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Science fiction has lately been getting over its bad name as a pulpy, unserious genre, but it’s still misunderstood. What most know as SF—the groundbreaking novels of Bruce Sterling, Neal Stephenson, William Gibson, and other “cyberpunk” writers tagged for a modest wave of acclaim—has little in common with the work of those who laid the foundation for the form in the ’60s, and who generally remain mired in specialized obscurity: Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Ursula K. Le Guin, Samuel R. Delany.
Delany’s invisibility has been the most thorough and least deserved of all. Despite his position as a gay African-American author, as well as his academic writings on language and sexuality, only a recent series of fiction and nonfiction reissues from Wesleyan/University Press of New England has flushed him from the margins. Now at least a couple of his novels—heretofore existing mostly as tattered early editions on the upper shelves of used-book stores—can be found in the dustless environs of Barnes & Noble. With the gloss of this renewed novelty, Delany may soon add the imprimatur of the mainstream to the measure of intellectual respect he’s won.
But if so, it will be for entirely different reasons than those behind other recent SF successes.Delany’s collection, Atlantis: three tales, is fiction, not fantasy, but in a way it’s more SF than the cyber-writers are. Eschewing his colleagues’ prescient hyperrealism and doomsaying, Delany follows the classic SF form, exploring contemporary conflicts—about race, sexuality, and language—through a fantastical veil of myth and metaphor.
The race relations in Atlantis are between human races, not between humans and aliens, and language consists of a city’s myriad dialects, not the tongues of converging worlds. But Delany seldom writes a novel or short story that doesn’t refer to some larger, usually unrelated question. The first two stories, “Atlantis: Model 1924” and “Eric, Gwen, and D.H. Lawrence’s Esthetic of Unrectified Feeling,” depict conflicts of race and sexuality in New York City in the early part of this century. However important as these issues are, though, they’re not the stories’ main concern. Both pivot around the intangible, yet hugely powerful, web of conventions, folktales, and received wisdom that shape people’s lives.
In both “Atlantis” and “Eric, Gwen,” the characters are defined by the extent to which they rely on stories to understand the world. This is particularly true in “Atlantis.” Its protagonist Sam, a boy from the rural South who has come to New York City, is both a site on which others anchor their myths and a mythmaker himself. To his brother and the other family members he stays with, he is the quintessential innocent in the big city. They cluck over him, refer to him as a “country mouse,” and regale him with their urban stories. Strangers, however, respond first to his race. He has light skin, and frequently surprises people who assume he’s white. This liminality, as well as his youth and inexperience, lead his acquaintances to use him as a sounding board for their notions about various ethnic groups.
Sam has preconceptions of his own, of course. He makes emphatic distinctions between black and white women and between races, and although he’s unaware of the significance of such biases, he clings to them reflexively. Sexually naive, Sam doesn’t know that gay people exist, and is stymied by the flamboyant, Oscar Wilde-quoting man he meets while walking on the Brooklyn Bridge. This character is the most important figure in “Atlantis.” Though he, like everyone else, voices a fair share of racist stereotypes, he’s aware of his racism and mocks it in himself and others. At one point he teases Sam in this way:
“Well, there, you see?” the man said. “You and little Sammy Greenberg are very much alike!”
“He was a jewboy!” Sam exclaimed—because till then, for all he’d been trying to withhold, he’d really begun to identify with his strange namesake….
“Yes, he was, my young, high-yellow, towering little whippersnapper!” The man laughed.
Once more Sam started, because, though he knew the term—high-yellow—nobody had ever actually called him that before. (He’d been called “nigger” by both coloreds and whites and knew what to do when it happened. But this was a new insult, though it was given so jokingly, he wondered if it was worth taking offense.)
This strange man occupies a hidden position in the hierarchy of hate that makes up city society. Unlike racial minorities, who are continually labeled according to skin color, he’s indistinguishable from “regular” people. His homosexuality isn’t merely invisible, it’s universally—and strenuously—ignored. The man’s ephemerality is underscored by his name-changing; he never admits his real name to Sam, and at one point calls himself Sebastian Melmouth, the name, he says, that Oscar Wilde used when he got out of jail. Though the gay man is free of overt vilification, he’s vulnerable to a silent evil. He flees when he mistakenly assumes that Sam means to report him to the police.
Sam never knows the real reason for this abrupt exit, though he decides that the man, who had invited him to go for a drink, was afraid of being prosecuted for consuming alcohol. It’s one of many occasions when Sam incorrectly decodes an interaction. Oblivious to the complex network of meanings that the city’s inhabitants take for granted, he’s the quintessential stranger in a strange land.
Eric, Gwen, and D.H. Lawrence’s Esthetic of Unrectified Feeling,” seems almost a response to the collection’s longer title story. It abandons “Atlantis” ‘s hazy layers of allusion and omnipotent, hyper-descriptive narrator, relying instead on a spare first-person point-of-view.
“Eric, Gwen” revolves not around the ubiquity of myths, but around the quest for undiluted experience. The protagonist—again a boy named Sam—describes how his science, music, and art teachers constrain and harmonize his mental wanderings. Gwenny, the art teacher, is the most influential of the three. A serious artist whose acquaintances are “de Kooning, Bourgeois, Pollock, Nevelson, Frankenthaler, and Francis,” Gwenny drills Sam and his classmates on the stripped-down formalist aesthetic:
“So, once more. What is it that makes up a picture?” Shape, line, and color! (We knew we were to chant it with her and came in on cue.) “And how do we arrange them, in order to make it a picture?” (By now we knew the second part of it too.) In relationship to the outside edge! “That’s wonderful! Now go, loves, and spend the rest of the period making just the most beautiful paintings in the world!”
Though enthralled by Gwenny, Sam resists her rigid and vague philosophy. He simply needs allusion in order to make pictures that are meaningful to him. So, instead of an exacting collection of lines and shapes, he paints a hulking, comic-book-style oriental potentate flanked by soaring columns and flaming braziers. This is, he knows, a “wholly borrowed amalgam of visual clichés,” the very opposite of the pure form and feeling he’s supposed to be striving for. But nonetheless, the class and even dogmatic Gwenny are enthralled. She and Sam are equally startled when “[she] pushed up to see what I was doing and pronounced with some surprise: “That’s really very beautiful!’ ”
Though crucial to Delany’s first two pieces, the tension between the force of myth and the concreteness of experience is surprisingly absent from the last. “Citre et trans” centers around moral issues, not aesthetic or philosophical ones. It feels patchy and fragmented, especially to anyone who’s already read the sexy parts (excerpted in Susie Bright’s The Best American Erotica 1993). But despite a voluptuously awful rape scene, “Citre et Trans” isn’t really about sex.
Its narrator, a man as reflective as the boy in “Eric, Gwen,” describes his confusion and outrage at the barbarities he encounters as a black, queer traveler in Greece. These include his own rape and a dog’s drowning by its owner, and are described with both chilling immediacy and moral ambiguity. Stripped of the context and history that saturate “Atlantis,” the events in “Citre et trans” are simultaneously more polyvalent and more jolting.
“Citre et trans” is also the only one of the three stories that’s seated anywhere close to the present; it seems to take place in the early ’60s, but the events it describes could just as easily happen today. This adds to “Citre” ‘s tangibility, further isolating it from the other two tales. The Greece it describes is an undeniably real world, not a semifantastical one.
This cold realism contrasts dramatically with the subtle “Atlantis” and “Eric, Gwen,” defining the third tale’s role in the book. “Citre” offers its own answer to the problem that unifies Atlantis: three tales, a problem that Delaney must be aware of as he surveys the contemporary SF scene: that of what is real, what is imaginary, and which of the two is more powerful.