Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1607
SOURCE: “Allegory in Delany's Einstein Intersection,” in Forms of the Fantastic: Selected Essays from the Third International Conference on the Fantastic in Literature and Film, edited by Jan Hokenson and Howard Pearce, Greenwood Press, 1986, pp. 87-90.
[In the following essay, Collins contends that The Einstein Intersection illustrates Delany's theme that American blacks, in the interest of establishing their own cultural identity, must “exorcize” and “discard” the inherited myths and religion of white Westerners.]
In an epigraph to one of the late chapters of The Einstein Intersection (they are not numbered), Samuel Delany quotes a bit of conversation recorded in his journal: “What’s a spade writer like you doing all caught up with the Great White Bitch?” Gregory Corso says to him, and then adds an afterthought, “I guess it’s pretty obvious.”1 Both the content and the tone of these epigraphs, mostly from his journal, suggest that the writing of The Einstein Intersection was for its author a sort of ritual exorcism of old demons. At the head of the next chapter, for instance, Delany remarks, “The images of youth plague me. … By the end of TEI I hope to have excised them. Billy the Kid is the last to go” (p. 118). Like those of all good writers, Delany’s narratives may be read on several levels. The various kinds of myth in the novel have been explored by Stephen Scobie,2 and parallels with T. S. Eliot’s “Waste Land imagery” have been outlined by H. Jane Gardiner.3 But it is my purpose to suggest here that the American black’s struggle for a cultural identity, a prominent theme of the 1960s when the novel was written, was at least one of the demons that occupied a corner of Delany’s mind.
My inference is based on a series of analogies, applied to images and events that seem transparently sociopolitical. Taken together, these analogies suggest an allegorical message: Blacks in the West must discard the “borrowed” culture of their adopted land, including the Christian religion, which dominates Western myth, before they can achieve a genuine sense of themselves.
Ostensibly, of course, Delany’s protagonists belong to a future race. They are alien beings who have inherited man’s planet after mankind has abandoned it and who have uneasily adopted man’s form (his body) as well as the myths that shaped his “racial memory” (a Jungian concept). But members of this new race find the old forms difficult to maintain, and the rebellious spirits among them chafe against such limitations.
Since the point of view is first person, Delany’s principal alter ego in the narrative is Lo Lobey, a villager whose knowledge of his own world is limited, and who thus undergoes a series of epiphanies that make up the inward plot. The science fictional premise of the novel is implied in its title: an “intersection” of the knowledge based on Einsteinian physics (knowledge that has apparently enabled the old human race to extrapolate itself physically throughout the universe) with a growing knowledge of the irrational principles present (though unproven) within any logical system according to Goedel’s law. Lobey’s world is changing: The irrational (apprehended only pragmatically through experience since it cannot be logically or “scientifically” demonstrated) is beginning to dominate this new race. The various psychic phenomena that make Delany’s principal characters “different” may thus be explained.
The mathematical paradox involved in the intersection, however, is not the main burden of the narrative. The novel is about myth, as Delany tells us in another of the many excerpts from his journal. And its basic metaphor concerns another equation,...
(This entire section contains 1607 words.)
in which the myths of mankind become the symbols of Western culture, while the alien spirits locked uneasily into foreign bodies represent the black consciousness, alienated and dispossessed by its immersion in Western culture. Essentially, Lobey’s (Delany’s) racial quest is to free himself from the straightjacket of man’s (whitey’s) culture, first by exorcising it through the reenactment of myth, and then by discarding these myths as they are seen to have no relevance to the “new reality” emerging in the consciousness of his race.
Lobey’s epiphany is shared, to some extent, by other principal figures in the novel, all of whom carry the burden of mankind’s myths on their backs. “What do you know about mythology?” Spider asks Lobey.
And I want a Goedelian, not an Einsteinian answer. I don’t want to know what’s inside the myths. … I want their shape, their texture, how they feel when you brush by them on a dark road, when you see them receding into the fog, their weight as they leap your shoulder from behind.
(pp. 126. 130)
Like Jung’s “shadow personalities,” these myths are real and parasitic—they “leap” you “from behind.” Lobey carries on his back Ringo Starr, Orpheus, and Theseus seeking the Minotaur. Spider has Judas Iscariot, Pat Garret, and King Minos to bear, but with a “difference.” Knowing one’s burden gives options to the “beast” thereof. “It’s fixed!” Lobey cries at first, “I’ll fail! La Dire said that Orpheus failed” (p. 131). But it is not fixed. As Spider reminds him, “Everything changes: the labyrinth today does not follow the same path it did at Knossos fifty thousand years ago.”
Lobey’s proof of the possibility of change is most strikingly demonstrated not in the search for the lost Friza (his Eurydice), which he ultimately abandons, or in his confrontation with Kid Death (Billy the Kid, Pluto, Satan), but in his ambivalent rejection of the Christ figure (Green-eye), which has dominated Western culture for the last two thousand years.
Green-eye’s parallel with Christ is complete, even to the “virgin birth” (parthenogenesis) that sets him apart from his peers. As Spider describes him, he has the ability not only to change matter (shared by Kid Death) but to create it out of nothing (a power attributed in the Bible only to God the Creator and his only begotten son). Lobey’s association with Green-eye reveals the pattern that a contemporary observer would recognize in witnessing the gospel story. In a parody of the famous Christian temptation scene, in which Satan taunts Christ in the desert, tempting him with riches, power, and pleasures, Lobey watches Kid Death fail in a parallel attempt to corrupt Green-eye. He sees the mob then come to usher “Christ into Jerusalem” (Green-eye into Branning-at-Sea). Betrayed by the illusory appearance of Friza conjured by the Great White Bitch (“Le Dove,” Jean Harlow, Helen of Troy), he gets a glimpse of hell (“the Kage” beneath the floors of The Pearl) and finally a glimpse of the crucifixion (Green-eye hanging from a tree in the square).
Phaedra (the computerized “kage-keeper,” but also in myth the wife of Theseus) gives Lobey the word on his Orpheus quest:
It’s still the wrong maze, baby. You can find another illusion down there [in hell]. She’ll follow you all the way to the door, but when you turn around to make sure she’s there, you’ll see through it all again, and you’ll leave alone. Why even bother to go through with it? … You’re a bunch of psychic manifestations, multi-sexed and incorporeal, and you—you’re all trying to put on the limiting mask of humanity. Turn again, Lobey. Seek somewhere outside the frame of the mirror.
“Have you begged at the tree?” she asks, sending him to his final confrontation with the central image of Christian myth. Lobey prays, but Green-eye, like the Christian god, is unresponsive. Beginning humbly, Lobey’s prayer ends in outrage. He grabs his knife—flute (called an “ax,” punning on the musician’s word for his musical instrument), symbol of the ordering principle in his psyche, and plunges it into the crucified Green-eye’s thigh.
The blow proves to be the mortal one. As Spider says, “You killed him. It was that last stroke of your [ax]” (p. 154). But by this time, having witnessed the demise of Kid Death at Spider’s hand (Lobey, by mesmerizing the Kid with his “ax,” is an accomplice), Lobey has discovered that he, too, has the power to bring back those he has killed.
Lobey has thus discovered that gods and mythic heroes are under the power of their believers, who shape them, make them, destroy them. Will he, then, revive Christ, fulfilling the resurrection myth central to Western culture? “Not now,” he says, in answer to Spider’s urgings. Rejection of the Christ figure (now metaphorically dependent on the will of the alien hero for its existence) implies a rejection of the martyr—hero archetype as the exemplum of black racial consciousness. The figure of passive resistance and suffering, applicable to Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, is symbolically thrust into limbo.
“Green-eye will … wait, I suppose,” Spider responds (p. 155), more caught up in his role of Judas than Lobey is in the Orpheus routine. Meanwhile, Lobey turns away from the cultural imperatives of Western myth, abandons his Eurydice and his Christ, and begins a new voyage of self-discovery, following the “darkness … [as it falls] away at the far side of the beach.” As a representative of black consciousness, Delany’s alter ego is still in search of himself, but freed at last of the need to follow alien archetypes.
Samuel R. Delany, The Einstein Intersection (New York: Ace, 1967), 107. Further references appear in the text.
Stephen Scobie, “Different Mazes: Mythology in Samuel R. Delany’s The Einstein Intersection,” Riverside Quarterly 5 (1971): 12–18.
H. Jane Gardiner, “Images of The Waste Land in The Einstein Intersection,” Extrapolation 8 (1977): 116–23.
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Samuel R. Delany 1942-
(Full name Samuel Ray Delany, Jr.; has also written under pseudonym K. Leslie Steiner) American novelist, short story writer, critic, essayist, and memoirist.
The following entry presents an overview of Delany's career through 1999. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 8, 14, and 38.
Widely regarded as one of the most important science fiction writers of his generation, Delany was the first African American to earn acclaim in the genre. In works such as Babel-17 (1966), Dhalgren (1975), and his four-volume Nevèrÿon series, he established his reputation as a challenging author whose ambitious texts featured sophisticated commentary on gender, sexuality, and race. His protagonists are often artist-criminals who are able to view the world as marginalized outsiders, a perspective Delany has shared as a black, dyslexic homosexual. Both Delany's fiction and criticism reveal his preoccupation with semiotics and postmodern theory, including his belief that language constitutes, rather than reflects, reality. His theoretical approach to writing and his radical, often controversial and explicitly pornographic texts, have broadened the parameters of traditional science fiction.
Born in Harlem, New York, to a prosperous funeral home director, Delany enjoyed a relatively privileged childhood. He attended the Dalton School and the Bronx High School of Science, where he studied physics and mathematics. He began writing stories and essays at an early age and also showed talent as a musician, composing a violin concerto at age fourteen. Always a good student, Delany found English and spelling difficult; it was not until high school that his dyslexia was diagnosed. As a high school sophomore he won several awards for his writing and co-edited the school magazine with Marilyn Hacker, a poet and editor whom he married in 1961. In 1960 Delany received a fellowship to the Bread Loaf Writer's Conference in Vermont, where he met Robert Frost. He briefly attended the City College of New York, but never completed a college degree. Hacker was instrumental in the publication of his first novel, The Jewels of Aptor (1962), and by age twenty-two Delany had published four more novels. At the age of twenty-three, Delany, who had thoughts of suicide, was hospitalized and treated at a psychiatric facility. Delany subsequently lived in the Heavenly Breakfast commune and spent his time writing and performing music with a rock band of the same name. From 1970-71, Delany and Hacker co-edited the first four issues of Quark, an avant-garde literary journal. In 1972 Delaney joined his wife in London, where their daughter Iva was born in 1974. In 1973 he published The Tides of Lust, a pornographic novel that suggested the direction of his next several works. Though Delany had long engaged in sexual liaisons with partners of both sexes, he eventually came to accept his identity as a gay man. He and his wife divorced in 1975, though they remained close friends and colleagues and shared parental responsibilities for their daughter. In 1979, Delany published Tales of Nevèrÿon, an American Book Award nominee and the first of the four works that comprise his Nevèrÿon series. In 1977, Delaney produced The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, the first of his acclaimed works of criticism, followed by The American Shore (1978), Starboard Wine (1984), The Straits of Messina (1989), and Silent Interviews (1994), a volume of revised interviews. Many of his critical pieces have appeared in various publications, but remain uncollected. Delany won Nebula awards for Babel-17 and The Einstein Intersection (1967), as well as for the short stories “Aye and Gomorrah” (1967) and “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones” (1969), also the recipient of a Hugo award in 1970. Delany received the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association in 1985 and the Bill Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement in Gay Literature in 1993. He has also had a distinguished academic career, including appointments at the State University of New York, Buffalo (1975), the Center for Twentieth Century Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee (1977), and at the Society for the Humanities at Cornell University (1987). Since 1988 Delany has been professor of comparative literature at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
Writing and thinking on the far edge of the margin, one of Delany's expressed objectives has been to use the power of language to diffuse the central role that convention plays in both literature and society. While his work is diverse and indicative of formidable intellect and originality, much of his fiction represents the progress of his thinking and its translation into art. Babel-17 is an unconventional space opera that features a female poet protagonist, a world-threatening weapon that is an enigmatic language, and a villain that is a concept—the inability to communicate—rather than a person. Through the action-packed adventures of Rydra Wong, the novel investigates the impact of language and linguistic difference on societal and individual behavior, and concurrently explores the linguistic potential of all science fiction literature. The Einstein Intersection is set on Earth far in the future, where a new breed of beings is struggling to impose order on their universe. Among them is protagonist Lo Lobey, a musician like the mythological Orpheus, but whose instrument can not only make music, but can kill. He stumbles through a maze of choices that only in retrospect are seen as mythic patterns that must be confronted and understood or conquered before he and his world can be free. The new society, ruled by Gödel's theorem, requires decision-making governed by irrational choice—as opposed to logic—and reliance on the mythic archetypes of the past. To a greater extent than in his previous works, sexual politics play a pivotal role in both Dhalgren and the novel that immediately followed it, Triton (1976). Dhalgren, noted for its difficulty and graphic sexual content, is set in the city of Bellona, which has been deserted in the wake of an unexplained disaster. The protagonist, an amnesiac and mental patient eventually known as Kid, undertakes a pilgrimage to attain salvation for Bellona and self-awareness for himself. By the end of the book Kid has developed a persona defined by his experiences. Typical of Delany's fiction, the novel ends in ambiguity, requiring that the reader determine the outcome from all the possibilities presented by the fragments related in the novel. In Triton Delany creates an unlikable protagonist, Bron Hellstrom, who inhabits a world of ambiguous sexuality where surgery for sexual preference, race, or gender is a common occurrence. Delany deconstructs the traditional notion of utopia in this work and, characteristically, refuses to provide closure, signifying that an ideal world in which sexual differences are not only accepted, but expected, cannot be fully rendered. Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984) is a love story set in a world where intelligent life forms are referred to by feminine pronouns, while masculine pronouns refer to beings that excite one sexually. The lovers are men who are literally from different worlds. They participate in a dragon hunt, the object of which is not to slay the dragon, but to become subsumed, if only for an instant, into the consciousness of an alien being, thus bringing about a modicum of understanding of this “other.” The novel contrasts extreme degradation and misery, including radical forms of slavery, with astonishing joy and grandeur, indicating that nothing in present experience can prepare individuals for grasping the possibilities inherent at either end of such a continuum. In Tales of Nevèrÿon and its three companion works, Neveryóna (1983), Flight from Nevèrÿon (1985), and The Bridge of Lost Desire (1987), Delany examines the intersection of language and power and explores behavior ranging from the sexual to the cultural. The series as a whole explores slavery in a context far beyond the North American experience, making clear that masters themselves can become slaves by the choices they make. Delany has written two memoirs, Heavenly Breakfast (1979) and The Motion of Light in Water (1988), which discusses his realization of his gay identity. During the later 1990s, Delany published Atlantis (1995), a collection of short stories, Longer Views (1996), a collection of essays, and Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (1999), a volume of essays on the sexual underworld of Times Square prior to its gentrification under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
Delany is recognized as a leading voice in contemporary science fiction, and one who has pushed the limits of the genre with his complex works. Though his admirers regard him as a major American writer, he remains unknown to many readers outside of the science fiction community. It is Delany's provocative imagination, uninhibited eroticism, and deep concern with linguistics, mythology, and cultural theory that distinguishes his “paraliterary” writing from other practitioners of science fiction. His major works, notably Babel-17, The Einstein Intersection, Dhalgren, and the Nevèrÿon series, are regarded as science fiction classics, with Dhalgren standing as his most controversial work. While Delany's supporters commend the complexity and indeterminacy of his fiction, others have found his narrative and linguistic experiments confounding and overly ambiguous. Because he is primarily concerned with sociocultural mores rather than hard science, some critics consider his novels brilliant failures as science fiction, while others regard his work as “quantum fiction.” As many scholars observe, Delany's writing is largely informed by the thinking of French theorists Derrida, Lacan, Levi-Strauss, and Foucault. Even the most approachable of Delany's works challenge the reader's intellect and demand that one examine his or her social beliefs, particularly by recognizing the linguistic and cultural structures that inform and maintain such assumptions. Delany's application and interpretation of such difficult theoretical concerns has also won him admiration as a critic. Over the last four decades, Delany has earned respect for his continual artistic quest and his determination to challenge parochial thinking and to broaden acceptance of difference—whether sexual, racial, or gender-based.
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SOURCE: “Samuel Delany's Sophisticated Fables of Identity,” in Washington Post Book World, January 31, 1988, p. 8.
[In the following excerpt, Morrison offers positive assessments of The Bridge of Lost Desire and The Motion of Light in Water.]
The central literary conceit of the cycle of linked tales that Samuel R. Delany calls “Return to Nevèryon” is explained by his alter-ego K. Leslie Steiner in a preface that appears at the end of the fourth and most recent book in the series, The Bridge of Lost Desire. According to Steiner, “Delany’s stories are, among other things, a set of elaborate and ingenuous deconstructions” of an Ur text called the Culhar, “that ancient, fragmented, and incomplete narrative, with its barbarians, dragons, sunken cities, reeds and memory marks, twin-bladed warrior women, child ruler, one-eyed dreamer and mysterious rubber balls.” That is, the tales of Nevèrÿon are postmodern sword-and-sorcery.
Sword-and-sorcery has lurked on the fringes of sf and fantasy since the 1930s, when Robert E. Howard fused historical adventure with supernatural horror in his tales of Conan the Barbarian. Most examples of this largely despised sub-genre are banal and artless, simplemindedly plotted and hamstrung with the most rigid set of conventions you’ll find outside of a Harlequin romance. Not so the tales of Nevèryon.
In lieu of the generic mighty-thewed, empty-headed barbarian, Delany gives us Gorgik, an ex-mine slave and teller of tales who, as recounted in “The Tale of Gorgik,” overthrows the institution of slavery in Nevèryon and, in the process, becomes civilized. Introspective and literate, Gorgik is the barbarian as semiotician, given to anachronistically sophisticated thoughts such as, “Where do I look for a model, a mirror, an image of the questing self seeking self-knowledge?”
Gorgik features prominently in two of the tales in The Bridge of Lost Desire. The protagonist of the third and most complex, “The Tale of Rumor and Desire,” is his counterpart, a brutish thief and murderer aptly named Clodon. The adolescent and adult adventures of this ne’er-do-well revolve, prismatically around the twin polarities of slavery and lust, and freedom and desire.
In fact, these themes dominate all the tales of Nevèryon. In this book, as in its predecessors, Delany subverts the formulaic elements of sword-and-sorcery and around their empty husks constructs self-conscious metafictions about social and sexual behavior, the play of language and power, and—above all—the possibilities and limitations of narrative. Immensely sophisticated as literature, the tales in The Bridge of Lost Desire are also eminently readable and gorgeously entertaining.
Many of the issues that underlie Delany’s tales of Nevèryon appear in the foreground of his autobiography The Motion of Light in Water. This memoir of “Sex and Science Fiction Writing in the East Village, 1957–1965” tells two stories. One is the familiar stuff of autobiography: how young Chip Delany—poor, gay, black, intensely intellectual and enormously talented—survived “the low-key nightmare” of his marriage to poet Marilyn Hacker and a subsequent breakdown to ultimately define “the limits of [his] own sexual map” and come to accept that he was “that most ambiguous of citizens, the writer.”
But the other story—the one that animates the first—is the more interesting: how the mature Samuel R. Delany grappled with the esthetic and epistemological problem of autobiography. Because he must adhere to facts, the autobiographer cannot shape a work of the artistic symmetry of, say, the novel. But, because he must shape those imperfectly remembered and inherently subjective facts using the limited medium of language, neither can he shape a work of truth, for “history (as one evokes it in biography, in autobiography) is what most of us do not remember, what most of us cannot speak of.”
Delany’s resolution of this tension is to acknowledge that the act of autobiography is fiction-making. Introducing The Motion of Light in Water, he alerts us that “even as I work after honesty and accuracy, memory will make this only one possible fiction among the myriad—many in open conflict—anyone might write of any of us, as convinced as any other that what he or she wrote was the truth.”
Thus placing this memoir/essay/study in “the hugely arbitrary postmodern,” Delany tells his story. He writes, with the honesty essential to autobiography, of the people he knew and the books he wrote, of his dyslexia and acrophobia, of his obsessions with hands and subways, and of the meaning of his avocation, sexual orientation, and color. But throughout The Motion of Light in Water he remains a presence both as subject and as author, never letting us forget that what we are reading is, in fact, a fiction.
In the years following 1965, Delany began to publish the essays—gathered in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw and Starboard Wine—that eventually would make his reputation as one of the most thoughtful and rigorous critics of sf and fantasy. …
Reading the thoughtful, literate essays in this book [John Clute's Stokes] and the hundreds of accompanying commentaries [in Neil Barron's Anatomy of Wonder], we come to understand how science fiction has evolved into a vast and variegated literature that, in works as diverse as Delany’s tales of Nevèryon and the far-future potboilers skewered in Clute’s Strokes, speaks with unique relevance to our strange, postmodern times.
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The Jewels of Aptor (novel) 1962; revised 1968
*Captives of the Flame (novel) 1963; republished as Out of the Dead City, 1968
*The Towers of Toron (novel) 1964; revised 1968
The Ballad of Beta-2 (novel) 1965
*City of a Thousand Suns (novel) 1965; revised 1969
Babel-17 (novel) 1966; revised 1969
Empire Star (novel) 1966
The Einstein Intersection (novel) 1967
Nova (novel) 1968
The Fall of the Towers [contains Captives of the Flame, The Towers of Toron, and City of a Thousand Suns] (novels) 1970
Driftglass: Ten Tales of Speculative Fiction (short stories) 1971
The Tides of Lust (novel) 1973; also published as Equinox, 1993
Dhalgren (novel) 1975; revised 1977
Triton (novel) 1976; republished as Trouble on Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia, 1996
The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction (criticism) 1977
The American Shore: Meditations on a Tale of Science Fiction by Thomas M. Disch—Angouleme (criticism) 1978
Empire: A Visual Novel [with illustrations by Howard V. Chaykin] (novel) 1978
Heavenly Breakfast: An Essay on the Winter of Love (memoir) 1979
†Tales of Nevèrÿon (short stories) 1979
Distant Stars (short stories) 1981
†Neveryóna; or, the Tale of Signs and Cities (novel) 1983
Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (novel) 1984
Starboard Wine: More Notes on the Language of Science Fiction (criticism) 1984
†Flight from Nevèrÿon (short stories) 1985
The Complete Nebula Award-Winning Fiction (short stories) 1986
†The Bridge of Lost Desire (novel) 1987; also published as Return to Nevèrÿon, 1989
The Motion of Light in Water: Sex and Science Fiction Writing in the East Village, 1957-1965 (essays) 1988
Wagner/Artaud: A Play of Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Critical Fictions (criticism) 1988
The Straits of Messina [originally published under pseudonym K. Leslie Steiner] (essays) 1989
Equinox (novel) 1993
They Fly at Ciron (novel) 1993
The Mad Man (novel) 1994
Silent Interviews: On Language, Race, Sex, Science Fiction, and Some Comics: A Collection of Written Interviews (interviews) 1994
Atlantis: Three Tales (short stories) 1995
Longer Views: Extended Essays (essays) 1996
Bread & Wine: An Erotic Tale of New York City: An Autobiographical Account [illustrated by Mia Wolff] (autobiography) 1998
Hogg (novel) 1998
Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (essays) 1999
1984 (correspondence) 2000
Shorter Views: Queer Thoughts and the Politics of the Paraliterary (criticism) 2000
*Part of The Fall of Towers trilogy.
†Part of Nevèrÿon series.
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SOURCE: “The (Science-Fiction) Reader and the Quantum Paradigm: The Problems in Delany's Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand,” in Science-Fiction Studies, Vol. 17, No. 2, July, 1990, pp. 325-40.
[In the following essay, Bartter interprets the complexity and indeterminacy of Delany's fiction in terms of quantum mechanics, which she argues is a more fitting paradigm for Delany's work than Newtonian physics or Einsteinian relativism. Drawing attention to the controlling metaphors and structural innovations of Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, Bartter contends that Delany's “quantum” worldview challenges accepted notions of reality and pushes the boundaries of science fiction writing.]
Newton knew. He saw the universe as the function of various forces acting upon a variety of objects. The Newtonian world-view reflects the mechanistic, “billiard-ball” concept of the universe held by scientists who were sure that, given just a little more time and better instrumentation, all knowledge would be available to them and all answers known.1 This world-view supported the Industrial Revolution; it also supported cause-effect plotting and omniscient narration. The novel reflected the “social and historical norms that applied to a particular environment, and so it established an immediate link with the empirical reality familiar to its readers” (Iser: xi). Though it has been scientifically superseded, Newtonian physics still gives satisfactory results at the level of the scientific macro-universe. Likewise, we still expect cause-and-effect to operate in life, and it still drives the plot of most popular literature.
Our world-view subtly alters as new conceptual patterns, or “paradigms,” become the foundation for scientific, cultural, and artistic comprehension of how the world works (cf. Kuhn). Since the Industrial Revolution, social norms have been represented by scientific paradigms, which are constantly subject to review and revision. Einstein’s theory of relativity created major changes. Relativistically, the position of the observer in space-time genuinely determines what she or he observes. The “forces” described by Newtonian physicists now must be explained as highly complex relationships. (In literary theory, the reader-response paradigm evolved at about the same time [cf. Tompkins: ix].) Non-physicists may equate “relativity” with “relativism,” or, even worse, with “magic”; but as a paradigm, relativity seems quite friendly. Cause and effect still operate, and the theory supports psychoanalytic explanations for a variety of human actions. Still, the changing world-view began to wrench fiction out of its traditional form. If knowledge depends upon the relative position of the observer, the omniscient author disappears. Writers engaging the new paradigm (even if ignorant of the new physics) found themselves using more and more unreliable narrators, existential characters, relativistic plots—the whole panoply we now call “modern fiction.”
Einsteinian physics transcends Newton’s model by accounting for gravitational phenomena in a far more accurate way than the Newtonian “action at a distance” does. It models the very small, the very large, and the very fast; but it does not account for nuclear forces. The foundations for another universe of physics already existed when Einstein first published. In this universe, bodies don’t absorb energy smoothly, but take it in (and emit it) in little packets that Planck termed “quanta.” When an atom takes in a quantum of energy, one or more of its electrons move to a higher orbital; but since they do not pass through intervening space to get there, this involves a “quantum leap.” Physical effects can occur at speeds exceeding the Einsteinian limit. Einstein called quantum phenomena “spooky” and disapproved of the explanations, but quantum mechanics has survived experimental testing.
The predictive, explanatory power of quantum mechanics lies in statistical probability, and gives no information about the “real” behavior of individual particles in action. In quantum mechanics, things connect. Knowledge spreads. Photons “know” when they hit, and their wave-forms disappear from the universe all at once; yet there is no way to measure accurately both of two “conjugate variables.”2 But most importantly, the observer becomes part of the system with the observation and the things observed.3 In contrast to the wealth of relativistic metaphors in common use, few metaphors from quantum physics have entered our everyday language. The single exception seems to be the “quantum leap.” This is popularly misunderstood to mean that something has made an immense, unmeasurable, virtually impossible advance, rather than a small but measurable alteration in orbital. This misunderstanding is typical: quantum mechanics delivers radical uncertainty.
Like relativity in the 1920s, quantum mechanics is often referred to but only vaguely understood by the general public.4 SF, which depends heavily on concepts from relativistic physics (even though Einstein’s formulae preclude faster-than-light travel by any object having mass), has found quantum mechanics less helpful. Most non-scientists approach quantum mechanics through popularizations like Capra’s The Tao of Physics and Zukav’s The Dancing Wu Li Masters. These works, which connect quantum physics with the insights of various Eastern philosophies, emphasize the mystical interconnectedness of all life and the creative quality of human thought.5 Seth McEvoy, who claims that Delany’s interests are limited to the fields of “social science, linguistics, archaeology, and psychology” rather than “hard” science or technology, implies that Delany is unable to deal with quantum mechanics on any other level (p. 5). This misrepresents Delany, who attended the Bronx High School of Science (Motion, p. 17) and who casually refers to Weinberg, Feynman, Raup, and Gleick.6 It may, however, quite adequately represent the position of a number of Delany’s readers. An alteration in world-view does not depend upon popular understanding.
Writers cannot not reflect their world-view, consciously or unconsciously; this does not depend upon their “understanding.” The Newtonian writer knows what is going on and informs the reader directly; the Relativistic writer perceives cause-and-effect and expects the reader to work out the interlocking actions (given the unreliability of point of view, position, etc.); but the Quantum writer literally constructs the meaning of the text by constructing the text itself, expecting readers to repeat the process for themselves. The counter-intuitive physical phenomena described by quantum mechanics thus underlie post-modernist literature, where any term can stand as a metafiction, referring not to “reality” but to another kind of fiction depending on “the essentially unstable nature of signification. The sign is not so much a unit with two sides, as a momentary ‘fix’ between two moving layers” (Selden: 73). Like post-modern fiction, quantum mechanics argues that “cause” may be an irrelevant concept; readers—and writers—may be asking all the wrong questions.7 As scholar and critic as well as writer, Delany cannot not include contemporary literary theories in his world-view; nor can he not include contemporary scientific theories as well.
George Slusser calls Delany a “structuralist” writer: “Instead of reflecting some objective ‘reality,’ the fictional work is seen primarily as a word-construct, a self-contained system whose relation to our familiar world is homologous, but in no way necessary or determined by it” (p. 3). McEvoy notes that in works like Dhalgren, “facts are missing from the narrative that are usually part of a standard prose text. It is up to the reader to supply these facts. This method of co-creation (where the reader must supply the missing parts of the story, sort of a literary partnership) appears in every book by Delany to a certain extent” (p. 3). McEvoy attributes this to Delany’s dyslexia, but it also describes the post-structural paradigm.
There is no question that the contemporary world-view supports deconstruction theory, reader-response criticism, and the radical uncertainty of quantum mechanics. Possibly dyslexia provides for Delany a privileged deconstructionist outlook. He has deconstructed the concept of “theme” as representing a literary urge rejected by post-structuralists as “distorting, biasing, untrustworthy, ideologically loaded, and finally blinding” (“Neither the Beginning. …” p. 1). However (as deconstruction continually reminds us), no writer really knows everything he or she puts into the work. Moreover, although a writer may attempt to put such an apparently “obvious” aspect of literature as “theme” “under erasure,” the reader is apt to reinstate it. As readers, we need to raise our consciousness, becoming aware not only of the writer’s strategies, but also of our own accustomed reading strategies. We must continually test whether these elucidate, or misinterpret and confuse, our understanding of the text.
All we, the readers, know about the subject in the story comes from (1) what the author tells us, and (2) how the author tells us. We match the text against what we already “know,” based upon our world-view, and see how well it fits. The better the fit, the better we “understand” the story, and the more apt we are to enjoy it. Readers who rejected Dhalgren (1975) as essentially “implottable” may find Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1985) much more attractive. Still, we encounter problems. One comes from the book’s division into three parts: the Prologue, “A World Apart”; the body of the text, labelled Monologues, “Visible and Invisible Persons Distributed in Space,” consisting of 13 “chapters” that certainly distribute in space (space-time?) and that concern a number of invisibilities, but do not read like monologues; and the Epilogue, “Morning,” Prologue and Epilogue respond to careful reading. The Monologues resist it; and as its title indicates, the connection between Prologue and the following text seems obscure at best. What do we do with a story like Stars that fascinates us, almost matches our understanding of textuality, yet resolutely refuses closure?8
If we assume that Delany has left most of the resolution to the promised second volume of the diptych, The Splendor and Misery of Bodies, of Cities (forthcoming), we reject the promise Delany makes to his readers: “Each of the two books will stand on its own, but each can be read in reference to the other” (McEvoy: 127). It does not seem likely, as some argue, that Delany has forgotten how to construct a plot or that his interest in critical theory has irretrievably poisoned his writing ability.9 On the assumption that he is making reasonable (but complex and unfamiliar) demands on his readers, I will look at just two parts of the novelistic structure in Delany’s Stars in My Pocket: plot and interlocking metaphor.
The plot seems at first quite straightforward. An omniscient narrator introduces us to Rhyonon, a complex, vividly described world, and to Korga, the apparent protagonist. Korga is a victim, both of his genetic heritage and of the socio-economic-technical complex in which he finds himself. He is a misfit. He seeks relief through Radical Anxiety Termination (RAT), an operation reminiscent of prefrontal lobotomy. Although RAT techniques could make Korga normal—he hopes to become able to “understand things and numbers and reading and stuff!” (1:4)—he is tricked into agreeing to a treatment that merely removes his self-destructive anger … and gives the RAT Institute license to sell him as a slave. He becomes more passive, but nothing else seems to change for him; he is no smarter, happier, or better adjusted. This life continues, with some interesting digressions, for a number of years. Then his world destroys itself or is destroyed.
We have been led to entertain certain assumptions about texts like this. We do not expect a novelist to create a character with such care and trace his history over such a long period simply to throw him away, except perhaps to point up the horror of the holocaust; yet the holocaust itself gets thrown away in a single sentence (I:62). Our expectations are frustrated. The omniscient narrator disappears. The Prologue is over, Korga has vanished, and we find Marq Dyeth of Velm, Industrial Diplomat, elegantly introducing us to the complexities of his life. He seems to be explaining something important, but we are not sure what or to whom.
As readers accustomed to relativistic textual structure, we expect Korga to reappear promptly, thus providing the contrasting point in space-time from which to view the disaster of Rhyonon. This does not occur. Marq tells his story fascinatingly, relentlessly, relativistically—but the relativity lies in his own inability to acquire knowledge. Especially, he fails to understand the Thants, those aggravating, politically sophisticated visitors to his world. This tactic reassures us; perhaps this is a political novel. We have had enough evidence for thinking so in the conflict of the Yellows vs. the Grays on Rhyonon; the Family vs. the Sygn in the worlds under the Web (which may be political; it seems sufficiently mysterious otherwise); the diplomatic emergencies that create Marq’s job, problems that apparently may throw worlds into the holocaust of Cultural Fugue (CF).
No: such assumptions are equally frustrated. We know that Marq and his world(s) face a multitude of problems, but have little evidence of the details or the possible solutions. We do see that the co-existence of human and the truly alien evelm in the “nurture stream” that is Dyethshome is vulnerable, under attack from human and evelm alike, and that Marq seems unable to comprehend what is going on, even though he can usually get data at any time simply by thinking a question at General Information, popularly called GI (II:3.7:140-41).10 We meet Japril, a Web official (perhaps the more visible and more opaque of those “Visible and Invisible Persons Distributed in Space”), who may have answers; but if she does, Marq fails to obtain or understand them.
Again, this should not surprise us. One of the major contributions a relativistic world-view has made to literature is the underinformed, unreliable narrator. But while such a narrator is usually unaware of being unreliable. Marq Dyeth is agonizingly aware. Indeed, he reminds us repeatedly of the impossibility of reliability. This does not fit our readerly expectations either.
But wait. Perhaps we have a plot after all! Korga reappears; he has been resurrected (almost literally) from the wreckage of Rhyonon by the mysterious action of the Web. Japril suddenly contacts Marq to tell him that this survivor concerns him. The power of their mutual attraction is made clear in several ways: metaphorically, by the rings once worn by Vondramach Okk, which connect Korga to General Information (since Radical Anxiety Termination prevents him from tapping in directly, neuron to network); physically, by his move to Dyethshome; emotionally, by proving to be the “perfect erotic object” of Marq’s homosexual passion (II:6:179). He is also endowed with some magnetic attraction that makes him (or them; perhaps this force depends on Korga’s proximity to Marq? on Marq’s passion for Korga?) the anxious, angry focus of virtually every human on Velm. After several forceful but inexplicable crowd scenes, Korga is abruptly shipped off Velm. The XIv have arrived, and Velm is now in danger of Cultural Fugue. In the Epilogue, Marq, off on yet another diplomatic mission, takes this philosophically: “Still I knew that morning, whatever it was, was over. When I awoke again, it would be day” (III:375). The end.
That’s a plot? Look at what we don’t know: What happened to Rhyonon? Who or what are the Xlv? What is Cultural Fugue? What happens to Velm? What role does the Web play in all this? What are the Thants really up to? What’s going on with Marq, and what has happened to Korga? We expect a novel to connect actions and meanings, or at least actions and purpose. We have seen Marq and Korga together: enjoying sex, “dragon hunting,” putting on a highly unsuccessful party for the Thants, raising Marq’s seven-times great-grandmother’s revenant, fending off the madding crowd—all interesting as actions, as the people are interesting as people; but the actions do not combine to “explain” the text.
If the plot seems intractable, perhaps a study of some important metaphors will open the work to us. There are plenty to choose from; I will look at three that interlock: home, history, and information. As Marq muses:
… history is what is outside, in both time and space, the current moment of home. And without history, there is no home. … When you go to a new, all you can take of your home is its history. And … your choice is to take it knowingly and be its (and your new home’s) silent friend, or to take it unknowingly and be its (and your new home’s) loud slave.
“Home” is a major metaphor in Delany’s novel. The protagonist of the first section, “Rat” Korga, seems never to have a home. Once he undergoes Radical Anxiety Termination, he is sent as a slave to various unpleasant stations, without choice or even the ability to be concerned about his situation. At one point he gains access to a library and to the ability to read. This should be a liberating experience; one would expect it to make a difference to him. It doesn’t. He is recaptured, re-enslaved, and his life goes on as before. But Korga demonstrates the real meaning of homelessness when his entire world destroys itself, apparently the result of Cultural Fugue.
Marq Dyeth, the protagonist of the second part of the novel, has a very different problem. He is a sophisticated interstellar traveller, frequently away from home. Every planet he visits seems obsessed by the danger of Cultural Fugue, that ultimate threat to security. On Velm, even the physical fabric of the residence he occupies appears unreal. No one knows all the ramifications of Dyethshome, which, furnished as much by hologram projections as by tangible artifacts, seems somehow to exceed the space allotted to it. Moreover, it is the home not of a family as we know it (as sexuality is not represented as we know it, either), but of a “stream” (II:8.5:219-20), a non-genetic admixture of human and evelm that lives and works in and out of Dyethshome (pronounced Death’s Home [II:3.5:115]). This seems like an unusual arrangement, and one that the (human) Thants find frighteningly repellent; but its importance is left unstated.
History, for Marq Dyeth, is Dyethshome, which was made possible by the largesse of the dictator Vondramach Okk many “ripples of the stream” ago. It still contains as an active participant the first builder, his “seven-times great-grandmother,” Gylda Dyeth, now “a simulated synapse casting,” looking like crystal column (II:3.5:115). History is also people, or rather Marq’s knowledge and understanding of people. As an Industrial Diplomat, he is schooled in people and their ways, in exchanging information, in various forms of knowledge. Yet what he most wants to know, he cannot even find the proper questions to ask about.
Marq’s tale, Gylda’s, and that of Vondramach Okk intertwine like snakes on a caduceus. It is Okk’s poetry that Marq reads; her rings that Rat Korga wears; her savage persistence that pulled history into its present shape, while driving four planets into Cultural Fugue; her addictions that forced medicine to create the technology that revives Korga; her generosity that built Dyethshome. To know this tale is to know how Dyethshome came into being, for Dyethshome is history as well as home. Marq’s job is Dyethshome docent; and as Marq and Korga meet, students roam the grounds, studying it. Even so, we learn little enough about either the place or the people who live in it.
History relies on memory, which acts in ways only now being explained in the physical universe by “the transactional interpretation of quantum mechanics. It is a two-way contract between the future and the past” (Cramer: 96). Memory both recalls the past and changes it, even as we use it to come to terms with the present. A two-way contract would allow us to “remember ahead” as well. If so, Cultural Fugue may be the time-reversed, quantum memory of the end of history, the destruction of the universe.
But what in this text corresponds to “quanta,” those tiny yet measurable, essential packets of energy? When we look at Delany’s multi-world universe, one in which many thousands of planets support many billions of sentient life-forms (we notice that Marq Dyeth is never able to determine exactly how many “people” are alive in the universe, although he does ask), the smallest unit seems to be one sentient living being. When we read Stars in My Pocket, we see particles—Rat Korga and Marq Dyeth—and may wonder in whose pocket, and on what scale, these stars may fit. If we see the humans as particles, then the quantized energy they respond to must be information.
In the Prologue, Korga is put in touch with General Information and “jumped up” or energized, like an electron jumping orbitals. He takes in vast amounts of literature literally in seconds, any reader’s dream. yet when he is disconnected from GI, he jumps back; nothing seems to have changed. He is “the same” Korga, a slave, a Rat, treated the same, behaving the same. His “knowledge,” which he does not forget (our usual test for effective “knowing”), makes no difference to him or to his world. Yet something destroys that world. Is it Cultural Fugue? The mysterious Xlv? Or has Korga’s energy state something to do with it? To which (or both, or neither) should we connect the later appearance of pre-CF symptoms on Velm?
“Information” keeps showing up in this novel, yet it rarely comes as “knowledge.” Knowledge, the sum or range of what has been perceived, discovered, or inferred, includes both empirical material and that derived by inference and interpretation. Information is usually construed as narrower in scope and implies a random collection of material rather than orderly synthesis. For instance, GI simply puts answers into the heads of those who question. These answers may or may not be useful; people often ignore them, as a sort of background noise, because they frequently cannot use the data adequately. Not only is there too much to know, there are too few connections for what one does know. Marq explains:
If only because there is so much to know in our human universe, the working assumption you can go on is: You may assume, about absolutely any fact (how many transuranic elements are there? why does cold water remove human blood stains faster than hot?) that nine hundred and ninety-nine people out of a thousand do not know it—which goes for the working assumption too.
Moreover, in order to obtain information, one must know how to ask an answerable question, something that Marq Dyeth rarely manages to do when it really matters.
Given this information about “information,” how do we find something we can call “knowledge”? Does Korga achieve “knowledge” when he reads, retains—and apparently understands and enjoys—poetry, or does he merely acquire information? What kind of knowledge does Marq deal with when he “knows” how little the information he acquires—say, about the alien Xlv—actually covers? Would knowledge (as opposed to information) produce a plot?
Marq passes up the opportunity to obtain a “vaurine recording” of the prolonged interview with Japril that recounts the Web’s resurrection of Korga. He later regrets his “idiocy” (II:6:182), but what he wants most is information about Cultural Fugue. What he receives is yet another restriction; already forbidden to ask about Rhyonon, he is now forbidden to ask about the Xlv as well, and his query about Cultural Fugue is neatly diverted. This prohibition may imply that Marq’s acquisition of such information would be intrinsically dangerous, perhaps even precipitating Cultural Fugue; or it may merely reflect a pragmatic refusal to engage in an impossible task, organizing information about CF into the knowledge that Marq seeks. In either case, we can read CF as a metaphorical example of radical uncertainty.
Nothing in the text, either physical or metaphorical, seems sufficient to account for Cultural Fugue. Every society that Marq visits fears it; the Web is supposed to prevent it. Delany has suggested many possible causes of CF on Rhyonon: political conflict between the Yellows and the Grays, reflecting the larger conflict between Family and Sygn; the socio-economic system, obviously failing (as evinced by the creation and treatment of Rats and the rationalizations that permit this); the tectonic instability of the planet. Later we are told of the alien Xlv—yet another mysterious possible “cause” of CF. Or are they a result? We don’t know, and we aren’t told. Like photons, they disappear completely, unknowably, as the planet Rhyonon flames with biocidal energy. Their sudden appearance near Velm, at the end of the book, “causes” the Web to remove Korga as unexpectedly as they sent him there.
Cultural Fugue, part of humanity’s long history, is the ultimate home-wrecker. The very name Xlv engages this metaphor in our nuclear memory. If we read it as a date—(19)45, the year in which America initiated nuclear war, opening the “nuclear age” with violence—then it engages not only our memory, but our paranoia. We may indeed be the Xlv: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” If any issue connects Stars in My Pocket with today’s world, it is Cultural Fugue.
We have identified knowledge on three paradigmatic levels here. The lowest is the mechanistic, in which one can really know what is going on. This is represented by the “dragon hunt,” that fascinating and enigmatic pastime engaged in by both evelmi and humans on Velm, where the hunter literally becomes his target for a limited time. Marq introduces Korga to this game, apparently for the sheer fascination of seeing him “connect” fully with another species. In this passage Delany deliberately plays the “omniscient author,” a role impossible in modern (let alone post-modern) fiction. Then uncertainty reasserts itself: their successful hunt makes no difference to the plot.
The second level of knowledge is relativistic, represented best by the complicated, abortive relationship between the Dyeths and the Thants. Some members of the Thant family seem to offer friendship, others jealous enmity. Invited to a party in their honor, the Thants arrange to insult their hosts. Marq the diplomat seems baffled and dismayed as George Thant accuses him of diplomatic trickery and brags of the way her family has outmaneuvered him. She drives her point home by disrupting the holographic projection that creates Marq’s room, a blatant display of power. Her point of view differs completely from Marq’s, though her objectives remain unclear. Here Delany emphasizes Marq’s relativistic role of unavoidably unreliable (and baffled) narrator.
The third level, the most mysterious, is the one on which both Korga and Marq take in information, jump activity levels, and fall back. All power in this book is based on knowledge: the Web, which seems to control so many actions, operates strictly from knowledge; GI, the information system, is itself a means to political power. This is made clear on Rhyonon, which forbids its general use, fearing perhaps that too many people jumping energy shells (as Korga does) could disrupt the entire system. On this level, Marq and Korga are mere data points in a system of probability.
We certainly see the love relationship between Korga and Marq as driving the action, focussing a universe of energy. The energy of their combined mutual attraction may translate into mass sufficient to pull all Velm—and even the Xlv—into their vicinity. The presence of the Xlv signals that Velm is in imminent danger of Cultural Fugue. If (as we have speculated) this energy can as easily move forward in time as backward, it may earlier have unleashed CF on Rhyonon. At some point it may even become controlled (or controllable), productive. As Japril tells Marq when he protests the abduction of Korga, “We can’t have the two of you there. … We can’t have the two of you together yet” (III:367; my emphasis).
Identifying issues like these should clarify the text, if it were Newtonian or relativistic. That doing so still leaves several layers of uncertainty should convince us that it is based on a quantum paradigm. Let us look at one of the “interpretational ideas” of quantum mechanics, “Heisenberg’s Knowledge Interpretation: the notion that the wave function is neither a physical wave travelling through space nor a direct description of a physical system, but rather is a mathematically encoded description of the knowledge of an observer who is making a measurement on the system” (Cramer: 94). If the wave-form is metaphorically represented by General Information, and we are observers along with Marq and Korga, then our knowledge is precisely the point: our knowledge of the measurement (the reading) we make of the system-as-a-whole-at-a-date.11 In other words, the text consists of our reading, our comprehension of the text.
The three metaphors—home, history, information—intertwine, neatly and inextricably. They form a set of “conjugate variables,” necessary for measurement of the story, yet resistant to individual measurement. The more we examine one of the set, the less we can fix the other two. What knowledge leads Marq to live his history? What history has established his home? And what home has he, given his history and his knowledge? As a single particle in his universe, Marq can—must—construct “explanations” for himself as he takes in quanta of experience/information. For instance, when he is led through the (unfamiliar) North Hall to avoid the sudden crowds about Dyethshome, he is reminded by a student that the rings Korga wears once belonged to a woman who “murdered someone in this room!” Suddenly, for Marq, the “student’s word, as it displaced me from my own image of its history, by the same movement, replaced this abandoned hall in some eccentric centrality that only struck me as we left it” (II:12.3:305). This process of repeated realignment produces Marq’s tale, the “Monologues” and “Epilogue.” But it does not account for the Prologue. Each section creates a consistent pattern; yet no apparent pattern reconciles all the sections.
Why does Delany structure his novel this way? If we assume that he is artistically competent—not incapacitated by dyslexia, overdosed on literary theory, or deliberately alienating readers—we must find another explanation for our problems. Let us assume that he presents readers with this kind of text because his sense of the contemporary paradigm precludes his following the familiar pattern. Our problem with Stars in My Pocket, I contend, is therefore less the result of Delany’s theoretical convictions than of his writing from a world-view organized around the metaphors of quantum physics while most of us are still reading from relativity. He is making a new set of demands on himself, as creator of a “monologue” of many voices, and on his readers, as inevitable co-contributors to the text. The “field” of 20th-century literature now includes mechanistic, relativistic, and quantum-theoretic paradigms; writers may choose among them for artistic purposes, but even if they do not awarely choose, they cannot avoid finding this climate of opinion “the underlying force guiding intellectual inquiry” (Hayles: 22).12
As Robert A. Heinlein has a character say in The Door Into Summer, “you railroad only when it comes time to railroad” (12:186). Heinlein here uses “railroad” as a synonym for “technological advance.” (The protagonist of The Door Into Summer is an inventor and engineer who sees a changed world-view as the function of new technologies.) The term serves equally well to distinguish a new paradigm. Perhaps it is now time to railroad, and Delany is on the new track. And perhaps, once we assimilate quantum metaphors, we will find it impossible to read any other way. If our world is now structured on radical uncertainty, cause and effect must be seen as processes rather than as reality. This is the history that creates our new home. Shall we “take it knowingly, and be its (and [our] new home’s) silent friend, or … take it unknowingly and be its (and [our] new home’s) loud slave”? The question is not trivial.
Readers in earlier periods enjoyed a tacit compact with writers, an agreement about the way the world worked; but writers like Delany seem to transcend that compact. They engage a new paradigm, one that provides more explanatory power, a better fit with observed “reality” than the old. In it, author, text, and reader form a whole which cannot be divided. Our ability to read the text (and our world) depends not only upon author and text, but also upon what we bring to the reading. It seems that we must now bring our understanding, limited as it may be, of quantum mechanics to this (and many other) texts or leave large sections unread and unreadable.
Where we stand when we pose questions affects the questions we ask as much as does our understanding of the range of possible answers. Standing in a relativistic universe, writers could ask questions that related one observer’s information to another’s; could question the validity of history and the universality of knowledge; but could still subject the relativistic universe to cause-effect analysis. The idea that the quantum particle not only cannot be located in space-time until it ceases to exist as a particle, but that its possible “future” does not bear a one-to-one relation to its “past” opened the door to fiction consciously created as metafictional construct, not to mirror a reality but to create “realities.”
If knowledge itself consists of nothing more substantial than a collection of possibilities created by the statements that compose it, and if the observer doesn’t merely alter the observation by the act of observing it, but also creates the observation itself and (possibly) the results as well, then readers, who see only the “tracks” left by the photons (data) as (after) they “hit,” must also engage with the field (or a fair proportion of it) that the photons “covered” before they “hit.” They must work out as text (not as “real”) something analogous to their own understandable experience, recognizably (or potentially) human. In other words, readers must construct for themselves an experience of reading they find valid, if not “true.”
One thing we can be sure of: once we experience a paradigm shift (and we do so by exposing ourselves to this kind of literature), we can’t unexperience it. We not only can’t feel the way we did before, we can’t even recall how it felt to feel that way (cf. Kuhn: 20–23). We can’t unread a book, either. Having experienced Stars in My Pocket—having seen (in some sense) where the photons turned into visible light (and where they did not)—must change the way we look at the beginning of the book, at the relationships it explores, at ourselves. The world-view inevitably alters the work, even as the work alters the world-view.
As SF readers, we may now find ourselves in a cross-paradigm communications gap. We have familiarized ourselves with the SF “code,” a way of languaging fiction to reflect the relativistic, changing, technological world we perceive about us. We have defended this code from persistent denigration by the “establishment.” If we now insist on maintaining this code unaltered, claiming that any challenge represents merely another assault by academe, we may find ourselves shut out by the shift in scientific paradigms, as “mundane” readers have allowed themselves to be shut out of SF. Like the “new wave” which offended many SF readers but opened the literature to new possibilities, the quantum paradigm offers a closer “fit” with observed phenomena, a better way of representing the way the world “really” works. Readers who fail to make the paradigm shift may find themselves left with little of the newest and most interesting literature still available to them. On the other hand, writers like Delany who push at the boundaries of fiction need to keep their readers in mind.13 We can expect writers to leave at the very least a trail of white pebbles in the paradigmatic forest.
As a relatively accessible quantum text, Stars in My Pocket may leave just such a trail. Stars (which, more clearly than Dhalgren, is a thoroughly “textual” text) can produce/induce/introduce in/for the reader the paradigm shift that makes these ideas not only accessible but relevant: a shift in being as well as seeing, which, we may assume, represents the tacit aim of most serious artists. Stars doesn’t have to be deconstructed; it can be read. Fortunately, as contemporary literary theory demonstrates, we cannot avoid constructing the text as we read, whether we like it or not. The demands made on the reader by quantum literature are difficult but not impossible. They include the active awareness that we live in radical uncertainty; that reading is co-creation; and that we therefore cannot, in the quantum universe, reread the (same) text, since in the first reading the first text has disappeared, along with the first reader. But literature organized on a quantum paradigm requires (at least) two readings: not a “rereading” (which implies doing “the same thing” again), but a new reading to reconstruct for ourselves the system that produced the quantum event constructed by the novel. To read the new paradigm we must bring to it our new past, through which memory may construct a new textual “home.”
Isaac Asimov’s Foundation stories are excellent examples of the power of this popular assumption, while simultaneously parodying it.
“Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle: the idea that pairs of ‘conjugate variables’ (such as position and momentum or energy and time) cannot simultaneously be measured to ‘perfect’ accuracy, nor can they have well-defined values at the same time” (Cramer, p. 94).
“Bohr’s Complementarity Principle: the idea that the uncertainty principle is an intrinsic property of nature (not just a measurement problem) and that the observer, his measuring apparatus, and the measured system form a ‘whole’ which cannot be divided” (Cramer, p. 94).
In the '20s and '30s, SF writers fairly boasted that they were experimenting in fiction with ideas that only a few top scientists understood in fact. More recently, many physicists, Richard Feynman among them, admit that although they routinely and successfully use quantum physics, they do not find it intuitively obvious.
Cf. Crease and Mann, pp. 52–54. They cogently argue that this mysticism serves neither popular nor scientific understanding of quantum mechanics, and that it significantly distorts “eastern mysticism as well as physics. Zen Buddhists believe that individual perception is inherently fragmentary and provisional not because … the observer creates reality but because he creates illusions … that he cannot help but construe as reality” (p. 57).
See Delany’s “Neither the Beginning …,” p. 9. Delany also notes his early interest in and study of biological science in “Shadows” (Jewel-Hinged Jaw, pp. 48–50).
Oddly enough, an identifiable literary locus for quantum mechanics outside of modern fiction can be found in composition theory, where writers are advised to consider their ideas as particles, as waves, and as fields in the course of pre-writing. See, for instance, Young, Becker and Pike, pp. 126–30.
When I have tried to discuss my readings of Stars in My Pocket with knowledgeable SF readers, the most frequent response I have encountered has been: “I tried to read it, but gave up at the point where it stopped making sense to me.” That usually means at the end of the “Prologue.” (The next most frequent response was: “I gave up on Delany after Dhalgren.”)
See, for example, Darrel Schweitzer’s claim that “aside from an autobiography, Delany’s last decent book was Driftglass. … He is certainly the worst example in our field of the damage over-attention to critical theory can do” (p. 30).
Like many other terms in this book, GI carries with it a number of associations, including the Freudian implications of “gastrointestinal” and all the socio-political connotations of “Government Issue.”
Compare Delany’s comments above on why he subscribes a date to his manuscripts (“so that … I have some idea where I was, when”: p. 320)—RMP.
The Introduction and chapter 1 of N. Katherine Hayles’ The Cosmic Web provide an elegant elucidation of the relationship of physics to literature.
Articles like his “Neither the Beginning …” prove Delany’s desire to remain in contact with SF readers. He notes that the “first version of this article was requested in place of a Guest of Honor Speech at the Readercon science fiction convention in Lowell, Massachusetts, where, as far as I could tell, the interest in these topics [e.g., literary theory] was both high and sincere” (“Neither …,” p. 9). Schweitzer, however, who calls the speech “puzzling,” notes that Delany warned that it was “going to be rough” and that he found it so; that Delany soon lost most of his audience; and that of those who stuck it out, there were only “about five people present who spoke fluent Delanyspeak” (p. 29).
Guest of Honor speeches at fan conventions often deal with topical problems in the SF world, which may include critical issues; but they usually do so in an accessible and humorous way. This talk of Delany's must have been neither accessible nor humorous. Nor is the article easy reading—though, unlike the speech, seeing Delany's remarks in print gives the reader the opportunity to reflect, return, and try again.
Capra, Fritjof. The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels Between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism. NY, 1976.
Cramer, John G. “The Quantum Handshake,” Analog, Nov. 1986, pp. 93–97.
Crease, Robert P. & Charles C. Mann. “Physics for Mystics,” The Sciences, July/Aug. 1987, pp. 50–57.
Delany, Samuel R. The Jewel-Hinged Jaw. NY: Berkley, 1977.
———. The Motion of Light in Water. NY: New American Library, 1988.
———. “Neither the Beginning nor the End of Structuralism, Post-Structuralism, Semiotics, or Deconstruction for SF Readers: An Introduction,” The New York Review of Science Fiction, No.6 (Feb. 1989), pp. 1, 8–12; No. 7 (Mar. 1989), pp. 14–18: No. 8 (Apr. 1989), pp. 9–11.
———. Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. NY: Bantam Spectra, 1985.
Hayles, N. Katherine. The Cosmic Web: Scientific Field Models and Literary Strategies in the Twentieth Century. Ithaca, NY: 1984.
Heinlein, Robert A. The Door Into Summer. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1957.
Iser, Wolfgang. The Implied Reader: Patterns of Communication in Prose Fiction From Bunyan to Beckett. Baltimore, 1974.
Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd ed. Chicago, 1970.
McEvoy, Seth. Samuel R. Delany. NY, 1984.
Schweitzer, Darrell. “Critical Theories,” Aboriginal Science Fiction, Mar-Apr. 1990, pp. 28–32.
Selden, Raman. A Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Literary Theory. Lexington, KY: 1985.
Slusser, George Edgar. The Delany Intersection. [Milford Series, Vol. 10.] San Bernardino, CA: 1977.
Tompkins, Jane P., ed. Reader-Response Criticism: From Formalism to Post-Structuralism. Baltimore, 1980.
Young, Richard E. & Alton L. Becker & Kenneth L. Pike. Rhetoric: Discovery and Change. NY, 1970.
Zukav, Gary. The Dancing Wu Li Masters: An Overview of the New Physics. NY, 1979.
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Cooper, Rebecca. “A Samuel R. Delany Checklist.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 16, No. 3 (Fall 1996): 170-1.
A chronological listing of Delany's writings; divided into fiction, fiction series, and nonfiction.
Benderson, Bruce. Review of Hogg and Atlantis, by Samuel Delany. Lambda Book Report 4, No. 12 (September-October 1995): 20-1.
Discusses the extreme sexuality and depravity in Hogg and offers a positive assessment of the stories in Atlantis.
Broderick, Damien. “Allography and Allegory: Delany's SF.” Foundation 52, (Summer, 1991): 30-42.
Broderick discusses the aesthetic and theoretical underpinnings of The Einstein Intersection, which he contends may be interpreted as a manifesto on the writing and reading of science fiction. Broderick argues that Delany's subversive poetic discourse aims to deconstruct Western myth and reductive science, reflecting the theoretical claims of poststructuralism and Gödelian indeterminacy.
Cooper, Carol. “Erotic City.” Village Voice (13 July 1999): 122.
A review of Times Square Red, Times Square Blue and Bread and Wine.
Fox, Robert Elliot. “Samuel R. Delany: Astro Black,” pp. 93-125. In his Conscientious Sorcerers: The Black Postmodernist Fiction of Leroi Jones, Amiri Baraka, Ishmael Reed, and Samuel R. Delany, Greenwood Press, 1987.
Examines Delany's postmodern literary perspective and his appropriation of science fiction motifs to portray “otherness” and marginalization, particularly among blacks and homosexuals.
Golumbia, David. “Black and White World: Race, Ideology, and Utopia in Triton and Star Trek.” Cultural Critique 32 (Winter 1995-96): 75-95.
Discusses the tension between hegemonic ideology and utopian versions of racial equality in Delany's Tritonand the Star Trek television series.
Gordon, Andrew. “Human, More or Less: Man-Machine Communion in Samuel R. Delany's Nova and Other Science Fiction Stories,” pp. 177-202. In The Mechanical God: Machines in Science Fiction, edited by Thomas P. Dunn and Richard D. Erlich, Greenwood Press, 1982.
Discusses the development of the “cyborg” in science fiction writing and examines Delany's portrayal of technologically transformed beings in Nova, noting their archetypal significance as harbingers of both utopias and dystopias.
Jonas, Gerald. “Science Fiction.” New York Times Book Review (1 January 1995): 22.
A review of They Fly at Ciron.
———. “Books in Brief.” New York Times Book Review (29 December 1996): 15.
A review of Longer Views.
Kernochan, Rose. “Books in Brief.” New York Times Book Review (29 October 1995): 42.
A review of Atlantis.
Miller, Paul. “Forever Néverÿon.” Village Voice (24 January 1995): 78.
Miller offers praise for Delany's fiction in general and a favorable assessment of Silent Interviews.
Moore, Steven. Review of The Mad Man, by Samuel Delany. Review of Contemporary Fiction 16, No. 1 (Spring 1996): 162.
A brief review of The Mad Man.
Sallis, James. “Samuel R. Delany: An Introduction.” Review of Contemporary Fiction 16, No. 3 (Fall 1996): 90-6.
Provides an overview of Delany's life and works. A special issue of Review of Contemporary Fictiondevoted to Delany.
Sucharitkul, Somtow. “Samuel R. Delany: The Universe As Metaphor.” Washington Post Book World (27 January 1985): 11.
A positive assessment of Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand.
Additional coverage of Delany's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 24; Black Literature Criticism;Black Writers;Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 27 and 43; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 8 and 33; DISCovering Authors Modules: Multicultural Authors; and Major 20th-Century Writers.
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SOURCE: “The Languages of Science Fiction: Samuel Delany's Babel-17,” in Extrapolation, Vol. 34, No. 1, Spring, 1993, pp. 5-17.
[In the following essay, Malmgren examines the function of language in Babel-17, which he views as the novel's central theme and also the central vehicle by which Delany creates an alternative world. According to Malmgren, the protagonist's struggle to master Babel-17, the alien language, asserts Delany's postmodern view of language as a mode of constructing and inventing—rather than simply reflecting—reality.]
Science fiction is a literature of the Beyond, as well as a literature of the impact of change on Man. It deals with the Beyond in a historical sense: the Future, that is rapidly becoming the Present. It must also deal with the beyond of knowledge—without losing touch with a sense of the social basis of Man, whose knowledge this is. For, just as we are here making our world and our society, so in another sense we are engaged in the making of the universe through that which is at the root of our social being: our language.
—Ian Watson, “Toward an Alien Linguistics”
In his essay on “Fiction about the Future,” H. G. Wells claims that the most significant “futurist” fiction, and the most difficult to bring off, would be that sort which uses as its novum an estranged social order—Wells uses the example of a world populated entirely by women—and then focuses on the struggle of a few individuals to come to terms with that social order. Kingsley Amis devotes much of his influential book on science fiction to those fictions which dramatize “social inquiry,” which serve as an “instrument of social diagnosis and warning” (87). And Isaac Asimov baldly states that what he terms “social science fiction” is the “most mature” and the “most socially significant” form that SF can take (273). All three writers are privileging or valorizing one particular SF form, alternate society science fiction, the dominant novum of which is an estranged or alternative social order.1 The paradigm for this fiction involves the visit to a utopic or dystopic society, during which the visitor (in some cases the reader) is invited to compare that society with his or her own. Alternate society SF poses a wide assortment of questions, including the following: What constitutes a good or bad society? What is the proper relation between the individual and the community? To what extent are freedom and order mutually antagonistic? What are the main determinants of “social reality”? What is the function of particular social institutions? What is the relation between language and social order? These fictions, many of which figure as science fiction classics, mediate the proper relation between Self and Society, in general eliciting a normative reading, the establishment of a framework of value.
Dealing as it does with alien cultures and futuristic societies, alternate society science fiction often refers to, calls upon, or plays with a spectrum of language novums—from neologistic forms to alien tongues to invented languages. Indeed, these linguistic novums, as both Katherine L. Spencer and Eric S. Rabkin have shown, serve to real-ize the imaginary SF world: “the items do more than denote the simple thereness of the world they belong to; they also tell us—again, usually in oblique ways—something about the nature of the world we find them in” (Spencer 43), a world whose linguistic norms call into question the norms of the originary society.2
Science fiction is a literature of otherness and change, and the most self-conscious alternate society SF tries to take into account the inevitability of linguistic change and the possibility of linguistic otherness, if only by acknowledging that new and different societies presuppose new and different languages. Sorting through these linguistically self-conscious fictions, we can identify different levels of metalinguistic engagement. Some authors, such as Anthony Burgess in A Clockwork Orange, incorporate forms or examples of the new language into the discourse and dialogue of the fiction; in so doing, they are able to inject a degree of strangeness into that discourse (to “defamiliarize” it), while at the same time reinforcing the mimetic contract and adding another level of signification. Burgess’s Russian/American patois at once underwrites the verisimilitude of his futuristic society and serves as an index to the idea of superpower domination. The metalinguistic function of “nadsat,” Rabkin notes, is to make “a reality claim about the narrative world being a possible future state of our own world” (93). Other authors, such as Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four, more fully thematize language by incorporating episodes which foreground the form and function of the linguistic novum; in these fictions, language becomes a topic or theme highlighting the nature of the alternate society.
But, in a relatively few science fictions, an invented language becomes the narrative dominant, in-forming the plot, the themes, and the discourse of the fiction. These fictions necessarily investigate the nature of language, the relation of language and reality, and the possibilities of linguistic otherness. In The Languages of Pao, for example, Jack Vance imagines the transformation of an entire planet through the introduction of new language systems. The new languages—one militaristic, one mercantile, and one bureaucratic—are imposed from above on separate segments of the people of Pao, whose native tongue tends to render them passive, obedient, and communal. Once the languages are in place, Pao begins a metamorphosis from feudalism to industrial capitalism. Because “every language imposes a certain world-view upon the mind” (115), Pao evolves into three separate language communities, each nurturing a certain outlook and each pursuing a corresponding activity. Ultimately, there appears Pastiche, an amalgam of the three tongues, a language which incorporates all three ways of looking at the world and is therefore more encompassing, less self-absorbed, less one-dimensional. The more languages one speaks, Vance suggests, the less self-centered one becomes and the more other-directed one is. Pastiche becomes “the language of service” on Pao, assuring that the planet will survive and evolve in a humanitarian way.
In a similar way, Ian Watson’s The Embedding explores the possibility of using various languages, both artificial and natural, to discover “the plan for language,” the “mind’s idea of all possible languages” (43). The linguists in the novel believe that such a plan will enable humans to find or invent a language that can “bespeak” reality—that is, totalize reality and then control it. Fictions such as these assume that language is not merely instrumental, that a person is to some extent spoken by the language he or she speaks. The most celebrated of such fictions is Samuel Delany’s Babel-17. Although not a single word of the invented language Babel-17 appears in the novel, its centrality is indicated in the title itself. The novel systematically interrogates the function of alternate languages, the relation between language and reality, the problematics of communication, and the linguistic possibilities of SF in general.
At one level, that of form, Babel-17 hardly seems worth close examination; it is, after all, action-packed, fast-paced, “Star Wars” space opera, involving intergalactic war, treacherous spies, exotic locales, strange aliens, dangerous missions, and rousing space battles (see Hardesty 63–69; Slusser 31ff). But Delany has worked a number of important transformations upon the simple space-opera formula. His protagonist, for example, is not a macho male roustabout, but rather a female poet. The most dangerous weapon in the work is not an SF gadget but a mysterious invented language. The real villain of the piece is not a mad scientist or an evil empire but rather the inability of one group of human beings to communicate with another group. The plot involves gaining control of the mysterious language and using it to overcome that villain. These transformations signal the fact that Delany has taken a marginal form—space opera—and tried to bring it to the center by reinventing it.
Language is not only the motor that drives the plot of the novel; it also dominates the text’s thematics. The problematics of communication are frequently thematized explicitly. The novel opens with a scene in which a general meets with the poet Rydra Wong to discuss the problem of the new language of the enemy, Babel-17. On his way to the meeting he wonders about the needs of the city’s inhabitants: “Take any of them, take any million. Who are they? What do they want? What would they say if given a chance to say anything?” (4). After he meets Rydra and falls in love with her, his feelings are mixed: “My god, he thought, as coolness struck his face, all that inside me and she doesn’t know! I didn’t communicate a thing! Somewhere in the depth the words, not a thing, you’re still safe. But stronger on the surface was the outrage of his own silence. Didn’t communicate a thing at all” (13). Babel-17 is a novel in which strangers try desperately to learn how to communicate with one another, in which Rydra Wong searches for a language that will go to “the depth” of words.
In the course of her quest, Rydra discourses at length about languages in general and “Babel-17” in particular, explaining to her comrades aspects of phonetics, syntax, and semantics, comparing languages and vocabularies, and discussing the limits of semiotic systems such as sign language and poetry. Throughout the novel, Rydra’s crewmates testify to her ability to communicate with them, to cut through the separate worlds of isolated individuals, enabling them to converse and grow. The novel ends with a chorus of such testimony:
“She managed to say so much to me in that one evening, so very simply.”
“She told me flatly: No, I would have to tell her more. That’s the first time anyone’s told me I had to do something in fourteen years. I may not like it; I sure as hell respect it. … It’s so easy to get caught in your fragment of the world. When a voice comes cutting through, it’s important.”
“She found a way to talk to us without [a discorporaphone]. She cut through worlds, and joined them—that’s the important part—so that both became bigger.”
Indeed, at times it seems that the favorite topic of conversation is conversation itself:
“Well, you … you come to us and immediately we start to learn things, things about you, and ultimately about ourselves.”
“We’re used to talking to each other.”
“Yes, but you tell the important things. What you like, what you don’t like, how you do things.”
In such a linguistically self-conscious text, even accidental or “noisy” references to the act of communication are partially foregrounded:
“Please, I’ve got to talk to you.”
“He seemed to know what he was talking about.”
“Talk, talk, talk.”
“You’ve got nothing to say to me.”
“Now, you talk to me, Calli, Ron.”
“I just wanted to say …”
“Who can talk to people like that?”
And the novel ends with Rydra’s claim that she “can talk [her] way out of anything” (193). Despite its space-opera dressing, what Babel-17 talks about is, in a very real sense, talking itself.
Language is central to the novel in large part because Delany’s view of language is Whorfian; he sees language as constitutive of reality, not as reflective of reality. We see what our language enables us to see; we think according to the ways that language makes available to us. As Rydra Wong says at one point, “there are certain ideas which have words for them. If you don’t have the words, you can’t know the ideas” (132). Robert Scholes has suggested that the novel might well “have begun with Ludwig Wittgenstein’s notion that our language is the limit of our world, or the Whorfian linguistic hypothesis that language shapes perception itself, so that people from different cultures actually ‘see’ different worlds around them” (qtd. in Meyers 178). Another critic, Walter Meyers, takes Delany to task for relying on “this questionable idea,” claiming that Whorfianism is unidirectional and cannot account for ideational innovation (181). While we might acknowledge Meyers’s objections, we could counter that Whorfianism supplies a valuable corrective to an instrumentalist view of language that underlies certain misconceptions, such as the ideas that the language of science is neutral and universal (see Sefler) or that perception is itself unmediated by language (see Eco). Perhaps we should see Delany’s adoption of Whorfianism as a strategic move, one meant to foreground language, to stress its instrumentality in our perception of reality, while at the same time, showcasing the possibilities of SF’s invented languages.
At the very center of his novel, Delany places an episode that at once highlights his notion of the powers of language and serves as a paradigm for the larger plot. Rydra has been captured by a pirate spaceship, and she awakens strapped to a bed in the infirmary. She is thinking of language:
Abstract thoughts in a blue room: Nominative, genitive, elative, accusative one, accusative two, ablative, partitive, illative, instructive, abessive, adessive, inessive, essive, allative, translative, comitative. Sixteen cases to the Finnish noun. Odd, some languages get by with only singular and plural. … The blue room was round and warm and smooth. No way to say warm in French. There was only hot and tepid. If there’s no word for it, how do you think about it?
Locked into English, Rydra awakens to a certain reality—she is trapped in a strange restraining web. In desperation she switches in her thoughts to the language Babel-17, which she has partially mastered: “She looked down at the—not ‘webbing,’ but rather a three particle vowel differential, each part of which defined one stress of the three-way tie, so that the weakest points in the mesh were identified when the total sound of the differential reached its lowest point.” The perspective afforded by the new language enables her to see the weakness of the webbing: “By breaking the threads at these points, she realized, the whole web would unravel” (99). Switching to another language creates another reality: Rydra is able to free herself. In every key episode of the novel—the initial sabotage attempt, the assassination attempt, the battles in space—the formula is the same: Rydra moves from a language frame in which reality is constrictive or uncertain or exigent through the language frame of Babel-17 to a new reality in which obstacles are overcome, dangers neutralized, conflicts resolved. At the global level of macroplot, this structure informs the entire novel; ultimate mastery of Babel-17 means an end to the devastating intergalactic war.
An interpretive summary of the novel’s five-part structure clarifies Delany’s view on the relation between language and reality and the limits and powers of language in general. Each of the novel’s five sections is named for a specific protagonist, and there is direct correspondence between the character and the thematic topos of the section. In the first section, titled “Rydra Wong,” we are introduced to the “most famous poet in five explored galaxies” (5) and to her mission: the Alliance wants her to decode the language Babel-17 and to discover its role in acts of sabotage being perpetrated by the Invaders. In order to accomplish these ends, she requisitions a spaceship and recruits a crew for a flight to the Alliance War Yards where she feels the next act of sabotage will take place. The nature of this crew invites an allegorical reading, one which sets up the five-part structure of the novel. First Rydra enlists a pilot whose “nervous system [will be] connected directly with the controls” of the ship’s “hyperstasis” faster-than-light drive (35). At the same time she finds a team of navigators to act as the computational “brain” for the journey. Later she makes a trip to the discorporate zone—the place where the energies of those that have discorporated but not died congregate—in order to recruit an “Eye,” “Ear,” and “Nose” to read the “hyperspace currents.” It seems that there are some jobs on intergalactic flight that normal human beings just cannot perform; a “live human,” one navigator explains, “scanning all that goes on in the hyperstasis frequencies would—well, die first, and go crazy second” (37). Once Rydra has signed up a platoon to do all the menial and mechanical jobs on the ship, her crew is complete. It should be clear that at a metaphorical level what has transpired is the assemblage of a composite human being, complete with brain, nervous system, senses, and body. Within this assembled totality, Rydra occupies the key position, her centrality having been signaled by the title of the section. She is that element which coordinates the disparate functions, which synthesizes the group by facilitating communication. Given her profession of poet, one might suggest that she serves as the Imagination of the assemblage; that is certainly one of her main roles in the adventures that follow. Describing to a friend how she went about selecting a crew, Rydra says that there was one basic criterion she applied: “they had to be people I could talk to” (49).
The mission of this crew, this composite being, is quite simple—to acquire control of the mysterious Babel-17, a language being used by the Invaders in acts of sabotage against the Alliance. But at the figurative level the crew must acquire a language with which to heal the breaches between alienated and isolated human beings. As one critic notes,
The movement of Babel-17 is directed by impulses towards more perfect communication: Rydra’s psychological motivation, her unique talents, and the plot device of the mysterious language to be deciphered all point towards a climax of perfect communication. Delany emphasizes the need for it by repeatedly presenting gaps between people: between individuals, like the “triple” of Calli, Ron, and Molly; between groups, like the planet-bound and the spaceship crews; between “the Invaders” and “the Alliance” in the intergalactic war (Stone-Blackburn 248).
The world of Babel-17 is one of “isolated communities, each hardly touching its neighbor, each speaking, as it were, a different language” (64). That breach is figured most forcefully in the war itself, which pits not humans against aliens, but humans against humans from another galaxy. Indeed, Rydra is disturbed by the fact that her poems are immensely popular with both parties to the conflict, that her allegiance to the Alliance has been determined by an “accident of birth” (64). At the literal level mastering the new language will end the war; at the figurative level it will enable humanity to bridge the gap between Self and Other, healing the breach of isolation and alienation and clearing up the “misunderstandings that tie the world up and keep people apart” (19).
Part Two, titled “Ver Dorco,” takes its name from the Baron who commands the Alliance War Yards. In this section, Rydra and her crew are exposed to the brutal reality of war minus a controlling language; they in effect experience the world “raw” (an appropriate metaphor given the food motif in this part.) Again the section begins with a paradigmatic episode. Rydra and her crew are preparing to eat; their preparations are interrupted by an act of treachery which jeopardizes their lives. Rydra resorts to her rapidly expanding knowledge of Babel-17 to analyze the problem and to effectuate a solution; she learns how “to go to another language in order to think about the problem clearly” (60). This formula is repeated several times in the novel, but its connection here with the act of eating is significant. The section culminates with a banquet that the Baron arranges for Rydra and her crew, a banquet disrupted by the assassination of the Baron and his key advisers by saboteurs responding to radio commands given in Babel-17. The banquet devolves into a madhouse scene of food, murder, and chaos. The ending of the section thus establishes a motif connecting food, language, and disorder; this motif suggests that the world untempered by language is at once murderous and carnivorous, that this kind of world will eat one alive.
The second section is littered with references to eating and with food imagery. The Baron is described as possessing a “disquieting appetite for [Rydra’s] presence, a hunger for something she was or might be” (65). The “lean and hungry” Baron complains of being “starved” for intelligent conversation (a metaphor which links food and language) and interrupts a tour of the war yards because he is “famished” (65). When the Baroness refers to Rydra and her crew as “cool and pleasing, so fresh, so crisp,” Rydra objects to being described as a salad. The Baroness responds, “I dare say if you stayed here long enough we would devour you. What you bring we are very hungry for” (80). Behind the veneer of a civilized conversation lies a carnivorous reality, something Rydra is figuratively unable to handle because she lacks the proper language. The section ends in murder and chaos.
Rydra and her crew are rescued from the debacle at the war yard by a passing pirate ship named “Jebel Tarik,” which means “Tarik’s Mountain” (101). The third section, taking its name from the ship, deals with Rydra’s retreat from the world to a “mountainous” refuge. The epigraph for the section contains the line, “I would make a language we could all speak” (95), and that is the task that. Rydra undertakes on Jebel Tarik. The pirate “shadow ship” represents a refuge from the carnivorous reality of the intergalactic war, a place where Rydra can perfect her understanding of Babel-17. During her stay on the pirate ship, she uses the language to foil an assassination attempt; her success here should be contrasted with her failure to prevent the death of the Baron in the previous section. She also demonstrates a growing mastery of the external world and its strife. Command of Babel-17 makes her into a formidable war general, and she wins two space battles with Invader fleets.
More important, in this section she meets another speaker of Babel-17 (though she doesn’t realize it at the time), the dark other half that Rydra must link up with in order to make her language whole, the brutal ex-convict Butcher. At one point, the pirate leader, Tarik, suggests to Rydra that any whole person is “necessarily of two minds on any matter of moment” (108), thereby hinting at the central action of this section, the encounter between two minds, or better, the two parts of the mind which must connect for there to be wholeness; the conscious and informing mind of the poet must tap into the inarticulate and brute power of the unconscious. Butcher’s mind is quite explicitly linked with the unconscious; his thoughts are “ego-less and inarticulate, magic, seductive, mythical” (159). During Rydra’s stay on Jebel Tarik, he repeatedly shows himself capable of a “red bestiality” (128) that Rydra finds fascinating. Butcher’s connection with the unconscious mind is underscored in the final section when he discovers, once his amnesia has been lifted, that he is Niles Ver Dorco and that he is responsible for his father’s (the Baron’s) death.
The meeting of the two minds in the fourth section, “The Butcher,” is engineered through Rydra’s power of telepathy. The poetic epigraph speaks of the birth and awakening of the dark “twin behind the eyes” (155), and the section represents an awakening to the power and amorality of the unconscious mind. The mind-link is at once sexual—“She had entered him in some bewildering reversed sexuality” (159)—and archetypal—“the Criminal and artistic consciousness meeting in the same head with one language between them” (160). This experience is necessary for Rydra to become capable of doing what she has to, namely acting with the kind of ruthlessness it takes to put an end to the senseless and destructive intergalactic war. During the mind-link she says to Butcher:
“You’re teaching me something and it’s shaking my whole picture of the world and myself. I thought I was afraid before because I couldn’t do what you could do, Butcher. … But I was afraid because I could do all those things, and for my own reasons, not your lack of reasons, because I am, and you are. I’m a lot bigger than I thought I was, Butcher, and I don’t know whether to thank you or to damn you for showing me.”
By tapping into the unconscious, by making ego go where id had been, Rydra has indeed become larger; she has, in effect, become whole.
In the fifth section—named after Rydra’s doctor, Markus T’mwarba—Rydra, Butcher, and the crew make a final break from the Alliance and from the war altogether with full control of Babel-17. With a “language [they] could all speak,” they will be able to heal singlehandedly the illness that has infected the world: “This war will end within six months,” Rydra confidently predicts (193). And thus a new language will create a new, more satisfactory reality.
At the beginning of the novel, no one can control the language Babel-17, in large part because it is an “impersonal language” (Weedman 41); it lacks the concepts “you” and “I.” This lack is constitutive of more serious deficiencies or gaps. The lack of an “I” shortcircuits the self-critical process; the speaker of Babel-17 is unable to stand apart from her or his linguistic formulations, to subject them to critical meta-commentary. As Rydra notes, the lack of an “I” “cuts out any awareness of the symbolic process at all—which is the way we distinguish between reality and our expression of reality” (189). Without the concept “I” we are unable to recognize language for what it is, a modelling system. And the concepts “you” and “I” are essential to the moral sense; without them, we cannot know that “for an I to kill a you without a lot of thought is a mistake” (139). Without these all-important concepts, the novel insists, we are blind to the idea of the Self and the Other; we exist apart from moral frameworks, are condemned to be both suicidal and sociopathic. Rydra is able to gain complete control over the language by creating personal pronouns for it. By adding an “I” she personalizes Babel-17 and converts it to Babel-18, the language with which she and Butcher will change the world. The language system Babel-17—the novel—also lacks a first person, in the form of the reader. Once that person has been added to the novel, once he or she has personalized it, then it too assumes a moral dimension, it too becomes self-critical. It becomes a language system that can affect reality.
One of Rydra’s crewmates attributes to her the following quality: “She cut through worlds and joined them—that’s the important part—so that both became bigger” (181). This same quality, of cutting through and joining worlds, is elsewhere attributed to science fiction as well: reading SF, “you start thinking that maybe those people who live in other worlds … are real. If you believe in them, you’re a little more ready to believe in yourself” (180). The reader of SF becomes, in effect, a little bit bigger. Babel-17 also serves as a bridge between fragmented and isolated worlds, as a language system with the potential to make its “speakers” grow. Armed with this language system, we can, like Rydra Wong, begin to tell right from wrong, begin to right a wrong (Hardesty 69), indeed begin to change the world.
At one point early in the novel, Rydra complains to Markus T’mwarba that she feels dissatisfied as a poet because to this point she has simply been expressing the unarticulated ideas of others. “Now,” she says, “I have things to say that are all my own. They’re not what other people have said before, put in an original way. And they’re not just contradictions of what other people have said, which amounts to the same thing. They’re new” (17). At the end of the novel, she says that she may write a novel of her own, because she has “a lot to say” (193). Whether or not we conclude that Babel-17 is her novel, we can still say that it has been author-ized by someone who shares her feelings and her ambitions. Samuel Delany has original things to say, and he needs a new language to say them in. The science fiction genre affords him the latitude within which to explore new domains, to express original propositions.
The most linguistically self-conscious alternate society SF frequently tries to do just that. In Babel-17, for example, the discorporate zone episode in part one, the awakening scene in part three, Rydra’s foiling of the assassination attempt in part three, and the mental/sexual link-up in part four represent specific attempts on Delany’s part to render new or extreme experiences in language. One critic has noted that Babel-17 works as well as it does because there is a direct connection between its words and the realities they define (Collings 64). The same could be said of the novel Babel-17: it undertakes a direct connection between its words and its realities. By enacting linguistic otherness, it tries to motivate the relation between signifier and signified. In so doing the novel aspires to the condition of Coleridge’s Symbol, which “partakes of the Reality which it renders intelligible” (30).
Invented or alien languages, then, offer the fictionist specific venues in which to enact real otherness or to encode innovative semantic spaces. Suzette Haden Elgin, for example, takes on this kind of linguistic experiment in Native Tongue. She imagines a brutally patriarchal near-future society in which the 19th Amendment has been repealed and women have been relegated to the status of legal minors, well on the way to being reduced to chattel. The women are forced to invent a specifically female tongue, “Láadan,” in order to subvert that social order: “And then, as more and more little girls acquire Láadan and begin to speak a language that expresses the perceptions of women rather than those of men, reality will begin to change” (Elgin 250). Láadan contains, among other things, distinctly feminist encodings, “the making of a name for a chunk of the world that so far as we know has never been chosen for naming before in any human language,” “a chunk that has been around for a long time but has never impressed anyone as sufficiently important to deserve its own name” (Elgin 22). “Encoding consists,” one critic says, “of assigning names and descriptions to female semantic perceptions” (Bray 51), of giving voice to a uniquely feminine perspective. With new languages like Láadan, we can speak the unknown or the unspoken; in so doing, we can bespeak new realities. In Ian Watson’s The Embedding, one character notes that it is really almost impossible for one person “to imagine the otherness of another person” (7). The most cognitively rewarding SF tries to enact that otherness, to real-ize it so that readers can experience it for themselves.
Postmodern writing is acutely aware that all systems of notation offer us models of reality rather than descriptions of it. Fiction, of course, is one such notational system; as Delany says, “fiction makes models of reality” (Jewel-Hinged Jaw 151). Science fiction’s notational system presents us with a model at one remove from reality, a counterrealistic model. For Delany, however, SF is a privileged system, because in it, more than in any genre, one can legitimately undertake the search for new language models with which to construct or invent reality. In SF novels such as Babel-17, the fictionist can “use language in much the same way that Babel-17 is used: to … force the reader to think in new ways” (McEvoy 58). From this perspective, it is not at all surprising that most SF featuring an alien or invented tongue as its narrative dominant adopts a Whorfian view of the relation between language and reality. Such SF wants to emphasize the extent to which any new language system can affect our view of reality. As Jack Vance says in The Languages of Pao, “when people speak different languages, their minds work differently and they act differently” (65). Delany would add that science fiction gives us many new and different languages to speak. Mastering these languages, we learn to think and act differently.
For a further discussion of alternate society SF, see Malmgren, chap. 3.
Spencer deals at length with the way in which neologisms and other linguistic novums contribute to the real-ization of SF worlds. For a similar argument, see Delany, “Generic Protocols: Science Fiction and Mundane.” Rabkin focuses on the way in which these novums underwrite the mimetic contract and interrogate contemporary value systems.
Amis, Kingsley. New Maps of Hell: A Survey of Science Fiction. New York: Harcourt, 1960.
Asimov, Isaac. “Social Science Fiction.” Rpt. in Science Fiction: The Future. Ed. Dick Allen. New York: Harcourt, 1971. 263–99.
Bray, Mary Kay. “The Naming of Things: Men and Women, Language and Reality in Suzette Haden Elgin’s Native Tongue.” Extrapolation 27 (Spring 1986): 49–61.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Vol. 6, Lay Sermons. Ed. R.J. White. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1972.
Collings, Michael R. “Samuel R. Delany and John Wilkins: Artificial Languages, Science, and Science Fiction.” Reflections on the Fantastic: Selected Essays from the Fourth International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts. Ed. Michael R. Collings. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986. 61–68.
Delany, Samuel R. Babel-17. 1966. New York: Daw, 1984.
———. “Generic Protocols: Science Fiction and Mundane.” The Technological Imagination: Theories and Fictions. Ed. Teresa de Lauretis et al. Madison, WI: Coda Press, 1980. 175–93.
———. The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Languages of Science Fiction. Elizabethtown, NY: Dragon Press, 1977.
Eco, Umberto. “How Culture Conditions the Colours We See.” On Signs. Ed. Marshall Blonsky. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 1985. 157–75.
Elgin, Suzette Haden. Native Tongue. New York: Daw, 1984.
Hardesty, William H., III. “Semiotics, Space Opera, and Babel-17.” Mosaic 13, 3–4 (1980): 63–69.
Malmgren, Carl D. Worlds Apart: Narratology of Science Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991.
McEvoy, Seth. Samuel R. Delany. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1984.
Meyers, Walter E. Aliens and Linguistics: Language Study and Science Fiction. Athens: U of George P, 1980.
Rabkin, Eric S. “Metalinguistics and Science Fiction.” Critical Inquiry 6 (1979): 79–97.
Seffler, George F. “Science, Science Fiction, and Possible World Semantics.” Aspects of Fantasy: Selected Essays from the Second International Conference on Fantasy in Film and Literature. Ed. William Coyle. New York: Greenwood Press, 1986. 213–19.
Slusser, George. The Delany Intersection: Samuel Delany Considered as a Writer of Semi-Precious Words. San Bernadino, CA: Borgo Press, 1977.
Spencer, Katherine L. “‘The Red Sun is High, the Blue Low’: Towards a Stylistic Description of Science Fiction.” Science-Fiction Studies 10 (1983): 35–49.
Stone-Blackburn, Susan. “Adult Telepathy: Babel-17 and The Left Hand of Darkness.” Extrapolation 30 (Fall 1989): 243–53.
Vance, Jack. The Languages of Pao. 1958. New York: Ace, 1966.
Watson, Ian. The Embedding. London: Gollancz, 1973.
———. “Toward an Alien Linguistics.” Vector 71 2 (December 1975): 14–23.
Weedman, Jane Branham. Samuel R. Delany. Starmount Reader’s Guide 10. Mercer Island, WA: Starmount House, 1982.
Wells, H. G. H. G. Wells’s Literary Criticism. Ed. Patrick Parrinder and Robert M. Philmus. Sussex: Harvester Press, 1980.
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SOURCE: A review of Silent Interviews, in Extrapolation, Vol. 36, No. 2, Summer, 1995, pp. 163-5.
[In the following review, MacLean offers a positive evaluation of Silent Interviews.]
Delany posits himself, black and gay and an SF writer, in the soundless space between views. This is a superb and important book for anyone interested in Delany, SF, or SF criticism (comics fans and opera buffs also will find an interview to suit them). This collection [Silent Interviews] of eleven written conversations is engaging, well put together, fun to read, and challenging. As usual, with anything written by Delany, the texts all operate at many levels: personal, historical, critical, theoretical, and metatheoretical.
The major critical focus is Delany’s continuing involvement with language and reading (genre) theory, though here augmented by Derrida and Lacan (deconstruction and psychoanalysis). The latter theoreticians are seemingly the genesis for Delany’s reflections on silence and marginality that infuse the content of the interviews, as well as the focus of the book as a whole. Not surprisingly, his shift in critical views parallels his latest fictional work, the Neveryòna series.
The book is divided into two main parts and an appendix. The largest, the first, part consists of seven professional interviews all connected in some fashion with journals. The three interviews of the second part are more personal and presume less theoretical knowledge. The appendix “gives the reader a chance to see what happens when the form turns tail and interviewee becomes interviewer” (9), as Delany speaks with composer Anthony Davis about the latter’s recent opera.
Delany himself gives the list of major themes within this collection: language and theory, science fiction, comic books, sword and sorcery, the sociology of genres, AIDS, sex, and race (16). Though not mentioned within the list, silence is also an important theme, especially as it relates to marginality. Language, theory, and SF are the main focuses of most of these interviews, with race and sex a distant second.
Delany continues to maintain (especially in “The Semiology of Silence,” his first interview) that SF is not literature, but paraliterature. He holds to his view of SF as a reading protocol that engages the reader to focus on the world presented within the story. An interesting distinction raised in the first interview from previous critical work is his notion of SF as one of many paraliterary genres governed by a code that focuses on the object, whereas literary genres are more governed by codes focusing on the subject. In other words, literary genres are more subjective (psychological), whereas SF is more objective (world oriented). This is a helpful distinction that easily fits into his previous comments on language and reading protocols.
Delany’s comments on comics and art are fascinating and provoking, especially to someone who doesn’t often dabble in the genre. The interview is (as always) wider than the topic at hand, and Delany slips in some intriguing remarks on film and language theory as well as pictorial theory.
The fourth interview, with Camera Obscura, highlights his recent fiction work, the Neveryòna series. The shift in theoretical focus here is quite obvious, centering around economics, both mercantile and libidinal, as well as political. Derrida and Lacan surface here strongly, along with other theories of marginalization. Considering the focus of this interview, it is not surprising that there is a good diatribe against the publishing world as well. More serious are Delany's remarks about AIDS: its history, his use of it in “The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals,” and as emblematic of these questions of economics and marginalization.
“Some Real Mothers” focuses on cyberpunk for a large part and also on Delany’s nonparticipation in the New Wave (he allies himself rather with the Dangerous Visions crew). This subject comes up again in the following piece, where he also addresses the history of SF and SF criticism. The final interview of the first section is entitled “Sex, Race, and Science Fiction,” a proper description of its content.
As Delany himself points out in the introduction, the interviews in the second section are more personal, more anecdotal. He explains the background to his theoretical reading, adds a few notes about his own work, both as a writer and from the position he holds as a black gay writer. The interview with K. Leslie Steiner, however, might be one of the most intriguing ones of this volume in its self-aware play with the genre of written interview and its range of theoretical remarks.
The final interview (as it pertains to Delany), perhaps simply because it is about the opera X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X, has the most open discussion about black versus white issues. Whereas in the other interviews Delany tends not to bring up the issue of “race,” it is interesting that he should do so here, when he is the interviewer (and thus, to some extent, in power). Most of the discussion, however, expertly led by Delany, focuses on musical knowledge and theory; the whole is once again thoroughly enjoyable.
In his introduction, Delany speaks of his reasons for reediting these interviews. Of primary importance to him is the possibility this “hemi-genre” (15) allows for “marginality, lack of intimidation, [and] accuracy” (16). Delany also seeks to present this collection as one infused by the spirit of rhapsody, saying that a “rhaps-ode is a stitched-together song—traditionally from fragments of various narratives” (14–15). Thus the anomaly of a written rhapsody creates a certain tension between its origin (as an oral form) and its present incorporation (written), which Delany hopes will produce a more “readerly text” (15), a tension, an “excess aesthetic” that is “profoundly, ideologically informative” (9).
The book in its totality is striking because the reader, informed by the statements found in the introduction, is constantly herself in dialogue with these interviews and her image of Delany. Indeed, his framing remarks induce the reader to continuously reinterpret and reevaluate the apparent content of the interviews, leading to a very strong impression of presence on the part of the author. Though the interviews have been edited, as Delany is careful to point out, very much by a writer, reading this collection turns into a conversation between writer and reader and privileges the space of silence that inevitably exists between the two. This is a couple between whom silence always lies in wait, a situation where each is perpetually at mercy of the other, where violence constantly lurks. The moment of silence is the locus of desire, perhaps circumscribed, but never grasped; it is the moment when reality and representation fully manifest the impossibility of their encounter, of their merging.
Delany is the point de mire of these interviews: the target, or aim, but with the reflective power of a mirror, the surface at which the gaze imperceptibly halts before being reflected. But there is also the mire-or: the targeter, the aimer, the one who forces the reader to reflect as well, to think. The margin is the traditional space in which language (as tool of authority and patriarchy) falters and fails. The margin is also the other side of the sharp border between society and the Other behind which desire is held at bay. In this collection, the margin is no longer situated at the edges of our collective attention but becomes the center, the focal point, the double space of reflection. Delany, as the basis for his interview with The Cotton Review, posits a triple interweaving between language, desire, and experience, or “what happens.” And Delany is, in this collection, what happens.
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SOURCE: “Talking,” in Science-Fiction Studies, Vol. 22, No. 2, July, 1995, pp. 204-11.
[In the following review, Samuelson provides an extended analysis of Delany's comments on literary theory, the politics of marginalization, and science fiction in Silent Interviews.Though noting repetition and contradiction in the volume, Samuelson finds Delany's poststructuralist perspective challenging.]
Samuel R. Delany both clings to and defies genrefication. Claiming to write “science fiction”—not speculative fiction, or sword and sorcery—because of a defining attitude he brings to it, he notes that spaceships appear first in his fifth sf novel, and argues for science fictional readings of Dhalgren and the four volumes of “Return to Nevèrÿon.” Sf’s “way of reading” he keys to a readerly and writerly focus on a malleable material world, in contrast to the malleable subject (perceiver-protagonist) of fantastic and realistic fiction. Yet his fiction, not all of which demands an sf reading, also has its malleable subjects, and his writing, not all of which demands to be called fiction, includes himself as a character. Frequently dissolving borders between fiction and nonfiction, he interweaves critical, theoretical, and autobiographical elements into both.
Besides a couple of dozen short stories and around eighteen novels, Delany has published eight volumes of non-fiction. While the others take essay or memoir form, Silent Interviews marks a shift in his published interviews from oral to written form. From the 1978 Comics Journal “Interview” (reprinted here), he began to demand at least proofreading rights, then revising and extending his remarks, eventually using the questions as a pretext for mini-essays. Finally, in “The K. Leslie Steiner Interview” (first printed here though commissioned for the Review of Contemporary Fiction), he invents both questions and answers, the interviewer and to some extent the interviewee.
Evidencing a certain anxiety about this new form, Delany defends it in the Steiner interview and the later-written introduction with plausible arguments. Interviewers mis-hear, mis-transcribe, and mis-understand answers, especially those they do not expect to hear; all three translation errors are visible in Delany interviews published before he exercised more control. He legitimately disavows the “interrogation” model of a subject whose unguarded words may betray guilt, and claims as a writer the right to think in revised prose. Consistent with his poststructuralist position, this refusal to privilege voice over print and presence over absence demonstrates a postmodern selfconsciousness and reflexivity which are progressively more evident in Delany’s later fiction as well.
In the process, of course, we lose at least the sense of unedited spontaneity, since the interviewee can censor slips of the tongue that might reveal something unintended but telling. Although he retains an appearance of serendipity, following a topic where it leads, a considered writerly response may in fact lead the reader outward rather than inward, and leave an interviewer no chance to probe further. To be sure, interviewers vary greatly in sophistication and some would be unable to capitalize on such a chance. In this book Delany’s most fruitful exchanges are with sophisticated interlocutors, like Takayuki Tatsumi (SF Eye and Diacritics) and the Comics Journal people; from others he tends to wrest the interview away to redirect it. Unstinting of the time required to lay out a position in detail, he often takes revision, as in his fiction, well beyond simply fixing errors.
If his longer responses seem embryonic essays, the question logically arises as to why he did not simply write them as such. One reason is that he is revisiting old territory. Familiar to me from other Delany essays are such topics as writing (including SP) as a way of reading, science as a kind of grounding, series fiction as an author’s dialogue with himself, the limits and benefits of genre, the dangers posed to reading by inappropriate contexts, and the need for close attention to texts and material facts of history—like incorrectly linking him to the New Wave and neglecting the foremothers of cyberpunk. For his more “counterintuitive” insights (i.e., what he perceives his audience is not used to thinking), dialogue with a real or imagined interviewer can make them more accessible.
Some of these observations, however, are musings aloud on topics converted elsewhere to essay form. Others, like his comments on Philip K. Dick and their shared “liberal Jewish” world-view, might yet be worth a whole essay. Still others, however, may be too familiar in circles beyond his interlocutor to merit a full-scale recounting. In the context of an interview, moreover, a writer can propose with some conviction an idea he might never demonstrate conclusively, especially if he moves away from his usual area of expertise. Montaigne coined the term essai from the verb “to try,” which fits the provisional form of an interview, even one that is actually written, better than it does a formal critical analysis. The interview, oral or written, provides a legitimate launching pad for many different ideas, old or new, more or less connected, more suggestive than conclusive.
The reader should also consider that writing a more or less impregnable essay takes time away from commercial pursuits. A full-time academic for several years now, Delany is rarely paid more than a pittance to express critical ideas in essays. That he pursues them at all, even in interviews, argues his commitment to what he contends, his desire to uncover a grain if not a vein of truth, and his hope that at least part of his audience can learn to read him by his lights.
If this book does not extend his previous critical volumes much conceptually, it does emphasize elements less explicit before. Socio-cultural dimensions of Delany’s critical theory emerge most clearly as new points of emphasis in these interviews. Although they are interwoven throughout the book, at least four strands make up this complex knot. At the risk of exaggerating and oversimplifying their distinctness, I will address them as rhetoric, criticism, perception, and politics.
Under “rhetoric,” I include specific art forms, “difficult” styles, the pleasures of order, and a “higher meaning” of genre. In sf Eye (interview conducted in 1987). Delany connects cyberpunk to the mysterious lunar artifact of Algis Budrys’ Rogue Moon and early evocations of outer space, all of which use inflated rhetoric to differentiate “paraspace” from mundane dimensions. For Comics Journal, he expatiates on characteristics distinguishing graphic art from cinematic and prose narratives, and in the Steiner interview he differentiates the role of settings in theatre from those of comics. In “A Conversation with Anthony Davis,” whom Delany interviewed, he raises with the composer distinctions between opera, stage musicals, and non-musical drama as well as the influence on him of Wagner and Modernism (explored by Delany in Wagner/Artaud).
In “The Kenneth James Interview” (1986) Delany charts the enormous impact on him of the French New Critics in the 1970s. Beyond the power of their insights to extend his, he notes his delight with Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, and Levi-Strauss as “astonishing” writers, doing something new with words. Alongside a recommended reading list (including Shoshana Felman, Barbara Johnson, and John Searle) is a tactical justification for difficult styles. Difficult rhetoric is hard to co-opt, to restate and distort in simple terms; assimilation is slower, accompanied by commentary, contextualizing difficult concepts. He proceeds to compare them to Modernist poets and novelists, rather than to writing of which the plain sense is obvious.
Connection with his own work is implicit as Delany modifies positions in earlier essays, explicit as he explains to James the role of revision in his Nevèrÿon stories. Readers of that series who do not agree that revision “simplifies” them may find elucidation in “The Callalloo Interview” (1989). There he distinguishes concise, vivid, inventive, and insightful writing from commercial demands for “transparent” writing, by definition conventional, if not clichéd. He also acknowledges aiming from the beginning of his career to express himself in a style that was not transparent, and one that called attention to its own mediation, relatively rare at that time in commercial fiction.
It should come as no surprise to Delany readers that he explicitly tells Susan Grossman (1988) of the “fun” of organizing fiction and making order out of chaos, rehashing his difficulty of making connections in the “Towers of Toron” trilogy (cf. Motion) and his pleasure in working with patterns and reflections in Nevèryon. Embodied in his attention to style and technique and to genre appropriateness, this delight is elevated to a higher plane in the Steiner interview. There he posits as an “aesthetic theory” the existence of a human “aesthetic register,” in which the recognition of genre is a higher level pattern.
Theory is the high point of sf criticism for Delany, and he told Diacritics that he saw little of it in print as of 1985. Formal criticism in some fanzines of the Forties and Fifties spurred readers and writers to improve style and plausibility, but the effect of criticism today is unclear. As writers, critics need readers. He finds academic critics conveying formal explorations, watered-down Marxism, and simplistic thematic studies in a vacuum, or worse. Composing and addressing a “literary” audience, they ignore a major distinction of sf reading and writing, i.e., taking the world more than the perceiving subject (protagonist, narrator) as malleable.
Not used to “telling stories” about what they read, academic critics produce allegories of reading that differ widely from those embodied in sf. Shaped by Modernism and assuming a canon, the allegories of today’s criticism focus on aesthetic engendering, interpretive problems, and the anticipation of criticism. All of these center on the limitations of perceiving subjects. Sf ignores these issues, even anticipating postmodernism in its resistance to the formation of a canon and its denial of veneration to any artwork. What sf allegories dramatize are generic power relations, life and text in contest with a historical critique of text, and text and genre in tension with the philosophy of science. Subjectivity is not absent, but it is distanced; an objective world out there is foregrounded.
These distinctions are relevant to all readers, not just to critics, but also to creative writers. Literary writers typically rework childhood (ages 8–15), he tells Grossman, acquiescing to or rebelling against historical and material limits. By contrast, sf writers typically rework adolescence (12–23, the years basically covered in his 1988 memoirs, The Motion of Light on Water), exploring the world as negotiable. In Diacritics, that negotiation translates partly into solving individual or “local” problems, an act permeating sf which is rarely central to literary fiction. Limited to his perceptions and identified with his author, the “literary” self (like the self of fantasy) treats distortions of the “normal” or conventional as hallucinations. The contrasting self of sf is “embedded” in what he or she does. Denying the existence of character except in situations, Delany invokes a model likely to fit any story-centered writing where the reader suspends disbelief, i.e., most commercial fiction.
In part because of the distance he claims between author and character, Delany resists simplistic biographical readings that confuse the writer with what the reader sees of himself reflected in the text (Steiner). He has never denied the relevance of biography, however, including his own. That he seems a little more forthcoming about autobiographical data in this book than in previous critical volumes surely stems from writing his memoirs in the late Eighties. Doing so dredged up details and made him attend even more to the processes of memory. Thinking of his writings, for example, reminds him of circumstances under which he wrote them (Grossman). Material history shows his memory up as incompletely reliable (Camera Obscura).
Although he acknowledges that personal elements increase in prominence in his later fiction (Callalloo), he distances himself from his characters. If some are self-images, others are figures of desire, accessible to him only in imagination (Diacritics). His fiction does not focus on the creative process, he tells James; artist and scientist figures are useful narrators because they are close observers. One reason to assert this distance is that self-absorption better befits a literary writer. Overlapping the criminal and “the magic kid” in his fiction, however, the artist and the scientist contribute to an idealized self-image present in his fiction and non-fiction alike.
As storyteller, theorist, and critic, Delany takes seriously a central structuralist (and post-structuralist) tenet, that everything is encoded. The storyteller must consider it in the makeup of “characters” and the fictional world they inhabit, as well as in anticipating what readers may expect of them. One application of this principle Delany credits to Theodore Sturgeon: fully imagining a scene, but describing it in a few vivid details as they impinge on a character’s consciousness, evoking in the reader an emotional nexus rather than the full sensory impact of the physical whole (Steiner).
Memoir-writing seems to have reinforced Delany’s sense of history as artifact, produced by interactions between language, desire, and events, all abortively contesting for supremacy (Cottonwood Review, 1986). More obvious in terms of the past, recorded in some fashion, this insight applies to perception in general, how we process and even anticipate experience.
To Delany’s eye, literary readers ignore the findings of structuralism. They presuppose as time-honored a canon that is actually coterminous with and shaped by the Modernist revolution in the arts. Produced and maintained by literary institutions, it marginalizes as minor writing which contests or contextualizes white male heterosexual experience. Limiting literature to what a limited and partial literary self can perceive, they see it as reflecting real life without bias, but life outside the artwork is real only in so far as it is internalized in the text. That conception of literature is an index to a marginal life style, and a marginal mode of discourse at best, one that has always been predatory toward folk, minor, and paraliterature. Calling centrality in Cottonwood Review the “stabilizing illusion of Western culture,” he cites in Diacritics the term “minor literature” from Delueze and Guatari as a new literary model, located on the margin of the margin.
If everything is encoded, every set of values is created, making political dimensions inescapable. Although politics is unruly and bad-mannered, ignoring it won’t make it go away. To Delany, critics evade the politics of literature out of fear (Cottonwood Review), but complacency is also relevant. Critics find it easier to work within given parameters than to take responsibility for continuing or reforming them. Awareness of the politics that goes into it destroys the illusion of an autonomous canon. It also takes our attention away from the pure unfettered examination of a text; what makes it meaningful, morally valuable, artistically valid, or socially significant is now located or at least justified from outside.
The myth of centrality marginalizes people as well as art and literature. Marginalizing leads to or reinforces stereotyping, enforced by pressures from within as well as without. Whoever enforces it, in literature and life, forced rigidity of form or content is a political imposition. The politics of publishing, reinforcing genre, has this much in common with the politics of race and gender. As a black, gay, writer of science fiction, Delany has been marginalized in all three, but refuses to “stay in his place.”
The politics discussed most specifically in these interviews is that of making art public, including familiar pressures from the sf ghetto and the teaching of literature to the performance of opera and the production of comic books. Sf permeates all the interviews, often in contradistinction to literature. Although he disowned the label in a 1980 interview by Charles Platt in Dream Makers, not reprinted here, Delany is now an academic. In that role, he does his part to remake the canon or revoke its credentials. In The Cottonwood Review, he maintains that he teaches sf, not literature, though he believes good teaching of either requires attention to text and context.
“A Conversation with Anthony Davis” discusses the technical hardships of mounting an opera, but also the difficulties white critics had in perceiving the artistic and social event before them. Reviewing his opera, X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X, they are said to have been unable to separate it from artistic contexts in which they were already familiar with successes of white and black people.
What is not concerned with technique in the Comics Journal interview is largely taken up with politics. Delany sees the pecking order in comic books as even more hierarchical than in paperback publishing. Having worked on “feminist” stories for Wonder Woman, Delany willingly subordinated his work to that of the visual artist, Howard Chaykin. Discussing their hardback sf comic book, Empire, for which Delany designed the story and wrote “half” of the prose, his lament is that a publisher with ghettoized ideas of audience expectation, fancied himself a creator and made sure that what was published was aesthetic hash.
Delany’s introduction notes his deliberate use of outmoded terms, sex, race, and semiology, to avoid readers’ mistaking them for metaphysical realities. This notice also calls attention to their ubiquity in this book, expanding his criticism from sf into “real world” concerns. Few of these interviews exclude comments on race and sex and coding, but none of them go much further than comments. Assent may be easy to give to most of these heartfelt ideas in general, but they are considerably less developed here than are his observations on writing.
The Steiner interview gently chides me for crediting him with seeking to “liberate the word” in his critical writings. Delany sees himself on a different quest, to “broaden the meaning of reading” to include political dimensions. Ironically, this book may do more for the former than the latter. I think his fiction embodies politics more convincingly than do his interviews, while their loose structure liberates the word in ways neither of us intended.
THE BOOK AS A WHOLE
Silent Interviews is attractively packaged by a university press that has also just published a matched set of quality paperbacks containing the entire Nevèrÿon series. It is durable and printed clearly for ease in reading. It is not a model of careful proofreading, nor is it a complete collection of Delany’s written interviews. It is, however, representative of his critical thinking over the last fifteen years. The form of the whole is more pedagogical than logical or chronological, moving from overviews through more specialized topics to lighter personal background and a summing up, followed by a coda.
The conversational ease of the interview and his penchant for concrete visualizations make the book fascinating to dip into at random for desultory reading. Sparks fly in every exchange, as Delany seems to jump effortlessly from one suggestive generalization to another. Among the many I have not addressed are the impact of Wagner on sf and Modernism, the use of monologues in Neveryóna, the primitive state of sf rhetoric for describing time aberrations, the effects of “slot” publishing on delaying the age at which writers begin sf careers, the bad press given to sadism, and Delany’s views on violence. In a collection, however, the features that make a good interview insure repetition and some measure of self-contradiction, which including other written interviews would have increased. We can also see what questions he deflects and what answers fail to grow.
The repetition I have addressed from the start. Contradictions and inconsistencies are a little harder to pin down. His insistence on sf as a way of reading is not wholly consistent with his own readings of specific texts. He may overplay distinctions between subject-oriented literature and object-oriented sf and between the “real” as political and the “actual” as transcendental. Though he calls blackness a hangup of whites (SFS, 1983), he brings up race throughout the book. Even as he challenges academic critics, he declares in Callalloo (1989) his interests to be mainly teaching and non-fiction. One omission that might have made a difference is awareness of the amount of structuralist and post-structuralist theory, other than his, that has crept into academic sf criticism since 1985. Whether it would obviate his strictures on the audience for criticism, I am not sure; like Delany himself, however, more critics seem to be taking part in a dialogue among readers.
As in much of his non-fiction, he seeks to disarm criticism of his positions by suggesting that he has already considered and dismissed it, that his “counter-intuitive” ideas fall outside the critic’s angle of vision, or that he has read and internalized theorists with whom the critic is less familiar. An interviewer normally has to let him get away with what could be termed bullying and evasion. Even a friendly reviewer is not bound by the same politesse.
Read as professional scholarship, these interviews show a fairly casual attitude to expository development and evidence outside his immediate ken, not to mention textual citations. It would be unfair, however, to apply those standards rigorously. A more appropriate model is a set of “ideas in progress,” advancing here, filling in there, feinting there toward a position not yet firm. Even in this baggy assemblage, it should be obvious that Delany’s intellect is formidable, that he raises important issues few sf critics do, and that he challenges his contemporaries, me included, in valuable ways.
For an extended account of his critical oeuvre, see my “Necessary Constraints: Samuel R. Delany on Science Fiction,” Foundation 60:21–42, Spring 1993. Commissioned for the Delany issue of the Review of Contemporary Fiction, it will be excerpted there. Since I had access to published and unpublished versions of most of these interviews, some overlap here is inevitable.
Delany, Samuel R. The Motion of Light on Water: East Village Sex and Science Fiction Writing: 1960–1965, with “The Column at the Market’s Edge.” London: Paladin, 1990. (The British paperback is fuller than the American hardbound edition, subtitled Sex and Science Fiction Writing in the East Village, 1957–1965. NY: Arbor House, 1988.)
———. Wagner/Artaud: A Play of 19th- and 20th Century Critical Fictions. NY: Ansatz Press, 1988.
Platt, Charles. “Samuel R. Delany” [interview]. Dream Makers. NY: Berkley, 1980. 69–75.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7856
SOURCE: “Debased and Lascivious? Samuel R. Delany's Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand,” in Ash of Stars: On the Writing of Samuel R. Delany, edited by James Sallis, University Press of Mississippi, 1996, pp. 26-42.
[In the following essay, Blackford examines Delany's presentation of gender and sexuality in Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. Blackford contends that the novel, while often confusing and overly ambiguous, reveals Delany's innovative effort to subvert gender-coded language and popular stereotypes about physical beauty and sexual norms.]
Samuel R. Delany has been a prolific writer in recent years, having just completed the trilogy that began with Tales of Nevèrÿon, as well as working on a far-future diptych that begins with Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. The Nevèrÿon books deserve a separate extended discussion.
Stars in My Pocket has its own internal structural complexities: it is actually two stories, or perhaps three counting its Epilogue, as well as forming the first half of a diptych, the second half of which is still awaited. This is to be entitled The Splendor and Misery of Bodies, of Cities, a suggestive title when read against the subject matter of Stars in My Pocket.
The two stories which make up Stars in My Pocket are a virtually self-contained novella, actually listed as the Prologue and entitled “A World Apart,” and a notably ragged-ended set of “Monologues,” with a final “Epilogue.” Presumably the ragged or open-ended nature of this whole sequence, and hence of the novel itself, will be tidied up when the second half of the diptych becomes available. From the shape of the first book, it appears that the two volumes might be going to form a genuinely unified work, and not just a novel with a sequel to keep readers and the publisher going. I say this because the overall shape of Stars in My Pocket is somewhat peculiar, with a major unresolved crisis taking place at the end, and with a number of major elements left unexplained. Most obviously, the full roles of a universal information-distributing organization called “the Web” are left quite unclear, even though it is the conspiratorial force driving many of the events. Even more unclear is the role of a species of aliens known as the Xlv. It may well be that the second book of the diptych will be written in such a way as to be virtually inaccessible to anyone who has not read the first book, while Stars in My Pocket itself appears to end prematurely unless we go on to tackle The Splendor and Misery—but that the frayed edges of the two novels will be sewn neatly together. It may also well be that the manner in which the Prologue is injected into a larger political and imaginative context in the first book will provide the pattern for the entire two-volume work, in which case I would be unwilling to criticize the first book for having loose ends; in fact, if Delany is able to develop the pattern he has established within the first book, I for one will consider this to be a refreshing and courageous development in sf—he will have my applause.
This is not to say that every difficulty I will be drawing attention to in the plotting of Stars in My Pocket can be given the benefit of the doubt on the ground that the sequel will make all clear: some of the difficulties would appear to be endemic to Delany’s fundamental approach in this novel. But I am suggesting that the unexpected overall shape of the book is not necessarily to be considered a fault, depending on what Delany is going to come up with next.
In trying to analyze the aesthetic and thematic characteristics of Stars in My Pocket, I have found myself thinking about how typical the book is of Delany’s work in general, and how much it illuminates what Delany has been doing in his other more recent books. I am very aware that such critics as George Turner and Bruce Gillespie, among other skeptics in this country, have been unwilling to accept that Delany is saying anything profound or worthwhile behind the often difficult surfaces of his narratives. While I have not taken the opportunity to refresh my reading of the whole Delany oeuvre at this stage, it does seem to me that Delany has been saying important and potentially explosive things in his recent novels. I am not going to attempt to explore the extent to which the same themes and attitudes found in Stars in My Pocket also appear in Delany’s earlier work, but I would suggest that many of the same tropes are present and should probably be given the same significances. It also seems to me that the strengths and weaknesses which I have found in Delany over the years, and which have been commented on by George Turner and others (particularly the weaknesses in Turner’s case), are exemplified very well in this latest book.
The Prologue, which I have referred to as a virtually self-contained novella, tells the story of an (initially) unnamed slave on an unnamed world. Later on, we find out that the slave’s name is “Korga”—he comes to be called “Rat Korga”—and his planet is Rhyonon. Korga is a misfit on a very backward planet. On the first page (all my page references are to the hardback Bantam edition), we are introduced to him at an Institute which practices a process called “Radical Anxiety Termination.” This consists of destroying certain neural pathways in the brain so as to turn off the capacity for aggression, anxiety, and original thought. It is a kind of far-future lobotomy with more drastic results: once subjected to the RAT treatment, a “rat” is apparently completely tractable, even to the extent of being willing to sleep in his own excrement. The social practices on Rhyonon declare that rats should be made the slaves of institutions which have need for the cheap but menial labour they can provide. Individuals are not entrusted with owning human lives, and the institutions which use rats are supposed to be screened to ensure that they are humane—but this is treated as a great, if bitter, joke by Delany, since the institution where Rat Korga spends most of his time withholds even the most universal and fundamental dignities. It is difficult to imagine how a society such as this would work, or how any pretensions to humanity could be found in a society which contains people who think like this, but so Delany has stipulated. As soon as I start to describe what is going on here, it seems to me that I am unmasking something of the kind of inconsistency in Delany that has rightly worried George Turner, though alleged practices in this country’s mental institutions make me wonder whether Delany is not, against expectation, right.
At the polar research institution where Rat Korga spends most of his time working, he lives a life which appears fantastically debased and humiliating, and there is nothing in the book to compel us to see it in any other way. However, the book goes on to present us with a series of apparently degraded lifestyles, actions, and desires, and leaves us to sort out which are which in terms of morality and value. The conditions under which Korga lives in slavery on Rhyonon provide one version of degradation, or one touchstone for it, but that is all.
The main action in this first part of the novel concerns a woman who seeks the company of her own slave; she is a sadist who wants someone for sexual use and abuse. In a key episode, the woman demands that Korga make love to her (he is not interested since he is entirely homosexual, but his RAT treatment does not allow him to refuse), to allow her to whip him bloodily, to allow her, also, to spit upon him without defending himself. But she also gives him a glove-like device which plugs into his neural circuits with the effect of healing his mind, while, at the same time, she grants him the release of knowledge. It transpires that under certain conditions a rat can absorb information many hundreds of times faster than a human being who has not had the RAT treatment. The woman wishes to be able to spit upon a man who has read all the books she has not, so she sets him to read a sequence of major works through direct neural input, scoffing down the equivalent of tens of thousands of pages within seconds. It appears that the effect of the RAT treatment is not only to eliminate anxiety and so on but also to eliminate certain filtering mechanisms that limit or retard the processing of input information by our brains. The glove which the woman sadist provides compensates for the RAT treatment rather than undoing it, so Korga is able to retain his enhanced information-processing potential even while enjoying his return to something like a state of creativity and initiative. Once again, Delany has so stipulated the technology, though it is all suspiciously convenient to his thematic purpose.
The description of Korga’s first experience of reading—and, with it, the exponential expansion in his consciousness as he starts wolfing down books—is very impressive as a straight sf rendering of experience beyond the edges of anything which we could ever encounter. It is also full of successful tricks, some of which I shall return to. Preeminently, Delany provides a sensitive depiction of a feeling of splendor, the exploration of new realms of consciousness, completeness, and joy. This is the other side to Stars in My Pocket: it presents forms of degradation and misery, even versions of what might be the definitive forms of degradation; but, at the same time, it shows startling forms of splendor and joy, once again verging upon the extremes or the definitive versions of these things. Throughout, Delany’s emphasis is that the obvious question, “which is which?”, is either a wrong question even to ask or, at least, the assumptions which our own society might make in answering it are so parochial and problematical that we may as well start over again and dismiss what our society assumes. Stars in My Pocket is very much an attack on notions that there is an accumulated traditional wisdom about these things. The premise is radically constructivist: meaning, significance, value, and the social organization of relevant behavior are not inherent in brute physical/biological fact, but are more or less arbitrarily constructed for and by societies.
In the case of Rat Korga, the woman who inflicts what we might consider the most degrading experiences of all upon him is also the woman who makes available to him the vistas and the splendor of thought and intellect. When Korga is “rescued” from her, we feel immediately—some might say that Delany has tricked us into feeling—that he has suffered an overall loss. Indeed, in a kind of coda to this section we get a poignant description of what Korga is like afterwards, wistfully and pathetically teaching his fellow rats to wear one work glove, in memory of the device which gave him his mind and a mental world—before it was literally torn from him, and both mind and world rushed away.
At the end of the Prologue, Korga’s world is destroyed, and with it, apparently, Korga himself. In this context, all questions of moral judgement or disgust seem to be held in abeyance, and we are aware only of pathos, futility, and a splendor which has been lost. The Prologue, however, is injected into the larger story, wherein it becomes clear that Korga is possibly the only survivor of a cataclysm which destroyed Rhyonon. The larger story is narrated by one Marq Dyeth, a small bearded male human (within the larger Universe where Marq roams, the word “man” is an archaism seldom encountered). Rat Korga and Marq Dyeth are spectacularly sexually attracted to each other, and the larger novel is mainly concerned with their relationship in the context of staggering political conspiracies that are impacting upon the lives of humans and other intelligent beings (generically known as “women” in this Universal meta-culture) on 6000 planets: the backdrop is grand space opera in the inimitably baroque Delany mode, while the foreground is a kind of love story which could have been produced by Robert A. Heinlein revising Stranger in a Strange Land with the aid of a manual of (supposed) perversions and fetishes, or perhaps a manual of safe sexual practices and a determination to exemplify the don'ts. Of course, our cultural definitions of what constitutes a perversion or fetish are very much at stake here.
As I have already described, the RAT treatment undergone by Rat Korga has the effect of destroying the will, despite sophistical assurances to the contrary which Korga is given early in the narrative. But it also makes possible a super-accelerated expansion of knowledge under particular circumstances. Accordingly, the RAT treatment, while destructive in itself, or perhaps by itself, contains within it a potential for experiences of splendor as well as degradation. Thus it provides an example of how degradation and splendor can be conjoined, can be inextricable within a set of experiences, can even be aspects of the same identical experience, a point to which Delany returns again and again. Note that Delany here has simply stipulated that this is how the technology works. He is able to gain a very poignant effect in the Prologue, and one which challenges our own deepest cultural revulsions, but it is worth asking whether he has not gained part of his effect by cheating.
The answer to this question is not simple. Delany is certainly entitled to use whatever thematic images he likes and to set up his technology how he likes—but only in the context of the larger world which he is creating. The trouble with the RAT treatment and the way it works is that it is just too thematically convenient, since we are not given any detailed information about a larger technological context in which it might function: when it is revealed that RAT has a splendid as well as a degrading side this looks more as if Delany is trying to pull a rabbit out of his hat—it was up his sleeve all the time, of course—than as if the logical outcome of the information we have been given has been reached. This does not mean that Delany is a slipshod writer, at least not entirely: within the super-speed-reading sequence, Delany is brilliant. The description of what it is like for Korga to build up a world of vicarious experience for the first time is sensitive, vivid and moving, and this reader, for one, did not care whether it would or could really work that way or not. Delany launches forth on a rich and seemingly inexhaustible account of the books Korga reads; they are luxuriantly and precisely named and described; more profound is the manner in which Delany describes the patterns which the different books form in Korga’s mind, each throwing the ones before into a different series of relationships and significances, each enriched by the patterns which Korga has already built up. This is a very acceptable sf technique, extrapolating from the process of literary growth that we all know so well, but presenting a version of the experience far beyond the edges of what we can ever go through—but not what can be imagined. The scene also contains some wholly successful trickery, and even jokes. It turns out that Korga has dipped into a pile of women’s literature by mistake, and he has failed to realize that what he has taken to be the literary canon of his world is actually a literary ghetto. There is even a note of self-deprecation here, since Delany is one of those writers whom we would expect to champion such alternative literary canons. There is a surprising amount of humor in the novel, but some of the other jokes are at the expense of the reader rather than the writer.
The joke on the reader in this “books” sequences is that Delany provides some clues that he is actually writing about a women’s literary ghetto, but the reader misses them: in the development of this joke there is a sense that Delany is concerned with narrative logic rather than with mere stipulation and contrivance. Every time the sex of one of the writers of the material Korga is reading is revealed, it turns out that the writer is female. Yet, we find ourselves assuming automatically that the other writers are male. So strong is our cultural heritage that we do not even notice that only feminine pronouns are ever used, when pronouns are used, until the trap is finally sprung on us (I wonder whether women tend to fall so readily into the trap … ). So Delany is able to have a laugh at himself, at Korga, and at us, too, all with perfect narrative logic, and in an extended scene which works too powerfully when read “straight” to be dismissed as just a cheap narratorial trick. Yet, though the scene works well internally, and follows a logic which is very satisfying, it appears in the context of a quite unsatisfying technological stipulation, which, in turn, is in the context of a stipulated society that is vague and problematic. It seems to me that this unsatisfactoriness at the contextual levels of the societies and technologies which Delany works out, combined with a satisfying development of symbols and of narratorial direction within sequences, is part of the reason why some critics such as George Turner remain so skeptical about the value of Delany’s work, while other critics and readers find a great deal to read with admiration and delight, even awe.
I am one of the readers who feel some of the abovementioned awe, admiration, and delight when reading Delany, but I must admit that I do not find his novels entirely satisfying. A related difficulty in Stars in My Pocket to what I have been describing is that much of the impetus behind the plot is provided by vast powers of universal scope, particularly the Web and the Xlv. The result is that there are no clearly scrutable rules by which the logic of the events may be assessed: almost any coincidence has a chance of being justified as really manifesting conspiracy; almost any sequence of events can be shaped by powers which have no clearly defined restraints. Accordingly, the book loses some of its appearance of accountability to the reader, and to the reader’s sense of narrative logic and the characters’ psychology. This is a very common fault (or at least cause of dissatisfaction) in sf, but this book seems to take it to extremes—particularly because it does rely, extravagantly, on coincidences, which presumably we have to interpret as conspiracy, without any ground rules being established to test the workings of the conspiracy. At the same time, there are occasions where we have a sense that what Delany is stipulating about this universe is very unlikely, even nonsensical. For example, there is a great deal of discussion and argument about the nature of “fuzzy-edged” concepts, some of it logical: the total population of the Universe can never be given exactly because it continually fluctuates by a billion—fair enough, though the only reason why this could be so is that the Universe’s population is so vast that an approximation to the nearest billion, or five, or ten billion would be highly precise in percentage terms. The idea of fuzzy-edged concepts is used to equivocate about whether Rat Korga was or was not the only survivor of the destruction of Rhyonon. The simple answer seems to be not that the concept is particularly fuzzy but that the question is ambiguous. Delany tries to pretend that there is a difference in principle between being the only survivor when a world is destroyed and being the only survivor when, say, a town is destroyed. But the very same ambiguities arise: what about people on the way out? the way in? normal residents who were not home?
While the fuzzy-edged concept is a respectable philosophical animal, Delany appears to deploy it in such a way as to suggest that he is prepared to try to dazzle the reader with the first bit of old rubbish he thinks of—in this case, apparently, just to avoid admitting that there is a meaningful sense in which Rat Korga does seem to be that melodramatic phenomenon, the sole survivor of a planetary cataclysm (a conclusion which he appears to want to fob off on to his characters, disowning it himself while still getting mileage out of it). Another such piece of old rubbish is the old assertion made by Marq that “You may assume, about absolutely any fact … that nine hundred and ninety-nine people out of a thousand do not know it—which goes for the working assumption too” (139). This is really used as a piece of humorous hyperbole, yet Delany appears to wish us to take it seriously as an explanation of the otherwise mysterious state of affairs wherein nobody much in the Universe he has created is aware of the existence of the Xlv, despite the fact that this is the only alien species capable of space flight. Delany tries to persuade us that there is no area of common knowledge in his far future Universe at all—and is completely unconvincing. Despite anything he has Marq tell us, it is impossible to shake off the feeling that there would be plenty of knowledge of such general interest that virtually anybody would be acquainted with it.
Part of the difficulty in reading this novel is that it takes away many of the codes which we are used to in constructing pictures of characters and actions from black marks on paper. In doing so, it draws attention (by their absence) to some of the most basic codes which are involved in the process. Most obviously, Stars in My Pocket dispenses with the simple distinction in language between male and female people. In this novel the word “man” for “male human being” is said to be an archaism seldom encountered, while the pronouns “he,” “she” and their cognates are not used to denote gender; rather, these words are used to distinguish only between the mass of humanity (together with other species) and those by whom the speaker is sexually excited. Intelligent life-forms are called “women,” and the pronouns “she” and “her” are used; the pronouns “he” and “him,” by contrast, indicate that the speaker refers to someone who sexually excites her. The result is that we have difficulty visualizing characters as Delany presents them, because in our culture the first vital piece of information we need in attempting to visualize someone is knowledge of his or her sex. Because of the roles and values traditionally assigned to males and females in our own society, we tend to assume that characters in books and human agents in general are male unless we have evidence to the contrary, and this is reinforced by our language, which traditionally uses the masculine gender in many contexts to include the feminine. In Delany’s novel, however, we find ourselves routinely encountering what strike us, though not Delany’s characters, as feminine pronouns. We come to assume that characters are female as the default option, even though we know that the “feminine” pronouns do not have the same meaning as in our own culture. This effect seems to corroborate the hypothesis that language does actually shape assumptions (it is an interesting experiment in the area on Delany’s part). However, we are able to go beyond the effect I have described so far, to some extent, to get used to the idea that “masculine” pronouns indicate not the male sex but the excitement produced as a sexual object by the person spoken of.
This whole effect is very disorienting, and we sometimes balk at being unable to use our normal basic clues in attempting to visualize characters. On the other hand, we also learn to take some pride in picking up the new cues Delany provides and responding with upraised eyebrows at the occasional use of the pronoun “he” and its cousins. Another point demonstrated here is that language, as well as shaping, or at least reinforcing, cultural attitudes also manifests them. In the highly permissive universal meta-culture which Delany has created, it is obviously not only acceptable to reveal openly when one is sexually excited and by whom—such revelation is actually demanded by the language itself, and it seems scarcely less “natural” for these people to distinguish in the course of speech by whom they are excited than it is for us to distinguish whether the person spoken about is male or female.
Apart from the level of language, Stars in My Pocket also challenges our assumptions as to what sort of details will be selected to evoke the nature of people when they are described. In particular, Marq Dyeth does not automatically tell us whether a character is male or female, so the information we look for in pronouns is not supplemented by his descriptions. Moreover, in selecting evocative details, Marq will often point to veins, scars, calluses, and fingertips, rather than hair, breasts, facial features and other characteristics which we are more used to when visualizing people. As a result, the narration seems to be very vivid; yet we end up with many aspects not properly visualized because they do not fit in with our normal codes. Delany provides at least as much sensory detail as the average writer, and he thus draws our attention to the way we are dependent upon being told certain kinds of detail in constructing pictures and identities out of the black-on-blanks that make up a novel. However, as with the point about the use of pronouns, the violation of normal descriptive conventions also works in direct ways creating a strong cumulative sense that we are in someone else’s mental world. Different readers will probably find different levels of disorientation in Delany’s various techniques. For myself, I found it very difficult to understand some of the array of new concepts which Delany expects us to absorb, often with no simple discursive explanation. At the end of the book I decided I did not really understand the distinction made between work, work, and work, despite the concept appearing at times to be perfectly simple. We need to cope with a range of high-powered sf concepts: the Web, the Xlv, Cultural Fugue (the state reached by a planet before it destroys itself), the Web’s officers, who are called “spiders.” Also Marq does not explain anything more than is necessary for someone in his own culture, as a result of which we never get sustained descriptions of the things he is familiar with. At the end of the book I am still not precisely sure what the evelmi, a race of six-legged reptiloid aliens who live in symbiosis and sexual interrelationship with human beings on their home world, look like. Yet, as with the humans of whose sex I remain unsure, the evelmi are treated as individuals, and some sharp individual distinctions are made by Marq on coloration, the shape of talons, and so on.
A final question which should be raised about these various new codes of language and description is how much they can simply be stipulated, and how much they should be placed in some historical context to allow the reader to understand how they could have evolved. George Turner has placed great emphasis on his view that anything new about a future world should be explicable as having evolved from our own culture. Delany obviously prefers a “black box” technique: we are to assume that the intervening time represents whatever “box” is required to have produced the necessary transformations of our own experience; if the passage of time is great enough, it can be envisaged that almost any sort of “box” could have been there, given that human nature is considered to be plastic rather than fixed. On this point, I am inclined to agree with Delany, provided that what we are shown does not violate our (admittedly problematic and vulnerable) sense of the most basic human needs, interests and capacities, and provided that the individual elements of future society, language, technology, etc. are mutually consistent and exist in some sort of shaping context that we can understand, rather than merely providing an arbitrary and convenient set of symbols. Delany does sometimes merely stipulate stuff which is symbolically convenient, but he is also able to develop sequences and far-future changes with great rigor, even while plundering them for all the poetic effects that they are worth. These are his fiction’s strengths and weaknesses.
The thematic centre of Stars in My Pocket is the idea of degradation or debasement. This takes many forms: a great deal of emphasis is placed upon nudity—which can signify a lowering of status combined with great vulnerability, or can signify a situation where clothes are seen as unnecessary. Stripping a victim or enemy is a well-known method of humiliating him or her, making the enemy vulnerable, demeaned, attacking some of the sources of identity and pride. At the polar station where Rat Korga works in the early part of the book, he is treated negligently and demeaningly in that he is not fed enough meals, is not provided with toilet facilities, is forced to work naked—his clothes are never replaced but are allowed to wear out. However, this is not the only context in which nudity is presented in the book, since the characters are also shown as going naked at Dyethshome, where Marq and his fellows live in an innocent symbiosis with the evelmi. Here the emphasis is upon the lack of need for clothes. Nakedness is a sign, in other words, both of shame and degradation and of innocence and transcendence; Delany is able to exploit this widely-recognized ambiguity.
As already touched upon, many elements of the book simultaneously convey ideas of degradation or shame and splendor or transcendence. Stars in My Pocket seems to have little to do with the concepts of good and evil as such. Such concepts are largely abstract and intellectually-based ones; more visceral feelings than those of moral condemnation are horror and disgust, and it is at the concepts associated with these feelings that Delany appears to direct his analysis. An attempt to hold together the disparate elements of the novel by relating them directly to moral approval or disapproval would fail, since many of the experiences described, though emotionally potent, would probably be considered to be morally neutral upon dispassionate analysis. For example, it is hard to believe that anyone would be morally concerned one way or the other about Marq’s sexual interest in calluses and bitten fingernails rather than the conventional bums and tits—but the feeling could easily be that such sexual interests are nasty, debased, and unfortunate, comic rather than wicked, with the comedy based upon a mild form of disgust. Other aspects, such as Marq’s sexual relations with reptiloid aliens, would be both disgusting and wicked according to conventional wisdom. However, Delany challenges our assumptions of what experiences should strike us as degrading, should disgust or repel us, or make us feel vicarious shame. In doing so, he also challenges much of the basis for conventional morality. Delany goes to the core of what is natural or acceptable experience for a human being, and to the question of the limits of tolerance for behavior which his own society constructs as degraded or disgusting; he stretches the boundaries of what can seem acceptable or even, in the right circumstances, delightful. As far as Marq’s relationships with evelmi go, the view that interspecies sexuality might be shameful is made to appear mistaken, parochial and itself comic.
Towards the end of the book, the Dyeths’ friends, the Thants, attempt to make a statement distancing themselves from and denouncing the Dyeths. Their way of doing this is to avoid coming to dinner, instead huddling about, wrapped in privacy clouds, and saying scornful and insulting things about “lizard lovers” (earlier we have been introduced to other insulting terms, such as “front-face” for heterosexual). The Dyeths, both human and evelm, find the whole display incomprehensible but are most perturbed that their carefully prepared meal is being left uneaten. Under the circumstances, the Thants appear to be rude and narrow-minded, while we identify with the Dyeths. It all seems like a humorous clash of a more generous and a meaner culture—in which the upholders of what we might normally consider the most basic assumptions of sexual morality are simply ridiculous.
Delany places in the foreground the whole idea of cultural difference and the social construction of meaning and value that goes with it. Marq’s job is that of an industrial diplomat, someone who has to deal in trading relationships between many cultures and even species. For him, it is second nature to assume that responses to situations, together with the very concepts which are employed in those situations, will vary fundamentally from culture to culture. He has internalized this assumption so much that, ironically, he sometimes appears bemused when not all others share it but are sometimes locked into their own cultural assumptions. Marq is very aware that he lives in a Universe of 6000 inhabited planets, each with cultural variations of its own.
The outer limit of acceptable behavior seems to be marked when Marq encounters the proclivities of a male sadist, Clym, early in his narrative. Clym is a professional psychopathic killer, as well as being sexually excited by torture:
“… I am going to take you by force, chain you in a special chamber I have already equipped for the purpose, and do some very painful things to your body that will possibly—the chances are four out of five—result in your death, and certainly in your permanent disfigurement, mental and physical.” (We live in a medically sophisticated age. You have to work very hard to permanently disfigure any body.)
Marq responds coolly enough by our standards: Delany employs a mixture of conventional humor and his own far-future codes to show us how his protagonist feels. Marq says: “Just tell me, is this part of your job, or just your way of being friendly?” (97) At the same time, he suddenly refers to Clym as “she” and adds “from then on ‘she’ was the only way I could think of her”—Marq’s sexual distaste is emphasized more than any familiar moral reaction! However, he takes the opportunity to warn a more innocent-seeming acquaintance to beware of Clym before moving “sixty million kilometers away” and adding “And I wished it were sixty million light years and in another sun system” (98). The tone here is comic self-deprecation at being unable to cope with such an experience as meeting Clym, rather than of disgust or moral outrage. Marq refers to Clym as one of the “odd creations of our epoch.” but does not judge him any more harshly than that, and does not denounce him to anyone.
The initial implication, and not a trivial one, seems to be that here is a variety of nastiness beyond the pale of cultural relativism or sexual permissiveness, but that even Clym merits some respect and consideration in that he gave his potential victim fair warning. In this book’s terms, Clym seems to be just about at the far limits of tolerance. We may contrast the woman who wished to treat Rat Korga sadistically—the two scenes, both occurring fairly early in the book, are obviously to be read against each other. The woman seems harmless compared with Clym, even though her desires are selfish and spoilt. She is unable to do Korga any real physical harm, and she begins to do him a great deal of good. Even within the ambit of sadism, it is possible to make distinctions as to what is tolerable and what is not tolerable behavior: there is no attempt to apply conventional blanket judgements. Here, then, is perhaps the further implication of such scenes; as the feminist anthropologist Gayle Rubin has emphasized in another context, we tend to construct less privileged forms of sexual activities in our own culture’s moral hierarchy as uniformly repulsive—without grace, consideration, or individual complexity. Delany is prepared to create and juxtapose scenes which include a range of intelligent interaction and a degree of complexity that subvert the popular cultural assumptions.
Degradation is frequently associated with both sex and sin in our own culture, and the equation is shown as not forgotten in Stars in My Pocket, though it is much attenuated in the ultra-sophisticated culture in which Marq Dyeth moves. When the woman who buys Korga does so, she underlines the equation by asking whether he is willing to obey her every whim and caprice, “no matter how debased or lascivious?” (19). He responds simply “Yeah … ?” The desires which she wishes to articulate are both lascivious and debased by the standards of our culture—debased in part because they are lascivious. But the concept of what should count as “lascivious,” a value-word if there ever was one, is just one more which is very much up for grabs.
Accordingly, in reassessing what debased behavior might be, Delany is looking mainly at various kinds of less mainstream sexual activities. In some cases, these are somewhat comic, even for Marq, such as when one of his encounters is with a fetishist interested in high-tech paraphernalia: Marq’s friend ends up described as “a-crackle with sparks from the low-amperage high-voltage electrodes that he had me play across his handsome, lithe body in its various manacles and restraints” (76). Other behaviors shown, however, would normally strike most of us as ugly, off-putting, even disgusting. Marq is attracted to people whom we would conventionally think of as ugly, and to bits of their bodies which we would consider blemishes: calluses, severely bitten fingernails, acne scars. All this is apart from the fact that Marq, a male human, has sex both with other male humans and with the lizardish evelmi. Throughout, Delany builds up ideas of what it would be like to be sexually attracted by things which are usually thought of as ugly or disgusting in a sexual context. In doing so he manages to create a romance of ugliness, deformity, and mutilation.
Science fiction has tackled the question of cultural relativity as it applies to sexual behavior before. The most celebrated example, prior to Delany’s work on the theme, would be Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land; Delany. the “left-wing” constructivist, and Heinlein, the “right-wing” libertarian, agree on the parochialism of our cultural taboos on sexuality, and on much else. But the most obvious difference between Heinlein and Delany, leaving aside their underlying politics (as interpreted by a society which defines political difference in terms of certain concepts rather than others), is that Heinlein’s characters are all the stuff that wish-fulfillment is made of. His supermen and superwoman display a transcendent morality, which includes the area of their sex lives—in fact especially the area of their sex lives—but they are basically folks who can be recognized as the fantasies of well-heeled types brought up on the symbols offered in Playboy, Cosmopolitan and their ilk. While Heinlein usually has at least one character of advanced years in each novel, the familiar Jubal Harshaw-Robert Heinlein figure, his characters would never be shown as in any way ugly or even plain: the men are handsome, clean, heterosexual, usually dashing; the women are beautiful in standard Western terms, ultra-smart, perhaps with a trace of fashionable male-fantasy bisexuality. It is easy to scorn Heinlein, and possibly more relevant to praise him for the success he has had in the area he has mapped out. But Delany has gone far beyond Heinlein’s justification of a narrow form of sexual radicalism in terms of the other values of his culture, and has suggested that the most intense assumptions within that culture of what is nice and what is nasty might be without foundation. (Perhaps the most obvious example of libertarian thought generally falling short of true radicalism is in its complacent or rationalized acceptance of socially-constructed property concepts; Heinlein, with his millionaire heroes, is not an exception to the rule.)
The point has already been labored: degradation and splendor are not necessarily separated in Stars in My Pocket. Many things which would normally be considered ugly or sordid are actually splendid to those involved, and the two kinds of experience often seem to go together. A notable example is the dragon hunt on which Marq embarks with Korga: this is not actually a quest to slay a dragon (a larger biological relative of the evelmi) but to capture its thoughts and momentarily be a dragon. The feelings in this state are wonderfully rich, exhilarating, and a monument to the goal of understanding rather than destroying—but also explicitly sexual. In addition, Korga and Marq make love during the dragon hunt, apparently exploring each other in intimate physical ways which our culture conventionally and automatically considers degrading. Without bothering even to provide any explanation, Marq tells us: “He came twice, I, once, and we joked about it. Later, both our hands wet with his urine, we lifted our bows …” (260). The title of the book is a reference to the idea of personal splendor, and is picked up in such a context within the book, and it also links with the description of a particular star, Aurigae, the largest star in the Universe, which appears like a vast sunset. Though the woman who tries to own Korga identifies lasciviousness and debasement, the book as a whole more identifies splendor and degradation, or perhaps splendor and misery.
It should not be thought that Delany attempts in this book to redeem notions of sexuality by equating sex with love. At times, the question is raised as to whether Marq and Korga love each other; the question is not ultimately answered, because, as Marq tells the spider, Japril, who originally brought them together, they were able to know each other for only a day. Delany does not attempt to sentimentalize lust as equating with love, but neither does he deny the splendor in lust itself. Rather, Stars in My Pocket seems to be ordered consistent with a viewpoint most often articulated in our society by the male gay community, but now being taken up by at least some radical feminists and others, that the ideals of fidelity and permanency are not necessary to give value to sexual relationships, and nor is it necessary that the physicality of sex should be subordinated to deep emotional experiences for sex to be in itself a splendid experience. Any idea that the sexual experience stands in need of redemption by particular emotions and ongoing relationships, emotions and relationships which might accompany the experience but are not demanded by it, is parasitic upon a socially constructed fear of sex in itself as somehow debased or degrading. If this insight is followed through, it becomes, for example, false and sentimental to defend gays by claiming that their relationships can be as faithful, profound and “spiritual” as those of traditional couples—for, in the process of developing such a defence, one accepts an unnecessary and repressive construction of the nature of sexual experience.
Towards the end of the book, Marq defends his particular sexual makeup in a powerhouse speech worthy of Shakespeare’s Shylock reminding us that Jews bleed. This speech is a kind of manifesto, though elsewhere Marq cannot be precisely identified with the implied author, suffering as he does from his own failings of understanding—we often see him bemused by what is going on around him, but only in contexts where we are led to understand that bemusement is a civilized, even if not a totally comprehending, reaction. Civilization is another possible opposite of degradation, and no matter how degraded Marq’s tastes and actions would appear in our own society. Marq always strikes us as preeminently civilized, a true diplomat. Despite this, Delany sometimes attempts to make aspects of Marq’s life take on poignancy—and here he fails where elsewhere he succeeds. It may be that the apparent failure is based on an inability to win us over from our own cultural assumption that a relationship needs to be based upon more than sexual attraction and even wonder before it can affect us as poignant.
In conclusion, Stars in My Pocket is a courageous attempt to dramatize explosive themes in the teeth of traditional social attitudes and the recent anti-sex attitudes that have been having such a successful run, encouraged by social elements as disparate as cultural feminism and the New Right. By creating whole new cultural/linguistic codes and forcing us to live with them, Delany tackles his theme more radically than any other sf writer before him. Much of what is given dramatic expression in Stars in My Pocket was already latent in the earlier books. It was there in Dhalgren, which explored the taboo areas of sexuality—kinky, flaunted, polymorphous, and sudden—in such a way as to show interaction, complexity, and humanity: it is in the Nevèrÿon books where, for example. Gorgik the Liberator’s interpretation of his slave collar makes it both an emblem of servitude and a sexual statement or focus. But Delany is writing closer to the bone than ever in his new diptych, and using far-future sf tropes with a radicalism and ruthlessness that justifies the far-future sub-genre itself. If his work is uneven and not entirely satisfying, it is nonetheless pointing the way for the rest of sf, including the works of less audacious but more conventionally perfect writers. Once what Delany is doing, or attempting to do, is understood, it is difficult to be satisfied with the ambitions of any other sf writer, much less the overwhelming bulk of mainstream fiction.
Still a young man in his early forties, Delany has many years of pioneering sf and fantasy ahead of him. We can only await with enthusiasm what he is going to do, first of all in the second half of his present diptych, and then in greater things to come.
Author's note: This review was based upon a talk presented to the Nova Mob, a science-fiction interest group in Melbourne, Australia, in 1985. It was first published in the following year. Some stylistic changes have been made for republication.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8475
SOURCE: “The Politics of Desire in Delany's Triton and Tides of Lust,” in Ash of Stars: On the Writing of Samuel R. Delany, edited by James Sallis, University Press of Mississippi, 1996, pp. 43-61.
[In the following essay, Fox examines the significance of graphic, polymorphous sex in both The Tides of Lustand Triton. According to Fox, explicit sexual content in these novels provides the philosophical-aesthetic perspective from which Delany exposes the extreme contradictions of racial identity, social order, erotic desire, and individuality.]
In the breakdown of repression, the artists do their part by first dreaming the forbidden thoughts, assuming the forbidden stances, and struggling to make sense. They cannot do otherwise, for they bring the social conflicts in their souls to public expression.
“And I assure you, as one who is also a fair performer, desire is something else again.”
—The Spike, in Samuel R. Delany’s Triton2
Speculative sexuality may be the final frontier for science-fiction writers, and Samuel R. Delany, while not the only extrapolator to cross into this particular territory of the imagination, has probably gone as far as anybody in penetrating it. In his story “Aye, and Gomorrah,” he tells of the “frelks,” individuals who are sexually drawn to neutered spacemen; in Babel-17, starship navigators form sexual as well as functional/psychological triads3, in The Einstein Intersection, there are three sexes; while in Triton, there are “forty or fifty basic sexes, falling loosely into nine categories,” four homophilic and five heterophilic (T 117), and individuals can, if they so choose, alter their race, gender, and sexual preferences through surgery.4
Still, as one commentator has noted, Delany is careful “to maintain the distance of artifice; we never, for example, see just exactly what goes on when a frelk manages to ‘land’ a spaceman.”5 This circumstance alters drastically in Dhalgren, Delany’s most experimental work, which contains what is perhaps the most graphic sexuality to be found in any science-fiction novel. For this reason, among others (having to do with questions of coherence, charges of willful obscurity, etc.), it is often considered Delany’s most controversial work—in my opinion, an erroneous judgment based on the fact that the text which truly merits that designation, a pornographic novel entitled Tides of Lust,6 is largely unknown to the majority of Delany’s readers and difficult to obtain.7 In both of these novels, it is precisely the lack of distance in handling sexual matters which constitutes an important aspect of the artifice.
Since Dhalgren has already commanded so much attention, I intend, in the discussion which follows, to focus primarily on Tides of Lust and Triton, novels which immediately preceded and followed Dhalgren, and in which matters of sexual politics seem to be most prominent. The limits of this essay prevent me from undertaking a thoroughgoing examination of either book, each of which could easily sustain a full-fledged critical analysis.8 Furthermore, I shall begin my examination with Triton, which, although it is the more recent, is nevertheless the less problematical of the two novels.
Triton is set in the year 2112, when human beings inhabit two worlds (Earth and Mars) and a score of moons. The satellites are far more libertarian societies than the planets, and a state of tension exists between the two groups, ultimately resulting in a horrendous war which nearly destroys the planets. This conflict, an interplanetary extrapolation of the present-day neocolonial struggle between the center and the periphery, provides the background to the story of Bron Hellstrom, the novel’s protagonist and, given the extent to which he is (unwittingly) a self-antagonist, its antihero. One of Triton’s persistent themes, in fact, is the torment that confusion may generate amid a plenitude of possibilities. Bron hates those who know what they want, because anyone can have his/her desire (which marks him as an elitist, as does his insistent portrayal of himself as a unique individual in a society in which he is constantly reminded there are only types). The problem is, Bron doesn’t know what he wants, only what he has (often too easily) decided he doesn’t like. The point seems to be that you have to be properly prepared to find freedom, rather than chaos, in a realm of endless choice. (A major message of Tides of Lust, on the other hand, concerns the self-entrapment which results when one form of license—in this case, sexual—is mistaken for freedom.)
In Triton society, three out of every five people are bisexual; one out of five is gay; one out of nine, into S&M; one out of eight, a fetishist. Women bear only 70٪ of the children; men can suckle infants, if they so choose; and multiple parenting is common (Bron, born on Mars, had only two parents; Gene Trimbell—alias the Spike—born in the Satellites, had nine). Both prostitution and marriage are illegal on Triton. On Earth, marriage is legal, female prostitution is legal, male prostitution is prohibited (but exists); on Mars, female prostitution is illegal, but male prostitution was legalized by a woman president named Brian.
Bron, before leaving Mars, had spent several years as a male prostitute, his “specialties” being women with physical deformities, older women, and sadism. Lawrence (a septuagenarian homosexual who proves to be Bron’s most steadfast friend) at one point tells Bron that he is a “logical pervert,” something now quite rare, but previously (in our own time, perhaps?) very common: “‘You’re a logical sadist looking for a logical masochist’” (T 253–254). It is this judgment that is partially responsible for Bron’s decision to turn himself into a woman. He has previously acknowledged that “‘Perhaps I never had much of a bent for relationships, even as a kid; which is why I went into prostitution in the first place’” (T 84–85). Bron seems to have trouble relating to people nonsexually, but even his sexualizationships are more performances than feeling unions, a carryover from his days as a professional. The wealthy older women who paid for his services seem to have done a great deal to shape him socially, but in a superficial and egotistical manner. Yet he still looks to others (sometimes desperately) for self-fulfillment, even self-definition. Coming from a world with a rhetorical but actually illusory freedom. Bron is sadly unprepared to deal with the implications of a more concrete and demanding freedom.
In Africa, as one scholar has demonstrated, style “is another word for the perception of relationships, a dynamic … attitude which focuses … on the occasion.” It is precisely style, in an identical sense, which Bron lacks. His problem is his failure to recognize that “balance through dialogue is essential for the avoidance of overstatement and isolation.” Like the African musician who loses aesthetic command through imbalance and a lack of coolness in his performance, Bron’s behavior is habitually “hot, intense, limited, pretentious, overly personal, boring, irrelevant, and ultimately alienating.”9
One of metalogician Ashima Slade’s notes, quoted in Appendix B, has a great deal of relevance for Bron’s personal dilemma:
“Our society in the Satellites extends to its Earth and Mars emigrants, at the same time it extends instruction on how to conform, the materials with which to destroy themselves, both psychologically and physically—all under the same label: Freedom. To the extent they will not conform to our ways, there is a subtle swing: the materials of instruction are pulled further away and the materials of destruction are pushed correspondingly closer. Since the ways of instruction and the ways of destruction are not the same, but only subtly and secretly tied by language, we have simply, here, overdetermined yet another way for the rest of us to remain oblivious to other peoples’ pain. In a net of tiny worlds like ours, that professes an ideal of the primacy of the subjective reality of all its citizens, this is an appalling political crime.”
“To understand and translate the meaning of words like ‘freedom,’” John Miller Chernoff has observed, “it is necessary to examine the social context of their use, to look at what someone who talks of freedom does.”10 The fact that Slade, after the “holocaust” which devastates the commune of gifted people (including the Spike) in which (s)he had lived, “was found, unconscious, in an alley two units from the house, blinded, severely lacerated, and otherwise maimed—most of the injuries, apparently, self-inflicted” (T 354–55)—certainly points to personal experience of the possible confusion between instruction and destruction. This may explain Slade’s aphorism that madness and obsession are the “gates” to contemporary philosophy (356). In any event, what separates characters like Slade and the Spike from someone like Bron is that they are able to bridge the instruction/destruction dynamic via construction: in the Spike’s case, through scintillating moments of micro-theatre; in Slade’s, through the logico-political formulations of the modular calculus. They have, in other words, the refuge of art, whereas Bron’s refuge is a perverted logic, and his “only steady reference is his own image,”11 which, unfortunately for him, is a regressive and distorted one. He claims to be concerned, not with history, but with “‘the here and now’” (14), yet he is too confused simply to live in the moment, and he persists in using his personal past as judgmental reference point. A perfect example is his behavior during his night out on Earth with the Spike: he acts as if he were involved in a reversed-role replay of his Bellona days as a prostitute and assesses everything accordingly (and for the most part negatively). He is more concerned with ego and artificial decorum than he is in relating naturally to the woman with whom he professes himself so much in love. Typically, he pushes too hard and then reacts like a hurt child when the world refuses to conform to his demands or expectations. He then stigmatizes the individual or situation, thereafter assimilating this subjective linguistic summary into his future actions as if it were objective fact. Hence, Miriamne, who spurns his obvious advances because she is uninterested in men, becomes “that crazed lesbian” (T 76, 115); the Spike, when she emphatically rejects him because she doesn’t like the kind of person he is, is then considered “some dumb actress” who is “crazy and vicious,” or later, simply “that crazed bitch” (231, 257).
Bron, whom one critic has described as “a misfit in utopia, an unregenerate male chauvinist,”12 longs for a “simpler” past in terms of sex roles. And, despite his own training as a metalogician, he fails to incorporate his intellectual understanding of the fact that “‘language is parametal, not perimetal,’” that “‘the significance of “white,” like the significance of any other word, is a range of possibilities’” (T 59, 57–58); he behaves as if things were merely black and white, qualified only by his personal interpretations (Miriamne isn’t into men, therefore she’s a lesbian; she doesn’t like him, therefore she’s crazed).
The reactionary nature of Bron’s grasp of categories of race (black/white) and gender (male/female) is particularly underscored in his relationship with Sam, a tall, powerful (both physically and politically) black male who used to be a blonde, blue-eyed woman desirous of other white women who themselves were attracted to black men. While still a man, Bron had thought of Sam as a “black bastard” (T 34); he dislikes Sam because he is not “‘oppressed by the system,’” but is, instead, in a position of considerable power and privilege (31). Bron begins to change his attitude towards Sam as a result of their trip to Earth shortly before the war breaks out, during which Bron is subjected to the humiliations of arrest and assault at the hands of the Earth authorities, and rejection by the Spike, and at the same time becomes aware of the extent of both Sam’s responsibilities and capacities. When Bron becomes a woman, it is Sam whom she really desires and seeks out, putting herself at his mercy in the role of a helpless female, an ironic posture when one recalls that one of Bron’s justifications for his sex change was to “preserve the species,” for he imagined he would be bringing the courage of manhood to the feminine with its (as he sees it) failure of understanding. But although Bron has become a woman very much like the one Sam used to be, the type that Sam desires, Sam, too, is unwilling to take Bron as a partner: “… she lay her head against his neck, held on to him. Had he been a column of black metal one degree below white-heat, he would not have been harder to grasp” (T 308). This is beautifully succinct and suggestive: the old black male/white female taboo/desire, here complicated by the fact that the black male in this instance used to be a white woman, and that the white woman clinging to him now was formerly a white male! White-heat indeed, through a transformational prism. What is persistently revealed is Bron’s essential emotional weakness, despite his “logical” view of himself as a strong individual waging a lonely crusade, someone who is dominating and possessive who nevertheless desperately desires to be possessed.
Delany shows us Bron on the brink of his operation, then jump-cuts, signaling that the procedure is complete by shifting to the use of the feminine pronoun: “The drugs they gave her made her feel like hell” (T 243). He handles this matter even more deftly in Appendix B, switching pronouns within the same sentence to accommodate Ashima Slade’s own sex change: “Two months after his arrival he became a woman, moved again to Lux … : it was here she first met Blondel …” (350). Later, Slade reverses the situation, and Delany alters his usage accordingly: “… she had again become a man … he emerged … frail, blind …” (355)—like Tiresias.
This careful attention to language is partly demanded by the complex situations Delany creates for his characters, the challenges he sets for himself as an artist, but it is also due in part to the progressive nature of his understanding. Delany believes, for example, that “there are no sexist decisions to be made,” for sexist attitudes are ingrained and hence unconsciously operative. “There are anti-sexist decisions to be made. And they require tremendous energy and self-scrutiny.”13 Delany has also condemned D. H. Lawrence as “an absolute prig” for his “institutionally rigid” concept of sex, wherein men and women must remain in their “divinely ordained” roles.14 Delany transcends this kind of limitation by his tendency to, in the words of one critic, make “fluid” what is “normally static”; or, as another has stated, “Blurring of distinctions is both a technique and a theme. …”15 One of Ashima Slade’s own precepts, that “there is no class, race, nationality, or sex that it does not help to be only half” (T 356), reinforces the attack on an ideology of absolute categories and “pure” identities, positing instead the need for (minimally, at least) an acceptance of dualism, of fusions rather than separations.
The desirability of maximizing opportunities for difference is reflected in Delany’s projection, alongside “the redundant formality of the orderly, licensed world” (T 10), of an area of each city known as the unlicensed sector where “no law officially held,” and where “anything may happen,”16 but where “the interface between official law and official lawlessness produced some remarkably stable unofficial laws …” (9, 11). It is in the unlicensed sector that Bron meets the Spike, although he himself lives in the licensed sector. It is significant that the unlicensed sector is the venue for the Spike’s micro-theater performances, which are designed to inspire new instances of perception and (self-) recognition. The u-l also has analogues in Bellona in Delany’s previous novel Dhalgren, in which everything is possible and allowable, and in the port where the action of Tides of Lust is situated, where law and order seem designed only to uphold the recurrent possibilities of sensual fulfillment.17
Triton begins with an epigraph from Mary Douglas’ Natural Symbols which states, in part, “The social body constrains the way the physical body is perceived.” Douglas goes on to explain that the interaction between the social and the physical makes the “body itself a highly restricted medium of expression.” But this is only true in societies in which the social body is oppressive/repressive. In traditional societies, for example—in contrast with the West (which would seem to be the universe described by Douglas)—the dance is a medium in which the physical self gives articulate expression to the social. In societies such as our own, however, in the conscious struggle against constraint, the body becomes a kind of weapon, even (especially) in a sexual context. In Tides of Lust, in which the body is free to assert its basic drives but not much more, Douglas’ strictures apply very well: the expression is highly restricted, to various permutations of aggression and penetration—a case of “radical skin, reactionary imagination.”18 There is revolt here, perhaps, but there has clearly been no real revolution. As Antonio Gramsci wrote in his Prison Notebooks, “The old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum there arises a great diversity of morbid symptoms.”19 The necrophilia, cannibalism, and other forms of aberrant behavior depicted in Tides would clearly seem to support this insight.
In Triton, Delany castigates “overdetermined systems”—e.g., governmental bureaucracy—but it strikes me that the compulsive polymorphousness of the sexual relationships he depicts, not only in Tides of Lust but also in Dhalgren, is itself overdetermined, like the more extreme varieties of Gay Liberation and Feminism, or the fundamentalism of the so-called Moral Majority.
Gregory Renault has also remarked on the polymorphous sexuality of Tides in his insightful article on the novel, and argues that while this exists on the “immediate, sensuous level of the text,” “consideration of the structure and character figures at the formal level takes us from the totally perverse to the totally unjust, from voyeurism to complicity/revulsion. The issue that then emerges is that of forbidden knowledge.”20 This, of course, is where the Faust myth comes in, and I will have something further to say on this point shortly. Here, however, I wish to note that, like the sensory shield on Triton that “merely shields us from the reality of night” (T 9), the erotic engagements in Tides of Lust, while certainly associated with the nightside of the psyche, also function as a means of shielding the participants from reality. For as Proctor, the principal Faust-figure in that novel, explains, “Man has devised three systems for effecting the oblivion necessary for sanity.” They are, first, the bourgeois work ethic; second, religion; and third, eroticism (TL 61). The novel focuses on the third alternative, but it is nonetheless repetitive, like work, and often mystical like religion.
In Triton, Delany depicts a sect known as The Rampant Order of Dumb Beasts who are committed to putting an end to meaningless—or meaningful—communication (the text, quite deliberately, never specifies which), and the characters in Tides of Lust often seem like dumb beasts themselves, furiously fucking and sucking under a dispensation that cannot, finally, be clarified as either totally meaningless or meaningful. Like Triton, the world portrayed in Tides is “an ambiguous heterotopia,” which, according to Foucault, as quoted by Delany, exists to “dissolve our myths and sterilize the lyricism of our sentences” (T 345).
It has been observed that the effect of Delany’s use of space opera elements (“entertaining, predictable, and essentially conservative”), combined with “extrapolative or thought-provoking” concepts and a linguistically sophisticated style, makes Babel-17 “an ironic commentary on itself.” “Rydra’s discovery of the need to break down barriers in thought is also the reader’s need: to perceive this fiction in appropriate terms, one must discover a new way of thinking about fictions of the sort which it appears to be.”21 I think these observations have relevance as well for Tides of Lust. As Peter Michelson notes, “Unlike either ‘hard’ or ‘soft-core’ pornography, complex pornography is structured according to its own demands rather than those of its audience.”22 Although Gregory Renault insists that the novel “should be read as a significant attempt by Delany to explore further the artistic possibilities of contemporary mass culture,”23 it seems to me that Michelson’s conception is more to the point, since the intellectual level of discourse in Tides, with its Faustian metaphysics, and the pornographic plane, which has its analogues in hard-core films, “Tijuana bibles,” or the underground comic art of someone like S. Clay Wilson,24 are not properly situated in “mass culture” in the way that the soft-core bestsellers of the Harold Robbins variety are.
The dual level of discourse (“idealist” and “pragmatic”) to which I have just referred has its counterpart in such things as the dichotomy in American experience between the stated idea (“all men are created equal”) and the actual (slavery, discrimination), the double consciousness of the Black American (as delineated by Du Bois), and the bidialectal nature of Black linguistic usage (ebonics and white English in the United States, pidgin and “standard” English or French—apart from indigenous languages—in, for example, West Africa); it is also paralleled by the literary/philosophical defense of pornography (specifically that lacking any real literary/philosophical content or even pretense), where “respectable” arguments by prominent people are marshaled in the name of “freedom of speech” to protect what is essentially nothing more than the cash nexus of wet dreams. Censorship is bad, but so is “kiddie porn.” The Faust motif is mythic, but compulsive buggery is not. There are inevitable tensions between these different extremes, which are not equal. These tensions and seeming disparities will be explored in greater depth as I proceed.
One very revealing fact which Renault reports in his essay on Tides is that, “Ironically, the most extensive discussion [of the novel] may be by Delany himself, in an unpublished ‘critical analysis’ written under the pseudonym ‘K. Leslie Steiner’ in 1973, ‘A Note on the Anti-Pornography of Samuel R. Delany.’ (Delany has used the Steiner persona for other unpublished pieces on Dhalgren and Triton … ).”25 Steiner, “a young, black, American scholar,” putative translator of, and commentator on, the Culhar’ Fragment (“sometimes, the Missilonghi Codex”), also figures prominently in the appendices to Tales of Nevèrÿon and Neveryóna (the preceding quotations are from the latter volume [New York: Bantam Books, 1983], p. 367), works avowedly based on that very (fictitious) ancient text. That Delany would label his own book anti-pornography, and that he would do so in a critique that is supposed to be the work of a black woman, gives us, I believe, some vital clues to his real strategy in creating what is, in various ways, a problematic text. (The fact that Delany’s analysis of Tides remains unpublished helps, of course, to maintain the problematic, and the existence of “Steiner” articles on Dhalgren and Triton, which form a kind of sequence with Tides of Lust, likewise points to the complex manner in which Delany has extended the fictionality of his novels beyond the specific texts back into the textus [see Triton, pp. 333ff.] from which they have been scripted.)
The first thing which needs emphasis is the etymology of the word pornography, which comes into English “through the French pornographie, based on the Greek roots porne (‘whore,’ ‘purchased slave’) plus graph (‘writing,’ ‘painting’).”26 Pornography, in other words, is the depiction of whores and, at the same time, the portrayal of slaves. History being what it is, and what it has been, this conjunction of slavery and sexuality should come as no surprise. Instances of it come up in Delany’s work frequently—for example, in Triton, when the Spike takes Fred (one of the Rampant Beasts, who had earlier assaulted her as she initially approached Bron, and who has since become her lover) to one of her university classes on a chain and has her students toss him raw meat for, as she claims, the theatrical sense of it all.27 There is also the leather collar which Bron wears, and a similar collar which Bull (a white character in Tides of Lust) wears; these, however, should be considered in the light of the disquisitions on the meanings of the slave collar in Neveryóna, Delany’s most recent novel, wherein it is stated that to wear the collar involuntarily is a sign of oppression, whereas to wear it willingly is an emblem of desire. One of the things which is so thoroughly repulsive about the master/slave relationship in sado-masochism is that it is a psychosexual parody of a relationship (which, to be sure, had its own psychosexual aspect) involving large masses of people, not just individuals, under conditions of the most overt compulsion. And although the spirit was sometimes able to soar, if not merely survive, in adversity in ways that lent strength to the oppressed under actual slavery, the voluntary slavery of sado-masochism betrays a lapse of the spiritual into the demonic, a deliberate rejection of freedom, a testimony on the one hand to the seemingly unquenchable desire in man to have (absolute) power over others (a transformation of human beings into things) on the part of the “masters,” and at the same time a shuddering revelation of the willingness to forego control of their own lives, a desperate will to be dominated, on the part of “slaves.” The strong affinity between sadism and masochism forms an interface between the two extreme forms of human behavior generating a tension, a vicious dynamic, that feeds the whirlpools of history. To seek power, and to feed power—there is no more dangerous symbiosis than that created when these two drives come together.
Delany may have chosen to write pornography because it is a form in which, within a certain plane of discourse, all things are possible. Pornography, like science fiction, is outside the realm of the “mundane” (a word Delany accepts as indicative of “mainstream” writing), but it can be brutally boring nonetheless. On the other hand, Roland Barthes, writing of the “divine marquis,” claims that “Sade is boring only if we fix our gaze on the crimes being reported and not on the performances of the discourse.”28 Since Delany is, like Sade, far above the ordinary pornographer-as-panderer, I shall keep this admonition in mind with respect to my judgment of Tides of Lust.
Delany seems to accept the conventional acts and obscenities of pornographic discourse as a given, but he transcends the limitations inherent therein by superimposing both a philosophical framework (as Sade did in Philosophy in the Bedroom) and allowing himself a good deal of literary/metaphoric license, as in the opening scene, in which the Captain is masturbating, which has the quality of an impressionistic screenplay.
Words like nigger are tossed about in the novel without evoking any angry response from those to whom they are addressed. There seem to be several reasons for this; first, such terms are often used referentially and presumably habitually, simply to describe rather than to stigmatize. Geneva Smitherman notes that, among blacks, the word nigger is often void of meaning and merely supplies a sentence with its subject.29 In such a context, the word is part of what Randolph Quirk calls Umgangssprache—that is, the speech of familiars (which is also, presumably, speech among equals).30 Even though the word is not used exclusively by blacks in Delany’s novel, it is “balanced” by the use of analogous forms of racial reference by black characters directed toward whites (“little white pig,” etc.). There is no sense of racial inferiority manifested by any of the characters in Tides of Lust; sexual prowess seems to be the measure of “superiority,” and that prowess is abundant everywhere. Often, in Delany, apparently derogatory epithets are part of what Quirk calls Gangbangsprache, the speech of the gang; but it is important to note that the term “gangbang” implies rape, and this leads me to my second point, which is that, when there is a kind of violence implicit in this sort of epithetical usage, it is a violence that is subsumed in a sexual act and hence rendered erotic. (In fact, in Delany’s novel there is really a double edge to such words, which function as interchangeable terms between the Umgang and the Gangbang.) Purely psychological violence—as opposed to the psychosexual—seems to be generally nonexistent in this book, but there is physical violence, without justification on any level the reader can properly accept. Robby and Peggy-Ann, for example, who both die violently (and needlessly) in the novel, are, not coincidentally, two characters who cannot go along unquestioningly with the relentless hyper-sexual activity of the others. They seem to be the only ones who set limits to their behavior, and this makes them victims, because they thereby put themselves in the role of “outsiders.” In an erotic universe of this totality, no one ever says “no” or “enough,” or if they do, it is only to have these protestations overridden. Here, lust is all, and the time is always ripe.31
Desire has no limits, as the Faust myth demonstrates. Uncontained, desire easily transforms itself into need, and in the words of Peter Michelson, “The face of ‘evil’ is always the face of total need.”32 Perhaps this is the reason that Delany combines the anarchic energy of unfettered sexuality with the artistic requirement for order and symmetry: to structure need and lend it meaning. Wittgenstein claimed that the limits of one’s language are the limits of one’s world; in the novel it is language which both limits and lends coherence to desire.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., has discussed Charles Davis’ sense of the importance of the trope of blackness as absence in Afro-American literature33; in Tides of Lust it is the trope of love as absence which is crucial in defining the negative aspects of compulsive eroticism and of pornography in its cruder forms. Black and white in Delany’s novel are equal in their obsessions: either fantasies of the Other (in terms of race, sex, or both), or engagement in incest, bisexuality, etc. The sexual plane becomes the level on which opposites literally come together.
Chapter Two of Triton, “Solvable Games,” has an epigraph from Robin Blaser’s The Practice of the Outside, which states, “The death at the center of such discourse is extraordinary and begins to let us see our own condition.” This is very pertinent for the world of discourse of Tides of Lust, in which the death in question, apart from actual killing, is an emotional one, all feeling having been reduced to sensations of either pleasure or pain. Is there a message here for a society based to such an overwhelming degree upon endless consumption and self-gratification? Does the concern in the novel with “order,” “symmetry,” “balance” have anything to do with legislated attempts in this country to rationalize problems of race and gender, after generations of institutional complicity in discrimination followed by malign neglect—both forms of “order” operating on the basis of an almost complete failure to come to grips with the complex human consequences of such engineering? Does it have anything to do with persistent irruptions of the irrational in societies monumentally dedicated to reason? We must always keep in mind that, as Joel Kovel asserts, “men are creatures of conflicts, of seams and splits and dialectically opposed beliefs: creatures of impossible contradictions, of whom it might be said that the higher one part of them reaches, the lower another part must stoop.”34
One apparently glaring asymmetry in the novel is the absence of a foregrounded black woman. Gregory Renault mistakenly asserts that “there are no black women in the novel. …”35 Therese, the Captain’s sugar-mama while he was a young man in New Orleans, and Nig’s mother are two black women referred to in the text, but they are in the past, a part of history. In terms of the present action, there are “two black women in the black of the crowd” in one scene (TL 134), and two “colored women” are seen momentarily toward the end of the novel, kissing (157), but they are little more than “extras” in this sexual extravaganza. Indeed, the only major female character in the novel is Catherine, who is white, and who is overpowering more through her absence than through her presence.
In the words of Terry Eagleton, “The ideology of the text lies in the distance between these two discourses—in the fact that the ‘phenomenal’ text is able to ‘show,’ but not speak of, the covert coherence which sustains it.”36 In Tides, the sexual scenes constitute the “phenomenal” text—what we might term, for our purposes here, the sub-text—while the philosophical/mythical level—or super-text—speaks directly to the justificatory relevance, beginning with Delany’s own Author’s Introduction, which advises us that “these pages bear the most circumscribed reverence for sanity. They concern form—which saves no one, but is icily instructive” (TL 5). (The word icily underscores the distancing which Eagleton is speaking of. It is comparable to the “chilling grace” with which Mordecai, in the epigraph to Chapter One, taken from Thomas Disch’s Camp Concentration, delivers Mephistopheles’ lines beginning, “‘Why this is hell, nor am I out of it. …’”) It is instanced also by Proctor, when he says, in response to the Captain’s request for details about Catherine, “‘They are private, and not for this book. Because they entail love. … But this must be an evil story’” (77–78), a judgment echoed towards the end of the novel in the Captain’s log: “Perhaps this is a bad book” (167). During his address to the gathered orgiasts,37 which is a major key to the novel’s intentionality, Proctor again refers to “this book.” His speech is conscious of itself as a text (oral) within a text (written); as a character, he is aware of the artifice of which he is a part.
There are additional examples of this reflexive self-consciousness: “… a strange, big-bellied black (spades cannot smile in this story) grinned …” (84); “‘Yeah, nigger, you better grin. Niggers can’t smile in this book’” (88). In the first instance, it is the narrator, speaking parenthetically; in the second, it is a (white) character called Nazi. Keeping in mind that this story takes place in a Gulf Coast port, ironic passages such as those above, in which the super-text “penetrates” the sub-text, seem to turn Tides into a kind of pornographic minstrel show. Whites and blacks both act out roles for one another which are mutually stereotypical. It is worth noting here that Delany’s original title for the novel was Equinox.38 Because an equinox provides a “balance” of light and darkness, the original title may have been intended to express a rough equality between black and white, as well as to emphasize the book’s concern with symmetry. (Tides of Lust itself suggests a pattern as well as movement; tides, after all, are influenced by the lunar cycle.)
I write “rough equality” deliberately, because it is black potency with its “implication of mythic chaos” (TL 124) which is called upon to overturn order. Speaking to the Captain, Proctor declares, “‘… you black devil! I have you! I’ll squeeze the juices from your black fruit into that sphinx’ monstrous hole yet. … You’ll defile the equalized altars of day and night, and this world will come tumbling around us!’” (134–35). Although Catherine (“that sphinx”) later claims that the Captain will not do as a proper devil, she concurs that “… it is the mystic black devil who must be satisfied for a new age to begin …” (150).39 The context of these statements is satanic, but the underlying sociopolitical implications are nonetheless obvious: for a true, rather than a rhetorical, equality to come into being, the thwarted aspirations and energies of black people must be allowed fulfillment. That apparently racist terminology can be given a reading on another level is supported by Delany himself in his own usage in a quite different context, when he describes the classic works of twentieth-century science fiction as “great, mysterious shapes of mind, lit here and there with the coalescing energies of our new technology, but, for the most part, black and unholy with mythic resonances.”40 “Black and unholy,” though innately encoded with atavistic bias, is, in this instance, intended to be decoded with positive metaphysical import: as provocative, unsettling, deeply imaginative. For if revolution is the concrete crumbling before the fantastic, as Catherine proclaims (150), then all of these various meanings—positive and negative—must come into play, in “the rounded and rich rendering of the interface between the actual and the ideal” (149; Catherine again) where chaos can be “contained in ritual” (171; Proctor).
With regard to the need for a black as primum mobile in the overthrow of established order, one might profitably refer to the difference between Western aesthetics, with its emphasis on harmony, and African aesthetics, with its emphasis on rhythm and recurrence. African art, for example, is often asymmetrical. In African music, the notes fall on the off beat; off-beat phrasing is also a stylistic feature of Afro-American jazz. Furthermore, “In African music there are always at least two rhythms going on.”41 One is tempted to compare this with the two levels of discourse which Delany employs in Tides, which reflect the mind/body separation underscored in the novel, and which appear to work at cross-purposes but in fact serve to highlight one another. There is also the principle of repetition in African music and oral literature, which serves to clarify the meaning, and which could explain both the repetitions in Tides and the principle espoused in Triton of mentioning everything at least twice in different contexts. Faust, the Western magician par excellence, needs, it seems, a non-Western ally.
Ultimately, there is a tension in Tides between the symbolic (the Greek symballein means “drawing together”) and the diabolic (dia-ballein means “pulling apart”). Proctor’s invented belief that a new age will be ushered in if the devil “comes seven times between noon and midnight” (56) demonstrates this quite clearly, for the devil is, in the Christian tradition, diabolus per se, whose symbolic act (copulation, in which two are drawn together), performed seven times (a magical number), is supposed to bring forth a different world, which, since it will personify chaos, is really a decreation of already-existing order (itself based on a symbolic symmetry, upset by seven, an odd number, and therefore “unbalanced”). This may help to explain Delany’s persistent concern with the criminal-artist figure, a conjunction of the symbolic and the diabolic within a single individual. Proctor himself, indeed, is such a person—Faustian artist and Mephistophelean provocateur42—who lies frequently, “… for I am a man whose interest in the truth is only its aesthetic fascination in a landscape of lies” (122), and who is “‘transported by the idea of using the material in such a way that all the relations remain unreal’” (170). Keeping in mind that another word for lie is fiction, one cannot help feeling that this is Delany himself speaking, for, despite the occasional grotesqueness of the ruthlessly clinical sex, there is aesthetic fascination in this landscape of fiction and falsehood—remembering, too, the political implications inhering in landscape, evidenced in Appendix B to Triton. All the relations between characters in Tides do remain unreal, though they do not lack intensity for all that, whether it be a tragic or a trivial intensity. The dual qualification here is necessitated by, and points to, Delany’s deliberately duplicitous practice in the novel, in which everything is Janus-faced: the linking of the symbolic with the diabolic; Faust as speculator and manipulator, mage and fakir, tempter and tempted; scurrility coupled with sophistication in both word and deed; pornography indicting itself as anti-pornography. Delany, much more successfully than Faust (since he does not need to contend with the requirement of damnation imposed by Christian theology and morality), is able to overreach himself, indulging his fantasies (and perhaps a few of our own as well) by means of an aesthetic vehicle—a text—which conveys an intimacy it simultaneously sanitizes. “Language,” writes Roland Barthes, “has this property of denying, ignoring, dissociating reality: when written, shit does not have an odor. …”43 Through pornography’s “transparent body may be seen a dialectic of reality and unreality”44—a dialectic, I might add, that transcends the text.
Quoted by Hayden Carruth, in “Paul Goodman and the Grand Community,” The American Poetry Review, 12, No. 5 (1983), 25.
New York: Bantam Books, 1976, p. 91. All subsequent references to this work, abbreviated T, will be situated in parentheses in the text.
Triads in various forms are pervasive in Delany’s writings, as I have previously observed in “The Mirrors of Caliban: A Study of the Fiction of LeRoi Jones (Imamu Amiri Baraka), Ishmael Reed and Samuel R. Delany,” diss. State Univ. of New York at Buffalo, 1976, p. 216 and elsewhere.
Total body transformation—e.g., male to female—is considered merely cosmetic; genetic changes are classified as radical.
Adam J. Frisch, “The Landscape of Sex in Recent Speculative Fiction.” mimeographed ms., 1978, p. 4.
New York: Lancer Books, 1973. All subsequent references to this novel, abbreviated TL, will be found in parentheses in the text.
A recent article by Gregory Renault, “Speculative Porn: Aesthetic Form in Samuel R. Delany’s Tides of Lust,” Extrapolation, 24 (1983), 116–29, may serve to bring this novel wider attention. Renault notes that Tides of Lust was written in 1968 and was immediately followed by another, still unpublished, erotic novel entitled Hogg (pp. 126–27, fn. 4).
Delany has not only afforded us this degree of textual density as a writer of fiction, he has also provided an explicational counterpoint in The American Shore (Elizabethtown, NY: Dragon Press, 1978), a book-length critical meditation on “Angouleme,” a tale by Thomas Disch. In his introduction to this work, Delany argues that criticism “(assuming it is done with passion and precision) has an autonomous value in itself” (p. 40).
John Miller Chernoff, African Rhythm and African Sensibility: Aesthetics and Social Action in African Musical Idioms (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1979), pp. 125–26, 140.
Ibid., p. 21.
Karen L. Shuldner, “On Dhalgren and Triton,” Riverside Quarterly, 7, No. 1 (1980), 11.
Tom Moylan, “Beyond Negation: The Critical Utopias of Ursula K. LeGuin and Samuel R. Delany,” Extrapolation, 21 (1980), 248. Moylan calls the society of Triton “a utopia of the streets,” where other forms of politics “give way to the politics of everyday life” (pp. 243, 244), which is the level on which most of the characters function; but there are constant allusions to a much vaster political frame of reference that culminates, as previously stated, in a catastrophic interplanetary war. Politics may intrude very subtly, as for example, in the notation in Appendix B, which informs us that the language of eighty percent of Earth, and of Mars and the Satellites, is a “Magyar-Cantonese dialect” (T 352) or in the mention of a People’s Capitalist China (189)—both of which provoke speculations in the reader’s mind as to what kinds of historical changes Delany’s twenty-second century has inherited—or it may arise more straightforwardly, as when Lawrence tells Bron that because women have only been treated as human begins for the past sixty-five years, and then only on the moons, they are far less willing to put up with shit; but the political is always present.
Similarly, Delany “is more than tangentially interested in racial themes,” despite the fact that he is “assuredly not a one-dimensional ‘black writer,’ that is to say, a writer concerned only with racial identity …” (Emerson Littlefield, “The Mythologies of Race and Science in Samuel Delany’s The Einstein Intersection and Nova,” Extrapolation, 23 , 236, 238). In Delany’s own words, “To be black in this country is simply too pervasive an experience for any writer to omit from his or her work. It has to be there in one form or another” (quoted by Michael W. Peplow, in “Meet Samuel R. Delany, Black Science Fiction Writer,” The Crisis, 86 [Apr. 1979], 119). This, too, of course, has political implications.
“Shadows—Part Two,” Foundation: The Review of Science Fiction, Nos. 7–8 (1975). p. 129. The first part of “Shadows” appeared in issue number six of the same journal, and the entire work was reprinted as part of Delany’s first collection of critical pieces, The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction (Elizabethtown, NY: Dragon Press, 1977). As one example of the almost mischievous manner in which Delany “fictionalizes” his own life while at the same time “actualizing” his fiction, the woman “editor” of Appendix B to Triton informs us that Slade’s first important lecture, Shadows, appeared in issues six and seven/eight of the journal Foundation, and that (s)he took the title “from a non-fiction piece written in the twentieth century by a writer of light, popular fictions” (T 357).
The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, pp. 44–45.
Peter S. Alterman, “The Surreal Translations of Samuel R. Delany,” Science Fiction Studies, 5 (1978), 28; Gregory Renault, “Speculative Porn,” p. 124. Renault is addressing himself specifically to Tides of Lust, but in my own estimation the comment has a much more general significance for Delany’s overall canon.
Similarly, science fiction was, for a long time, “unlicensed” in the sense that it was generally considered non-or para-literature by the professional literary establishment.
The do-your-own-thing ethos of the u-l sector in Triton and of Bellona in Dhalgren are clearly rooted in the “free love” philosophy, the let-it-all-hang-out attitude of the countercultural movement of the 1960s—which was both a circus and a transcendence—and in Delany’s own personal experience, as the autobiographical Heavenly Breakfast reveals. Ironically, we are informed in Triton that although, in the year 2112, the 1960s are “very in” on Earth, the “audience” is the most conservative in the solar system (172).
This phrase is taken from Marilyn Hacker’s poem “Peterborough,” in Taking Notice (New York: Knopf, 1980), p. 88.
Quoted as the epigraph to Nadine Gordimer’s novel July’s People (New York: Viking Press, 1981).
“Speculative Porn,” pp. 122–23.
William H. Hardesty, III, “Space Opera, Semiotics, and Babel-17,” mimeographed ms., 1978, p. 11.
The Aesthetics of Pornography (New York: Herder and Herder, 1971), pp. 59–60.
“Speculative Porn,” p. 117. Is this what Proctor means when he declares that “… Faust seeks to gather to him a greater public; one who, by definition, will participate” (TL 123)?
Proctor: “‘Is it such a terrible thing to content yourself with only visiting places like this in sleazy books or in … what do they call them—underground comics?’” (TL 110).
“Speculative Porn,” p. 126, fn. 3.
Gary Kern, “The Search for Fantasy: >From Primitive Man to Pornography,” in Bridges to Fantasy, ed. George E. Slusser, Eric S. Rabkin, and Robert Scholes (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1982), p. 218, notes.
I am reminded here of the photographs of singer Grace Jones, caged and “vicious,” which have been displayed as avant-garde art but which exploit (and it is in this that the true viciousness lies) the most pernicious stereotypes and anti-black, anti-woman fantasies.
Sade/Fourier/Loyola, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1976), p. 36.
“White English in Blackface, or Who Do I Be?,” in The State of the Language, ed. Leonard Michaels and Christopher Ricks (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1980), p. 163.
“Sound Barriers and Gangbangsprache,” in The State of the Language, ed. Michaels and Ricks, p. 10.
At the end of the novel, it is true, Kirsten and Gunner want to know if it was necessary for Robby and Peggy-Ann to die, and the Captain tells them, “‘That’s the law. … their law. Not ours’” (TL 173), but it is not at all clear how these three, despite the fact that they are only visitors in this port, conform to a law that is radically different. The Captain confides to his log that he didn’t feel sorry for Robby at all, even though he was “afraid of what was on his face” (167), and we know from his earlier log entries that he has committed a number of murders himself, though he has “more babies than deaths” (35). In other words, although the Captain rhetorically situates himself and his two “companions” outside the ethical universe of the other characters, there is really nothing other than his words to give evidence of the truth of this.
The Aesthetics of Pornography, p. 75.
“Charles T. Davis and the Critical Imperative in Afro-American Literature,” introduction to Black is the Color of the Cosmos: Essays on Afro-American Literature and Culture, 1942–1981 by Charles T. Davis, ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (New York: Garland, 1982).
White Racism: A Psychohistory (New York: Vintage Books, 1970), p. 90.
“Speculative Porn,” p. 118.
Criticism and Ideology (London: Verso Editions, 1978), p. 150.
Peter Michelson, The Aesthetics of Pornography, p. 163, quotes Mircea Eliade to the effect that “the orgy destroys creation while at the same time regenerating it; man hopes, by identifying himself with formless, pre-cosmic existence, to return to himself restored and regenerated, in a word, ‘a new man.’”
“Speculative Porn,” p. 126, fn. 4.
This insistent identification of the black man with the devil is so pervasive that it has been adopted in an inverted, positive manner in a good deal of black literature. Two examples: (1) In Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970; rpt. New York: Pocket Books, 1972) one of the characters imagines the devil “holding the world in his hands, ready to dash it to the ground and spill the red guts so niggers could eat the sweet, warm insides. If the devil did look like that, Cholly preferred him. He never felt anything thinking about God, but just the idea of the devil excited him. And now the strong, black devil was blotting out the sun and getting ready to split open the world” (pp. 106–107). (2) In John A. Williams’ novel! Click Song (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1982), the protagonist, Cato Caldwell Douglass, an Afro-American novelist, narrates a dream he has of playing pool with God, in which the deity explains, “You’re probably wondering, my boy … why the eight ball is the black ball and the last to go, the ball you must not get behind. And the cue ball, white like the sun, is the contact ball. … The black ball is the stranger hidden in the heavens, a threat. … The Dark Prince hides behind galaxies, constellations, and nebulae. … The black ball demands more, is more, than we can imagine” (p. 325). In Tides of Lust, Proctor wants the Captain to spill the old world’s guts; he is the cue ball, trying to finally “pocket” the Captain as eight ball and “rack up” a new game.
“Letter to a Critic: Popular Culture, High Art, and the S-F Landscape,” in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, p. 17 (italics mine).
John Miller Chernoff, African Rhythm and African Sensibility, p. 42. Emphasis in the original.
Proctor himself declares that “In the public imagination, Faust and Mephistopheles become confused,” and that Faust is “a magician (and a charlatan)” (TL 122–23).
Sade/Fourier/Loyola, p. 137.
Kern, pp. 193–94.
Editor’s Note: Under its original title Equinox, Tides of Lust is again available as a paperback from Masquerade Books (NY: 1994). Hogg finally saw publication last year as a hardback from Black Ice Books.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2719
SOURCE: “Jewels in Junk City: To Read Triton,” in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 16, No. 3, Fall, 1996, pp. 142-7.
[In the following essay, Blackford examines various scientific and linguistic inconsistencies in Triton,which he identifies as symptomatic of Delany's fiction in general. According to Blackford, Delany's elaborate future worlds and linguistic constructs create “an overall effect,” rather than a seamless alternative reality.]
Samuel R. Delany’s Triton is an experiment in radical utopian narrative. It depicts a miraculously hi-tech society, in this case set on the Neptunian moon Triton over a century hence. On Triton there are few conventional or physical restraints on the achievement of individual human desires. The novel appears to be a rigorous examination of how such a society might operate and how individual human folly, conflict, and even tragedy might nonetheless be located within it. Delany is apparently continuing such a project in an even more extreme utopian diptych whose first volume has been published as Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. He is likely to have imitators: an impressive recent attempt at the same mode of writing by a more traditional science fiction writer is John Varley’s Steel Beach, one of the most ambitious science fiction novels of the 1990s so far.1
Triton’s radical future is presented with a display of sociological relentlessness. Furthermore, the novel’s vagaries and inconsistencies are readily attributable to the highly self-conscious and often unreliable thought processes of the viewpoint character, Bron Helstrom; no information is given to the reader except through Bron’s perceptions and thoughts. A dense prose style, heavy with parenthetical clauses in round brackets or dashes, tracks the workings of a distinct consciousness that the reader comes to discover as both highly introspective and morally infuriating. Further, it becomes clear that Bron’s understanding of his universe is largely constructed from historical clichés, half-forgotten educational drivel, and unreliable folk wisdom. It is possible, therefore, and tempting to read Triton very solemnly, as if Delany has succeeded in writing a kind of latter-day Madame Bovary, a narrative whose every detail can be studied as the imprint of a subtly wrongheaded viewpoint character who fails to understand his world and himself.
While such a reading has its merits and produces its share of minor joys, I wish to suggest a less claustrophobic, if less reverent, approach to Triton and to Delany’s fiction generally. Triton, in particular, can be read as a more improvised but perhaps more engaging piece of work. The text of Triton causes discomforts that make textual interpretation itself problematical and call into doubt the rigor and coherence of the narrative, if not the understructure of its political philosophy. At one point, for example, Bron recalls two deaths caused by monstrous g fluctuations, triggered, in turn, by sabotage of Triton’s bolstered gravity; he “then remembered Alfred; he decided he didn’t want to go into his own room at all. If it looked like Alfred’s (up to three hundred times normal gravity? That was almost as high as the surface of Neptune!), he just didn’t want to see.”2 Stop: three hundred-plus times normal gravity on the planet Neptune? In our universe the surface gravity of Neptune is nothing like three hundred gs. Perhaps Bron means three hundred times the natural gravity of Triton itself without artificial bolstering; this is somewhat ambiguous, because the concept is first introduced by another character, Lawrence, as “three hundred times Triton normal for as much as seven whole seconds. Seven seconds at three hundred gravities! That’s really incredible!” (240).
In fact, either three hundred “gravities,” if this means three hundred gs, or three hundred times “normal” bolstered gravity (said to be 0.962 that of Earth) would be incredible. Even three hundred times natural Triton gravity would doubtless be impressive and destructive. Any of these is vastly greater, however, than gravity on the surface of Neptune, which is little more than that on the surface of the Earth.3 Has Bron got it wrong again? Or are we in some alternative universe where gravity behaves very differently from in our own? Or do we step out of textual interpretation entirely at this point and start complaining?
Discomfort occurs at other levels. One thing that generally works about the novel is its consistency of language in contouring psychology and épistéme. However, even this sometimes becomes problematic. For example, Triton is set on a world that is part of a culture wherein every form of sexual activity appears to be rationalized into the social structures. It is strange, then, that the dialogue and Bron’s stream of consciousness include twentieth-century expressions that one might have thought were embedded in a very different social construction of sexuality; nor do these expressions appear to have different connotations from those in our own world. The word affair is still used in its current sense of an impermanent sexual episode and still with a seemingly pejorative connotation, though this latter point may be arguable. It is used not only by Bron—a Martian who may not know any better, having come from an unreconstructed patriarchal culture—but also by the Spike, a cool satellite-culture lady. Bron’s young friend Prynne uses the word fuckers as one of abuse. Sam uses ephemeral twentieth-century slang expressions such as get laid and make out, which, surely, are parasitic on certain more or less brutal and culture-specific constructions of sexuality. Even the expression getting in her pants is used, again by the Spike—on a world where it is not de rigueur even to wear pants.
The linguistic problem becomes more complicated when it is hinted that the whole book is a translation from some language other than English, but, if so, what are the concepts that are being translated in this way, and, if they differ from more familiar concepts reflected in the twentieth-century slang usages, what is the text doing with other words such as sexualizationship? This appears throughout and suggests, albeit awkwardly, an entirely different attitude to sex, more in keeping with a culture that seriously classifies people into a multiplicity of sexes. But this last concept is far from honored in the book as a whole, in which the traditional binary opposition of male-female is assumed as primary at each step of the story and the dialogue.
Again at the center of the story development is a lengthy set piece wherein Bron escorts the Spike to a fancy restaurant in Mongolia, Swan’s Craw. During his elaborate attempts to impress his friend and the restaurant staff, he reveals himself, with pathetic transparency, as unspontaneous, egocentric, coarse, and culture-bound. This scene is imaginative, witty, generous writing, a creative jewel. But for its events, critical to the story, to take place, Bron must meet up with the Spike on Earth. This necessitates some narrative improvisation: Bron is given two weeks’ nonrefusable leave from his job just in time for Sam, a high-level official who lives in the same co-op, to invite him to join his entourage for a diplomatic/political visit to Earth. All this, in turn, gets moving the very day after the second occasion on which Bron and the Spike make love, at which point he has just left her about to pack up for her interplanetary theatrical itinerary which—surprise!—will include performances on Earth.4
Now, we might imagine a society in which public officials, like 1990s tennis stars, gather private entourages for their working journeys—even with nonindoctrinated acquaintances being thrown in at the last minute. However, I find this incredible without a lot more imaginative underpinning than is provided. The entire contrived chain of causation is not helped by some clumsy dialogue in which the Spike explains at great but unconvincing length (citing various facts revealed especially for the occasion) why—though this is hardly the point—it is not a coincidence that the two of them ended up in the same place on Earth.
The Swan’s Craw scene itself is rendered problematic by some strange discussion of money, of tangible currency. While the novel generally assumes that paper money is now obsolete, Sam explains that Swan’s Craw is “a restaurant—where they still take this stuff. Some people consider it mildly elegant” (188). In fact, all this seems to be introduced only so as to allow considerable fuss to be made by Bron, who later plays sadistic ego games with the “stuff”: it is not embedded in other aspects of what we learn about twenty-second-century finance and, indeed, seems to run against everything we do know. While any objection that paper money is likely to be obsolete in the hi-tech cultures described is met by the presentation of it as anomalous, this only shifts, does not remove, the problem with the text: the dialogue about money seems like special pleading.
On close inspection Triton is not a seamless, highly coherent piece of world-building and narrative construction but an improvisation, precariously and sometimes untidily built from scavenged parts left out to rust in some conceptual Junk City, analogous to the “high-tech moment” Delany has described elsewhere: “the coffee table with the missing leg propped up by the stack of video game cartridges, or the drawer full of miscellaneous Walkman earphones.”5 The analogy is fair not only with respect to Triton; it is true of all of Delany’s efforts at prose fiction up to and including recent work such as Stars in My Pocket, where we still find the inclusion of pieces of rusty conceptual junk. See, for example, that book’s extensive and incoherent discussion of fuzzy-edged concepts, which does no more than dissolve into complexity—or, rather, fail to dissolve—the melodramatic concept that Rat Korga is the sole survivor of the destruction of his world, the planet Rhyonon.6
Much of Delany’s fiction is barely held together with such fast-spoken nonsense. In Triton itself other examples include a baroque discussion that to some extent dissolves any objections to the datum that men and women are of similar height and bulk in the societies of 2112. At times it is difficult to decide how seriously these passage should, after all, be taken. Early in the novel, Bron explains his job as a metalogician—a dubious concept in academic philosophy.7 Much of what he has to say makes perfectly good sense as a discussion of the limitations of standard symbolic logic, of familiar propositional and predicate calculi; however, metalogic, as conceptualized in Triton, makes very little sense. Bron asks his new staff member, Miriamne, “If a hen-and-a-half lays an egg-and-a-half in a day-and-a-half … how many eggs does one hen lay in one day?” (57). Of course, an arithmetical attempt at the problem quickly yields the solution two-thirds; there is, however, a nice psychological question as to why so many people respond intuitively with the answer one, as does Miriamne. Bron sees the question not as one of human psychology but as explicable by metalogic; he ultimately approaches it in terms of topological relations between “P” and “not-P” in the n-space volumes of metalogic:
From here he skirted into the various topological representations of metalogical interpretations of ‘P’ and ‘not-P’. … “We have a very useful P/not-P relation where we say that, for whatever the space, not-P is completely contained by P, is tangent to it at an infinite number of points, and cleaves it into an infinite number of pieces—that’s such a common one we have a special name for it: we say that not-P shatters P. That’s the metalogical relationship the hen-and-a-half wrongly suggests you use to get a quick answer of ‘one.’”
At this point a reader is perhaps prepared to retreat, on the basis that if this is, as I would assert, gobbledygook, it is very difficult to prove it so!
In his mighty critical essay “To Read The Dispossessed” Delany explicitly, though perhaps disingenuously, refrains from pursuing the argument that the various “thinnesses” that he identifies in Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel add up to “a political template at odds with the surface form of Le Guin’s apparent political sympathies.” He states “that is beyond the scope of this treatment.”8 To attempt such a deconstruction of Delany’s own work would be a daunting task and would require far greater elaboration than is possible here, although there is a real question as to whether the jerry-built structures of Delany’s texts are sufficient to support their radical social constructivist philosophy.
My point in this essay, however, is a less ambitious one: it is possible to read Delany’s texts too solemnly, and this seems to happen even, or especially, in the most careful critical accounts.9 If we are to read Delany honestly and with open eyes, we will acknowledge how his future worlds and the stories that take place in them have been improvised from bits and pieces to create an overall effect; yet they more or less work, creating on a scale of breadth and depth achieved by few other science fiction writers at least the impression of rigorously alternative épistémes. Nor does the improvised construction of his fiction prevent Delany from producing some grand, generous, and often subtle passages, jewels in a conceptual Junk City. An entire study could be produced showing the nuances of Bron’s psychological presentation and development in Triton. However, it ultimately does the author neither justice nor even service to misread the way his art works: whatever impression a Delany story creates—it ducks and dazzles; it fizzes and weaves—Delany is not a grand SF synthesist. Triton shows him, rather, as a street smart conceptual bricoleur: the SF writer as archetype and prototype of a Junk City hero.
John Varley, Steel Beach (New York: Putnam, 1992). This book clearly owes much to Triton; like Triton, it even includes as a central incident a hi-tech zipless sex change undergone by its protagonist. However, in tone, style, and specific allusions it is much closer to Robert A. Heinlein’s later novels than to Delany’s.
Samuel R. Delany, Triton (New York: Bantam, 1976), 241; hereafter cited parenthetically.
Standard reference works will reveal that, even now, insufficient hard information is possessed on the moon Triton to estimate its surface gravity reliably but that it is likely to be a significant fraction of a g. As noted in Andre Bahic, “Neptune,” Cambridge Atlas of Astronomy, 2nd ed. (1968), 212, “Triton is sufficiently massive to have an atmosphere and a melted core.” The surface gravity of Neptune is 1.4 times that of the Earth according to “Neptune,” Encyclopedia Americana, 1990 ed. For what it is worth, material facts from which to calculate such a figure and to deduce a significant fraction of Earth’s gravity for the surface of Triton were readily accessible when Triton was being written in the mid-1970s.
The review of the novel by one of Delany’s alter egos, K. Leslie Steiner, refers to all this as “a bit of novelistic sleight-of-hand that should leave anyone fascinated with pure SF storytelling technique gasping and applauding with delight.” Perhaps so, but any such delight is at the effrontery of the blatant improvisation, rather than at seamless storytelling. See “Trouble on Triton,” in Delany’s collection The Straits of Messina (Seattle: Serconia Press, 1989), 96.
Samuel R. Delany, “On Triton and Other Matters: An Interview with Samuel R. Delany,” Science-Fiction Studies 17 (1990): 304. While Delany elaborates on Junk City as a modernist worldview promulgated in SF, the images of industrial improvisation that he cites are appropriate as analogies for his own makeshift practices of world creation.
Russell Blackford, “Debased and Lascivious?”, rev, of Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, by Samuel R. Delany, Australian Science Fiction Review Second Series 1.4 (1986): 13–14.
As acknowledged extratextually by Delany himself in “On Triton and Other Matters,” 297.
“To Read The Dispossessed,” in Delany’s collection The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes of [sic] the Language of Science Fiction (New York: Berkley, 1977), 272.
Although I do not wish to seem ungrateful to a critic from whom my own understanding of Delany has benefited. Tom Moylan appears to write with no sense of the improvisation and even prankish element in the construction of Triton. See his Demand the Impossible: Science Fiction and the Utopian Imagination (New York: Methuen, 1986), 156–95. This is close to being a definitive “straight” account of the novel.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3892
SOURCE: “To See What Conditions Our Condition Is In: Trial by Language in Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand,” in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 16, No. 3, Fall, 1996, pp. 153-60.
[In the following essay, Bray examines Delany's subversion of language and social organization in Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. Bray contends that the reader is drawn into a “textual webbing” that illustrates the relationship between the individual and society and brings into focus current social realities and alternative futures.]
One of the definitive characteristics of Samuel R. Delany’s fiction is its “consciousness-raising” function. The number of characters in his works who are marginal to their social contexts or outsiders to those contexts altogether calls attention to those social frameworks and what they offer or deny their inhabitants. Add to this awareness the dialogue between the givens of the present world and the givens created in an SF world which Delany suggests is evoked as part of the process of reading SF. To understand the social and artifactual givens created in an SF world, readers must conceive the changes from the present world which would be necessary for the fictional one to exist and, in so doing, become more aware of what exists or lacks in the present.1 In Delany’s fictions this heightened awareness of present reality typically comes through ironies and reversals played upon it by the text. Additionally, in Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand Delany gives the text itself an overtly directorial role in controlling and focusing readers’ attention, this time upon—amid a richesse of objects—the relationship between the shape taken by a society and the conditions of the lives of its individual members.
In Stars in My Pocket the fictional organization that oversees the flow of information in the galaxy and seems also to oversee the evolution of galactic civilization is called the Web. As Delany has reminded his readers in an appendix to Triton, the word web comes from the Latin textus, signing the fabric upon which text is imprinted as well as the fiber of which it is spun.2 With both senses of that word at work in Stars, it is easy enough to see the activity of the fictional Web in controlling and modulating characters’ awareness as also the activity of the textual web upon readers. An early signal of this necessarily dynamic relationship between text and reader comes during Rat Korga’s first acts of conscious reading: “The new condition … was a web, a text weaving endlessly about him, erupting into and falling from consciousness, prompting memory and obliterating it.”3 The text of this novel seems devised similarly to modulate its readers’ consciousness, directing their attention to moments that prompt key associations, then dissolving it to re-prompt it again in different frameworks, even, at times, speaking to them directly through asides.
Nor is a reader’s attention allowed to remain passive. Stars in My Pocket is filled with resonances from the drama, a form meant to create direct and immediate responses. Readers are reminded frequently of the theater and of things being staged. Narrator Marq Dyeth’s “Monologues” comprise the novel’s central section. His “book” of Vondramach Okk’s poetry projects a holographic stage with her image displayed upon it. He also reminds readers that most of what they see as details of setting is “spectacle” (342) projected by sophisticated media technologies. In the theatrical sense a spectacle is a staged display meant to evoke a response as much affective as intellectual, and, in fact, many of the key scenes in Stars have the additional affective dimension of taking place upon or near the stage of the Dyethshome amphitheatre.
Unique to the text of Stars in My Pocket in its evocation and control of its readers’ attention, however, is its shift in the semantic registers of their own language, standard English. Standard English, with its implicit socio-cultural rankings of individual worth, privileges males over females in its supposedly generic he and is limited in semantic application to a single sentient species consisting of two sexes. In that semantic frame English is too limited a system not only for the two human sexes on contemporary Earth but also for the many worlds created in the galaxy of Stars in My Pocket, a galaxy that is home to many intelligent species, each possibly comprising more or fewer than two sexes. Societies and characters in Stars, with occasional exceptions, use the more inclusive and egalitarian Arachnia standard, a semantically expanded version of the language brought by the Web. She has become the generic pronoun and woman the generic noun for all individuals of sentient species. He is reserved for use only when an individual, regardless of sex or species, is the object of sexual interest. This shifted language, in which over four-fifths of the novel is narrated, becomes a primary means through which the text directs and controls readers’ perceptions.
Characters called women in Stars are most often not females and frequently not humans. Nor can readers automatically envision human males in picturing scenes that use the word he. Both new categories demand perception and increased attention to text. Without habitual linguistic cues, descriptive details provided are not always sufficient for readers to picture a character as alien or human, for instance. Sometimes human characters are clearly males or females, but sometimes not. Is Japril male or female? Is that certain? Most important, unless sexual interest is involved, does it matter? Now, readers are forced to stop at the onset of each new scene, new action, new set of characters, and with conscious effort depart from automatic responses and reconfigure what they are picturing to accord with whatever details the text is (or is not) providing.
Denied the possibility of advancing through the text swiftly and linearly, readers are required to reread each scene, each moment highlighted by that text, and to pay attention in new ways. This recursive reading pattern, mirroring Marq Dyeth’s pattern as narrator in Arachnia standard, modulates readers’ attention so that they retrace each textual moment and experience intratextual resonances that grow through accretion.4 With such returns made a necessity, readers eventually experience resonances that expand beyond Marq Dyeth’s sections as narrator to encompass the whole novel, including its third-person prologue narrated in standard English. By then, that prologue on Rhyonon, significantly titled “A World Apart,” can be seen as an opening spectacle displaying a failed society, setting the stage for what follows.
From that expanded perspective, readers’ attention is directed to sets of contrasting societies that frame the experiences of two main characters, Marq Dyeth and Rat Korga. It is through these characters’ experiences that readers might most readily compare their own societies to those set on stage by the novel. The degree to which the shape taken by a society in Stars in My Pocket matches the nonhierarchical and inclusive potentials implicit in the language Arachnia standard becomes a measure for readers’ judgment, first of that society and then of their own. Both Rat Korga’s home society on the planet Rhyonon and Marq Dyeth’s at Dyethshome and Morgre on the planet Velm are displayed fully enough to be seen in terms of their effects on their members. The fate of a third planet, Nepiy, with a society at the outset more resembling Morgre’s than Rhyonon’s, seems about to be determined to its population’s detriment by a fourth group, the Thants from the planet Zetzor.
Each of the two main characters comes from a society that has chosen or leans toward either Family or Sygn, the two contrasting models for social structure at play in the novel. The Family model generates closed, hierarchical, exclusionary systems that try to freeze social structures to fit “a classic past as pictured on a world [Old Earth] that may never have existed” (86). This system leans toward stasis, the end of dynamic possibility, ultimately death. The Sygn model, by contrast, is “committed to the living interaction and difference between each woman and each world” (86). It generates open systems that are inclusive, dynamic, flexible, and life sustaining.
On Rhyonon, Rat Korga’s society is a closed system that has cut itself off from the rest of the galaxy in several ways. It uses the “archaic” (216) language that retains the pronouns and gender hierarchy of standard English; it has refused connection with the Web’s General Information system, which links most societies in the galaxy. Its sole population is human so that it lacks the range of social perspectives and possibilities that would come with interspecies interaction. Closed off from outward contact, Rhyonon has made the worst of itself. The practice of slavery there, under the ironic guise of social concern, gives objective form to an extreme capacity for dehumanization. Slaves like Rat Korga are created by means of “Radical Anxiety Termination” in a process banned elsewhere in the galaxy. Also dehumanizing is Rhyonon’s maintenance of the gender inequities implicit in its citizens’ use of the old language. Females are secondary to males and disparaged by them. The woman who outlaws herself in buying Rat Korga to satisfy private desires is testament to the effects of these inequities.
Involution and repressiveness permeate both custom and law in life on Rhyonon. Individuals must wear “faces,” masks that actually cover their faces. Wearing a bare face, like going naked, indicates one’s social insignificance. Another involution renders physical height a negative index of social worth, with those shortest in stature being highest in status. Equally absurd are laws about sexual behavior forbidding sexual contact between the very tall and the very short and between males under twenty-seven years old. On Rhyonon such absurd repression seems to be connected to various forms of sadomasochism practiced by those who have power upon those who have none, like the Rats.
At its deepest substratum fear underlies Rhyonon’s society, fear that evokes research projects on killer viruses and ongoing struggles for power among political factions. Ironically, this society ultimately seeks to find safety by freezing its social forms into the Family pattern of “strong powers, mediating powers, and subordinate powers” (129) not long before the Cultural Fugue it has feared actually occurs and obliterates it. The universe in Stars is not one in which form can be frozen and the dynamism of life maintained. The only solid form that remains after Rhyonon has undergone the meltdownlike Cultural Fugue and had its traces erased from history by the Web is the ball of slag to which it has been reduced.
From the life experience embodied in Rat Korga, it is not difficult for readers to see the effects of Rhyonon’s society on its members. Rat Korga has been enslaved essentially because a learning disability has kept him illiterate, unable to protect himself with or from words, although he has longed for the knowledge and understanding that the ability to use them would bring. The only choice—if it can be called that—readers see him make is his decision to undergo the RAT process, a decision into which his inability with language has caused him to be duped. Even after the destruction of Rhyonon, Rat Korga is not a free man. By the time he comes into Marq Dyeth’s life, he has been “reborn” at the hands of and educated by the Web. He sees, literally and figuratively, with Web-installed eyes, which symbolically go dark or disappear depending on the light in the same way that information’s flow or erasure in the galaxy depends on the Web’s plans. His desire for knowledge and understanding has been fulfilled through his use of the Rings of Vondramach Okk. However, those rings have been provided by the Web, and his actions are subject to the Web’s bidding. Ultimately when a Web agent tells him to leave Velm and Marq Dyeth, his perfect (to within a few decimal points) mate, he leaves. Growing up on Rhyonon has apparently shaped him only for a life of being controlled.
When considering the ways in which the present and known world would have to be different for a society, like Rhyonon’s to exist, readers might well surmise that except for its alternative placement in time and space, Rhyonon already exists. Contemporary life is riddled with sexual and social taboos and functions according to embedded power hierarchies that privilege, a select few. Just as the social structure on Rhyonon closely matches the disparities in individual, empowerments implicit in contemporary standard English and manifest in contemporary societies that speak it, so the egalitarian, accepting, and nurturant society embodied at Morgre and Dyethshome most closely manifests the potentials suggested by Arachnia standard, potentials that are farthest from contemporary social practice.
The fundament of Morgran society—and of Marq Dyeth’s Morgran life at Dyethshome where Arachnia standard is the common tongue—is eros, not phobos. Of the several societies displayed in Stars in My Pocket, this Sygn-based society is the one that offers its members the fullest opportunity to realize their own potentials. It is one of several societies in the galaxy rooted in an interrelationship of two sentient species. Many of the values and practices embedded in the culture of the one species have been absorbed by the other, and the whole society has grown therefrom. At Morgre the interrelationship between species sustains itself by fostering fulfillment rather than repression of desires.
Morgran life is grounded in bonding and union. On the sexual level Morgran society recognizes the free play of its members’ desire natures—inter- and intraspecies and inter-and intragender—to be natural. It incorporates that play of desires into the material shape of urban life by providing, along with parks and other recreational areas, a variety of “runs” where a full spectrum of physical desires can be fulfilled. In enabling that full play of desires. Morgran society avoids generating sadomasochistic behaviors like the ones on Rhyonon. In addition, the free play of desires in Morgre apparently fosters the full play of creativity. Sculptures are present in the runs; decorations and embellishments adorn surfaces everywhere.
The Morgran desire for union takes other literal and metaphorical forms. Literally, Morgrans unite with one another by eating cloned human and evelm flesh. They have also joined flesh in the biogenetic addition of some evelm substance to Marq Dyeth’s human sister, Little Maxa. Dragon “hunts” for specimens of a nonsentient trisaurian species on Velm are done in pursuit of a technologically assisted perceptual union. Songs sung afterward by humans and evelmi become emblematic of the “multiplicity, richness, and beauty” (276) that come from the Morgran joining of species and cultures. Among Morgrans, a habitual greeting or leave-taking is “I love you” (238).
This relish of multilayered diversity is also signaled in Morgre’s having adopted the evelmian nurture stream as a structure for propagation, kinship. Streams contain parents and children of both species and are not structured according to bloodline or authority hierarchies. It is from an early “unfettered experience of alien life” (356) provided by his stream parents that Marq Dyeth’s life work as an Industrial Diplomat has grown. From his society he has learned to seek contact, to relish moments of communication achieved through layers of possible semantic misunderstandings. He embodies Morgran trust and openness, entering experience literally and metaphorically naked both as a guide on his own planet and as a diplomat on others. The self he presents, unlike the masked faces on Rhyonon, is genuine, not veiled.
On the whole, it is the basically loving nature instilled by his society that sustains Marq Dyeth through his experience of extreme loss when Rat Korga is taken from his and he loses the ability to feel desire. In the scene that ends his narrative readers see that he retains his basic generosity of spirit even so. One of his actions in that scene is to reposition the dangling arm of an unconscious fellow passenger suspended in transport webbing. Then, during an exercise period, he is struck by a joy at the wonder of experience, at “the play of the infinite universe … and the dazzle of its totality” (374), the kind of joy that has been his at moments of communication achieved throughout his life as a diplomat. In that sense his life work, the one that his society has enabled him to find, is what keeps him whole.
By contrast, the behavior of the Thants, when they visit Dyethshome, becomes a spectacle in the negative sense, a visible reminder to readers of how far current social reality is removed from the possibilities either latent in Arachnia standard or manifest in Morgran society. The Thants of Zetzor, even though for the most part they speak the newer language, manifest in their actions—like Rhyononians—more the value systems embedded in standard English. Unlike Marq Dyeth who goes openly and nakedly into experience, the Thants, members of an all-human, species-exclusive society like Rhyonon’s, frequently conceal themselves behind projected privacy screens or use projections to augment and mask their actual physical appearances. The negative connotations associated with masks on Rhyonon apply as well to the Thants and their screens, especially in their dehumanizing treatment of their hosts. On Rhyonon masked supervisors talk about Rat Korga in front of him as though he were invisible to them as a human being. Similarly, at Dyethshome the Thants screen themselves at a dinner party held in their honor and, in front of their human and evelm hosts, talk about them with dehumanizing contempt and disdain as “animals who copulate with animals” (326).
The motives of the Thants have not been entirely clear to Marq Dyeth by this point, in part because he shares his own society’s good-heartedness. The Dyeths tend to be confused by but tolerant of strangers’ ways, but for readers, earlier clues about the Thants are likely to resonate with this scene. Readers will have noticed clear signs of the Thants’ nature—contempt for other species, love of power and prestige, desire for renown, and even a clear leaning toward the hierarchical Family model for shaping society.
Like Rhyononians, they want to freeze and maintain structures they control. They appear regimented to an almost military degree, laughing in unison, “swaying with … precision” (119), standing in line toe-to-toe. Although they represent their “reproductive commune,” the Thants’ ethos is far removed from the communal spirit which underlies Morgre. They more resemble the nuclear family recognizable by twentieth-century readers, being structured in a strict hierarchy headed by a dominant male, with a senior son on the ascendancy and a traditional mother standing to one side, a “jeweled extravaganza” (119) who plays no active role. Readers might notice too that the Thants have not altogether abandoned the older language spoken on Rhyonon. Offspring are called “sons” (204), even female ones.
What makes the Thants’ decision to be a Focus Family on Nepiy—“when we leave, we’re going to Nepiy. And we’re going to take it over” (341)—particularly ominous is that they are heading for one of the worlds that, like Velm, home planet to Morgre and Dyethshome, houses two species and has the potential of becoming the sort of open society where interspecies love is one of the enablers of creativity and growth. But Nepiy, like Rhyonon, is more and more driven by fear. Having experienced botanical plague and widespread starvation, Nepiyans are frightened of Cultural Fugue. In turning to the Thants in pursuit of stability, they are choosing to align with Family. That structure is the one the species-exclusive Thants will bring to Nepiy, ending the possibility of Nepiy’s developing a society like Morgre’s.
In the end, of the societies displayed for readers’ view in Stars in My Pocket, one has been obliterated, another has made a self-destructive choice, and only one sustains its potential to foster its members’ growth and wholeness. Ironically, that one, Morgre’s, closest in form to the possibilities implicit in the Web-brought Arachnia standard, seems furthest from the actualities of contemporary life. For Morgran society to be possible, contemporary distrust of differences among individuals, including differences in race and sexual orientation, would have to have vanished.5 Inequitable distribution of social empowerment among individuals would have to have vanished. Social repression of natural desires would have to have vanished. Openness would have to have replaced fear, and desire for contact would have to have replaced desire for domination. However, contemporary societies show little sign of these changes being imminent.
In the ongoing resonances that accrete in this novel, readers will have noticed a repeated refrain in variations on the line, “the world is a big place/small place,” a refrain that takes on the function of a dramatic chorus, stepping in and directing readers’ attention to significances. This particular line, sounded repeatedly by Marq Dyeth in his monologues, culminates in his epilogue, “Morning,” with his perception of Aurigae, the stellar supergiant, as large enough to encompass “all the possibilities that, in their shadings and subtleties, must be as varied as the … variegations on that star itself” (360). This notice reminds readers that reality is dynamic, malleable, that anything can happen, that the shape of the human future is not fixed.
To use the metaphor suggested in Marq Dyeth’s final scene, readers are wrapped in textual webbing, making a transit in which motion is given and destination is infinitely variable. They have been set to exercise in response to social spectacles staged by the text. Perhaps they should take the advice that JoBonnot—a sometime agent of the Web and thus also an agent of the text—gives Marq Dyeth in her final appearance (advice spoken, not insignificantly, from the center of the Dyethshome stage): “Look up. … Look at the real stars in the real sky that you can’t see from here because the damned lights are too bright” (347). Perhaps here readers are being told to look beyond the spectacles lit in the fictional world and see the actualities that surround their own lives. For that view, the lens of the Web’s Arachnia standard, imaging the fictional but registering the actual, suffices. Like the transit webbing holding passengers in Stars in My Pocket’s final scene, ultimately the textual webbing of which the novel is spun might have been designed to prepare readers for a “proper waking” (374).
See Samuel R. Delany, “Generic Protocols: Science Fiction and Mundane,” in The Technological Imagination, ed. Teresa De Lauretis (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1980), 178, 193. Delany returns to this idea in several essays included in Starboard Wine (Pleasantville, NY: Dragon Press, 1984).
Triton (New York: Bantam, 1976), 133.
Stars in My Pockets Like Grains of Sand (New York: Bantam Spectra, 1985), 37; hereafter cited parenthetically.
See Martha A. Bartter, “The (SF) Reader and the Quantum Paradigm: Problems in Delany’s Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand,” Science Fiction Studies 17 (1990): 325–40. Bartter argues that since each act of reading is an act of co-creation of text, rereading as such is not possible. In the recursive reading pattern I am suggesting here rereading is a dynamic process in which layers of perception both shift and accrete upon each return to a text.
The different human races have blended by the time of the future described in Stars. Interspecies distrust and avoidance remain in some cases—witness the single-species planets like Rhyonon—but not in Morgre.
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SOURCE: “‘This You-Shaped Hole of Insight and Fire’: Meditations on Dhalgren,” in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 16, No. 3, Fall, 1996, pp. 129-35.
[In the following essay, Fox examines the etymology and function of language in Dhalgren, drawing attention to the novel's circular textual pattern, mythological associations, and embedded social commentary.]
Dhalgren can best be characterized by the words that Kid, the novel’s protagonist, uses to characterize his own book of poems: “a complicitous illusion in lingual catalysis, a crystalline and conscientious alkahest.”1 This is the sort of language one would expect to find in contemporary criticism, not in a work of fiction, except that, since the advent of the postmodern, the borders between these ostensibly different sorts of texts, the creative and the critical, have been jumbled, if not abolished. Moreover, the choice of terms is interesting: one drawn from alchemy (alkahest, the sought-after universal solvent); the other drawn from chemistry (catalysis, the action of a catalyst, a substance that modifies a chemical reaction). One suggests magic, the other science, but chemistry grew out of alchemy, so the two are not completely dichotomous. Moreover, alchemy should be understood as a spiritual process wherein the alchemist himself is the subject of transformation, from that which is base to that which is golden, refined. Whatever its materiality, there still is something magical about language, as with all our arts: our language may change as we change, and we may also be changed by language.
Again, magic is the province of fantasy, science that of (classic) SF. Delany has written both, and Dhalgren participates in both.
At the start of chapter 2 of book 1, we are told that the past of the narrator/protagonist “fragments on the terrible and vivid ephemera of now” (11). The first line of the novel contains the word wound (used, like fragments, as a verb), while the adjectives shattered, dead, and broken are found in the first three lines of the third chapter. If this is not the wasteland, it is, surely, an Ozymandian realm in which the pride of late capitalist society has been (at least within this particular circle) shaken, if not yet fully humbled. “Civility, for Europeans, has always been a life lived in cities. Outside the polis, as Aristotle said, there were only beasts and heroes.”2 Delany has reversed this scenario; the city of Bellona, at least, has lost all civility, and it is precisely within this city that we find the “beasts and heroes,” or, at any rate, their anemic/anomic contemporary reflections.
“Very few suspect the existence of this city,” we are told (15). Yet Bellona is (or was) a major Midwestern metropolis,3 with a population of nearly two million now reduced to about a thousand. It can’t really be a secret, yet, curiously, despite whatever catastrophe has occurred, the only “explorers” (temporary immigrants, actually) seem to be countercultural recruits (with some exceptions, like the astronaut Captain Kamp) drawn to Bellona the way aspiring hippies were drawn to San Francisco during the Summer of Love in 1967 (which was just two years before Delany began writing Dhalgren, and which I take to be one of the novel’s prime catalysts; indeed, the first draft of the novel was written in San Francisco. Significantly, Kid’s companions are described as the “slightly demonic heirs” of the “flower-children” ). Why would the National Guard, the news media, the Red Cross abandon Bellona to its unaccountable fate?
Bellona (the sister of Mars and goddess of war in classical mythology) is like a cyst in the American body politic, present but encapsulated. Dhalgren was written, after all, during a period when this country’s general population (seemingly a blind, rather than a silent, majority) was being surprised by sudden eruptions of an unpleasant reality which, for the most part, it had not bothered to acknowledge. When the previously invisible ghettos of America exploded in violence, for example, it might have been said of the urban areas in question that “few suspected their existence,” because the country had bought the illusion that the cities were steel-and-glass monuments to success and was unwilling to explore what lay in the long, deep shadows.4
According to G. S. Kirk, “Chaos in archaic Greek means ‘gap’ rather than ‘disorder.’”5 The earth and the sky had to be forced asunder before the world of man could come into being; chaos was the gap between the two realms. There is clearly a gap between Bellona and the real world, and, to get from one to the other, you literally have to cross a bridge.
Bellona is the labyrinth in which you stalk your self.
The exhaustion yet inescapability of myth seems to be one of Delany’s main themes in Dhalgren. Sandra Miesel has written that Delany “treats myth as ‘metacommunication.’”6 As Kid thinks to himself about his own work: ‘These things I’m writing, they’re not descriptions of anything. They’re complex names” (198). If one thinks of names not in the sense of “Dhalgren” or “Kid” (although they themselves are complex) but rather as subject, semblance, or essence—“hermetic syllables” (244)—Kid’s comment is applicable to Delany’s work and the nature of mythopoesis in general.
Kid’s pilgrimage reflects the depletion of the hero myth. Kid crosses the threshold (here, a bridge) into an/other realm and comes back across that same threshold after many pages, having gained no new awareness that will help to redeem the wasteland, having indeed failed even to discover who he is. Moreover, the other realm is itself a wasteland, where mystery doesn’t lead to revelation, and where confusion and mundanity appear to be the rule.
Delany is concerned with not the duplication but, rather, the replication of myth with echoes, repetition, things folding back upon themselves. In The Einstein Intersection those beings who take the place of the human race appear doomed to act out parodies of human mythology; in Dhalgren, Kid, along with some of the other characters, might well ask (with Bob Dylan) “what price you have to pay to get out of going through all these things twice.” This is why, as the “plague journal” notes, “In this city, where nothing happens, it is worth your sanity to refuse anything new” (738).
Dhalgren needs to be contextualized by reference to Delany’s pornographic novel Tides of Lust (1973) and his autobiographical works Heavenly Breakfast (1979) and The Motion of Light in Water (1988).7Tides provides us with a far more extreme portrayal of sexual themes, while Breakfast and Motion re/collect personal experiences that in part inspired/incited the fictive circle that Dhalgren inscribes.
One of the characters in Delany’s “essay” Heavenly Breakfast is named Grendahl. And some of the section titles of Tides read as though they could have been employed in Dhalgren: “Riders of the Scorpion,” “Alchemica,” “Labyrinths.” Delany’s preface to his second porno novel Hogg is entitled “The Scorpion Garden.”8
The end of the novel is identical to the last words in the notebook Kid finds. The beginning of the novel is identical to the first words of the notebook. The first and last pages have been torn out, so the story begins in medias res and ends inconclusively. Dhalgren, to the extent that the notebook contains the same story/information, thereby contains itself, making the novel the literary equivalent of a Klein’s bottle, the inside of which is also the outside. There is, then, literally nothing outside of the text(s). “Waiting here, away from the terrifying weaponry, out of the halls of vapor and light, beyond holland and into the hills, I have come to // to wound the autumnal city”(879, 1). Holland is Middle English, from the Dutch holtlant, meaning woodland. There is a Holland Lake in Bellona, which is where the monastery is located. But since the lower case h in holland in this instance is not a typographer’s error,9 the word is employed here in its etymological sense.
Note the use of alliteration: Waiting/away/weaponry/wound; here/halls/holland/hills; halls/light/holland/hills/autumnal, as well as this repetition: and/holland/and. “I have come to / / to”: the repetition is a kind of stutter, in keeping, perhaps, with the broken grammar of some of the book’s last sentences (e.g., “Just in the like that, if you can’t remember any more if” ). There is at least one earlier example of this, when Kid is trying to describe his book of poems: “I’m trying to—to” (709). The end of the novel is really a pause before the recorso, therefore functioning like a comma: I have come to, to. … Moreover, to “come to” is to “come around,” (re)gain consciousness, get “started” again. Remember that Kid is a former mental patient, a partial amnesiac. He has to (re)discover what has already happened, what already is Literally, as an artist (poet), and figuratively, as a damaged individual, Kid cannot simply write himself, he has to rewrite himself, which is one reason why it all comes around again. (The emphasis on revision in Dhalgren, especially with regard to Kid’s poems, reinforces this notion.)
“Autumnal” may refer to the season, but it is also freighted with various connotations of decline, decay, etc. It is seemingly the twilight of Bellona, Bellona itself emblematic of the twilight of all cities.
“Wound” presents more of a problem. If the city is “autumnal,” in its last days, is it not already wounded? And in what way can Kid wound Bellona? Indeed, the very idea of wounding the city is a reversal of the traditional pattern of the quest, which is salvational, in the sense of reinvigorating that which is ailing or dying. Wounding Bellona only makes sense if Bellona is a threat to the outside world from which Kid comes, but insofar as it is a threat, it is so only to those aspects of ordinary reality to which Kid would be unlikely to give allegiance—aspects that, in fact, may have had something to do with his own breakdown. Karen L. Shuldner supplies a very suggestive reading of the meaning of “wound” when she refers to it as “an emotional plateau from which the book is scarcely allowed to descend” and when she reminds us that “The wound was long the symbol of both art and sexual love for Delany.”10 Art and sex, after all, have been at the core of Delany’s concerns since his first novel, The Jewels of Aptor (1962).
Kid’s left foot is bare; he writes with his left hand; the left-hand pages of the found notebook are blank. On the level of political symbolism, is Delany suggesting that the right is an already completed (overdetermined) category, while the left has not yet been fully scripted? Or does this have something to do with right brain and left brain? Or ambidexterity?11 But then Kid writes his poems on the left-hand pages, filling the book and creating a complex of juxtapositions.
There is a confusion of narrative voices, first and third person. The third-person voice is apparently that of the novel, while the first-person voice is that of the journal, which Kid finds but which he has also apparently already written. If Kid is both narrator (“I”) and protagonist (“he”), at what point does the latter become the former (while still remaining in the story)? And if Kid is the narrator and remains partially amnesiac, then he cannot be an omniscient, nor a reliable, narrator. Recycling/recircling brings greater awareness of detail, perhaps, but no further facts. The histories of Kid and of Bellona remain a mystery.
It is perfectly in keeping with the allusive, multiplicitous nature of the narrative in Dhalgren that the actual identity of the main character remains unknown. In fact, Kid himself never does learn who he is, although this would seem to have been a major element in his quest. Kid is a kind of palimpsest of mythic and mundane identities, a sort of composite hero/antihero with selective amnesia. It is also significant that he is a former mental patient.
The novel is divided into seven parts or books, the last of which is entitled “The Anathēmata: a plague journal.” There is a book-length poem by British writer David Jones entitled The Anathēmata (1952), which W. H. Auden, a poet Delany knew and admires, considered “very probably the finest long poem written in English in this century.” David Blamires, author of a critical study of Jones, calls The Anathēmata “a poetic counterpart of Finnegans Wake.”12 Like the Wake, like Dhalgren, the poem is circular and encompasses much. In his preface to the work Jones quotes Nennius, from Historia Brittonum: “I have made a heap of all that I could find.” This, Jones claimed, is essentially his own method. He intended his title to mean “as much as it can be made to mean … : the blessed things that have taken on what is cursed and the profane things that are somehow redeemed.”13
Joaquin Faust claims not to “mean anything” by his use of the word nigger, an epithet which is bandied about frequently in the novel, by various characters, including Kid.14 Faust argues that his use of nigger is generic and in keeping with the common practice where he comes from. But Faust’s occasional use of the term colored reveals that nigger, for him, is indeed contemptuous; it is a word used to characterize dangerous or undeserving blacks, whereas colored people are those blacks he views as respectable, with the inevitable concomitant that they are expected to defer to white hegemony (78–81).
Although it may not always strike the reader, a sizable portion of Bellona’s population is black. (Kid’s own racial origin is “ambiguous” .) So it would appear that the “fright flight” that so drastically reduced the population of the city was also a “white flight” of the sort that has turned many of our urban areas into minority enclaves.
Race and racism are not tangential; they are near the novel’s center, especially when they overlap with the psychosexual, with patterns of desire. Think, for example, of the superstar status of Dhalgren’s character George Harrison, celebrated rapist, posters of whom exploit the very mythos of black male potency which, under different circumstances, would have gotten him lynched. In Bellona, however, a literally phallocentric (phallofocal?) picture of Harrison becomes a different kind of “wanted” poster from one marking him as a target of vigilantes or bounty hunters: the poster itself is a prized item, a “best-seller,” and Harrison is a kind of idol. It says something about the nature of Bellona’s culture that walls display George Harrison, “soul on ice,” rather than George Harrison, Beatle. The poster of Harrison is, in fact, a visual equivalent of the sexual braggadocio (phallogocentrism) found in a good deal of contemporary rap music.
The loops of chain with attached prisms, mirrors, and lenses that Kid is led to at the beginning of the book and that he wears until the end provide an analogue for the structure of the novel itself. The book (the experience) is a “you-shaped [w]hole,” in that it is, finally, what you make of it; the chains loop around a person’s body, making a “you”-shape. The book itself is a loop, whose end is its beginning.
Lenses make things bigger and can also reduce; compare the swollen sun on the one hand and, on the other, the almost microscopically focused details embedded in the narrative (characteristic of Delany’s writing more generally). Prisms break down, refract; much of the text is likewise refracted. Mirrors reflect and may also distort. It is not simply that the book begins again by having the last word lead back to the first word; in fact, the things that happen at the beginning happen again at the end in reverse order; Kid crosses the bridge one way, he crosses back the other way; he is handed a weapon coming, in, he gives someone else this weapon going out, etc. Is the Oriental woman Kid meets going out (875) the same one he meets coming in (2)? Answering such a question with confidence is difficult because “the same,” here, does not necessarily mean “precisely equal to.” Amiri Baraka has a potently apt phrase to describe the dynamics of continuity/spontaneity in black music, “the changing same,” that seems highly applicable to Delany’s own practice in Dhalgren.
Samuel R. Delany. Dhalgren (New York: Bantam, 1975), 709; hereafter cited parenthetically.
Anthony Pagden. “The Translation of America,” Times Literary Supplement, 13 December 1991, 11.
An assumption based on the statement in the novel that New York and San Francisco are “a ways to go, either direction” (13).
Delany has stated that “American readers—at least most urban American readers—recognize [descriptions in Dhalgren], through the allegorical skrim, as all too realistic portraits of vast areas of our great American cities: burned-out, under-populated, all but abandoned. The specificity of those descriptions weights the reading [of the novel’s significance] away from the universal and toward the local” (interview with Samuel R. Delany, Diacritics 16 : 36).
The Nature of the Greek Myths (New York: Penguin, 1974), 46.
“Samuel R. Delany’s Use of Myth in Nova,” Extrapolation, May 1971, 86.
It is worth noting that Delany has called autobiography “only another kind of fiction” (Diacritics interview, 44).
This preface, dated 1973, was published in The Straits of Messina (Seattle: Serconia Press, 1989).
There indeed have been numerous typesetting errors in Dhalgren, and Delany has been endeavoring to track and correct these from printing to printing. [Editor’s note: a new, corrected edition of Dhalgren was published earlier this year by Wesleyan University Press.]
“On Dhalgren and Triton,” Riverside Quarterly 7.1 (March 1980): 6.
Delany has stated that some of the things that Kid experiences are based on a dyslexic’s experience of the world. “Some things are also taken from my being somewhat ambidextrous—which often goes along with my particular sort of dyslexia.” Alive and Writing: Interviews with American Authors of the 1980s, ed. Larry McCaffery and Sinda Gregory (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1987). 98.
Sister Bernetta Quinn, O.S.F., “David Jones,” Contemporary Literature 14 (1973) 267, 268.
The Anathēmata (New York: Chilmark Press, n.d.), 9, 28–29.
See my remarks on racist discourse in Tides of Lust in “The Politics of Desire in Delany’s Triton and The Tides of Lust,” Black American Literature Forum 18.2 (Summer 1984): 49–56.
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SOURCE: “Necessary Constraints: Samuel R. Delany on Science Fiction,” in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 16, No. 3, Fall, 1996, pp. 165-9.
[In the following essay, Samuelson provides an overview of Delany's intellectual development, radical social consciousness, and theoretical perspective as a critic and writer of science fiction.]
Important not only as a science fiction writer, Samuel R. Delany is also a major critic and theorist of the genre. Beyond what is embedded in his fiction, he has published five volumes specifically devoted to SF criticism and theory. The core document for this purpose is The American Shore (1978), linking microcosmic and macrocosmic levels of analysis. This detailed discussion of a Thomas M. Disch short story, which on the surface is minimally science fictional, examines how reading it as SF shapes reader reactions differently from reading it as mundane or fantasy fiction, which Disch also writes. Dividing the story into 287 “lexias” for individual commentary, Delany elaborates many insights simplified in other writings, but the style is often crabbed, the analysis highly contextual, and the transfer of insights to other texts not always evident.
More accessible in expression are The Jewel-Hinged Jaw (1977) and Starboard Wine (1984), constructed from introductions, essays, open letters, addresses, workshop contributions, and reviews. The Straits of Messina (1989) is limited to writing about Delany’s own work, usually in the guise of his feminine alter ego, K. Leslie Steiner. Silent Interviews (1994) comprises “written interviews,” using questions as springboards for detailed excurses. Uncollected items could fill several volumes. Several recent essays and lectures about SF have appeared in the New York Review of Science Fiction, for which he has served as a contributing editor since its inception in 1988.
A collage of theory, invention, and memoir, Delany’s critical writings are atypical for SF not only in their form but also in the nature and range of experience and reading matter to which he has been exposed. His book-length memoir, The Motion of Light in Water (1988; rev. 1990), shows an observant child of the “black bourgeoisie” growing up in Harlem in the forties and fifties. Attending schools for the gifted across town, he saw firsthand disparities of class and caste distinguished by economics, skin color, and subculture. Homosexual in a repressed era and married at age nineteen to the precocious poet Marilyn Hacker, he could not escape noticing arbitrary gender distinctions, from opprobrium heaped on “perverts” to the heterosexual economy of scarcity, from male dominance in job rewards and assignments to the different cuts of men’s and women’s jeans.
Delany’s written sources range from childhood readings to social and linguistic philosophers. Introduced to African American writers at home, classics and modernists at school, and SF at summer camp, he came early to a grasp of both conventions and complexity. Requiring intense attention to each word and its contexts just to understand surface meaning, dyslexia predisposed him to close (and critical) reading. Conflicts between his sexual drive and his society’s demands for conformity made him an acute analyst of social roles and behaviors.
Ambitious from childhood to be a writer, he was attracted to SF largely by its potential for alternatives. He began writing it highly conscious of theoretical concerns and their practical applications to the written word and very aware of writing and living on the margin of reputability. Given this background, Delany was a natural audience for the insights of linguistic-related theorists with Marxist and feminist leanings, including Paul de Man, Jacques Derrida, Shoshana Felman, Michel Foucault, Barbara Johnson, Jacques Lacan, and Claude Lévi-Strauss. Derrida’s concepts of free play and decentering, for example, were well-suited to Delany’s practice in fiction. These theorists of language and behavior showed him “exciting ways of reading,” adaptable to his own writing. Self-consciousness about the act of communication increasingly filtered all of his fiction and nonfiction, making the differences between them problematic.
As a theorist, Delany’s first concern is to raise audience consciousness of the act of reading, initiating a dialogue between readers and writers (themselves first and foremost readers). Central to this act is the interplay between the text itself and readers’ expectations about life and literature. Thus all reading becomes genre reading, and genre concepts become inescapable. Specific expectations rather than content differentiate how one reads SF vis-à-vis other genres. To examine these differences, obscured by the academy’s monolithic idea of the literary, requires paying attention to the genrification of literature in this century. Illuminating these conceptions may be the job of an educator, but recognizing both the enabling and crippling functions of genre is no mere academic distinction to Delany. His ultimate goal as a writer seems to be to bring about a recognition of the power of language to decenter the role of conventions in life as well as in fiction.
Striving to convince others to share his concerns is an effort at education, and Delany has done his share of literal teaching, from SF conventions and writing workshops to visiting lectureships and eight years in a tenured appointment at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Although some academics oppose it, literary theory has always had a place, if unacknowledged, in the classroom; indeed, some of Delany’s own essays were generated in such venues. Separating commentators into teachers, theorists, critics, and reviewers, he seeks ways to maximize the potential of all four roles, without unduly restricting the freedom of an individual to change roles.
Theorists, Delany maintains, should explore rules of communication, as he does in focusing on reading protocols and genre history. Critics should “tell interesting stories” about how they read texts, with other readers as their audience. His own favorite SF critics have been writers addressing fans: James Blish, A. J. Budrys, Tom Disch, Damon Knight, Judith Merril, P. Schuyler Miller, Joanna Russ. His observation that academic critics are unclear about audience and purpose may stem from a split in their primary audiences: students usually don’t find criticism worthwhile while colleagues feel the same about SF.
Delany’s critical practice is mixed. An able and penetrating reader of his pantheon of writers fully engaged with the potential of language and the range and scope he assigns to SF, he seems more perfunctory or restricted where his sympathies are less involved, as with Asimov, Dick, and Heinlein. Sometimes his primary audience is obviously the writer of a text under examination, as in his fanzine critique of a beginner’s story in “Crazy Diamonds” and his in-depth study of a Le Guin novel, “To Read The Dispossessed.” On the other hand, his introductions to books by Heinlein, Russ, and Sturgeon approach what he asks from a review. Having no effect on sales, Delany argues, SF reviewers should simply address writers and readers, advancing the dialogue of the art. Reviewing books and films and occasionally music, he typically adheres to these principles, venting his own general delight or disappointment in the achievement at hand.
For teachers, whose typical audience is critically naive and distant from creative writers, Delany is more prescriptive, asking them to treat SF “as science fiction” (i.e., his definition), stressing issues implicit in his sense of SF rhetoric and history. Taking SF seriously as both vision and writing includes comparing and contrasting its best writing with canonical literary values. SF’s unique history relies heavily on mass publishing practice, with its heavy editorial hand and proliferation of series. The shape of SF also depends on overt dialogue between writers and readers (or fans), which exerts considerable pressure in maintaining its identity. Finally, in a suggestion applicable to all critics borrowing from other disciplines, he reminds us that imported critical terminology usually carries unexamined literary assumptions into the paraliterature of SF.
Reading Delany requires a constant reexamination of one’s assumptions. In his fiction and nonfiction, memoirs and criticism overlap; critical theory for Delany is not restricted to literature as a privileged mode of writing apart from life. Most readers and writers of SF may be young white middle-class males, but the marginality of this genre offering alternatives to the present seems intimately connected for him with the marginality of the deprived. In a marginal genre, ruled by commercial concerns, Delany himself occupies a marginal position, as a gay black man driven by feminist, linguistic, and Marxist aesthetic concerns.
To express these concerns, he seeks an ideal (para-)literary form in which considerations of race and sexual preference are inclusive rather than exclusive and in which science and technology take unexpected turns. Racially unbiased futures drew him into SF, which typically sees past skin color and other physical variations, even species differences, to intelligence and character underneath. Slow to free itself from gender bias, SF is slower still to accept sexual proclivities the larger society calls deviant. Delany supplements characters in his fiction who are female, gay, and/or people of color with essays championing female, male feminist, and homosexual writers. It is surely no coincidence that Disch, Russ, and Sturgeon are in his pantheon of SF writers. Stylists for whom verbal expression is equal to and interwoven with ideas, they have also been outsiders confronted with arbitrary social organization and the prevailing ideology.
Materially deprived only by choice, Delany has identified with the oppressed in life as well as in writing. Often living in run-down urban neighborhoods, he has argued that such settings expose him to changes facing the larger society. This superficially rational explanation may be an after-the-fact rationalization, too cerebral to be real, begging more than it explains. In fact, he seems to crave some danger in his life. From his memoirs and some of his more overtly autobiographical fiction, it seems he has risked both life and limb in promiscuous sexual behavior. He has befriended many marginal people, among them petty criminals and unappreciated artists. Having voluntarily undergone therapy in a mental hospital in 1964 to deal with stress resulting from the sexual, racial, and professional anomalies in his life, he is sensitive to both the mentally ill and the socially deviant. Seeing these categories as socially (not medically) determined, virtually as a genrification of human beings, he accepts criminals as well as artists, sadists as well as homosexuals.
In life as in literature Delany shows the need to understand codes and conventions in order to transcend them. With Lévi-Strauss and Derrida, we should know our intellectual tools are fallible without believing we can do without them. The protocols of language mirror those of society and genre and their arbitrary nature is the source of their strength, their hold on our imaginations. We must see the world through arbitrary categories before viewing those categories critically; indeed, without such frameworks, we see nothing critically.
If individuals and groups can learn to overcome categories, such transcendence requires building on misunderstandings or opposition. It also requires a constant awareness that codes are present and that one is inevitably involved in acts of transgression, if not outright criminality. Douglas Barbour argues for the repeated artist/criminal image in Delany’s fiction as an artifice, embodying creative and destructive change in society. I believe it also reflects his whole writing enterprise.
Delany transgresses social and literary codes in several ways. A writer on the racial and sexual margins of a predominantly white heterosexual society; he provides a role model for readers otherwise disenfranchised. His art provides examples of individuals and whole societies celebrating cultural diversity. He has helped to expand the boundaries of literature to embrace the paraliterary, as well as to transform the boundaries of SF itself. That his prose has enriched the language is recognized, albeit sometimes grudgingly, by critics inside and outside the SF community. His practice has made the genre resonate with mythic parallels, supplemented by a self-conscious awareness that they are mythic parallels. In his later novels, moreover, consciousness of codes and conventions affects more than ever the reader’s sense of social organization and the rise of science and technology, while pushing against the envelope of genre, mixing past and present, narrative and commentary, writer and writing.
Barbour, Douglas, Worlds out of Words: The SF Novels of Samuel R. Delany. Frome, England: Bran’s Head, 1979.
Delany, Samuel R. The American Shore: Meditations on a Tale by Thomas M. Disch—“Angouleme.” Elizabethtown, NY: Dragon Press, 1978.
———. “Crazy Diamonds.” Empire (1980): 21-22. Comments by Pamela Sargent and Michael Bishop on Alan R. Bechtold’s short story, “Sweet Virginia,” 16-21.
———. The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction. Elizabethtown, NY: Dragon Press, 1977; New York: Berkley, 1977.
———. The Motion of Light in Water: Sex and Science Fiction Writing in the East Village, 1957-1965. New York: Arbor House, 1988. Revised and expanded, London: Paladin, 1990, with the subtitle, East Village Sex and Science Fiction Writing: 1960-1965, with “The Column at the Market’s Edge.”
———. Silent Interviews: On Language, Race, Sex, Science Fiction, and Some Comics, Middletown: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1994.
———. Starboard Wine: More Notes on the Language of Science Fiction. Pleasantville, NY: Dragon Press, 1984.
———. The Straits of Messina. Seattle: Serconia Press, 1989.
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SOURCE: “Black, Gay, Pomo, Cyberpunk,” in The Nation, October 28, 1996, pp. 60-2.
[In the following review, McLemee provides an overview of Delany's life and literary career and offers a positive evaluation of Longer Views.]
Samuel Delany published his first novel in 1962, at the age of 20, which sounds like an early start, though not for a prodigy. As a teenager, Delany studied quantum physics at the Bronx High School of Science. He composed music, read omnivorously and wrote half a dozen novels. The manuscripts came back from editors with nice letters worrying that his prose was overly “literary” but assuring him he showed promise—the last thing any brilliant kid wants to hear. Then, at 19, Delany wrote a short science-fiction novel, and it was in print, and paid for, not long after his next birthday. So he wrote a second novel, then a third. And these, too, were published in short order.
His prose was exceptionally self-conscious—sometimes in a bad way (there were passages of deepest purple), and sometimes with brilliant effect. From Gide he borrowed as a rule of thumb the principle that characters ought to manifest three sorts of behavior: purposeful, habitual and gratuitous. Most S.F. novelists spent more time changing typewriter ribbons than worrying about craft; little wonder that Delany was soon, rather conspicuously, one of the most sophisticated figures in the genre. The initially gratuitous act of writing a science-fiction novel became habitual, and he published five of them by the time he was 23—which happens to be the age Milton mentions in that anxious sonnet about “time, the subtle thief of youth.”
It was also during his twenty-third year that Samuel Delany spent some time in Mount Sinai’s mental health ward, after being drawn into the New York subway system for hours at a time, fighting the urge to throw himself in front of a train. He was black and gay, and married to the poet Marilyn Hacker; and they lived “in a Lower East Side tenement where rats leapt on the sink when you went to brush your teeth in the morning and wild dog packs ran on the stairs”; and some of the boyfriends who drifted through their very open ménage were rather scary guys who had been on the receiving end of violence as children, and who now dished it out as well while committing various crimes. It was all very different from the life he knew growing up as “a Delany”—which is to say, as an aristocrat, the descendant of two generations of overachievers, an African-American Rockefeller of cultural capital. And the books he labored over so diligently came out in paperback with covers that were hideous, or silly, or both. Maybe life in bohemian squalor and deviant freedom was bad for him. Perhaps there were other occupations for an aging boy genius besides writing about life on other planets. If, after getting out of the hospital, Delany had decided just to chalk the whole adventure up to experience and then settled down to finish college, you could not have blamed him.
Instead, he kept writing science fiction. And that is an understatement. His pace slowed a little: Over the next decade he published only a half-dozen volumes of S.F. (and wrote two rather baroque pornographic novels that sat in his desk drawer for a while). But Delany’s writing during the late sixties and early seventies is some of the most daring and complex work in the history of the field. Genre fiction is a sort of ghetto, with its own powerfully conservative rules and traditions; it is rather easy to launch an avant-garde by making fun of the clichés. Delany’s work followed a different strategy.
Babel-17 (1967), for instance, belongs to one of the hoariest subgenres in science fiction, the “space opera”—Buck Rogers—type stuff, involving intergalactic warfare, hyperspace, spies and so on. But the heroine turns out to be a talented young poet on the rebound from the breakup of her “triple” (a long-term sexual relationship among three people) who has to destroy the Invaders’ secret weapon: a language in which there is no first-person pronoun, so that its speakers are enslaved by the impossibility of thinking reflexively. An explanation of the Sapir-Whorf theory of linguistic determinism is woven into the narrative, along with some careful descriptions of the emotional nuances of being in a “triple.” And one of the central characters proves to be a violent psychotic programmed with the Invaders’ language, and so virtually incapable of distinguishing “self” from “other.” Buck Rogers this is not.
Nowadays, I suppose, the terms “pastiche” and “postmodern” do spring to mind. But their very inevitability serves to conceal just how sui generis a transformation of generic raw material Babel-17 really is. Delany reconfigures the standard elements of a rather dopey sort of adventure story so that it makes room for some very queer possibilities indeed. Yet there is nothing campy, or even ironic, about it at all. In a number of essays from the late sixties, Delany sketched the theory that science fiction was much closer to poetry than to the classical realist novel, and that made it an ideal medium for challenging a bourgeois or consensus view of reality. And while his next several novels—Nova (1968), Dhalgren (1974) and Triton (1976)—are as unlike one another as can be, they share with Babel-17 an obedience to the Modernist command to “make it new,” to defamiliarize both the genre and the reader’s sense of the world.
Delany’s universe included marginal people: artists, criminals, unskilled workers, insane people, those with few verbal skills or heterodox sexual preferences. The novels drew on the standard range of S.F. elements—but presented from the vantage point of, say, a bisexual drifter suffering from memory loss and blackouts after being released from an asylum, as in Dhalgren, A crucial distinction between poetry and science fiction is, of course, that a lot more people read the latter; and Delany’s work, though at times an outrage to the tradition, developed the sort of following invariably termed “cult.” But he also won all the prizes given out by the fans and by other writers in the field, and Dhalgren even sold a million copies, which is very strange given that it resembles John Ashbery’s verse more than Star Wars. He might well have settled into steady work as the field’s commercially viable avant-gardist.
But sometime around 1972, Delany had started reading Lévi-Strauss and Lacan and Derrida—at the time, an unusual thing for anyone outside of New Haven to do—and the result was something like a conversion experience. He responded as if he had been given a new language of concepts adequate to the experience of marginality. Bits and pieces of Foucault made their way into Dhalgren and Triton. But the energy he got from reading French theory was too powerful for his fiction to contain it.
He wrote The American Shore (1978), for example: a book-length analysis of a short story by Thomas M. Disch, which was modeled on (of all things) S/Z by Roland Barthes. And this began to upset the science-fiction public. So did Delany’s ever-increasing candor about his own libidinal explorations. S.F. fans did not pick up books expecting to read about signifiers, deconstruction or weird sex. (They did not pick up The American Shore at all.)
By the late seventies—under the double impact of Stonewall and radical feminism—Delany’s work was running off in some curious directions. “Return to Nevèrÿon” (1979–87), his four-volume “Swords and Sorcery” epic, displayed the standard topoi of the genre—ancient civilizations, barbarian warriors, dragons—but reconfigured them along explicitly homoerotic and sadomasochistic lines. It bore long epigraphs from Gayatri Spivak and Edward Said, to name only the more accessible thinkers. And Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984)—the first half of an enormous diptych, the second volume of which Delany has not yet finished—is set in a galaxy-wide empire in which the rules of grammar require one to refer to a human being as “she,” regardless of gender—except when that person is the object of sexual desire, in which case the obligatory pronoun is “he,” also regardless of gender. That sounds, perhaps, like a rather schematic lesson in feminist linguistics and the social construction of subjectivity. But after a hundred pages or so, the effect is cumulative and powerful. And—like the S&M/S&S of “Nevèrÿon”—it can be unnerving. Reading these books, S.F. devotees started to wonder, “Just exactly what the hell does he think he’s doing?” The rumor went out that Delany had turned his back on the fans and the genre itself—that he was turning into (shudder) an academic.
As it turns out, the “Nevèrÿon” series did indeed catch the academic fancy, and was reissued, not long ago, in a handsome edition by Wesleyan University Press. Delany himself is now professor of comparative literature at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst (a pleasing development to contemplate, since his last diploma came from Bronx Science). And in Longer Views, he has collected a half-dozen essays that reflect upon every cultural topic in the world except science fiction: the Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk; Lacanian psychoanalysis; semantics; the poetry of Robert Browning, Hart Crane and Ron Silliman; and the lesser-known byways of erotic deviation, such as sneaker fetishism. There are scattered remarks on S.F., but more pages are devoted to the anguished rantings of Artaud. Readers who first encountered Delany in cheap paperbacks will probably want to take their pleasure elsewhere.
That is understandable, but unfortunate, for Longer Views is an intellectually adventurous book. And like some of Delany’s other nonfiction—especially The Motion of Light in Water (1987), probably the finest account of youthful genius since the Autobiography of John Stuart Mill—it is a complex supplement to the novels. For instance: Swords and Sorcery fiction, in all its wretched excess, has an unmistakable quality of bastardized Wagner. So Delany’s Wagner/Artaud—with its idiosyncratic reading of the possible autobiographical dimensions of the operas—offers a new point of entry into the “Nevèrÿon” stories. And by linking the composer with Artaud (both of them creators of visions of the Total Theater) the essay makes subterranean links between Delany’s fiction and the non-S.F. avant-garde.
Still, Longer Views can be maddening. It is at times oblique and willfully difficult. The prospect of an essay on Donna Haraway’s “A Manifesto for Cyborgs” is inviting. Delany’s work is often considered a forerunner of cyberpunk—which, not coincidentally, arrived on the scene in the early eighties, as Haraway was publishing her socialist-feminist speculations on new technologies. After all, Haraway named Delany as an influence on her thinking about “identity and boundaries … [in the] late twentieth century political imagination.” So it is exasperating to start “Reading at Work” and find it almost completely incomprehensible.
It seems, in fact, delirious. For the first three pages, Delany does the literary equivalent of shrieking at the top of his lungs. After he calms down, things go from the hysterical to the merely cryptic, and the prose never gets lucid. I put the book down with a sense of confusion and defeat, thinking, “Just exactly what the hell does he think he’s doing?” Then it hit me. The essay makes sense if you are reasonably familiar with Lacanian theory. (Because I dip into the Écrits only once every decade or so, my synapses did not fire properly the first time through.) Readers unable to distinguish the Imaginary from the Symbolic are in Real trouble.
But there are some fine discussions of poetry here too, including a study of Hart Crane that attends to both the poet’s life and his art with sensitivity and care. It’s even better if you’ve read “Atlantis: Model 1924” (published last year in Atlantis: Three Tales, by Wesleyan)—a stunning novella in which Delany imagines his own father arriving in New York and meeting Crane. And in a long, heavily anecdotal lecture, “Aversion/Perversion/Diversion,” Delany quotes a “straight male friend of mine” who told him: “If you can explain the fascination with licking sneakers so that I can understand it, you can probably explain anything to anybody!” That sums up Delany’s virtues as well as anything could.
Every page of every essay here rewards a second reading, and a third. Delany has a fearsomely well-stocked intellect, and a wider range of experience than most writers can even imagine. The man’s books have sold by the hundreds of thousands; he is the author of texts rich and dense enough to keep a graduate seminar buzzing for weeks; and his work has transformed a quintessentially American literary genre. Yet people who are otherwise well-read often have no idea who he is. This is perplexing. But at a time when the most dangerous place to stand in American culture is between a “public intellectual” and a camera, there is much honor in Samuel Delany’s will-to-complexity. He is brilliant, driven, prolific. And this past spring, he turned 54, which does seem ridiculously young, all things considered.
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SOURCE: A review of Silent Interviews, in African American Review, Vol. 31, No. 1, Spring, 1997, pp. 164-8.
[In the following review, Govan provides an overview of Delany's literary career and offers a positive evaluation of Silent Interviews.]
Although he writes in a genre vigorously pursued by relatively few African American literary critics and scholars, it should no longer be a secret that one of the most productive African American authors is Samuel R. “Chip” Delany. Albeit the paraliterary form of science fiction is his chosen discipline, within this realm Delany reigns. For thirty-four years Delany has been on a roll, publishing more novels than Ishmael Reed, more collections than Alice Walker, more critical texts than Toni Morrison, and almost as many autobiographical accounts as Frederick Douglass or W. E. B. Du Bois (with time remaining for future life histories). Since the advent of his first novel, The Jewels of Aptor (1962), to the publication of his latest, The Mad Man (1994), Delany’s productivity has been unmatched. He has been a writer of science fiction first and foremost, winning both the Hugo and the Nebula award repeatedly; but he has also been an editor, educator, comic book writer, featured speaker, poet, and literary critic. Silent Interviews (1994) augments his position as a critical theorist.
In three-plus decades, Delany has generated eighteen science fiction novels and three collections of science fiction short stories. When in the 1980s he turned his attention to sword-and-sorcery fantasy fiction, he produced the multi-layered, wonderfully complex, intellectually challenging, and richly rewarding interconnected Nevèrÿon cycle of novels and shorter tales. The four books comprising this series—Tales of Nevèrÿon, Neveryóna, Flight from Nevèrÿon, and Return to Nevèrÿon (also called The Bridge of Lost Desire)—unveil sophisticated examinations of the movement of a barbarian, preindustrial society as it slowly evolves to a market economy and moves from barter to a cash system. Along with this development Delany investigates slavery, political intrigues, the power of signs, and an emphasis which could be called “womanist mythologies.”
Delany has also published three volumes of criticism focused on the “language” of science fiction—The Jewel-Hinged Jaw (1977), The American Shore (1978), and Starboard Wine (1984)—which offer the reader a rare treat: insight into the mind of a working writer who defends and critiques his genre while offering informative and incisive commentary on the form, its practitioners, and the academic criticism that sometimes considers science fiction a fit subject. Two additional extended critical essays, Wagner/Artaud and The Straits of Messina, also fall into this category. In Delany’s critical books, we gain insights into his life as well as his perceptions on art, authors, books, language, structuralism, etc. Frequently, Delany frames responses to questions or comments through personal history as recorded in the journals he has kept since childhood. A snippet from “Shadows,” in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, bespeaks a certain precocity regarding reading habits:
When I was thirteen, somebody gave me [Jules] Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea as a book that “you’ll simply love.” At page two hundred I balked. I never have finished it! I did a little better with From the Earth to the Moon, but I still didn’t reach the end. By the time I was fifteen, however, in my own personal hierarchy, [H. G.] Wells and Verne were synonymous with the crushingly dull. Also, I had gotten their names mixed up with something called Victorian Literature … and I decided it was probably all equally boring. I was eighteen before I began to correct this impression. …
Several entries later, shifting from childhood reading preferences to contemporary recollections of favorite writers, Delany also confesses, “I have never read a whole novel by Philip K. Dick. And I have only been able to read three short stories by Brian Aldiss … end to end. It would be silly to offer this as the vaguest criticism of either Dick or Aldiss. It’s merely an indication of idiosyncracies in my own interpretative context …” (69).
Another segment from that same essay moves from revelations of reading habits toward textual explication through definitions of science fiction as part and parcel of a “metonymic process.” Here he posits that the good reader will observe “the functional nature of the adult episteme,” or at least heed the generative power of metaphor and image embedded in the webbing of a good science fiction text (77).
Delany’s two memoirs recalling his childhood and youth, the extended essay Heavenly Breakfast (1979) and the larger, more graphically detailed The Motion of Light in Water (1988), push the envelope of frank self-revelation. Both texts show Delany in the process-of-becoming. He depicts himself as the young and brilliant black Bohemian: rebellious, defiant, troubled, yet free to explore both the boundaries and the interstices of family, race, art, music, language, philosophy, sexuality, narratology, and human interaction, from the intensely personal to the professional.
By 1994, when Silent Interviews appeared, Delany was no longer the Wunderkind, the bright, handsome youth from Harlem who broke down the barriers for blacks to enter science fiction. He had become the wise, attractive establishment figure who had matured with the genre and was, therefore, privy to its history, its stories, its secrets. He could speak with the informed voice of an insider. Moreover, he could finally control what is said. By design, the instructive subtitle of Silent Interviews points to several of Delany’s persistent preoccupations, thus laying the trail through the terrain he asks us to travel with him. And although the going may at first seem tough, particularly for those unversed in the rhetorical strategies shaping much current critical theory—the landscape is densely packed with some of the lexical and syntactic gymnastics inhabiting (inhibiting?) modern critical discourse—Delany’s inimitable voice is always present to guide the wayfarer through the intricacies of his prose.
Silent Interviews begins with a lengthy explanatory introduction called “Reading and the Written Interview,” in which Delany reviews various models of reading and discusses his reasons for reclaiming and correcting, amending, or restructuring several previously published essays. To illustrate a few of the models, he reports that the
romantic reads as relief from the old and release into the new. The classicist reads for instruction and delight. The poststructuralist reads for the delight falling out of rereading and the instruction accruing to misreading. Feminists and feminist sympathizers read alert to … gender skewing. … The postmodernist reads for the wild and wacky that insinuates itself in the crevices and crannies of every text. …
Next, Delany suggests that readers less familiar with the topics of Part I might find it less daunting to place the cart first and start with Part II. The three interviews here are more personal and “approach [the] topics at a rhetorical level that, for some, might make it easier to follow their instructionary thrusts. They form, if you like, a beginners’ manual for Part I” (8).
Delany indicates precisely why he prefers the written interview to the traditional transcriptive interview which, too often, subverts the writer’s intentions. The errors in transcribing he cites from some taped interviews are at once humorous and sad, and ought to serve as cautionary tales for scholars and critics everywhere. Apart from his concern for garbled thought, knowing that the function of any interview with a writer is to determine what he or she thinks and feels, Delany’s best argument for reclaiming his voice and controlling his texts are these crystalline declarations: “Neither my ‘true thoughts’ nor my ‘real feelings’ would exist without writing. Writing has engendered them. Writing has developed them. Writing has stabilized them. Whatever specificity, range, or richness they possess, they have no basic existence apart from writing” (10). This core belief is subsequently reiterated. In concluding a discussion on structuralism/poststructuralism and the “exciting reading” encompassed by the ideological assumptions of Foucault, Derrida, and Barthes, Delany asserts plainly: “But a thinker thinks in words. And the thoughts and the words can’t be separated” (249).
“The Semiology of Silence: The Science Fiction Studies Interview” opens Part I. Delany begins with a comment, not a response to a question, and articulates his enchantment with the supremacy of the sentence, as opposed to the word, as the more appropriate model for prose texts. He raises Bakhtin’s notion of the word not as “a locus of specified meaning but rather an arena” wherein “all possible social values” may jockey for position. Yet for him the sentence is supreme, for words alone have no support. “The sentence,” he concludes, “is more flexible, sinuous, complex—one is always revising it—than the word. It’s got style. Yet it holds real danger in its metaphorical compass. The wrong one condemns you to death” (22). The bottom line of this entire discussion, which takes us to considerations of semiotics, is that sentences carry the “codes” of meaning which allow us to react to or respond to embedded data.
The model of codes, and what becomes encoded, molds Delany’s responses to the first series of questions raised by Larry McCaffery about the history of science fiction as genre. Delany critiques as “ahistorical” and false those histories tracing science fiction’s roots to the seventeenth or eighteenth century, thereby attempting to create a noble lineage for the genre. He argues that it is not until 1926, and what Hugo Gernsback deemed “scientifiction,” that the genre as we know it began to develop. From the turn of the twentieth century to just after World War II, “we clearly have the set of codes we recognize today as SF …” (26).
Although references to “codic conventions” recur throughout this interview, readers who are as intrigued by Delany’s discourse about his fiction as they are by theory will find their appetite satisfied. We learn that Dhalgren (1975), Delany’s large, social novel depicting violence and decay in urban America, has outsold Gravity’s Rainbow; that economic hard times have had a dramatic effect on the publication of SF; and that SF works appearing as a series are often not the linear tales they might appear. In fact, just as these series are reflexive, “self-critical dialogue[s]” (48), Delany’s own Nevèrÿon tales fit into the pattern of open-ended fiction that permits revisiting ideas presented in prior work to engage in new critiques of it.
In this initial interview, which touches upon a number of topics, we also hear Delany speak forcefully about identity—specifically, his racial, sexual, and authorial identities. Recognizing his marginalization, Delany formulates a superb rejoinder to those white critics who question whether he is “black enough” (or whether it matters that he is black): “Look,” he asserts, “I am black. Therefore what I do is part of the definition, the reality, the evidence of blackness” (51).
A portion of the “Toto, We’re Back!” segment first appeared in The Cottonwood Review in 1986. Polished and extended, it begins with several theory-driven statements about language, desire, and experience: “The mutual inadequations of language and desire constitute what happens; the mutual inadequations of desire and what happens constitute language; the mutual inadequations of what happens and language constitute desire” (59). The rest of the interview uses this theoretical underpinning to connect all of his replies, though the questions themselves may seem unrelated. Thus, beneath the autobiographical revelations of how Delany learned to read and appreciate science fiction as a child (what happens) is the question of intent (desire). After enlarging his discussion of science fiction to include considerations of the “value” assigned to literature—aesthetic, entertainment, or political—he explains in a sentence (stretched to a labyrinthine paragraph!) that we do not, as readers,” ‘discover’ science fiction. Rather, we are always, however haltingly or indirectly, introduced to it …” (67). In response to the question of labels, or to whether Delany belongs to any group, his answers are clear and succinct. Although frequently tied to the New Wave SF writers of the mid-1960s, Delany denies the linkage and states that, instead, he was connected to those writers contributing to Harlan Ellison’s multi-volume Dangerous Visions anthology.
Two rather loaded questions, and Delany’s replies, show a certain toughness and provide the heart for this essay. The first question essentially asks whether his “overt concerns with language and contemporary literary theory” are in any way incongruent as “thematic material” for his fiction. Delany first repeats what is almost a mantra of SF: “Science fiction has often spoken of itself as the literature of ideas.” He then extends this figure by observing that science fiction “dramatizes notions of critical theory in much the same way that it dramatizes notions of hard or soft science” (71) and further amplifies the discussion by recontextualing SF in relation to literature:
Now I’ve always seen literature’s enterprise as marginal. And I see SF’s enterprise as marginal to literature. And I see my current enterprise (the sword-and-sorcery series Return to Nevèrÿon) as marginal to SF. … But really I don’t think our society has a center—nor, I suspect, did it ever. Centrality was, at best, a stabilizing illusion. At worst it was an oppressive and exploitative lie. All I think is or was is a system of intersecting margins; and the progression of margins neither stops nor starts with literature, with science fiction—nor with me.
The second question poses once again the recurrent and reductive issues of mainstream fiction—race, identity, audience expectations, and the categorizing of nonwhite writers. After noting that the interviewer refrained from any reference to Delany’s homosexual identity and indicating that the problem, if any, is the problem of the reader and not the writer, Delany confronts the implicit challenge of the question in explicit and penetrating terms:
The constant and insistent experience I have as a black man, as a gay man, as a science fiction writer in racist, sexist, homophobic America, with its carefully maintained tradition of high art and low, colors and contours every sentence I write. But it does not delimit and demarcate those sentences, either in their compass, meaning, or style. It does not reduce them in any way.
I will not deconstruct each interview/essay collected for Silent Interviews. Suffice it to say that, for the followers of Delany’s career, reading these interviews and hearing the uncensored Delany is a necessity. What we have here is a working writer who constantly revisits his past and places that past, with its emphasis on books and authors, the realm of thought as it ties to lived experiences, in alignment with whatever intellectual enterprise he is currently exploring. He frames his growth and development as a writer of both fiction and criticism and shows us the trails he has traversed in his journey. For those just meeting Samuel R. Delany, Silent Interviews offers an opportunity to hear a writer’s voice sounding over that of his critics, claiming a space for himself and his art. Delany shares with us what pleases, puzzles, amuses, annoys, excites, or exasperates him. He asks us to decode him, to read the signs embedded in his text. Thus I would argue that interspersed among some fairly dense passages are those demystifying, reverberant sentences declaring that here is a writer to be reckoned with; this is a man we must read and respect.
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SOURCE: A review of Dhalgren, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 17, No. 1, Spring, 1997, pp. 181-2.
[In the following review, Paddy offers praise for Dhalgren, reissued by Wesleyan University Press in 1996.]
Nothing would be easier than to declare Delany’s 1975 magnum opus a literary masterpiece that far excels the limitations of the science fiction genre. Nothing would be easier, but then nothing would be more denigrating to Delany’s work and his critical intentions. Delany has always stressed his love for the uniqueness of science fiction, and he has provided some of the most illuminating studies into how the genre requires an audience to read in a different manner. Yet, while Delany has defended the distinctiveness of science fiction, his own works have pushed the genre beyond its usual boundaries. This is especially true for Dhalgren.
Dhalgren is a novel of space exploration that investigates the inner space of time and memory. Like one of Italo Calvino’s invisible cities, Delany’s Bellona is a surreal metropolis where the lines between the imagination and the concrete have been erased. The protagonist wanders this postapocalyptic city and, having forgotten his name, becomes known only as the Kid. He is enmeshed in a realm where the space-time matrix has become unglued, where places move and time becomes random. The Kid is immersed in a psychotropic zone where the city’s remarkable control on personality dramatically affects his writing. Composing in a found journal, the Kid can never quite remember whether the writing in his journal is his own or a previous owner’s. Perhaps the most fascinating feature of Delany’s novel is the Kid’s journal, which serves as the final chapter. Crossed out passages remain. Columns of text emerge in the middle of other passages. Texts written at different times stand next to each other. With this journal the reader witnesses the effect of the spatial and temporal dislocations of the city on the Kid’s consciousness.
Delany’s fiction fascinates us with the intersections of race, gender, class, sexuality, textuality, and consciousness. Dhalgren is a sexy, sexist, and sexual book that challenges how we read and how we perceive the world and its inhabitants. This hallucinatory book contains elements of what we might usually think of as science fiction—the appearance of two moons, a sun five-hundred-times too large—but the setting is also urban realism. Dhalgren shares with such controversial genre-bending books as J. G. Ballard’s Crash (1973) and Joanna Russ’s The Female Man (1975) the quality of challenging the boundaries between the marvelous and the realistic, showing us the greatest of what science fiction can offer.
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SOURCE: “‘Across Never’: Postmodern Theory and Narrative Praxis in Samuel R. Delany's Nevèrÿon Cycle,” in Science-Fiction Studies, Vol. 24, No. 2, July, 1997, pp. 289-01.
[In the following essay, Kelso addresses aspects of postmodern literary theory in the Nevèrÿon cycle, notably the influence of Derrida and Foucault on Delany's notion of deconstruction and marginality. Kelso draws attention to the motifs of sexual deviancy and degradation in the Nevèrÿon narratives, through which Delany explores the limits of racial identity, feminism, and sexual politics.]
It is something of a truism that sf writers like to work at the cutting-edge—if not the wacky limits—of science. Although Samuel R. Delany favors the “softer” disciplines, his novels usually operate at, or ahead of, the speculative edge. There is, for example, the brilliant extrapolation from computer languages in Babel-17 (1966): what if people constructed reality using a language without concepts of “I” and “you”? Virtual reality is anticipated in the giant computer hoax of The Fall of the Towers (1966), and postmodernity foreshadowed by the discussion of a centerless culture in Nova (1968). Equally long-standing has been Delany’s insistence that form in sf is as important as content (“Letter”; “Zelazny” 10).
Delany also shared the cutting-edge of cultural movements like feminism. His early work owes much to the input of Marilyn Hacker (Motion 167–71, 253); he himself contributed to debates on women and sf such as the Khatru symposium in the mid-1970s (Lefanu 105–106); and he has had an ongoing intellectual relationship with Joanna Russ. Since his entry into the academic scene in the 1970s, his work brings dispatches from another cutting-edge, that of the post-humanist intellectual revolution as recorded in the writings of heavyweights like Foucault, Lacan, Baudrillard, and Derrida.
These concerns appear in Triton (1976), for example, in feminist elements such as the vignette of a man who wet-nurses his commune’s children (§7:282)—thus answering Shulamith Firestone’s demand in The Dialectic of Sex (1970) for reproductive equality—and in Delany’s portrait of Bron, the male chauvinist to end all chauvinists. Michel Foucault, too, is in evidence here, from Delany’s epigraph to the entire ambience of Tethys. Its “heterotopian” nature owes as much to Foucault’s distrust of utopias as to Delany’s supposed response to LeGuin’s The Dispossessed (“On Triton” 300-01). Triton is also Delany’s first novel in which theoretical interests fuse with concerns for form in ways which affect the narrative praxis of the text.
Kathleen Spencer has elucidated this fusion in her “Deconstructing Tales of Nevèrÿon: Delany, Derrida and the ‘Modular Calculus, Parts I–IV’.” If, as she argues, Bron’s story is about inadequate models of reality (63), then Delany’s Appendices enact the failing of the fictional model, the “story” of Triton. If “supplements add something … presumably important and necessary … the text is not complete after all” (86). Thus the Appendices use Derrida’s own praxis, in which works perform their own theoretical propositions (Derrida, “From” 144), to enact Derrida’s notion that “all representation requires a supplementary element” (Hawthorn 97).
In doing so, the Appendices cause the whole of Delany’s text to gesture toward the postmodern attention to margins: endings, beginnings, the nature of borders, and the theoretical fields of feminism, queer theory, and post-colonialism, which deal with marginalized groups. The Appendices blur the margins of Triton; it is no longer possible to speak about a “novel”—“Whoever heard of a novel that needed an appendix?” (Spencer 64); it is no longer clear where “fact” becomes “fiction,” an effect intensified because the “factual” Appendix is fictional.
Delany’s sf has always spoken from the margins. Privileging the soft sciences, using artist or criminal protagonists drawn from minority cultures, it enacts its writer’s position as a gay black writer of sf, marginalized in the literary community as well as in communities of sexuality and race. Marginality attracted Delany in Dhalgren (1974), where he imagined the protagonist as able to “articulate, at least for a while, workings of the social margins” (qtd. in McEvoy 120); this was enacted by the jottings in “The Anathēmata” (Dhalgren §8:723–879). The form of Triton extends this experiment. But in the Nevèrÿon cycle Delany created a series that is all margin. Here his involvement with postmodern theory flowers in a narrative praxis that can affiliate the conflicting axes of sexuality, history, and race, to produce a new (form of) mythology.
It is perhaps inevitable that a writer so interested in form and models should have been concerned with mythology from the first. His 60s novels mark an increasingly decided resistance to white, heterosexual, patriarchal Western myths, from the quiet interposition of black gods among the white Argos in The Jewels of Aptor (1962), to the choice of an Oriental woman poet as protagonist in Babel-17, to the interrogation and outright refusal of myth-making in The Einstein Intersection (1967), and the shattering, in Nova, of both the Grail myth and the narrative itself. The nadir of this demolition is Dhalgren, in which the falling city and the text’s linguistic collapse suggest myths foundering along with the system that generated them. Although Triton begins to change narrative praxis, it takes the Nevèrÿon cycle to raise a phoenix from these ashes, to produce rather than to demolish a mythology.
To this myth-making, “high” postmodern theory is crucial. Spencer has explored the series’ first narrative strategy, which is a systematic disappointment of the experienced reader’s every expectation about the sword-and-sorcery subgenre, itself a marginal relation of sf (64–74). One example of this lies in what we might call the “outcrops” of theory—analogous to Derrida’s “archetrace” of writing or Lacan’s “absent fathers” (Neveryóna §11:416, 515)—that appear as content in these texts. Such outcrops are common enough in sf; but they are not common in sword-and-sorcery, and are certainly not delivered by the “hero,” as is Gorgik’s Marxist lecture in Neveryóna (§3:73–87). Theory-as-praxis exceeds this, however, most spectacularly in the blurring of narrative margins which becomes more complex as the series proceeds.
THE SYMBOLIC ORDER: DERRIDA
My own copy of Tales of Nevèrÿon (1978) is a second edition, which makes me the ideal reader who can “only return” (Tales §0:18) to that “distant once” (9). The Preface, responding to previous readers, pre-fixes the text as already in retrospect. Worse, it leaves the archetrace in some Codex immured in the basement of the Istanbul Archaeological Museum (§O: 11), its content mediated through Delany’s use of decryptions by a certain “K. Leslie Steiner.” Already “the beginning” is blurred between Now and Then, and if Then, When? The Appendix goes on to question Steiner’s translations, while the common L-K-S initials and its author’s dubious name “Kermit” disrupt its own credibility. Are these people or personae? Where does Story/fiction start and Preface/fact end?
The blurring deepens as real readers’ comments merge in Steiner and Kermit’s exchanges, in which the supposed author becomes as shadowy as the Codex. “What absolutely baffles me,” writes Kermit, “[is] who is this Delany?” (Neveryóna §A:532). Such praxis enacts the theory of deconstruction as both an “overturning of the classical opposition” (Derrida, “Signature” 108) that upholds hierarchical privilege, as in “speech/writing … good/evil” (Derrida, “Plato’s” 85)—or fact/fiction—“and a general displacement of the system” (Derrida, “Signature” 108). “Text” and “author” lose their authority; but “appendix” and “commentator” cannot be elevated in their stead. This reenacts Derrida’s concept of the supplement as superfluous addition “AND/OR” necessary substitute (Johnson xiii), and his remark that a “text” can no longer be seen as self-contained but as a “fabric of traces referring endlessly to something other than itself” (Derrida “From” 257).
Together, the four books of the Nevèrÿon cycle perform Derrida’s concept and praxis of displacement or decentering. As with sf future history, their order of writing and reading evades a linear progression, a sequential mythos, or a single hero, circling instead past the figure of Gorgik, the slave Liberator, who is described at one point as
a towering, black-haired gorilla of a youth, eyes permanently reddened from rock-dust, a scar from a pickax flung in a barracks brawl spilling one brown cheekbone. His hands were huge and rough-palmed, his foot soles like cracked leather”
As Spencer notes, unlike a proper sword-and-sorcery hero, Gorgik ages throughout the tales (66–67). Yet instead of new tales being linked by his presence, minor characters become protagonists, and once-major characters flit through other stories, forming a vast chain of people whom the reader knows, until with a repetition of “The Tale of Gorgik” the series circles back to its centerless end.
This decentering extends to the refusal of climax and resolution in individual tales. “The Tale of Gorgik” traces his youth and enslavement, his release and time at the Empress’s Court; it then truncates the black success story first shaped by Booker T. Washington in the 1900s (Smith 28–47). Rather than follow a rise from slavery to freedom and then on to success, Delany’s Tale offers a mere summary of later years, closing with the remark that Gorgik was, for his time, “a civilized man” (Tales §1:96). Later, as Spencer again notes, tales repeatedly end in anti-climax, a diminuendo and let-down, or outright unravelling (70). Delany also blurs Here and There, most strongly in “The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals” (Flight §3:239–475), which matches AIDS with a plague in Nevèrÿon. As the text seesaws between the two times/places, an acquaintance of “Delany’s” imagines he saw the Liberator in a New York movie theater (Flight §3:464); and the book ends when “Delany” meets Gorgik’s lieutenant Noyeed, flown on a dragon “across never” to the New York shore (§3:475).
In Nevèrÿon the dragon, that staple of fantasy, undergoes a similar postmodern transformation. To Ursula Le Guin the dragon is a symbol of fantasy, the imagination, a “beautiful non-fact” that may lead to “truth” (45). Most fantasy writers, however, including Le Guin, strive to present dragons as concrete and credible. In order to establish their “authenticity,” Delany foregrounds the “reality”: their inauthenticity. They become not so much multiple signifiers (Fox 109) as figures for the Derridean signifier itself, their meaning in constant play, their “truth” forever deferred (Derrida, Of Grammatology 266). In the scene that closes Tales of Nevèrÿon, a flying dragon is explicitly called “a mysterious sign” (§5:314). Its flight is difficult, doomed never to be repeated. Yet it was also the pet of a noble whose slaves Gorgik has just freed. Did it escape, or was it released? Is its flight a metaphor of freedom and escape, or of their brevity?
A dragon approaches the concrete realization of the beasts in The Einstein Intersection, “a realized commonplace” (Fox 109), as it literally flies the female hero into the opening scene of Neveryóna, in a brief experience repeatedly described as “joy” (§1:13, §1:17). Yet having landed, the girl must release the beast that “won’t fly where you want to go” (§1:36). Has what seems the most orthodox appearance of Delany’s clumsy, stupid, deliberately unheroic beasts become a metaphor for fiction itself? Between landing and release, another dragon figures in a nested story; the mighty sea-beast, Gauine, is the legendary guardian of treasure belonging to an equally mythic queen. Near the novel’s close, the hero is asked to dinner by the Earl of Jue-Grutyn, who, it emerges, is the legendary villain’s heir. Events then reveal that the hero’s astrolabe, a gift from the Liberator, is “a sign in a system of signs” (§12:442), impotent in itself, yet part of a great “engine” intended to raise the treasure (§13:439–40). When the “engine” of astrolabe, story, hero, and villains is assembled, the hero finds herself in the sunken city. The dragon wakes and threatens her, then city, treasure, and dragon vanish. Even with the “engine,” the entire chain of signifiers, deployed, the dragon’s presence is fleeting and legendary. Like the Amazon Raven, seen only in story and glimpses through the novel, Gauine is a Derridean trace, enacting the theory of displacement, the concern with absence, that is fundamental to Derrida’s work.
Matching their central role in fantasy to the enactment of this Derridean concern, dragons grow less and less present as the cycle proceeds, like the monster whose touch and smell terrifies the narrator back to “the map” as he wanders the border woods in “The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals” (Flight §3: 411–413); is this the void, the nameless, the abject that must be expelled from the Symbolic Order? Or like the shadow, scent, and dragon-eggs glimpsed by Clodon and his fetishized actress as they climb to the waterfalls in “The Tale of Rumour and Desire”; are they symbols of that desire’s evanescent, impossible flight? (Return §2:259–63). Yet at the close of Flight from Nevèrÿon (1985), when Noyeed relates the nested tale of his flight “across never,” the dragon might again signify the power—fickle, frail, and arbitrary—of fiction itself. Fiction, from the meaningless parts of the astrolabe to the legends that surround the site, raises Gauine. Fiction’s flight pulls together the two fictional spaces, New York and Nevèrÿon. It is a means of transit from Here to Nowhere—and from Nowhere to Here. By the agency of that most absent presence, Delany expresses metaphorically what he elsewhere makes explicit: “The Nevèrÿon series is, from first to last, a document of our times, thank you very much” (Flight §3:322).
Accompanying such deconstructive praxis, Marxist theory imposes a historical moment on the series’ cultural matrix. The classic sword-and-sorcery scene is an ahistorical world in transit from a barter to a money economy (Delany, “Alyx” 197–98). In Nevèrÿon, however, the process is seen as an exchange of slaveries (Fox 113), for which the Old and New markets in Kolhari and the forging of money from slave collars provide topographic and physical metaphors. And it is explicitly theorized by characters like Gorgik in a manner quite foreign to conventional sword-and-sorcery. To such “high” theoretical elements, however, Nevèrÿon couples other “low” elements of postmodern culture and theory. These elements, which play a vital and equally liberatory part in the series, are most easily categorized as fantasy, a term whose polysemy is most clearly developed through the image of the iron collar that in Nevèrÿon is firstly the sign of a slave.
THE IMAGINARY: FOUCAULT
The series still appears in general bookshops on the “Science Fiction and Fantasy” shelf. Like Joanna Russ’s Alyx stories, however, it “certainly doesn’t feel like science fiction” (Delany, “Alyx” 196). And for Nevèrÿon, the word “fantast” has far deeper significances, which the collar precipitates along the axes of race, slavery, and sexuality. In Nevèrÿon, most slaves, like Gorgik, are made rather than born, and the normative skin color is brown: whites are barbaric even when free. The fixed black/white racial dichotomy of historical American slavery thus dissolves, amid a day dream “fantasy”—prefigured by the character of Sam in Triton—of reversed racial superiority. Then Gorgik, a slave freeing slaves, replaces white Civil War icons with a brown “marginal” hero, who is himself marginalized by narrative structure in the first book, and by the second is literally mythicized amid conflicting tales of his behavior, his lovers, and his lieutenants. The study of myth’s generation in The Einstein Intersection has become self-reflexive generation of a marginal mythology.
To reversed racial fantasy, the collar couples the fantasies of same-sex desire. For Gorgik as Liberator, the collar assumes double political significance, since he is pledged to wear it until every slave is free. But the cycle is also Delany’s literary coming out, since Gorgik is his first primarily homosexual central character: on the margins of pre-history, “gay” in its proper historicized sense does not apply. And by the series’ third tale, the collar is a sexual fetish. Free Gorgik buys a small white slave of his own for sex. The slave is amenable. But when he complains that to leave the collar on is inhibiting, Gorgik explains, “if one of us does not wear it, I will not be able to do anything” (Tales §3:196).
Here “fantasy” may signify firstly in the psychoanalytic sense, as “a setting for desire” (Laplanche and Pontalis 26). Gorgik is the culminating figure in a line of powerful, erotically-charged, criminal or quasi-criminal male characters who can be traced through Delany’s work, from the strong sailor Urson in The Jewels of Aptor, to the Butcher in Babel-17, to the white gang leader in “We, in Some Strange Power’s Employ, Move on A Rigorous Line” (1968), to the twin masculinities of black George Harrison and white Tak in Dhalgren. Delany himself locates their ancestors in childhood masturbation fantasies of “kings and warriors, leather armour, slaves, swords and brocade” based on Robert Howard’s sword-and-sorcery novels (Motion 10). Gorgik thus provides for Delany a double coming-out, as a homosexual and as an acknowledgement of this “low” erotic fantasy.
In coupling this figure to the various senses of bondage in both black and S/M contexts, however, the collar draws in a “low” side of postmodernism. Robert Fox reads the Nevèrÿon books as based on “the project of Foucaultian archaeology, which explores the transformations that constitute change and grounds these to a great extent in power and the body” (108). More recent work on Foucault has begun to stress the relevance of his gay S/M activity to texts like Discipline and Punish (1975) and The History of Sexuality, texts whose formulation of discourse theory, the complex relations of power and pleasure, and the reframing of nineteenth-century sexual constructions have been as central to gay as to post-humanist theory. James Miller’s account notes repeatedly how Foucault acknowledged the basis of this work in personal experience (31–32, 92–93, 262). Such experience in the gay S/M scene in San Francisco in the mid-70s led to the complete re-writing of Volume I of The History of Sexuality (Miller 259–62). In San Francisco, Miller suggests, Foucault found a sadism that was consensual and role-playing (263), a liberation rather than a hideous historic reality. Such “fantasy” sadism threads the Nevèrÿon series. If its Symbolic order comes from Derrida, then it is Foucault who shares, to use Kobena Mercer’s term, its homoerotic Imaginary (1).
Though gay and feminist communities are sharply divided over S/M, pro-S/M gay theorists do agree with lesbians like Gayle Rubin that S/M is as much about consent or, indeed, “total trust” (Edwards 75–79) as about pain and degradation. So in Nevèrÿon, the collar, willingly donned, becomes a sign of slavery “conquered,” but also of liberated transgressive sexuality, and then of a doubly transgressive same-sex desire: as Gorgik obligingly notes, “the collar worn in three different situations may mean three different things” (Tales §5: 307). The sign of black historical repression thus becomes a facilitator of same-sex desire. And in this softened Elsewhere Delany can “come out” to confront and remodel—mythicize, fantasize—the central trauma of Afro-American history, which his forward-looking sf has resolutely suppressed.
The entwining of erotic and mythicizing fantasy in this process emerges vividly in “The Tale of Dragons and Dreamers,” the final story in Tales of Nevèrÿon. Here Gorgik and his barbarian lover appear, for the only time in the series, actually freeing slaves. The story follows “small Sarg” as, disguised by a slave collar, he tricks and slays his way past guards and servants into a noble’s castle, to unearth at its heart the climactic image of bondage and slavery: in the dungeon, Gorgik is being tortured by the Suzeraine.
The scene first strikes a strong political note: Gorgik the Liberator shares the suffering of those he comes to free. It is a “game of time and pain” (Tales §5:297), a phrase used in Return to Nevèrÿon (1989) to cover his whole liberatory struggle (§1:119). It invokes a tradition of such rebels, going back through martyred Resistance heroes to historical realities like that preserved in the notorious opening of Discipline and Punish: the death of the torn, burned, and dismembered regicide Damiens (Foucault 3–5). Gorgik, of course, does not die. He does, clearly, suffer in earnest. Yet the Tale’s concluding scene also makes it clear that he and Sarg have traded the role of captive and rescuer in repeated uses of the subterfuge (Tales §5:308–309). Indeed, when rescued, he dons the collar Sarg wore for camouflage (§5:302). And when rescued and rescuer call each other “Master” (§5:305), the traditional props of dungeon, bound victim, red-hot irons, bowls of blood, screams, and a gloating torturer enter the ambience of gay S/M scenarios. Here roles are traded, bondage is the most common element, and carefully orchestrated pains produce pleasure in a scene terminated at will (Miller 264–68).
Delany’s torturer enunciates this discourse as he lectures on the techniques of his “game of time and pain” of which he “enjoy[s] the prospect” (Tales §5:297). The “infliction of these little torments” will offer “far more pleasure” (§5:298) than breaking their victim. Meanwhile the text’s reduction of Gorgik to a voice and “a heavy arm, a blocky bicep … a massive thigh down which sweat trickled” (§5:296) invites the reader to share a traditional commodification of speaking subject as sexual object, reduced to parts under a (here) homoerotic gaze.
Such eroticism is missing from the scene near the close of Neveryóna in which the female hero Pryn also becomes a “Liberator,” symbolically taking control of her own life as she releases an old slave woman whom the villain has flogged. In “The Tale of Fog and Granite,” however, political import is backgrounded in an S/M encounter where a man who may be Noyeed willingly dons the collar, chains, and masochist’s role, begging, “Abuse me, ravish me. … You can do anything to me” (Flight §1:66). This offer of total power brings the protagonist first to extreme sexual pleasure and then to immediate flight. Although he resolves to avoid a pleasure that “could become the object of all sexual searching” (§1:70), another form of slavery, he feels he has learned something “only secondarily to do with bodies” (§1:75).
The experience of gay S/M also brought Foucault, according to Miller, to agree with the ideas of Artaud, Nietzsche, and Deleuze and Guattari: that an “ordeal” of “suffering-pleasure” inflicted on the body might provide a dubious, provisional but new “truth” (277–78). The sense of more than physical discovery informs the most complex constellation of erotic and mythicizing fantasies in the Nevèrÿon cycle. In “The Game of Time and Pain,” Gorgik, now a respected minister who has seen slavery abolished, tells of how some passing nobles once decided to “borrow” a group of mine slaves and stage a mock-fight to impress the lady they were escorting. Here the abuse of slavery is most openly delineated:
these nobles were free, free to do anything, anything to us. … They were free to speak to us as equals one moment, and free to call us disgusting fools the next. They were free to caress us in any way they wished, and free to strike or maim us in any other.
Exercising this freedom, one lord ruptures the bladder of a slave opponent too terrified to fight. Kept overnight in their camp, Gorgik finds another lord, naked, trying on a collar. The flare of sexual intensity, the recognition between the two men of “a shared perversion” (§1:68), is “outside of language.” But in that moment, Gorgik “was given back [his] self” (§1:69):
what I wanted was the power to remove the collar from the necks of the oppressed, including my own. But I knew, at least for me, the power to remove the collar was wholly involved with the freedom to place it there when I wished. And, wanting it, I knew … for the first time in my life—the self that want defined.
In this vision, political and sexual freedom fuse.
Their union evokes the most complex of the mirror motifs in which the cycle abounds. The lord’s donning of the collar offers Gorgik a mirror in which he sees his own freedom, a mirror broken when he is re-collared (§1:73). Years later, returned to the mines to free the last slaves, the minister Gorgik glimpses the understanding that
What I’d thought were mirrors and an ‘I’ looking into and at them were really synthetic, formed of intersecting images in still other mirrors I’d never noticed before. … I couldn’t hope to determine … which were real.
Intersecting unreal mirrors image the discursive subject theorized by Foucault (Easthope and McGowan 69), fragmented among constructions of a non-transcendent reality. Such a concept has been opposed by gays, blacks, and feminists, who see identity as a political necessity (Medhurst 206–207; Bredbeck xix). Foucault, however, had “misgivings” about gay liberation. To him, “People are neither this nor that, gay nor straight” (qtd. Miller 254). Likewise to Delany it more recently appears that “having to fight the fragmentation and multicultural diversity of the world … by constructing something so rigid” as identity, is a problem in itself (Dery 190). Though Gorgik’s metaphor retains a sense of frustration at the loss of transcendent “reality,” this chronologically final portrait shows a man “so calm, so sure of himself” (Delany, Flight §1:123) that he also figures acceptance of the conflict. Such a position Teresa de Lauretis shapes for feminists and/or lesbians: a “space of contradictions, in the here and now, that need to be affirmed but not resolved” (144). Like the cycle itself, this last view of Gorgik suggests a similar affiliation of contradictions that can be left unresolved.
Delany’s handling of slavery and erotic fantasy contests an underside of popular fiction, the white “racist fantasies” (Mercer 11) initiated by Kyle Onstott’s Mandingo (1959). Though they may be read subversively by blacks, gays, and white women, texts like Robert Tralins’ Black Stud (1962) and Rampage (1969), and Clint Rockman’s Black Ivory (1972) can perniciously reinforce hostile constructions of blacks. In these novels blacks are animals out of primeval Africa, fit only to fight and fuck. There is repeated stripping and whipping of black male bodies, invariably massive, splendid, and well-hung, for whom the fascinated white male gaze admits suppressed homoeroticism. The genre also reinforces the asymmetry of taboo sexual couplings (Gaines 31–33). White men use black women at will; white women who couple with black men are branded sluts and the men are terribly destroyed. Robert Fox critiques the S/M in Nevèrÿon as a “thoroughly repulsive … psychosexual parody of a relationship … involving large masses of people … under conditions of the most overt compulsion” (52). But in Nevèrÿon, Onstott’s stereotypes collapse, exploitable historical accuracy is nullified, and the transgression of gay S/M makes heterosexual taboos risible.
THE IMPERFECT SUBJECT: THE ABJECT, EXCESS, AND FEMINISM
These liberations do have a cost: when Sarg becomes dangerously casual in his role as rescuee, Gorgik leaves him in a slave-gang. Gorgik has nightmares about Noyeed, whom he helped gang-rape in the mines, an incident Noyeed cannot remember to forgive (Flight §1:171). The noblewoman who takes Gorgik from the mines as “rough trade” rejects Noyeed even for “dirty” sex. In the S/M encounter he is abused as a “low and lustful slave … low as the garbage tossed in the gutters!” (§1:66). Noyeed, then, is not an attractive criminal, but a figure of the abject whose ejection should purify race, class, and sexuality. But overall in the cycle, those who expel the abject, who say No to S/M, never attain the heights. Clodon, the protagonist of “The Tale of Rumour and Desire,” declines an offer to wear the collar and accept S/M clients for a week on the “Bridge of Lost Desire.” He becomes a sort of false Gorgik, thieving, bragging, and cheating while claiming to be or to fight for the Liberator. He dies squalidly stabbed by bandits, an end recounted third-hand in “The Game of Time and Pain,” and his final fall from hope, his expulsion from his current community just when he meant to start over, closes the series’ penultimate tale.
Those who say Yes to S/M, however, are like Gorgik, or Foucault, or Delany himself, who recounts that when confronted with a bathhouse orgy in the 60s, “I was afraid. … But I moved forward into it” (Motion 269). In Nevèrÿon, only those who say Yes to all parts of the self achieve fame, success, or even self-knowledge. From this perspective, to lose Noyeed is not to be purified but to suffer a grievous mutilation, a loss beyond that implied when Noyeed leaves just as Gorgik becomes a minister, and of necessity, a “mirror” of those he fights (Return §1:38).
An even higher cost is the progressive marginalizing of women as the series’ erotic and narrative focus narrows onto gay characters, gay tragedy like the AIDS outbreak, and the space of same-sex encounters at the “Bridge of Lost Desire.” In the first book, Gorgik’s tale is followed by that of Old Venn, a female genius with a real male mathematician’s name, who invents writing and works out a close value for pi. In the next tale Venn’s protégée Norema goes to the central city of Kolhari, where she meets Madam Keyne, a rising capitalist. Norema’s adventures introduce Raven, a true Amazon from the matriarchy of the “Western crevasse.” She wields a two-bladed sword, relates a cosmogony where “’man” is the broken mate of woman (Tales §4:225–34), and when there is mayhem at the wicked monastery of Vygernangx, she plays Norema’s heroic rescuer.
To Spencer, Raven’s matriarchy offers a “savage” reversal of our patriarchy (81). In historical context it can be read as an attack on the position of feminists like Mary Daly and Susan Griffin, who promoted women as essentially peaceful and loving, and men as violent. Their work was highly influential in the late 70s and contingent with the politics of Women Against Pornography. By 1983, when Neveryóna was published, the schism between Daly, Griffin, Robin Morgan, Andrea Dworkin, and Catherine MacKinnon and members of FACT like Gayle Rubin, Pat Califia, and Carole Vance had all but fractured Western feminism (Segal 222). Delany’s signature on the petition organized after the confrontation at the 9th Scholar and Feminist Conference (Vance 452), the notorious “barney at Barnard,” aligns him with Rubin’s group Raven’s matriarchy, then, may critique not only patriarchy, but a faction of feminism.
Like Gauine, however, Raven’s culture remains an absence, outside the narrative. In Neveryóna she offers a fleeting vision of women’s warrior potential, like a cruder version of Joanna Russ’s Alyx. Yet Delany’s female hero finds the women’s world of Madam Keyne’s house, with its squabbles, hysterics, and possible assassinations, as uncongenial as Raven’s matriarchy. Despite its protagonist, Neveryóna thus turns away from either form of women’s space. The text closes as the hero returns to the city to challenge the “absent fathers” (§13:515) of the present order, rather than to found an order of her own. Such an outcome is logical, given the cycle’s reliance on Derridean theory, which, like that of Julia Kristeva (Moi 110), sees the feminine or “woman” as a solely negative or positional concept (qtd. Spivak 171). But by Flight from Nevèrÿon, although Raven’s troop rescues the protagonist of “The Tale of Fog and Granite” from an attack by Clodon, he can only feel “empty” (Flight §1:139), “terrified” (§1:140) of her “dispossessing power” (§1:141). In “The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals,” the longest connected narrative tells of a man’s search for physical traces of the male inventor Belham; but though Belham proves chimeric, Venn’s fame, in a manner too close to historical reality to be safely read as satiric, is wholly erased. And in Return to Nevèrÿon, the only major role played by a woman character is that of fetishized actress, the traditional object of Clodon’s heterosexual desire.
Such a tendency is a late development in Delany’s work, which was notable in the ’60s for its deliberate attempts to improve the treatment of female characters (Motion 166–68). As repeated feminist charges make clear, however, this is a common characteristic of postmodern theory. Even French feminist appropriations of Lacan fail to go beyond his “linguistic determinism and cultural phallocentrism” (Segal 91). To Spivak, deconstruction functions as a critique of phallocentrism, but as a feminist practice it is “caught on the other side of sexual difference” (176). And Foucault’s admirable dissections of power/knowledge relations still “gloss over the gender configurations of power” (Diamond & Quinby xii-xiv). Miller’s account also constructs an intellectual world where Foucault moved almost exclusively among males. There is frequent mention of Lacan and Sartre, for example, but none of Irigaray or de Beauvoir.
Yet Foucault’s work also extends a line of European and, in particular, French artists and thinkers who may be called the proponents of excess. Like De Sade, Nietzsche, Genet, Bataille, and Artaud, they push the limits of theory, representation, and practice beyond cultural tolerance. Miller’s work shows Foucault consciously adapting their tradition, seeking out “limit-experiences” that would erase conventional boundaries, even the boundaries between “life and death” (30). Foucault was deeply impressed by Artaud’s last public appearance, whose virtual incoherence unforgettably evoked “that space of physical suffering and terror which surrounds or rather coincides with the void” (qtd. Miller 96). Artaud haunts Foucault’s first major book, Madness and Civilization (1961) (Miller 96). Such an artist, speaking in “insane glossolalia” (30) from beyond the limits of suffering and madness, appears, barely five years afterwards, in the character of Vol Nonik in Delany’s trilogy, The Fall of the Towers.
A lesser but still transgressive excess, a reaching for the abject as well as for the heights of lyricism, marks the work of poets like Rimbaud and Villon, and of Catullus before them. So too, in Delany’s novel Stars In My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984)—coterminal with the Nevèrÿon cycle—Russell Blackford finds “definitive forms of degradation” appearing with equally extreme or definitive “forms of splendour and joy” (10). The two “are not necessarily separated” (19), any more than, in gay S/M, they were for Foucault.
That splendor and degradation, truth and torture, high political aims and low sexual practices may exist together is the point missed by descriptions of texts like Stars In My Pocket and the Nevèrÿon cycle solely as “enjoyed degradation” (Clute and Nicholls 317). For Foucault, degradation’s pleasure was also a search for limits, identity, even truth. For the Nevèrÿon cycle, only such excess, such pushing of limits—of sf conventions like plausible extrapolation, of cultural and representative taboos like the acknowledgement of homoerotic fantasies—can supply the imaginative basis for a new mythology, a contradictory, marginal, but positive imaginative form.
Delany’s work has always pushed limits well beyond the usual sf parameters, first to the heights of approval, with his Nebula Awards for Babel-17 and The Einstein Intersection, then, with Dhalgren and his succeeding work, beyond many sf readers’ tolerance (Bartter 337–38; McEvoy 110). In this process, postmodern theory, as content or praxis, has been central. Robert Fox notes the importance in the Nevèrÿon cycle of the astrolabe, an instrument in which “one matrix is superimposed on another, and both are necessary for a correct ‘reading’” (104). To Fox, these matrices are the present and the past. A “correct reading,” or a single pair of such matrices, hardly suffices for the Nevèrÿon cycle. But the postmodern theorists like Derrida, the French artists and thinkers of excess like Foucault, are also a matrix, a silent term obliterated when the Nevèrÿon cycle is read solely against the conventions of sf and fantasy. Only when articulated against both theory and genre does the cycle more clearly reveal, in its complexities of meaning, its outraging of generic conventions, and the demands it makes upon its readers, the extent of its claims to be both a text about “limit-experiences,” and a “limit-experience” in itself.
Bartter, Martha. “The (Science-Fiction) Reader and the Quantum Paradigm: Problems in Delany’s Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand.” SFS 17:325–40, #52, Nov 1990.
Blackford, Russell. “Debased and Lascivious?” Australian Science Fiction Review. 2nd ser. 1.4:8–21, Sept 1996.
Bredbeck, Gregory W. “Introduction: Gay/Literature: Crossing the Divide.” Contemporary Gay American Novelists: A Bio-Biographical Critical Sourcebook. Ed. Emmanuel S. Nelson. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1993. xv-xxi.
Clute, John, and Peter Nicholls, eds. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. 2nd ed. London: Orbit, 1993.
de Lauretis, Teresa. “Eccentric Subjects: Feminist Theory And Historical Consciousness.” Feminist Studies 16:115–150, Spring 1990.
Delany, Samuel R. “Alyx.” The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes of [sic] the Language of Science Fiction. NY: Berkley, 1977. 191–209.
———. Dhalgren. 1975, NY: Bantam, 1982.
———. Flight From Nevèrÿon. 1985. London: Grafton, 1989.
———. “Letter to a Critic: Popular Culture, High Art, and the S-F Landscape.” The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes of [sic] the Language of Science Fiction. NY: Berkley, 1977. 3–18.
———. The Motion Of Light In Water: East Village Sex and Science Fiction Writing, 1960–1965. 1988. London: Paladin, 1990.
———. Neveryóna. 1983. London: Grafton, 1988.
———. “On Triton and Other Matters: An Interview with Samuel R. Delany.” SFS 17:295–324, #52, Nov 1990.
———. Return to Nevèrÿon. London: Grafton, 1989.
———. Tales of Nevèrÿon. 1979. London: Grafton, 1988.
———. Triton. 1976. NY: Bantam, 1986.
———. “Zelazny/Varley/Gibson—and Quality (Part 1).” The New York Review of Science Fiction 48:1+10–13, August 1992.
Derrida, Jacques. “From Living On: Border Lines.” 1979. A Derrida Reader: Between The Blinds. Ed. Peggy Kamuf. 256–68.
———. Of Grammatology. 1967. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1980.
———. “Plato’s Pharmacy.” Dissemination. 1972. Trans. Barbara Johnson. London: Athlone, 1981. 61–171.
———. “Signature Event Context.” 1972. A Derrida Reader: Between the Blinds. Ed. Peggy Kamuf. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1991. 82–111.
Dery, Mark. “Black to The Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose.” Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture. Ed. Dery. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1994. 179–222.
Diamond, Irene, and Lee Quinby. Introduction. Feminism and Foucault: Reflections on Resistance. Ed. Diamond and Quinby. Boston: Northeastern UP, 1988. ix-xx.
Easthope, Antony, and Kate McGowan, eds. A Critical and Cultural Theory Reader. North Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1992.
Edwards, Tim. Erotics and Politics: Gay Male Sexuality, Masculinity and Feminism. London: Routledge, 1994.
Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Penguin, 1977.
Fox, Robert Elliot. “Samuel R. Delany: Astro Black.” Conscientious Sorcerers: The Black Postmodernist Fiction of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, Ishmael Reed, and Samuel R. Delany. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1987. 93–125.
Gaines, Jane. “Competing Glances: Who Is Reading Robert Mapplethorpe’s Black Book?” New Formations 16 (1992): 24–39.
Hawthorn, Jeremy. A Concise Glossary Of Contemporary Literary Theory. London: Edward Arnold, 1992.
Johnson, Barbara. Translator’s Introduction. Dissemination. By Jacques Derrida. 1972. London: Athlone, 1981.
Le Guin, Ursula K. “Why Are Americans Afraid Of Dragons?” The Language of The Night. Ed. Susan Wood. NY: Perigee, 1979. 39–45.
Laplanche, Jean, and Jean-Bertrand Pontalis. “Fantasy And The Origins Of Sexuality.” Formations of Fantasy. Ed. Victor Burgin, James Donald, and Cora Kaplan. London: Methuen, 1986. 5–34.
Lefanu, Sarah. In the Chinks of the World Machine: Feminism and Science Fiction. London: The Women’s Press, 1988.
McEvoy, Seth. Samuel R. Delany. New York: Ungar, 1984.
Medhurst, Andy. “That Special Thrill: Brief Encounter, Homosexuality and Authorship,” Screen 32.2:197–208, Summer 1991.
Mercer, Kobena. “Skin Head Sex Thing: Racial Difference and the Homoerotic Imaginary.” New Formations 16:1–23, Spring 1992.
Miller, James E. The Passion of Michel Foucault. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993.
Moi, Toril. Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory. 1985. London: Routledge, 1988.
Segal, Lynne. Slow Motion: Changing Masculinities, Changing Men. London: Virago, 1990.
Smith, Sidonie. Where I’m Bound: Patterns of Slavery and Freedom in Black American Autobiography. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1974.
Spencer, Kathleen L. “Deconstructing Tales of Nevèrÿon: Delany, Derrida, and the ‘Modular Calculus, Parts I-IV.’” Essays in Arts and Sciences 14:58–89, May 1985.
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty. “From Displacement and the Discourse of Woman.” Easthope and McGowan, ed. 167–180.
Vance, Carole S., ed. Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984.
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SOURCE: A review of Longer Views, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. XVII, No. 3, Fall, 1997, pp. 223-5.
[In the following review, Sallis offers praise for both Longer Views and Atlantis.]
We witness a strange period in which it seems that, at the same time the canon of approved, proper literature narrows, we have ever greater access (through translations, small-press publications, courageous university presses) to the fullest range of literary possibility: Delany, for instance.
Author of thirty or so books, a cornerstone of contemporary science fiction with novels such as Dhalgren and Triton, praised by the likes of Umberto Eco for the innovation and imaginative force of his fantasy quarte Return to Nevèrÿon, Delany is a national treasure unknown to the majority of readers. He is also, as earlier books such as Silent Interviews and The Straits of Messina suggest and as Longer Views affirms once and for all, a formidable, engaging critic.
Opening with a graceful introduction from Ken James, Longer Views goes on to reprise Delany’s brilliant, evocative investigation of modernity, “Wagner/Artaud”; a reading of Donna Haraway’s feminist “Manifesto for Cyborgs”; a self-interrogation into the nature of personal and social sexual experience (“Aversion/Perversion/Diversion”); the collagelike, darting, glancing “Shadow and Ash”; and a marvelous essay on Hart Crane written simultaneously with composition of Delany’s short novel “Atlantis: Model 1924.” An earlier essay, “Shadow,” is included as appendix.
Ken James points out that in previous critical work Delany largely restricted himself to standard essay forms, while here, importing techniques from his later fiction—framing structures, multiple-intersection stories, conflation of personal, social, and historical voices—he comes onto something new in the world, “an experience which simply cannot be found anywhere else in the current American literary landscape.”
Atlantis: Three Tales brings into paperback Delany’s most recent medium-length writing. “Atlantis: Model 1924” supposes a meeting of Delany’s father, newly arrived in New York, with Hart Crane; it’s as densely allusive, as written-over and frought with cultural cargo as anything of Joyce’s, truly a major work. In a sort of inversion of intent, “Citre et Trans” fictionalizes, or reimagines, actual episodes of Delany’s travels in Greece. The model here is Paul Blackburn, stories that seem all fictive stuff, not at all arranged. “Eric, Gwen, and D. H. Lawerence’s Esthetic of Unrectified Feeling” seems at first a memoir on the model of Delany’s earlier Heavenly Breakfast or The Motion of Light in Water. Probing at his early fascination with science fiction, his simultaneous awakening to art and to his own homosexuality, quickly the “essay” takes on the texture and heft of fiction, those “neat and headlong narratives.”
Wesleyan University Press, meanwhile, is to be roundly commended both for its publication of new Delany, such as Longer Views and Atlantis, and for its reissues of classic Delany fiction: Dhalgren, Triton, the Return to Nevèrÿon quartet.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2566
SOURCE: “Mickey & the Peep Show,” in The Nation, October 18, 1999, pp. 30-4.
[In the following review, Hoffman discusses the decline of the sex industry in Times Square and commends Delany's recollections and observations in Times Square Red, Times Square Blue.]
In 1980, amid debates about “cleaning up” Times Square, New York City Mayor Ed Koch warned, “New York cannot and should not become Disneyland.”
Seventeen years later, in June 1997, Disney organized a thirty-float electrical parade through the heart of Times Square to promote its animated film Hercules. The parade ran down 42nd Street past the new Disney Store, just months after the block’s last porn shops were closed by the city as part of Disney’s conditions for moving in. The New York Times reported on the “Disneyfication” of the area in an editorial announcing “42nd Street Becomes Main Street USA.”
How did the X-rated setting of City of Night and Midnight Cowboy turn into a PG-rated theme park?
Through calculated campaigns by developers, moral crusades by politicians and resounding compliance from an electorate battered by epidemics of AIDS, drugs and crime, Times Square has been “revitalized” and sanitized for your protection. In addition to protracted campaigns against public “vice” that have largely taken sex and drugs off the sidewalks, the city has declared war on privately owned businesses frequented by consenting adults. Under the current Mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, New York has instituted a new zoning law that forbids adult businesses from operating within 500 feet of schools, churches, residences or other adult businesses. These campaigns are designed to destroy the sexual nature of neighborhoods like Times Square, eliminating virtually all adult businesses from the area, and the changes are already evident.
Prostitutes have been replaced by Beauty and the Beast ticket scalpers, drug dealers have been replaced by shops selling ＄4 cups of coffee, and Peep Land and the Eros Theater have been replaced by Condé Nast and Morgan Stanley skyscrapers. Tourists push strollers down sidewalks once crowded with con artists pushing three-card monte and fake Seiko watches. Construction sites abound, with signs promoting future businesses like Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum and a twenty-five-screen movie multiplex that will restore the shells of three dilapidated Broadway theaters for use as a lobby. The greatest symbol of the New Times Square anchors the eastern end of the New 42nd Street: the Disney Store and the adjacent New Amsterdam Theater, refurbished by Disney as a Broadway showcase for The Lion King.
It’s a small world, after all.
But unlike a Disney movie, the tale of Times Square’s so-called revitalization doesn’t have a simple beginning and a pat ending. There is no single villain and no obvious hero. And there’s certainly no agreement on whether everyone will live happily ever after.
Most scripts—those preferred by Giuliani, the New York Times and the corporate-financed neighborhood cheerleaders in the Times Square Business Improvement District (BID)—focus on what New York allegedly stands to gain from the New Times Square: refurbished Broadway stages, increased tourism, improved safety and other vague, illusory and unquantifiable benefits that have come to be known collectively as “quality of life.” But few people have managed to articulate what New York has lost in the bargain.
Samuel Delany fills this void with his highly personal and incisive book Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. A professor of English at the University of Buffalo, Delany is best known as the award-winning author of science fiction titles like Dhalgren and the Nevèrÿon series, but he is no stranger to sexual issues. In his remarkable 1988 memoir The Motion of Light in Water, he opened up his own sex life for examination, including long-term relationships with men and women, extensive forays into public sex and a variety of other nontraditional emotional and physical relationships. He expounded on these themes in subsequent essays and speeches.
In Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, Delany brings his sexual politics together with his class-based analysis of Times Square’s recent past. The first half of the book is a somewhat fractured narrative written in October 1996, recounting his experiences in Times Square—particularly his sexual encounters in the adult theaters—over the past quarter-century. (He also talks to street hustlers, bartenders, a shoeshine man, a taxi dispatcher and a shish-kebab salesman about the changes they’ve seen in the neighborhood.) The second half, a mosaic of brief observations and metaphors, critiques the recent changes, particularly for threatening the interclass contact that the old Times Square long provided.
It all adds up to a powerful story about people (especially gay men) who don’t see the changes as revitalization—people who are no longer welcome in Toon Town.
The ultimate mission of the New Times Square, Delany asserts, is not supporting theater, fighting crime or even improving the city’s economic situation. It is primarily about developers—who stand to reap huge windfalls even if their buildings sit empty, as he explains in detail—“doing as much demolition and renovation as possible in the neighborhood, and as much construction work as they possibly can.”
Rather than an honest moral or health crusade, the crackdown on sex is simply the means the city needs to clear land for development. But the process of creating the New Times Square, Delany explains, has destroyed more than buildings:
Because it has involved the major restructuring of the legal code relating to sex, and because it has been a first step not just toward the moving, but toward the obliteration of certain businesses and social practices, it has functioned as a massive and destructive intervention in the social fabric of a noncriminal group in the city—an intervention I for one deeply resent.
Delany started frequenting the theaters in Times Square in 1975, a time when the neighborhood’s sex scene was already under attack. “Each new burst of interest in the area’s renovation would be accompanied by a new wave of do-gooder rhetoric, and a theater or two would go,” he remembers.
Indeed, adult businesses were being driven out long before Giuliani came to town. Although exact numbers and precise neighborhood boundaries differ from source to source, everyone agrees that Times Square’s adult industry was in free fall for two decades. According to the New York Times, by the time Koch took office in 1978, the number of businesses had already plunged to 115 from a high of 147 in 1975. Numbers continued to decline through the eighties. There were forty-seven in 1993—Giuliani took office in 1994—and by the end of 1996, before his zoning law even went into effect—the number had dropped to thirteen.
Part of this decline was the result of social conditions. Delany recalls “the ‘Great Winnowing’” in the mid-eighties due to AIDS and crack. Delany’s fellow travelers were increasingly addicted and homeless, and crime ran amok; many other customers stayed away out of fear. Most notably, he remembers, people were dying in droves. “One would have to be a moral imbecile to be in any way nostalgic for this situation,” he writes.
But if drugs and disease cut into the adult venues’ business, other factors were more deliberately orchestrated. Occasional campaigns to condemn a particular block to clear out the porn theaters had been going on at least since the Koch administration, as had closures under the state’s 1985 health code, which forbids all anal, oral and vaginal sex in public venues, with the purported aim of reducing HIV transmission—even though sex with condoms is outlawed as well. By the time Giuliani’s zoning law passed the City Council in 1995 and cops began closing businesses in 1997, most of the theaters in Times Square were already gone. The Mayor claimed the new law would ultimately leave no more than five adult stores operating in Times Square, adding, “In my opinion, one is too many.”
A few media outlets have allowed for some bittersweet contemplation. The Village Voice devoted an entire issue to reflections on the old Times Square after the zoning law passed and has been one of the lone voices to decry the hundreds of millions of dollars of tax abatements the city has offered to corporations like Disney and Reuters to lure them to the area. Even in the pro-development New York Times—whose offices are located in Times Square—columnist Frank Rich admitted “a twinge of loss and apprehension” over what had been eliminated. The mix of adult and family businesses, Rich wrote, is what made 42nd Street “the crossroads of the world, for all kinds of people of every class. But for the most part, New York’s media have hopped on the bandwagon lauding Times Square’s new middle-class, middlebrow image.
But Delany isn’t cheering, and here lies the greatest value of his work. More than his sometimes overstated critical observations, it is Delany’s straightforward memories that make his book essential. He speaks from a specific perspective—as a black, gay intellectual and as someone with a personal investment in reaching across barriers to make personal and sexual connections. But the scenes he describes open a world of possibility to readers—a world that is being torn down.
Delany extols the heterogeneity of the audiences in the adult theaters: the age range, the variety in sexual preferences, the ethnic and racial mix of the clientele. And the men he remembers meeting cover every imaginable occupation, from opera singers and garbage collectors to stockbrokers and telephone repairmen. Among the wordless tricks, longtime acquaintances and occasional friends, Delany also met two long-term lovers, blasting a hole in the stereotype of adult-theater patrons.
“A glib wisdom holds that people like this just don’t want relationships,” Delany writes. “They have ‘problems with intimacy.’ But the salient fact is: These were relationships.” These relationships were sometimes single encounters, other times they stretched over a decade. They were interwoven, simultaneous, intermittent. They were not love relationships or business relationships for the most part, he writes: “They were encounters whose most important aspect was that mutual pleasure was exchanged. … What greater field and force than pleasure can human beings share?”
Delany spends a great deal of time extolling the virtues of “contact”—the often-random, usually public, frequently cross-class interactions that urbanites experience every day in subway trains, bodegas and post offices. He draws a distinction—not quite an opposition, but close—between this “contact” and “networking,” which he defines as the more deliberate, motive-driven, generally intraclass interactions that occur in places like professional conferences, parties, classes and social groups. Networking is designed to provide benefits to the people involved, from an inside tip about a new job to a romantic setup with a friend of a friend. Networking, Delany claims, is typically less productive than it seems at first, while contact is more “useful” than most people acknowledge.
The forced evolution of Times Square into a theme park and shopping mall for middle-class tourists and businesses, he argues, results in a loss of the contact (sexual and otherwise) that made Times Square such a valuable neighborhood for people of all classes. “What has happened to Times Square has already made my life, personally, somewhat more lonely and isolated,” Delany writes. “I have talked with a dozen men whose sexual outlets, like many of mine, were centered on that neighborhood. It is the same for them.”
Every Friday, the Times Square BID sponsors a free walking tour of the neighborhood. On one that I attended, close to fifty people gathered inside the Times Square Visitor Center—located in a renovated Broadway theater and offering free brochures, discounted subway farecards and the cleanest public toilets in Manhattan. The guide, an actor named Lawrence, began by telling the crowd about the “amazing renaissance and restoration” of the area. The maps and visitors’ guides he handed out didn’t mention adult businesses, except in a single sentence noting their demolition as part of the revitalization of the neighborhood.
As Lawrence led the group down the New 42nd Street past rehabilitated Broadway theaters owned by Disney and Ford, he pointed out that while the city had demolished several other old theaters on the block, three had been saved—to become part of the lobby of a new multiplex cinema house. One woman stopped him to ask why, if those theaters had been saved, they hadn’t been saved as theaters. “That’s a political question,” said Lawrence, actor by training but BID promoter by trade. “I can’t answer that. Anything that has to do with zoning or politics, I can’t answer that.”
There’s not much point in talking sex or politics in 1999, from the BID’s perspective. The BID won the battle for Times Square on the ground, and the victors get to write—or erase—history.
But once upon a time, sex and politics were the focal point of Times Square tours. Twenty years ago, the antiporn feminist group Women Against Pornography—which led 4,000 people in a 1979 march against sex shops in Times Square—was leading free tours of the neighborhood every week, taking groups of women into the sex establishments to show them the misogyny of porn films and the degradation of objectified women in the peep shows.
In his book, Delany too takes readers inside places like Variety Photoplays and the Capri, walking them through everything from the simple logistics (how much it cost, what hours it was open, how the theater was laid out) to the sexual activity taking place on the screen and in the seats. He even takes a woman friend into an all-male theater, just as WAP did years before Unlike WAP, however, Delany finds camaraderie rather than degradation, connection rather than shame, possibility rather than danger. “Were the porn theaters romantic?” he asks. “Not at all. But because of the people who used them, they were humane and functional, fulfilling needs that most of our society does not yet know how to acknowledge.”
Twenty years ago, Show World was one of the main stops on the WAP tour. With several levels of peep shows, buddy booths and video shelves, it was the largest adult venue in Manhattan, and city officials called it “the flagship of the sex industry in New York.”
This May, the city shuttered Show World, clearing one of the area’s most desirable locations—42nd Street at 8th Avenue—for development. The building will now reportedly be converted into an amusement park for children offering virtual-reality rides.
“The New Times Square is not the old one that lives in memory, and never will be,” wrote the New York Times.
On New Year’s Eve, a half-million revelers in Times Square will usher in the year 2000 as more than 300 million people around the world watch on television. As has been the tradition since 1907, a ball will drop during the countdown to midnight.
The BID is organizing the Times Square 2000 celebration, and, like everything else in Times Square, even the ball will be new, improved and absolutely clean. An aluminum sphere six feet in diameter, weighing 500 pounds and studded with more than 12,000 rhinestones will glitter and sparkle as it descends the pole atop One Times Square.
“Times Square will continue to grow into a shining example of urban renewal,” promises Mayor Giuliani. “Come New Year’s Eve 2000, this will be where the world will come to celebrate the dawn of the new millennium.”
Wearing mouse ears.