Starboard Wine: More Notes on the Language of Science Fiction

Starboard Wine: More Notes on the Language of Science Fiction

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Overview

In Starboard Wine, Samuel R. Delany explores the implications of his now-famous assertion that science fiction is not about the future. Rather, it uses the future as a means of talking about the present and its potentiality. By recognizing a text's specific "difference," we begin to see the quality of its particulars. Through riveting analyses of works by Joanna Russ, Robert Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon, and Thomas M. Disch, Delany reveals critical strategies for reading that move beyond overwrought theorizing and formulaic thinking. Throughout, the author performs the kinds of careful inquiry and urgent speculation that he calls others to engage in.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780819568847
Publisher: Wesleyan University Press
Publication date: 07/11/2012
Edition description: Revised Edition
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 643,371
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

SAMUEL R. DELANY is an acclaimed novelist and critic who teaches English and creative writing at Temple University and is the author of numerous works of fiction and criticism, most recently his novel Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders. MATTHEW CHENEY is a columnist for Strange Horizons and writes regularly for his weblog, The Mumpsimus.

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

The Necessity of Tomorrow(s)

Anyone who spends any time at all in the community of SF writers, SF editors and publishers, interested academics, or among the highly enthusiastic SF readers who put on and attend the more than 70 annual SF conventions or publish the more than 300 SF fanzines that appear in the United States each year must from time to time ask: "What am I doing here?" But this is just to say we have all come here from somewhere else. An attempt to sketch out one lane along one of the many possible highways into the SF world, the following was first delivered as a talk at the Studio Museum in Harlem in New York City in November, 1978, a few streets from the three-story, red-brick building whose ground floor was once my father's place of business and whose upper stories were my home till I was 15.

At the south corner of the block was Mrs. Dade's funeral parlor. Centered in the block north was Mr. Sterrit's. Between was Levy and Delany's, my father's funeral home. (Undertaker was a word he detested; he considered himself a funeral director.) When I was seven my father had the face of the building covered in red brick. Aluminum letters that stood out from the facade on little posts went up to replace the old sign — green neon letters in their tin shadow masks, the whole metal housing almost as big as I was. The workmen on their scaffold lowered it down over the door, first the L end, then the Y. Levy had died before I was born. Growing up with Levy and Delany, however, it was years before I thought to question why my father had kept the name of his former partner, whom he had later bought out. Originally friends, they had only briefly been in business together. (Years later my mother told me, laughingly: "Your father said he always owed Mr. Levy a great debt: he showed your father every way possible not to run a successful funeral business.") Still, I wonder, with my father dead twenty years now, whether the two of them found an irony in the suggestion of the Jew and the Irishman running what, by the middle of the '40s, was considered arather swell Harlem funeral establishment. At any rate, the irony was misleading. Both were black men. Both owed their ethnic patronymics to the whites who had owned their parents, their great-grandparents.

On our left was Mr. and Mrs. Onley's grocery store, which the Onleys ran with their grown son Robbie. In summer, green wooden stands sat out under the awning, full of cabbages, carrots, green and red peppers — although what I remember far more clearly is the exotic autumn produce: bananas, kale, pomegranates, coconuts, sugar cane, mangoes. My childhood seems to have been continually punctuated with the refrain, "Would you run down to the store, Sam, and get me ..." from my mother. After the few inevitable episodes of change accidentally dropped while lugging the brown paper bag back up the side steps to the kitchen, for several months, as Mrs. Onley stood implacably calm behind the counter in her alternating white, blue, or green smocks, my entreaty was an embarrassed and insistent: "Mrs. Onley, please don't give the change to me. You just put it in the paper bag. That way I don't have to even touch it so that upstairs they'll get it all!"

"No," she would say, smiling. "You just take it in your hand and be careful."

On our right was Mr. Lockley's Hosiary and Housepaint Store. Mr. Lockley was a thin man, slightly darker than wrapping paper, with white hair, a withered face, and a game leg I always used to wonder whether or not was hinged and wooden, like my cousin Jimmy's. Jimmy had lost his in the Second World War and played a pretty good game of chess. As the years went on, running the store was taken over more and more by Mr. Lockley's balding son, Albert, and his red-headed daughter-in-law, Minnie. In memory that space, always dim, seems to extend for blocks and blocks under the stamped tin ceiling and the first fluorescent lights in the neighborhood. Beside the narrow aisle, the square counter trays — the front ones of glass, those farther back in the store of wood — held rolls of black electrician's tape, piles of orange and yellow yo-yos, boxes of carpet tacks, rings of cardboard with walnut-size rubber balls in each central hole, starred about with ten multichrome jacks; mousetraps (we had two under our kitchen sink), the larger versions of which, in my innocence, I had thought must be to catch cats; nails, screws, buttons, stacks of cheap plates so dusty I wondered who would eat from them; hammers, screwdrivers with clear yellow handles, pressboards full of thumbtacks, boxes of staples, Scotchtape rolls, the rrrurring key-copying machine; and small religious pictures in purple plastic frames, dusty as the plates.

Every evening Albert or Minnie would drag across the store window — full of bride dolls with chocolate brown skin, coils of black water hose, and beige boards displaying eight different styles of doorknob — the metal gate.

And the gate, oddly, is what I really want to talk about.

First of all, in those days Mr. Lockley's was the only store I knew of that had a gate. (We had gates on our back windows at home, in the kitchen and living room behind the ivory and purple draperies, but living with those, day in and day out, I somehow hardly saw them.) Mr. Lockley's gate had many vertical black shafts, hinged to the numerous diagonals with rollers at their ends, between. If you were out on the street in the morning just as the sun cleared the cornices on the far side of Seventh Avenue, the struts cut the light into gold lozenges webbed with shadow and laid them on the dusty splendor inside.

I guess I was nine.

It was a warm autumn evening, though at six o'clock the sky had lost half its light and doubled the depth of its blue. I watched Albert click the third big padlock to its hasp and turn away toward the stoop to his apartment house. I stepped onto the black metal cellar door, which shifted — tunk! — under my U.S. Keds. I walked to the gate, put my palm against one strut. It was cool and gritty.

I pushed a little.

The gate moved — only it didn't move like a rigid structure of bolted iron. It rippled, like a curtain. I put my face up against it, looked across it, pushed again. Although the bottoms and tops of the verticals were constrained in metal troughs, the movement across the structure clearly went out in waves. I could see it waving. And I could hear it rattle and watch the waves spread from me out to the upper corners of the window. I put both hands against the metal, my face as close as I could get it, sighting across the gate, which from this angle seemed like a single sheet.

I shook it once.

I waited. I hooked my fingers around the struts and shook it two times.

I waited again.

Then I rattled it as hard as I could. And kept on rattling. The noise hurt my ears. The verticals tap-danced in their trough, and all pattern dissolved in the banging and racketting —

"What in the world are you doing? Stop that!"

I turned around.

"You gone crazy?" my father demanded, as he frequently did these days. He had heard the noise and stepped out of the funeral parlor door to see what his odd nine-year-old was up to. "You stop that and go on upstairs! You're going to end in the electric chair, I swear," which seemed to be his most common admonition to me over any and all infractions, minor or major, an admonition his father had used as frequently with him; and since my father had achieved some success under it he felt justified in using it with me — although frankly, to me it was both bewildering and terrifying.

I ran upstairs.

But later, as I lay in my bed on the third floor, listening to the night traffic whisking along Seventh Avenue, I thought again of that gate. Its rigid pieces, some long, some short, were attached in such a flexible way that not only could it fold up during the day at the edge of the store window, but, when it was extended, motion to any part of it was translated across its breadth in audible and visible progression. The motion was passed from juncture to juncture. Each strut took up the motions of the ones that joined its near end and passed a resultant motion on to the ones that joined its far end. No matter how loud the clangor, it was a patterned and orderly process.

My childhood was not a typical Harlem childhood. For one thing, we lived in a private house and had a maid. My father's business was on the ground floor. We lived on the top two. For another, I attended neither the public school two blocks to the north nor the Catholic school around the corner to the south. During my early childhood, every morning my father, or occasionally one of his employees, drove me down to a private school at 89th Street just off Park Avenue. The school's population was overwhelmingly white, largely Jewish, and educated the children of enough millionaires, literary lights, government officials, and theatrical personages to keep its name, with fair frequency, in the papers as well as in the gossip of New York folk interested in the osmotic properties of success.

In the '40s Harlem's southern boundary was much more abrupt than it is today: 110th Street, along the top of Central Park, delimited it with a sureness I could sense any time on my trip home I had to transfer from the Fifth Avenue Number Four bus to the Number Two, which would take me on up Seventh Avenue — waiting across from the corner of the park under the awning of some closed-down night spot reminiscent of Cole Porter days and the trampish lady who "won't go to Harlem in ermines and pearls."

My twice-daily trip from Seventh Avenue and 132nd Street, between Mr. Onley's and Mr. Lockley's, to the private school just down the street from the construction then going on for the then-new Guggenheim Museum, the change from the black children of subway workers, hospital orderlies and taxi drivers (my friends on the block) to the white children of psychiatrists, publishers, and Columbia professors (my friends at school), was a journey of near ballistic violence through an absolute social barrier.

I never questioned that violence.

Such violences youngsters accustom themselves to very easily.

But shortly after the incident with Mr. Lockley's window gate I began to think — as you no doubt began thinking moments ago — of society itself as a structure similar to that gate. Well, not so much a gate, as a web. A net. Each person represented a juncture. The connections between them were not iron struts, but relations of money, goods, economics, information, emotions. Any social occurrence over here invariably moved, via these mediators, across the social net from person to person. This image of Mr. Lockley's window gate seemed a good model for the life around me on the streets of Harlem. It seemed as well a good model for the life around me at my school. And yet from my position as a nineyear-old going on ten, I wondered just how these two gates, two webs, two nets, connected. In gross terms, the white one seemed to surround the black, holding the black one to its place and keeping it rather more crushed together in less space. But what were the actual connections between them? There was me, who passed from one to the other twice a day, along with the 15 or so other black children who lived in Harlem and, with me, attended the Dalton School — half of them it seemed, at that time, relatives of mine. The economic ties that connected the two webs could even be faintly traced via the white landlords and absentee store owners who took money out of the neighborhood, money that, by and large, was able to come back in only through blacks working either directly or indirectly for whites. Certainly the goods in Mr. Lockley's store and most of the produce in Mr. Onley's eventually took money out of the neighborhood. But these still left the ties of information and emotion — without which the economic ties had to remain oppressive.

These ties were not there.

Their absence was the barrier I crossed every time I left for and returned from my school. Their absence was the violence.

What was the '50s for me?

It began with the electrocution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for treason. The parents of my liberal white friends were shocked, deeply, at what they saw as a clear emblem of something profoundly wrong in the land, regardless of whether they believed in the guilt or innocence of the gentle Jewish couple.

It was the murder of fourteen-year-old Emmett Till by mysterious and terrifying white men somewhere in the south. From our front window we watched diagonally across the street where, before what had once been the Lafayette Theater (where Orson Welles had directed Canada Lee in Blackbeth; more recently it had been a Harlem supermarket, and was now a Baptist church), Harlem citizens rallied, made speeches, sang, and made more speeches.

It was the Supreme Court decision on integration. It was the first marches on Washington. It was Autherine Lucy. It was Sputnik and Little Rock, reported on the same September afternoon radio newscast. And from my rides to school each morning, I could see out the bus window that Harlem's lower boundary was not nearly so well defined as it had been. Some information and plenty of emotion had broken through. Some people had even liked what they had learned; but most, on both sides, were more upset with it than not.

The '50s was also the decade I began reading science fiction.

"Escape reading" was the term sometimes used for it, which lumped it with Westerns and romances — and the "Jalna" books, the "Claudia and David" novels, and the endless biographies of Eleanor Roosevelt my grandmother, who felt "serious reading" was bad for you, was given by her indulgent children and grandchildren for birthdays, for Christmas, and even, sometimes, for funerals. But what else was I reading? I read James Baldwin's early essays that were to be first collected in Notes of a Native Son, and I thought they were as wonderful as ... well, as science fiction. I also read Richard Wright's Black Boy and Chester Himes's If He Hollers Let Him Go, and they seemed ... well, history. They certainly didn't take place in the world of freedom marches and integration rallies. Did they explain them? They certainly said that the condition of the black man in America was awful — somehow the black woman in these fictive endeavors got mysteriously shortchanged in a manner suspiciously similar to the way the white woman was getting shortchanged in the work of Wright's and Himes's white male contemporaries. (The black woman was somehow always the cause and the victim at once of everything that went wrong with the black man.) But Wright and Himes seemed to say as well that, in any realistic terms, precisely what made it so awful also made it unchangeable. And they said it with a certainty that, to me, dwarfed the moments of interracial rapprochement onefound in books like John O. Killens's Youngblood, no matter how much more pleasant Killens might have been for us youngsters to read. One began to suspect that it was precisely the certainty that no real change was possible that had made Wright and Himes as popular as they were with those strangely always-absent readers who establish books as classics. At least that's what I seemed to read in them in a world that was clearly exploding with racial change from headline to headline.

Did the science fiction I read at the time talk about the black situation in America, about the progress of racial change?

Isaac Asimov's famous "Robot" stories certainly veered close. The series, available today in four volumes (the short story collections I, Robot and The Rest of the Robots, and the novels Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun), deals with a future where humans and robots live side by side, though the prejudice and disdain the robot detective R-Daneel (one of the two main characters in The Caves of Steel) experiences is clearly an analog of some of the milder sorts of prejudice we experienced from whites. And Asimov's "Three Laws of Robotics," famous to young SF readers the world over, essentially amount to: Robots shall not harm, disobey, or displease humans — which, if you substitute white for human and black for robot, is clearly a white ideal of what the "good Negro" ought to be. And the stories, of course, gain most of their wit and interest from the ingenious ways the clever robots figure out to get around those laws without actually breaking them or getting into real trouble. Yet the stories touch on many other things beside, so that in the end the racial analog, rather than forming a central theme, seems more like a naked lightbulb on a loose cord, swinging back and forth, flickering on and off throughout the tales, sometimes illuminating the actions, sometimes clearly not in the least the concern of the writer.

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "Starboard Wine"
by .
Copyright © 2012 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

Acknowledgments
Starboard Wine, an Author's Introduction
Science Fiction And Difference: An Introduction to Starboard Wine –; Matthew Cheney
The Necessity of Tomorrow(s)
Heinlein
Some Presumptuous Approaches to Science Fiction
Sturgeon
Science Fiction and "Literature"—or, The Conscience of the King
Russ
An Experimental Talk
Disch, I
Disch, II
Dichtung und Science Fiction
Three Letters to Science Fiction Studies
A Letter from New York
Another Letter from New York
A Letter from Rome
Reflections on Historical Models
Index

What People are Saying About This

Carl Freedman

"After all the years since it was first published, Starboard Wine remains one of the three or four most important critical statements ever made about science fiction. No one with a serious interest in the field should be ignorant of it."
Carl Freedman, author of Critical Theory and Science Fiction

From the Publisher

"After all the years since it was first published, Starboard Wine remains one of the three or four most important critical statements ever made about science fiction. No one with a serious interest in the field should be ignorant of it."—Carl Freedman, author of Critical Theory and Science Fiction

"As a fiction writer, reviewer, critic, analyst, and theorist, Delany has done more than anyone to expand how people read, as well as write, science fiction and fantasy. His essays are a seminal achievement by one of the field's most innovative thinkers."—David N. Samuelson, professor emeritus, California State University, Long Beach

David N. Samuelson

“As a fiction writer, reviewer, critic, analyst, and theorist, Delany has done more than anyone to expand how people read, as well as write, science fiction and fantasy. His essays are a seminal achievement by one of the field’s most innovative thinkers.”

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