It used to be the custom to commemorate distinguished scholars with a Festschrift (usually a collection of essays in their honour)—a term which an academic publisher once told me was dropped because no one would actually buy them. Stories for Chip, therefore is not a Festschrift—it is a crowdfunded collection of pieces, some original, some reprinted, in honour of one of our most original and significant writers, produced in love and admiration and bought (I would hope) for the same reason. It should also be bought because it's a collection worth reading in its own right: as Kim Stanley Robinson says in his introduction, it is not an exercise in pastiching Delany's styles but of taking encouragement from his substance. And so the stories range from fantasy (Ellen Kushner's "When Two Swordsmen Meet") to science fiction (Carmelo Rafala's "Song for the Asking") to the horror-sexual anxieties of Haralambi Markov's "Holding Hands With Monsters," and celebrate the range of a career which has, since The Jewels of Aptor (1962), put Delany in the front rank of every branch of speculative fiction. There are also appreciations from other writers, and from literary critics who try to explain why they have felt Delany to be important to them and to the tradition of fantasy and SF.
This approach perhaps has its difficulties. It is sometimes said of great writers that they are universal, have something for everyone. But Delany's reputation has grown upon the back of his difficulty and complexity. Dhalgren (1975) is a novel widely praised and almost as widely started and left unfinished, and Hogg (1995), though begun not long after novels of the mid-60s like Babel-17 (1966), The Einstein Intersection (1967), and Nova (1968), comes from very different territories. Often, great writers challenge, and Delany's greatness is that he does challenge. There is no guarantee that the next Delany book or story we see will meet our tastes in the same way as did the last one—or even at all. There is a guarantee that it is serious business: that Delany will treat us as adults who are interested in challenges.
Similarly, the stories (and essays) in this collection are serious business, and though this is a fine collection the point of it all would be lost if I could run through each story and mark it in accordance to how it appealed to me, or even expound about how it came out of Delany's influence. Interestingly, the stories that remain longest in the memory come from a more varied terrain than, on first reading, I thought they would. Eileen Gunn's "Michael Swanwick and Samuel R. Delany at the Joyce Kilmer Service Area, March 2005," the first piece, is the only one I had read before: its fabulist fusion of fiction and reality felt memorable because of that prior reading, perhaps, but its playfulness emphasises the tone this collection needed.
"Serious business," I wrote above, but Delany is serious about the game of doing interesting things with language and unconventional things with story. It's impossible because of Delany's background as a gay African-American writer not to foreground this aspect of his work, and Isiah Lavender III's "Delany Encounters: Or, Another Reason Why I Study Race and Racism in Science Fiction" is a sensitive tribute to the author's own encounters with Delany's work and the reasons why it is so important in American fiction. But Gunn's evocation of landscape and futurity presents a route into Delany's (and science fiction's) part in the great thought-experiment which is writing about difference. L. Timmel Duchamp's thoughtful essay "Real Mothers, a Faggot Uncle, and the Name of the Father" explores how Delany, in his talking and writing about SF, has nudged our thinking towards breaking down genre boundaries as a means of crossing barricades of power rather than "transcending the genre"; or towards "zooming in on a certain preoccupation he calls the 'anxious search for fathers'" (p. 162) to consider whether in fact "what it's got are mothers" (p. 163). Nalo Hopkinson and Nisi Shawl's "Jamaica Ginger" underlines this influence in a different way, referencing They Fly at Çiron (1993) and anagrammatising Delany's name in a steampunky story that works on a number of levels—one of which is telling the story of how Plaquette, a programmer of androids whose punch-cards tell stories, leaves exploitative employment to become a writer. Hearing her words spoken by "Claude" the automaton, "[s]he'd set free something she didn't know she had in her. Claude's other novels were all rich folk weeping over rich folk problems, white folk pitching woo. They Fly at Çironia was different, wickedly so" (p. 316).
Geoff Ryman's "Capitalism in the 22nd Century, or A. I. r." is, I think, the kind of science fiction which Delany helped bring into being: a science fiction which establishes a future which is world-wide rather than provincial, which is not cosily utopian, and which is not afraid to undermine itself: not only do we read, "I wonder if space travel isn't inherently racist" (p. 303); but the story's final sentence. "Voice Prints" by devorah major is in many ways a traditional SF story which could have appeared in nearly any magazine in the 1950s, but its encounter between human and alien is designed to set up and interrogate the question of what "human" means in a way which, again, owes much to the influence of Samuel R. Delany. Markov's "Holding Hands With Monsters" relates to territory which is not part of my own encounters with Delany, and it's perhaps for that reason that I found the story worked so well; though, interestingly, Kushner's story seemed to me to work for the opposite reason: my appreciation for the sense of language and situation both Kushner and Delany apply to fantasy. (This is a story which I could imagine as written by Delany, but it is also ineluctably Kushner's "fantasy of manners.")
Pieces stick in the memory for a number of reasons. The unreliable narrator of Anil Menon's "Clarity," a story that considers the nature of truth and reality, tries to sell the glass desk in his bedroom by claiming that it was Samuel Delany's. Thomas M. Disch's "The Master of the Milford Altarpiece" draws upon Delany's astonishing impact upon the American SF community when he emerged as a young writer, and Michael Swanwick appears in his own right in "On My First Reading of The Einstein Intersection" to reflect upon Swanwick's own personal reaction to discovering Delany. Walidah Imarisha's essay on personally encountering Delany some years after discovering him "as a Black radical nerd in high school" (p. 95) shows how Delany has become both guide and influence upon succeeding generations of American writers. Claude Lalumière's "Empathy Evolving as a Quantum of Eight-Dimensional Perception" plays the Delany-checking game in a different fashion: in echoing Delany's new-wavey experimental period, is it evoking Lovecraft-as-if-Delany, or Delany-exploring-the-Cthulhu-Mythos?
But there are other stories and essays which, on a second reading, stand out. Kit Reed's "Kickenders" has two women crowdfunding the cost of a hitman to get rid of a lecherous boss. The story references and reverses W. W. Jacob's "The Monkey's Paw," in which we learn that getting what he want may not be such a good idea. Here, everyone gets what they want; even the boss. Two stories, Sheree Renée Thomas's "River Clap Your Hands" and Kai Ashante Wilson's "Legendaire" move especially skilfully out of the conventional tone and subject matter of what we point to when we say "science fiction" or "fantasy." The former is a beautifully written story of transformation in which the flood imagery straddles both symbolic and actual events; in the latter, a mother's anxiety over her son's relationship with an aristocrat in a world of incarnated gods and strange dancers is central to a story whose occasional segues into science fictional terms such as "DI. Discorporated Intelligences . . . I shouldn't call them ghosts" (p. 239) are brilliant changes of tone. I certainly needed to re-read this story to feel its full richness; now I think it is one of the best in the book.
Roz Clarke's "Haunt-Type Experience" is the kind of scientific-investigation-meets–ghost-story which can so often fail on both levels, but here does not partly because the characters are so strong. Alex Smith's "Clones" alternates between a far-future space exploration and what seems to be at first sight a contemporary love story featuring Henry, "a fat geek. That's all he'd ever been" (p. 283). These cross-mode stories do what Thomas and Wilson do more subtly, perhaps: evoke Delany's own breadth and depth in subject-matter and style and generic location.
The scholarly Festschrift is not exactly dead—indeed I am told that there is a word WebFestschrift, which brings the concept bang into the digital age—but I rarely hear it in everyday use. This may or may not be a good thing: it has a worthy motive behind it, but it sounds rather stuffy; certainly something that the general reader of whatever stripe would assume could only appeal to hardened specialists. There's similarly something ambiguous about the tribute volume to one of the outstanding writers of our time coming as a crowdfunded collection from a small press. But Delany himself has vanished from the lists of major publishers, the shelves of bookshops, and the best-seller lists, and I suspect that few commercial enterprises would even have considered this. Nevertheless, as a heartening number of the contributors to this volume are, rather than writers of Delany's own generation, younger writers who have grown up with his influence, and much of the enthusiastic response I have seen to Stories for Chip has come from readers who seem to be considerably younger than Dhalgren or Tales From Nevèrÿon (1979), I'm not inclined to think that this is some sort of disappointment. Shawl and Campbell, and Rosarium Publishing, are to be congratulated on showing the SF world what a true genius it has in the shape of Chip Delany. Stories For Chip could probably be read by people who haven't read any Delany at all, and they would still look up from it in amazement and say "I enjoyed that."
That's his influence. That's why Delany is important.
Andy Sawyer is librarian of the Science Fiction Foundation Collection at the University of Liverpool Library, and a widely published critic. For ten years he was Course Director of the MA in Science Fiction Studies offered by the University's School of English. He is Reviews Editor of Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction. He recently co-edited (with David Ketterer) Plan for Chaos, a previously unpublished novel by John Wyndham, and (with Peter Wright) Teaching Science Fiction in the Palgrave "Teaching the New English" series. He was the 2008 recipient of the Clareson Award for services to science fiction.
You must log in to post a comment.