I. Samuel R. Delany
Momo informed me of Samuel R. Delany's free appearance at the Walker Art Center last weekend.
I've never read SRD's work, but he sounded interesting enough in himself to warrant going: a 67-year-old black "merrily promiscuous" gay sci-fi writer from New York City--especially interesting because the sci-fi genre is historically dominated by white males with the sexual imagination of straight teenage boys; by which I mean either more interested in silvery gadgets than in women, or interested in silvery women more as gadgets.
II. The Bookkeeping of My Mind
Furthermore, I saw going to a free talk at the Walker as an opportunity to adjust recent cost/value factors in my favor.
See, I had gone to see British film director Mike Leigh talk at the Walker last month, naively thinking it wouldn't cost more than $10.
Not only was it $22, but the Walker official would not accept $21.75 cash, which was all I had in my pocket. The man next to me in line laughed, however, and donated $0.25 toward what he said was "a good cause," which he left unspecified. (Me? Mike Leigh? His eternal soul?)
Alas, that exchange turned out to be the best part of the evening. (I'll just say Leigh was surprisingly prickly and humourless, and leave it at that.)
So here was a chance to rearrange the bookkeeping of my mind, by reassigning $11 of the ticket price to the free talk. (Should that be $10.82?)
Now that I've seen Delaney, I am going further: In the ledger of my mind, I am recording the entire ticket price for his talk, because he was worth it.
III. Protect Your Time
Mostly Delany read from his work, which you can listen to--free--archived at channel.walkerart.org. But he also talked a little bit about his own life--a life he has tried to devote to his art. Not easy. For instance:
A woman in the row right behind me asked,
"How do you balance teaching and writing?"
(Delany has been teaching Creative Writing for 7 years at Temple U.)
"I don't," he answered. "It's not possible--if you figure out how, e-mail me"
He talked some more to the audience about the irony of even being asked to teach writing, thus making your writing life impossible-- and then he said directly to the woman,
"My advice to you is get out of academe."
She replied, "I already have," and he congratulated her.
IV. Sexuality and the Freedom to Imagine
I started writing this post right after I saw SRD, and I meant to finish it, but I keep not getting around to it, so I'll cut to the end:
Here's a fantastic snippet about the life of the imagination--from An Interview with Samuel R. Delany, by Scott Westerfeld, in Nerve Magazine.
The topic is "the history of sex in sci-fi: Delany even talks about Kirk/Spock!
But it's far, far more than that--it's about how our stories liberate us from the shackles of thinking "that's impossible."
[Note of interest to Trekkies: Theodore Sturgeon, who wrote the story "The World Well Lost," which Delany talks about, also wrote the Star Trek episode "Amok Time".]
Samuel R. Delany: The pulp hero, though he may be a renegade, is a guy who doesn't feel. Anything. Ever. And for the adolescent male — pummeled by emotions left and right, whether arising from sexuality or resulting from his necessary encounters with authority — this hero is a blessing, a relief and a release. The world he lives in, where feelings are totally under control, looks to the adolescent boy like heaven! This hero's lack of feeling — like Star Trek's Spock — is what allows him to be a genius, or allows him to shoot the bad guys and/or aliens, without a quiver to his lip.
But what starts as a relief and a release, you eventually recognize as a distortion: it doesn't reflect the real world. Precisely what gave you a certain pleasure is also a restraint. Thomas Mann said that every philosophical position exists to correct the abuses of the previous one, often to the other extreme. You could make a reasonable argument that it is the alien Spock who carves out the space of desire that is eventually filled with sf's explicitly erotic characters — everyone from my own Kidd in Dhalgren to Maureen F. McHue's gay character, Zhang, in her extraordinary China Mountain Zhang, not to mention all the Kirk-slash-Spock fiction.
Scott Westerfeld: "Slash" fiction is surely the opposite extreme from the logical alien.
SD: Yes — Kirk-slash-Spock fiction, written by fans of Star Trek, is usually gay pornography in which Kirk and Spock and other members of the Enterprise crew get it on.
SW: So the emotionless, sexless pulp hero of the '30s personifies sf's celibate period. How did that come to an end?
SD: Take a story like "The World Well Lost," written by Theodore Sturgeon in 1950. Two alien lovers come to Earth, one larger than the other, and everyone assumes that they're male and female. The story is told from the point of view of two security men who guard their starship, themselves close friends. Eventually, the guards discover that the aliens are both male, and indeed are gay. They've taken flight from their home planet because of terrible homophobia there.
One guard, a typical 1950s Earth male, is disgusted by this and doesn't know what to do, he even suggests killing the aliens. But the other talks him out of it. At the end of the story, the first guard goes to sleep back in their quarters. His friend remains awake, looking at him, and we realize that he's in love with him.
I read it in an anthology when I was about fourteen or fifteen and broke out crying, exactly as I was supposed to. I was quite touched by it, and it certainly helped make it possible to talk about those things later on in my own work, like the gay, human characters in the story, "Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones." Historically, I guess that's how science fiction works: you start by using aliens to think the unthinkable — and then, eventually, another writer, having grown a little more comfortable with the earlier notion, brings it into the human.