Pirates, Punks, and Quests: The Transgressive, Transformative Slipstream Novels of Kathy Acker

“How can I do this? Begin.
Begin what?
The only thing in the world that’s worth beginning: the end of the world.”

(Pussy, King of the Pirates, 27)

Punk feminist author Kathy Acker (1947-1997) was one of the most influential and daring writers of postmodern experimental fiction of the 20th century. Although her work isn’t usually thought of as science fiction or fantasy, throughout her career her work engages with SF, fantastical, and speculative fiction tropes in bizarre and unexpected ways. Like fellow experimental writers William S. Burroughs and Thomas Pynchon, Acker is a writer whose work sits in dialogue with, and is frequently influential on, the field of SF without necessarily being SF itself. In an influential 1989 essay, Bruce Sterling called this kind of writing “slipstream,” which he defines as “a contemporary kind of writing which has set its face against consensus reality… a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the late twentieth century makes you feel.”

More than three decades on from Sterling’s original essay, the boundaries between traditional SF modes of writing and postmodern and other so-called “literary” forms of writing have become ever more porous and uncertain. As such, it’s worth looking at Acker as one of the original pioneering writers who helped to demolish the boundaries between genre and postmodern fiction. While Acker’s books may frustrate readers expecting hard SF logic and rigor, likeable characters, or even coherent linear plots, the adventurous SFF reader will find much to enjoy in her riotous transgressive punk prose, her wild DIY juxtaposition of appropriated texts across genres and tones, and her inventive and unique take on dystopian and cyberpunk motifs and themes.

The German Romantics had to destroy the same bastions as we do. Logocentricism and idealism, theology, all supports of the repressive society. Property’s pillars. Reason which always homogenizes and reduces, repressed and unifies phenomena or actuality into what can be perceived and so controlled. The subjects, us, are now stable and socializable. Reason is always in the service of political and economic masters. It is here that literature strikes, at this base, where the concepts and actings of order impose themselves. Literature is that which denounces and slashes apart the repressing machine at the level of the signified. Well before Bataille, Kleist, Hoffman etc. made trial of Hegelian idealism, of the cloturing dialect of recognition: the German Romantics sung brazenly brassily in brass of spending and waste. They cut through conservative narcissism with bloody razor blades. They tore the subject away from her subjugation to her self, the proper; dislocated you the puppet; cut the threads of meaning; spit at all mirrors which control. (Empire of the Senseless, 12)

Acker’s distinctive creative voice comes from her unique position in the worlds of punk and the avant-garde. Acker was part of the New York punk scene in the 1970s, and the anarchic, scuzzy, Do-It-Yourself aesthetics of punk are a huge part of her writing. Her anti-authoritarian attitude and street-level perspective gave her an aura of underground cool, one that made a kinship with the original cyberpunk movement obvious. Indeed, Acker’s Empire of the Senseless (1989), with its cyborg protagonist fighting against nefarious multinational corporations, can be productively read as cyberpunk, down to Acker incorporating text from William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984).

Additionally, Acker’s streetwise attitude was informed as much by French critical theory and writers like Deleuze and Guattari as by a tradition of surrealist avant-garde literature extending back through Burroughs’ cut-and-paste to Comte de Lautréamont’s proto-surrealist nightmare Les Chants de Maldoror (1869). Thus she was in a unique position to dynamite the boundaries between “high” and “low” culture, something she does with aplomb across her writings. And a key place where this process happens is in speculative fiction, whether it is Acker’s subversive feminist and postcolonial reading of Neuromancer in Empire of the Senseless, or incorporating a discussion about the nature of rationality into a fight scene between the monsters in kaiju film Godzilla vs Megalon (1973) in her 1986 book Don Quixote, Which Was a Dream (1986).

Acker’s texts can be deliberately alienating. Her work is intentionally transgressive, engaging in shock tactics much as punk music does, to break their audience out of their complacency and force them to engage with issues such as childhood trauma and sexual abuse—issues that a conservative middle-class audience might prefer to avoid or sweep under the rug. Her DIY approach includes appropriation of other texts, from highbrow literary classics like Shakespearean drama and Cervantes’ Don Quixote (1615) to pornography, recontextualized and rewritten in order to repurpose these works for Acker’s own means. The juxtaposition between different source texts, genres, tones and registers is intentionally jarring, forcing the reader to question their assumptions about what makes a text “high” or “low” art, and what meanings are being created through these texts. At its most radical, Acker’s fiction is an attack against rationality itself, an attempt to create a new language for women, for queers, for punks, for underdogs everywhere. Acker creates a language, built from the detritus of the mainstream culture that she destroys, that rejects the patriarchal and capitalist values that exert themselves on our lives through the perpetuation of neoliberal culture.

“‘All stories or narratives,’ the dog barked, ‘being stories of revolt, are revolt.’” (Don Quixote, 146)

In the entry on Acker in the SF Encyclopedia, John Clute identifies three of Acker’s novels as being particularly SFnal: Don Quixote, Empire of the Senseless and Pussy, King of the Pirates. These three books make a good entry point for any SF reader interested in getting into Acker’s writing. Empire of the Senseless draws directly on cyberpunk and particularly Gibson’s Neuromancer, making it perhaps the most obviously science fictional of Acker’s works. Don Quixote is a quest narrative in which a gender-flipped Don Quixote travels through a shattered, apocalyptic America, looking to find love and defeat the forces of the Evil Enchanters. As such it is directly drawing on both elements from fantasy in the quest motif and elements of dystopian SF. And Pussy, King of the Pirates (1996) follows the adventures of O and Ange, two prostitutes who join a gang of pirates on an adventure to find treasure that draws on Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883) but, in its deconstruction of maps as rational representations of a landscape, ends up in territory not far removed from Christopher Priest’s Dream Archipelago stories. These three books together show how Acker engages with the genres of SF and fantasy, and how her unique take on the tropes and motifs of the genre open up new and exciting vistas for speculative fiction.

Empire of the Senseless tells the story of Abhor, a multiracial cyborg woman, and Thivai, her collaborator and sometimes-partner, on a mission in near-future Paris as they struggle to free the world from the tyrannical Schreber and the vast, impersonal multinational corporations which now control the world. Like much cyberpunk fiction, the novel focuses on the rebels from the street fighting against the faceless megacorps. Acker, however, is explicitly interested in how rebellion can be co-opted by the status quo—removing Schreber does not cause the megacorps to fall, rather they thrive without Schreber’s old-fashioned, Cold War mentality to hold them back. Similarly, Paris is taken over by revolutionary Algerians, but the potential for a new utopian society is quickly undercut by the return of the old forms of social control. The revolutionaries essentially become too good at mimicking their former masters, and start to rebuild the old system as soon as they’ve torn it down.

In Empire, Acker uses the tropes of cyberpunk to critique Gibson’s lone cowboy hacker character, Case. Abhor and Thivai’s mission to assassinate Schreber is modelled on Case and Molly Minion’s attempt to break in and steal the Dixie Flatline construct. However, Thivai is revealed as psychotic and abusive in his relationship with Abhor, and utterly unable to acknowledge her humanity. In the second half of the book, which draws on Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), he even goes so far as to turn Abhor in to the police, showing that he has as much difficulty perceiving her—a black woman—as a fellow human being as Finn does with Jim in Twain’s narrative. In this way, Acker uses the genre elements and tropes of cyberpunk’s key text to probe at both the genre’s political naivete and its privileging of white, male perspectives over women and people of colour.

Don Quixote opens with its gender-flipped eponymous knight errant getting an abortion, which starts off Don Quixote’s quest for love and to improve the world. From here, she goes on a series of misadventures involving multiple dogs, throughout which she must learn about the American political system in order to fight against the Evil Enchanters—the forces of hegemony and oppression that all of Acker’s writing rails against. Don Quixote makes a plea that Prince (the rock star) should be the new president of the USA, defeats Nixon with the help of Thomas Hobbes as the Angel of Death, and makes a heroic stand against the “religious white men” who are setting the US’s political agenda. Like its source text, Acker’s novel is told in as a picaresque series of encounters. But Acker’s novel ranges across a nightmarish, surreal amalgamation of the modern world, as her heroine stalks the ruins of New York, London, and St. Petersburg. Don Quixote’s quest to save the world and find love is echoed in Acker’s quest throughout the novel to find an authentic space for the female voice in literature—as Acker says before launching into an audacious collage section that merges together Catullus, Andrei Bely’s Petersburg (1922), and Godzilla vs Megalon:

Being born into and part of a male world, she had no speech of her own. All she could do was read male texts which weren’t hers. (39)

The collage makes clear Acker’s larger mission in Don Quixote—using texts by established male writers in the literary canon, and the traditionally masculine role of the knight, Acker deconstructs and reimagines them as new vistas for the female imagination. Her appropriation of other texts is itself a creative rebellion against the hegemonic idea of a white male literary canon, a violent rupturing of these texts to force open a space for other voices.

Pussy, King of the Pirates is possibly the only novel to have been simultaneously released alongside a soundtrack album by UK punk band The Mekons, further cementing Acker’s links with punk culture. As mentioned above, the novel tells the story of O and Ange, two prostitutes who join a gang of pirates to hunt for buried treasure, chasing a map belonging to Ange’s mother. Pirates recur throughout Acker’s work as images of anarchy and freedom, a life that can be lived outside the structures and restraint of late-period capitalism. Pussy, King of the Pirates is Acker’s most extensive explorations of pirates as a symbol for this kind of freedom, although as with the failed revolution in Empire of the Senseless, O and Ange are eventually tempted back towards the world of patriarchal, commodified sex. Drawing on the myths of Theseus and the labyrinth and Orpheus and Eurydice, as well as the work of French poet and director Antonin Artaud, whose Theatre of Cruelty informs much of Acker’s approach, the novel is a delirious adventure story that, like the shifting and mutable lands it describes, refuses to be conventionally mapped.

Empire of the Senseless, Don Quixote, and Pussy, King of the Pirates are not easy reads, and they do not bring traditional genre pleasures, but they demonstrate how Acker’s work engages with, borrows from, and enriches genre fiction. Since their original publication, speculative fiction continues to be warped, subverted, and reimagined in exciting new shapes, in a way that opens it up to voices and perspectives that have been traditionally overlooked. This is Acker’s great and lasting gift to speculative fiction, showing how the techniques of postmodernism can be applied to recreate genre fiction as something that speaks in new ways for a new audience of readers.  

Jonathan Thornton has written for the websites The Fantasy Hive, Fantasy Faction, and Gingernuts Of Horror. He works with mosquitoes and is working on a PhD on the portrayal of insects in speculative fiction.


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