Saturday, April 1, 2017

Birthdays: Samuel R. Delany is 75 today!

Samuel Ray Delany, Jr (1942-  )
Author, educator, critic

For half a century, Chip Delany’s work as defied the science fiction/fantasy genre’s foundation: that it must be, in all imaginings of past, future, present and the universe (real and parallel) “characterized by gee-whiz futurism, machismo adventuring, and white, heterosexual heroes.”

He published his first novel at twenty, and in five years was winning scifi’s highest honors. He was also a novelty, as Peter Bebergal wrote in The New Yorker last year:

In 1968, Samuel Delany attended the third annual Nebula Awards, presented by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). At the ceremony that night,“an eminent member of the SFWA,” as Delany later put it, gave a speech about changes in science fiction, a supposed shift away from old-fashioned storytelling to “pretentious literary nonsense,” or something along those lines.  

At the previous Nebula Awards, the year before, Delany had won best novel for “Babel-17,”in which an invented language has the power to destroy (his book shared the award with Daniel Keyes’s “Flowers for Algernon”), and earlier on that evening in 1968, Delany had again won best novel, for “The Einstein Intersection,”which tells of an abandoned Earth colonized by aliens, who elevate the popular culture of their new planet into divine myths. Sitting at his table, listening to the speech, Delany realized that he was one of its principal targets. Minutes later, he won another award, this time in the short-story category, for “Aye, and Gomorrah . . . ,” a tale of neutered space explorers who are fetishized back on Earth. As he made his way back to his seat after accepting the award, Isaac Asimov took Delany by the arm, pulled him close, and, as Delany (who goes by the nickname Chip) recalled in his essay “Racism and Science Fiction,”said: “You know, Chip, we only voted you those awards because you’re Negro . . . !” 

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

Diversity in scifi has gone from being a curiosity to a threat, Bebergal says:

In January 2013, the novelist Larry Correia explained on his Web site how fans, by joining the World Science Fiction Society, could help nominate him for a Hugo Award, something that would, he wrote, “make literati snob’s [sic] heads explode.” Correia contrasted the “unabashed pulp action” of his books with “heavy handed message fic about the dangers of fracking and global warming and dying polar bears.” In a follow-up post, citing an old SPCA commercial about animal abuse, he used the tag “Sad Puppies”; what he later called “the Sad Puppies Hugo stacking campaign” has grown to become a real force in deciding who gets nominated for the Hugo Awards. The ensuing controversy has been described, by Jeet Heer in the New Republic, as “a cultural war over diversity,” since the Sad Puppies, in their pushback against perceived liberals and experimental writers, seem to favor the work of white men. 

Delany said he was dismayed by all this, but not surprised. “The context changes,” he told me, “but the rhetoric remains the same.”

Delany foresaw the Sad Puppies in a 1998 essay, “Racism and Science Fiction”:

As long as there are only one, two, or a handful of us, however, I presume in a field such as science fiction, where many of its writers come out of the liberal-Jewish tradition, prejudice will most likely remain a slight force—until, say, black writers start to number thirteen, fifteen, twenty percent of the total. At that point, where the competition might be perceived as having some economic heft, chances are we will have as much racism and prejudice here as in any other field. 

We are still a long way away from such statistics. 

But we are certainly moving closer.

A related example of human nature’s inability to truly transcend its earthly preoccupations- and, so oddly, in scifi and fantasy writing writ large- lies in the 2015 decision of the judges of the World Fantasy Award to end the use of the name and image of the 1930s horror writer H.P. Lovecraft for its award statuette. A group of group members successfully won their year-long campaign, arguing that the Howard- a gaudy little affair designed by the cartoonist Gahan Wilson- trapped the most expansive and visionary of literary genres in the image and legacy of a man whose racism was remarkable even for his time. Though no successor award name has been chosen, the victors have pressed hard for honoring Octavia Butler, an African-American scifi author. In Book Riot, Troy L. Wiggins shorthanded the debate that roils not only the choice of an award name but the scifi/fantasy genre in its entirety:
Lovecraft’s racism is a well-worn discussion topic, and often the subject of criticism from marginalized readers and writers. Those who have long opposed this criticism have been crying foul, citing that Lovecraft was simply a man of his times, and his sentiments were common to people of his day. Moreover, they advise those winners who object to the use of Lovecraft as the face of the award to “simply return it and be done with the matter.” This expectation of marginalized readers and writers to contort themselves, their beliefs, and their experiences in order to reconcile receiving an award–an award that could easily be perceived as an affront–is myopic and dangerous. And beyond that, it is a significant departure from the more inclusive direction that the speculative fiction publishing industry seems to be headed in.
These same critics believe that Lovecraft’s removal as the award symbolizes some grand departure from the spirit of what makes speculative fiction great. For others, including myself, this is a signal for new, fearless writers from new places to come in and make their mark on the literature of the imagination–and the beginnings of a promise that these writers, and their work, are welcome contributors. The publishing industry has long been hostile to marginalized readers and creators, and historically, speculative fiction is full of folks who held some less than stellar views about people who weren’t straight white men.
One can only imagine what Delany, who turns 75 today, will make of this now he’s got more time on his hands. He retired from teaching a couple of years ago, telling The Paris Review he was keen to stop working so he could get to work. While he enjoyed teaching and thought he was relatively good at it, it took up a lot of time could have devoted to writing. A lifelong sufferer of severe dyslexia, Delany’s progress, when he writes, is slow.

He was born in New York, the son of a North Carolina undertaker who moved north in the Great Migration, and a senior clerk in the New York Public Library’s Countee Cullen Branch. Two of his Delany aunts were civil rights pioneers; an uncle, Henry Beard Delany, was the first African-American bishop in the Episcopal Church. Though African-American, he is often mistaken, with his light coloring and Old Testament beard, for a variety of ethnicities; having married and fathered a daughter- now a doctor- he is often mistaken as straight. In his own ways, he is an alternative vision of the future. He just hasn’t, personally, mastered time travel yet. In New York Magazine, Sam Anderson concluded,
He managed to fuse, unapologetically, qualities that few had ever thought to combine: He was pulpy, literary, lusty, academic, prolific, and meticulous. He was also, in a genre dominated by white guys writing heteronormative fantasies, African-American and openly gay. “From 1968 on,” he once told an interviewer, “I was pretty much the black gay SF writer.” (He was also married, for years, to lesbian poet Marilyn Hacker; they have a daughter.) Delany is a living refutation of the fixity of genre and identity boundaries. He has written memoir, film, historical fiction, pornography, theater, Wonder Woman comics, literary theory, and urban history—his Times Square Red, Times Square Blue is a classic account of what New York lost when it turned midtown into a shopping mall.
Prodigiously bright yet oddly difficult (his dyslexia was yet to be diagnosed), he excelled in prep school- writing atonal music and directing plays-, but dropped out of college. He found he couldn’t manage time in the exacting microblocks academic required.

He promptly married a girl he’d met in high school, Marilyn Hacker. She worked at Ace Books, the paperback publisher. He set up at home as a writer. At nineteen he finished his first novel. His wife dropped it, under a pseudonym, into the office slush pile of unsolicited manuscripts; a reader picked it up, read it, and liked it.

By the time Asimov assured Delany of his standing in the scifi world, Delany had ten books to his credit, half of which are still in print. He went on an extended hiatus, traveling in Europe, living in a commune, playing in a New York folk-rock band. After five years, he resumed his writing and pursued his alternative worlds in new directions.

Despite his marriage, Delany was recreationally gay from his teens (“it was useful to learn that it was available and could make me feel better about small stretches of my life”); after a move to San Francisco in 1968, and the rise of the gay liberation movement, he began working the issues of the times into his work: “his exploration of issues of sexuality, ethnicity, and gender—like the polyamorous love between three spacecraft navigators in Babel-17, or alien colonization and the relationship between the marginalized and history in The Einstein Intersection—­distinguished him from other authors working in the genre.”

Several of his books of that time leapt well over the line into pornography, an applellation he cheerfully accepted. One- Hogg, completed in 1975- took twenty years to find a publisher.

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