Thursday, December 16, 2010
aye, and gomorrah
by Samuel R. Delany
Diversity strikes one in its brilliance. Plenitude, plenitude, plenitude. Samuel R. Delany's work is rife with such fertile variation , whether through the vast spectrum of his novels, his essays' Guy Davenport-esque polymathic pleasure, or the short fiction that graced periodicals such as If and the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction throughout the late-60s and 70s. The rich variety of the stories collected in "aye, and gomorrah" is all the more striking the collection's brevity. The small body of short fiction Delany has produced is striking for a SF writer of such influence and power. SF is a field exhibiting many of its most rarefied splendors in the short form. In his afterword to the novel "Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand," Delany argues that SF, perhaps more than any other fiction, is specially suited to addressing Charles Olson's advice "to keep [their] fictions up to the real." SF short fiction, rarely bogged down in the world-building and fanic mythologizing which can mar sustained works in the field, is then doubly adept for Olson's task.
The SF short story often hinges upon the shock of the new, whether through some rote twist ending or a visionary ostranie. And before the economy of the SF market was overtaken by the juggernaut of multi-volume doorstop epics, the short story was the primary source of income for writers struggling to feed and support their families. Yet Delany, always roving through disparate yet beaded means of investigation, never lingered on the craft of the short story. The 383 pages of Vintage's "aye, and gomorrah" is a nigh complete collection of his short fiction baring a few omissions. It is a svelte affair compared JG Ballard's gargantuan Collected Stories recently published in paperback. In addition, the majority of these stories, excepting 1988's "Among the Blobs, were published in the late sixties, though their composition stretches back to the early sixties.
A case can be made for these stories as investigative excursions. In the early work of Samuel R. Delany, we see him claiming and repositioning (or is that enriching?) the modes of the genre. His early trilogy, the Fall of the Towers, as well as his later tetralogy Return to Neveryon, claim and reclaim the SF serial. The two series serve as informal borderlines at either end of his tenure within the conventional bounds of SF, if Delany could EVER be said to exist on the pale side of convention, that is. The sustained dialogue of the short story "Omegahelm" prefigures the above-mentioned novel, "Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand." It both introduces key historical figures as well as the overarching theoretical binary of the Family and the Sygn expanded in the novel. "Omegahelm" is a hologram of the latter book, a rich metaphoric mine for Delany. The original title of the story when it appeared in "Beyond the Horizon" was that of the subsequent novel. Both works "are" "Stars in My Pocket Likes Grains of Sand," aren't they? "Omegahelm" can then be seen as an approximate hologram of the later novel.
Samuel R. Delany himself
A hologram, Delany writes, is "...a method of information storage... you take the ordinary hologram plate, cut it in half, and then shine a laser-beam on it, and you get the complete, three-dimensional image hanging there, full-size. Only it's slightly out of focus, blurry, a little less distinct... Theoretically, even a square millimeter cut from a hologram will have something to tell you about the whole object." The jubilant, modular variables of Delany's work functions in such a manner, providing a total sense in each small flicker or flash. Following the above exposition of holograms in the story, "High Weir," a character asks, "Does that 'theoretical' mean something... or is it just rhetoric?" But within the fictions of Samuel R. Delany, both theory and rhetoric "mean" something; they express the dance of diverse intentions, the horseplay of function and wide preponderance of thought. The meat is in this rhetoric. It is what slips between the cuts.
The least fulfilling selections of the collection are, predictably, the early stories, as they are tied more tightly to the expectations of genre. And since Delany has since developed in a master prose stylist, it is doubly strange, though admittedly exciting, to see him stumble towards dexterity in early pieces like "Prismatica" and "Tapestry." Yes, "Ruins," a fairly straightforward tale of tomb-robbing horror, is only a doom-shrouded glyph away from a Robert E. Howard yarn, but watch it s conclusion explode into a thrilling rumination on jobs and function in a primitive world. As the treasure-hunter Clikit flees a haunted tomb, he comes to the hut of a kind, elderly woman who brings him soup while he rests on her doorstop. The woman's "... position in that hamlet was akin to a dentist's, an art at which, given the primitive times, she was very skilled... her knives and picks and files were valuable..." An emphasis is placed here, and throughout Delany's oeuvre, on the small pleasures and honor of work and craft. To some extent, such an outlook may come from Delany's associations in both the SF and comics field, where the schism of art and commerce is often fore fronted.
1989 Tor SF Double Edition of "the Star Pit," paired w. John Varley's 'Tango Charlie and Foxtrot Romeo. Cover by Tony Roberts
The mechanic of "the Star Pit" is defined by his work, as are the goldens, beings who through some quirk of psychological makeup are able to travel between galaxies. Work, here as elsewhere, engenders class. Delany does not sentimentalize labor. Labor molds identity to some extent, though mystery remains at the fringes as at the center. Labor both limits and expands within the fractal of those limitations. One of the mechanics in "the Star Pit" explains that "...you gotta accept limitations, but the right ones. Sure, you have to admit there are certain directions in which you cannot go. But once you do that, you find there are others where you can go as far as you want." Delany never ignores the lines of limit, but instead inhabits these stretches, plumbing their alephic exuberance.
The title story and the brilliant "we, in some strange power's employ..." both touch upon sexual difference and desire and how the earlier spark fuel the latter. "Aye, and gomorrah..." confronts the perturbances and estrangements of sexual desire head-on, albeit via the visionary conceit of Spacers and Frelks. This is justly considered a classic of the genre. "We in some strange power's employ...," on the other hand, sublimates sexual desire in a broader exploration of power - whether it be authoritative, social, resource or information-based. Sex becomes a satellite rotating about the spoke of power. The sexual effusions of leather biker gangs seen in "Dhalgren" is herein prefigured, watch Blacky's subtle attraction to the tactility and vibrancy of the Angels. The Angels, a sort of reconfigured, futuristic Hell's Angels, exist as a final outpost of isolation in a world increasingly mapped and gridded by global power and information sources. Speaking about the former leader of the Angels, one character states "He insisted on living in a way totally at odds with society. That takes... power." Power may manifest as the acknowledgement of an overriding weakness or inevitable failure. These oscillations of power and authority, through information or design, reconfigure and reappear across the text. The story closes with a seemingly casual social exchange. Blacky, a section-devil or a section-head, stands before a charred corpse, the casualty of the story's climax. Sue, a worker-devil, stumbles on Blacky as she steps out of her sleeping-unit. They exchange nicities. "Hello, Blacky." "Hi. How do you feel?" "Fine." Blacky mentions "You just stay away from the trouble until we cover it up. We had some trouble there last night." "Why? Isn't it a perfectly lovely-?" "That's an order." "Oh. Yes, sir." The casual, the social, is the hotbed of authority, of power, of relation.
Delany's work explodes from these pressure points - typically through dialogue or vivid description seen through a pertinent subjective lens. Situations spin around subjective revelations or enumerations. Layers accumulate. It is not so much that Delany's fiction reveals the layers of an onion, as that it adds successive filaments and degrees. This collection of his short fiction, then, to both the devotee and recently-acquainted, should not so much boil Delany's work down to some inscrutable core, as provide alternate pathways and divergent possibilities. We approach the real as we recognize and recognize again the vast diversity and unknowables dancing beyond the ken of our subjective girth.