Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Reginald Shepherd on Samuel R. Delany

On his blog, Reginald Shepherd has written an engaging overview of the work of science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany, On Samuel R. Delany.

Here’s a quotation from Shepherd’s essay:

“Samuel R. Delany is a prolific science fiction writer, memoirist, self-described pornographer, literary critic, and social commentator. Since the publication in 1962 (when he was twenty) of his first book, The Jewels of Aptor, he has published numerous novels, short stories, essays, interviews, cultural commentary, and memoirs. What's most remarkable about this prodigious output is its consistent quality, wide range, and continual development. Delany has never been one to repeat himself or rest on his laurels. Unlike some writers who, beginning in the genre and subsequently seeking literary respectability, and despite his numerous works in other genres, Delany has always strongly identified himself as a science fiction writer. But his work has always pushed at and expanded the boundaries and conventions of the field, constantly seeking out new forms, ideas, and themes. Indeed, his work has become more challenging and complex over the course of his career.”

I’ve discussed Delany on this blog before (“Uses of Myth” and “Myth, Mythic Literacy, and Contemporary Culture”). Science fiction in general is a genre ethnographers should take seriously, given the parallel ways in which both involve the presentation in textual form of plausible worlds (though with the key difference that ethnography is ideally based on empirical fieldwork). Delany in particular is a science fiction writer worth taking seriously by anthropologists both for the consistently stimulating quality of his work and for the ways in which he takes seriously anthropological ideas and ideas from across the humanities and social sciences and incorporates them into his construction of plausible worlds.

Here is Shepherd again on a Delany novel that may be of particular interest to anthropologists:

Babel-17 (1966), inspired by the famous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic determnism (that our language controls our thought), centers on the efforts of the poet Rydra Wong to crack what is believed to be a military code used by an alien race with whom Earth is at war. What she finally discovers is that this code is a highly exact and analytical language which has no word for “I,” and thus no concept of individual identity. The novel examines the capacity of culture and language not only to control the way people see and act in the world but to determine who they are as persons. “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world,” as Ludwig Wittgenstein so famously wrote. Two different words imply two different worlds.”

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