Samuel R. Delany's The American Shore is something of an oddity. A book-length exercise in literary criticism from 1978 that has recently been republished by the Wesleyan University Press, the text (subtitled Meditations on a Tale of Science Fiction by Thomas M. Disch—"Angouleme') is essentially an extended exercise in structuralist criticism, an analytical tool that has been incredibly influential but that is now somewhat quaint and obsolete. The American Shore is also, however—and particularly in this new edition with a very useful and illuminating introduction by Matthew Cheney—a valuable glimpse into a pivotal stage in the development of science fiction theory and critical practice, as well as a fascinating opportunity to watch Delany's feverishly imaginative, intimidatingly well-read brain at work.
A full explanation of where structuralism came from in the final decades of the twentieth century and how it worked as a form of literary criticism (if indeed it did at all) is far beyond the scope of this review. Suffice it to say that it grew out of Ferdinand de Saussure's pre-World War I lectures on linguistics, in which he asserted that the connection between the language that we use and the meanings we wish to indicate through that language is an entirely arbitrary one. In other words, nothing more than convention and social consensus ensures that what we think of as a "cat" is not in fact called, say, a "ploof," or indeed anything else whatsoever. What is more, Saussure demonstrated (in a move that would have far-reaching repercussions for literary and cultural criticism) that meaning is created by a combination of arbitrary "signs," which are made up of a combination of "signifier" ("cat," "dog," "spaceship") and "signified" (the entities, places, or ideas that we "mean" when we say or write these signifiers). More complex meanings are then generated by combining signs syntactically in sentences, signs that we recognise purely by the fact that they aren't other signs (as in, not "cab," "god," or "holodeck"), and by their position and function within those sentences.
Structuralist criticism, which flourished in the 1960s and '70s through the work of writers such as Roland Barthes, took a number of forms. Many critics, including Delany here in The American Shore, saw Saussure's ideas as encouraging critics to break a literary text down into a series of codes or functions, effectively treating the text as a very literal structure in and of itself, one which relies on binary oppositions between things (day/night, up/down, male/female, nature/ culture), and/or upon particular forms or conventions of language and symbolism to construct and convey its meanings. This is precisely what Barthes does in his groundbreaking work S/Z, published just eight years before The American Shore in 1970, and which Delany references numerous times throughout the text. Both Delany and Barthes seek not only to pull apart the constituent elements from which a text is assembled, but also to excavate the ways in which literary texts establish meaning through symbols, actions, allusions, and the reader's cultural knowledge. Indeed, Barthes and many of his ilk saw the kind of "structure" they identified within literary texts as also existing on a far larger scale, positing texts themselves as the equivalent of single "signs" that together make up a wider discourse. This kind of criticism was central to the increasingly "respectable" status that genres like science fiction, fantasy, and horror now enjoy in academic departments, since it allowed for individual texts to be positioned within a set of "codes" or conventions that make up our expectations of what a particular genre will deliver in terms of plot, motifs, character types, and so on. It is this kind of criticism that allows us to understand that, say, Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings share the same basic plot structures, despite the glaring differences between them in terms of settings and mises-en-scène. The identification of these structures lent a certain gravitas to texts that had long been rejected by the academy as little more than formulaic, populist escapism. Freed from rabbiting on about the beauty of the language, structuralism empowered critics to discuss apparently generic texts in ways that were pleasingly rigorous and important-sounding, elevating formula and convention to something akin to the status of myth.
Somewhat inevitably, structuralism's "scientific" approach to literary texts aroused controversy in mid-twentieth-century academic circles, not least for its relentless demystification of literature, which it saw as created by and inextricable from pre-existing linguistic and socio-cultural codes and structures, rather than as spontaneous outpourings of individual inspiration and the privileged insights of a gifted minority. Nonetheless, many of the lessons learned from structuralism have since effectively become critical orthodoxy, and a substantial number of useful and radical critical paradigms, including certain strands of feminism and postcolonial theory, would be unavailable to us today without structuralism and its gleefully obscurantist successor, poststructuralism. At the same time, as Terry Eagleton argues persuasively in Literary Theory: An Introduction, structuralism as a method was coldly mathematical, cheerfully ahistorical, and potentially quite patriarchal in its assertion that fundamentally universal, schematic, and rational structures underpin imaginative literature (pp. 94-109).
To a certain extent, Delany's text could be accused of being all of these things. He divides Thomas M. Disch's intriguing, unsettling, if somewhat slight, SF short story "Angouleme" into a series of 287 "lexias"—sentences or parts thereof that Delany sees as constituting units or assemblages of meaning. Reading what emerges from this process can be a frustrating enterprise, as Delany's prose is often convoluted in the extreme, in keeping with the style of his co-structuralists, and it can sometimes feel that the story itself is left far behind in his abstract ramblings. What rescues it from being little more than an alienatingly dense footnote in literary critical history, however, are the flashes of insight into the workings and purposes of science fiction as a genre. These are made to form a coherent thesis of sorts by the structure of the book itself, which allows for themes to be touched upon briefly, and then returned to in a slightly different context, and with the benefit of new observations made along the way. What we get, then, in The American Shore, is something akin to a Russian doll, except a sort of Tardis version that gets bigger the further in you go, as the reader progresses from Cheney's introduction, some short preliminary explanations by Delany, the whole of Disch's text, a somewhat longer explanation of what Delany is about, and then his "Diffused Text"—the story itself, broken up into the lexias mentioned above, with critical commentaries of varying lengths that allow Delany to elaborate on how he sees the text, and the various elements out of which it is made, as functioning. The final section is entitled "Exotexts," and includes a short biographical piece on Disch, some further musings on science fiction and Delany's chosen critical method, and an interesting discussion of the deleterious effect that the publication history of Isaac Asimov's Foundation series has had on how the series is read and understood.
The result is a fascinating, irritating, and occasionally downright opaque joyride through a series of ideas and asides that at times form part of a wider meditation on the nature of science fiction, and at others seem to be little more than casual, even meaningless observations that do little to illuminate the story or the genre to which it belongs. Of the latter, I for one was especially exasperated by a reading that hinges on a description of a gun as having an "exposed nipple" (p. 180). Delany then goes on to interpret this as positioning the gun as female, an assertion that not only adds nothing to the foregoing discussion about the story's oscillating movement from explanation, clarity, and closure to ambiguity, suggestiveness, and a playful widening of interpretative possibility, but which also blatantly ignores the perfectly obvious fact that men have nipples. On the one hand, this moment is a perfect example of the limitations of the structuralist method, which, at least as Delany employs it, seems to demand that nothing is left uninterpreted, no matter how banal or irrelevant to the larger argument. On the other hand, though, it could equally function as a means of ensuring that The American Shore itself resists the kind of closure that is antithetical to Delany's conceptualisation of science fiction itself. By peppering The American Shore with infuriating non-sequiturs and bits of apparently superfluous observation, instead of offering a view that might limit and shut down the meanings of "Angouleme" (a difficult story to summarise, focusing as it does on the effects of pre-adolescent boredom in a near-future New York), Delany's apparently haphazard analysis helps to open them up.
In essence, Delany's view of SF pivots around his theory that the genre employs three separate "discourses," while "mundane fiction" (pretty much everything else, presumably except for fantasy, supernatural horror, and related genres) employs only two. In his words:
Before the world, realism and, by extension, surrealism are mute. They face the world with mere gesture—of acquiescence on the one hand and defiance on the other. But there is no dialogue with the world. In mundane fiction, in either its realistic or surrealistic mode, there is only the steady drone of the world's discourse, informing the text with meaning. The didactic reduction of both realism and surrealism is always one modulation or another of the message, "Things as they are—social reality—will endure." The inward discourse of their texts, then, is restricted to two subjects: slavery or madness. (p. 48)
He continues (explaining his terms in retrospect, a move that is characteristic of The American Shore as a whole):
The discourse of science fiction is, by comparison, trivalent.
The s-f text speaks inward, of course, as do the texts of mundane fiction, to create a subject (characters, plot, theme . . . ). It also speaks outward to create a world, a world in dialogue with the real. And, of course, the real world speaks inward to construct its dialogue with both. But as there are three different discourses involved, there is really no way any two of the three can be congruent, or even complementary, to the other. At best, the s-f writer harmonizes them. (p. 48)
One regrettable element of this edition is the extent to which Cheney slightly misreads the second discourse, seeing it as simply "the world outside the text (the world of the reader)" (pp. xxx-xxxi). Vitally, however, what Delany is asserting here is that it is the process of imaginative world building that constitutes the second discourse. The first discourse, as Delany defines it, is what happens and how it happens, while the second is the broader, fictional milieu in which it happens; the third is effectively the reader's awareness of the resonances and differences between this fictional world and the one he or she "really" inhabits. This is a central distinction, and Cheney's misunderstanding potentially creates confusion in a text that is already by no means reader-friendly or easily comprehensible. The third discourse, which can (to be fair to Cheney) be difficult to differentiate from the second, is in effect the operation of our awareness of the extent to which our everyday reality both differs from and is mirrored in the imaginary universe that exists only within the pages of a science-fictional text. It arises from our sense that, say, marriage between two individuals whose genders are not diametrically opposed to one another is not a normally accepted part of life, as it seems to be in "Angouleme"; that eleven-year-olds are not generally interested in difficult Russian literature or given almost limitless freedom when not in school; that murder does not currently confer social prestige upon the murderer; and that we do not have to navigate a system of alarms to exit our own apartments at night.
That said, as Cheney points out, the continual forward-march of time means that, while same-sex marriage was nothing more than a utopian dream when Delany was writing in the 1970s, it has since become a reality in many parts of the world, changing our relationship with this element of the text. At the same time, many of these things have quite clearly not become the new normal, and if anything, children and young adults are more hedged about with protective restrictions than ever, though security systems are still generally designed only to keep people out. In this sense, I would argue, time in effect becomes a kind of fourth discourse in reading The American Shore, and indeed "Angouleme" and all SF texts that imagine near futures; we are simultaneously aware of the past as it was when this imagined future was first constructed, and the changes that have since taken place that have brought us closer to that imagined future in some ways, while driving us farther away in others. This is part of Delany's overall point (difficult as it can sometimes be to distinguish one amid the lengthy passages of close reading that make up the "Diffused Text")—that science fiction expands our horizons and makes us reprogramme our reading habits, in the process reprogramming our view of the world as a whole. This notion is particularly evident in his ongoing critique of what he calls the "gravitic discourse," the organisation of our thinking around the vertical axis, as Cheney usefully explains in his introduction. He quotes Delany as asking elsewhere:
Have you ever thought how much our thinking is controlled by gravity? We get a high score on an English test, our team gets a low score in a volleyball game. Both in anthropology and biology people will speak of organisms or societies as having evolved to lower or higher levels—almost everything is measured on this same, imaginary scale that runs from down to up, from lower to higher. (Delany, Empire: A Visual Novel )
Towards the end of the "diffused" section of "Angouleme," Delany imagines how this thinking might be altered by the very scenarios that are the stuff of science fiction itself, and specifically by the process of landing a space ship on another planet. He writes:
. . . our ship approaches another world; its gravitic forces have been waxing all along as the prior world's were waning. And suddenly a point is reached where acceleration, to avoid collapse, incineration perhaps, or obliteration, must thrust against that gravitic force. And with that thrust, "down" establishes itself in an entirely different direction, as does "up". And with that establishment, the absolute privilege of gravitic extension, previously allied to the infinite extension of number itself, is shattered. At this point, the reorganizations of free-fall in anticipation of this reversal, this shattering, are absolutely necessary for surviving it. (p. 160)
As a consequence, Delany continues, "a conceptual freedom is broached that the earthbound consciousness has seldom been able to maintain for any length of time" (p. 160). He comes close here to the kinds of assertions made by Fredric Jameson in his book Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (1991), about how the future of humanity is an individual who can watch and understand the contents of several computer or televisions screens simultaneously. Both writers imagine a fundamental reorganisation of consciousness, though Delany is far more optimistic for what this reorganisation might mean, in terms of a freeing of the imagination and indeed of the ways of seeing and thinking that structure and dominate the way we live.
That said, Delany's writing here is not as overtly Marxist as it would become, even one year later with the publication of Tales of Nevèrÿon in 1979, and in his numerous other theoretical and critical works. Nevertheless, in his determination to push against universalising discourses and, as Cheney's introduction insists, against "dematerialised" ways of approaching both fiction and the world that violently occlude sociocultural contexts and the process of reading itself, the roots of his more obviously progressive and socially conscious views are evident. In particular, as Cheney asserts, "Delany offers us a model for thinking our way through a particular short story, but the habits we pick up by such practice may weaken or break more malign habits that constrict our perception of the world (and its texts)" (p. xxv). It's therefore important to bear in mind that, to say that the world-building exercise sets up a conversation with "our" world (whatever that may be—and for some, their "real" lives may be far closer to a particular science-fictional vision than that of others) is by no means to say that the imagined world within the text is immaterial, or simply a backdrop that exists purely to be "read through" so that we can see our own reality reflected back at us; far from it. The purpose of constructing a world that does not as yet exist is precisely that—to allow us to see our own world through a different lens, to imagine what it might be like were it different in some or many key (or indeed minor) aspects. This is what Delany argues for most strongly in what might otherwise be an overwhelmingly abstract, even mathematical, piece of writing that is often characterised by somewhat pointless observations. For example (and to give a sense of how the lexias are presented): as the group of teenagers around whom "Angouleme" revolves consider who they might murder in order to ensure their future fame, they move from their first unsatisfactory choice to a second. Delany writes:
83) Possibility Number Two / to refocus, to set the resolution at a different scale, is suddenly to become aware of how much more there is to see on the old scale, however blurred by the old resolution: hence the introduction of a numeric indicator. The convention of minimal triples: though there was no signifier "Possibility Number One," but only its semantic expression, one signified of this particular lexia is that there will be a Possibility Number Three. (p. 86)
While this becomes somewhat more accessible on a second reading of the text, first-time readers may find themselves exasperated by such apparently disconnected assertions or non-sequiturs. We may be able to appreciate what Delany is trying to do here in terms of literally "diffusing" the text to the point where it loses all internal coherence or unity, while still fervently wishing he would tell us why statements such as this are worth making. For this reason, The American Shore would probably be of most interest to the student of literature who wants to see how structuralist criticism is actually done. Indeed, Delany's interjection ("The Context") between the reprinting of "Angouleme" and his "Diffused Text" does a fairly good job of explaining some of the thinking behind structuralist criticism, giving some indication of how to go about it, and why it might be important for a critic who wants to defend science fiction against its many detractors. The book is also, in that context, quite useful as a way in to some of Delany's more complex ideas about how the genre works and what it does to us as readers. That said, if you're looking for a guide to reading science fiction, his various collections of essays, including The Jewel-Hinged Jaw (1977), Starboard Wine (1984), or Shorter Views (1999) might be more helpful, and are certainly more straightforward as reading experiences. If, however, you're up for a bit of an adventure into the strange realms and obscure workings of a science-fiction writer's mind, then The American Shore is most definitely for you.
Dara Downey lectures in English in Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin. She is the author of American Women’s Ghost Stories in the Gilded Age (Palgrave, 2014) and co-editor of The Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies. She is also a committee member of The Irish Association for American Studies.