Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Honouring the Elders: Samuel Delany and Harlan Ellison at Eaton Science Fiction Conference

Samuel Delany

What an absorbing and exciting conference this promises to be. Honour is to be given to two writers who have been literary heroes of mine since I was in my early teens, Samuel Delany and Harlan Ellison. They will receive the 2010 and 2011 Eaton Awards for Lifetime Achievement in Science Fiction respectively, and Harlan should hopefully be there to enjoy the attendant encomium and throw in a few words of his own to prevent the ceremony from becoming too decorous. Both authors have been garlanded with awards over their careers, with enough Hugos and Nebulas to handsomely line a shelf or fill a cabinet. But it’s always good to let people know that they’re appreciated now, in the present. There’s nothing more dispiriting than dust gathering on a statuette to remind you that your glory days are in the past. And that’s very much not the case with these two widely disparate figures, who nevertheless share a certain outsider viewpoint which has never brooked any compromise or call for self-censorship. Such integrity and persistence of vision has resulted in them both becoming wise elders of the genre, and indeed beyond (a wisdom embodied in Delany’s impressively rabbinical beard). Such elevated status, and increasing renown outside the genre walls, were enshrined in the release of two recent films portraying the authors: Dreams With Sharp Teeth, about Ellison, and The Polymath, or, The Life and Opinions of Samuel R. Delany, Gentleman.

I remember being dazzled by Ellison’s story “Repent, Harlequin!” Said the Ticktockman in a science fiction anthology I read when I was still in primary school (at the age of 10 or 11). I recall particularly enjoying the passage in which the childlike gadfly of a rebellious anti-hero, written with an obvious element of self-portraiture by the author, lets loose a multi-hued shower of jelly beans from his flying boat, disrupting the dull, clockwork routine of a time-obsessed future world by creating distracting wonder and amusement, and by clogging up the workings of the moving walkways (a very post-war SF device). Not really having much of a clue about what jelly beans might look like, I contented myself with imagining them as Smarties. “Repent, Harlequin!” is a story which cries out for a reading to really bring it to life. How, after all, do you pronounce the word or mumbled sound mrmee? Ellison himself does a fine job on a 1985 Warner Brothers audio release in which it was doubled with the longer story A Boy and His Dog (filmed fairly faithfully in 1975, but lacking the necessary sardonic authorial voice). Harlan plays Harlequin as a rather pitiful character, appropriately enough for someone whose real name, beneath the heroic persona, is Everett C. Marm. The emphasis is on the second syllable of mrmee, by the way. I reckon Harlan could write a really good children’s book. His nomination for a Grammy award this year in the Best Spoken Word for Children category for his reading of Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There shows that he still feels an affinity with the untrammelled imaginative worlds of childhood.

I discovered Samuel Delany at a relatively early age, too, firstly in anthologies and then through his collection of short stories Driftglass. I always enjoyed his language, which was both poetic and painstakingly analytical, couched in discursive, winding sentences entangled with multiple parenthetical asides. Delany’s proliferating brackets often enfold further brackets themselves. From the short stories I progressed to the early novels, The Fall of the Towers trilogy being the first I read, a good introduction in that it was still relatively conventional in terms of its content. Other short novels such as Nova and Babel-17 were bold and colourful works of SF mythologising, whose futures were diverse and multiform, and whose heroines and heroes were poets, criminals, romantic outsiders and misfits. A sense of separate identity, of a self-created persona was always important in Delany’s novels and stories, making them ideal fodder for the emphasis on ‘identity politics’ in the academic circles of the 70s and 80s. Having firmly established himself as an author whose every work I sought out and read, I finally graduated to Dhalgren, a monumental and dauntingly experimental work which marked a new phase in his writing. It’s a sprawling, impressionistic tale of life in a pre-apocalyptic city, lit by the baleful glare of a distended, end of time sun. It’s clearly a reflection, refraction and diffraction of the New York in which Delany lived and worked in the 70s, an imaginative recasting of observation and experience through the mirrors, prisms and lenses which are symbolically present throughout the book. I remember finding this in Forever People, a SF bookshop which used to be found halfway up the steeply ascending slope of Park Street in Bristol, a road which also boasted a great selection of record shops. All gone now, of course. It was a novel which needed hunting down since, to my knowledge, it had not at the time been published in England. In fact, I believe it was not until 1992 that it saw print in this country. It’s now been graced with a reprint in the official canon of the Gollancz SF Masterworks collection (unfortunately with a truly awful cover). What had previously been implied became explicit in Dhalgren, as Delany focussed increasingly on the varied expressions of desire and the ways in which they are contained and given form within the social body. His interest in the structure of language was taken to new levels of complexity. The writing and even the printed text are formally inventive, at times dispensing with normal punctuation and spelling, including words and sentences which are crossed through, and occasionally splitting off into parallel columns, across which the eye is encouraged to wander, taking in two narrative lines at once. It was a formative reading experience for me, both in terms of its style and its content, and remains a favourite to this day. My paperback copy has taken on something of the air of a sacred artefact, a very particular physical reminder recalling in its every crease and smudge a strong and abiding artistic experience from my youth.

Delany’s books tend to be few and far between these days, as he has become further entrenched amongst the ranks of academia (although a new novel, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, is due next year). He is now a Professor of English and Creative Writing at Temple University, Philadelphia. You can hear some of his readings at the University of Pennsylvania’s PennSound site. He gives a talk on the poet Hart Crane, whose epic poem The Bridge, a hymn of praise which uses the Brooklyn Bridge as a launching ramp for visionary flights of the imagination, influenced Delany’s own Brooklyn Bridge story, the 1995 novella Atlantis: Model 1924 (which can be found in the Atlantis: Three Tales collection). The readings from his own work, found here (if you scroll down to May 17 2008), include passages from Escape to Neveryon, in which he combines scenes from the primitive society of his own fantasy world with others set in contemporary New York, in which the AIDS epidemic is just starting to become evident. You can also find the 1967 radio play of his short story The Star Pit there, a production which is mentioned in Escape to Neveryon, and in which Delany himself plays the role of the narrator and observing protagonist. It’s strange to finally hear a writer with whose words you have long been familiar. Sometimes the speaking voice can be at odds with the tone of the writing. Delany’s speaks in a relaxed and pleasantly light tone which is entirely appropriate for the open and generous, inquisitive nature of his stories. Hearing it prompted an instant sense of recognition. Voice and word matched perfectly.

The range of the conference is impressive and reflects the global reach of SF and of the fantastic in the arts in general. There are many names here with which I am unfamiliar, some of which may not have made it into English translation. Wuxian Lu is a Chinese writer active since the 70s who has been in and out of favour with the government, but put himself beyond the pail through his support of the Tiananmen Square protestors in 1989; Valerio Evangelisti is a very popular SF writer in Italy; Albert Robida was a French contemporary of Jules Verne, an illustrator and writer who produced three books outlining a future history; Ted Chiang has written a number of award-winning short stories, which have been collected in Stories of Your Life and Others, which looks well worth seeking out; Hagio Moto is a female Japanese manga artist; Karen Tei Yamashita is an American writer of novels which exist along the borderlines of the fantastic (probably thus falling into the category of ‘magic realism’, a term which the literary world uses to avoid the use of the word ‘fantasy’); Ping Lu is a Taiwanese writer; Nalo Hopkinson is a Jamaican born Canadian writer of SF and fantasy; and Hiromi Goto is a Japanese born Canadian writer, author of the novel Chorus of Mushrooms and winner of the 2001 James Tiptree, Jr Award for The Kappa Child. The preponderance of Asian names here is perhaps unsurprising for a conference set in a university on the Pacific West Coast, with its face turned across the ocean to the East. It also reflects the way in which the rapid expansion of economies and technologies leads naturally on to speculations about possible futures and, where politically permissible, present alternatives.

The boundaries of genre are also widened to include examples which might fall outside the general idea of what constitutes SF. Readers of David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten, Margaret Attwood’s The Year of the Flood, or viewers of the film adaptation of PD James’ The Children of Men, all to be discussed here, might be horrified to discover that what they’ve been enjoying is SF. Mitchell, who displays a keen appreciation of genre and is deft in the use of its forms and devices, would no doubt be happy to be included. Atwood and James have both volubly objected to any such identification, reacting with distaste at the idea that their work should be thought of in any terms other than literature with a capital L. Attwood’s position does seem to have become a little less doctrinaire, as her participation in a recent debate with Ursula le Guin indicates. Le Guin’s Guardian review of The Year of the Flood outlines her position vis a vis Attwood’s genre denial, pointing out that it makes locating relevant critical reference points all the more difficult, since the most useful would be found in the body of SF criticism.

China Mieville
It’s interesting to see which writers and what films are currently in vogue in academic circles. Back in the 70s and 80s, when SF first began to be taken seriously in universities and colleges, the likes of Ursula le Guin and Philip K Dick were prominent, although a great deal of criticism tended to look back at the past, at progenitors and literary proponents of the genre such as HG Wells, Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. Here, China Mieville and Neal Stephenson both get sessions devoted to their work (and Mieville is himself a participant in the conference). This is understandable, since their novels are rich in philosophical speculation and ideologically-driven fantasy. Stephenson’s last book, Anathem, was itself cast in the form of an interrogative debate on the history of philosophy and scientific thought, with an invented society in which a complex monastic system has grown up to shelter intellectuals and scientists rather than the observers of any religion from the distractions of the world. There are also several papers on Battlestar Galactica, which has attracted a great deal of admiring critical attention, opening itself up as it does to interpretations drawing on aspects of modern global politics and conflict.

The tendency (or requirement?) for academic writing to conform to standardised patterns and vocabulary can be seen in the way that nearly all the titles of papers have an attention-grabbing headline followed, after a connecting colon, by a more prosaically explanatory précis of its themes. These sometimes display the fussy inelegance of much academic language, straining out phrases such as ‘waylaying cultural transactions’, ‘critical witnessing’, and ‘deflationary transhumanism’. There is, of course, plenty of ‘discourse’, ‘dialogue’ and ‘critique’ but, disappointingly, no ‘dialectic’. The need for academic credentials to be prominently displayed is also in evidence, as poor old Jake Casella’s institutional affiliation is questioned, possibly invalidating anything he has to say on The New Fantastic Urban. Which would be a shame, since sounds like one of the most interesting papers. It’s included in the second (he certainly is popular) session on China Mieville, so his work will presumably be the primary focus, but he might also touch on the work of Jeff Vandermeer, with his novels and stories set in the city of Ambergis (the latest of which, Finch, was published earlier this year); M.John Harrison’s Viriconium stories, or his SF novels Light and Nova Swing; Jeffrey Ford’s Well-Built City trilogy, beginning with The Physiognomy; KJ Bishop’s The Etched City; or Simon Ings’ City of the Iron Fish, an unjustly neglected novel.

There seems a greater willingness to examine contemporary work, with Mieville clearly already accumulating a considerable accretion of critical matter. Perhaps the old subjects of academic attention have now built up such a dense mass of commentary and analysis that they have finally become silted up, and the search for significance has flowed on into different channels. There’s only so much that you can say about feminist utopias or virtual cyberpunk subworlds. There is a paper here which offers an instant academic reflection on Vincent Natali’s Splice, released earlier this year. This suggests a recognition of his emergence as one of the most interesting of modern directors in the SF genre, following on from his previous films Cube and Cypher. There is a session entitled Fantastic Architectures: Theme Parks, World’s Fairs, and the Mission Inn, which includes the intriguing papers ‘Globalisation 1.0: World’s Fairs, Paris 1867 to London 1899’, and ‘Future’s Past: The Erosion of Possibility in Disney Theme Park Science Fiction Discourse’ (oh dear). Greg Stone’s ‘The Cinematic Misinterpretation of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris’ (where’s the pre-title?) sounds as if he might be arguing for fidelity to filmic source material, a somewhat unrealistic standpoint given the history of the medium. Tarkovsky’s rhapsodically beautiful film is far superior to Lem’s dry, intellectual novel in my opinion, anyway.

‘Rise of the Hippie Christs: Inner Space, Psychedelia, and 1960s Counterculture in Brian Aldiss’ Barefoot in the Head’ refers to the novel which was originally serialised in New Worlds magazine. Aldiss imagined a world in which LSD has saturated English society in the aftermath of the ‘acid head wars’, and consensus reality has effectively broken down. This allowed for experimentation with language and narrative form, both preoccupations of New Worlds writers. Aldiss was the ideal person to cast a wry eye over the psychedelic sixties, having the necessary distance from the centre to maintain an objective perspective. He was a little older than the generation of writers who formed the revolutionary vanguard of the New Worlds cadre, and who were wholly committed to the experimental and radical spirit of the times. Aldiss was happily ensconced in the literary establishment and had no real desire to tear anything down. He loved traditional SF in a way that the younger New Worlds crowd most avowedly (and vocally) did not. He wrote that ‘I feel I am no part of the New Wave; I was here before ‘em, and by God I mean to be here after they’ve gone (still writing bloody science fiction)!’ Happily, he is still here, and still writing the damn stuff. Indeed, he even has a story in this year’s Brilliant Book of Doctor Who. Despite his ambiguous feelings, he did write two of the key New Wave English SF novels: the above mentioned Barefoot in the Head, and his attempt at an English version of the French Nouveau Roman (exemplified by the work of Alain Robbe-Grillet) Report on Probability A. Some of the short stories in the collections The Moment of Eclipse and Last Orders also display an experimental bent which demonstrates the invigorating effect of his dip into the waters of the new wave. His literary connections also allowed him to play an instrumental part in securing an Arts Council grant for New Worlds, enabling it to emerge from its pulp format and incorporate a more striking graphic style. This is no doubt touched upon in Mark Young’s paper ‘Inner Visions: Aesthetic Shifts in New Wave Visual Culture’ , which hopefully includes an appreciation of the work of Mal Dean, who did so much to bring the characters of Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius stories to life.

Infiltrating Global Chemicals
David Layton’s paper ‘Doctor Who and the Critique of Capitalism’ sounds great. I have an academic book of Who criticism with the marvellously pompous title of Doctor Who: The Unfolding Text, which includes such riveting chapters as Mystery: Television Discourse and Institution and Regeneration: Narrative Similarity and Difference. Nothing can beat the winningly self-mocking title of a more recent volume of Who criticism, however: Time and Relative Dissertations in Space. So academics can have a sense of humour, after all. The above critique will no doubt feature The Green Death fairly prominently. In this Pertwee adventure, the Doctor teams up with Welsh miners and eco-hippies to fight the power, in the form of Global Chemicals, a company controlled by a megalomaniacal computer brain. Even the Brigadier throws in his flat cap with the anti-establishment forces, deciding that the polluting, impersonal power of the global energy corporation is simply a damn poor show. The producer and script editor from this period, Barry Letts and Terrance Dicks, have both been entirely open in dvd commentaries and extras about their own left-leaning politics, and their viewpoint seems by and large to have been shared by other writers for the series at the time. Terry Nation, who had created the Daleks back in 1963, tended to depict totalitarian societies in which resistance fighters struggle for freedom. The generally high death rate in his stories give them a harsh and surprisingly grim feel. Malcolm Hulke, who had for a time considered himself a communist, wrote stories such as Colony in Space, The Silurians and The Sea Devils which emphasised political subject matter and played up the Doctor’s anti-militarism and preference for diplomatic negotiation over violence and the resort to brute force. My favourite radical Who quote comes from the Tom Baker story Terror of the Zygons, however. The Doctor responds tersely to the Brigadier’s worries about a crisis brought on by oil shortages (in brief, a remote controlled Loch Ness Monster has been destroying North Sea rigs) by asserting that ‘it’s about time the people who run this planet of yours realised that to be dependent on a mineral slime just doesn’t make sense’. Right on!

No comments: