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Stories for Chip: A Tribute to Samuel R. Delany, edited by Nisi Shawl and Bill Campbell, Rosarium Publishing, 2015, $28.95 hc, $9.99 ebook.
Octavia's Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements, edited by Walidah Imarisha and adrienne maree brown, AK Press and The Institute for Anarchic Studies, 2015, $18 pb, $10.99 ebook.
Flying Home: Seven Stories of the Secret City, by David Nicholson, Paycock Press, 2015, $12.95 pb, $4.99 ebook.
"Dhalgren," by Samuel R. Delany…is the long-awaited major novel by a writer who won four Nebula Awards in the 1960s and who was undoubtedly the most interesting member of that group of S.F. mavericks known collectively as the New Wave. His last novel appeared in 1968. Since then, by all accounts, he has been hard at work on a truly big book, his magnum opus. In some S.F. circles, Delany's project has been treated as the equivalent of Norman Mailer's self-touted major novel—the book that Mailer insists will prove to the world that he belong in the same room with Mr. Tolstoi and Mr. Dostoevsky.
It takes a writer of unusual gifts to make a work-in-progress seem more interesting than most published novels. The world is still waiting for Mailer's big one. Delany, at the age of 32, has now delivered.
A dense, transgressive, hallucinatory, Joycean tour-de-force, Dhalgren sent shockwaves through contemporary literature. The novel's famous first
to wound the autumnal city
Waiting here, away from the terrifying weaponry, out of the halls of vapor and light, beyond holland and into the hills, I have come to
lines complete the circular narrative of this literary ouroboros, and can be quoted by heart by legions of readers. Despite the challenges of reading its 800+ pages (some of which contain a journal that acts as a novel-within-the-novel, offset in separate columns on the same page as the "conventional" text), Dhalgren became a huge bestseller. The original Bantam mass market paperback went through nineteen printings, and there have been later editions from publishers including Wesleyan University Press and Vintage, all of which have also seen multiple printings. To date, the book has sold something like a million and a quarter copies, and influenced generations of writers, including this reviewer: As both reader and writer, I can draw a line through my life: BC (Before Chip) and AD (After Dhalgren).
If you consult Amazon, unreliable bellwether that it is, you will find Mailer's books filed under "Mystery," "Literature and Suspense," etcetera. Dhalgren is listed under "Classics." And those New Wave mavericks Jonas mentions were no slouches either: A cursory list would include Pamela Zoline, J. G. Ballard, Thomas M. Disch, Carol Emshwiller, Joanna Russ, Michael Moorcock, Harlan Ellison, James Sallis, John Sladek, M. John Harrison, Brian Aldiss, and Angela Carter.
Delany wasn't unknown before Dhalgren. His first novel, The Jewels of Aptor, was published in 1962, when he was just twenty. By the end of the decade, he'd published nine additional novels, including Babel-17, The Einstein Intersection, and Nova, as well as his perhaps best-known shorter works, the award-winning "Aye, and Gomorrah" and "Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones." Like Dhalgren, "Aye, and Gomorrah" has a now-famous opening—"And came down in Paris:"—that plunges the reader into a dizzying narrative freefall with its depiction of a world—worlds—in which gender fluidity, surgically altered eunuchs, and sexual fetishes are discussed at once casually and with the intellectual fervor that is a hallmark of all of Delany's work, fiction and non-fiction. A gay African-American man, he made race and ethnicity, sexual identity and gender, an essential part of the ongoing literary conversation in both speculative and mainstream fiction; along with semiotics, pornography and erotic obsession, rape, colonialism and post-colonialism, and a deep familiarity with the works of Foucault, Rimbaud, William H. Gass, Richard Powers, Guy Davenport, Flaubert, Hart Crane, and Nabokov, among myriad others.
"From 1968 on, I was pretty much 'the black gay SF writer,'" Delany said in a 2001 interview. "Whenever a writer begins to garner a reputation, various 'biographemes'...begin to sediment out. They're all ridiculously restrictive.... Chester Himes is that black literary writer who ended up writing detective fiction. Jackson Pollock was a loud drunk who did drip paintings. What ridiculous summations for any artist's work!"
Any attempt to pigeonhole Delany's writings—by genre, subject matter, publication date—is doomed. His later works have had as much impact as his earlier writing: his watershed 1988 essay "Race and Science Fiction;" the marvelous, underrated science fiction novel Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand; the Nevèrÿon sequence, which deconstructs the sword and sorcery subgenre through the lenses of colonialism, BDSM, and the shift from a pre- to a modern economy; a short literary fantasy, They Fly at Çiron; The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, The American Shore, and Starboard Wine, essential works on writing and understanding science fiction; his award-winning memoir, The Motion of Light on Water; transgressive novels Hogg and The Madman, which Delany called "pornotopic fantasy"; and his most recent novel, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders. He's also the subject of a memorable 2007 documentary, "The Polymath." To start to list any of Delany's influential writing is to risk listing his oeuvre.
All of this is by way of heralding the publication of Nisi Shawl's and Bill Campbell's glorious Delany tribute anthology, Stories for Chip, a brilliant assemblage of stories and essays nearly as wide-ranging and entertaining as Delany's own body of work. "My own life became more exciting because of his writing," Kim Stanley Robinson states in his introduction; "this was an intense feeling, a kind of joy." It's a kind of visionary joy, as Isaiah Lavender III makes clear in his essay on Delany, race, and science fiction, where he quotes from Starboard Wine.
"…if science fiction has any use at all, it is that among all its various and variegated future landscapes it gives us [black people] images for our future."
That joy irradiates every page of this volume, which has enough beautifully articulated, and sometimes bleak, visions of future and past landscapes to populate an entire galaxy. Later in his intro, Robinson proposes "Delanyesque" as an adjective, like Orwellian or Kafkaesque. And while it's certainly an apt description of these stories and essays, one of the most remarkable things about the writings here is how powerful they are on their own. Nearly every one of these tales could be the standout in any fiction collection in which they appeared, and the Delany-specific essays, by Lavender (noted above), Walidah Imarisha, L. Timmel Duchamp, and Michael Swanwick, are equally fine.
Shawl and Campbell have gathered an extraordinary crowd of writers, well-known and emerging authors alike, and one of the delights of Stories for Chip is how strong the newer talent is. Some of the stories have been previously published. The best-known of these reprints are Junot Diaz's "Nilda" (which first appeared in the New Yorker in 1999), whose fourteen-year-old prodigy has already read Dhalgren twice, and Thomas M. Disch's "The Master of the Milford Altarpiece" (Paris Review, 1969), in which autobiographical elements and some of Delany's own letters form part of a deceptively brief narrative that provides a (barely) fictionalized group portrait of some of the writers and artists associated with the New Wave. Kathryn Cramer's lovely "Characters in the Margins of a Lost Notebook" provides a more detailed, and amusing, fictional portrait of Delany, here called Jack.
"That was the first moment of my life realizing that there were some things I really did not want to know more about; and that Jack knew a lot of such things. I learned that there were questions, especially about sex, I should not ask, because Jack might know the answer."
And Eileen Gunn reframes a trip along the New Jersey Turnpike with Delany and Michael Swanwick as a dream journey.
Other stories evoke Delany's spirit. Ernest Hogan's reprint, the mindbending psychedelic fantasia "Guerrilla Mural of a Siren's Song," explores the Delanyesque theme of artist and muse in a tale that itself could be classified as a psychotropic drug. Sex is the lingua franca of Hal Duncan's "An Idyll in Erehwyna" (original to this collection), a tour-de-force that's perhaps the most Delanyesque of all the stories here, with its musings on quiddity and haecceity, mythological underpinnings (an immortal, sentient woman-tree that recalls the one in Dhalgren), and, most of all, its antic intellectual wordplay: "Skinsacks with a tuple of signifiers inside that could be scanned into a simulacrum—geist as soul.…"
Nisi Shawl teams up with Nalo Hopkinson for "Jamaica Ginger," an alternate history in which a black teenage girl in late nineteenth-century New Orleans reprograms a storytelling automaton created by her white male employer. Rather than endless iterations of "rich folk problems, white folk pitching woo," the automaton now recites the text of They Fly at Çironia, by Della R. Maunsey. In Sheree Renée Thomas's exquisite "River, Clap Your Hands," Hurricane Katrina serves as the engine for devastating loss, grief, and ultimately rebirth for its female protagonist.
With "Heart of Brass," Alex Jennings plays off Delany's love for comics (with artist Mia Wolff, Delany wrote the graphic novel Bread & Wine: An Erotic Tale of New York; in 1972 he penned two issues of Wonder Woman, before the arc was torpedoed by Gloria Steinem—truth really IS stranger than fiction). Jennings gleefully riffs off The New Mutants as his main character, Thea, goes solo as crimefighter Brass Monkey, rather than join her fellow superhero Academy students, who "christened themselves the Next and became a 'paranormal incident response team.'"
There are contributions by noted longtime writers. Ellen Kushner tips her feathered cap at Delany and her own fictional city of Riverside in a sword and sorcery montage. Nick Harkaway's "Billy Tumult" is a clever mashup of cyberpunk, Wild West shoot-'em-ups, and "Beowulf." Kit Reed and Geoff Ryman also contribute memorable work, as does Claude Lalumiére, in a marvelously compressed tale of time travel that owes something to James Tiptree, Jr. and H. P. Lovecraft, as well as Delany.
For me, however, the greatest pleasure in this volume came from reading those emerging writers who in recent years have begun to put their own indelible stamp on speculative literature. devorah major's haunting "Voice Prints" casts a spell in its depiction of bondage and escape through a narrative of alien contact: "I know what you are and you, well, you know as much of me as I let you." In Anil Menon's "Clarity," identities and realities shift like tectonic plates in the subduction zone. Chesya Burke's luminous, melancholy "For Sale: Fantasy Coffins (Ababuo Need Not Apply)" draws its power from Ghanaian ritual. Geetanjali Dighe's "The Last Dying Man" demonstrates that, in fiction, "lyrical" and "apocalyptic" are not mutually exclusive. Fábio Fernandes's "Eleven Stations" is an elegiacal meditation on death and the futility of humankind's striving for immortality.
And there is more: Roz Clarke's ghost hunters, Jewelle Gomez's empathic tattoo artists, Christopher Brown's vision of a near-future America's ambient government, and Benjamin Rosenbaum's remarkable tale of far-future gender and social engineering; along with stellar contributions from Haralambi Markov, Alex Smith, Carmelo Rafala, Vincent Czyz, and Tenea D. Johnson.
For this reader, the standout in this extremely large anthology was Kai Ashante Wilson's "'Légendaire.'"—a gorgeous, mesmerizing tale of the conflux of eros and magic that is art and the act of artistic creation. But every story here shines, not with the reflected light of Samuel Delany's own genius but with the power and conviction and sheer narrative joy of each individual writer. There's no better tribute than that to the enduring influence and imagination of a master artist.
"'Légendaire.'" first appeared in Bloodchildren, an anthology of stories by Octavia E. Butler Scholars who attended Clarion West. Butler, whose books include Parable of the Sower, Kindred, Wild Seed, the Xenogenesis sequence and the collection Bloodchild and Other Stories, was herself a graduate of Clarion, where Delany was one of her instructors. Since the 1976 publication of her first novel, Patternmaster, her work has exerted nearly as powerful an influence on contemporary speculative literature as his. In 1995, she was the first science fiction writer to receive a "Genius Grant" from the MacArthur Foundation, which said that "her imaginative stories are transcendent fables, which have as much to do with the future as with the present and the past." She died far too young at fifty-eight, in 2006.
In a lovely and heartfelt essay detailing her friendship with Butler, Tananarive Due recounts how Octavia recalled the epiphany she had as a twelve-year-old, watching a terrible sf movie: "Hell, I can write better than that!"
She could and she did. In her introduction to Octavia's Brood, Walidah Imarisha writes, "Whenever we try to envision a world without war, without violence, without prisons, without capitalism, we are engaging in an exercise of speculative fiction." Butler, whose work she was describing, helped shape a generation of writers, some of whose talent is on display in both Stories for Chip and now Octavia's Brood, an sf anthology from social justice movements.
As in the Delany volume, the talent on display is remarkable, from established names like Due, LeVar Burton, and Terry Bisson, as well as noted artists, filmmakers, journalists, and activists like Bao Phi, Alixa Garcia, Dawolu Jabari Anderson, David F. Walker, and Mumia Abu-Jamal, among numerous others. In Anderson's biting, laugh-out-loud "Sanford and Sun," Sun Ra and members of his Arkestra descend upon an episode of the 1970s sitcom, leaving Fred Sanford with an unforgettable utopian vision. Tara Betts's excellent "Runway Blackout" also uses an iconic black artist as a springboard, when a shapeshifting supermodel gives the narrator a copy of W.E.B. Dubois's The Souls of Black Folk as a parting gift.
"No struggle feels futile to the one struggling," realizes the protagonist of Tunde Olaniran's sublime, disturbing "Little Brown Mouse," in which a young man's apparent mental illness turns out to be something far more resonant and strange. In the near-future of Vagabond's "Kafka's Last Laugh," an Occupy-style protester's prison sentence involves Corrective Retail Operation Confinement, or CROC, also known as Prison Malls: "You're being assigned to serve out your work sentence at Galleria Prison Mall, at the Nordstrom perfume counter," the prison intake officer tells her. The superb excerpt from New Orleans poet/activist Kalamu Ya Salaam's novel Manhunters, with its echoes of both Butler and Ursula K. Le Guin, left me eager to read the entire book.
"How do you teach a history of hate in the name of love?" someone asks in "Hollow," Mia Mingus's paean to hope and survival in the face of genocide and exile. It's a question every single one of these writers has asked, and answered, in these outstanding stories. Their passionate voices demand and deserve to be heard; the fervor and confidence and power of their imaginations ensure that they will be.
Flying Home, David Nicholson's debut collection, touches on some of the same themes as the tales in Stories for Chip and Octavia's Brood, in particular black lives and the changes wrought by gentrification—in this case in Washington, D.C., where Nicholson for many years was an editor at the Washington Post Book World. His stories are elegant and quietly subversive; they bring to mind the work of Edward P. Jones, another chronicler of the real D.C., that secret city nestled within the Capitol like an acorn sprouting in the pocket of a Michael Bastian suit. None of the stories here are fantastical, except for the final one, "Saving Jimi Hendrix (Slight Return)" a meditation on the epiphanic power of Hendrix's art, and how it "offer[ed] the possibility of a way that was neither black nor white but both…the possibility for a kind of freedom that transcended definitions laid down by others."
It's the same sense of freedom and ecstatic possibility that fuels all of the stories discussed here. As the great Gil Scott-Heron put it, "All the dreams you show up in are not your own."
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Copyright © 1998–2019 Fantasy & Science Fiction All Rights Reserved Worldwide