Note: unstructured notes and things ahead. Not a real post or a review.
I’m (along with some other people) reading my way through Samuel Delany’s collection of essays The Jewel-Hinged Jaw. Putting my short notes here seems a convenient way to do this (and you get to mock me for things I hilariously misunderstand) so here is most of what I wrote while reading the first essay in this edition (the 2009 one, with an introduction by Matthew Cheney), “About 5,570 Words”.
“About 5,570 Words”
Delany starts with the meaninglessness of style vs content arguments: “Is there such a thing as verbal information apart from the words used to inform?” I get the feeling this is something he will be referring back to a lot in subsequent essays, and it’s close enough to my own position (if I have one) that I’m willing to accept it as a premise.
Chapter one seems to be all about the relationship between words in a text -> a word as a sound-picture, and each subsequent word modifying that picture: thus a 60,000 word novel is a picture corrected 59,000 times. (This is where the title of the chapter begins to make sense to me).
He moves on to subjunctivity, which is something I’ve never been entirely clear on (I have only a year of lit theory classes and scraps I’ve read to fall back on here). Delany defines it as “the tension on the thread of meaning that runs between (to borrow Saussure’s term for ‘word’) sound-image and sound-image. The example he gives if this- something is presented to us as reportage, thus “[a] blanket tension (or mood) informs the whole series: this happened. Which is to do with context, but also, I think, why I’ve been wanting to study rasa theory in connection with genre for some time now.
Delany then discusses the subjunctivity of various genres – naturalistic fiction, fantasy, before elaborating on SF.
SF (events that have not happened) as distinct from events that could have happened (most naturalistic fiction)* or events that could not have happened (fantasy).
‘Events that have not happened’ can include ‘haven’t happened yet’, ‘will not happen’, ‘have happened in the past’ (alt-hist).
Thus there are both a huge degree of subjunctive freedom and a strong corrective process at work here because even as a startling image is presented to the reader, between it and the next words hover a number of possible explanations, and so SF must provide not only the imagery but some sort of explanation for how we got there.
*Though he (also in a footnote) makes a case for most fiction to be a form of unverifiable alt-history, and therefore SF.