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Absurdist SF

Entry updated 27 June 2022. Tagged: Theme.

The word "absurdist" became fashionable as a literary term after its consistent use by the French author and essayist Albert Camus (1913-1960) to describe fictions set in worlds where we seem at the mercy of incomprehensible systems. These systems may work as metaphors of the human mind – outward manifestations of what J G Ballard means when he uses the term Inner Space – or they may work as representations of a cruelly arbitrary external world, in which our expectations of rational coherence, whether from God or from human agencies, are doomed to frustration, as in the works of Franz Kafka.

In this encyclopedia we cross-refer works of Absurdist sf to the blanket entry on Fabulation, but do not thereby wish to discount the usefulness of Absurdist sf as a separate concept, especially when we are thinking about some sf written between about 1950 and 1970. During this period Brian W Aldiss, Ballard, David R Bunch, Jerzy Kosinski, Michael Moorcock, Robert Sheckley, John T Sladek, Kurt Vonnegut Jr and many other writers tended to create metaphorical worlds shaped externally by a governing Paranoia, and internally tortured by the psychic white noise of Entropy. Kafka haunted this work, of course – because Kafka can easily be transposed into terms that suggest a political protest. Most Absurdist writers were also indebted (a debt they tended freely to acknowledge) to the nineteenth-century Symbolist tradition, as exemplified by figures like Jean-Marie Villiers de L'Isle-Adam, and to its twentieth-century successors, from the 'pataphysics of Alfred Jarry to the Surrealism of André Breton (1896-1966) and many others. In the end, however, it might be suggested that Absurdist writers – as they did with Kafka – translated the Symbolist and Surrealist traditions into political terms: in the end, Absurdist sf can be seen as a protest movement. The world – they said – should not be absurd.

Interesting examples of absurdist sf film-making include The Bed-Sitting Room (1969) and Peter Greenaway's The Falls (1980). [PN/JC]

see also: Frank Key; Carlton Mellick III; Theaker's Quarterly Fiction.

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