Not long ago, two authors (Jay Lake and Ken Scholes) began to write stories, only to switch and end the other’s story. And to add bigtime coolness, artists Greg Manchess and Stephan Martiniere did a similar switch-around with the illustrations for the stories. These are four exceptionally talented people, and the end results reflect their skills. But the game itself, the start and switch, can be played by just about anyone. The Comte de Lautrement said, “Poetry must be made by all and not by one.” The games of the Surrealists and OuLiPo both support this idea. More on the games in a bit.

I’m an enthusiastic, if inexpert, student of the early Structuralists, Surrealists and the OuLiPo. These three interest me most where I see them overlap: exploring the unfixed nature of language. I disavow, gleefully, the notion that any word possesses intrinsic meaning. Viva la context, I might say. I see language as a series of endlessly mutable agreements and revisions. So why not play with it? Why be straight-jacketed by convention, when convention looks so good in a gorilla suit?

Here I should back up and give a five second tour of these three schools of thought, for those who know even less than I do. (I know that, to some, blogging from a perspective of less than total and incontrovertible expertise is a grave sin, but I’ll do my best not to offend with my ignorance.)

Structuralism/Semiology: Plato believed in universals and the linguistic theories that followed him considered words to reflect some inherent value. Ferdinand de Saussure decided, after studying and translating Sanskrit, that Plato was wrong. Everyone went, “No way!” Saussure was all, “Yes way. In language there are only differences, and no positive terms.” And everybody flipped out. Noting that cultural norms, works of art and even thought itself are all structured like languages, several brainy people, many of them French, applied Saussure’s concepts to anthropology and art and psychology and stuff like that, while Buddhists everywhere were like, “Told you so.” (Some may dislike my use of structuralism and semiology as interchangeable terms. If you do, I will find the irony entertaining.) 

Surrealism: André Breton, with a head full of Freud, went around with a bunch of artists in search of means to dictate “thought in the absence of all control exercised by reason, outside of all aesthetic and moral preoccupation.” Another way of putting it is they wanted pure expression, inspiration unfiltered by mechanism, as in a dream. Pretty punk rock stuff, that.

OuLiPo: An abbreviation of the French for “Workshop of Potential Literature,” OuLiPo was co-founded by former Surrealist Raymond Queneau and mathematician and engineer François Le Lionnais. Like the Surrealists, they sought new artistic expression. OuLiPo, however, dismissed the importance of inspiration and created new methods of expression through artificial constraint.

Semiology views word meaning as an agreement between communicator and audience applied to a sound or symbol. Surrealism looked for meaning without constraint, and OuLiPo, meaning through constraint. What they have in common, to my way of thinking, is that communication is fluid and can take a great variety of forms. The question is, should that fluidity of communication gush out or fill a particular container? Is art the container or the fluid, or are they non-dual? 

I suspect, also, that the semiological questioning of inherent symbolic meaning excited the Surrealists and the OuLiPo, though more subtly than did psychoanalysis.

One area in which (due, I believe, to Queneau’s involvement in both groups) the OuLiPo and Surrealists resemble each other is in the emphasis on games. The Surrealist games emphasize randomness, assemblage, automatism and various methods of imprecise collaboration, in which members of a group make parts of a work of art and the parts are assembled randomly (as with the famous Exquisite Corpse) or created in stages, with components obscured to the collaborators during the creative process (Madlibs, for example). OuLiPo games tend to be more mathematical and less serious than Surrealist games. Palindromes, Spoonerisms, N+7 and my favorite, the lippogram, are all famous games loved by (if not all invented by) OuLiPo. There’s also the snowball poem. Here’s my entirely self-congratulatory attempt:


Some Surrealist and OuLiPo games could belong to either group. There’s a surrealist game involving a series of contradictions. One person writes, let’s say, “My dog has fleas.” The next person writes what he or she perceives as the opposite. “My cat is clean.” And again. “Your rat is filthy.” “Cleanliness is next to rodentity.” Such an amusement has elements of randomness and structure. The game of creating a “poetic redundancy,” or “Haikuization,” a new poem from the final rhyme of each line a sonnet, though developed by OuLiPo isn’t so different from Surrealists cutting something up to get a new picture. Nor is the “end-to-end” which takes a poem and removes a chunk of the middle.

To return to the Lake-Scholes mashup, I can’t help wonder why such games are not more common in science fiction and fantasy. I imagine that Surrealism, as a means to create without constraint, is less geared toward expression in any written genre, as genre itself is a constraint (though Surrealist artists influence a lot of science fiction and fantasy visual art). But given the fannish delight for puns and portmanteaus other word games, why is there no scifioulipo? It seems a very natural match. I can only think that Isaac Asimov, for example, with his wit and mathematical skill, would have made an exemplary OuLiPoulian. Flatland is something of a dimensional lippogram Christian Bök, author of the uber-lippogram Eunoia once created fictional languages for Gene Roddenberry. The symmetrical layout in The Watchmen #5 is pretty OuLiPoulian.

So, it’s not to say there is no crossover. I just think there could be a far larger merging. Why not start here? I’d love to know any examples you might have of word games and constraints—from sonnets to palindromes and everything in between—in scifi and fantasy. Even better if you create them yourself.

I’ll start with one of mine. OuLiPo inspired (if that is not too ironic a word) me to create my own game—at least, I don’t know of anyone else who has done it—which I’ve called an “Alcatraz.” It’s a story in which the first sentence begins with A and ends in Z. The second sentence begins with Y and ends in B, and so on, until the final line, beginning with a Z and ending in A. It’s silly as anything, but I hope you enjoy it.

“An End for Captain Sanchez”

Antimatter waves struck the hull of the Starship Oulipo, but it would take more than a few space oddities to rattle the nerve of Captain Dirk Sanchez. Blessed with a cool head, a square jaw, and a solid appetite, he was the toughest commanding officer in the galaxy. Captain Sanchez could chew inertia and excrete a vortex.
“Danger!” cried ensign Bingo Crenshaw. “Electron fluctuations are destabilizing the anti-grav!” Flashes of red light indicated a new emergency and made Bingo shake like an inbred shih tzu. “Goodness, Captain, now we’re headed into quantum reversal event!”
Hyperdrive faltered suddenly, leaving the ship motionless. In a moment, time itself would scramble like eggs in a blender.
“Just what is going on, here?” spat Sanchez, “or as the Klingons say, qaStaH nuq?”
Klaxons sounded throughout the ship. “Looks like we’re up stool-particle subspace without an auxiliary drive,” quipped Bingo. “My readings indicate the reversal of time itself is about to begin.”
“Now?” Sanchez asked, only to remember that ‘now’ had become its own antonym. “Oscillate the ion-dampening panel! Patch the converter waves through the switchback! Quantum shielding at maximum, and make babaganouj. Rotate the thrusters and mix the tahini! Sure the universe is ending, but we could use a nosh.”
The thought of roasting eggplant at a time like this made Bingo Crenshaw gag. “Universal causality failure is no time to eat like Omar Sharif! Very likely we’re facing annihilation and all you can think of is your palate?”
“What,” Sanchez sneered, “you don’t like Arabic food? Xenophobic! You can panic all you want, Bingo, but I’d rather have a kebab.”
Zealous in need to survive, Bingo hopped into a time-proof escape pod while Sanchez died dreaming of baklava.

When Jason Henninger isn’t reading, writing, juggling, cooking or raising evil genii, he works for Living Buddhism magazine in Santa Monica, CA.


Subscribe to this thread