Drawn broadly, the category of “surreal science fiction” includes two main classes of stories. One encompasses the first popular science fiction shorts, appearing in pulp magazines such as Amazing Stories and Astounding Stories (later to become Analog Science Fact & Fiction), and the other begins with the “new wave” literature of the 1960s and ’70s which resulted in the “postmodern” class of science fiction we know today.
The postmodern corpus includes not only written fiction but also graphic novels, films, television and videogames, and often bleeds over into the school of “magical realism”. These works tend to be highly conscious of the surrealistic elements and themes they employ, and with great effect.
The pulp corpus was often just as surrealistic as the modern one, but less consciously so. The writers of early science fiction employed “the bizarre” less as an artistic style and more as a literary tool for creating or enhancing feelings of displacement and “other-ness”.
“Whether it’s displacement in space, displacement in time,
displacement in social condition or displacement to an alien being,
the idea of displacement creates the possibility of perspective.”
Stanley G. Weinbaum is considered the first science fiction author to create aliens who were deliberately incomprehensible, his reasoning being that it isn’t very “alien” if humans can easily understand it. But as postmodernism would show, no line can be drawn between the incomprehensible and the subjectively symbolic: any strongly subjective reality, juxtaposed on an objective reality, may result in a type of sur-reality.
Writing professor and sci-fi scholar Eric S. Rabkin put it this way: “Dramatic displacement is characteristic of all science fiction. Whether it’s displacement in space, or displacement in time, displacement in social condition or displacement to an alien being, the idea of displacement creates the possibility of perspective, it creates the possibility of irony, it creates a way of changing the world radically. It comes from the fantastic, and yet in science fiction we make that fantastic plausible.”
In surreal science fiction, the plausible displacement of logic, reason, and reality itself becomes part of the terrain being explored. From the Martian landscapes of Stanley Weinbaum and the galactic explorations of Jack Vance to the extradimensional mindscapes of Moebius and the juxtaposed realities of Philip K. Dick, that strange feeling of cognitive displacement is key to both classes of surreal sci-fi.