The American Shore: Meditations on a Tale of Science Fiction by Thomas M. Disch--

The American Shore: Meditations on a Tale of Science Fiction by Thomas M. Disch--"Angouleme"


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The American Shore: Meditations on a Tale of Science Fiction by Thomas M. Disch—"Angouleme" was first published in 1978 to the intense interest of science fiction readers and the growing community of SF scholars. Recalling Nabokov's commentary on Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, Roland Barthes' commentary on Balzac's Sarazine, and Grabinier's reading of The Heart of Hamlet, this book-length essay helped prove the genre worthy of serious investigation. The American Shore is the third in a series of influential critical works by Samuel R. Delany, beginning with The Jewel-Hinged Jaw and Starboard Wine, first published in the late seventies and reissued over the last five years by Wesleyan University Press, which helped win Delany a Pilgrim Award for Science Fiction Scholarship from the Science Fiction Research Association of America. This edition includes the author's corrected text as well as a new introduction by Delany scholar Matthew Cheney.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780819567185
Publisher: Wesleyan University Press
Publication date: 08/01/2014
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 810,497
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

SAMUEL R. DELANY is an acclaimed novelist and critic who teaches English and creative writing at Temple University and lives in New York City. He is the author of works of criticism, fiction, and science fiction, most recently his SF novel Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders. In 2013 he was named the 31st Damon Knight Memorial Foundation Grand Master by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. MATTHEW CHENEY is a columnist for Strange Horizons and writes regularly for his weblog, The Mumpsimus.

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The Pretext

Concatenated texts — romans fleuves, interrelated series of novels and stories, stories and plays — appear from time to time in mundane fiction. Sometimes the connecting link is so tenuous as to constitute the merest ornamentation, a grace note to the text (as when the imprisoned Mersault, in Camus's novel L'Etranger, comes upon a newspaper article that incidentally summarizes Camus's play Le Malentendu); sometimes the links are forged of the unmalleable ore of naturalistic fiction: recurrent characters, settings, themes (as with the Forsytes, the Compsons/Snopeses/Sartorises, Leatherstocking, Tarzan, or the Thibaults).

If subjective time laid down through real history is the road on which mundane fiction travels, holding up now and again its Stendhalian mirror to view another roadside attraction, the tour de force of keeping, through several texts, to one lane of the highway is certainly intriguing, indeed laudable, even applaudable. But the possibilities of science fiction open up that highway into a boundariless plane, a whole prairie whose circling horizon is the limit of imagination itself, a prairie which quickly deliquesces into a roiling ocean of possibilities. The science fiction writer who returns, through several texts, to trace a single current in this ocean is, because of the oceanic context, involved in an undertaking of a very different order from the one-lane exploration of the mundane fictioneer.

The novel series in English language mundane fiction is rare and is usually connected with some feeling of provinciality (Faulkner, Powell, Cooper); and the mundane story series (e.g., Hemingway's Nick Adams tales, Sherwood Anderson's Winesberg) frequently carries with it as well the bad taste of editorial coercion, or at least the quotidian pressure to sell. Yet s-f authors as different as Laumer and Le Guin, Anderson and Aldiss, Russ, Niven, Zelazny, Farmer, Asimov, Anthony, Ballard, Bradley, Blish, Heinlein, Stableford, Moorcock, McCaffrey, Sturgeon, Andre Norton, "Doc" and Cordwainer Smith, Stanley G. Weinbaum, Stanislaw Lem, Zenna Henderson, Fritz Leiber, and Arthur C. Clarke have all produced either story-, novel-, or story-and-novel series.

In science fiction the creation of enchained texts bridges political opinion, aesthetic preferences, commitments to hard- or software, and spans all degrees of aesthetic merit. In science fiction the question is rather what writers have not at one time or another in their writing career chosen to interlink such a series, to generate such a set of texts within a single encompassing imaginative matrix. (Alfred Bester is one major name that comes readily to mind who has not left us, somewhere in his oeuvre, such a concatenation; C. M. Kornbluth is another.)

The explanation we sometimes read for the number of s-f series ("Well, readers buy series stories ...") attempts to establish a naive causality around the implicit commercial parameters of the field ("... therefore writers write them"). But we are aware just how strong the commercial parameters of s-f are. Such parameters' mechanics are clear: because there is comparatively little money in science fiction, when commercial pressures work at all to contour a text or set of texts, they work (short of editorial tampering) in comparatively subtle ways and usually at several removes. Any explicit appeal to positive commercial pressures (negative ones, i.e., the pressures accruing from too little pay, contour another tale entirely), especially in a causal mode, is invariably aggrandizing mystification: to exaggerate the power of money in the field is to suggest that there is more money in the field than there actually is. The appeal defuses science fiction. In a capitalist society, to say, "These writers write for money ..." makes the science fictional enterprise safe.

To say — and in so saying come far closer to spearing the thrashing, slippery truth — that this s-f writer writes out of some fanatical concept of ideology and that one out of an equally fanatical concept of aesthetics, that a third writes from ill-understood subconscious heavings that barely emerge into comprehensible prose, while another writes from a matrix of social prejudices and aesthetic rigidities, while still another writes to save the world from these same rigidities; and still others write from every combination of the above; and, though not much, they are all paid for it; and their collective fans hold hundreds of conventions a year, organized around their work, to which upon occasion many thousands come — this establishes a far more dangerous enterprise, a danger which "We write for money" is uttered, like a magic formula from the capitalist grimoire, precisely to subdue, to tame.

Science fiction readers like series stories; science fiction writers write them. But psychological synchronicity better explains the relation than any commercial causality: both readers and writers of sf experience the field-effect of science fiction as a vast turbulence of "perhaps's." This turbulence is far stronger for science fiction than it is for mundane fiction.

Before such oceanic turbulence the need for coherence becomes far stronger than before mundane fiction's pavic calm. The s-f series story answers that need in both the writer and the reader. The resultant cash flow is a secondary, if supportive, effect — not a primal cause.

"Angouleme" is the third written story in such an s-f series.


The Refused Text

We shall flex the text with a number of carets, marginally cardinalled for later reference. At the base of the print-line they should not be obtrusive; the average reader seldom looks at more than the top half of the print — it contains quite enough information to read with. The only ambiguities are v/y, :/;, and O/Q; contextual order is usually strong enough to prevent confusion.

Our lexias will sometimes not constitute "complete units of meaning" in the standard grammatic sense; but they will roughly enclose lengths of language that more or less strongly support our subsequent co-textual statements.

Thomas M. Disch's


There were seven Alexandrians involved in the Battery plot — Jack, who was the youngest and from the Bronx, Celeste DiCecca, Sniffles and MaryJane, Tancred Miller, Amparo (of course), and of course, the leader and mastermind, Bill Harper, better known as Little Mister Kissy Lips. Who was passionately, hopelessly in love with Amparo. Who was nearly thirteen (she would be, fully, by September this year), and breasts just beginning. Very very beautiful skin, like lucite. Amparo Martinez.

Their first, nothing operation was in the East 60's, a broker or something like that. All they netted was cufflinks, a watch, a leather satchel that wasn't leather after all, some buttons, and the usual lot of useless credit cards. He stayed calm through the whole thing, even with Sniffles slicing off buttons, and soothing. None of them had the nerve to ask, though they all wondered, how often he'd been through this scene before. What they were about wasn't an innovation. It was partly that, the need to innovate, that led them to think up the plot. The only really memorable part of the holdup was the name laminated on the cards, which was, weirdly enough, Lowen, Richard W. An omen (the connection being that they were all at the Alexander Lowen School), but of what?

Little Mister Kissy Lips kept the cufflinks for himself, gave the buttons to Amparo (who gave them to her uncle), and donated the rest (the watch was a piece of crap) to the Conservation booth outside the Plaza right where he lived.

His father was a teevee executive. In, as he would quip, both senses. They had got married young, his mama and papa, and divorced soon after but not before he'd come to fill out their quota. Papa, the executive, remarried, a man this time and somewhat more happily. Anyhow it lasted long enough that the offspring, the leader and mastermind, had to learn to adjust to the situation, it being permanent. Mama simply went down to the Everglades and disappeared, sploosh.

In short, he was well to do. Which is how, more than by overwhelming talent, he got into the Lowen School in the first place. He had the right kind of body though, so with half a desire there was no reason in the city of New York he couldn't grow up to be a professional dancer, even a choreographer. He'd have the connections for it, as Papa was fond of pointing out.

For the time being, however, his bent was literary and religious rather than balletic. He loved, and what seventh grader doesn't, the abstracter foxtrots and more metaphysical twists of a Dostoevsky, a Gide, a Mailer. He longed for the experience of some vivider pain than the mere daily hollowness knotted into his tight young belly, and no weekly stomp-and-holler of group therapy with other jejune eleven-year-olds was going to get him his stripes in the major leagues of suffering, crime, and resurrection. Only a bonafide crime would do that, and of all the crimes available murder certainly carried the most prestige, as no less an authority than Loretta Couplard was ready to attest, Loretta Couplard being not only the director and co-owner of the Lowen School but the author, as well, of two nationally televised scripts, both about famous murders of the 20th Century. They'd even done a unit in social studies on the topic: A History of Crime in Urban America.

The first of Loretta's murders was a comedy involving Pauline Campbell, R.N., of Ann Arbor, Michigan, circa 1951, whose skull had been smashed by three drunken teenagers. They had meant to knock her unconscious so they could screw her, which was 1951 in a nutshell. The eighteen-year-olds, Bill Morey and Max Pell, got life; Dave Royal (Loretta's hero) was a year younger and got off with twenty-two years.

Her second murder was tragic in tone and consequently inspired more respect, though not among the critics, unfortunately. Possibly because her heroine, also a Pauline (Pauline Wichura), though more interesting and complicated, had also been more famous in her own day and ever since. Which made the competition, one best-selling novel and a serious film biography, considerably stiffer. Miss Wichura had been a welfare worker in Atlanta, Georgia, very much into environment and the population problem, this being the immediate pre-Regents period when anyone and everyone was legitimately starting to fret. Pauline decided to do something, viz., reduce the population herself and in the fairest way possible. So whenever any of the families she visited produced one child above the three she'd fixed, rather generously, as the upward limit, she found some unobtrusive way of thinning that family back to the preferred maximal size. Between 1989 and 1993 Pauline's journals (Random House, 1994) record twenty-six murders, plus an additional fourteen failed attempts. In addition she had the highest welfare department record in the U.S. for abortions and sterilizations among the families whom she advised.

"Which proves, I think," Little Mister Kissy Lips had explained one day after school to his friend Jack, "that a murder doesn't have to be of someone famous to be a form of idealism."

But of course idealism was only half the story: the other half was curiosity. And beyond idealism and curiosity there was probably even another half, the basic childhood need to grow up and kill someone.

They settled on the Battery because, one, none of them ever were there ordinarily; two, it was posh and at the same time relatively, three, uncrowded, at least once the night shift were snug in their towers tending their machines. The night shift seldom ate their lunches down in the park. And, four, because it was beautiful, especially now at the beginning of summer. The dark water, chromed with oil, flopping against the buttressed shore; the silences blowing in off the Upper Bay, silences large enough sometimes that you could sort out the different noises of the city behind them, the purr and quaver of the skyscrapers, the ground-shivering mysterioso of the expressways, and every now and then the strange sourceless screams that are the melody of New York's theme song; the blue-pink of sunsets in a visible sky; the people's faces, calmed by the sea and their own nearness to death, lined up in rhythmic rows on the green benches. Why even the statues looked beautiful here, as though someone had believed in them once, the way people must have believed in the statues in the Cloisters, so long ago.

His favorite was the gigantic killer-eagle landing in the middle of the monoliths in the memorial for the soldiers, sailors, and airmen killed in World War II. The largest eagle, probably, in all Manhattan. His talons ripped apart what was surely the largest artichoke.

Amparo, who went along with some of Miss Couplard's ideas, preferred the more humanistic qualities of the memorial (him on top and an angel gently probing an enormous book with her sword) for Verrazano, who was not, as it turned out, the contractor who put up the bridge that had, so famously, collapsed. Instead, as the bronze plate in back proclaimed:


"Angouleme" they all agreed, except Tancred, who favored the more prevalent and briefer name, was much classier. Tancred was ruled out of order and the decision became unanimous.

It was there, by the statue, looking across the bay of Angouleme to Jersey, that they took the oath that bound them to perpetual secrecy. Whoever spoke of what they were about to do, unless he were being tortured by the Police, solemnly called upon his coconspirators to insure his silence by other means. Death. All revolutionary organizations take similar precautions, as the history unit on Modern Revolutions had made clear.

How he got the name: it had been Papa's theory that what modern life cried out for was a sweetening of old-fashioned sentimentality. Ergo, among all the other indignities this theory gave rise to, scenes like the following: "Who's my Little Mister Kissy Lips!" Papa would bawl out, sweetly, right in the middle of Rockefeller Center (or a restaurant, or in front of the school), and he'd shout right back, "I am!" At least until he knew better.

Mama had been, variously, "Rosebud," "Peg O' My Heart," and (this only at the end) "The Snow Queen." Mama, being adult, had been able to vanish with no other trace than the postcard that still came every Xmas postmarked from Key Largo, but Little Mister Kissy Lips was stuck with the New Sentimentality willy-nilly. True, by age seven he'd been able to insist on being called "Bill" around the house (or, as Papa would have it, "Just Plain Bill"). But that left the staff at the Plaza to contend with, and Papa's assistants, schoolmates, anyone who'd ever heard the name. Then a year ago, aged ten and able to reason, he laid down the new law — that his name was Little Mister Kissy Lips, the whole awful mouthful, each and every time. His reasoning being that if anyone would be getting his face rubbed in shit by this it would be Papa, who deserved it. Papa didn't seem to get the point, or else he got it and another point besides, you could never be sure how stupid or how subtle he really was, which is the worst kind of enemy.

Meanwhile at the nationwide level the New Sentimentality had been a rather overwhelming smash. "The Orphans," which Papa produced and sometimes was credited with writing, pulled down the top Thursday evening ratings for two years. Now it was being overhauled for a daytime slot. For one hour every day our lives were going to be a lot sweeter, and chances were Papa would be a millionaire or more as a result. On the sunny side this meant that he'd be the son of a millionaire. Though he generally had contempt for the way money corrupted everything it touched, he had to admit that in certain cases it didn't have to be a bad thing. It boiled down to this (which he'd always known): that Papa was a necessary evil.

This was why every evening when Papa buzzed himself into the suite he'd shout out, "Where's my Little Mister Kissy Lips," and he'd reply, "Here, Papa!" The cherry on this sundae of love was a big wet kiss, and then one more for their new "Rosebud," Jimmy Ness. (Who drank, and was not in all likelihood going to last much longer.) They'd all three sit down to the nice family dinner Jimmyness had cooked, and Papa would tell them about the cheerful, positive things that had happened that day at CBS, and Little Mister Kissy Lips would tell all about the bright fine things that had happened to him. Jimmy would sulk. Then Papa and Jimmy would go somewhere or just disappear into the private Everglades of sex, and Little Mister Kissy Lips would buzz himself out into the corridor (Papa knew better than to be repressive about hours), and within half an hour he'd be at the Verrazano statue with the six other Alexandrians, five if Celeste had a lesson, to plot the murder of the victim they'd all finally agreed on.


Excerpted from "The American Shore"
by .
Copyright © 2014 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

The American Shore, An Author's Introduction
A Road along the Shore: An Introduction to The American Shore, by Matthew Cheney
The Pretext
The Refused Text
The Context
The Diffused Text
Auctorial Interfaces
The Textual Object
A Privileged Chronicity
Problematic Texts
Originary Assumptions

What People are Saying About This

Louis Chude-Sokei

“The American Shore is an important offering in the history of science fiction criticism, rich with Delany’s poetic skills and insight as a tremendous, formidable reader. It is a one of a kind book, really, and very clearly attempts a genre of its own.”

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