The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction

The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction

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Samuel R. Delany's The Jewel-Hinged Jaw appeared originally in 1977, and is now long out of print and hard to find. The impact of its demonstration that science fiction was a special language, rather than just gadgets and green-skinned aliens, began reverberations still felt in science fiction criticism. This edition includes two new essays, one written at the time and one written about those times, as well as an introduction by writer and teacher Matthew Cheney, placing Delany's work in historical context. Close textual analyses of Thomas M. Disch, Ursula K. Le Guin, Roger Zelazny, and Joanna Russ read as brilliantly today as when they first appeared. Essays such as "About 5,750 Words" and "To Read The Dispossessed" first made the book a classic; they assure it will remain one.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780819568830
Publisher: Wesleyan University Press
Publication date: 07/07/2009
Edition description: Revised Edition
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Winner of both Hugo and Nebula awards, SAMUEL R. DELANY is a novelist and critic, who currently teaches English and creative writing at Temple University. His critical work has won him the Pilgrim Award for science fiction scholarship. MATTHEW CHENEY is a columnist for Strange Horizons and writes regularly about many topics at his weblog, The Mumpsimus.

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About 5,750 Words

Every generation some critic states the frighteningly obvious in the style/content conflict. Most readers are bewildered by it. Most commercial writers (not to say, editors) first become uncomfortable, then blustery; finally, they put the whole business out of their heads and go back to what they were doing all along. And it remains for someone in another generation to repeat:

Put in opposition to "style," there is no such thing as "content."

Now, speculative fiction is still basically a field of commercial writing. Isn't it obvious that what makes a given story SF is its speculative content? As well, in the middle and late sixties there was much argument about Old Wave and New Wave SF. The argument was occasionally fruitful, at times vicious, more often just silly. But the critical vocabulary at both ends of the beach included "... old style ... new style ... old content ... new content ..." The questions raised were always: "Is the content meaningful?" and "Is the style compatible with it?" Again, I have to say, "content" does not exist. The two new questions that arise then are: (1), How is this possible, and (2), What is gained by atomizing content into its stylistic elements?

The words content, meaning, and information are all metaphors for an abstract quality of a word or group of words. The one I would like to concentrate on is: information.

Is content real?

Another way to ask this question is: Is there such a thing as verbal information apart from the words used to inform?

Most of the vocabulary of criticism is set up to imply there is. Information is carried by/with/in words. People are carried by/with/in cars. It should be as easy to separate the information from the word as it is to open the door of a Ford Mustang: Content means something that is contained.

But let us go back to information, and by a rather devious route. Follow me:


As the above letters sit alone on the paper, the reader has no way to know what they mean. Do they indicate political tendencies or the sound made once you pass the b in bread? The word generates no significant information until it is put in formal relation with something else. This formal relation can be with a real object ("Red" written on the label of a sealed tin of paint) or with other words ("The breeze through the car window was refreshing. Whoops — red! He hit the brake").

The idea of meaning, information, or content as something contained by words is a misleading visualization. Here is a more apt one:

Consider meaning to be a thread (or better yet, the path) that connects a sound or configuration of letters called a "word" with a given object or group of objects (or better, memories of those objects). To know the meaning of a word is to be able to follow this thread from the sound to the proper recollections of objects, emotions, or situations — more accurately, to various image-modes of these objects/emotions/situations in your mind. Put more pompously, meanings (content or information) are the formal relations between sounds and images of the objective world.

Any clever logic student, from this point, can construct a proof for the etymological tautology, "All information is formal," as well as its corollary, "It is impossible to vary the form without varying the information." I will not try and reproduce it in detail. I would like to say in place of it, however, that "content" can be a useful word; but, again, it becomes invalid when it is held up to oppose style. Content is the illusion myriad stylistic factors create when viewed at a certain distance.

When I say it is impossible to vary the form without varying the information, I do not mean any formal change (e.g., the shuffling of a few words in a novel) must completely obviate the entire informational experience of a given work. Some formal changes are minimal; their effect on a particular collection of words may be unimportant simply because it is undetectable. But I am trying to leave open the possibility that the change of a single word in a novel may be all important.

"Tell me, Martha, did you really kill him?"


But in the paperback edition, the second line of type was accidentally dropped. Why should this deletion of a single word hurt the reader's enjoyment of the remaining 59,999 words of the novel ...

In my second published novel I recall the key sentence in the opening exposition described the lines of communication between two cities as "... now lost for good." A printer's error rendered the line "not lost for good," and practically destroyed the rest of the story.

But the simplicity of my examples sabotages my point more than it supports it. Here is another, more relevant:

I put some things on the desk.

I put some books on the desk.

I put three books on the desk.

I put three poetry books on the desk.

I put Hacker's Presentation Piece, Ebbe Borregaard's Sketches for Thirteen Sonnets, and Wakoski's Inside the Blood Factory on the desk.

The variations here are closer to the type people arguing for the chimera of content call meaningless. The information generated by each sentence is clearly different. But what we know about what was put on the desk is only the most obvious difference. Let's assume these are the opening sentences of five different stories. Five tones of voice are generated by the varying specificity. The tone will be heard — if not consciously noted — by whoever reads. And the different tones give different information about the personality of the speaker as well as the speaker's state of mind. That is to say, the I generated by each sentence is different.

As a writer utilizes this information about the individual speaker, his story seems more dense, more real. And he is a better artist than the writer who dismisses the variations in these sentences as minimal. This is what makes Heinlein a better writer than Van Vogt.

But we have not exhausted the differences in the information in these sentences when we have explored the differences in the "I ..." As we know something about the personality of the various speakers, and something about what the speaker is placing down, ranges of possibility are opened up about the desk (and the room around it) itself — five different ranges. This information is much harder to specify, because many other factors will influence it: does the desk belong to the speaker or someone about whom the speaker feels strongly; or has she only seen the desk for the first time moments before laying the books on it? Indeed, there is no way to say that any subsequent description of the desk is wrong because it contradicts specific information generated by those opening sentences. But once those other factors have been cleared up, one description may certainly seem "righter" than another, because it is reinforced by that admittedly vague information, different for each of the examples, that has been generated. And the ability to utilize effectively this refinement in generated information is what makes Sturgeon a better writer than Heinlein.

In each of those sentences the only apparent formal variation is the specificity of what I put on the desk. But by this change, the I and the desk change as well. Both the fictive subject and the equally complex (and equally important for science fiction) fictive object are rendered differently by these supposedly minimally different details. The illusion of reality, the sense of veracity in all fiction, is controlled by the author's sensitivity to these distinctions.

A story is not a replacement of one set of words by another — plot-synopsis, detailed recounting, or analysis. The story is what happens in the reader's mind as his eyes move from the first word to the second, the second to the third, and so on to the end of the tale.

Let's look more closely at what happens in this visual journey. How, for example, does the work of reading a narrative differ from watching a film? In a film the illusion of reality comes from a series of pictures each slightly different. The difference represents a fixed chronological relation which the eye and the mind together render as motion.

Words in a narrative generate tones of voice, syntactic expectations, memories of other words, and pictures. But rather than a fixed chronological relation, they sit in numerous inter- and overweaving relations. The process as we move our eyes from word to word is corrective and revisionary rather than progressive. Each new word revises the complex picture we had a moment before.

Around the meaning of any word is a certain margin in which to correct the image of the object we arrive at (in the old grammatical terms, to modify).

I say:


and an image jumps in your mind (as it did with "red"), but because I have not put it in a formal relation with anything else, you have no way to know whether the specific image in your mind has anything to do with what I want to communicate. Hence that leeway. I can correct it:

Collie dog, and you will agree. I can correct it into a big dog or a shaggy dog, and you will still concur. But a Chevrolet dog? An oxymoronic dog? A turgidly cardiac dog? For the purposes of ordinary speech, and naturalistic fiction, these corrections are outside acceptable boundaries: they distort in much too unusual a way the various images that we have attached to the sound "dog." On the other hand, there is something to be enjoyed in the distortions, a freshness that may be quite entertaining, even though they lack the inevitablity of our big, shaggy collie.

A sixty-thousand word novel is one picture corrected fifty-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninetynine times. The total experience must have the same feeling of freshness as this turgidly cardiac creature as well as the inevitability of Big and Shaggy here.

Now let's atomize the correction process itself. A story begins:


What is the image thrown on your mind? Whatever it is, it is going to be changed many, many times before the tale is over. My own, unmodified, rather whimsical The is a grayish ellipsoid about four feet high that balances on the floor perhaps a yard away. Yours is no doubt different. But it is there, has a specific size, shape, color, and bears a particular relation to you. My a, for example, differs from my the in that it is about the same shape and color — a bit paler, perhaps — but is either much farther away, or much smaller and nearer. In either case, I am going to be either much less, or much more, interested in it than I am in The. Now we come to the second word in the story and the first correction:

The red

My four-foot ellipsoid just changed color. It is still about the same distance away. It has become more interesting. In fact, even at this point I feel vaguely that the increased interest may be outside the leeway I allow for a The. I feel a strain here that would be absent if the first two words had been A red ... My eye goes on to the third word while my mind prepares for the second correction:

The red sun

The original The has now been replaced by a luminous disc. The color has lightened considerably. The disk is above me. An indistinct landscape has formed about me. And I am even more aware, now that the object has been placed at such a distance, of the tension between my own interest level in red sun and the ordinary attention I accord a The: for the intensity of interest is all that is left with me of the original image.

Less clearly, in terms of future corrections, is a feeling that in this landscape it is either dawn, sunset, or, if it is another time, smog of some sort must be hazing the air (... red sun ...); but I hold all for the next correction:

The red sun is

A sudden sense of intimacy. I am being asked to pay even greater attention, in a way that was would not demand, as was in the form of the traditional historical narrative. But is? ... There is a speaker here! That focus in attention I felt between the first two words is not my attention, but the attention of the speaker. It resolves into a tone of voice: "The red sun is ..." And I listen to this voice, in the midst of this still vague landscape, registering its concern for the red sun. Between The and red information was generated that between sun and is resolved into a meaningful correction in my vision. This is my first aesthetic pleasure from the tale — a small one, as we have only progressed four words into the story. Nevertheless, it becomes one drop in the total enjoyment to come from the telling. Watching and listening to my speaker, I proceed to the next correction:

The red sun is high,

Noon and slightly overcast; this is merely a confirmation of something previously suspected, nowhere near as major a correction as the one before. It allows a slight sense of warmth into the landscape, and the light has been fixed at a specific point. I attempt to visualize that landscape more clearly, but no object, including the speaker, has been cleared enough to resolve. The comma tells me that a thought group is complete. In the pause it occurs to me that the redness of the sun may not be a clue to smog at all, but merely the speaker falling into literary-ism; or at best, the redness is a projection of his consciousness, which as yet I don't understand. And for a moment I notice that from where I'm standing the sun indeed appears its customary, blind-white gold. Next correction:

The red sun is high, the

In this strange landscape (lit by its somewhat untrustworthily described sun) the speaker has turned his attention to another gray, four-foot ellipsoid, equidistant from himself and me. Again, it is too indistinct to take highlighting. But there have been two corrections with not much tension, and the reality of the speaker himself is beginning to slip. What will this become?

The red sun is high, the blue

The ellipsoid has changed hue. But the repetition in the syntactic arrangement of the description momentarily threatens to dissolve all reality, landscape, speaker, and sun, into a mannered listing of bucolica. The whole scene dims. And the final correction?

The red sun is high, the blue low.

Look! We are worlds and worlds away. The first sun is huge; and how accurate the description of its color turns out to have been. The repetition that predicted mannerism now fixes both big and little sun to the sky. The landscape crawls with long red shadows and stubby blue ones, joined by purple triangles. Look at the speaker himself. Can you see him? You have seen his doubled shadow ...

Though it ordinarily takes only a quarter of a second and is largely unconscious, this is the process.

When the corrections as we move from word to word produce a muddy picture, when unclear bits of information do not resolve to even greater clarity as we progress, we call the writer a poor stylist. As the story goes on, and the pictures become more complicated as they develop through time, if even greater anomalies appear as we continue correcting, we say he can't plot. But it is the same quality error committed on a grosser level, even though a reader must be a third or three-quarters of the way through the book to spot one, while the first may glare out from the opening sentence.

In any commercial field of writing, like SF, the argument of writers and editors who feel content can be opposed to style runs, at its most articulate:

"Basically we are writing adventure fiction. We are writing it very fast. We do not have time to be concerned about any but the grosser errors. More important, you are talking about subtleties too refined for the vast majority of our readers who are basically neither literary nor sophisticated."

The internal contradictions here could make a book. Let me outline two.

The basis of any adventure novel, SF or otherwise, what gives it its entertainment value — escape value if you will — what sets it apart from the psychological novel, what names it an adventure, is the intensity with which the real actions of the story impinge on the protagonist's consciousness. The simplest way to generate that sense of adventure is to increase the intensity with which the real actions impinge on the reader's. And fictional intensity is almost entirely the province of those refinements of which I have been speaking.

The story of an infant's first toddle across the kitchen floor will be an adventure if the writer can generate the infantile wonder at new muscles, new efforts, obstacles, and detours. I would like to read such a story.

We have all read, many too many times, the heroic attempts of John Smith to save the lives of seven orphans in the face of fire, flood, and avalanche.

I am sure it was an adventure for Smith.


Excerpted from "The Jewel-Hinged Jaw"
by .
Copyright © 2009 Samuel R. Delany.
Excerpted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Prefaces and Acknowledgments
Ethical Aesthetics, An Introduction –; Matthew Cheney
About 5,750 Words
Critical Methods / Speculative Fiction
Thickening the Plot
Faust and Archimedes
Prisoners' Sleep
Letter to the Symposium on "Women In Science Fiction"
To Read The Dispossessed
A Fictional Architecture That Manages Only with Great Difficulty Not Once to Mention Harlan Ellison
Appendixes: Midcentury
Letter to a Critic •Index

What People are Saying About This

Reginald Shepherd

“What a joy it is to have The Jewel-Hinged Jaw back in print! These essays glitter with insights into writing, reading, society, and the multiple relationships of the three.”

Junot Diaz

"I re-read The Jewel-Hinged Jaw every year as a source of guidance, as a measure of what all criticism and literature should aspire to be, and as a challenge for those of us who want to write."

From the Publisher

"I re-read The Jewel-Hinged Jaw every year as a source of guidance, as a measure of what all criticism and literature should aspire to be, and as a challenge for those of us who want to write."—Junot Díaz, Pulitzer

"What a joy it is to have The Jewel-Hinged Jaw back in print! These essays glitter with insights into writing, reading, society, and the multiple relationships of the three."—Reginald Shepherd, author of Orpheus in the Bronx

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