...Samuel Delany, whom I discovered via my friend, D., a big-time sci-fi-head. I, myself, have not read much sci-fi; what I guess you'd call fantasy and speculative fiction have been more my cup of tea, and even those books don't make up the bulk of my reading list (i tend to read mostly historical and contemporary fiction--my favorite writers include Toni Morrison and Junot Diaz). But as I'm writing a fantasy/SF novel, I've been trying to bone up on the more literary SF out there, and after D. loaned me Delany's Babel-17/Empire Star, a two-for-one novel/novella combo, I've been intrigued by this supremely talented and aesthetically experimental writer. The fact that he wrote Empire Star in the 1960s still boggles my mind because it's so futuristic yet conversational. Almost the entire novella is written in dialogue, almost like a screenplay.
I've read a few online bios of Delany's, and he seems to be the kind of person I'd want to get to know, hang out with, down a few beers with. African-American, queeresque but married, now teaches at Temple in Philly. I'm also fond of Octavia Butler and Nalo Hopkinson, who have greatly stretched my definition of sci-fi and fantasy. No coincidence that Delany, Butler and Hopkinson--who are all Black--treat issues / themes of race, gender, class and sexuality with a natural realness that makes me feel right at home within the worlds they create. But I haven't sought out Delany much until this past weekend, starting on Friday night, when I was at Cody's Bookstore in Berkeley.
Before I started my Delany search, however, H. and I happened upon an interesting reading upstairs on hip-hop activism moderated by fellow Cal alum Oliver Wang; the ever-vivacious Aya de Leon was in the house being sharp and funny as always, along with other hip-hop heads Keith Knight, S. Craig Watkins (whose book, Hip Hop Matters I just purchased) and lone white boy Adam Mansbach. After listening to the discussion and Q&A and doing a meet-and-greet with the panelists as well as panel organizer Jeff Chang, H. and I headed down to browse the shelves.
I picked up Delany's Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand and scanned the back cover, then read the first page. This is my litmus test for whether a book will make it into my personal library. It usually works. And this is what I read on the first page of 'Stars':
"'Of course,' they told him in all honesty, 'You will be a slave.'"
His big-pored forehead wrinkled, his heavy lips opened (the flesh around his green, green eyes stayed exactly the same), the ideogram of incomprehension among whose radicals you could read ignorance's determinant past, information's present improbability, speculation's denied future.
'But you will be happy,' the man in the wire-filament mask went on from the well in the circle desk. 'Certainly you will be happier than you are.' The features moved behind pink and green plastic lozenges a-shake on shaking wires. 'I mean, look at you, boy. You're ugly as mad and tall enough to scare children on the street. The prenatal brain damage, small as it is, we can still correct...."
And although I didn't buy the book that night--didn't bring my check-card w/ me, dammit!--I spent a good chunk of time today scouring every independent bookstore in central Oakland and Berkeley trying to find a used copy of Stars/Grains. No luck. At Walden Pond on Grand the bespectacled guy behind the register told me that Delany 'moves faster than other stuff'. No f**kin' kidding. I went to no less than six, count 'em, six bookstores trying to catch a deal on this book. In the end, I ended up making the trek up to Cody's again for the new copy.
But it's all good. I've found Delany and now I've got time to savor his work, and to hope that he can teach me a thing or two about writing science fiction that watching 'Star Wars' just can't.