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Samuel Delany and the Past and Future of Science Fiction

30 July 2015

From The New Yorker’s Page-Turner blog:

1968, Samuel Delany attended the third annual Nebula Awards, presented by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). At the ceremony that night, “an eminent member of the SFWA,” as Delany later put it, gave a speech about changes in science fiction, a supposed shift away from old-fashioned storytelling to “pretentious literary nonsense,” or something along those lines. At the previous Nebula Awards, the year before, Delany had won best novel for “Babel-17,” in which an invented language has the power to destroy (his book shared the award with Daniel Keyes’s “Flowers for Algernon”), and earlier on that evening in 1968, Delany had again won best novel, for “The Einstein Intersection,” which tells of an abandoned Earth colonized by aliens, who elevate the popular culture of their new planet into divine myths. Sitting at his table, listening to the speech, Delany realized that he was one of its principle targets. Minutes later, he won another award, this time in the short-story category, for “Aye, and Gomorrah . . . ,” a tale of neutered space explorers who are fetishized back on Earth. As he made his way back to his seat after accepting the award, Isaac Asimov took Delany by the arm, pulled him close, and, as Delany (who goes by the nickname Chip) recalled in his essay “Racism and Science Fiction,” said: “You know, Chip, we only voted you those awards because you’re Negro . . . !”

It was meant to be a joke, Delany immediately recognized; Asimov was trying, Delany later wrote, “to cut through the evening’s many tensions” with “a self-evidently tasteless absurdity.” The award wasn’t meant to decide what science fiction should be, conventional or experimental, pulpy or avant garde. After all, where else but science fiction should experiments take place? It must be—wink, wink—that Delany’s being black is the reason he won.

. . . .

Delany came of age at a time when the genre was indeed characterized by gee-whiz futurism, machismo adventuring, and white, heterosexual heroes. From the beginning, Delany, in his fiction, pushed across those boundaries, embraced the other, and questioned received ideas about sex and intimacy. And, within a few years of publishing his first stories, he won some of the field’s biggest awards. Delany’s career now spans more than half a century, and comprises dozens of novels and short stories, many of which have challenged every notion of what science fiction could or should be. Even now, when graphic sex and challenging themes are hardly unusual, Delany’s rapturous sexuality and his explorations of race within the trappings of science fiction have the power to startle.

. . . .

Delany’s novels and stories have taken place in outer space and the future and other alien worlds. His plots are speculative: the race to harvest an energy source from the sun, the struggles of a libertarian society on one of Neptune’s moons, the plight of slaves in a pre-industrial world of magic and barbarism. But he does not believe that science fiction is the right genre for his concerns any more or less than another genre would be. “Nothing about the sonnet is perfect for the love poem, either,” he said. “Genre simply provides a way for the reader to look for things that have been done. A form is a useful thing to use. It has history and resonance. It informs you as to the way things have been done in the past.” In the preface to “A, B, C,” Delany writes that, “though the genre can suggest what you might need, it can never do the work for you.”

Link to the rest at The New Yorker


35 Comments to “Samuel Delany and the Past and Future of Science Fiction”

  1. What is it about science fiction that makes certain parts of its community so eager to police what others can read?

    To me, the entire point of science fiction is to ask, “What if?” There’s no reason why it shouldn’t ask that question of everything.

    • I rest assured that scifi has splintered so wonderfully now that there’s a lid for ever kettle.

    • I think it stems from the way that academia in this country has crushed free speech in our nation’s universities (not all of them, certainly, but many of them, especially the more “liberal” ones). Science fiction tends to attract a more erudite and educated audience, so the S** invasion of the genre is, I suspect, a result of the ideological purges in academia.

      • Having attended some of the most liberal west coast universities in the US I feel comfortable telling you that your notions of this liberal speech quelling juggernaut at the university is a flawed model.

        The issue is that it’s full of young people rebelling against the corrupt world set up by their flawed elders. So it gets a little nutty, a lot shouty and radical.

        If you are talking about professors being fired for saying unpopular things then I’ll just shrug at you. Employers fire people for saying unpopular things all the time, government and private. This makes the entirety of the employed population oppressed from a free speech perspective. The education is no different.

        I’ll assume nothing I’ve said will persuade you from sticking to your ‘education bad’ mantra. It is a simpler model, so it has that going for it.

        • I have no doubt that your experience is real and valid, but I question whether it’s more than anecdotal. Certainly there are liberal universities where free speech—true free speech—is celebrated. But there are also many others where this is simply not the case.

          • I’ll lump this in with the war on christmas and Sharia law consuming the US.

            EDIT: I’ll revise my position. PC-ness is rampant on college campuses. It really is insane. In as much as that sort of thing can chill free speech then yes it’s oppressive. Having a job is much worse though, employers have more power and tend to be just as finicky about how and what opinions are stated.

            • Nobody cares about the political views of plumbers or auto mechanics for the same reason that the regime in Nineteen Eighty-four paid relatively little attention to the Proles. White collar workers, being members of the much more carefully monitored Outer Party, must answer to Human Resources should they be foolish enough to give voice to controversial opinions. Academics genuinely love Big Brother, and so can be counted on never to use their freedom of speech in a meaningful way, any potential Thought Criminals having been screened out of their ranks long before, usually during graduate school.

  2. It can be scary out there, but it can be even more scary to have what’s out there show the truth of what’s really right here.

    Some people are very frightened by the idea that their worldview is not the one true worldview and they will do everything in their power to destroy if they can — hide if they can’t, conflicting ideas/worldviews.

    That’s one reason I love to read (and pretend to write) sci-fi, when done right it forces the mind open to think other thoughts …

    • And that goes for all sides–left and right, religious and non-religious. The editors or publishers who think THIS is the right view, we reject others, persists. I saw one magazine tip-sheet recently where stories that took the worldview that a trad God existed would not be considered.

      I remember being– what?– 19, 20, and Chip’s work was the first SF I read with gay sex. I have read “Aye and Gomorrah” probably half a dozen or more times since the late seventies. Every now and then I get the yen. It’s nothing novel now, gay or bi characters, but I remember it striking me as new –to me–back then. I’m dehoarding my book collection, but I have a signed copy of non-fic by him that is a keeper. Man writes gorgeous sentences. My decades old paperbacks have to go. Yellowed.

      • I saw one magazine tip-sheet recently where stories that took the worldview that a trad God existed would not be considered.

        I suspect I saw that same tip sheet. For an SFF magazine. I was not impressed.

        I like Steve’s point upthread: ‘…the entire point of science fiction is to ask, “What if?”’ About anything. And everything. 😀

        Including religion.

        • Well maybe that mag was pandering to the readers, you gotta sell copies to make money and maybe they figured their readership was anti-religion.

          I’m a nonbeliever and Jack Mormon (cultural Mormon) and even I can see how fantastic some of the religious tales are. How valuable most of the lessons are. A nice scifi romp with heavy religion in it would be sweet.

          “Daryl Hecker was always a nonbeliever, silly stories to scare the children into eating their vegetables didn’t appeal to him. No. He was a serious man. Confident in knowing he had it all figured out. Until the day a guy named Jesus Christ stepped into his sky cab, asking for a ride to First Baptist on Main and MLK.”

        • Which magazine?

      • I can see a hard SF magazine not wanting a religious worldview in their stories, but it sounds like they were calling out a specific type of religion which makes me think someone’s personal bias is at work here.

  3. I remember seeing a bumper sticker that said, “Reality is for people who can’t handle science fiction”. Have we lost that sentiment?

    • The idea wasn’t lost in the sense of being misplaced, it’s just that the people who believed it got old and died. They were replaced by a generation raised on Critical Theory, a cohort that thinks nothing of imposing “economic discipline” on anyone who lacks sufficient enthusiasm for the S** world-view.

  4. Delany rocks.

    • Agreed.

    • Delany is indeed a formidable talent, as “Aye, and Gomorrah…,” hands-down the best story in Ellison’s landmark Dangerous Visions anthology, demonstrates. This makes it all the more tragic that on some level he will always have to ask himself whether a fundamental truth lurks behind Asimov’s quip.

      Really, who among us can say with certitude that a few Nebula voters–perhaps even enough of them to affect the outcome–did not cast their ballots for Delany out of an eagerness not to seem racist? We all crave status, and signalling superior virtue is one of the cheapest and easiest ways to raise it, as any S** secretly knows. Clarence Thomas no doubt has quietly asked himself the same question about his appointment to the Supreme Court, and Barack Obama about his winning the Nobel Prize after less than a year in office.

      In the end, all ideologies are undone by whatever it is that concerns them most. The Nazis’ obsession with Lebensraum triggered a world war that has left Germany occupied to this day. The Soviets’ obsession with economics as the main driver of history turned the USSR from a superpower into a penniless beggar. Our own obsession with equality ueber Alles ultimately must turn black against white and even man against woman, as events now playing out in the science fiction field amply demonstrate.

      • @Kudzu Bob

        I am not persuaded that “Aye, and Gomorrah…,” is ‘hands-down’ the best story in Dangerous Visions. I would say it wins by a nose over Theodore Sturgeon, ‘If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?’

        The Nazi drive for Lebensraum was the logical conclusion of eugenics and grain production before the salvation of humanity by Norman Borlaug and Henry Beachell. I do not know of a single school that teaches the failed science of eugenics. Before his death, Michael Crichton spoke about it. It is a cautionary tale. Some placed their faith in bad science, and millions died as a direct result.

        Our own obsession with equality ueber Alles ultimately must turn black against white and even man against woman, as events now playing out in the science fiction field amply demonstrate.

        It is a sad statement that the US in the late 60s and the 70s was less racially divided than now.

        • You may not know of a single school that teaches eugenics, but that is because your information is limited to what goes on here in the Occident. The Beijing Genomics Institute has already collected over 2,000 DNA samples from child prodigies for supercomputer-aided analysis. In Singapore, the poor are offered a $10,000 cash incentive to undergo sterilization. And a scandal recently erupted in Israel when the health services there were caught forcibly injecting Ethiopian refugees with the birth control agent Norplant.

          But come to think of it, in America–the country that informed Hitler’s policies on such matters–eugenics is practiced on a far wider scale than the Third Reich ever managed. Hadn’t you noticed how rare the sight of a Down’s Syndrome child is these days? Ninety-two percent of all women who learn they carry a baby with that condition now elect to get abortions. For that matter, you will get 41,500 hits if you Google “Jodie Foster” and “Eugenics,” not to mention 400,000 hits if you search for “Jodie Foster,” “genius,” and “sperm donor.”

          As for Borlaug’s Green Revolution being the salvation of humanity, we’ll see. Perhaps it was merely a stay of execution. Current numbers suggest that Africa alone will have four billion people by century’s end (the much-touted “demographic transition” that has occurred elsewhere shows few signs of happening there), many of whom are already flooding into Europe in a desperate quest for better living conditions.

        • @antares

          I still say that “Aye, and Gomorrah…” wins that particular race by a country mile, but I cannot deny that the right-wing (for lack of a better term) Robert Heinlein and the left-wing Sam Delany both agreed that Theodore Sturgeon was science fiction’s best short story writer.

          • Sturgeon was a master of short form and also had incredibly beautiful prose. I just put up a link on my FB a few days ago to the KU available Sturgeon collections. Worth checking out for those who like short fiction of high calibre–if you have KU, sure.

  5. Back in the 60’s when I started reading adult sf, Delaney was one of my favorite authors. I had no idea about his race. I just knew that he wrote brilliantly. There’s actually no one currently writing that I have read that is in the same area.

    Howey’s good, but his stories remind me more of the linear sf that I used to enjoy. Delaney is not just an incredibly brilliant literary stylist, but also an imaginative thinker. One of the best of the New Wave.

    • I agree. Delany’s writing is so powerful it is frightening. I am in awe of his intellect, and yet the thing I admire most about Chip Delany is his humanity.

  6. Suburbanbanshee

    First off, yes, Delany is related to the Delany sisters.

    Second, it’s a bit weird to write about the edginess of Delany’s sex scenes without acknowledging the whole bit where he supported NAMBLA and wrote pro-pedophilia sex scenes. He recently wrote that he still thought that fairly young children could give meaningful consent to sex with adults.

    Delany’s an extremely gifted writer, but an awful lot of his books include an awful lot of really distasteful sex scenes, characters with extremely nasty fetishes, and advocacy of stuff that very few people are able to read without being disgusted or nonplussed. (And he often repeats this stuff within his books to the point of causing boredom or eyerolls.)

    Similarly, he’s an extremely gifted nonfiction writer about literary and other topics; but whenever he gets self-revelatory, he really puts people off. I’ve also heard about various kinds of personal drama associated with him, his marriage, gay stuff, etc., although of course it’s hard to know exactly what was going on when you don’t know any of the folks involved and it happened forty years ago.

    So yeah, I don’t know the man personally, but there are a lot of ways that he makes sf fans uncomfortable, and the vast majority of them have nothing to do with skin color. OTOH, I’ve also heard very nice things about him. But my general impression is that he’s not someone completely safe for young male fans to socialize with. Maybe that’s not fair, but he’s worked hard to give that impression.

    • I was about to link to that same interview you linked to. Reading it made me feel physically sick, the stuff he was saying. He basically says young children are benefitted by having sex with adults and shouldn’t be legally deprived by way of age-of-consent laws of the right to give consent… Typing those words made me want to throw up.

      • Ugh. Just reading your synopsis of his stance on pedophilia is making me feel ill.

      • I definitely take issue with some of his ideas. But then, I’m old school. I take issue with hanging out in weird places and having sex with utter strangers. Kids is beyond the pale for me. I can’t even go there. (I define kids as prepubescent. If they are sexually functional and mature, many cultures let them marry, so that’s a dividing line for me, personally. The 18 y/o divide IS arbitrary. And just because kids have sexual desires doesn’t mean they ought to act on them. What we want isn’t necessarily what we SHOULD have.)

        Oh, now I’m feeling all icked out.

        I can’t help but think that an adult having sex with a 6 year old is majorly evil, at minimum majorly damaged, and that Delany excuses it may speak to his own damage. I know if I had a 6 year old kid and some adult messed with them, I’d not want them incarerated–I’d want them flayed to death. Just saying. (Not that I believe in torture/flaying, but emotionally, that pretty much sums up what my desire would be.) I do think Chip was affected by that, and in being affected, he can’t see the molester forest for the ruined trees.

        People can be very gifted in all manner of creative areas and be effed up in philosophy. Behold, humanity.

    • Oh, ick. Just when I was going to make a note to get some of his work, I see this. I don’t care about his ethnic origins, skin color, religion or sexual orientation, but I draw a very deep and wide line at anything advocating sex between children and adults.

      I think I need some mind bleach now.

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