Samuel R Delany and banishing the ‘other’

A mostly random train of thought

The opening lines of Peter Bebergal’s New Yorker profile of Samuel R Delany recount the 1968 Nebula Awards (for science fiction writers) at which Delany won for The Einstein Intersection (best novel), and Aye, and Gomorrah (best short story). But the recollection exists to mention an oddly racist remark by Isaac Asimov, and to highlight an incident during which a speaker (possibly Peter Beagle or Gahan Wilson) castigated the awards, and the genre generally, for abandoning good old fashioned story-telling and valorising ‘pretentious literature’.

Cuca Canals, 2013, 'Futurismo sobre el Panteón'.
Cuca Canals, 2013, ‘Futurismo sobre el Panteón’.

Delany recounted that he felt personally targeted by these remarks, in a condescending way that accented Asimov’s private joke to him, along the lines of: ‘You know we only voted for you because you are a negro.’

This somewhat cryptic re-telling of events long before I was ever aware of Delany is a sharp reminder about ‘being in the world’, and how personal experiences can occlude not just experiences by others, but the possibility of such experiences, and the validity of responses to them. I say cryptic re-telling because Delany refused to name the speaker. Hunting online sources I came across an old index of contents for the SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America) Bulletin of April 1968 which mentioned Beagle and Wilson as speakers, but which suggested two different functions – West and East Coast. Never mind. The precise details are unimportant now.

When I first read Delany’s Dahlgren I was completely unaware that its author is black, or that his fiction is ‘pretentious’. I was enthralled. The same for Nova and The Einstein Intersection. This was the 1970s, in which authors like Heinlein and Asimov began to seem to me as too juvenile, and my interest switched to the manic intensity of authors like AE Van Vogt, Cordwainer Smith, Delany, Bester, and some others I don’t easily recall now. By the 1980s, however, I had almost stopped reading science fiction altogether precisely because I thought much of the new material was exactly the pretentious bullshit referred to. For me, however, Delany wasn’t part of that category.

Rite of passage by growing older?

Yesterday I was called pretentious for pretending to be an intellectual. It was an interjection on a Google Plus thread about an entirely different topic, but the memory of it was what sparked my interest in the Delany profile when I came across a teaser for the New Yorker article (bless the New Yorker’s little cotton socks for not hiding all its content behind a paywall).

Bebergal’s profile focuses on the difficulties encountered by storytellers presenting ‘other’ identities. Being ‘other’ altogether. It transpires that he sought a causal connection between Delany’s blackness, his life as a homosexual, and the apparently unconventional nature of his fiction. That had never really occurred to me. Thinking back on the Delany stories I’ve read, I just didn’t associate it with political, racial, sexual, or socio-economic ‘otherness’. I associated it with how ‘we’ could see things differently. The ‘we’ always assumed my own milieu, which was pretty multicultured, sexually diverse, and from very different economic strata. Recently, though, contact with some thinking Americans forced me to re-think my assumptions about the universality of my own outlook, and asked me to earnestly contemplate the deliberate and persistent marginalisation of the ‘other’, which in the USA appears to be everyone who isn’t a white redneck man. I’m saddened by that daily reality for so many people. However, it does not affect my literary tastes at all; I won’t tell you I liked a novel because it hits all the politically correct buttons. In fact, much contemporary award-winning fiction strikes me as almost colour-by-the-numbers politically correct and deadly boring rubbish written specifically for award juries, not to challenge, engage, entertain, or explore.

Midway through Bebergal’s article he refers to the 2013 ‘Sad Puppies’ Hugo Awards stacking campaign: by encouraging people to join the World Science Fiction Society, fans could effectively stack nominations and awards in favour of specific, well organised factions. It’s pretty much how politics has played out forever, and I doubt the Hugo, Nebula and other awards have been immune to stacking campaigns prior to 2013, but it does highlight why awards and positive reviews rarely reflect my own reactions to artistic endeavours. I think what is popular, and what has dedicated and activist followings tends to be material that doesn’t speak to me or my experience of ‘being in the world’. Nor does it bridge any gap between my sympathy or understanding of ‘otherness’. Being told what meaning is to be strikes me as its absence.

I recognise the intent to educate or change the minds of millions who are ignorant and intolerant of difference, but at some stage I learnt that lesson and don’t need entry-level instruction any longer. That is the deeply sad thing for me about the direction of contemporary science fiction. Hell, about any fiction, including the nominally literary variant.

There was a sharp recognition of that during episode six of the Wachowski’s Sense8, by which time I simply lost patience with the lecture on difference, and the slow pace of the linking story. My reaction was boredom, not intolerance. It is about telling me something new.

Much as I despise the core of white, male, heterosexual, homophobic, misogynist, racist, xenophobic culture that undoubtedly exists, and is projected internationally most prominently by American media, I do not see the need to constantly applaud the ‘other’. Applause needs to be deserved, the way I thought Delany’s novels deserved it. Not every nominal ‘redneck’ says only things deserving censure, and not every ‘other’ says things deserving only applause.

Bebergal’s piece concludes:

…Delany believes that, as women and people of color start to have “economic heft,” there is a fear that what is “normal” will cease to enjoy the same position of power. “There are a lot of black women writers, and some of them are gay, and they are writing about their own historical moment, and the result is that white male writers find themselves wondering if this is a reverse kind of racism. But when it gets to fifty per cent,” he said, then “we can talk about that.” It has nothing to do with science fiction, he reiterated. “It has to do with the rest of society where science fiction exists.”

Maybe so, Mr Delany, but I just don’t care until ‘we’ can talk about ‘us’ as human beings at least some of the time.

That, too, is my message to my Google Plus interlocutor, who gatecrashed a thread patronised by a small number of admittedly like-minded individuals. His explicitly stated aim is to use the internet to entertain himself by ‘telling faux intellectuals what they are’, which, in my case, is apparently a conspiracy theorist ‘with dark intimations that everything your audience hates is connected to’ my ‘conspiracy theory’. If I get this right, my conspiracy theory is that critical thinking has disappeared from education, and has been replaced by a shallow Wikipedia culture of argumentativeness.

‘I enjoy seeing you not be able to make a point,’ he said. ‘I find it all the more fun because you’re trying to talk about critical thinking but, if you look carefully, peeling back the rhetorical stance, it’s obvious you don’t really have anything to say. The irony is just too delicious.’

So, he was entertained by my pretentiousness, or by telling me about it? Google Plus is not a Nebula Awards ceremony. I am not Sam Delany. Nor am I black, gay, or any category of ‘other’, save, perhaps a pretentious faux intellectual. What I share with Delany and many others, though, is that I don’t think of my perspectives or questions as worthless. I think of them as central to my ‘being in the world’.

In a world in which I think Delany, my interlocutor, and I could have some interesting, entertaining conversations, probably among a wider circle of the ‘other’ brought together in a way that banishes the category. If we can agree that difference is actual normal for our species.