August 2012

Walter Biggins

nonfiction

Starboard Wine: More Notes on the Language of Science Fiction by Samuel R. Delany

I gave up on science fiction in eleventh grade. I did it, of course, for that most ignoble of reasons -- I wanted to be cool. Well read, yes. Intellectual, certainly. Exciting, and funny, and thought of as good in bed, definitely. Mostly, though, I wanted to be cool, which denoted all of the above, except for reading sci-fi. It's a typical tale of outgrowing childish things, I suppose, except I never really thought sci-fi was childish. In fact, I was becoming increasingly sure that science fiction addressed major issues and ideas that the "literary" fiction I veered toward was resisting or actively ignoring. Sci-fi offered alternate possibilities and perspectives on race, on women, on society, and on "progress" than I was seeing elsewhere.

Still, though, being cool meant more to me than being deep. I would rather have looked rebellious and hip than actually have gone through the trouble of doing so. The look was cool, and sci-fi wasn't part of that look -- so out it went.

Well, sort of. It lingered and dug in, as culture does. My mom was and is a devotee of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and even bought a back issue of Playboy once because it has a long interview with Patrick Stewart (aka, Captain Jean-Luc Picard, still the greatest of all Star Trek commanders). My mom and stepdad both weaned me on reruns of The Twilight Zone, which, growing up, they felt said more to them about their Cold War anxieties than any number of "realistic" Westerns, sitcoms, and soap operas.

Sci-fi swarmed through my childhood -- Marvel comics, with their endless evocations of the nuclear age; Alien and Robocop and Blade Runner and Total Recall; late nights of 1970s-era Doctor Who on PBS; Max Headroom; the distant pixellated worlds of the Starflight and Wing Commander games; the Star Wars trilogy on endless VHS repeat; swapping, in the high-school halls, dogeared paperbacks of the increasingly misnamed Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy trilogy. These were the visions that fueled my dreams, that allowed me to see a way out of an ordinary, middle-class Dallas boyhood.

And I left it behind, for fucking John Updike and Alice Munro. What a fool I was. Updike and Munro aren't bad, not at all, but my (useless) striving for coolness meant that left visions of what could be behind and replaced them with merely what is and was. In college, I entranced myself with modernism, psychological realism, and the "literary" heavyweights of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

I've been slowly clawing my way back ever since. I've bounced between those poles, of the mundane and the fantastic, in my reading for two decades. So, when I saw the New Yorker's recent "Science Fiction" issue, I rattled with excitement. Finally, I thought, a fusion of my reading tendencies at last -- the twin streams joined into one beautiful river.

Alas, I was disappointed and left vaguely inert. Because I was also plowing through Samuel R. Delany's Starboard Wine, however, I could put a face on the vagueness, put a clarity to my unease with the magazine.

Starboard Wine: More Notes on the Language of Science Fiction, originally published in 1984, is Delany's second collection of essays on science fiction. Well, that's what he claims, anyway. Really, as Matthew Cheney points out in the volume's introduction, Delany "is at various times concerned with how SF might be taught, described, written, read, evaluated, and contextualized." And one of Delany's key concerns, expressed in several essays in the anthology, is that "mundane fiction" and science fiction are fundamentally different on a linguistic and theoretical level, and thus need different critical discourses, and that this difference doesn't mean one is inferior to the other. Trying to fit sci-fi into straight literary discourse is doomed to failure, because sci-fi does things that academic literary analysis isn't capable of addressing. Several essays here cite these sentences as examples: "The door dilated," "Then her world exploded," "He turned on his left side," "She spent a year-standard working at the monopole-magnet mining operations in the outer asteroid belt of Delta Cyngi," "Papa, the executive, remarried, a man this time and somewhat more happily."

In "mundane" (i.e., realistic or psychological) fiction, a sentence like "Then her world exploded" would be read metaphorically -- an image of a character's consciousness. In science fiction, that sentence might be literal -- a character (say, Princess Leia of Star Wars) owns a planet that actually is blown to pieces. A sentence like "He turned on his left side" reads differently if we imagine the character as a cyborg, capable of shutting parts of himself on and off at will. Some text ("The door dilated,""monopole-magnet mining") makes no sense whatsoever if your framework, as a reader, is oriented toward realism and not future worlds. Speaking of future worlds, a casual sentence about a man marrying another man is, sadly, largely not possible in contemporary realistic fiction but is possible in an imagined future.

Delany's point, made time and time again in Starboard Wine, is science fiction needs and deserves a critical discourse of its own, not one just cribbed from analysis fitting realist fiction. That's because, in Delany's view, mundane fiction mostly concerns individual consciousness (the subject), while science fiction deals with the world and environments (the object). If I'm sounding heavily academic here, that's a result of Delany's diction seeping into my prose. These essays, whether doing close analysis of sentences or larger criticism of themes and historical contexts, are dense. Delany wants to develop a theory of science-fiction discourse, and I think he mostly succeeds. As such, he's less interested in straddling the divide between literary fiction and science fiction, or making science fiction appear "respectable," than he is highlighting how sci-fi differs from regular fiction, and what those differences can offer to the reader and writer alike.

The importance of those distinctions articulated my queasiness over that New Yorker issue. Reading it, I realized that the magazine was trying to tame sci-fi, to make it acceptable to those NPR listeners on the Eastern Seaboard that might otherwise never pick up a paperback with a green alien on its cover. The short stories featured were by writers, often very good ones, who aren't known for writing in the genre: Junot Díaz, Jennifer Egan, Jonathan Lethem. The actual sci-fi writers allowed -- Ursula K. Le Guin, China Miéville, Ray Bradbury, William Gibson -- were relegated to memoir pieces. In short, they were writing autobiography -- realist, psychological essays -- about what science fiction means to them. The writers best suited to publishing sci-fi in the magazine had their talents used... to write stuff exactly like what appears in the New Yorker from week to week.

In "Dichtung und Science Fiction," an essay included in Starboard Wine, Delany writes about sci-fi's practitioners: "We are trying to preserve a certain freedom at a social level where the greatest threat to freedom is not direct forbidding of options but rather the homogenization of all options out of existence in the name of tolerance and acceptance." That New Yorker issue felt to me like Exhibit A: "We'll let you sci-fi writers into our rarefied world but only if you behave." It pissed me off.

Despite Delany's arcane diction, convoluted and dense phrasing, and odd digressions, his prose digs under the skin. The more I read of Starboard Wine, the more I wished he had guest edited that New Yorker double-issue. As evidenced throughout the collection, he's well versed in a variety of fiction genres, as well as philosophy and criticism, and brings that variegated knowledge to bear in his thinking. He's also generous. As he explores what he thinks of science fiction, he writes of his own context -- as a black, gay science-fiction writer who came of age in the 1950s and 1960s -- and how that affects how and what he writes. Certain writers pop up continually as Delany's influences -- essays are devoted to genre stalwarts Thomas Disch, Robert Heinlein, Joanna Russ, and Theodore Sturgeon, sure, but Jane Austen and Jacques Lacan also appear prominently in Starboard Wine.

In fact, it's Delany's engagement with realms outside sci-fi that are often most interesting. He brings a cockeyed perspective to bear on mundane fiction, exposing its limitations to imagining alternatives to the world we see around us. Even when writing about the future (whether far-flung or just around the corner), Delany feels that science fiction is always, always, always about the present. In "The Necessity of Tomorrows," he explains:

Science fiction is a tool to help you think; and like anything that really helps you think, by definition it doesn't do the thinking for you. It's a tool to help you think about the present -- a present that is always changing, a present in which change itself assures there is always a range of options for actions, actions presupposing different commitments, different beliefs, different efforts (of different qualities, different quantities), different conflicts, different processes, different joys. It doesn't tell you what's going to happen tomorrow. It presents alternative possible images of futures...

That, I feel, is the key to understand Starboard Wine. Delany argues forcefully that science fiction provides alternatives, some good and some bad, to the realities around it. Its potential, and danger to the status quo, is precisely that it doesn't take the status quo ("the world that is the case," as Delany repeatedly writes) for granted. "What if the world were like this?" is the central question that sci-fi asks of us. In this collection, Delany asks, "What if criticism were like this?" Twenty-eight years later, Starboard Wine's challenge still seems fresh, and necessary.

Starboard Wine: More Notes on the Language of Science Fiction by Samuel R. Delany, with an introduction by Matthew Cheney
Wesleyan University Press
ISBN: 978-0819568847
280 pages