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How to build an SF Reference Library, 1 – Samuel R. Delany

By / November 17, 2016 / no comments

Okay, you love science fiction. But it’s not just the fiction you like. You want to read about it, find out more about the authors or books or ideas that interest you most. After all, you’re reading this blog, aren’t you. Well, you’re in luck, because there’s an absolute wealth of books out there that will really hit the spot.

The problem is, there’s too much to choose from. There are biographies and autobiographies of your favourite writers (I’ve already talked about a few of them here). There are reference books. There are single-author studies. There are critical overviews. There are histories. There are collections of essays and reviews. There are academic texts, and books carefully aimed at the non-academic. There are monographs on sf films. There are definitive editions of classic works, complete with critical essays and notes and more. There are bibliographies. There are books of photographs of sf authors, and collections of sf book covers. There are critical journals. There are thousands of books, more than you could possibly read, more than you could possibly want to read.

At the same time, it’s always nice to have an sf reference library that you can turn to whenever you want to check a fact, find out more about a particular writer, learn about other books that explore the same ideas, or just to read for pleasure (because believe me there are some books that are absolutely fascinating in their own right). So we’re introducing an occasional series to help guide you through the mass of books available. We’ll narrow it down, pick out a few key works, help you choose the books that really appeal to your special interest in science fiction.

And we’ll start with a writer who is excellent value for anyone who wants to begin reading about sf: Samuel R. Delany.

DhalgrenAs a fiction writer, Delany is extraordinary. If you’ve not read Nova or Dhalgren or Tales of Neveryon, honestly, what are you waiting for? But as well as writing some of the most important works of science fiction in the last 50 years (he has four Nebula Awards, two Hugo Awards and a Grand Master Award to his name) he has also written brilliant mainstream fiction about the black experience (Dark Reflections), powerful gay pornography, he’s produced texts for comics, he has three books of memoirs, none of which overlap (Heavenly BreakfastThe Motion of Light in Water and 1984), he has written a sociology text-cum-memoir about the transformation of Times Square (Times Square Red, Times Square Blue), and he has written some of the best works of science fiction criticism you are likely to find. And it is some of these that we want to recommend here.

Why is Delany important? There had been studies that covered aspects of science fiction ever since the 1940s (we might even cover one or two of these in a later post), and from the 1950s onwards writers like Damon Knight, James Blish and, slightly later, Algis Budrys had been writing reviews of science fiction that treated it as a serious literature worthy of close attention. But those critical studies tended to deal historically with work from previous centuries, and the reviews were only read within the sf community. By the time Delany came along, science fiction was only just beginning to penetrate academia, and most academics still did not regard it as a serious literature. Delany wasn’t alone in changing that, but he was certainly part of the process.

The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science FictionHis first book of criticism, The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, made the radical proposal that science fiction was a language. Or rather, that words in a science fiction story could be used metaphorically or literally, and a science fiction reader had to be aware of the language of science fiction in order to understand which. Thus, for example, in a mainstream novel a sentence like “she turned on her left side” would be a metaphorical way of describing someone rolling over in their sleep, but in a science fiction story it might be used literally to describe starting up the machinery that constituted her robotic left side. Once you understand science fiction as a language in this sense, it makes it much easier to comprehend what is going on in a story and why some people find science fiction so difficult.

Starboard Wine: More Notes on the Language of Science FictionAnyone who has read Delany’s fiction will recognise what a clear and rewarding writer he is, and that is particularly true of his criticism. He deals with complex ideas, and isn’t afraid to drop the names and concepts of some of the most highbrow literary critics, yet you are never at a loss to understand what he is talking about. His work is always very accessible. That is also true of his second book of criticism, Starboard Wine which, like The Jewel-Hinged Jaw is a collection of essays. Here he further expands the idea of science fiction as a language, which he illustrates with revealing and enthusiastic discussions of some of his favourite writers, including Robert Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon and Thomas M. Disch.

The American Shore: Meditations on a Tale of Science Fiction by Thomas M. Disch_Disch is at the centre of his next critical work, a book like no other you are going to read, The American Shore. This is a book-length work (216 pages) devoted to one short story, “Angouleme” by Thomas M. Disch, which appeared in 334 (and which is another book you really should read). The American Shore has a handful of essay-length pieces on the story, setting it in the context of 334 among other things, but the heart of the book is a sentence-by-sentence analysis of the story. It’s worth it just for the bravura display of that alone, I know of no other short story that has been the subject of such detailed analysis at such length. And it’s worth it, because by the end of the book you’ll have a much deeper appreciation of how good Disch’s story is (and it probably ranks among the top ten stories of the 1970s), and how good a critic Delany is.

There are other later critical works by Delany: The Straits of MessinaShorter ViewsLonger Views and Silent Interviews. Frankly, the only reason we’re not recommending them here is because, if you’ve read and enjoyed those first three critical books nothing is going to stop you rushing out to get these, also. And together they constitute an invaluable start to any sf reference library, because they are accessible, they are informative, they are argumentative, and they are readable.

About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters, & Five InterviewsAnd there’s one other non-fiction book by Delany that you really must be aware of, particularly if you have ever fancied writing sf yourself. About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters and Five Interviews is perhaps the most valuable book about how to write science fiction that you are likely to come across. There’s stuff here about how to visualise the detail of a scene, or to breathe life into characters, that really will make a massive difference to your own fiction. And if you are interested in Delany anyway, there is so much incidental information about his life and his work that means this really has to be on your shelf.


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