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Starboard Wine: More Notes on the Language of Science Fiction
Samuel R. Delany
Wesleyan University Press, 288 pages

Starboard Wine: More Notes on the Language of Science Fiction
Samuel R. Delany
Samuel R. Delany was born in 1942 in Harlem, New York. He's lived in Greece, San Francisco and London but most of his life has been spent living in New York City. In 1988, he began working as a professor at the University of Massachusetts.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Fall of the Towers
SF Site Review: Dhalgren
SF Site Interview: Samuel R. Delany
SF Site Review: Nova

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

Samuel R. Delany is, to a large extent, responsible for me being a critic today. I had written a few desultory reviews when I first read The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, and I discovered how criticism should be done. The book taught me that a rigorous critical approach to the subject could be revealing, exciting, energising and, not least, thoroughly accessible. I learned about, understood and enjoyed science fiction far more for bringing to it the critical approach that I had picked up from Delany. And, of course, I was completely convinced by the arguments advanced. Delany remains, to my mind, one of the half dozen or so critics whose work is essential for anyone who wants to understand the genre.

But that was more than 30 years ago. Returning to those same arguments today, in this very welcome revised edition of Starboard Wine, I am less convinced. So let me say from the outset that it does not dampen my enthusiasm for this book, my intense admiration for Delany as a critic, or my belief that Starboard Wine belongs on the shelves of everyone interested in science fiction, if I say that I now disagree with just about every page in the book.

Understand that I believe disagreement is a vital part of critical engagement. We learn more when we test our own views against those of others, particularly against the views of those we admire, because it helps us to see in practice how our argument does or does not stand up. So it is not really a criticism of the book that my response to essay after essay was: no, on reflection I don't believe that.

For a start, the book is a product of its time. The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction came out in 1977, and Starboard Wine (which is clearly intended as a companion to the earlier volume, as indicated by the subtitle: More Notes on the Language of Science Fiction) was first published in 1984. As Delany points out in his introduction, most of the pieces that make up the book were written in the late 70s, at the same time that he was writing The American Shore, his book-length study of Thomas M. Disch's short story "Angouleme," reference to which sounds like a Greek Chorus throughout this work. In other words the collection revisits ideas he had been rehearsing since the 60s, and with which he was intensively engaged during the course of writing the Disch book.

It was a time in which science fiction was going through something of a boom. Delany is constantly quoting statistics that show how many more science fiction books were being published than had previously been the case, and how significant a proportion of American publishing these books now counted for. Yet despite, or perhaps because of this growing popularity, and regardless of the fact that the first sf course at an American university had been held in the early 50s, it was a time when science fiction was still an object of disdain and discrimination. "Professor X's face turned rank. "Science fiction?" she said. "Oh, shit!"" (90) is a typical example of the anecdotes that litter this book. This was also a time in which the ideas of Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida were beginning to seep out of the academy (even if, on the outside, we never fully appreciated the "Theory Wars" they had precipitated). In his perceptive introduction, Matthew Cheney shows how much Delany's ideas were informed by Derrida's notion of différance.

Starboard Wine, therefore, is the point where these things all clash: the optimistic sense that sf was on an upward curve plus the sense of it as an outsider literature (Delany constantly refers to it as paraliterature, my first point of disagreement with him; I think the changes in attitudes towards the writing and reading of fiction over the last 30 years mean that you can only lump science fiction into paraliterature, alongside pornography and journalism, if you adopt a tendentiously narrow interpretation of literature) plus the new critical approaches offered by the French theorists. Add to this Delany's idea that science fiction is a language, and that any criticism of the genre is therefore an examination of its grammar, and we have the basic position that underlies everything in this book.

One consequence of the idea of science fiction as a language is that it must, therefore, be structurally different from the language that is realist fiction (which he calls, variously, "contemporary bourgeois fiction" or "mundane fiction"), and most of the essays gathered here are, to some degree or other, concerned with emphasising that difference. "The writer of mundane fiction tells a story set against a more or less vividly evoked section of the given world... and these conventions... have far more to do with other works of fiction than with anything "real". The SF writer, however, creates a world" (29). By using constantly repeated motifs -- "the door dilated," "she turned on her right side," etc. -- many of them familiar from The Jewel-Hinged Jaw and rendered almost tedious by the number of times they crop up here, he seeks to demonstrate that we are forced to adopt different reading protocols when reading a science fiction story to when we read a mainstream story. What is metaphorical in one may well be actual in the other, what is describing a world in one is creating a world in the other.

I can't agree, for the simple reason that it implies a reading of mainstream fiction that is far from what we actually do when we confront such a text. World creation, world-building, is often presented as one of the defining characteristics of science fiction. Whether a story takes place on a distant planet, in the far future, on a parallel Earth, or in the here and now into which there has been the intrusion of an alien visitation or a marvellous machine, there is a sense that the entire setting of the story is thus rendered unknown to us, and therefore the patient establishment of the new reality must take precedence over other literary concerns such as characterisation, narrative structure and the like. Indeed there are moments when the different grammar that Delany is discussing has a curious equivalence to the infodump. And yet the Tudor London of Hilary Mantel's Bring Up The Bodies or the poetry underworld of contemporary Mexico City in Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives (to name just two of the mainstream novels I have read recently) are both as alien to me as the settings of any science fiction novel. In other words, world-building is as much a function of mainstream fiction as it is of science fiction, and literary techniques such as characterisation (in the Mantel) and narrative structure (in the Bolaño) are part of the way they create the world. It should be said, also, that many of the more successful of our contemporary science fiction writers now similarly use such literary techniques as part of their world-building.

To put it another way, the worlds that science fiction writers create are as much conventions growing out of other fictions as anything by a realist writer. So when he says, "I prefer to see the differences between science fiction, fantasy, and mundane fiction largely as the differences in the conventions, interpretations, questions, expectations, and responses the various texts encourage the reader to bring to the reading" (143) I would agree, but with the proviso that everything he lists here is unstable and so the differences will exist between individual works of science fiction or individual works of mainstream fiction as much as they exist between any particular exemplar of science fiction and any particular exemplar of mainstream fiction. And they are differences that will change with time. A reading of, shall we say, Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles in 1950 when it was first published would encourage very different reading protocols than would a reading of the same book now; indeed, a book might encourage very different reading protocols in the same reader when encountered at 20 and when re-discovered at 40. So, although I would agree with Delany about the importance of reading protocols in the engagement we have with works of science fiction or any other genre, I am not sure we are in agreement on what we consider reading protocols to be.

Incidentally, and in passing, it is worth noting that the entire thrust of Delany's book is concerned with the difference between science fiction and mundane fiction. The passage I have just quoted is one of the few occasions when fantasy is even mentioned. In contrast, it seems to me that much of the current taxonomic work on science fiction is primarily concerned with laying out the differences between science fiction and fantasy. This is, presumably, instructive about the way our views of the relative position of science fiction in the literary firmament have changed over the intervening years. Or perhaps it is just a reflection of the fact that fantasy has now overtaken science fiction as the sort of marketing phenomenon that Delany was extolling.

Four writers stand out as his exemplars of what science fiction does: from the generation before his, Robert A. Heinlein and Theodore Sturgeon; and from his generation, Joanna Russ and Thomas Disch. Individual essays on each of these form the core of the book. He is good on Heinlein's technical innovation, though "at an extremely high cost, both ethically and aesthetically" (37) (in line with György Lukács, Delany regards these as the same thing), though I suspect that more modern critics might consider the ethical and aesthetical failures as more significant than Delany clearly does. He is better on Sturgeon for "the single most important body of science fiction by an American to date" (37), though again we might quibble. At his best, Sturgeon really did stand out, but he wasn't always at his best, and I suspect his influence on later writers has declined somewhat. Russ and, even more so, Disch, are served best of all, partly, I suspect, because he sees the three of them as being engaged on the same enterprise. The essays on Heinlein and Sturgeon are full of a sense of this being the work he discovered when he was first getting into science fiction, the work that inspired him when he first began writing in the genre. Also, fairly obviously, his return again and again to Heinlein's line about the door dilating shows this work as fitting neatly into his vision of science fiction as a language. The essays on Russ and Disch, in contrast, are full of a sense of currency: this is where science fiction is, this is where it should be, this is where it needs to be; as if, in their work, the genre has reached its apotheosis. Which provides a very useful way assessing Delany's view of science fiction, but I am less sure that it serves as a description of the actual state of science fiction even in 1980.

But then, Delany's historical perspective on science fiction is not one I happen to share. The last and, in some ways, the best of the essays in this book, "Reflections on Historical Models," is also, I feel, one of the most problematic. It is the summation of views about the history of the genre that are implicit throughout all that has preceded it. He is, for instance, dismissive of early sf; where he consistently asks us to read Heinlein and Sturgeon in the context of their time, ignoring clear ethical and aesthetical failings because that was the cultural norm, he cannot extend the same courtesy to anything earlier. Between the 50s and the 70s, or perhaps more accurately between Heinlein and Disch, science fiction achieved a state of perfection. It is acceptable to discuss science fiction from Gernsback onwards, because that recogniseably feeds into the science fiction of Heinlein and his confreres; but before then, or indeed after that, evolutionary changes in the literature do not apply. He discards Lucian and Thomas More and Mary Shelley from the history of science fiction on the rather cavalier grounds that contemporary writers do not read them. Maybe not, but contemporary writers will have read earlier writers who will in turn have read these originals. The ongoing line of influence that he traces from Heinlein to Disch (an absolutely essential part of the story if we are to accept his claims for Heinlein's technical innovations, since otherwise those innovations would presumably have died with Heinlein), does not seem to apply to those who influenced Heinlein. The forms, ideas, modes of any fiction evolve over generations; because something is not, cannot be read as, a contemporary novel does not mean that it played no part in the genesis of that contemporary work.

This dismissal from the body of science fiction of anything pre-Gernsback is an inevitable and logical consequence of his approach to science fiction as a set of reading protocols. Rigorously applied, his notion of a reading protocol demands that any literary form must begin with its extreme expression. In other words, he argues, science fiction must have begun with extravagant space opera, only when readers learned the broad brush conventions that allowed them to read these extremes would writers be able to advance to more subtle forms, such as near-future stories or parallel worlds. So the early science fiction, from the 17th to the 19th centuries, which does indeed start with the more subtle forms and evolves over time to the broader expressions of genre, therefore by definition cannot play a part in that literary history.

So much of what Delany tells me about the nature of science fiction in this book does not conform with how I perceive the genre. This may simply be a consequence of the way that science fiction has evolved over the 30 years or so since this book was written, but it makes for contentious reading. And yet, whether one agrees with his fundamental principles or not, one has to admire the rigor with which he then applies those principles, the wholly consistent way in which he builds his particular edifice of science fiction. The book may be wrong, as I see it, yet it is still important, because the way he approaches science fiction, his method, his rigor, are vitally important. At one point he says: "Science fiction is a tool to help you think; and like anything that really helps you think, by definition it doesn't do the thinking for you. It's a tool to help you think about the present -- a present that is always changing" (13). And that holds equally true about this book. It will not think about science fiction for you, but it will undoubtedly help you to think about it.

Copyright © 2013 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. His collection of essays and reviews, What it is we do when we read science fiction is published by Beccon Publications.

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