The Nova Trilogy

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The Nova Trilogy or The Cut-up Trilogy is a name commonly given by critics to a series of three experimental novels by William S. Burroughs. These novels, The Soft Machine (1961, revised 1966), The Ticket That Exploded (1962, revised 1967) and Nova Express (1964), like Naked Lunch, were derived in part from The Word Hoard, a number of manuscripts Burroughs wrote in Tangier, Paris and London between 1953 and 1958.

Commenting on the trilogy in an interview, Burroughs said, "I am attempting to create a new mythology for the space age."[1]

All three novels use the Cut-up technique that Burroughs invented in cooperation with painter and poet Brion Gysin and computer programmer Ian Sommerville.

Recurring themes[edit]

The Nova Trilogy (as well as a passage in the book on the cut-up technique named Minutes to Go) feature the character Hassan-i Sabbah and his final words Nothing is true — everything is permitted. Burroughs was introduced to Hassan through Betty Bouthoul, who had written an extensive book on the assassins titled The Master of the Assassins (French title Le grand maître des Assassins).[2][3]


The Trilogy is viewed by critics as being one of Burroughs’s most radical experimentations with narrative form. All three novels are crafted using the cut-up method, in which existing texts are cut into various pieces and put back together in random order. The technique was combined with images of Gysin’s painting and sounds from Somerville’s tape recorders.[4]

Due to the cut-up method’s random approach to text, Burroughs repeatedly defended his writing style against critics, explaining that the cut-up method created possibilities for mixing text written by himself and other writers and helped deemphasize the traditional role of text. As a result, the novels that make up the trilogy are even more sporadic in plot and structure than Naked Lunch. Burroughs spoke of the trilogy as a "sequel," and "mathematical extension" of the themes and techniques of Naked Lunch.[5]

The Soft Machine is the first book in the trilogy, and is a compilation of descriptive and interchangeable scenes, which delve further into the sexual and biological issues previously explored in Naked Lunch. Critic Mac Tonnies described the main themes in the novel as including "time travel, media bombardment, and out-of-body travel."[6]

In The Ticket that Exploded, Burroughs deals with tape recorders (an allegory Burroughs links to the destruction of control systems), cybernetic pleasure farms, and homosexual erotic exploitations on the planet Venus.[6] Burroughs bypasses linear structure, pattern, and narrative in the novel (i.e., a clear beginning, middle, and end), instead deconstructing traditional organization and composition.

Third in the trilogy is Nova Express, which follows Inspector Lee as he tracks down members of the Nova Mob. It is considered by critics as being one of the best books in the trilogy due to its graphic descriptions and fragmented cyber world.[6]

Influence on popular culture[edit]

The influence of the trilogy can be seen in many places. David Bowie and Brian Eno have employed the cut-up method in composing their lyrics. The band Soft Machine is named after the book. DJ Spooky calls himself "That Subliminal Kid" after a member of The Nova Mob. After Hüsker Dü disbanded, Grant Hart formed a band called Nova Mob. Many avant-garde and electronic musicians such as Genesis P-Orridge, Negativland, John Oswald, and other techno and industrial music artists have created compositions using the technique of cutting up audio tape and rearranging the pieces to create new sounds. The German film Decoder, which stars P-Orridge and Burroughs, is largely based on ideas in these novels. Iggy Pop, in his song Lust For Life, mentions Nova Mob member Johnny Yen, and sings "well, that's like hypnotizing chickens," a line from The Ticket That Exploded.


To date the three novels that form the Nova Trilogy have yet to be published in a single-volume omnibus. The closest thus far was the Three Novels collection (ISBN 0802130844) published by Grove Press in March 1988 which includes The Soft Machine and Nova Express but substitutes The Wild Boys in place of The Ticket That Exploded.


  1. ^ Conversations with William S. Burroughs. Allen Hibbard. University Press of Mississippi. 2000.
  2. ^ Miles, Barry (2000). The Beat Hotel. New York: Grove Press. p. 204. ISBN 0-8021-3817-9. 
  3. ^ "Notes on the origin of the phrase “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.”". Retrieved 2013-12-05. 
  4. ^ Murphy, Timothy S. "The Nova Trilogy". The Literary Encyclopedia. 18 December 2002. accessed 6 December 2009
  5. ^ Murphy, Timothy S. Wising Up the Marks: The Amodern William Burroughs. New York: University of California, 1998. p. 110
  6. ^ a b c Tonnies, Mac. "William S. Burroughs Book Reviews." 18 Nov. 2009.