. As far as I know, that was the first time PW had dipped its toe into parafictional storytelling. Everything got weird after that. Fans all knew wrestling was fake (except for the ones who didn't, pejoratively referred to as "marks" by know-it-all fans.6)

But this seemed real. Bret Hart was genuinely betrayed. His shock and confusion wasn't an act. It wasn't professional wrestler Bret "the hitman" Hart reacting, it was Bret Hart, the person. Fans watching live were outraged. Fans watching on TV were confused. The broadcast was cut short and no one watching at home was sure what exactly happened. It wasn't long before stories started circulating on this new thing called The Internet and the fog of mystery around the story gradually cleared. The WWE (then the WWF) started writing it into their bigger narratives. Vince McMahon, the owner of the WWE, started playing a transreal version of himself named Mr. McMahon. The line between kayfabe and "shoot" had been crossed, and it's set the tone for PW through the present day.

I should clarify, especially in light of recent allegations against McMahon, that I'm not a wrestling fan and I've never watched it; there are elements of PW that I think could be cool, if my main reference point wasn't Vince McMahon and the WWE; he's a piece of shit and it's a shitty organization. There are cool people working there, but even if I was interested in becoming a big wrestling fan, I don't think it's worth trying to redeem. No shade to anyone who enjoys it in spite of its problems, it's just not for me.

No, the reason I know anything about wrestling is that a lot of PW fans cross over with other interests of mine. What interest I have in PW is purely around how it relates to the rise of parafictional storytelling, and how this dynamic has worked its way into other types of entertainment. It's become a huge part of the media landscape, and I think that's worth thinking about.

frank shook

The only Rudy Rucker novel I've read that's explicitly transreal7 is Saucer Wisdom. It's written from Rudy's perspective, and the premise is that a man named Frank Shook figures out a way to communicate with aliens. He sends a message out into the aether, all-powerful extraterrestrial life forms pick up on it, and they take Frank on a journey through time. They show him the future of human technology, give him a glimpse of where human civilization goes thousands of years into the future. Frank knows that he happens to live near a famous sci-fi author, and he approaches Rudy Rucker at a public event in the hopes of convincing him to help tell his story.

One of the future technologies Frank saw. A man with a cowboy hat and Texas belt buckle "programs" a piece of piezoelectric smart putty. Illustration by Frank Shook (transreality) or Paul Mavrides (reality).

It's an interesting read, despite not really being a novel at all. I'm not sure how to classify it. The transreal elements are more of a framing device for the speculative fiction, but the interplay between Rudy and Frank helps ground it. There's some dramatic tension: Rudy wants to believe Frank, he tries to stay credulous and do his best to help, despite Frank being a paranoid eccentric who grows increasingly suspicious that Rudy's only pretending to help him in order to steal his story. Neither the metanarrative or the speculative fiction would be fleshed out enough to stand as interesting stories on their own, but when you weave them together, it works. It worked for me, anyway.

It's transrealism, but it's explicitly not parafiction. It was sold as fiction. Rudy's always been totally up-front about that. Despite appearing as a character in the novel, he's stressed that the events that transpire are totally made up and Frank Shook isn't a real person. He pitched the book to Wired with his friend Greg Gibson playing the role of Frank, and had the idea that he might keep it kayfabe, but ultimately wasn't comfortable taking it that far:

And the two young Wired editors totally bought into it. Midway through the meeting it "got to be too much" for Greg and he stalked out. And for a few minutes the editors really didn't know if my UFO abductee friend was real or not. And after a bit I let them off the hook, and said, no, it had been an act. But they were dazzled and gave me the biggest advance by far that I ever got for any of my books, fiction or nonfiction.

The Wired Books editors were leaning towards promoting Saucer Wisdom as really being true, doing the full Whitley Streiber thing and running it as a media hoax. And then maybe in a year we'd reveal that it had been a hoax, and get another little bit of publicity. I got more and more uncomfortable with this notion. The idea of having to lie in interviews made me uneasy.

Which I identify with and respect. There was a bit of inner turmoil when Rudy didn't want to pay Greg the cut he was promised after pivoting to an unambiguously fictional book, but Greg gave him back the money and there was no ill will between them. This real anxiety worked its way into the book as part of the conflict between Frank and book-Rudy.

Saucer Wisdom didn't make much of an impact, didn't become the big breakout transreal sci-fi novel for the new millennium, and maybe it would've if they really leaned into the hoax idea, but I'm glad they didn't. I don't think the publicity would've been worth the guilt, the feeling of betrayal from his readers.

consensus reality

In A Transrealist Manifesto, Rudy wrote:

The idea of breaking down consensus reality is even more important. This is where the tools of SF are particularly useful. Each mind is a reality unto itself. As long as people can be tricked into believing the reality of the 6:30 news, they can be herded about like sheep.

In 2022, this line reads much more ominously than when it was written. We can see consensus reality breaking down all around us. The rise of Qanon. The mainstreaming of the antivax movement. The big lie about fake election fraud that led to the Jan. 6 insurrection. Cryptocurrency.

Things were a lot different in 1983. When Rudy wrote that line, Reagan had only been in office for two years. The reality of late capitalism hadn't yet sunk in. No one knew that reaganomics would be permanent. Neoliberalization was just gaining steam. There were reactionaries, because there always are, but they were totally marginal. Just a handful of weird assholes sharing shitty zines with each other. Nothing worth fretting about. There was certainly no reason to think anything about the status quo was worth defending.

Consensus reality was whatever the people in power wanted it to be: the ruling class and their structures set the agenda, the political class set the boundaries of acceptable discourse, the media stayed in these boundaries, consent was manufactured. Of course destroying consensus reality could only be a good thing, and hey, sci-fi and fantasy would make excellent sledgehammers. If we want to help people imagine a better world, that's a great place to start, but sci-fi of the 80s was still focused too much on the world part without paying enough mind to the people who live in that world. If it could be used to foster empathy and help people ask why the world we live in is the way it is, maybe transrealism could have been a revolutionary tool.

the line

There's a line between the transreal and the parafictional. When you get close to that line, it can be thrilling. Vince McMahon crossed the line in 1997, but for all his other faults, for all the other problems with the WWE, I think they've done a good job of riding that line ever since. Wrestlers have a bit more room to be their authentic selves, the storylines have gotten a bit more transrealistic, but the line between fact and fiction still exists. Reality hasn't been compromised.

In 1999, The Blair Witch Project invented the "found footage" genre of horror films, which rides the line perfectly. In 1997, the Swedish TV show Expedition Robinson invented the modern reality show, which would make a big splash in 2000 when its US incarnation, Survivor, debuted. Reality TV has a checkered history. When it's done responsibly, it can be harmless entertainment, but so much can be gained if only you're willing to cross the line...

In 1999, Rudy Rucker got right up to the line, but decided not to cross it, and I respect him for it. Despite what he wrote in 1983, we have to preserve some amount of consensus reality. If he claimed that Saucer Wisdom was real, if he went forward with paying Greg to play Frank Shook and tried to get the book published as nonfiction, it would have hurt people, no matter how humanitarian the ideas in the book might be. People don't like being lied to. They don't like feeling like they were tricked. They dislike it so much that sometimes they're willing to construct a different reality to live in, a reality where they never have to come to grips with being duped.

weaponized parafiction

Most people are not comfortable with material that comes across as vitriolic, raging, nonironic hatred. The unindoctrinated should not be able to tell if we are joking or not. There should also be a conscious awareness of mocking stereotypes of hateful racists. I usually think of this as self-deprecating humor - I am a racist making fun of stereotype of racists, because I don't take myself super-seriously. This is obviously a ploy and I actually do want to gas k****. But that's neither here nor there.
 —the Daily Stormer style guide8

The stories and information posted here are artistic works of fiction and falsehood. Only a fool would take anything posted here as fact.
 —4chan.org "disclaimer"

I listened to the Alex Jones show for a few months in the early 2000s. I figure a lot of people like me did. I disagreed with a lot of what he said, particularly on economic and government spending issues, but I agreed with him about a lot of stuff, too. He at least paid lip service to social justice issues I cared about, like gay rights and drug legalization, and most importantly, he talked shit about republicans. I had not yet found a real political identity, and I was very much a squishy liberal of the "Buck Fush" variety.

I took pleasure in listening to him yell about neocons, arguing with Fox News personalities like Ann Coulter, and I didn't think too critically about what he was actually saying. He always talked about how he "transcended the left/right paradigm", and as far as I knew that was true, because at the time I thought the "left/right paradigm" was democrats and republicans, and he yelled about both. I wouldn't have considered it possible that he could be far to the right of the republicans; I didn't think you could be that far right and have a national radio show. I thought they only existed in the margins, in shitty little newsletters and underground internet message boards.

It was the early days of broadband internet, and I found it novel that there was a long daily radio show on it I could listen to. I viewed it as entertainment, the same way one might've listened to Coast to Coast AM; I didn't necessarily believe any of it, but people saying weird outrageous things was fun to listen to.

It didn't much matter to me which parts were real and which parts were fake. I was aware that he had apparently predicted 9/11, which I thought was worth something at the time. What I didn't know is that, in classic grifter fashion, he predicts everything and only talks about the ones that come true. Even today, he claims credit for "predicting" every mass shooting that makes big news, for predicting the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and creates short clip shows where he stitches together a bunch of out-of-context quotes that seem to give him credibility. I didn't know any of that; I just watched the clip of him predicting 9/11 and thought it was pretty impressive.

I did not, thank God, fall for the next step of indoctrination and believe him when he said it was an inside job. I was just a wee bab in my early 20s, I still had spaghetti brain, but I at least had enough critical thinking skills to not to fall for the obvious bullshit. A lot of people I trusted and respected talked about why the 9/11 conspiracy theories didn't make sense. I knew the government did bad things, but even as anti-Bush as I was, I did not believe his administration would or could pull off a false flag op of that scale without getting caught.

Why didn't I stop listening to him, then? Well, I sort of thought he was playing a character. I think a lot of people still believe that. He's built a parafictional reality around himself, and has argued in court that he shouldn't be held accountable for what he says on his show because Alex Jones is a character, a persona. No one could possibly believe all the bullshit he says.

When I did stop listening, it was because it got boring. It reached a point where he was just saying the same shit over and over, because that's how propaganda works. You're either primed to believe it, in which case you gradually become more and more radicalized, or you're not, in which case you tune out and forget about it.

The ones who didn't tune out almost carried out a coup, and they're going to keep trying. The line has been obliterated.

conclusion

It'd be easy to become a reactionary about this and declare transrealism and parafiction inherently dangerous, but I don't think that's the solution. I don't think there is a cut-and-dry answer. Even if it were possible to return to a world where reality is what we hear on the 6:30 news, that's not a status quo worth going back to. We should be able to explore different possibility spaces, but how do we stop bad actors? How do we help people who were taken advantage of? I think showing how people like Trump and Andrew Anglin and Alex Jones are intentionally manipulating people can help, but it's not enough. People need something they can believe in. We have to build institutions people can trust.

The answer isn't going to come from the state, or anyone who pulls the levers of power. The answer won't be something you see on the 6:30 news. It's going to have to come from us. I don't know what that'll look like, but I want to help. If you're upset because you feel like you've been manipulated into believing in a reality you don't want to believe in, you have my contact info. I'll listen. I won't judge. There is a way out. We may have been turned against each other, but we aren't enemies. The enemy is power, and I refuse to consent to any reality that's been manufactured for me. You can, too 🦝


  1. At time of writing, I'm thirty-six or thirty-seven, which is incidentally the approximate age of Rudy Rucker when he wrote the manifesto.

  2. Sad Puppies (wikipedia.org, refs. 1-4)

  3. Oolite Arts. Parafiction (oolitearts.org, 2017)

  4. The Montreal Screwjob (wikipedia.org, refs. 1-3, 9)

  5. Louis Theroux's Weird Weekends. Wrestling (youtube.com, 1999)

  6. The know-it-all fans are themselves pejoratively known as "smarks" by fans who don't take it too seriously.

  7. I've read a few more books that Rudy classifies as transreal in his timeline, but Saucer Wisdom is the only one where the protagonist is explicitly autobiographical.

  8. Feinberg, Ashley. This Is The Daily Stormer's Playbook (huffpost.com, 2017)

#long #essay