Thursday, November 20, 2008

Think Galactically, Act Loquaciously

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 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"
Everyone laughed.

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.


Jennifer said...

"The World Well Lost" feels familiar enough that I wonder if I read it as a youngster. I suspect that if I had I most likely missed the point. Delany is amazing, he clarifies so well the role of SF in pushing out boundaries, making us see "the alien" as understandable and a sort of brethren.

His analysis of the emotionless hero as a relief and a refuge to the male reader is also oddly moving. Hostility to slash runs deep among many men in part because the stories rob them of that refuge, argue that beneath that coolness their heroes are just as susceptible to all the uncontrollable and terrifying things they've tried so hard to channel into practical means. Even beyond the basic homophobia, it's a threatening message.

Lady P said...

Fascinating! Especially the bit about the heroes (she says, as she looks on rather ineffectually at her own hormone-producing-teen-male).

Slightly off topic (and relating to an earlier comment) - I'd always assumed that Pon Farr was based on musth in bull elephants and the fact that the episode's called Amok Time seems to confirm it - the term running amok was originally used to describe the behaviour of such elephants by the British in India. (As well as being a fascinating Malaysian culture-bound syndrome.)

I saw an elephant in musth once. It was extremely scary.

fresca said...

JEN: I agree about Delany's analysis, I'd only add that some of us female teens felt the same thing--I know this was the source of my deep identification with and love for Spock.

You are brilliant to point out that taking away people's refuges, our places of safety, won't win any friends.
People often aren't being stupid when they're expressing hostility--as we sometimes accuse our enemies of being-- they're being frightened.
I recognize this in myself, for sure, and what I want, the thing that helps me, is not to be denigrated but to be comforted.

Of course some hostility has hardened into hate, and there's not much you can do about that except run away!

LADY P: Wow--this is my top favorite thing: the way ideas, people, life play connect-the-dots.

I'm going to read "The World Well Lost," which as I said, was wrtitten by the same guy who wrote "Amok TIme" (Theodore Sturgeon) who surely must have known about musth,
--but I didn't!!!
I had no idea where the phrase "running amok" came from: Thank you, Pen!

But now I remember that I read about it--long ago--in George Orwell's short story "Shooting an Elephant" from his days in Burma.
Another dot lines up.

Lady P said...

This evening, quite by chance, I had dinner with the architect who designed the new elephant house for Copenhagen zoo. Apparently architects have to take the matter of musth very seriously since their structures not only have to withstand the force of an insane elephant but also, in these modern and enlightened times, allow their keepers opportunity to escape a goring. Large is the number of keepers killed by musthy* elephants apparently.

* I made that up, the word musthy. At least I think I did. It certainly should exist if it doesn't alread. As should the word verification which is "desturge" and might have deliberately been designed with "amok" in mind.

fresca said...

Dear Penelope:

I need maybe not an architect but perhaps a feng-shui interior-designer to mitigate against the desturging effects of working long and up-close with many semi-nude photos of the noble Captain Kirk.

I fear I may be near musthy...