Thursday, November 26, 2015

Stories for Chip: A Tribute to Samuel R. Delany, edited by Nisi Shawl and Bill Campbell

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(SF) A disappointing collection of short stories by authors inspired by Samuel R. Delany. These aren't works imitating Delany's style; they're just by authors who felt he had influenced their writing. (102,100 words; Time: 5h:40m)

Rating: ★★☆☆☆, Not Recommended

"Stories for Chip: A Tribute to Samuel R. Delany," edited by Nisi Shawl and Bill Campbell, published on by .

I've always been a big fan of Samuel Delany, so when I saw that other reviewers had recommended a few stories from this volume, I was eager to read it. My first disappointment was that out of 33 stories, only 21 are new fiction. The rest are either reprints (some as old as 1968) and/or non-fiction. I only read the 21 new stories, so my review only addresses those.

Only 19 of the 21 have any speculative element. Of those, I only found one story to recommend. The rest are murky, they use scientific words with no apparent understanding of their meaning, they frequently don't end, and they often don't seem to have anything to say at all.

A Comparison With Delany's Actual Works
I was so disappointed by these stories that I wondered if perhaps I wouldn't like Delany's own stories if I read them today, so I went back and reread a couple of them. I'll talk a bit about The Einstein Intersection (Wesleyan University Press, 1967), since I have seen it criticized as unscientific, confused, and inconclusive.

On rereading it, I actually enjoyed the book more than when I read it thirty years ago. The narrative is very clear; the reader never wonders what's happening at any given moment in the story. The plot is straightforward. It starts with Lo Lobey trying to resurrect his lost love and ends with him accepting that that's not to be and deciding to seek his fortune in the stars. The subject is important and timeless. It's about love, and loss, and being different. And it's about growing up.

As a more mature reader, I enjoyed the author's literary and historical allusions, and it was fun to look for the deeper meaning(s). The "bad science" is entirely in the what-if of the story (what if human beings vanished and Earth was reoccupied 30,000 years later by aliens obsessed with recreating our civilization and even our physical form). But that's okay in the setup, and Delany doesn't keep hitting us up with new impossible things every few pages.

Nor do you need to assume that anything is meant literally. A fun way to read it is to assume the Lo Loby is Delany himself, a young writer who'd lost his innocence and searches for it without success through all the old tropes before seeking his fortune in science fiction. The "vanished human beings," in that interpretation, would be the writers before say 1950, whose culture has vanished and whose world we inhabit as uneasy imposters. I can't say that that's what Delany really meant, but you can take that interpretation a long way. And there are other ways to read it, if you're so inclined.

More broadly, then, I'd say Delany's works tend to have multiple interpretations. They make you think about things. They open your eyes. And they're fun.

Sadly, not a single story in this volume measures up to that. They seem to be complicated for no reason. Instead of choosing between two or three interpretations, we're unable to find any at all. And reading through this volume was pure drudgery.

There are two fun stories in the volume, but only one of them is SFF. Jamaica Ginger is a neat little adventure story set in a steam-punk 1930s New Orleans. It has almost no symbolism and almost no cultural references, which makes it the least Delany-like story in the volume, but it's an entertaining read without being a lightweight.

Characters in the Margins of a Lost Notebook is literary fiction set in 1970s or 1980s New York City. It has no speculative element whatsoever, and it has little or no plot, but it's without doubt the best read of any story in the volume. What saves it is "Jack," a thinly-disguised Samuel L. Delany, who mentors the narrator and offers great bits of salty wisdom. His advice on the subject of writing a negative review of a high-profile book: "If you're going to fuck the dog, stick it all the way in."

If you already bought the book (or if money is no object), just read those two stories and skip the rest. Otherwise, I suggest you pass on this dog.

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