Reading for Delany

The beauty of "Stories for Chip" is the way in which work that celebrates Delany generates new sentences full of possibility and danger.

By Mark C. JerngMarch 13, 2016

Stories for Chip by Bill Campbell and Nisi Shawl. Rosarium Publishing. 350 pages.

PICKING UP Stories for Chip: A Tribute to Samuel R. Delany, one is inevitably drawn to read for Delany. The genre of the tribute anthology — this one collecting 33 pieces of fiction and nonfiction (a remarkable 24 of which were written originally for this volume) in order to celebrate the achievement, influence, and genius of Samuel R. Delany — invites a search for the author and his influence. What themes or subject matter from Delany’s rich and varied oeuvre might we see referenced or reimagined in the collection? What echoes of language, style, or description might be heard? We can read for Delany’s impact on the various traditions that his work has famously inhabited and transformed — SF, fantasy, pornography, autobiography, African-American literature, and queer fiction, among others. We might read for the presence of identity categories — black and queer — that have marked his critical and popular reception. We wouldn’t necessarily be wrong in taking such an approach. After all, two of the most common interview questions asked of Delany throughout his career have to do with these critical obsessions of genre and identity: Why does Delany write SF? (Or the condescending version — why write SF as opposed to high literature?) How has being a “black, gay writer” impacted his writing? (Even more narrowly — how does such and such character or theme reflect his experiences as a black, gay man?)

To be sure, one quickly finds in Stories for Chip an astonishing variety of genres: interstellar, planet-hopping SF like Delany’s Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand or Babel-17; sword and sorcery as Delany deployed it in his Nevèrÿon series; queer fiction echoing Delany’s Dark Reflections and, most recently, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders. One also finds deeply nuanced and committed explorations of racial, sexual, and class identities that show the way Delany expanded fields of writing in relation to identity. But to draw connections between the short fiction collected in Stories for Chip and Delany in this way would be to reduce genre to a static set of conventions and to regard identity as a hard shell in need of cracking. That is what comes from attaching the proper name “Delany” to the labels of genres and the categories of social identities. Reading for Delany is a difficult task indeed, and we must be wary of this reductiveness. Just ask Robert Bravard and Michael Peplow, who wrote an early bibliographical essay on Delany’s writings titled “Through a Glass Darkly: Bibliographing Samuel R. Delany” in Black American Literature Forum. They describe their wild goose chase: “Soon we began to discover a variety of odd errors in the literature about Delany. Reviewers and scholars misspelled his last name, the Library of Congress and other respected sources miscatalogued him.” Delany becomes “Delaney” or even “DeLany” on the title pages of his own books, on program books honoring him, and in reviews. In the National Union Catalog, Delany was listed as an “English author.” We might describe this state of affairs as simply the result of bad fact-checking or profound disrespect (after all, by the time of the writing of the bibliographical essay, Delany had already won multiple Nebula Awards and been nominated for the Hugo Award, the highest honors within SF writing). But the drift of textual errata also speaks to something else. If it is so difficult to attach the name “Delany” to even the title pages of his books, it is because the names Delany/Delaney/DeLany shift in all sorts of directions in relation to social forces and habits of organizing meaning. The name “Delany” is continually in motion: it is reinscribed within a homophobic context here; it opens up intersections between racism and science fiction there; its misclassification as an “English author” serves hierarchies of “high” and “low” cultural production.

The precise workings of identities-in-motion as they encounter varying contextual forces is something that Delany insistently narrates. In his essay “Coming/Out,” Delany speaks about the specific moment when he “became ‘Samuel R. Delany, the black, gay science fiction writer’ in the straight media” (in Shorter Views: Queer Thoughts and the Politics of the Paraliterary, 1999). As if in response to this reduction structured by “straight media” and the growing fixity of the phrase “black, gay science fiction writer,” Delany puts this identity in motion in his autobiographical work The Motion of Light in Water (1993). In an otherwise prose autobiographical work, variations of the following refrain appear intermittently, often punctuating, separating, or connecting one section of writing:

A black man …?
A gay man …?
A writer …?

This refrain draws attention to how the phrase “black, gay writer” can reduce our understandings of the author’s experiences. At the same time, as open-ended questions, as insertions into a set of personal events being recounted, the refrain opens up the possibilities of reconfiguring how these phrases might or might not relate to the meaning distilled from these experiences.

For a writer whose reception has been deeply influenced by these categories, Stories for Chip reminds us that what is influential and powerful is not simply these identities as such but the way in which Delany put them into motion. Various stories playfully refer to Delany, but they do so with a canny awareness of the encounters among name, authorial identity, and contextual forces. In Nalo Hopkinson and Nisi Shawl’s “Jamaica Ginger,” the female protagonist, Plaquette, creates a punchcard story called “They Fly at Çironia” by “Della R. Mausney.” Hopkinson and Shawl do more than wink at both Delany’s novel They Fly at Çiron and Delany’s own use of anagrams of his name in his fictions. The story that Plaquette writes is the catalyst for doing the unthinkable: getting out of a situation that seems impossibly overdetermined by the social forces of gender, colonialism, and economics. The appearance of “Della R. Mausney” as Plaquette in this story links the construction of authorship with the imagining of possibility within impossible circumstances. In Jewelle Gomez’s “Be Three,” one character recounts how he learned that words could change a life from a “queer colored man who wrote books in the 20th century. I tried reading some. Way too smart for me.” The character in “Be Three” goes on: “I read an interview with him and he talked about the sensuality of words; I’d never thought about that before. And how he fell in love with a word when he was a kid: Wolverine!” “Wolverine” becomes the code word through which the main character in “Be Three” can access friends and protection for her revolutionary mission. Words transform worlds. Rather than just a nod to the celebrated author, “Delany” shifts the potential actions and movements of the protagonist. It makes other things doable and other sentences sayable.

Della R. Mausney. Samuel R. Delany. Plaquette. Wolverine. There are stories within stories behind these words. Shifting them one way or another can open or close linguistic and narrative possibilities quickly. This is close to Delany’s notion of “landscape.” In “Letter to a Critic: Popular Culture, High Art, and the S-F Landscape” (The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, 2009), Delany responds to criticisms that there is no “style” in SF, that it is all ideas and no artistry: “There are very few ‘ideas’ in science fiction. The resonance between an idea and a landscape is what it’s all about.” In “Shadows” (Longer Views, 1996), Delany talks about the science fiction writer’s “delight over inserting new facts into unfamiliar landscapes.” Delany is not using landscape as a synonym for setting. He does not mean the geographical background or historical time period in which the action of a plot takes place. He means the narrative and linguistic field of the space and time of a story. For example, when Delany begins his story “Citre et Trans” (in Atlantis: Three Tales, 1995) with the line “All Greek men are barbarians!,” as spoken by the character Heidi, he is not just producing the setting of “20th-century Greece” for the story. He is layering the long linguistic context of Greek into our understandings of social interactions in Greece — specifically that the Western world inherits the word barbarian from Greek, a word used in the past to denote all people who spoke a language other than Greek. It is in this sense, as Gomez recognizes in her story, that “Wolverine” can become part of a revolutionary landscape.

In his introduction to Stories for Chip, Kim Stanley Robinson calls this engagement with Delany the “Delanyspace,” or the way in which Delany gives us “new cognitive maps, which reorient us to our experiences and to our own thoughts.” In exploring Delany’s use of “landscape,” I change the emphasis slightly in order to foreground his strategic use of disorientation, a disorientation that pushes us to new insights about how social meanings are composed in the first place. Reading Delany, for me, involves the thrill of being shifted into a different orientation, of being put in motion without a secure footing. Reading Stories for Chip extends that thrill through its attention to “landscape” in the sense above. One of my favorite moments in the volume is when Kai Ashante Wilson in “Légendaire” makes a passing reference to “two moons out at sea: one true, clear and still in heaven’s vault; another false, dappled and shuddering on the vast black waters,” a moment that recalls the surprising appearance of a second moon in the world of Delany’s Dhalgren. In Dhalgren, the appearance of the second moon shatters our sense of where we are. Moreover, the second moon is immediately disavowed and placed into another organization of meaning based in the explanatory narrative of racism. With this shifting of the landscape, Delany shows how our desire to stabilize where we are is deeply related to our need for racist explanations.

There are many other examples of this type of engagement with Delany’s landscapes in Stories for Chip. In Ellen Kushner’s “When Two Swordsmen Meet,” a young swordsman is directed to “Kolhari,” the name of a city in Delany’s Nevèrÿon series. Kushner picks up on the way in which Delany has transformed the linguistic possibilities of the swordfight. In Delany’s sword and sorcery Nevèrÿon series, the swordfight is not the occasion for a testing of wills and a battle over masculine and nationalist ideals of honor or truth. It emblematizes instead verbal exchange and the testing of social forms of gender and freedom. I am reminded of a scene at the end of Tales of Nevèrÿon in which two male lovers (Gorgik and Small Sarg) meet a masked woman and her female companion (Raven and Norema). Gorgik and Small Sarg fight to end slavery even as Gorgik wears a slave collar and Small Sarg calls him “master.” Raven and Norema are similarly engaged in freeing slaves, specifically female slaves. These two pairs do not join forces, nor do they fight as might be common in other fantasy stories. Only Delany can imagine the long, awkward conversation that captures the intricacies of sexual pleasure, mastery, and slavery. When Small Sarg declares that he and his master are free, Raven responds: “You both claim to be free, yet one of you bears the title ‘master’ and wears a slave collar at the same time? Surely you are two jesters.” Kushner’s refrain in her story — “When two swordsmen meet, no one knows what to expect” — reminds readers of the new universe of expectations in which Delany has placed us.

In Carmelo Rafala’s story, “Song for the Asking,” “Rydra” is the name given to a woman who is kept in a semiconscious state in a cage and whose powers of voice are potentially earth-shattering. The name “Rydra” recalls “Rydra Wong” from Delany’s Babel-17. Captain Rydra Wong is a poet and linguistic hacker whose expertise in language opens up a series of relationships between language and the colonization of minds and worlds. She is also an Asian woman protagonist in a novel published in 1966, a fact recently remarked upon by the novelist Tananarive Due as “a massive pronoun shift in the genre” in her essay “Samuel R. Delany’s Radical Feminism in Babel-17” in Cascadia Subduction Zone (2015). In Rafala’s story, the plot is driven by the paternalistic and self-aggrandizing desires of the man who attempts to control “Rydra.” Placed next to each other, Rafala’s and Delany’s Rydras reshape the landscape of gender within science fictional plots. Nick Harkaway’s story, “Billy Tumult,” which centers on a criminal/artist figure fighting a duel in a science-fictional Wild West, produces distinct resonances with the conjunction of artist and criminal that appears in many of Delany’s stories. In “Clones,” Alex Smith juxtaposes a story of queer romance with an interstellar mission to find sustainable life. This juxtaposition perhaps owes something to the powerful linking of the possibilities of queer love (between Marq Dyeth and Rat Korga) and planetary survival in Delany’s Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. Both stories imagine a social universe in which the survival or destruction of entire planets hinges on the capacities of queer love. Both refuse the easy assumption that social reproduction requires heterosexism.

Connections like these speak to Delany’s impact, but it is an impact that can be read not by imposing what we think we know about Delany’s authorial identity and using it as a window for understanding these stories. Nor can it be read by taking what we imagine as Delany’s transformations of genre and seeking similar transformations in the writers collected in this volume. In “Critical Methods/Speculative Fiction,” Delany’s early reflections on the idea of “influence,” he concludes: “This is the way the web of influence works, passing in and out of the genre, crossing national and language boundaries and returning.” Eschewing static boundaries between authors and traditions, Delany asks us to follow more subterranean webs of influence: barely visible techniques of presentation as they travel from one artist to another. Words, names, and sentences travel in unexpected ways. Landscapes are composed, decomposed, and recomposed. If Stories for Chip invites us to read for Delany, to see Delany’s influence, it would be best to look for places where the stories’ sentences, ideas, and concerns resonate with Delany’s landscapes. In “The Semiology of Silence” (in Silent Interviews, 2011), Delany calls himself a “sentence lover.” The beauty of Stories for Chip is the way in which Shawl’s and Campbell’s editorial call for work to celebrate Delany generates new sentences full of possibility and danger.


Mark C. Jerng is the author of Claiming Others: Transracial Adoption and National Belonging and is currently completing a second book titled Racial Worldmaking.

LARB Contributor

Mark C. Jerng is the author of Claiming Others: Transracial Adoption and National Belonging and is currently completing a book project titled Racial Worldmaking. He is Associate Professor of English at University of California, Davis.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!