Nova express

by William S. Burroughs
(1964)
   This third book in William S. Burroughs’s cut-up trilogy of science fiction was written in the 1960s. In the first section, “Last Words,” the last words are ascribed by Burroughs to Hassan i Sabbah, the eighth-century leader of a group of assassins who targeted fundamentalist religious leaders. Burroughs extends Hassan i Sabbah’s opposition to religious fundamentalism to an opposition to corporations, monopolies, and syndicates that dominate the globe at the expense of individuals. A letter from Inspector J. Lee of the Nova Police explains in more detail that the “boards syndicates and governments of the world” represent an intergalactic conspiracy to enslave human beings to their vices. In parasitic form, these control agents thus use human beings and the planet Earth until they are sucked dry, at which time they abandon the planet to “nova”—total destruction. The Nova Police are out to arrest the “Nova Mob” that is controlling the planet by means of a film that was created in the Reality Studio. Compared to the previous two books in this trilogy (The soft macHine and The ticket tHat exploded), the message here is far more urgent: We have only “minutes to go” to prevent the catastrophe of nova. Nova conditions are fomented by The Intolerable Kid, who ignores the signs that the Nova Police are moving in. Much of this action has been described in the two previous books, but a new character is introduced as the planet’s savior, The Mayan God of Pain and Fear. From his seat of power on the surface of Venus, he shuts down the con game that is played by the board members.
   In the section “So Pack Your Ermines,” Burroughs raises environmental themes in this book that look forward to the environmental movement of the 1970s: The Board’s “Green Deal” (a metaphor for the destruction of the environment by profit-minded global corporations) involves sucking the oxygen out of the Earth’s atmosphere to create a carbon-dioxide atmosphere that can be breathed by the Vegetable People, who have formed an alliance with the Insect People of Minraud. When the carbon dioxide runs thin, the effects are similar to those of withdrawal from heroin, and Burroughs brings in his old drug partner, Phil White (the Sailor), and creates a variation on their days “working the hole” (the subway) in 1946 (described in junky). KiKi, based on Burroughs’s boy companion Kiki in Tangier, narrates a scene as he did in The Ticket That Exploded. He tells “Meester William” that his theories on writing are “loco.” The many references to bread knives refer to the fact that the real-life Kiki was stabbed to death with a bread knife. Another boy narrates a scene from Burroughs’s yage expedition to South America where the “Meester locates a Brujo and pays him to prepare ayahuasca” (a hallucinogenic potion containing DMT). The characters here shift “coordinate points,” meaning that they travel from body to body, making it possible for KiKi to show up as a boy in South America. Dr. Benway makes an appearance at the end of this chapter. He is conducting experiments with a “green drug,” and when the patient dies, he concludes that “orgones” are “blue” not green.
   The “Chinese Laundry” section has Inspector Lee of the Nova Police interrogate a suspected Nova Mob member named Winkhorst, who describes the ways in which apomorphine can be used to short-circuit mechanisms of addiction and control. He tells Lee that the planet is going nova and offers to obtain a “lifeboat” for him if he will send back reports saying that conditions on Earth are normal. Lee’s District Supervisor tells him that Winkhorst has lied to him about the Mob’s interest in chemicals: They are interested in using “images” to control subjects, a method far more effective than chemical addiction and a method that cannot be counteracted with apomorphine. A death dwarf is brought on stage to describe addictive images of sex and violence. Winkhorst is further interrogated about apomorphine. Burroughs compares morphine to police, for both “stick around” after they are not needed, and he compares apomorphine to the Nova Police, who leave when their job is done. This explains the need of the police for drug addicts and drug laws: Without them, the police cease to exist, an analysis of the Police State that was first made by Burroughs in Junky. One of the agents of the Nova Police is posing as writer. He is a defector called Uranian Willy (based on Burroughs). Uranian Willy institutes Plan D—“Total Exposure”—and blows up the reality film, allowing everyone to see behind the scenes of the control universe.
   In the “Crab Nebula” section the Crab Nebula is described as the result of a star gone supernova and that was first observed by the Chinese in a.d. 1054. Burroughs locates the Insect People of Minraud there, as well as their “Elders,” superbrains that are suspended in jars filled with spinal fluid. These jars are guarded by “crab” people. From the Crab Nebula, the controllers have loosed a language “virus” on Earth, which works much the same way a biological virus does or the way an adding machine does—“like the cylinder gimmick in the adding machine.” As the grandson of the man who perfected the adding machine, Burroughs is able to decode the language virus, and he suggests ways that we can deprogram ourselves from its influence. “The old mind tapes can be wiped clean,” he says.
   A Nova criminal gives a deposition before the Biologic courts, and the transcript of his deposition fills in more information about the intergalactic set-up. Earth, in fact, was a set-up for the Nova Criminals who were able to stay just a few light-years ahead of the Nova Police. But they are caught on Earth. Their plan had been to escape by banking hours that were built up through “short timing” the inhabitants of Earth, who cannot figure out why they have less time to do things than they used to. The inhabitants of Earth need to stay duped for the controllers to suck them dry; most importantly, they must be kept ignorant of how to move into space because once they do this, they will no longer be manageable.
   Agent K9 (also based on Burroughs) is with the Biologic Police and has been assigned the task of cutting off the death dwarfs from the influence of the controllers in the Crab Nebula. He discusses how language can be robbed of its ability to control us by reteaching us to think not in words but in association patterns. This is thinking at “the speed of light.” The cut-up method demonstrated in several passages throughout the book exemplifies how we can read in “association blocks” rather than “in words.” In the section entitled “Remember I Was Carbon Dioxide,” Burroughs creates a “fold-in” using his own text and the text of T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” The fold-in technique, an extension of the cut-up technique created by Brion Gysin, is described in The Third Mind. “From a Land of Grass Without Mirrors” takes evolution as the key theme in the opening chapters of this section. Lee awakens after the battle for the Control Room with no body, a new state to which he adapts easily. He sees that other lifeforms have had to evolve on an Earth with a carbondioxide atmosphere. Lee evidently has been aided in his evolution by apomorphine, which releases him from the control of parasites. The “cure” resembles Burroughs’s treatment for morphine addiction in Lexington, Kentucky, or later in Morocco and London.
   The “Gave Proof Through the Night” section begins with a version of the first “routine” Burroughs ever wrote, with Kells Elvins in 1938, entitled “Twilight’s Last Gleamings.” Amazingly, this first routine anticipates the plot of the cutup trilogy in that both are about passengers who are abandoned by the crew and captain of a sinking ship. (The circumstances of the sinking of the Titanic and of the Morro Castle fascinated Burroughs.) Here, the captain of the ship murders his way onto the lifeboat, much as the Nova Criminals abandon planet Earth as it goes nova. The character Perkins is based on Kells Elvins’s father Politte Elvins, who suffered from paresis and lisped. “This Horrible Case” section was written in collaboration with “Mr. Ian Sommerville, a mathematician,” Burroughs informs us in the front notes. Here, the “horrible case” of the planet Earth is brought before the courts. The key question is whether or not the alien invaders of Earth can be excused for killing the inhabitants of Earth out of a “biologic need.” Was it survival or murder? The parasitic invaders lose in the biologic courts because they made no effort to adapt to the conditions of the planet where they supposedly crash landed. Instead, they simply milked its inhabitants of life, awaiting new travel arrangements. Writers are the Biologic Counselors who prosecute and defend such cases. One of the greatest Biologic Counselors was Franz Kafka. His “briefs” are “classics.” To make a judgment, Burroughs folds in parts of Kafka’s nightmare study of bureaucracy, The Castle, with the facts of the “horrible case.” “Pay Color,” the final section, has the colors red, blue, and green corresponding respectively to (among other things) blood, sky, and jungle. Hassan i Sabbah demands that the boards and syndicates pay back all that they have stolen from the planet. Benway, in antibiotic handcuffs, says, “It goes against my deepest instincts to pay off the marks—But under the uh circumstances.” The Subliminal Kid breaks down images and sounds with playback techniques, freeing up the narrative for a fantasy sequence that begins when agent K9 (a character introduced in The Soft Machine) enters a sensory deprivation tank with a Chinese youth and emerges himself as a Mexican street boy. On the outskirts of the city he encounters wild boys who are performing acrobatic sex. Later, Burroughs folds in sections from John Yerbury Dent’s treatise on apomorphine, “Anxiety and Its Treatments.” Burroughs makes the metaphor of addiction in the book (and in all of his books) explicit by saying that “Mr. Martin” (the head of the Nova Mob) is “morphine.” The District Supervisor asks an agent to detail his knowledge of scientology (the Logos group in the book). This is one of Burroughs’s longest discussions of the controversial religion that was founded by L. Ron Hubbard. He extends Hubbard’s methods to show how we can literally “laugh off” childhood and other traumas by cutting them into an absurd context and viewing/ listening to them repeatedly.
   Burroughs states, as he did in the “Atrophied Preface” to naked luncH, that all of the characters in the book are the same. He reiterates the basic Nova technique of feedback—two groups’ hateful statements about each other played before them, back and forth—and says that the trick to avoiding nova is simply not to respond: “Silence.” The author has no more “junk scripts, no more word scripts” and tells the reader to “Clom Fliday,” the old Chinese heroin dealer’s way of getting rid of deadbeat occidental junkies.
   Rob Johnson

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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