Sunday, December 22, 2013

Starboard Wine

Starboard Wine: More Notes on the Language of Science Fiction
by Samuel R. Delany

It was with high expectations that I went to see the American Museum of Natural History's newest planetarium show on dark matter, because - well, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, mostly. But I came away disappointed. About 4/5 of the show was spent presenting background information necessary to understanding the concept of dark matter, rather than exploring what it might be. Wouldn't planetarium audiences already know that stuff? After all, I had first heard of dark matter at a presentation by a friend studying astronomy back in college, and I was no scientist.

But another friend, also an astronomer, recently reported after a planetarium talk she gave that adult audience members were unaware of the fact that galaxies give off their own light, rather than reflecting the light of our sun!

This sheer lack of of basic scientific knowledge is one reason Delany posits to explain why some readers, even avid ones, don't enjoy science fiction. He discusses at great length how a reader might parse the sentence fragment "monopole magnet mining operations in the outer asteroid belt of Delta Cygni," especially a reader less fond of science.

Yet SF readers often "read around" what they don't know - to whit, it never occurred to me that "Delta" Cygni would represent the fourth star in a system, although my experience with the naming conventions of fraternity and sorority chapters should have led to ready extrapolation.

But reading SF requires more than an acquaintance with science; it requires, in Delany's phrase, a different set of reading protocols than realistic fiction. The reader must engage in world-building along with the author, learning from scant clues how objects and society behave. Even SF readers can lose this facility and enjoy only L. Ron Hubbard, paranormal urban fantasy, or Star Trek novelizations - to choose a few examples from folks I am personally acquainted with.

Starboard Wine is, ultimately, about how one reads SF, and how it is a genre defined by these reading protocols rather than by a setting, as Westerns are, or a plot structure, as romance novels and mysteries are. (Of course, being a collection of essays, the book is about many different things. One of these things is an evaluation of the work of several writers. I am less qualified to comment on these, having read (for example) no Sturgeon and precisely as much Heinlein as I want to.) It follows his earlier collection, The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, which I found myself wishing I had with me: Delany spends much time here discussing how SF and mundane fiction compare, and I wanted to refresh my memory on how he fits fantasy as a genre into this schema.

The essays are nearly as old as I am, and the recently revised edition is thoughtfully updated with footnotes as well as an introduction by another author, although I found the former of much more interest than the latter. This chronology is startling only insofar as one realizes that Delany's three-decade-old thoughts on SF are still far ahead of how a good number of fans conceptualize the genre today. I would like to read his most recent collection, About Writing, although its focus is less SFnal. It would be nice to see an up-to-date collection of his latest thoughts on the genre, which at present are scattered.