Samuel Delany, Used Books, &c.

Posted: August 26, 2009 in Braak, poetics
Tags: ,

I realized the other day that, between the used bookstore, the regular bookstore, the guitar shop, comic shop, grocery store, fancy beer store two live theaters and one movie theater, I could move to a place around 22nd and Sansom in Philadelphia and never leave the three or four square blocks around it.  Seriously, what other things might I be looking for?  There’s even a place where I can buy nice pants.

The point I’m getting to is not how great that particular section of Philadelphia is (though it is pretty great), but about the used bookstore that I found there, which was also great.  And the point of that is not that I got a bunch of old 70s sci-fi paperbacks for fifteen bucks, but that I have finally picked up and read some books by Samuel R. Delany, now.

I’m struck first by how skinny the books are.  These things are short.  When did we stop writing novels that short?  Since I was a kid, I can only remember sci-fi novels of that length that I’ve come to think of as “regular paperback size”–I guess about 320 pages in mass-market size.  These (and the books by Jack Vance and Theodore Sturgeon that I also picked up) were easily half that, and I tore through them in less than a day.

I’m actually genuinely curious about this, because my feeling is that all “old-timey” paperbacks are this shorter length, while most “new” paperbacks are much longer.  Did someone just change the font size or something, to give consumers a feeling like they were getting more for their money?  Did publishers just start selecting longer books for publication for (I assume) similar reasons?  I don’t know.

But, anyway:  The Einstein Intersection is the first Samuel R. Delany book I’ve read, and it was interesting.  I mean…interesting.  Delany is a neat stylist, that’s for sure–the book is written in a high-clarity style that, somehow, seems a little more artful than Philip Dick’s.  Just a little polished, a little prettier.

Much like Dick, Delany’s book isn’t about character or even plot, so much as it is premise; the characters and story are in service to some idea that he’s working on, and more than anything I admire the kind of balls-out way Delany doesn’t really bother explaining it.  Psychic projection something, mutants, Einstein, Goedel, whoah, SCIENCE!  I have only the vaguest idea of what the hell that story was supposed to illustrate.  Was it a pessimistic exploration of mankind’s future?  An optimistic study of the irrepressible nature of consciousness?  The author exorcising the last of his own childish sensibilities?  Yes, probably, I don’t god-damn know.

I don’t want to say that some vast and sweeping change occurred some time in the last twenty years in sci-fi, during which it became unacceptable to write enigmatically–but man, it sure seems that way.  The last novel I read that was as ambiguous and steadfastly obscure as this was M. John Harrison’s Light.  That was a new book, but Harrison’s been writing for a hundred years and it was kind of a big deal when his novel made it onto mainstream American bookshelves.

Is this a real change that I’m noticing?  Is it the case that sci-fi has become…I guess you’d say more “grounded.”  More dirty, techy, gritty.  Is this commensurate with the rising appreciation for verisimilitude that’s been happening over the last twenty years (longer, really, but for a while it was confined largely to movies)?  I’ll post some time about the tyranny of verisimilitude, but right now I’m just honestly curious:  has the general tenor of sci-fi changed, or have I just been reading the wrong books?

  1. truculentandunreliable says:

    I think you’re right. I do think it has some to do with verisimilitude, but I also think it has to do with the way in which science fiction writing is perceived. I’m not sure why there has been such a change–if it has to do with certain SF works going mainstream, or with the culture of TV and movies, or what, but I would argue that SF is definitely “meatier” than it was in the past.

    SF has evolved from being written, at least, as “genre” fiction. Most of the SF on the market up until about 15-20 years ago was written with specific conventions in mind, and often writers viewed it as an area to dash off a quick book and make a little bit of money. Today, SF is more mainstream and people who aren’t necessarily science fiction fans will still read an SF book if it’s good enough and/or marketed cleverly. This not only gives writers more room to break out of the conventions without alienating readers, but it also gives legitimacy to SF and the possibility for a real career as an SF author. Additionally, if a traditionally non-SF writer is wanting to write a book that could be classified as science fiction, he or she is less likely to be met with resistance from the publisher and doesn’t have to fear being pegged as a genre writer from that book forward. I think that this frees up good writers to write good shit, which is why we’re seeing much more substantial books coming out.

    I could be full of shit, since I certainly haven’t kept up with science fiction writing in the past few years, but that’s just an observation that I’ve had, and it seems to be similar to other genres, as well.

  2. braak says:

    But I’m not sure that “meatier” is actually directly translating into “good” here–definitely the books are longer, but if anything they seem to be more mired in the conventions that, because they hadn’t been thoroughly established a few decades ago, used to be more flexible.

    Yeah, the characterization of The Einstein Intersection was pretty sparse, but it was a book about a civilization discovering they were the mutant psychic projections of an extinct human race. That shit is crazy. I can pick up a hundred sci-fi books now that are three times as long, but not one of them has so wild a premise.

  3. Hsiang says:

    Delany and Harrison are more of that New Wave crowd from the 70s. They weren’t interested in long, dry explanations cribbed from their Physics 101 lectures. Have you read Dela

  4. Hsiang says:

    (that’s odd) So, have you read Delany’s Nova yet? It feels surprisingly modern but with that enigmatic stuff those cats dug back then. Me, I like the word numinous, but that’s more for Fantasy I suppose. I can’t get into Harrison but Vance and Cordwainer Smith fascinate me, dazzling worlds that could never be but really should. It wanders that fuzzy region (grey area?) of Science Fiction/Science Fantasy and the Hard SF purists hate it but I read for the joy of language not to see if some Poindexter got the gravity right.

    As to book length–yeah, what’s up with that? I was at a reading this Saturday to listen to Marta Randall and Elizabeth A. Lynn. Randall decried the lack of short story markets for new writers. Everyone goes straight for the big ol’ honking novels nowadays. She contends it’s actually easier to pack a “sagging, huge trilogy” with long character descriptions and intricate yet empty exposition than to craft a really darn good short story. I’ve got two upcoming anthologies that have reminded me what folks like Bester, Bradbury, and Shirley Jackson could do in 5 or 10 pages.

    Brevity= wit’s soul. Gotta work on that if, y’know, I ever actually write something…

  5. braak says:

    Fucking poindexters, man.

  6. Moff says:

    1) I asked vaunted former HarperCollins editor and literary agent My Wife about the size of mass-market paperbacks, and she says that in part, they changed the font size because the 2- to 3-point-larger size typically used now is easier to read; and because by increasing the length of such books, publishers could charge more while not incurring substantially increased costs (up to a certain limit, of course — as she says, no one will pay $10 for a mass-market).

    2) I think you’re right, and I think it’s in part because there was just a more freewheeling willingness on the part of publishers to put out enigmatic, numinous, kinda bizarro books during the ’60s and ’70s. Why? I dunno, except that SF and fantasy had by that time both started to accrue not necessarily mainstream followings, but sizable followings. And book publishing was probably as lucrative at the time as it’s always been. So, in much the same way record labels were willing to indulge Björk and PJ Harvey experiments and release an entire Pearl Jam tour on CD during the ’90s — when CDs were at their peak as money-makers, and quote-unquote alternative music had established itself as a real market — I imagine editors were kinda like, “No discernible plot per se? Whatever. Slap some trippy cover art on it and they’ll gobble this shit up.”

    Plus, people were doing a lot of drugs back then.

    (Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand is a genuinely plotted Delany novel with a real narrative, etc., etc., and — not that I think you’re implying otherwise at all — stands as a testament to anyone who thinks he just writes obscure shit no one can understand so that he looks smart. That is one of the most ultimately haunting, heartbreaking books I’ve ever read. Y’know how they say at the end of a story, things should have permanently changed somehow, will never be the same again? That book does that better than just about any other I can think of.)

  7. Moff says:

    That should read: “And book publishing was probably as lucrative at the time as it’s ever been.”

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