On ‘Babel-17’ by Samuel R Delany

Babel-17Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delany

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Critics and fans tend to divide the work of Samuel R. Delany into two periods: pre-and-post Dhalgren. The argument is that Dhalgren marked a change both stylistically ( non-linear narrative, postmodern techniques) and subject matter (eroticism, power differentials, and liminality).

While Babel-17 does have a more straightforward, genre-cognizant plot, the trippy, mind-fuck aspects of his later work are very much in evidence. The story concerns a poet/linguist/starship captain(!) and her attempts to decipher a mysterious language. The prose is dense and beautiful, full of poetic images. The multicultural cast is peopled with colorful characters, and many of the trademarks of Delany’s post-Dhalgren work are very much in play: sexual and societal outcasts and complex theoretical frameworks—this time, about the effect of language on the cognitive process.

Queer Weird Fiction: Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren

I first encountered the work of Science Fiction Grandmaster Samuel R. Delany (1942 – ) when I was in my late teens. When my older brother left for college, he left behind a copy of Dhalgren. You know that classic Bantam Edition, the one with the ruined city and the swollen and sickly orange sun. I read the book over a summer, enthralled with the topnotch phantasmorgia, the alternative sexuality and, perhaps most of all, the dream-logic poetic prose. Bellona is as vivid and haunting a creation as Mieville’s Bas Lag or Ashton Smith’s Zothique. The journey of the poet through a kind of underworld-like city has strong resonances with the Orpheus myth. That book, a masterpiece of liminal fiction, bridges the gap between “low” speculative fiction and “high” post-modern literature; between pornography and art; between prose and poetry. I maintain that Dhalgren is one of the key works in my personal cannon.


Years later, when I found out that Chip Delany was going to teach at UMass-Amherst), which was a part of the 5-College Consortium (I went to Hampshire), I jumped at the chance to take his class, which was about Comparative Literature. I remember we read The Man Without Qualities by  Musil and Death Comes for the Archbishop by Cather. I can’t recall much of the class, but I remember with fondness the times I met with Chip during his office hours, and spending the time chatting about Science Fiction and writing.


Samuel R. Delany Roundtable at the Mumpsimus

I’m participating in a roundtable discussion about the work of recently crowned Grand Master of Science Fiction Samuel R. Delany, which was organized by Matthew Cheney at his blog The Mumpsimus.

I had the pleasure of taking a class with Mr. Delany back in the late 80s, and he also critiqued my early, jejune fiction. Check it out, and join in the discussion with other academics, writers and fans!

Delany Collage by Matthew Cheney
Delany Collage by Matthew Cheney

The specter of Gratuitous Diversity and other fictions

When I was 3 apples high, I went to my mostly white school’s library, and chanced upon a book with a title that intrigued me, Andre Norton’s Lavender-Green Magic. I read it in 2 gulps, not only because it had witches (a perennial favorite subject of mine), but because it featured African-American (or in the parlance of 70s, Afro-American) kids living in a mostly white town. My mind: blown. Up until then, all the fantasy book I’d read either had pseudo European characters or talking animals. I loved the idea that someone who had an experience similar to mine could have magical adventures like those kids in Edward Eager books or the Narnian adventures.

lavender-green magic

A few years later, in the full swing of adolescent angst, I can upon my older brother’s copy of Dhalgren, by Samuel R. Delany. (The iconic paperback version, the one with the engorged sun showing through a destroyed cityscape). Thumbing through it, I read about characters who had unique and somewhat underground sexual appetites—and their sexual identities were integral parts of themselves. Again, my mind was blown. Gays and other sexual minorities were just people….in a science fiction novel!

I bring these examples up not only to talk about the importance of diversity in speculative fiction, and also, to challenge a common strawman argument against it. A little background: the author Alex Dally MacFarlane wrote a provocative article entitled Post-Binary Gender in SF:Introduction on Tor.com, an inaugural post of a series which promises to examine SF that studies that issue. I read the piece, enjoyed it, and moved on. Then I saw, much later (via Jim C. Hines’ blog), that MacFarlane’s article (predictably) rattled the nerves of certain quarters of the SF community.

The chief complaint (once you wade through the de rigueur cries of PC Fascists/ GroupThink/Thought Police) is the concern about Gratuitous Diversity.

It’s the idea that having a cast of characters that reflects the diversity of humanity will automatically result in Aesop fiction full of Sally (or Simon) Soapboxes. I have yet to read a piece of fiction where giving a character an idiosyncratic and unique background (ethnic or sexual orientation or, in MacFarlane’s essay, a non-binary gender orientation) actually destroys the work. Including ‘popcorn’ fiction. One of my Clarion instructors, Pat Cadigan, stressed the importance avoiding ‘default’ mode protagonists: Joe/Jane Q. Public and his/her various incarnations as Mary Sue or Gary Stu. (It wasn’t a commandment, either—rather, Cadigan meant it as one more tool in the authorial kit). If a character is a Sally (or Simon) Soapbox, and the fiction has the quality of an Afterschool Special, that’s a failure of execution. The spectre of Gratiuitous Diversity is mostly just a strawman. (I’d love to see examples of a work of fiction that’s improved by flat characters). I say “mostly,” because I think that certain tropes and stock characters—the Noble Savage, the Magical Negro, for instance–arise from deformed Aesops and well-intentioned fiction. And there’s the case of a certain wizard (we’ll call him ‘Rumblesnore’) in famous series posthumously (and post-serialization) outed as gay, which was arguably shoehorned in. (I remember the articles/blog posts amongst a certain cohort that claimed the author was courting the politically correct crowd). But even then, Rumblesnore being off-screen gay doesn’t hurt the his character or the story; it was the execution that was lacking.

There is no such thing as Gratuitous Diversity. There’s just poorly executed fiction.

STORY REVIEW: Love among the Avatars in ‘Super Bass’ by Kai Ashante Wilson

Super Bass: A Tor.Com OriginalSuper Bass: A Tor.Com Original by Kai Ashante Wilson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Super Bass is a dense, ‘slice-of-life’ piece of fantasy fiction that’s also a love story. The prose is rich, sensual and deeply interior. It reminds of me of early Samuel R Delany, when he just throws you into an alien landscape and then challenges you to fill in the dots. The milleu has a vague Candomble feel, a lush tropical world where the gods inhabit/”possess” their chosen vessels, transforming them into supernatural healers. The story is about a consort to one of these god-vessels. Polyamory and same-gender relationships are the norm. The use of language reminds of me Kiini Ibura Salaam’s work.

“Love doesn’t take the burdens away, only makes them worth bearing.”

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BOOK REVIEW: Distortion by Stephen Beachy. Queer Surrealism.

DistortionDistortion by Stephen Beachy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The second novel by Stephen Beachy is a paradox: it’s a difficult novel that’s easy to read. A loosely structured, Altman-esque book, it follows the adventures of Reggie, a young, biracial, speed-addicted hustler, and the demimonde surrounding him. The novel follows him from L.A., where he becomes a huge MTV star-cipher, to Florida. Along the way, we drop into the lives of his friends and families, perennial flies on the wall. Most of the characters are disenfranchised in one way or another–gay, poor, or ethnic minorities; they are not the usual denizens of complex, experimental novels.

In this way, it recalls Samuel Delany’s epic novel Dhalgren. The quirky characters, which include a wandering punk-rock poet, a video-producer dying of AIDS, a woman who works with abandoned kids among others, are sharply delineated. The shifts in locale and points-of-view is often dizzying; it resembles both the frantic editing of a music video, and more encyclopedic activity of hypertext links. Woven into these densely interior vignettes are hallucinations and dreams sequences of the various narrators. At times, it’s impossible to see where the “real” fictive world end and thedrug-and-dream-induced imagined parts begin. Part ofit has to do with Beachy’s trademark drunken wordplay. The man is incapable of producing an uninteresting sentence. The imagery is always startling, the syntax and rhythms seductive. It is his verbal facility, more than anything, which provides the novel what structure it has. Somehow Beachy is able to create intense character-driven fiction, and rich phantasmorgia simultaneously. His authorial voices–at once hip, goofy, and scary–waxes philosophically about love, family, film and video theory, sexual abuse and race. This novel is not for everyone–the barrage of images can lean toward the extremely sexual and the disturbing. But those who opt to follow Reggie and his friends on their journeys will be moved. Imagine the trenchant social-realist fiction of Susan Straight or Jess Mowry thrown into a blender with the elegiac, drug-fueled fabulations of Philip K. Dick, and Distortion might be the product.

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