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Science Fiction and Difference: An Introduction to Starboard Wine —by Matthew Cheney Starboard Wine offers an extension (and in many ways culmination) of ideas Samuel R. Delany had begun to formulate, revise, and explore in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, which collected essays written between 1968 and 1977 (or, to add a different perspective, between the ages of twenty-six and thirty-five).1 These are ideas about language, about reading, about difference, about history, about criticism, about literature, and about science fiction. Though subtitled “More Notes on the Language of Science Fiction,” we could also call Starboard Wine “Notes on the Theory and Practice of Science Fiction Criticism,” because more than in any of his previous books, Delany seems here to be calling for SF criticism to move away from certain practices, to aspire to greater rhetorical and historiographic complexity, and to take into account more recent literary theories than those of the Russian formalists or the New Critics. At the same time, he is demonstrating the kind of criticism he advocates. Starboard Wine’s first essay, “The Necessity of Tomorrow(s),” begins with autobiography—“an attempt to sketch out one lane along one of the many possible highways into the SF world.” This lane leads to a discussion of difference, and the various meanings that word possesses could be used as markers for nearly all of what follows in the book. Difference is what separates a science fiction text from other texts: a difference of representation and reference, a difference of reading strategies (protocols, codes), a difference of history. Science fiction is best described according to its differences, and any meaningful discussion of it 1. Between The Jewel-Hinged Jaw and Starboard Wine sits The American Shore, a booklength study of Thomas M. Disch’s sixteen-page short story “Angouleme,” wherein some of the ideas Delany offers in Starboard Wine about science fiction’s language and history are applied word by word and line by line to Disch’s story. The American Shore is a tour de force of both critical reading and writing, and, as Delany says in his acknowledgments herein, “Although these essays are not a systematic introduction to The American Shore, needless to say, reading them will certainly leave one better prepared to grapple with it.” xxii Science Fiction and Difference will be a discussion of difference. Within such a conception, science fiction becomes a different way of reading and a different way of thinking. What “The Necessity of Tomorrow(s)” suggests, though, is that difference for Delany stretches well beyond the borders of science fiction. Throughout Starboard Wine, Delany is (mostly silently) applying Derrida ’s idea of différance to the texts he encounters and the situations he describes.2 Science fiction is made different from other texts by the play of its references, the techniques of conceiving and writing texts that utilize this play, and the habits of reading required for such texts to yield the most meaning. These differences do not determine quality— they are present in the best and worst science fiction—but in addition to these differences, the most aesthetically accomplished science fiction creates difference by allowing critical inquiries that would not otherwise be possible. It is this latter point that seems to me one of Delany’s great accomplishments, because through it he has linked Lukács’ statement that “the novel is the only art form where the artist’s ethical position is the aesthetic problem” with the particular aesthetics of science fiction in a way that allows—even requires—both close reading and ethical analysis. “Some Presumptuous Approaches to Science Fiction” offers a view of difference at the level of inspiration by suggesting that the process for coming up with an idea for a science fiction story is different from the process of coming up with an idea for a play, a historical novel, or a poem: “In general, science-fictional ideas generate when a combination of chance and the ordinary suggests some distortion of the current and ordinary that can conceivably be rationalized as a future projection.” Delany insists that “Science fiction is not about the future; it uses the future as a narrative convention to present significant distortions of the present.” The importance of this insight becomes particularly clear when (in “Disch, II”) Delany shows how SF’s prioritizing of the object rather than the subject allows for a different kind of cultural criticism from what is available to the fiction he calls mundane (“of the world...


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