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Burroughs, William S

Entry updated 5 February 2024. Tagged: Author.

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(1914-1997) US author born into a successful business family, and a Harvard graduate in English literature in 1936, but a deeply transgressive and famous drop-out thereafter. He lived in Mexico, North Africa and the UK, and for many years was a heroin addict. He began writing in the late 1930s, but had no success until the early 1950s when he wrote two confessional books: Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict (1953 as by William Lee; rev as by Burroughs 1977) and Queer: A Novel (written 1950s; 1985), which were respectively about Drug-addiction and homosexuality, themes that continued to dominate Burroughs's work. Although largely unpublished at the time, Burroughs was immensely influential among the Beat writers of the 1950s – notably Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg – and already had an underground reputation before the appearance of his first important book, The Naked Lunch (1959; vt Naked Lunch 1962; vt Naked Lunch: The Restored Text 2001). This nightmarish Satire, first published by the daring and influential Olympia Press in Paris, contains large elements of sf – e.g., the Dystopias of "Freeland" and "Interzone", and some outré biological fantasy: grotesque visions of Genetic Engineering as literalizations of social control in what then could be described as the Near Future. Brilliantly written, funny and scatological, it is – the designation is as anomalous as it is merited – a modern classic; an inventive adaptation was filmed as Naked Lunch (1992) by David Cronenberg. Burroughs's writings since are a bibliographer's despair, and no attempt can be made here to register various versions of his major titles, the texts of which were kept, deliberately, in a state of flux, or to list all the pamphlets issued by various underground publishers.

The major novels of this period are The Soft Machine (1961; rev 1966), The Ticket that Exploded (1962; rev 1967), Nova Express (1964), The Wild Boys: A Book of the Dead (1971; rev 1979) and Exterminator! (1973). In these works, Burroughs experimented with "cut-up" techniques (see Information Theory); the element of innovation in this performance was overemphasized at the time, as were suggestions that his texts are opaque: they now read, at points, as almost reportorial renderings of the scrambling of point-of-view and continuity now almost normal in the media where his influence remains vivid: the Cinema, Television, the Media Landscape in general. More significant is the vividness of the imagery and the urgency of the subject matter. Much concerned with the abuses of power, Burroughs uses addiction as an all-embracing metaphor for the ways in which our lives are controlled through a carnivalesque media, itself an appendix of the surveillance state. Particularly in Nova Express, he also brought into luridly exemplary perspective many sf metaphors; e.g., the "Nova Mob", galactic gangsters who are taking over our planet. Images of Space Flight and "biomorphic horror" (J G Ballard's phrase) abound.

Later work retained the corrosiveness of the worldview, but in narrations that verge, with some irony, towards the conventional. The Red Night sequence – comprising Port of Saints (1973 Switzerland; rev 1980), Cities of the Red Night (1981), The Place of Dead Roads (1984) and The Western Lands (1987) – loosely brings together a set of texts in which the genres of the West miscegenate, breed, and descry the road ahead (see Fantastika). Interzone (coll 1989) contains some surreal matter.

Burroughs borrowed ideas from all areas of popular culture – films, Comics, Westerns, sf – and the resulting powerful mélange has analogies with Pop Art (see Postmodernism and SF). He registered his long fascination with Julian Jaynes's The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (1976) in "An Interview with William S Burroughs" in Across the Wounded Galaxies: Interviews with Contemporary American Science Fiction Writers (coll 1990) by Larry McCaffery, identifying pre-self-conscious humans as victims of totalitarian surveillance on the part of the "gods". His influence can be detected in the sf of J G Ballard, Michael Moorcock, John T Sladek, Norman Spinrad and others. Overt pastiches of his work by sf writers include Barrington J Bayley's "The Four-Colour Problem" (in New Worlds Quarterly 2, anth 1971, ed Michael Moorcock), Philip José Farmer's "The Jungle Rot Kid on the Nod" (1968 Broadside vol 4 #2) – a Tarzan story in the manner of the "wrong" Burroughs (see Edgar Rice Burroughs) – and Iain Sinclair's Downriver (Or, the Vessels of Wrath): A Narrative in Twelve Tales (1991). [DP/JC]

see also: Cyberpunk; SF Music.

William Seward Burroughs

born St Louis, Missouri: 5 February 1914

died Lawrence, Kansas: 2 August 1997

works (selected)


Red Night

  • Port of Saints (London: Covent Garden Press/Ollon, Switzerland: Am Here Books, 1973) [Red Night: hb/]
    • Port of Saints (Berkeley, California: Blue Wind Press, 1980) [rev of the above: hb/]
  • Cities of the Red Night (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1981) [Red Night: hb/from Pieter Brueghel]
  • The Place of Dead Roads (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984) [Red Night: hb/Robert Reed]
  • The Western Lands (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1987) [Red Night: hb/David Loftus]

individual titles

about the author


previous versions of this entry

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