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Engineer Al's Sci-Fi Library: Samuel R. Delany

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29 Sep 2015 18:26 #211620 by engineer Al

Engineer Al shares his love of Sci-Fi literature.

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29 Sep 2015 19:20 - 30 Sep 2015 01:24 #211625 by Frohike
I was actually introduced to Samuel R. Delany's work through Tales of Neveryon, which was a part of my Lit 101 syllabus that also included Kaja Silverman's The Subject of Semiotics, some Freud and Lacan texts, some William Carlos Williams, some Philip K Dick, some... well I don't quite remember all of it. Suffice to say, Neveryon's blending of Sword & Sorcery tropes, queer identity theory, BDSM practices, intertextuality, and hemmoraging of semiological theory into the fiction, all fit perfectly into college academia. It was gloriously pretentious. It also blew my fucking mind.

From that point forward, I went back.

Or rather I went on parallel tracks, retracing various aspects of his work, in the thrall of an intellectual crush that could only really happen during one's college years. While other literature students were geeking out to Derrida or Foucault, I was in the library stacks reading more Delany (ok, maybe an unhealthy amount of Foucault as well).

I think people outside of academia should be aware that, in addition to his fiction, Delany wrote a large, amazingly erudite body of essays and epistolary-style "silent" interviews. These were the subject of borderline obsessive rereading and theorizing on my part, but I'd like to think that this wasn't just because I was a starry-eyed college student.

The essays/interviews are deep but also approachable in an oddly escalating way, where Delany will often launch with an interesting anecdote, followed by some relatively easy-to-follow pondering and analysis, maybe a visual model, then hit the afterburners on a theory that can really stretch the boundaries of what you can synthesize, and will inevitably tie it back to your initial point of entry. It's engrossing but can also become a little overwhelming & disorienting; often warranting multiple rewinds and rereads.

I now have a second copy of Silent Interviews: On Language, Race, Sex, Science Fiction, and Some Comics because my college year scrawls and highlights all over my first copy haven't aged all that well. I highly recommend reading through that collection for a glimpse at the wide swath of topics and theory that swarmed around his composition of science fiction from the "wonder years" period forward. Some of his earlier essay collections have been reprinted (Starboard Wine, Jewel-Hinged Jaw, and The American Shore), but I think Silent Interviews gives an easier survey for newer readers and it's my nostalgic favorite. "Toto, We're Back!" in that collection is an absolute must read.

The next collection Longer Views isn't as topical for most readers here since it branches out to areas that are not immediately connected to SF (Wagner, Donna Haraway, language poetry, etc). It's a good tome of intellectual gymnastics, but skippable for anyone who just wants to tour his SF/paraliterary criticism.

There is an essay in the later Shorter Views that is totally worth a close read by anyone here who is interested in SF, comics, and the discourse of "how stuff signifies" (particularly apt in games criticism). In "The Politics of Paraliterary Criticism," Delany skewers some aspects of Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics in a manner that remains respectful of Scott's work, while enlightening an assumed dichotomy between "craft" and "art" that is much less formally inherent and much more political than one would initially think. Fantastic, illuminating read, with lots of incidental asides that will interest game critics.

Those less into essay-reading and theorizing should also know that he wrote an outstanding, page-turner of an autobiography titled The Motion of Light in Water. It almost feels like the non-fictional twin of Dhalgren in the register of experience and language that it gives the reader; vivid, disorienting, engrossing, sexually candid, poetic. This was a life-changing book that hit me in a sea of already ongoing life changes, on the cusp of my college years, at the precipice of a big move to NYC. It illuminated a new way for me to bring my detached, overloaded, academic theory brain into a closer, more enriching, and more engaged relationship with lived experience. Both of these books are side-by-side on my shelf and will never leave my possession.

I think Delany is probably one of the most brilliant minds to have landed in SF and Sword & Sorcery writing & criticism, and considering my age at this point, I'm not sure I'll ever look at more contemporary thinkers in genre fiction such as Mieville without seeing them as diminished, less assiduous or broadly versed theorists. It's an incurable bias that I'll probably take to my grave.

Despite all of this fanboy gushing, though, I must confess that I too personally prefer Delany's fictional work when he had just achieved escape velocity from writing borderline fan fiction (the "early years") and hadn't quite yet entered the event horizon of post-structuralism and academia. If Chip were to read this, he would likely posit that trajectory as being a convenient fiction itself. He was probably already deeply ensconced in academia in some form or other during that era (I mean, Empire Star is basically "Deconstruction: The Novella"). But his writing during those "wonder years" feels more free, allegorical, and dangerous, more infused with his then recent quasi-bohemian experiences on foreign shores (e.g. Greece in The Einstein Intersection) and the ships where he worked to gain passage to those shores.

While I look back at the Neveryon series fondly and can appreciate it on occasional sittings, I find its allure greatly diminished in my current context as an aging father of two, immersed in a very different framework of social expectations, obligations, and time constraints. I'm no longer in the hyper-interpretive institutional system that framed & validated that series of novels with an intellectual wonder that I think I only could have experienced as a college kid. This is an odd reversal of Chip Delany's own timeline when it comes to his writing, which has never really seemed targeted to a specific, loyal readership. He seems to just write honestly and deeply in the contexts most immediately relevant to him, no matter how esoteric or alternately pornographic, or both, those contexts increasingly become, which distance his writing further and further from my own shores with each year, a sail sinking just past my horizon.

From this point forward, I'm still going back. I chill out with The Einstein Intersection or Dhalgren much more often than Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders and I think Delany would actually be ok with this.

Some recent Delany talks:

writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Delany.php
Last edit: 30 Sep 2015 01:24 by Frohike.
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30 Sep 2015 10:40 - 30 Sep 2015 10:42 #211637 by engineer Al
Wow, Paul. Thanks for ALL of this. Just took a quick peek at the link and it looks incredibly cool. Also, you are not the first person to recommend The Motion of Light in Water. I definitely need to pick that one up.
Last edit: 30 Sep 2015 10:42 by engineer Al.
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30 Sep 2015 18:45 #211659 by Michael Barnes
Good lord Frohike. I was going to stop in to say "yeah, Dhalgren, woo" and then THAT. I feel like I ain't even been to kolledge!

I've read Dhalgren (of course), Triton, Einstein Intersection, Stars in my Pocket, the first Tales of Neveryon, and Nova. So kind of the "major works".

He's definitely a compelling, intensely _skilled_ writer aiming for quite a bit more than the usual genre touchpoints. Even his more rootsy SF works are full of these eccentricities, academic hooks and intellectual exercises that set him apart from someone like, say, Heinlein. But you do have to kind of be wired to appreciate this kind of thing, because I think it goes without saying that Delany is not for everyone. There is undoubtedly a challenge he is issuing to readers, and some of his material can actually be quite off-putting or willfully difficult.

Dhalgren is a great example of that...but you know, it's a book that needs to be considered closer to Ulysses than anything else in the SF genre. The interesting thing about about that book, at least from my experience with it, is that you can pick it up and start reading anywhere and it's interesting, extremely well-written and impactful. I've done that numerous times, and because so much of it is surreal, indescribable or frustratingly obtuse in terms of specific narrative I actually appreciate it more in pieces than as a whole.

Frohike really kind of nailed why I like writers like Delany...he's somebody that "landed" in SF/fantasy but completely obliterated genre boundaries to create his work. You look at the academic, intellectual and emotional scope of Delany in comparison to just about any SF author today and the gulf is vast. Other writers might be more accessible, entertaining or interesting at a surface level, but this is somebody that you can dig WAY DEEP into across a number of vectors.

Let's keep these coming, I love this feature. Suggestions- Blish, Disch, Butler, Bester, Wolfe...
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30 Sep 2015 18:48 #211660 by Josh Look
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