Science Fiction Studies

#19 = Volume 6, Part 3 = November 1979

Patrick Parrinder

Delany Inspects the Word-Beast

Samuel R. Delany. The Jewel-Hinged Jaw. Elizabethtown, NY: Dragon Press, 1977. 326p. $12.95 hardbound; Berkley Windhover Books, 1978 xii + 303 p. $4.95 paper.

________. The American Shore. Elizabethtown, NY: Dragon Press, 1978. v + 243 p. $13.95.

These books -- as the author warns prospective readers -- are not introductions to their subject. Nor are they easy to introduce to those who do not yet know them. Intricate, uneven, often infuriating, and at the same time highly perceptive, Delany's criticism demands the fullest attention of its readers. As a critic-novelist of SF, he subsumes and goes beyond the two modes of critical discourse that have best served the genre in the past: the unlocking of a few pearls from the hoard of the writer's wisdom (in the manner of Heinlein or Le Guin), and the impassioned defense of the higher reaches of the SF ghetto from the hordes below (in the manner of "Atheling" or Damon Knight). One does not readily imagine those writers giving their days to the invention of new critical terminology and their nights to the study of Parisian semiotics. Delany, however, is an avowed theoretician for whom the critical activity is as arduous and intricate as a process of scientific discovery. This is not to say that he is much concerned with the accumulation of knowledge about the literary history and cartography of SF, which has played so large a part in the study of the genre by academics trained outside it. If the process of scholarship is like the building of some vast pyramid -- in which far more workers are needed around the base than can ever aspire to the construction of the apex -- Delany's concern is more with the elaboration of a series of prisms, whose main property is that they refract and resolve the light played upon them from outside. Not all his prisms have equal refractive powers, yet to have looked into them is to have glimpsed some new and dazzling configurations in the SF he discusses.

The Jewel-Hinged Jaw is a retrospective collection of essays, some of which (such as the classic "About 5,750 Words") will be already familiar to SFS readers. The essays, however, have all been slightly revised, and the longest and most forceful of them -- an examination of Le Guin's The Dispossessed, of which more will be said later -- appears for the first time. The American Shore is a prolonged sequence of meditations on and around a single SF story, "Angouleme," from the 334 series by Thomas M. Disch. The format of this volume is indebted to Barthes' S/Z, though Delany artfully hints that its predecessors might also include Nabokov's Pale Fire. Still earlier precedents might be found in James Joyce, and Delany seems to envisage the kind of intense, pedantic scrutiny that present-day Joyceans bring to the text of Finnegans Wake as a viable method for SF studies. The American Shore is a painstaking and praiseworthy demonstration of such a critical method, which does, however, put severe constraints on a free-ranging intelligence such as Delany's. His best essays, in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, are those in which he begins with large questions rather than small textual units, and is able to play the hare as well as the academic tortoise.

Nevertheless, the nature of the "textual unit" has always been Delany's prime concern. He is almost alone among SF critics in that his interests are consistently verbal. "About 5,750 Words" restates the generic problem of defining SF by asking "Precisely what sort of word-beast sits before us?" In this essay, his first attempt to characterize the word-beast, he attributes to it a particular "level of subjunctivity." SF deals with the class of "events that have not happened," a category which subsumes, but is by no means exhausted by, the naturalistic register of "events that could have happened." The implication is that a larger number of events are available to SF than to realism, and Delany has never hesitated to make the further claim that SF is thus by definition a literature of greater potentiality: quantity must one day be transformed into quality. This claim, that SF is intrinsically richer as a field than what he now calls "mundane fiction," runs throughout the two books under review. SF has the capacity to generate more new sentences than mundane fiction (hereafter MF), just as the abstract painter has a larger possible repertoire than his realistic counterpart (cf. the essay "Shadows," in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw). SF is "trivalent" and "mystical," inhabiting a "boundariless plane" or indeed a "roiling ocean" of possibilities; MF, by contrast, must adhere to its Stendhalian destiny of plodding along a one-lane highway, dully mirroring the "steady drone of the world's discourse" (The American Shore, pp. 1, 58).

Such assertions, unexceptionable when they are simply intended as morale-boosters for the SF fraternity, become perverse and untenable when they are used (as in various passages in The American Shore) to berate realistic fiction. "Mundane fiction," a pejorative-sounding term to my ears, seems to have become in Delany's recent work a convenient abstraction of the same order as the semioticians' hypostatized "realist text." Quantitative criteria for the linguistic superiority of SF over MF have little value unless they confront the problem of meaningfulness. I suspect that what Delany wishes to argue is that SF is capable of generating more thoroughly "writerly" texts (to use Barthes's term) than is realism. If so, the empirical evidence to date scarcely bears this out. Most of the "events that have not happened" portrayed by SF writers are strongly reminiscent of events with which, in fact or fiction, we are already familiar. (For example, Delany does not sufficiently distinguish in "About 5,750 Words" between truly "mystical" SF and that which is based on a fanciful treatment of Christianity.) His comparison of the SF-MF division to that between abstract and representational art might be extended to include the distinction between random and non-random sequences in any medium. Whenever an element of randomness is introduced, the number of possible sequences is increased; at the same time, a smaller proportion of the total number of sequences is fitted to become the bearer of meanings. Moreover, Delany's contention that meaningful SF is necessarily more "plurivalent" than MF seems to assume that MF both posits and relies on automatic agreement between its writers, narrators, characters, and readers as to the location of the "empirical world." Not only does all fiction rest on some degree of conflict about the nature of the world (even if it is only the conflict between the man slipping on the banana-skin and the spectator), but a great deal of modern fiction has been devoted to exploding the assumption that such conflicts can eventually be resolved. In a novelist like Virginia Woolf, the "mundane" is only the lowest common denominator among the individual solipsisms which it is the writer's real concern to project.

The above criticisms do not stem from a lack of sympathy with what I take to be Delany's fundamental concern -- which is to establish the relative autonomy of the S-F imagination. His overstatements result from a justifiable determination to see that the verbal poetics of SF is not swallowed up in a general poetics of realism. SF, he argues in The American Shore, "uses the future as a convention to present a significant distortion of the present" -- a distortion not allegorical or satirical in its essence, but the result of "random combination and orderly recomplication" (p. 45). In The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, he offers a sentence from Heinlein's Beyond This Horizon -- "The door dilated" -- as a touchstone of the new and unique images which SF creates, and which make it something more than an "estranged" commentary on the real world. But, though he celebrates the purely "fictive" character of SF in this way, Delany does not treat it as an abstract art. At his best, indeed, he is an outstanding observer of the referential and conventional qualities -- what he calls the "structural stability" -- of SF language and characterization.

The American Shore is Delany's most intricate inquiry into SF language. Despite his use of structuralist vocabulary and rhetoric, what he offers is not a prescriptive science of the text, or even a framework for one (in the manner of such books as Jonathan Culler's Structuralist Poetics and Terry Eagleton's Criticism and Ideology). His division of "Angouleme" into 287 "lexias" for the purposes of commentary and analysis is evidently a fairly arbitrary division, and the commentary itself, for all its sometimes baffling theoreticism, seems meant to persuade and (no doubt) to overwhelm the reader, rather than to magisterially instruct him. The best frame of mind in which to approach this "set of interdependent functions, mutually supportive operations, of translations and transformations, of positionings, recalls, and progressions" (p. 210) worked on Disch's story might be to regard it as the narrative of a textual voyage as intricate and interminable as that of the Ancient Mariner.

"Angouleme," a brief tale set in a very recognizable Manhattan townscape early in the 21st century, might at first sight seem unpromising material for such scrutiny. Its central conceit (which I do not recall Delany discussing directly) is simply that of an America in which the degree of intellectual sophistication and knowingness once reserved for adults is to be found among pre-teenage gangs. The purpose of The American Shore is to explore the richness and valency which such writing derives from its SF or "subjunctive" status. Far from giving his reader a calm passage across these textual waters, Delany is concerned to impress upon him that they are the haunt of albatrosses, water-snakes, and other fabulous word-beasts.

The Dispossessed, unlike "Angouleme," treats of alien creatures on another planet; nevertheless, it too has an inescapably "realistic" texture. Where he implies that "Angouleme" is in its essence not mundane but SF, Delany surprisingly -- and, I would say, courageously -- argues that The Dispossessed is in certain respects not realistic enough. That is, he subjects Le Guin's novel to a rigorous and highly personal standard of truth to mundane experience. No real self-contradiction seems to be involved here, though his essay certainly reveals its author's remarkable abilities both as a controversialist and a dialectician. The Dispossessed, it will be remembered, was acclaimed as one of the monumental SF works of the 1970s, from the moment of its first appearance. Delany sets out to convince us, with passion and seriousness, that the novel is flawed artistically and is not nearly as impressive as it conceivably might have been. The risks involved in such a demonstration are manifold, not least when attempted by a fellow-novelist with a strong leaning toward the anecdotal. The result, however, is not to be missed. As criticism it is in a class apart from the previous writing on The Dispossessed that I have read.

Just how large is the sum-total of the artistic failures in The Dispossessed that Delany detects? Le Guin's warmest admirers might be less than shaken to learn that her opening paragraphs are woodenly written, that her portrayal of male sexuality is unconvincing, and that her descriptions of Shevek's scientific researches are vague and unscientific. If this is enough to get her sent to jail, most other SF novelists ought to be tried for murder. But this is not quite the point. In the first place, SF claims a higher literary dignity, and thus needs to be judged by severer standards, than was the case 20 years ago. In the second place, we should look at Delany's underlying argument, which concerns the generic multivalence of SF, and the emergence of narrative conventions designed to bring that multivalence under control, lest it should become a destructive ambivalence. In The Dispossessed, he argues, Le Guin at certain moments deserts the genre conventions in favor of an ostensibly more "literary" treatment (as, for example, in her description of Shevek's discovery of the Theory of Simultaneity) and, in the process, falls into precisely the traps that the conventions were designed to avoid. To put it in a slightly different way from that proposed by Delany, one might say that the problem of reading certain passages of The Dispossessed lies in the uncertain distancing of the central characters from the reader. How "realistic" are the situations intended to be in this novel, which discards the romance conventions used with such mastery by the earlier Le Guin in favor of the detailed factuality of 19th-century realism (Delany suggests the presence of the Russian novelists and, specifically, of Constance Garnett's translations of these novelists, as a stylistic model)? A good deal of awkwardness is involved when we try, for example, to visualize the "realistic" love-scenes between Shevek and Takver, or to empathize with their use of sexual vocabulary. If at one level this is a speculative novel of utopian relationships, there is a subterranean level -- which the reader might suppress if he could -- on which it is a novel of aliens with furry faces. Obviously, we cannot identify with Shevek and Takver with the completeness with which we identify with Tolstoy's Russians. Yet the narrative tends to veer between acknowledging and obscuring this difficulty -- between a conception of character and environment that is realistic and one that is largely symbolic.

This restatement of the grounds of Delany's inquisition into The Dispossessed in terms of "genre" and "convention" may perhaps misrepresent it; and in any case, the details of the inquisition cannot be summarized here. It will be clear that "To Read The Dispossessed" is wholly serious criticism, based on a considered view of what SF is. And one thing that Delany believes it is is a major literature, making demands on writers, readers, and critics of a kind considered quite inappropriate in the days of the SF ghetto. SF is, however -- one would surmise from these two volumes -- a literature without any real tradition. The act of faith on Delany's part which makes possible such exhaustive analyses of Le Guin and Disch can only be based on the genre's present vitality and future potential. Delany is by no means the first to manifest such confidence in regard to SF's future, but his dual position as critic and novelist constitutes a special claim on our attention. Unlike the academic scholars, he may well be judged by the very standards that he invokes. In the meantime, among the somewhat bewildering variety of discourses in these two volumes, I would select his concluding remarks on The Dispossessed as giving the greatest sense of his critical abilities:

The Dispossessed will excite young and generous readers -- indeed, will excite any reader beginning to look at our world and us in it. And it will excite for a long time.... Nevertheless, some of these excited readers who return to the book a handful of years later will find themselves disillusioned: What excited them, they will see, was the book's ambition more than its precise accomplishments. But hopefully -- a year or so after that -- they will reach another stage where they will be able to acknowledge that ambition for what it was and value it; and know how important, in any changing society, such ambition is.

I suspect that these sentences will continue to read well in the years ahead.

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