- A Most Ambiguous Citizen:Samuel R. "Chip" Delany
Twentieth-century science altered reality. Marie Curie's discovery of radium changed medicine and Albert Einstein's theory of relativity altered our understanding of time and space. Very often, science determines the condition of human life, but when science and fiction come together as "science fiction," many people will say "I never read it, I do not like it" even as others claim "it is the only thing I read." Science fiction films or television do not cause the same all or nothing response. Indeed, in both literary magazines and MFA programs, a fledgling science fiction/fantasy (SF/F) writer will be told that genre writing is neither wanted, nor even allowed.
I have been asking this question and have received some fairly unintelligible answers since I first began publishing SF/F, in 1982. At that time, I was almost as young—23—as SF/F author and critic Samuel R. Delany was back in 1960, when he identified himself as a "homosexual. I'm married. I've written five novels in three years. I've got this thing about subways: and I feel kind of like I'm coming apart at the seams" in his Hugo Award-winning autobiography, The Motion of Light in Water: Sex and Science Fiction Writing in the East Village, re-issued by Minnesota in 2004 (337). As a young man, Delany, gifted, African American, was married to a white, Jewish poet, Marilyn Hacker, who later became, in addition to being a poet, a lesbian political activist. Living on the psychological cusp of a breakdown, and on the cusp of the socio-historical upheavals of the early 1960s, Delany's situation as a writer was rather unique, since he was also convinced that "—yes, science fiction—was serious business" (Motion 200). In the early 1960s, such a conviction was rare. Science fiction was widely considered pulp fiction, and although Delany's conviction about SF/F is still not as widely shared as it ought to be, he has [End Page 557] made SF/F serious business indeed, as Jeffrey Allen Tucker delineates in A Sense of Wonder: Samuel R. Delany, Race, Identity and Difference (2004), a comprehensive study of (now) Professor Delany's impressive 40-odd year career.
Yet even now, in 2007, despite a growing body of critical work about the genre, the idea that SF/F is serious literature is not always a given, which is why both Tucker, as a scholar, and Delany, as a scholar, author, and critic, must approach the question "why is SF/F not literary?" in their respective works. Over the years, Delany has given some of the most cogent answers to this oddly persistent and nagging question. Many of those answers have to do with what he calls in About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters, and Five Interviews (2005) the "slough of political positivity" (297), a mode of thinking that relies on ossified absolutes, thus bedeviling engaged, dialectical thought, the kind of dialectical thinking Delany himself uses. He has argued that such reified positivism, on both the left and the right of the political spectrum, is a bog that stymies inquiry. It produces truisms that pass as common sense, like the truism that SF/F is not serious because it is juvenile, popular, or unreal. One might ask: are Thomas Pyncheon's novels real? Is Toni Morrison's Beloved (1987) not popular? Is Stanislaw Lem's Cyberiad (1974) juvenile?
However, the most frequent charge against SF/F is that it is not well written. At that point, Tucker will ask: "have you ever read any of it?" The answer is usually "no." As Tucker remarks, "Can you imagine someone walking up to you at a meeting of the MLA and saying 'I don't like sonnets'—without having read any?" (49). Still, people who have not read SF/F often say they do not like it because the idea that SF/F is not real has become a reified cultural common sense, freighted with political and aesthetic assumptions and often sunk knee-deep in Delany's slough of political positivity. As he remarks, "Literature...