Science Fiction Studies

#42 = Volume 14, Part 2 = July 1987

Samuel R. Delany

The Semiology of Silence

The following text began as a conversation that took place in New York City (in August of 1983) between Samuel R. Delany and Sinda Gregory and Larry McCaffery (both from San Diego State University). Another piece based on the same conversation is included in their book, Alive and Writing: Interviews with American Authors of the 1980s (just out from Illinois UP).

Samuel R. Delany: I begin, a sentence lover. I'm forever delighted, then delighted all over, at the things sentences can trip and trick you into saying, into seeing. I'm astonished—just plain tickled!—at the sharp turns and tiny tremors they can whip your thoughts across. I'm entranced by their lollop and flow, their prickles and points. Poetry is made of words, Mallarmé told us a hundred years back. But I write prose. And prose is made of sentences.

Oh, I've always been a bathroom dictionary browser. Still—"In the beginning was the word..."? I suppose poets have to feel that way. But for me, the word's a degenerate sentence, a fragmentary utterance, something incomplete. Mollying along, lonesome Mrs Masters asks, "Why aren't there any decent words?" Well, no word is decent by itself; and less than a dozen indecent—shit, fuck, and the like working the way they do because when they're blurted by counter women, construction workers, or traffic bound drivers, they've got a clear capital on one end and an exclamation point at the other, so that the words alone (in the dictionary, say, or askew on the stall wall) are homonymous with the indecent expletive, which is a sentence. Declare "Sputum!" the way we do "Shit!" and we'll have it obscene in a season. (The understood verb in the expletive "...fuck!" that completes the sentence is, of course: "I declare...") It's highly reductive to take the toddler's tentative or passionate utterances, her one and two syllable grunts, his burble and blab, merely as practice words; they're questions, exclamations, protests, incantations, and demands. And tangible predicate or not, these are sentence forms. The late Russian critic M.M. Bakhtin (1895 1975) hit on the radical notion of considering the word not a locus of specified meaning but rather an arena in which all possible social values that might be expressed with and through it can engage in contest. But what calls up those differing values? What holds them stable long enough to get their dander up, if not the other words about, along with the punctuation that, here and there, surrounds and, there and here, sunders: in short, the different sentences the word occurs in? Without the sentence, the arena of the word has no walls, no demarcation. No contest takes place. Even historically, I suspect it's more accurate to think of the sentence as preceding the word. "Word"—or "logos"—is better considered a later, critical tool to analyze, understand, and master some of the rich and dazzling things that go on in statements, sentences, utterances, in the énoncés that cascade through life and make up so much of it.

The sentence is certainly the better model for the text. (The word is the model for the Bible, and that really isn't what most writers today want their texts to become.) The word is monolithic. You can't argue with it. At best it's got an etymology—which is to say it comes only from other words that most of us, speaking, don't have immediate access to. And an etymology is only a genealogy, not a real history of material pressures and complex influences. For that, you have to look to a history of rhetorical figures, of ideas (expressed by what...?), of discourse.

The sentence is more flexible, sinuous, complex—one is always revising it—than the word. It's got style. Yet it holds real danger in its metaphorical compass. The wrong one condemns you to death.

Der Satz, the Germans say, philosophically: the sentence, or the proposition. We've got two terms for their one. They lead to very different areas of utterances about language, too. From the Greek Stoics on,1 this split strongly suggested that meanings could come apart from words, from the sentences that evoked them. Philosophically speaking, a proposition was thought to be a particular kind of clear and delimitable meaning associated with a particular kind of rigorously simple sentence—or a combination of them in clear and lucid relations, indicated by truth tables and Venn diagrams; and any truly meaningful sentence could be broken down into them. Willard Van Orman Quine is among the more recent philosophers this side of the Herring Pond to suggest that view isn't right. Meanings just aren't hard edged and delimitable. To use his word (in my sentence): they just can't be "individuated" as easily as that. Meanwhile, on the other side, Jacques Derrida is one of the new thinkers to make it disturbingly clear that the most fixed and irrefutable seeming meaning is finally a more or less under determined play of undecidables.

"Words mean many things" is the old sentence that tried to illuminate some pivotal point in this complex situation. A comment about words, yes. But it takes a sentence to say it.

What interests me most about sentences is the codes by which we make them—and various combinations and embeddings and tortuosities of them (I was 19 when, in Lectures in America, I first read Gertrude Stein's bright and repeated observation: "The paragraph is the emotional unit of the English language." And you know what makes a paragraph)—make sense. An interest such as mine usually starts from the position: "Well, there are these things called words, sentences, paragraphs, texts....And, by a more or less articulatable set of codes, we interpret them to mean certain things."

But as you articulate those codes more and more, you soon find, if you're honest with yourself, you're at a much more dangerous and uncertain place. You notice, for example, the convention of white spaces between groups of letters that separate out words is, itself, just a code. Knowing the simplest meaning of a word is a matter of knowing a code. Knowing printed letters—written characters—stand for language and are there to convey it is, itself, only a certain codic convention. "Word" (or, indeed, "sentence" or "paragraph") is only the codic term for the complex of codic conventions by which we recognize, respond to, understand, and act on whatever causes us to recognize, respond, understand, and act in such a way that, among those recognitions and responses and understandings, is the possible response: "word" (or, indeed, "sentence" or "paragraph"). But turn around now, and what we called "the real world" seems to be nothing but codes, codic systems and complexes, and the codic terms used to designate one part of one system, complex, or another. In the larger neural net, the colors we see and the sounds we hear are only codic markers for greater or lesser numbers of vibrations per second in electromagnetic fields or clouds of gas. Shapes among colors are markers coded to larger or smaller aggregates of atoms and molecules that reflect those vibrations. None of this can be perceived directly; and it's only by maneuvering and cross comparing certain codic responses to certain others according to still other codes that we can theorize the universe's external existence in our own internal codic system—a system that, in practical terms, while it expands and develops on that theory at every turn, seems hardly set up to question it except under extremely speculative conditions.

The sentential, codic—or semiotic—view is dangerous because questions that, at least initially, seem inimical to the system do get asked. And inimical seeming answers are arrived at. The comparatively stable objects posited by the limited codic system of the senses do not correlate well with the greater codic complexes that entail our memory of objects, our recognition of them, and our knowledge of their history and their related situations, which, finally, are what allow us to negotiate, maneuver, and control them. Sense bound distinctions such as inside and outside become hugely questionable. Value bound metaphors such as higher and lower stand revealed as arbitrary. And the physically inspired quality of identity becomes a highly rigid mentalistic ascription in a system that can clearly accommodate more flexibility.

"Solipsism" is what it's called—to call it with a sentence. And it feels very lonely.

The way out, however, is simply to remember that the code system isn't simple. It's terribly complex, recursive, self critical, and self revising; and redundancy, sometimes called over determination, is its hallmark at every perceivable point. The over determination of the codic system is the most forceful suggestion that the universe, from which the system is made and to which (we assume) it is a response, is itself over determined—which is to say: it operates by laws. (It is sentenced, if you will, to operate in certain ways and not in others.)
What does that over determination mean to the human codic system?

It means frequently you can knock out the most obvious appearance and still come up with pretty much the same understanding or one that feels even finer.

What could be more important than the spaces between for distinguishing individual words? YetyoucandropthewordspacesinalmostanyEnglishsentenceandstillreaditwellenough. Words seem to individuate more easily than meanings. The early Greeks used to write with all capital letters and no punctuation or spaces between words at all. There are a number of writing systems that have no way—or only a very impoverished way—of indicating vowel sounds. They still produce perfectly readable sentences. Nt y cn drp th vwls n Nglsh nd stll mk prtty gd gsss t wht th txt sys. You can cut the bottom half of the print off an English sentence with no irretrievable loss of meaning.

That's all over determination.

What you can't do is drop the word spaces and the vowels and the bottom half of the print all at once. That over determines chaos.

But the fact is, almost any codic convention we can talk of in language matters is likely to be over determined. Where there's communication, there's redundancy—starting with the one between what's in your mind and what's in mine, which allows words to call up similar meanings for both of us. Indeed, if there's a codic rule of thumb governing the vast complex of codes which makes up life in the world, it would seem to be: the more obvious, important, and indispensable a codic convention, the more redundant it is—including this one. That results from all the other little rules, often very hard to ferret out because the obvious hides them, that obliquely replicate parts of it, that manage to reinforce much of it, that give it its appearance—in short, that make it "obvious," "important," and "indispensable" in the first place. Well, here I sit, in the middle of all these playful, sensuous sentences and codes, writing my SF, my sword and sorcery, more or less happily, more or less content. But I suspect there's little to say about writing, mine or anyone's that doesn't fall out of its sentences, or the codes which recognize and read them, the codes which the sentences are—and the sentences which are the only expressions, at least in verbal terms, we can have of the codes.

McCaffery: Unlike Kurt Vonnegut, you have openly and proudly proclaimed your writing to be "science fiction." Indeed, in your critical writings, you have suggested that SF is a genre in its own right and not merely a sub genre of mainstream (or "mundane") fiction or of the romance or whatever. And you have resisted the notion that recent SF is "re entering" the realms of serious fiction. Could you talk about these controversial notions, explain how you arrived at them, and why you feel they're important?

Delany: The easiest place to enter your question is at the idea of SF's "re entering" the realm of serious fiction. To be "re entering" anything, SF has to have been there once before (presumably in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries' "feigned histories" and "utopias," from Kepler and Cyrano to More and Bellamy); then it has to have left (no doubt when SF stories began to appear in the adventure and pulp magazines of the early part of this century); and now, according to some people, it's coming back—while, according to me, it isn't.

Well, that whole model of the "history of SF" is, I think, a historical. More, Kepler, Cyrano, and even Bellamy would be absolutely at sea with the codic conventions by which we make sense of the sentences in a contemporary SF text. Indeed, they would be at sea with most modern and post modern writing. It's just pedagogic snobbery (or insecurity), constructing these preposterous and historically insensitive genealogies, with Mary Shelley for our grandmother or Lucian of Samosata as our great great grandfather. There's no reason to run SF too much back before 1926, when Hugo Gernsback coined the ugly and ponderous term, "scientifiction," which, in the letter columns written by the readers of his magazines, became over the next year or so "science fiction" and finally "SF." Ten years before or 30 years before is all right, I suppose, if you need an Ur period. It depends on what aspect of it you're studying, of course. But 50 years is the absolute outside, and that's only to guess at the faintest rhetorical traces of the vaguest discursive practices. And in practical terms, most people who extend SF too much before 1910 are waffling.

Look. Currently our most historically sensitive literary critics are busily explaining to us that "literature" as we know it, read it, study it, and interpret it today hasn't existed more than 100 years. Yet somehow there is supposed to be a stable object, SF, that's endured since the 16th century—though it only got named in 1929...?

That's preposterous.

Now, there've been serious writers of SF ever since SF developed its own publishing outlets among the paraliterary texts that trickled out on their own towards the end of the 19th century and that, thanks to technical developments in printing methods, became a flood by the end of World War I and today are an ocean. Some of those SF writers, like Stanley G. Weinbaum (1900 35), were extraordinarily fine. Some of them, like Captain S.P. Meek (1894 1972), were unbelievably bad. And others, like Edward E. Smith (1890 1965), while bad, still had something going. But what they were all doing, both the bad ones and the good ones, was developing a new way of reading, a new way of making texts make sense—collectively producing a new set of codes. And they did it, in their good, bad, and indifferent ways, by writing new kinds of sentences, and embedding them in contexts in which those sentences were readable. And whether their intentions were serious or not, a new way of reading is serious business.

Between the beginning of the century and the decade after the Second World War—by the end of which we clearly have the set of codes we recognize today as SF—there are things of real historical interest to study in the developing interpretative codes and the texts that both exploited them and revised them in the pulp SF magazines and, later, in the SF book market, hardcover and paperback. But most academic critiques that equate 17th , 18th , and 19th century didactic fables with 20th century pulp texts just mystify history and suppress those historical developments, both in terms of what was seriously intended and what was simply interesting, however flip.

I've never proclaimed my work SF, proudly or humbly. I assume most of my published fiction is SF—and I assume most of my readers feel it is, too. But that's like a poet assuming she writes poems, or a playwright assuming he writes plays.

All I've ever "proclaimed" in my critical books, The American Shore (1978) or Starboard Wine (1984), is that, today, at this perticular point in the intellectual history of various practices of writing, in the development of the greater complex of interpretative codes that we apply to the range of writing practices, "science fiction" is a useful designation and marks a useful distinction from literature. And I've even gone so far as to propose that when we bypass some of the most obvious appearances associated with the distinction and explore the ways in which the underlying codes and conventions over determine them, interesting things come to light.

In the vast play of codic conventions, there are no distinctions that are always useful for all situations and tasks. But there are many distinctions that are useful for many particular situations—so many, in fact, that their profligacy is itself a situation that makes it useful to call such distinctions "rules."

One place such distinctions are useful is when there's ambiguity on one side that can only be resolved by finding some over determined path to the other side where the ambiguity—if we're lucky—doesn't exist.

I've written a number of essays which have employed as examples strings of words that, if they appeared in an SF text, might be interpreted one way but that, if they appeared in a mundane text, might be interpreted another:

Her world exploded.
He turned on his left side.

The point is not that the meaning of the sentences is ambiguous, however, but that the route to their possible mundane meanings and the route to their possible SF meanings are both clearly determined. And what's clearly determined is over determined. I've also written an essay on the way readers who have only acquired the literary codes of interpretation can go about misreading a typical SF phrase (just a fragment of a sentence): "The monopole magnet mining operations in the outer asteroid belt of Delta Cygni..."2

Sentences such as "The door dilated" and "I rubbed depilatory soap over my face and rinsed it with the trickle from the fresh water tap" get special interpretative treatment when we encounter them in an SF text. And it's the nature of over determination that readers comfortable with SF will usually recognize these and many other such sentences and phrases as more than likely coming from SF texts, even if they have never actually encountered them in Niven or Heinlein or Pohl and Kornbluth.

The distinction between SF and literature is useful if we want to talk about what's happening to us at such moments of recognition, and how that differs from the recognition experience we have when we encounter such sentences as "A leaf stuck to Estreguil's pink cheek," "Gliding across Picadilly, the car turned down St James Street," "The Marquis went out at five o'clock," or "Ages ago, Alex, Allen, and Alva arrived at Antibes...."

McCaffery: Until recently most critics have—fruitlessly, it seems to me—tried to define these differences in terms of subject matter: one text deals with outer space and the other deals with the world around us. But I gather that the basis of your view of these distinctions is different. You rely on an essentially semiological argument that the sentences in SF "mean" differently from sentences in ordinary fiction.

Delany: Again, it's overdetermination that causes the overwhelmingly important appearance of the subject matter differences. But that's simply to say with another sentence what I've said before: the most obvious distinctions and designations are the most over determined. And understanding doesn't really get under way until you can tease apart some of the ways in which the not so obvious conventions highlight, support, and even account for the obvious ones: what holds the system, as it were, stable. As far as the priority of subject matter itself, well: poems often have different subject matter from mundane fiction. Dramas frequently have different subject matter from poems. And films frequently have different subject matter from dramas. But no sophisticated analysis of poetry, fiction, drama, or film would try to present an exhaustive analysis of each field, or its difference from the others, purely in terms of appropriate and inappropriate subject matter—purely in terms of traditional category themes. As Robert Graves noticed years ago, all poems tend to be about love, death, or the changing of the seasons. A clever observation, and it's insightful. But in the long run we still have to say that a poem can be about anything. Just as sword and sorcery stories tend to be about the change over from a barter economy to a money economy, SF stories tend to be about the change over from a money economy to a credit economy also insightful. Still, SF stories (like sword and sorcery stories) can be about anything too. But the fact that some academic critics still seriously try to present an exhaustive discussion of SF in terms of traditional themes is just a sign of how unsophisticated much academic criticism of SF is.
The reader who can't respond properly to "The monopole magnet mining operations in the outer asteroid belt of Delta Cygni..."—the reader who doesn't know what monopole magnets are, who isn't sure if the mining is done for the magnets or with the magnets, who has no visualization of an asteroid belt, outer, inner, or otherwise, or who wonders how mine tunnels get from asteroid to asteroid—that reader is having the same kind of problem with the SF text that the contemporary reader of Elizabethan poetry is likely to have encountering, say, the opening clause of Shakespeare's "Sonnet 129":

Th'expense of spirit in a waste of shame
Is lust in action...

You have to know that "expense" here doesn't primarily mean cost; its first meaning here is expenditure, or pouring out. You have to know that "spirit" here only secondarily means soul; its primary meaning here is volatile liquid, such as alcohol. And "waste" doesn't have a primarily verbal thrust here; its nominal meaning here is desert. "To act from lust is to pour out alcohol in a desert of shame..." was the immediate semantic perception for your ordinary Elizabethan—well before the level of interpretations began that set double (i.e., onanistic and commercial) meanings at play throughout this clause, the conclusion of its sentence, and the rest of the poem.

Before you can deconstruct a text, Robert Scholes writes somewhere, you have to be able to construe it. It's sobering to discover how many otherwise literate people have trouble with SF just at the construction level. And frequently these are the first people to condemn it as meaningless.

Since the complex of codes for SF (like that of Elizabethan poetry) is over determined and segues into and mixes inextricably with the codes for many other kinds of reading, one way to learn the SF complex is to read a lot of it—with a little critical help now and then. That's the way most 12 year olds do it.

But these codic conventions operate at many levels. They not only affect what one is tempted to call the "what" of the information. They also affect the "way" the information is stored. And I see this storage pattern as fundamentally different for SF and literature—and that difference holds for all the sub practices of literature, too: poetry, realistic fiction, literary fantasy, philosophy....

Sinda Gregory: You feel this distinction is true even if the literary text you're reading is a fantasy—say something by Kafka?

Delany: All right. You have a text in front of you. For over determined reasons you know it's literature—it's in a large book called The Norton Anthology, and there are 17 books in your local library alone about the writer—this Kafka fellow. You read the first sentence: "One morning, waking from uneasy dreams, Gregor Samsa, still in bed, realized he'd been transformed into a huge beetle." Because we know it's a literary text, certain questions associated with literature immediately come into play. The moment we recognize the situation as fantastic, yet still within the literary frame, we prepare certain questions: "What could this non normal situation be saying about the human personality? Is he, perhaps, insane? If not, what in the range of real human experience is the fantastic situation a metaphor for?" And we pick out two areas in which we expect those answers to lie: one is that of a certain kind of psycho social alienation associated with other literary characters, e.g., Conrad's Mr Kurtz, Dostoyevsky's Underground Man, and Sartre's Antoine Roquentin from La Nausée, although there are many others....The other area we've already marked out to explore in the metaphoric light of the text is the area of artistic creativity itself. And you would be hard pressed to find a discussion of "The Metamorphosis" that, to the extent it sees the story as interpretable at all, does not present its interpretation as falling more or less under one or both of those rubrics. Even Kafka, in his diaries, talks about his writing as "a talent for portraying my dreamlike inner life"3 (notice he specifically does not talk about it as portraying or critiquing his outer world), and we have very little choice but to take this inner life for anything but the inner life of the writer, or of alienated man and his psychological relations, no matter how objective the causes of that alienation may in fact be.

All right. There's a text in front of you. For over determined reasons you know it's SF—it's in a mass market paperback anthology with the initials "SF" in the upper left hand corner above the front cover repeat of the ISBN number. And though you only vaguely recognize the writer's name, the blurb above the title tells you she won a Hugo award for best novella sometime in the early '70s. (Stories in SF anthologies often have introductory editorial paragraphs, as though they were all text books. But that's because SF has so little formal historiography.) You read the first sentence: "One morning, waking from uneasy dreams, Gregor Samsa, still in bed, realized he'd been transformed into a huge beetle." The moment we recognize the situation as non normal (because it's SF, in most cases we don't even cognize it as fantastic), certain questions that are associated with SF come into play: "What in the world portrayed by the story is responsible for the transformation? Will Samsa turn out to be some neotenous life form that's just gone into another physical stage? Or has someone performed intricate biomechanical surgery during the night?" We want to know not only the agent of the transformation. Kenneth Burke's "dramatism" covers that very nicely, as it covers fantasy. But we also want to know the condition of possibility for the transformation. That condition may differ widely from SF story to SF story, even when the agent (a mad scientist, perhaps) and the transformation itself (the disappearance of an object, say) are the same; and I know of no literary or literarily based narrative theory which covers this specific SF aspect of the SF text. Most of our specific SF expectations will be organized around the question: What in the portrayed world of the story, by statement or by implication, must be different from ours in order for this sentence to be normally uttered? (That is, how does the condition of possibility in the world of the story differ from ours?) But whether the text satisfies or subverts these expectations, the reading experience is still controlled by them, just as the experience of reading the literary text is controlled by literary expectations. And because they are not the same expectations, the two experiences are different.

Needless to say, the conscientious SF writer tries to come up with a text that satisfies and subverts these expectations—exploits them, if you will—in rich, complex, and intriguing ways, satisfying in the long run whether satisfaction or subversion is the short term effect at any local point. And, as I've also said, at the codic level, the two complexes of interpretative conventions (literature's and SF's) interpenetrate and overlap in many ways, many of which are linguistic, many extra linguistic. In fact, I'd go so far as to suggest that the overlap is probably so great that worrying about the purity of genres on any level is even more futile than worrying about the purity of the races. Real understanding of the range and richness of codes, with their attendant recursions, revisions, and redundancies, makes absolute differentiation simply a non problem. Nevertheless, at certain heuristic points, when we're trying to clarify things at a certain historical level (which history, if it doesn't include the present, contours at every point), distinctions in writing practices and reading codes, like any others, can be useful if we keep a clear sense of how to dissolve them when that becomes necessary.

For the last hundred years, the interpretative conventions of all the literary reading codes have been organized, tyrannized even, by what, in philosophical jargon, you could call "the priority of the subject." Everything is taken to be about mind, about psychology. And, in literature, the odder or more fantastical or surreal it is, the more it's assumed to be about mind or psychology.

SF, developing in the statistically much wider field of paraliterature (comic books, pornography, film and television scripts, advertising copy, instructions on the back of the box, street signs, popular song lyrics, business letters, journalism—in short, the graphic flood from which most of the texts each of us encounters over any day come), has to some extent been able to escape this tyranny, at least a bit more than the straited stream of literary texts—in SF we used to call it "the mainstream," which is fine as long as you realize that paraliterary texts make an ocean.

Among paraliterary practices, popular song lyrics, which in historical terms are closest to poetry, have been able to escape the tyranny of the subject the least.

At the level where the distinction between it and paraliterature is meaningful, literature is a representation of, among other things, a complex codic system by which the codic system we call the "subject" (with which, in any given culture, literature must overlap) can be richly criticized. By virtue of the same distinction, SF is a representation of, among other things, a complex codic system by which the codic system we call the "object" (which, in those cultures that have SF, SF must ditto) can be richly criticized—unto its overlap with the subject.

At this point, of course, the poet gets righteously angry with me, for now I'm basically slogging about in a slough of jargon. I couldn't really blame any reader who'd just given up by now and gone home: there's overlap between poetry and prose too, and we must occasionally criticize prose by poetic standards—perhaps far more than we usually do.

This may be a good moment, then, to clarify a fundamental about fundamentals. When we look for a basic, should we assume that because it is a basic we're after, it will be simple, solid, monolithic, and a tomic (that is, "un cuttable")? Or should we assume that stability—the appearance of simplicity, solidity, unity—is a function of complexity, of organization (internal and external), of over determination? Shouldn't we perhaps assume anything that endures long enough to be noticed, anything that repeats often and clearly enough to be recognized—in short, any phenomenon that even flirts with the seeming of identity—must partake of the systematic, must exist as a balance of complexities, must persist through a combination and interchange of opened and closed subsystems, and thus must be potentially analyzable?

(Axioms are not objects. They're sentences.)

To choose the second is to choose the approach that privileges the sentence over the word, that models existence as a set of more or less stable complexities rather than as a set of atomic rigidities. That's really all the jargon grasps at. And among the practices of writing today, "science fiction," "poetry," "pornography," "mundane fiction," "reportage," "drama," "comic books," "philosophy," et alia, all seem like fairly stable, fairly simple, fairly basic, fairly enduring and, above all, fairly recognizable categories.

Which is to say, each is a complex.

Gregory: But you're saying that on the basis of reader expectation, mind set makes SF a different genre from ordinary fiction.

Delany: That's not what I'm saying at all. Most readers' experience—specifically the experience of most readers familiar with a fair amount of SF—includes texts that feel indubitably SF as well as texts that feel undubitably literary. And, at this point, the texts that strike most competent readers as undecidable are experienced as few and anomalous. We talk about situations we agree on as ambiguous only to help develop an analytic vision of the world as we find it that feels logically and aesthetically satisfying. It's not simply to say that, just because it sounds sophisticated, things obviously black must be white, if only because what's obvious has to be wrong. One wants a theory that accounts for the obvious and the ambiguous. Not a theory which accounts only for the obvious but which the ambiguous contradicts.

"Mind set" creates the SF text—or the literary text, for that matter? No.

You remember that phrase I was worrying over, a bit back? "The monopole mining operations in the outer asteroid belt of Delta Cygni...." Well, that phrase, even without a predicate, states something; it's a statement about mines, as they exist in the world today. It says that the object, the location, the methodology, and the spatial organization of mines will change. And it says it far more strongly than, and well before, it says anything about, say, the inner chthonic profundities of any fictive character in those mines or about the psychology of the writer writing about them—which is where, immediately, the expectations of the literarily oriented critic are likely to lead her or him in constructing an interpretation. Any faster than light spaceship drive met in the pages of any SF text written to date, be it mine or Isaac Asimov's or Joan Vinge's, basically poses a critique of the Einsteinian model of the universe, with its theoretical assertion of the speed of light as the upper limit on velocity: those FTL drives are all saying, and saying it very conscientiously, that the Einsteinian model will be revised by new empirical and theoretical developments, just as the Einsteinian model was a revision of the older Newtonian model.

When Heinlein placed the clause "the door dilated" casually in one of the sentences of his 1942 novel, Beyond This Horizon, it was a way to portray clearly, forcefully, and with tremendous verbal economy that the world of his story contained a society in which the technology for constructing iris aperture doorways was available.

But I don't think you can properly call the ability to read and understand any of these SF phrases, sentences, or conventions a matter of "mind set" any more than you could call the ability to read French, Urdu, or Elizabethan English poetry a matter of "mind set."

Another interesting point where a rhetorical convention has different meanings when it shows up in two different fields: the FTL drive which so delighted the audiences of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back simply doesn't carry the same critical thrust as the FTL drives that appear in written SF. As a number of SF writers noted when Star Wars first came out, perhaps the largest fantasy element in the films was the sound of the spaceships roaring across what was presumably hard vacuum. In a universe where sound can cross empty space, an FTL drive just can't support that kind of critical weight against the philosophy of real science.

Fifteen years ago, Australian SF critic John Foyster wrote: "The best science fiction does not contradict what's known to be known." When it does, at too great a degree, it becomes something else. Science fantasy, perhaps.

I'm the same person when I read an SF short story by Sturgeon or an SF novel by Bester and when I read a literary novel by Robert Musil or a literary short story by Guy Davenport—or when I listen to a David Bowie song or see a George Lucas film. Someone's making all these interpretations. Do differing "mind sets" allow me to make them? Am I happy at one? Sad at the other? Serious and critical at one? Light hearted and frivolous at the next? Yes, I interpret one differently from the other. And to whatever extent you agree with me, you recognize these different interpretations as valid. Do you, then, indulge several "mind sets" at once to comprehend my several interpretations, if, say, two of them arrive in the same sentence? I think you'd have to work too hard to specify what you meant by mind set in order to have it cover the needed situations; and when you had, you'd find you'd arrived at a meaning too far away from what most people designate when they use what is already, I'm sure you'll admit, a pretty informal term. So I'm just not sure how "mind set" comes into it. I'll stick with expectations, conventions, and interpretative codes.

In terms of reader expectation, what makes SF different from literary fiction—naturalistic, fantastic, experimental, or surreal—is of the same order as what makes poetry different from literary fiction. Let's start with the overlap, since it's the biggest part, despite the fact that it's the least interesting. A good prose writer is going to pay close attention to the sounds of the words in her prose; and a good poet of course pays attention to the sounds of the words in her poem. But that "of course" covers a multitude of expectational difference. Both John Gardner and William Gass are very phonically aware prose writers. Assonance and alliteration, not to mention phonic parallels and parallels disrupted, tumble from their sentences. But if Mona Van Duyn or James Merrill, Richard Howard or John Ashbery, Cynthia McDonald or Marie Ponsot wrote poems with the same blatant phonics, it would be ludicrous. A Judith Sherwin or a Helen Adam succeeds with that open and above board approach to sound only thanks to irony. I'm sure both Gass and Gardner suffered many well intentioned suggestions: "Your prose is so poetic. Why don't you write poetry?" (Gardner, with Jason and Medea, tried.) But precisely what makes them dazzling and stimulating prose writers would make them gross and clumsy poets, assuming they didn't curb it hugely. And that's all controlled by poetic vs. prosaic expectations. The fact that poetry is blatantly based on phonic expectations means, at this point, the phonics must be subtle.

Again, the vast overlap with literature aside, SF is a paraliterary practice of writing; its mimetic relation to the real world is of a different order from even literary fantasy. It grows out of a different tradition. It has a different history. Myself, I enjoy working within that tradition and struggling with that history.

Gregory: Of course, when Dhalgren came out you had to deal with a lot of people claiming that you weren't writing SF, that you had gone outside the tradition.

Delany: Perhaps when a book sells seven or eight hundred thousand copies, the controversy contributes to the acceptance. You might even say the controversy is the acceptance—in which case the acceptance of Dhalgren was rather small. Most of the American reading public was quite oblivious to any controversy at all among the few thousand or, more likely, few hundred who, in that fanzine or this one, on one SF convention panel or another, expressed their conflicting opinions. Myself, I never saw any serious controversy over whether or not Dhalgren was SF. When the idea was put forward at all, it was more in the line of name calling. You know: "That's not science fiction! That's just self indulgent drivel!" To me it seemed a much more modest argument—between the people who didn't like the book and the people who did. And my impression was that the contention centered mainly on discontinuities in the action and the lack of hard edged explanation for the basic non normal situation...along with the type of people I chose to write about. This last is a point it's polite, today, to gloss over. But at least one academic (of highly liberal if not leftist tendencies, too) told me straight out: "I'm just not interested in the people you write about. I can't believe they're important in the greater scheme of things." What makes this significant is that the vast majority of fan letters the book received—many more, by a factor of ten, than any other of my books have ever gotten—were almost all in terms of "...this book is about my friends." "This book is about people I know." "This book is about the world I live in." "This book is about people nobody else writes of...." These letters came from people in schools and people outside of schools. They came from SF fans and from non SF fans. For these readers, the technical difficulties of the book, the eccentricity of structure, and the density of style went all but unmentioned. After all, if the book makes any social statement, it's that when society pulls the traditional supports out from under us, we all effectively become, not the proletariat, but the lumpen proletariat. It says that the complexity of "culture" functioning in a gang of delinquents led by some borderline mental case is no less than that functioning at a middle class dinner party. Well, there are millions of people in this country who have already experienced precisely this social condition, because for one reason or another their supports at one time or another were actually struck away. For them, Dhalgren confirms something they've experienced. It redeems those experiences for them. For them, the book reassures that what they saw was real and meaningful; and they like that. But there are many others who have not had these experiences. Often they are people who during their lives have been threatened by the possibility of their social supports all going, who fought very hard against it, and who have worked mightily to stabilize their lives in such a way that they will never have to endure these real social disasters. Needless to say, these readers do not like the book. For them, it trivializes real problems and presents as acceptable things (and I don't mean sex) they have specifically found unacceptable—and are to be avoided at all costs. But the arguments between those people who disliked the book intensely and those people who liked it exorbitantly helped it to become somewhat more widely known—and, presumably, to reach an even larger audience.

In the world of paperback sales, you know, 700,000 is actually a rather odd number.

The average paperback book still sells under 100,000 copies. To be a bona fide paperback bestseller, you have to get in sight of the solid 2,000,000 mark. So anything between, say, 250,000 and 1,500,000 is in a rather anomalous ballpark—especially if those sales are drawn out, as with Dhalgren, over ten years or more now. To appease the commercial anxiety that makes them want to name everything in case they need to sell it to somebody who hasn't seen it yet and doesn't want it, publishers have recently started calling such books "cult successes." So at Bantam I'm known as the author of a "cult" novel.

When you're passing an open door in a publishing company hallway, where people are talking in the offices, "cult" can sound close enough to "occult" so that, I gather, there's some small controversy within the company as to whether I write "cult" or "occult" books. But people who read me don't seem to have that problem. For them I'm still an SF writer. And my books are still SF.

Gregory: It's hard for me to think of a mainstream book as long and difficult and experimental as Dhalgren that has sold 700,000 copies. (I doubt if even Gravity's Rainbow has sold that many.) That seems to be another possible advantage to the SF field: an ambitious, serious writer who is interested in formal experimentation (even if this is part of the tradition) may have a greater chance to get his or her book out.

Delany: Dhalgren has outsold Gravity's Rainbow—by about 100,000 copies: we share a mass market publisher and statistics leak. But Gravity's Rainbow is a fantasy about a war most of its readers don't really remember, whereas Dhalgren is in fairly pointed dialogue with all the depressed and burned out areas of America's great cities. To decide if Gravity's Rainbow is relevant, you have to spend time in a library—mostly with a lot of Time/Life books, which are pretty romanticized to begin with. To see what Dhalgren is about, you only have to walk along a mile of your own town's inner city. So Dhalgren's a bit more threatening—and accordingly receives less formal attention.
Sadly, your description of a field of writing open to experimentation and ambition better fits SF when I began publishing in the early '60s than it does today. The period in the late '50s and early '60s known as the paperback revolution created a flood of books—and, with it, a relatively friendly climate for new writers. William Burroughs published his first novel, Junky, with Ace Books back in 1953. Those same economic forces probably account for why Vonnegut's books were, indeed, appearing as paperback original SF novels in the '50s and early '60s. Carl ("I'm with you in Rockland") Solomon, of Howl fame, worked at Ace. And when, in 1962, Ace became a publication possibility for me, I spent the odd minute smiling over the fact that names like Burroughs and Solomon seemed pretty good writerly company.

The economic crunch crunching through the last decade has left the publishing world far less accepting and more suspicious of the new and the vital than it was when the '60s dream of unlimited affluence and endless experimentation was about. Add to our economic hassles the current "blockbuster" mentality that's infected the book business via the movies, as a hysterical response to that crunch, and you have a really nasty situation for any serious writer, in whatever field, trying to break in. And it strikes me as a very different situation from the particular style of endemic commercialism rampant in book publishing since it came under its present book distribution system just after World War II. (Most people are unaware that book distribution companies today are much bigger than book publishing companies. It's an open publisher's secret that the publishing companies work for the distributors, and not the other way around. But most readers can't name one distribution company.) Before, the court of sales was always there, at least as an ideal to talk about, no matter how difficult it was to get your work put before that court. Today, everybody in publishing is pretty well convinced that the court of sales itself has been hopelessly corrupted, by hype and other, nameless pressures, so that an editor who says, "I think there is an audience (however small or however large) that will enjoy this book," is no longer considered to be making a rational statement in business terms. The only statements considered rational in commercial publishing today are those which speak to the questions: "How can it be pushed? How can it be hyped? How can it be made bigger than it is?"—whereas what is being pushed is of secondary or even tertiary importance, save to the extent it's got a hot synopsizable angle. Today's publisher would much rather publish a book which, when described in three sentences, sounds catchy than a book which affects its readers so deeply and profoundly that, before speaking of it at all, the reader must pause. The desired book today is the one that prompts its readers to blurt, "Hey, it's about..." and go on with something snappy.

This not only ends up reducing everything to the lowest common denominator; it lowers the denominator itself, driving it constantly down. And in an already shaky capitalism when the quality of what you've got to sell is locked in a downward spiral, that doesn't leave you much to appeal to.

Of course, pulling together such a tenebrium of gloom clouds is very easy from the Olympian perspective of 40 plus years—and always has been. It's not a bad idea to remember that 25 years ago the paperback revolution itself was seen by many, if not most, establishment critics (Bernard DeVoto's name comes to mind) as the end of Literature with a capital L. Well, it's always surprising how writers—the people actually writing—have managed to articulate something over the range of the writing practices available; even invent new ones if they have to. And those articulations have their own character in each age. The writing practices that were most exciting and vital between 1890 and 1920—say, in the novels of James, Bennett, Conrad, the early Lawrence, and Proust—looked very different from the writing practices that were most vital between 1920 and 1950—say, those of Joyce, Barnes, Woolf, Faulkner, and Ellison. And the writing from 1950 to 1980 looks very different still. Are we going to go on to another change of style, concerns, and structure, in which the realities of contemporary publishing, from computer typesetting to distribution monopolies, play a large if ill understood part?


But I think it would also be a good idea for historically sensitive critics to take a look at how one practice of writing, SF, was positively helped by a situation which, at the time, was assumed in most cases to be a moral and aesthetic disaster. It might be instructive in terms of understanding what's to come.

SF benefitted hugely from those early years of the paperback revolution. Joanna Russ, Thomas M. Disch, Ursula K. Le Guin, Roger Zelazny, R.A. Lafferty—the number of markedly exciting SF writers whose careers were strongly shaped by that revolution makes your jaw drop. In 1951, there were only 15 volumes published which, by any stretch of the imagination, could be called SF novels, while last year SF made up approximately 16% of all new fiction published in the US. When, by the mid '70s, crunch crunch was undeniable, there still seemed to be some factors built into the geography of our particular SF precinct (or ghetto, if you like) that kept the damages at bay a little longer than in some other fields—primary among them, the vitality and commitment of SF's highly vocal and long time organized readership, whose most energetic manifestation is the complex and fascinating phenomenon, fandom. But by now, the material hardships have made their inroads even into SF.

A few intriguing details of that history scatter some of my essays of the last half dozen years.4 Am I concerned about what's going to happen to this lively field over the next half dozen? Am I ever! But I'm also sure that, though it will be intimately connected with, it will also be markedly different from, what happens to literature.

McCaffery: I heard an anecdote that very early in your career, you self consciously resisted jumping on the treadmill of quick writing for quick money that exhausted writers like Philip K. Dick and others. What gave you the nerve to say to the SF publishing establishment, "Look, I'm going to take my time and write a good book—not in six weeks or six months, but in however long it takes me"?

Delany: Anecdotes often reduce the primary reasons for themselves right out of existence—especially when you tell them about yourself. And I think I once wrote about that situation—briefly and anecdotally—in an essay you may have come across. As an anecdote, it sounds very brave and moral; and I'm willing to take a modest bow. But the simple fact is: I'm constitutionally incapable of writing quickly. I'm highly dyslexic. That means, among other things, I must write slowly and revise endlessly, if only to get right what are so cavalierly called, by the lexic, the "basic mechanics." With all the time I spend looking for the dropped, misspelled, and transposed words that litter my early drafts, I might as well, while I'm at it, X the odd adjective, apocopate some terminal preposition, clarify a parallelism here, or strengthen an antithesis there. It goes, as they say, with the territory. Any text I write, I'm going to have to stay with a while—longer, anyway, than the lucky talents who whip out journeyman like first drafts, which, once glanced at by the copy editor for styling, can be sent on to the typesetter. It behooves me to think about what I'm doing a little more, if only to make sure it's complex enough to hold my interest during the extra time I have to live with it. (An apothegm in the SF community I've heard leveled at a number of our high production moguls goes: "If he were a worse typist, he'd be a better writer"—meaning that such writers commit stylistic bloopers of the same blatancy as the mechanical ones automatically corrected by simply running the text once more around the platen. I've heard it said of both Harlan Ellison and Barry Malzberg—two dizzyingly talented writers, by the bye.) There've been a number of dyslexic writers, of course; Gustave Flaubert and William Butler Yeats are among the best known. Dyslexic writers tend to be slow and painstaking. The fascination of what's difficult, Yeats wrote, had dried him up and left him old. But for a writer who, like Yeats, didn't really learn to read until he was 16, more things are going to be difficult than most might expect. Such a writer has a push to substitute quality for quantity—which isn't entirely moral. A writer like Joyce, on the other hand, was as lexic as they come. And when he wanted to, he could write like a speed demon. Fully a third of Ulysses was written in galleys. That's over 250 of its 765 pages! Even in Paris in the '20s, you had galleys only for a couple of months, at the outside.

I could no more write 250 pages of fully realized fiction in two months—science or otherwise—than I could fly to the Moon flapping. And the more I'd thought about it and the more complicated a structure I'd planned it out to have, the longer it would take me actually to set it down.

When I was 23, I wrote a long story in 11 days. The manuscript ran to 130 typescript pages—with wide margins: say, 75 pages of ordinary book type. But that was an endurance test I'd set myself, with mornings given over to first drafting, then, after a non lunch, the rest of the day and a good bit of the night spent rewriting the previous day's work.

It's still moot whether I passed or not.

That 11 days doesn't count the two weeks of notes on the early side to plan out a simple fabular structure that eschewed most of the complexities I'd previously (and have since) tried to work into fiction. (You could call it two weeks of testing the water before the plunge.) Nor does it take in yet another week on the far side for another retyping—in which much rewriting got done. As an anecdote, I'd like to say that the story—which was eventually published as a separate book, and has been called a novel—took 11 days, and certainly the hardest non stop work was crammed into those 11. But I could as easily say that it took me 11 days plus two weeks at the beginning for notes, and a week of rewriting after. Composition times are almost as hard to individuate as propositional meanings.

Gregory: From early on, your books have explicitly dealt with some very controversial subject matter. Take, for example, your treatment of three way or multiple sexual relationships, of gay and bisexual relationships (and all sorts of sub groups) in Triton, and your general call for the need to explore male and female sexual roles in all their guises. Do you think that working in the SF field has given you more freedom to explore these areas? I'm thinking of the controversy that surrounded, say, Mailer's American Dream or Roth's Portnoy's Complaint—books that are very mild in their sexual presentation compared with what you are dealing with in Dhalgren and Triton.

Delany: For a number of reasons, from my racial make up to my sexuality to my chosen field of writing, SF—or even because, in this society, I've chosen to write at all—my life has always tended to have a large element of marginality to it, at least if you accept a certain range of experience that overlaps those of an ideal white, middle class, heterosexual male as the definition of centrality. To write clearly, accurately, with knowledge of and respect for the marginal is to be controversial—especially if you're honest about the overlaps. Because that means it's harder to regard the marginal as "other." And at that point, the whole category system that has assigned values like central and marginal in the first place is threatened.

As to whether SF is more tolerant of what is usually called marginal....Well, it would be nice to think that because SF itself has traditionally been considered a kind of marginal writing, it recognizes the problems of life on the edges and welcomes them with insight and compassion. But that may just be a somewhat na´ve anthropomorphism.

Basically the idea that a genre, or even an age or epoch, gives a freedom (or, indeed, imposes restraints) that any old writer, once he or she plops down in the middle of it, can turn around and exploit wonderfully (or be totally stymied by) is one I've heard before—and distrust.

It's not that I don't believe in history. Rather, I believe the historical process is more complicated than it's sometimes given credit for. The play of social forces lays down constraints (in sexual matters, say) that are internalized by individuals. Because society is not monolithic, these constraints are not necessarily the same for everyone; there may be class patterns, but even that's a reduction. There are going to be lots of variations, even individual to individual—which variations, if you squint at them from other angles, will make other kinds of patterns which aren't going to respect class boundaries at all.

The same play of social forces also lays down constraints for the various practices of writing—what, in practical terms, is generically acceptable, and what isn't.

But writers are not assigned their genres by God. Nor do they really choose them by conscious and considered acts of will. They move into them, even into literature, by a kind of ecological process. All through my adolescence I wrote novel after novel, pitched at the center of the literary tradition as I mistily saw it: you know, out of Hemingway by Faulkner and Joyce, with a good 19th century underpinning. That was my adolescent reading history, at any rate. I sent them to publisher after publisher, but although they got me a couple of scholarships, and some of my shorter pieces even won me the odd amateur prize, they were all finally rejected. Then I wrote an SF novel. Actually, it was rather borderline SF. (I had to go through four published SF novels before, in the fifth, I got brave enough to put in a spaceship!) And it was accepted, published, reviewed...!

Now there's a developmental aspect here that must be taken into account. I'm sure the SF novel I wrote at 19 was, indeed, a little better than the literary novels I wrote at 16, 17, and 18—though "literary" here is only a polemical distinction. None of them were good books. Still, one does a lot of growing up, fast, in those years, and some of that goes onto the page. But even in my teens, what I was being told by literary editors, some of whom from time to time got rather excited about me, was that the final reason the novels weren't being published was that they were too literary—and weren't commercial. Even at 17 I knew some of this was an attempt to make a kid feel a little less crushed by rejection. Nevertheless, with all that taken into account, there's still a bottom line situation here: literary publishing wasn't very accepting—they didn't accept me through a whole lot of tries—while SF publishing was: they snapped me up on my first submission. And what they accepted was me, with all my socially laid down constraints, my limited talent, and my individual concerns, as manifested in what I wrote. And even during my first couple of years in the field, the genre tended to say to me: "You can do what you want."

Now that's not, "Anyone can do anything he or she wants." Rather, that's "The kind of things you seem to want to do are more or less within acceptable bounds."

If you look over my first four SF novels, all of which were written during my first three years in the SF field, as I've said you won't find spaceships. What you'll find is characters quoting poetry at each other. There's more than a passing interest in the female characters. Small sections are in play form. Other sections are in stream of consciousness. (The books that followed were, if anything, more technically conservative.) Bits of the story are told from multiple points of view. Once, in my sixth SF novel, written when I was 23, I was told that the printer simply couldn't handle one of the sections; it had to wait for computer typesetting and the most recent edition, in 1983, for the text to be printed as I wrote it back in 1965.

Now none of this is terribly profound as far as experimentation is concerned. The point is only that the SF publishing situation could accept it; my SF editor could say to me, "That's kind of interesting. I wonder what the readers will make of it." And for what it's worth, the books are still in print. And this is a very different situation from the one in which a literary editor in 1960 at Harcourt Brace, who liked an early novel of mine enough to recommend me for a scholarship to the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, said to me about similar devices in the book I'd submitted: "Well, if we do publish it, those are the first things that will have to go in the editing." Then she looked at me, rather sadly, and said: "Chip, you tell a good story. But, right now, there's a housewife somewhere in Nebraska, and we can't publish a first novel here unless there's something in it that she can relate to. And the fact is, there's nothing in your book that she wants to know anything about at all. And that's probably why we won't publish it." And after two more readings and an editorial conference, they didn't.

The housewife in Nebraska has, of course, a male counterpart. In commercial terms, he's only about a third as important as she is. The basic model for the novel reader has traditionally been female since the time of Richardson. But his good opinion is considered far more prestigious. He's a high school teacher in Montana who hikes for a hobby on weekends and has some military service behind him. He despises the housewife—though reputedly she wants to have an affair with him. Needless to say, there wasn't much in my adolescent "literary" novels for him either. But between them, that Nebraska housewife and that Montana English teacher tyrannized mid century American fiction. If you look at the first novels published by literary houses between 1950 and 1965, there's not one that doesn't have something in it for this ubiquitous non couple.

Good bye Columbus, The Floating Opera...? Salinger, Heller, Pynchon? That doesn't mean that there weren't other things in their books as well. Some of those were not there for that obsessive pair, and some would quite offend them, were they noticed. The point is, however, that the things that were there for them come quite honestly from those writers. They were not there because Barth or Roth or Updike decided out of controlled, calculated, and manipulative intentions to put them there. These writers moved into the literary field in which they were most comfortable by the same ecological forces that moved me into mine. Writers are not born into the world the day they write their first salable work. There's a history of reading, a history of attempts made and attempts rejected that maneuvers a writer, however random it all seems at the time, into the position at which he or she is accepted; and that's also a position at which she or he can be accepted. That individual variation we started off with? The situation I sketched above is the over determined one by which generic demands are fitted to individual writerly talents. But that individual variation means the fit is never perfect; there's still going to be conflict.

I don't know about literary publishing today, but in SF I've always had the wheedling suspicion that when an editor says to a writer, "Your work is too far out for us to handle," there's usually a silent message that goes along with it: "And it's too clumsily written, ill thought out, and badly executed to be worth it, because it won't interest those readers with the higher stylistic standards that go along with broader topic interests." I felt this way back at 17 and 18 when my early "literary" novels were being rejected; I suppose I still feel it.

Now to assume that this is how the entire real and social world of art production—or, more accurately, art reproduction—works is, I suppose, finally a personal strategy to make rejection an occasion for initiating a personal attempt at improving what you do, a strategy for keeping rejection from being simply and hopelessly paralyzing. It's very hard to be any sort of artist without some belief to the effect that if the surface is crystalline enough, if the aesthetic logic is both vigorous and rigorous enough, someone somewhere will have to say "Yes" to it. On the other hand, we all know how frightening/baffling/boring the new can be to people who feel that they are guardians of a tradition, any tradition; so that to stand behind such a view too firmly as anything else but a personal strategy may be suicidally na´ve. Rejection and acceptance are both complex processes; and the complex truth is that writing must, itself, be complex enough to remain stable in the face of both. Current post structuralist jargon would probably talk about this complex stability in terms something like: "The struggle between reification and deconstruction that any text worth the name initiates among its endless play of possible meanings...." The older phrase—much less popular right through here—is: "The dialectical nature of art...."

The last person to get any public mileage out of the image of the genre stifled (or genre unstifled) SF writer was Harlan Ellison, with his important Dangerous Visions anthologies that began in 1967. Exciting as they were, by the time two of them had appeared, they'd pretty much forced SF to grow up and realize that genre restrictions were a little more complex than sexually timid editors. (Or perhaps after Dangerous Visions any SF editor with a tendency towards sexual timidity was just embarrassed out of it.) Most of us have a conflict model for writer/publisher differences in which each is assumed to be after different goals and playing by different rules. But a better model is a game where both sides have internalized all the rules. Tensions arise between players, certainly—and high tensions. Sometimes even fist fights. But they develop out of misread gestures, the bias that comes from a particular angle of observation, personality conflicts and personal goals as interpreted or misinterpreted within the game. And there are always teams you don't want to play on just because you love the game the way you do and that team's managers simply have a different notion of team goals. But an aesthetically significant conflict with a publisher with whom you are basically content is rather like a single player trying to get a team to run a new play when nobody quite understands how it will work or why it will be effective. The resistances—or, to call them by their right name, stupidities—you have to deal with are very much the collective sort; and if you have a truly new idea, you have to deal with that resistance in more or less the same way you would with a team. Any other approach dooms you to really frustrating failures.

McCaffery: Your two most recent books, Tales of Nevèrÿon and Neveryóna are obvious departures, in some ways, from your previous books. Instead of being set in some imagined future, both are set in some magical, distant past, just as civilization is being created. To begin with, do you consider these works to be SF at all?

Delany: They associate with SF via a sub category of SF, "sword and sorcery"—SF's despised younger cousin. Certainly one thing that must have drawn me to SF in the first place was a propensity for working in despised genres. Sword and sorcery was invented, for all practical purposes, by an odd young man, Robert Ervin Howard (1906 36), who spent most of his life in Cross Plains, Texas. He's remembered as a pleasant, personable, if somewhat shy, fellow. His surviving letters give an impression of a basically genial man, but with a good deal of almost belligerent rural modesty. Accounts of rare visits to him by others suggest a friendly and intelligent man, who, nevertheless, had more than his share of social paranoia. ("Do you have many enemies?" was one of the first questions he asked Edward Hoffman Price when Price drove down to visit him after Howard had become established in the pulps.) In 1925, Howard made his first sale, to Weird Tales, with a story he'd written at 15. By a program of physical exercise, he also managed to push his tall but frail body in the direction of his muscular, swashbuckling heroes, so that by his mid 20s he was quite an impressive hulk. From age 19 to 30 he wrote and sold reams of pulp adventure and western stories, about characters like Solomon Kane, Buckner J. Grimes, Bran Mak Born, King Kull, and—his most popular—Conan the Barbarian; and he wrote lots of poems. He was a sometime correspondent among a group of writers today known as "the Lovecraft Circle." One morning when he was 30, he went out to the car parked beside his home, got in, took up a gun, and put a bullet through his head.

His mother, lying sick in the house for some time, had recently gone into a terminal coma.

A doctor, Howard's father (also a doctor), a nurse, and the cook (who glimpsed the suicide through the kitchen window) were in the house when it happened. Howard lingered for eight hours without regaining consciousness. His mother died 31 hours later. Dr Howard buried her and Robert together at nearby Brownwood, Texas.

What's intriguing about sword and sorcery is that it takes place in an a specific, idealized past—rather than in Rome or Egypt or Babylonia or Troy. This means whatever happens in this vision of the past that may have something to do with us today doesn't filter through any recognizable historical events—the Diaspora, say, or the Peloponnesian or Gallic Wars. So, once again—and this should sound familiar—it lets you look at the impact of certain cross cultural concepts that nevertheless are often not given the same kind of spotlight in historical novels, concepts (like money, writing, weaving, or any early technological advances—the techne Pound got so obsessed with by the "Rock Drill" Cantos) that go so far in over determining the structure of the historical biggies: a war, a change of government, a large migration from country to city.  

What makes S&S historically a specific also makes it rather anachronistic. In most sword and sorcery, you find neolithic artifacts cheek a jowl with Greek and Roman elements, all in the shadow of late Medieval or High Gothic architecture. And because it's all supposed to be happening at an unknown time and place, there there be dragons!

Gregory: The Nevèrÿon stories all seem to deal with power—all kinds of power: sexual, economic, even racial power via the issue of slavery. Do you think this focus on power relationships seems especially interesting to you because you're black and especially sensitive to them?

Delany: All four of my grandparents were children of at least one parent born in slavery. Manumitted when she was eight, my great grandmother Fitzgerald still told my grandmother stories about slavery times, as did my grandmother's grandparents, with whom my grandmother stayed in summer when she was a little girl in Virginia—stories which my grandmother, who was alive till only last year (she died when she was 102), told to me. In imaginary Nevèrÿon, slavery is an economic reality (fast fading into a historical memory) but also a persistent fantasy. The historic imaginative space, plus the paraliterary object priority S&S shares here and there with SF (which allows it to be read for what it is), lets me play with notions about how things in the world, including the socially contoured organization of people's psyches, may be functioning in such correspondences. It's a speculative endeavor; and, however interesting or stimulating (or, indeed, crushingly trivial) people find the suggestions that grow out of it, it's still play.

But that's different from what I assume would be the corresponding literary endeavor: to sketch a psyche, a character, a mind caught up with such a fantasy (say, slavery), with the world shown only as the necessary frame to hold the canvas to shape. To me, right now, that just wouldn't be very interesting.

McCaffery: What sort of overall plan have you been following in these books?

Delany: Only the traditional form SF has developed for its own brand of series stories. In the late '30s and all through the '40s, the overwhelming majority of American SF appeared in the pulp magazines. Many of these stories, by individual writers, would return to the same world or universe and pick up the time stream at different points. Sometimes there would be continuous characters. Sometimes not. Clifford Simak's City was such a series. Heinlein wrote a sequence of stories beginning in 1939 which were informally known after a few years as the "Future History" series, which also included novels. They were only collected in one volume, The Past Through Tomorrow, in 1967. Certainly the most famous SF series is the five short stories and four novellas by Isaac Asimov known, since it was published in three volumes in the early '50s, as The Foundation Trilogy, to which, after 30 years, he added the full length novel Foundation's Edge (1982).

The particular form I'm talking about is probably clearest in the "Foundation" tales, though you can trace it out in almost all the others. Put simply, the first story poses a problem and finally offers some solution. But in the next story, what was the solution of the first story is now the problem. In general, the solution for story N becomes the problem for story N+1. This allows the writer to go back and critique his or her own ideas as they develop over time. Often, of course, the progression isn't all that linear. Sometimes a whole new problem will assert itself in the writer's concern—another kind of critique of past concerns. Sometimes you'll rethink things in stories more than one back. But the basic factor is the idea of a continuous, open ended, self critical dialogue with yourself.

The series is very flexible. Here's a short story. Next's a bulky novel. That can be followed by a novella, or another novel, or another short story. When publishers first began to collect SF series together in volume form, they did everything they could to try to make the resultant books look like novels. Because of that back looking critical process, however, often a writer would have set a story further back in time from an earlier tale, instead of moving continually forward in strict chronological order. (One good form of criticism comes from asking the question: "What, historically, might have caused people to act in a particular way that, when I wrote the last story, I just assumed was unquestioned human nature?") When the stories appeared over months in magazines, this was no problem. But when the stories were collected, invariably they'd be put in chronological order, no matter how this obscured the self critical development. In the first volume of the "Foundation" series, Foundation, the order of the stories "The Traders" and "The Merchant Princes" was reversed to accommodate internal chronology; and the first story in that book, "The Encyclopedists," was actually written after what's now the last novella in book three. They make much better dramatic and thematic sense if you start with "The Mayors" and read them in their compositional order.

I'm sure you can understand how, if a reader picks up the book version of one of these series, thinking it's an SF novel (and there's often no way to tell, since separate stories are frequently renamed "Chapters"), and begins it with the expectations ordinarily brought to a novel, the book's going to read strangely; and the self critical development, especially if it's not blatantly obvious, might just slip by because the reader isn't looking for it. The first volume of the Nevèrÿon series, Tales of Nevèrÿon, is five short and long stories that critique each other. The second volume, Neveryóna, is a full and rather fat novel that returns to a number of the notions in the stories and tries to re think them. Right now I'm nearing the end of a novella that returns to one area in the novel that left me with some unsatisfied feelings.

In one sense, the SF series is something like a prose narrative version of that quintessentially American form, the open ended serial composition poem—Pound's Cantos, Olson's Maximus Poems, Diane Wakoski's Greed, or Robert Duncan's Passages. You also find the same self critical thrust at work there. But that's shock analogy.

You can only take it so far.

When you start a series, you have some idea of things you might like to do in it later that will create some interesting reversal when you get to them, two, three, or four stories along. But that self critical process usually means that by the time you reach the story where, dramatically, you thought you might put in one of these planned out reversals, it ends up doing quite a different job from the one you would have envisioned for it when you first thought it up.

McCaffery: You said once that you'd like readers to see in your works that "behind a deceptively cool, even disinterested, narrative exterior you can hear the resonances of the virulent anti white critique that informs all aware black writing in America today." Early on, this critique seems to inform your work mainly in the way you say it does even in fascist works, like Heinlein's Starship Trooper, by your almost casual inclusion of black characters in positions of power and authority. But a bit later, in Dhalgren, for instance, and in the Nevèrÿon books, you seem to take up the issue of racism more directly.

Delany: What I actually wrote—and it's probably worth mentioning that I was writing to a white critic who was between drafts of an extended article on me, in the course of which he'd written me to ask why, as a black writer, my work wasn't, in effect, blacker—was: "If you wrote, 'Behind a deceptively cool, even disinterested, narrative exterior you can hear the resonances of the virulent anti white critique that informs all aware black writing in America today,' I would think you were a downright perceptive reader" (italics added)—all of which, incidentally, he chose to quote in the final version of his article. I suppose this was my way of saying: "Hey, my experience as a black American runs all through my work. But why do you assume its traces will be such stereotypes?" Some interesting facts about this particular critic: he's chairman of the combined English and Philosophy departments of his university; he's something of an expert in African literature and has collected, edited, transcribed, and published original African folk literature, about which he knows far more than I do; he's also co editor of an extraordinarily perceptive anthology of Harlem Renaissance writers, about which I do know something; he and his wife have adopted a Korean daughter; and he's written a rather good biography of George Schuyler, an early black satirist, social critic, and father of the child prodigy pianist, Phillipa Schuyler, who was later killed in a freak helicopter accident in Viet Nam (where, as an adult, she'd gone to bring back Vietnamese children). In short, in terms of American culture, black or white, this critic's a more than interesting man.

But somehow black critics—and three or four, if not five or six, have written the odd article on me—just don't seem to be all that interested in how black a black writer's work is; or, when they are, they express that interest in—how shall I say?—a different tone of voice. The white, worried about some black's "blackness," always seem to be expressing the troubling anxiety that, indeed, you may not really be black, and that, therefore, somehow they've personally been fooled, taken in, or duped, either by your manipulative intentions or by some social accident—whereas the black critic is perfectly aware that you are black; I mean if you're born black in this country, you're going to know what it means to be black in this country; they're just kind of curious, therefore, to know what's going on with you. Now certainly there are things that can be going on with a black writer that a black critic who's had experience with them before may not approve of. He or she may even want to give that black writer down to the country for it, if not up side the head. But so far, this is not the sort of critique I've received from black critics.

Still, to me, the tone in which the seemingly similar questions are put feels different, no matter if they're put to me or I hear them put to other black writers. But how subjective is this? How subjective is politics?

What I've said, with more than a little belligerence, to a number of whites who've chosen to question my blackness is (and you'd have to be black yourself to realize the astonishing number of whites who seem to have nothing else to do but worry about whether or not their black acquaintances are actually black enough): Look, I am black. Therefore what I do is part of the definition, the reality, the evidence of blackness. It's your job to interpret it. I mean, if you're interested in the behavior of redheads, and you look at three and think you see one pattern, then you look at a fourth and see something that, for some reason, strikes you as different, you don't then decide that this last person, despite the color of his hair, isn't really red haired—not if you and yours have laid down for a hundred years the legal, social, and practical codes by which you decide what hair is red and what hair isn't, and have inflicted untold deprivations, genocide, and humiliations on those who've been so labeled by that code.

I was seven when, with quivering rage, my father—because of some racial incident at my New York private school—told me how, sometime in the '20s, a cousin of his had been stopped with her husband by a gang of white men; she was perhaps eight months pregnant. Substantially darker than she, her husband was lynched, and she was dragged to a tree, hung up, her belly slit open, and, in my father's words, "her unborn baby was allowed to drop out on the ground"—because the men assumed she was a white woman and would not believe otherwise. My father was there when their bodies were brought back to the campus of the black southern college where his father and mother were pastor and dean of women. My father, I gather, was about the age I was when he told me; and while, pacing up and down our kitchen in a towering fit, he recounted all this, my mother—a black woman born in New York City—sat at the wide table, one hand holding tightly to the edge of the dark wood, and pleaded with him, "Sam! Sam, don't tell the boy things like that! Not now! Tell him later!"

What we've come face to face with here is, of course, the relation between writing and politics. And that's subsumed by the old philosophical problem of the relation between language and truth. It's got a venerable name: the problem of representation. And it's very close to some of the things we were discussing at the beginning.

You can never know for certain whether or not language is portraying reality rigorously, thanks to the problem of representation—really two ill separated problems: the problem of verifiability and the problem of exhaustiveness. (This latter is sometimes called the problem of sufficiency.) Now I've just told you two anecdotes, one about an experience with a white critic, and one about an experience with my father I had as a black child. Both are fraught with political significance, right? Well, here's a third, simpler than the others, that'll serve as an exemplar for both....

There's a chair in the corner.

And that's the whole story. Assuming you are alone with only the language in which it's told, however, you have no way to determine its validity. Is it true, inspired by the real chair in the real corner of my real room? Or is it a polemical fiction? Perhaps it's just a downright lie. And assuming I believe there's a chair in the corner, could I possibly be mistaken? With such a simple account as that, real mistakes aren't too likely. But what possibility there is for mistake segues quickly into the second problem: exhaustiveness. Have I said enough about the situation to allow you, with only the verbal account, to verify it should you need or want to ? Have I failed to mention that, though there is indeed a chair in the corner, it's one of those old bean bag affairs from the '60s, gone so saggy that, today, half the people coming in here frown at it and ask, "What's that? Some kind of couch?" Is passion, tragedy, material or emotional catastrophe going on only a room away to my loved ones, acquaintances, or complete strangers that, even as I write, merits my (or indeed your) attention far more than fancies about dubiously extant chairs? Or, more eccentrically and polemically, have I just not bothered till now to mention that the chair is blue, lying on its side, about three inches from foot to upper back, and that in just two minutes I'm going to call my nine year old to come get it, take it in her room, and put it back with the rest of her doll furniture?

But now let's look at the more complex incidents we started with. Neither was simple. Both were important to me when they happened, and, for both polemical and personal reasons, I'm concerned with the accuracy of my account here. By this time, I've rescanned the accounts as written above a number of times already, and have—already—at a number of places, during the general editorial violence that such an "interview" as this gets subjected to, re phrased and reworded them here and there, with an eye to honesty and accuracy; and in places where time has blurred memory, I've been particularly careful with perhaps's and about's. The account can't be exhaustive. But have I told enough? Is my report sufficient? I didn't detail the racial incident at school that sparked my father's outburst. It was, indeed, minor, subtle, and complex—though it also could be seen as involving a great deal of money for the school, and was generally the sort of thing to make anyone with a tendency to be anxious over such things tear hair trying to figure out what hurt was done, what intentions were. (And, in 1949, what black parents with children in a predominantly white private school weren't anxious over such things?) I couldn't clarify it much further in less than three pages—so I've chosen to omit it; or, rather, to represent it only with this sketch of its affect. Was I seven? I could have been six. I could have been eight. Did my father really see (or say he saw) the bodies, or did he only hear about them? It's unclear after more than 30 years. Did my mother's hand hold the table edge only a second or two? Or did it stay, locked there, for minutes? I don't remember.

Which of these elements is political? In what way are they political?

Talking to me about it years later, my mother told me that, through my father's tirade, I sobbed and cried out, "It isn't fair, Daddy! Oh, Daddy, it isn't fair!" I have only the vaguest memory of that part, which, by now, is hopelessly mixed up with my mother's telling me about it. I have an equally vague memory that my mother cried a little. But in general she was not a teary woman; she doesn't remember that. And my father has been dead 22 years.

In the case of the white critic, although I've now checked my own quotation (as it appeared in his article), I haven't checked his original letter which contained the questions to which my words responded—indeed, it's not at hand. How reductive am I being in my account of the exchange? Has memory and ideology introduced significant distortion? Anyone who comes across that actual article will notice immediately it's signed by two writers, who collaborated on it from the beginning. Since, at that stage, most of the queries came from the single writer, mentioning only one didn't seem too great a polemical streamlining—though conceivably the writers might not feel so if they read this. But not only did I not mention the co writer (also white), I've also not mentioned that in the years since, though I've maintained a friendship with both men by letter, I've exchanged hundreds of pages of letters with the second writer of the article....

Where does significant political detail stop? Or start?

This is the problem of exhaustiveness.

I said above that I made changes with an eye to honesty; but, in incidents so complex and emotional, can anyone maintain the clear line between changes for honesty and accuracy in reporting and changes made for effectiveness in recounting? Selection dominates any report of the real, and the line between relevance and irrelevance is as hard to fix as the line between meaning and meaning. Indeed, it is the line between meanings.
The kind of questions I've been asking of my own texts above are, incidently, just the sort that, along with the dramatic images they momentarily evoke in the writer's mind as she or he asks them, sends the writer back to do another story or novel in his or her SF or S&S series.
As the verifiability and exhaustiveness problems move into the political arena of accuracy, mistakes, distortions, lies, relevance, and suppression, the problem of representation becomes the linguistic bottom line at which Plato barred poets from his Republic and decided to make the heads of state philosophers—opening himself for ages to charges of self interested bias. But like Heraclitus, Plato was already (as Karl Popper reminded us) a prince. And that same problem is what, so recently, has caused a number of critics to suggest that all fiction is really meta fiction: since language (and, by extension, fiction) can't be trusted to be rigorous about the world, maybe it all must be reinterpreted to be only about other language (and other fiction).

I said I thought that these problems were much like the ones we started with. That's because I think the way out of them is the same as the way out of the problem of the plethora of codic confusion: over determination. The key phrase in the discussion of the problem of representation is: "assuming you are alone with only the language...." That phrase itself assumes, somehow, that there is such a thing as language apart from the rest of the world—a language complete with meanings, grammar, syntax, logic—and thus the possibility of understanding, without a world to inform it, without a world in which it has been and will be developing, a world which is constantly changing it, and to which, changing or stable, it is always a response; a world that is, itself, constantly changing under language's operation. Similarly it assumes that there is a world complete with its categories, its rules, and its patterns, apart from language.

It's not a matter of language's imposing its codes and categories on a simple, innocent, and ideally undifferentiated world, as some contemporary criticism tends to suggest. Rather, the reason that language is codic is because everything else in the world is too, as we saw at the outset; and language is in the world and of it. Language and world (or word and object) is another perfectly useful distinction, as much as any of the others we've glanced at; but, as with the others, the distinction is only useful if we acknowledge their hierarchical relation and do not demand they do the job of equal and parallel opposites where they clearly can not. The world absorbs language. Language does not encase the world—although the world displays language like (that is, codic) properties at every turn; and these properties are no doubt what allow language, in a properly organized neural net, both to exist and to function. Because of that hierarchy, you can never be without the world and yet with language—"alone with only the language." Because language (and all that is language like) is the social, you can only be alone without it.

By the time you get to wherever it is you are when the simplest or most complex story reaches you over whatever distance through time and space from whatever context was there for verification, you have already learned on your own enough about chairs, rooms, fathers, mothers, kitchen tables, the racial situation in America, interviews, critics, and writers to make a whole bevy of complex codic judgments, even if absolute veracity or sufficient exhaustiveness are not among them. These judgments range from your ability to reach a practical answer to the questions, "How important is it to me, right now, to verify this account? How important is it to me to have more exhaustive information?" to the strong feeling, "While x, y, and z have the ring of truth about them, there's no way you'll get me to believe p, q, and r—not unless a, b, and c were very different from the way the writer described them." And you may hold these opinions to the end of your life, forget them in an hour, or revise them three months hence in the light of further reading or experience. These opinions are all political judgments—interpretations, not perceptions—that we can make about the sentences in any text: poem, newspaper article, popular song lyric, letter, interview, pornographic pamphlet, 19th century novel, Hollywood film, advertising copy, soap opera dialogue, experimental fiction, kids' comic book, Broadway drama, or contemporary SF story. Much of the process overlaps for all the different modes; and for each mode there will be distinctive codic processes entailed. Because of the differences, however, people who have been exposed to a great deal of, or have carefully studied, one or another of these language practices may have something interesting to say about the distinctive way in which these judgments usually occur, or are best carried out, in each.

Any text I present you with will be subjected to these judgments; and though the judging process will work slightly differently in each mode, there is enough codic overlap so that, whether it identifies itself as a scrupulously honest report or as a wholly invented fiction, no text I produce can escape them. Still, I'm the one who's got the responsibility to be honest (in whatever mode), because I think there's a correlation between what honestly happened (in the case of the report) or what I honestly thought might happen (in the case of the fiction) and my political judgments about it—which judgments, presumably, I'd hope you might recreate for yourself out of my account. At least I hope you might revise your own judgments in a direction sympathetic to mine. But the fact I believe in that as a possibility is, of course, also a philosophical and political judgment on my part.

In world terms, the text is an affluent luxury. Thanks to the problem of representation, no text can be considered, in any absolute sense, other than a more or less socially privileged lie (or, if you will, an ultimately undecidable play of biases, errors, and omissions)—and that's not only the texts traditionally thought of as fictive, either. The nature of the privilege, however, is social, recursive, self supporting, self critical, self revising, memorial, codic, and complex...dialectical, if you will.

Or at any rate, it ought to be. Among the best readers, to a greater or lesser extent, it is. But it's the nature of the privilege that's in question, not the status of the text; for the text, finally, is almost wholly an experience—a process—rather than a thing.

As I said: honesty is my problem (and a different problem in each mode), not yours; it's a factor of my motives. Interpretation—judging, if you prefer—is your problem (also different for different modes), not mine; it's a factor of your needs. Is there an overlap between your needs and my motives? As much as there's an overlap in the codes that let us recognize them, talk about them, agree or disagree.

But here might be a good place to begin a rather sweeping conclusion to all this....

In high school, I had a friend who was a composer. For a time we were also part of a folk singing quartet together. Somewhere during the autumn of 1961, when he was in his second year of college and I had dropped out, gotten married, and was writing my first SF novel, he completed an interesting musical composition that was to be performed at a concert of new music at Hunter College. It was complex, atonal, and at some of the rehearsals I helped out as a page turner. At any point in the piece, the dozen odd instruments would be playing all 12 notes of the scale—save one. Through the course of the composition, the missing note moved up and down through the cacophonous sonorities, so that the "melodic line," if you can call it that, was a silence that progressed, as a sort of absent melody, through it all. During rehearsals, while I sat by the metal music stand, waiting to turn over the page for the clarinetist, something became clear. When the piece, or more usually a stretch of it, was performed very, very well by all the players, with the dynamics and intonations truly under control and the great attention fixed to its overall cohesion, then the traveling silence became clearly audible and its effect striking, disturbing, even moving. If, however, one or two of the players lost their concentration, or there was the least little dynamic wandering, or there was any noise at all in the rehearsal room, or indeed, if the attention of the listener strayed a moment, then the whole thing dissolved into acoustic mush.

I couldn't be at the concert, but some time later my friend told me that, no, he didn't feel it had gone very well. As far as he could tell, simply the change in the sonority of the auditorium that occurred when it was filled with people had been enough to muddy the subtle musical experience he'd contrived.

Possibly because I wasn't at the performance, I had an interested absence to think about, and my friend's piece became a kind of model for me of the situation of the serious writer—if not the artist in general. I thought about it a lot then, and I've thought about it a lot since.

It doesn't seem to matter whether the writer is a "hard hitting journalist" or the farthest out constructor of experimental poems. All the writer's noise is finally an attempt to shape a silence in which something can go on.

Call it the silence of interpretation, if you will; but even that's too restrictive. The silence of response is probably better—if not just silence itself.

The writer tries to shape it carefully, conscientiously; but both forming and hearing it today can be equally hard. The journalist may want a very different kind of thing to go on in that silence from what the experimental poet wants. One may well want the audience to use it as a lucid moment in which to make a decision for action, while the other may want the audience only to hear that it is there and to appreciate its opacities and malleabilities, its resistances to and acceptances of certain semiotic violences. The SF writer may want the audience to observe in it the play and fragile stability of the object world which its malleabilities and opacities alone can model.

The writer will mold it differently in terms of what she or he wants us to do with it, do in it, using a variety of codes. And the variety of codes that make that writing meaningful will differ here, will overlap there, depending on the writerly mode. Nevertheless, we can still, when it is useful, designate all writerly enterprises with the same terms: shaping the silence.

And we can still distinguish those enterprises.

And judge them.

That's more over determination.


1. The Stoic philosophers were the first thinkers we know of to describe the sign as consisting of a perceptible signans and an intelligible signatum—i.e., a signifier and a signified.
2. This fragment is based on a phrase from a story by Larry Niven, the exact title of which escapes me.
3. From the entry for August 6th, 1914, in The Diaries of Franz Kafka, 1910 1923, edited by Max Brod (London: Penguin Books, 1964).
4. Collected as Starboard Wine (Pleasantville, NY: Dragon Press,1984).

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