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Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Samuel R. Delany: The Grammar of Narrative

Samuel R. Delany grew up in Harlem in a middle-class black family, and attended the prestigious Bronx High School of Science before going on to City College. He never graduated, though today he's a tenured English professor and Director of the Graduate Creative Writing Program at Temple University.

His first novel The Jewels of Aptor (1962) appeared when he was 20. The Fall of the Towers trilogy -- Captives of the Flame (1963), The Towers of Toron (1964), and City of a Thousand Suns (1965) -- followed before his twenty-second birthday. Other works from the '60s include The Ballad of Beta-2 (1965), Empire Star (1966), Nebula Award winners Babel-17 (1966) and The Einstein Intersection (1967), and Nova (1968). These novels, along with several short stories, resulted in Delany's recognition as one of the brightest talents of SF's New Wave. He also won a Nebula Award for short story "Aye, and Gomorrah..." (1967); "Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones" won both a Nebula and a Hugo in 1970. Other notable stories include Nebula finalists "Driftglass" (1967) and "The Tale of Gorgik" (1979), Hugo finalists "The Star Pit" (1967) and "Prismatica" (1977), and Nebula and Hugo finalist "We, in Some Strange Power's Employ, Move on a Rigorous Line" (1968).

In the '70s his output dropped off, though he published Dhalgren (1975) and Triton (1976), and edited with then wife Marilyn Hacker four-volume anthology series Quark (1970–71). SF novel Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand appeared in 1984, but most of the decade was dedicated to his ambitious sword-and-sorcery series Return to Nevèrÿon, a collection of 11 linked stories and novels collected in four volumes: Tales of Nevèrÿon (1979), Nevèrÿona (1983), Flight from Nevèrÿon (1985), and Return to Nevèrÿon (The Bridge of Lost Desire) (1987). His last genre novel was fantasy adventure They Fly at Çiron (1993), though forthcoming novel Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, due out from Alyson Books in November 2010, contains elements of science fiction as well as gay erotica.

During the '70s and '80s years he turned increasingly to literary criticism and the study of semiotics, producing numerous non-fiction books on those and other subjects, including The Jewel-Hinged Jaw (1977), The American Shore (1978), The Straits of Messina (1989), Starboard Wine (1985), and Longer Views (1996). His memoir on "East Village Sex and Science Fiction Writing", The Motion of Light in Water , won the 1989 Hugo for best non-fiction. Silent Interviews: On Language, Race, Sex, Science Fiction, and Some Comics (1994) was a Hugo finalist, as was About Writing: 7 Essays, 4 Letters and 5 Interviews (2006), which collects some of his writing advice and philosophy.

His short fiction has been gathered in Driftglass (1971), Distant Stars (1981), The Complete Nebula Award-Winning Fiction (1986), Driftglass/Starshards (1993), Atlantis: Three Tales (1995, recently re-released in a corrected third printing by Wesleyan University Press), and Aye, and Gomorrah (2003).

Non-genre works of note includes psychological thriller The Mad Man (1994); pornographic novel Hogg (1995); and Dark Reflections (2007), about an aging gay African-American poet in New York City, which won a Stonewall Book Award for 2008 and was a runner-up for the Lambda Literary Book Award.

Delany won a Pilgrim Award for his scholarship in 1985, was a Worldcon guest of honor in 1995, and was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2002. He has received numerous life achievement awards from organizations honoring gay and lesbian writing, and he was the subject of documentary film The Polymath, or, The Life and Opinions of Samuel R. Delany, Gentleman (2007), which tied for the jury award for best documentary at the International Philadelphia Lesbian and Gay Film Festival.

Delany traveled extensively in the '60s, spending months in Turkey and Greece, and he lived in San Francisco and London before returning to New York. He began teaching in 1975 at the University of Buffalo, and also taught at the University of Wisconsin and Cornell University before spending 11 years as a professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Since 2001 he has been a professor of English and Creative Writing at Temple University in Philadelphia. His marriage to Marilyn Hacker began in 1961, with an amicable divorce in 1980. They have an adult daughter, Iva Hacker-Delany.

Excerpts from the interview:

“For the last decade I've been teaching at Temple University, as Professor Delany of English and Creative Writing. I really didn't think it would come to that! But now I've become fat and comfortable with a monthly paycheck. (Capitalism can be really evil. I know from firsthand experience.)

“From where I sit, I see the remnants -- dare I say the dregs -- of High Modernism being protected in a way that I don't know whether it's all that productive or not. With my classes, I try to use the Clarion/Milford model. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. I consider myself genre-friendly, although I'm one of those people who keep saying to the kids that want to write science fiction, once they have proven themselves absolutely incompetent to write it, 'Why don't you try to write something a little simpler first?'

“Most of the time, those failed attempts come from their not knowing their way around English or basic narrative strategies -- what I would call the grammar of narrative. If you write a page-and-a-half about somebody doing something and we don't know where you are or what you are doing yet, usually that's a sign of narrative incompetence of some sort; or the writer simply hasn't thought about how to tell a story.

“Writing good science fiction is more complex and more difficult than writing a relatively straightforward account of someone getting up in the morning, making a cup of coffee, going to the bathroom, and getting out of the house. You have to be able to describe that in a familiar earthbound kitchen before you can describe it on a spaceship in free fall.”


“I've finished another novel. Basically I'm very happy with it. The working title is Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders. I have been working on it for the last five years, and a section of it was published a couple of years ago in a journal called Black Clock. Now it's finished, it's over 250,000 words long. In one sense, it's an attempt to write a book that sits -- formally, almost -- on the three-way genre boundary between literary impressionism, pornography, and science fiction. (I think you should use the conservative term, pornography; 'erotica' sounds too much like you're embarrassed about what you're doing, and I'm not.) It's about a working-class gay male couple who meet when they are teenagers (19 and 17), living very much out of the center of things somewhere on the Georgia coast. They meet in 2007, and spend the next 75 or 76 years together, till one of them dies. And not much else happens.”


“When I talk to people with MFAs who are now working as editors for literary publishers, they say, 'What we learned in college is a kind of writing that our current bosses do not want to let in the door.' They want nothing to do with 'good writing.' These are places like Random House; Harcourt Brace; Knopf; and Farrar, Straus & Giroux, who are the epitomes of literary publishing in this country, yet they're willing to say, 'I'm sorry. That's not what we're interested in anymore. We have a couple of slots a year for novels like that.'

“This is not a healthy situation for writing in general. It's not healthy for science fiction, not healthy for anyone. I think we have five publishers left in New York, and 25 years ago there were 79! So when we're talking about 'commercial' versus 'art' publishing, we're using a leftover vocabulary. We're still looking at the world through 1955-colored glasses.”

Comments are welcome...

Photo by Amelia Beamer

Website: Samuel R. Delany

Wikipedia: Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders

Read the complete interview, and biographical profile, in the March 2010 issue of Locus Magazine.

march cover

Cover Design: Arnie Fenner

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Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Cory Doctorow: Making Smarter Dumb Mistakes About the Future

Last Christmas, my family took a trip to Walt Disney World, and, as is now-traditional, I dragged them onto the Carousel of Progress, the beating heart of Tomorrowland. The Carousel began life as a GE exhibit at the 1964 World's Fair, a watershed moment for Disney's theme park business, since the Fair's sponsors could be persuaded to part with big bucks that WED, the engineering arm of Disney, could use for R&D on new ride and exhibit technology. GE's Carousel of Progress bankrolled the robotics R&D that gave us the Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion, and other animatronic-intensive theme park classics.

The Carousel of Progress is one of my all-time favorite Disney attractions — I even wrote a long novella about it, "There's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow/Now Is the Best Time of Your Life" for Jonathan Strahan's forthcoming anthology Godlike Machines. Here's the gimmick: you are loaded into a theater shaped like one wedge of a pie, with a stage before it. The curtain parts, revealing robots depicting a family from the turn of the 20th century, who do a little singing and gag-telling schtick about the promise of electricity. The lights come down, and the theater rotates around the stage, moving to the next scene (meanwhile, in the next wedge-shaped theater over, a new group has just been loaded into the opening segment). Around and around you go, viewing three sequences about the progress of technology in the 20th century, with special emphasis on the role that electricity (and GE) played in the American century.

Then you come to the grand finale, a segment depicting the near-future of technology. In the original, 1964 incarnation, this focused on some marginally speculative GE products, like self-cleaning ovens, electric dishwashers, and hi-fi sets, as well as such safe predictions as passenger jet service. This final sequence aged rather badly and had to be re-done for the Carousel's 1967 installation in Disneyland's Tomorrowland, which also had the problem of being routinely overtaken by tomorrow.

The current generation of the show, dating to 1994, was slightly more ambitious in its futurism, but much, much more wrong about the future it predicted. Its finale opens upon Christmas eve, 1999, where the family has gathered for its annual tryptophan orgy. There's a tree, a flat-screen, HD set, a video-game console with a VR headset and glove, and a laptop in a little nook off to the side. In the course of a brief sketch, we see the whole family gather around the electronic hearth to first watch Grandma beat the pants off junior at Space Ace, then the Disney World Christmas fireworks. Dad programs the voice-activated electric range to cook the turkey (he still managed to burn it), and uses the house's home-automation system to dim the electric lights on the tree. And Mom sits with her laptop and laughs along with the gang.

This five-year-out prediction got pretty much every single detail of 1999 wrong, and badly so. What's more, they got it all wrong in a way that is particular to all forms of bad science fiction, especially that most profitable of subgenres, corporate futurism.

Let's take a look at some of the fallacies in the 1999-of-1994 depicted in the Carousel:


When confronted with a new technology and asked to predict its application, it's tempting to look for existing, unsolved problems to which the technology might apply. For example, in a notorious early ad for personal computing, Honeywell depicted a satisfied, modish hausfrau cheerfully setting the dip-switches on her kitchen's PC in order to recall recipes. It's easy to follow their thinking: Computers are used by giant companies to store and manipulate files in the workplace. What files do housewives have to store and manipulate? Recipes! This is the "horseless carriage" fallacy: tomorrow's world will be like today, but moreso. Faster transport will get us to the same places, but faster. Faster communications will let us talk to the same people, but better.

So it's natural to think that HD television will be twice as unifying as old, standard-def sets (in fact, one of the big selling points for HD is that it will allow a small percentage of the household, usually Dad, to watch sports matches with his friends, while the rest of the family waits it out somewhere else).


Call this one the Fallacy of the Entertainment Industry, for they have committed this sin more publicly than anyone else. This is the idea that technology will develop enough to achieve some end, and then stop. For example: microchips and optical drives will progress to the point that everyone can afford to have half a dozen CD players around the house, but they won't become so advanced that home users will be able to rip them to MP3, load them into minuscule personal media players, and share them over the Internet. Or: microchips and networks will become so ubiquitous and cheap that we'll be able to provide video-on-demand services to the home, but not so cheap and ubiquitous that viewers will be able to share the same shows online.


Thinking weird is important if you're going to get the future right (imagine trying to explain World of Warcraft to the attendees at the 1964 World's Fair), but "there's such a fine line between clever and stupid." For example, home automation systems are still looking for a home (so to speak) and they may never find one. But the applications imagined by the Carousel — dimming Christmas tree lights and reprogramming the oven — aren't weird, they're just dumb. If you have the physical strength and coordination to actually put a turkey in an oven, then you have the wherewithal to press some buttons on its front to set the time and temperature. And who ever heard of wanting to dim the Christmas tree lights?

I don't know how to predict the future, and I never will. But I do know how not to predict it: don't stick to your boss's comfort zone by predicting that doing exactly what you're doing now is exactly the right thing to do forever.

Like I said, the Carousel is one of my most cherished Disney park attractions, and with good reason. As a science fiction writer, it's hard to imagine someone making a better example of exactly how the future can go wrong. I only wish they'd restore the 1964 show, along with the miniature domed city after the show, through which Mother and Father narrated the joys of their Jane Jacobs nightmare town, with its strictly regimented planning and zoning.

Getting the future wrong has consequences, as the rustbelt and its displaced industrial workforce can attest. We could do worse than to study how that happens.

From the March 2010 issue of Locus Magazine


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