Samuel R Delany on sci-fi, politics and Arika

Acclaimed 75-year-old sci-fi writer Samuel R Delany has consistently produced some of the most radical examples of the genre over the previous six decades, and this month he comes to Glasgow for Arika Episode 9

Feature by Adam Benmakhlouf | 10 Nov 2017
  • Samuel Delany

Samuel R Delany is a renowned sci-fi writer whose career began precociously in the 1960s, and has continued to the present day. In memoirs and as subject of the 2007 experimental biopic The Polymath, he has also spoken generously about his experience as an African-American writer and continuing to have an exciting and prolific sex life as a gay man then in his 60s.

Now aged 75, he’s one of the many jewels in the line-up of Episode 9's weekend-long programme of events, Arika, from 16-19 November. This will consist of “4 days of performances, discussions, workshops, screenings (and a party) with sex revolutionaries, mutant dancers, fan-fiction fantasists, prison abolitionist poets—transfeminist dreaming, Latinx tunes, fantasy, haunted noise, sci-fi, sex worker resistance, crip erotics, porn, militant fiction…” We meet Delany to find out more. 

The Skinny: At your stage in life, do you find yourself in the situation of not only imagining an alternate future, but also in the role of carrier of past states-of-affairs/rights that are now under threat in gradually more dangerous political climates – specifically of the current rise of the right wing?
Delany: That's a complicated question. When I read it carefully, I want to say: of course I do. As a somewhat younger reader, you (I presume) do as well. What you didn't have is the direct experience of childhood in New York City and New Jersey and Duchess County during the 40s and 50s when there was no TV and car windows had to be rolled up and down by hand. Images from those times are some of the things fiction can provide. You didn't have ice cream parlours with round stools up and down the counter, and racks of 10 cent comic books up the back wall, in the door beside the filling station out in the country.

Presumably fiction can suggest what these images mean about the world and the limits on the technological recomplications they suggest; and science fiction provides new ways to replace those and more recent images with still others that speak about the technology in which they're embedded in still different ways.

I suppose I've been watching the right wing rising for years, since my childhood – and finding the division between right and left shifting in the mind of the general public along with it. What we called liberal in the 50s would be dangerously radical today. With the spread of information itself, the country – the world – gets repoliticised in ways that would have been unrecognisable before the internet.

What parts of the culture and legacy of science fiction do/did you resist, and what parts lend themselves to being a genre that can accommodate radical/progressive race and queer politics?
My own work was far more about accepting than it was about resisting. I was a great supporter of computers as a child (I built one in high school from mechanical elevator relays, Christmas tree lights, and double-pole, double-throw switches that won me an honorable mention in a science fair), but now computers are so far beyond me that I need an assistant who knows what buttons to push. Up until my family got its first colour television set in, say, the middle 50s, basically I knew how a television screen worked. (It was a cathode-ray tube with three guns.) Today's plasma screens and liquid crystal screens are pretty much beyond me. Today I don't own a television, nor do I have a landline.

As to your question, I don't think science fiction or indeed any other aesthetic genre divides up that way. The question is comparable to asking what are the paints you need to paint pictures that show the workings of race and queer politics. Rocket ships? Aliens? Newly imagined cultures on other worlds? Each of those may or may not come into play, or you may want to do it with much more familiar worlds far closer to the present. Indeed, I think we need more near-future stories with minimal technological revisions.

I began reading SF between summer camps (an early black one in about 1947, called Hill and Dale, whose location I do not even know, and a later one in Phoenicia, New York in 1952, called Camp Woodland) – and in my elementary school, with my friend Robert Douglas, reading Heinlein's Red Planet, along with Freddy the Pig and Dr. Dolittle. I read them too, and enjoyed them. Science fiction lived on the edge of mainstream publishing. It was affected by the same forces of production and technology that affected the larger businesses of paperbacks and magazines. Occasionally it made its way into hardcover houses as well, such as Doubleday and the Doubleday Book Clubs (an even bigger business that had its offices in New Jersey), and... the answer just spreads out.

Do you see science fiction at present as becoming more widely politicised, compared to 30 years ago?
30 years ago, I was finishing up my Return to Nevèrÿon series. That's when I was regularly teaching science fiction at the Clarion Workshops and more than halfway through my career and wondering what I was going to do with the second half. I was one of the ones who was teaching like Joanna Russ. Others like Roger Zelazny and Thomas Disch were not connected with the academy directly. 25 years before that, my sense is that science fiction was always relatively politicised, even more than mainstream literature. No one read it at the first black camp – Hill and Dale – I went to, though it was run by a retired black teacher, Mrs. Thelma Teasdale.

Almost everyone read it at Camp Woodland, run by highly principled Jewish leftists, Norman and Hannah Studer, who also ran the Downtown Community School in New York City. Galaxy editor Horace L. Gold's son, Eugene Gold, was in my first bunk, Bunk Five, in the boy's 'Tent colony.' That's where I learned that [sci-fi author] Theodore Sturgeon was special in one way, and Ray Bradbury in another. It was always pretty politicised, and pretty politicised toward the left – at least on the East Coast, where much of the printing and book and magazine manufacturing got done.

Can you speak about the importance of interclass relationships that can take place during casual sex encounters? Does age present a barrier to accessing these encounters?
For many people gay and straight, this is where we are most likely to encounter those of other classes. Of course age presents a barrier, as does money and the availibility of institutions and neighbourhoods in terms of cultural and individual habit. New institutions are always growing up, and there are often groups forming around what is and is not available. The damper on gun control allows single people to flip out and kill dozens if they lose it. On the one hand, gun violence has declined over the past 20 years; on the other, a single gun is now capable of killing far more people.

Many groups have histories supported by institutions, and others simply by a kind of folk passage. I have an old and good friend who is married to another man and lives in a trailer park in Dover Plains, NY. He still calls me from time to time, and I still call him. Institutions like Facebook or email contour such relations in important ways. Because neither I nor my partner drive, we have a very different life than others who do.


Arika, Episode 9: Other Worlds Already Exist will take place during 16-19 Nov in Tramway, Kinning Park Complex and Many Studios. For all info and tickets: arika.org.uk