delany

Queering Science Fiction

 

I woke up Friday expecting to run some errands and spend most of the day writing. As I was doing my morning check-in on Twitter, I saw this:

Like any normal person would, I got very very excited.

  • Some of my favorite science fiction authors were going to be there
  • Including living legend Samuel R. “Chip” Delany
  • And they were going to talk about queer stuff in science fiction; my favorite thing stacked on top of my favorite thing
  • At a fancy private college where events like this are FREE
  • Which is within driving distance of my home in Oakland
  • And I just happened to have the car that day
  • And I had the whole day to myself.

So naturally I pinned up my hair, painted my face, and ran screeching with delight out the door.

The early part of the day featured readings from Charlie Jane Anders, Alyssa Wong, and Annalee Newitz. Introducing them was critic and academic Adrian Daub, who did great work in facilitating and contextualizing while still letting the guests put forth their own work. I was favorably impressed by Daub and the entire department of Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Stanford. I’ll attend more events there for sure.

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Left to right: Anders, Wong, Newitz, and Daub.

Anders read an unpublished story, so I can’t share much about it except to say that it communicated some of the raw dread and horror that she (and damned near everyone else) was feeling back around the inauguration. It was an intense start. Wong carried the intensity torch with a story about sisters and power and the way we cannot change things for our families the way we wish we could. Newitz read from her forthcoming novel, “Autonomous,” a transhumanist story about drugs and sex and robots told in direct and impolite terms.

Each reading was spellbinding. I sat directly behind a young kid who had his laptop out, and I was all set to roll my eyes with superiority until I realized he was adding these authors’ books to his Amazon shopping cart. It’s always hard to know whether a reading has been effective, but this was at least a measurable response.

There were also two panels, focusing on the queer heritage in science fiction and the fandom itself. As Daub put it early on, “Science fiction is already queer; we have been queering it all along. So how do we queer science fiction fandom?” This discussion got us into the weird sex science of writers like John Varley, the vital early work of writers like Joanna Russ, Theodore Sturgeon, Sherri Tepper, stuff like the Sad Puppies, and what work there still is to do for queer writers of color.

Some highlights:

  • Charlie Jane Anders pointed out laughing that Star Trek (OST in particular, but I’d wager she meant the entire franchise) screams I’M HETEROSEUAL every five minutes while still whispering hey kid come here look I’m super queer, which makes it a compelling queer text for many.
  • Annalee Newitz broadened our horizons by talking at length about the work of John Varley, which was so complicated that there were charts in his books to show how an individual’s six sets of genitals worked with other genitals. She said one of the things she wanted to do was to write books where sex and gender were so complicated that they required FUCKING CHARTS. (Sidenote: the author who swears the most is typically my favorite person on any panel.)
  • Alyssa Wong talked candidly about her personal experience of baptism by shitstorm when she published her first short story, got nominated for a major award, got called “the gay writer Alyssa Wong” by a certain well-known internet suckhole, and came out to her family all in one memorable explosion of professional advancement and feelings.
  • Throughout the early panels, Delany offered both questions and commentary in a thoughtful and fascinating vein, allowing us to benefit from his decades of experience, unapologetic queer identity, and very sharp sense of humor. Guests of honor are often (understandably and deservedly) aloof and inaccessible, appearing only during their headline events and choosing not to mix with the gentry. Delany surprised me all day with his friendliness and humility, as well as his willingness to pose for selfies with absolutely anyone. Chip Delany is a genuinely good guy.

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As the headliner, Delany packed the auditorium with students and professors, visiting parents and locals and fans. He read to us from his memoir, choosing a section focused on the Jewel Box Revue and Storme DeLarverie and their effect on him at an early age.

He took questions from the audience that nobody can answer. What does it mean to be queer? What will your legacy be? What is the future of science fiction? He was patient with all of this, refusing to ever predict the future and musing that the meaning of everything shifts over time, depending on who puts the money behind media.

When pressed, he did open up on a couple of things that made everyone laugh. He didn’t love “Dune,” despite its position in the sci-fi canon. He called it homophobic (it is) and pointed out that it has world-building issues despite its epic scope and reputation for immersion. He also dished a little on Philip K. Dick, admitting that he liked the pulp writer better when he stayed out of science fiction altogether.

Delany capped off the day with a very queer reading from his book “The Mad Man,” which is a pornographic fairy tale about sex and AIDS and other polite and comfortable topics:

“’Look. There’re two kinds of people in the world. There’s baseball players. And there’s cocksuckers. An’ most of the time the baseball players don’t even see the cocksuckers.” Then he tells me, besides, he done already sucked off four of the guys on the baseball team right where I’m sittin’!”

Four seats to my left, that same kid still had his laptop out. He had one hand on the trackpad and his other arm wrapped around another boy’s shoulders. They whispered to one another in Spanish off and on throughout. I saw him add “The Mad Man” to his cart before tapping the buy button.

It was a wonderful day. I look forward to the ongoing queering of science fiction. And fantasy. And horror. I will continue contributing to it.

delany daub

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