Around a week ago Delany was given the Damon Knight Grandmaster Award at the annual meeting of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. The award was announced back in December, but I thought I’d post about it now that the event has actually happened. The Grandmaster award is a great way to recognize those who take this particular corner of “genre fiction” beyond the limitations both the literary world at large and even its own fans place on it, not writing “respectable fiction” in disguise, but digging into the unique potential of fantasy, science fiction, and related genres to do something unique, something that cannot be done “elsewhere” or with other tools. Browsing the winners of the Nebula Awards each year is certainly a fine way to find new work and new authors (I am reading recent winner Ancillary Justice at the moment, which makes good use of the potential of science fiction world building as a way to interrogate our conceptions of gender), but you really can’t go wrong with the list of grandmasters, which includes Damon Knight himself, founder of the SFWA and author of a book on short story writing that I am rereading for the first time in over a decade, Gene Wolfe from last year, another super duper favorite of mine (whose fantasy duology I discuss here), Golden Age sci-fi giants Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke (both of whom I read constantly in Jr Hi and High School), and Ursula LeGuin, like Delany coming out of the “New Wave” of sci fi and fantasy of the 60s and 70s (my favorite period, I think), and right up there with Delany as one of the authors I most look up to.
I’m a huge fan of Delany’s science fiction (and his fantasy in the Nevèrÿon series), and just reread two of my favorites of his recently, Nova and Empire Star (I was going to continue on to reread Babel-17, which is now included on the flip side of Empire Star, as originally intended, but I seem to have misplaced it in just the last couple days…). Nova was the first book of his I read, and I think it is probably the best to start with–his work can be a bit difficult (which I admit I like–you need to read things that push you to grow in your ability to engage in a nuanced way with a complex world), and Nova is the most accessible I’ve read so far, at the same time that it has far more substance than 99% of the genre fiction out there. It is a short novel, so those used to the monstrous 700 page beasts on the market today may be a bit frustrated with the piddling 200+ of many New Wave era novels, but I really wish short novels like this were more “in” today–let’s have more variety, not less. In these 200+ pages, however, you will find a well-wrought reworking of Moby Dick (-ish… not really a thorough retelling, just a homage to the obsessive-chase motif) through the lens of the Tarot (which Italo Calvino also makes use of, and which allows for an interesting perspective on narrative itself), using the latter along with the character Katin as a way to dwell on novel writing as an art form (and in fact, this is a great meta-novel for those interested in the purported death of the novel, given that Katin is attempting to revive the art centuries after the last novel has been written), and along with all this anticipating the melding of human and machine that will later be explored in cyberpunk. Jo Walton has a great discussion of this old-but-still-so-fresh novel over at Tor.com, where she also gets into many more literary connections in the book which I did not list here. I may return to Nova again one day (it is among the most reread of my collection), but for now I suggest seeing what she has to say!
Babel-17 and Empire Star are also relatively accessible, though I found them somewhat less so than Nova, and somewhat less satisfying–but much easier than his Nevèrÿon stories, so check them out anyway! Where Nova is (in part) a meditation on the role of the novelist, Empire Star is (in part) a meditation on the role of the poet–but also hits on the issues inherent in living in a society built on slavery, which stood out a lot more to me as I reread it about the same time that I was checking out this article. Empire Star can feel a bit like a cheat when you get to the end (don’t want to spoil it though), but in a way the “cheat” is part of the “consciousness novum” of the book (as in simplex, complex, and multiplex consciousness–it is a sort of Bildungsroman of the protagonist’s progress from one to the other), and so fair. Babel-17, with its linguistic novum, was always meant to be paired with the novella Empire Star, though this has only recently been the done. I can’t say I was especially won over in terms of believability with both these stories (well, his -plex terms are actually super helpful for thinking and discussing about complexity of awareness versus intelligence, so I don’t think I really have too much of a complaint there), but I don’t think that is the point so much–it is more about using the tools of science fiction to think in a new way, or see our world from a new angle, putting pressure on things we take for granted in order to make them appear explicitly before us, rather than sitting in the background. And look, how many hard-science nova are really up to snuff from the perspective of actual scientists…
I’m afraid I haven’t read Delany’s famous Dhalgren yet, though I hope to get to it (and I have a copy). I did read Triton, which I did not enjoy as much as the others I’ve listed here (it was still really interesting, just didn’t engage me as much), but if you find you enjoy Delany’s style, it is certainly worth checking out. I’ve read the introduction and two of the stories to Tales of Nevèrÿon, one of which basically took a young female protagonist through the theory of deconstruction in a period long before Derrida came along. Oh, and the introduction to the book is written by an academic who is aware that he is a fiction. Gives you a bit of a feel for the book, haha. Gender and sex are common targets of Delany’s deconstructing narratives, and some of his books can get pretty “mature” (in the ratings sense), which I realize can be difficult reading for those not used to that (I’ll include myself in that category, though I’m pretty OK with reading things that make me uncomfortable–maybe not all the time though). Delany is generally a pretty unusual and interesting person, both within and without the science fiction community, so I recommend checking him out! There is an interview with him here, though it doesn’t seem to be opening for me at the moment.
So there you go–easily one of my top picks (maybe my top pick, actually) for intelligent science fiction for people in the humanities. Hoping to get around to reading Stars in my Pocket Like Grains of Sand soon, so maybe I’ll have a post about that up eventually! Though it would be really nice to get back to some of my own writing–finally got a new project underway, and it would be nice to finish off the draft sooner rather than later.