It was okay.
And its okayness was kind of disappointing, again for a number of reasons. One was, I have to confess, the beard. Samuel Delany's beard is too awesome for me not to like his books a lot.
But the more important reason was that I feel like I don't have a great handle on science fiction, and I was hoping Delany would be awesome enough to launch me into a much broader exploration of its back-issues, as it were. I was hoping that I'd gather enough enthusiasm from reading this that I'd be encouraged to read a lot more SF, that by dipping my toe in here, I'd catch a big undercurrent and get sucked under. I tried the same thing earlier this year with LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness and, while I liked it well enough that I'll certainly read more LeGuin down the road, again just didn't feel that undertow.
Despite being Nebula'd and Hugo'd, maybe this wasn't even the right Delany. Again, this was the one in my library, and I've been finding it difficult to locate Delany in used bookstores, so this was the only one I could get hold of. But the problem is, I don't really know any better, and I was kind of using the Nebula and Hugo awards as a guide.
Which is why Adam Roberts's post on the 2009 Hugo award shortlist was a real revelation to me (and not because he uses a quote from this blog to make part of his argument). I mean, I know that prizes rarely get things "right"—some are better than others, but tepidity is generally the name of the game. But Adam expressed this general truth in a way that had real bite and force with specific regard to the SF community (which may be why he's getting flamed all over the internets):
Widely publicised shortlists of mediocre art are a bad thing. What do these lists say about SF to the multitude in the world—to the people who don’t know any better? It says that SF is old-fashioned, an aesthetically, stylistically and formally small-c conservative thing. It says that SF fans do not like works that are too challenging, or unnerving; that they prefer to stay inside their comfort zone.I guess I'd consider myself one of those "people who don't know any better," and I feel like my experience with Babel-17 is a full-strength justification of Adam's argument, even if the terms have to be adjusted a bit for the fact that Babel-17 is more than 40 years old and maybe was truly new, wondrous, mindblowing and strange in 1966. But you know, Babel-17 shared the 1966 Nebula Award with Flowers for Algernon, so I would guess that this problem of elevating mediocre and really rather juvenile books is not a new one.
This is bad because the very heart’s-blood of literature is to draw people out of their comfort zone; to challenge and stimulate them, to wake and shake them; to present them with the new, and the unnerving, and the mind-blowing. And if this true of literature, it is doubly or trebly true of science fiction. For what is the point of SF if not to articulate the new, the wondrous, the mindblowing and the strange?
I don't really mind reading a mediocre novel every once in awhile. I think it's important to read widely enough that you know why truly excellent novels do stand out, why mediocre novels are only mediocre. At the same time, I'd much rather be reading SF novels that do have the undertow effect and, while Adam suggests some books in his post that I'm eager to follow up on (especially China Miéville), I am hoping that I can solicit some advice from the readers of this blog as to which authors might possess that intended effect, and which books of theirs in particular. I'm not asking for a canon or a best of—in fact, that's rather the opposite of what I'm interested in—but rather what Adam is talking about—which books aren't just classics but have (or have retained) that waking and shaking power?