Starboard Wine: More Notes on the Language of Science Fiction by Samuel R. Delany

Reviewed by T. S. Miller

Starboard Wine cover

Starboard Wine is a collection of loosely-interconnected lectures and essays by legendary SF author, critic, and teacher Samuel R. Delany, first published in 1984 and now rereleased in this new edition by Wesleyan University Press. While the cover brands the book as a full-fledged "Revised Edition," I would judge it closer to a straightforward reissue of the original, with the added value of an excellent new introduction by former Strange Horizons columnist Matthew Cheney. I have not exhaustively compared the text of this new edition with the old one, but the majority of the revisions seem to be confined to brief parenthetical clarifications and footnotes. This is simply an observation and not a complaint, however, as the text undeniably deserved to be reissued: Delany's earlier collection The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction (1977) remains frequently cited by SF scholars and non-academic fans alike, but Starboard Wine has received considerably less attention despite its more nuanced arguments and wider scope. The general preference for the earlier work of criticism may have come about as a result of its greater availability and/or sheer quotational momentum; up until this rerelease, for example, my own university library had held a copy of Jaw but not Starboard Wine. Since Wesleyan has opted to reissue the collection both as a relatively inexpensive paperback—that is, inexpensive for a university press production—and an even cheaper ebook, Starboard Wine should find many new audiences, both inside the academy and without, to provoke to serious reflection on particular science fiction texts by Robert Heinlein, Thomas Disch, and Joanna Russ, as well as science fiction's larger place as (in Delany's view) a distinct form of "paraliterature" embedded in an antagonistic but complex relationship with the category of "literary" writing.

This is not to say that everyone will find Starboard Wine to their taste, as the palate admittedly requires a certain amount of preparation to appreciate its particular poststructuralist vintages. Indeed, there are simple reasons why casual readers might be put off by the book, even readers who have enjoyed Delany's earlier and more accessible fictions. For one, Delany's writing here, while somewhat less polysyllabic than some of his more notorious forays into critical theory, can still be quite dense as he grapples with the difficult questions about the nature of science fiction that he has set out to answer, and his applications of continental theory are rarely directed towards the novice. In short, readers expecting an easy introduction to Derrida and Lacan for science fiction fans will be disappointed; readers unfamiliar with the names Derrida and Lacan will find some sections of the book puzzling at best. At the same time, many fans of Delany have already become acquainted with several of Starboard Wine's underlying ideas through reading his fiction, which has long served Delany as a platform for exploring the implications of esoteric theoretical ideas, from the early linguistic and semiotic theories undergirding the adventure narrative of Babel-17 (1966) to the the deconstructive fables of the Return to Nevèrÿon (1994) sequence. (In fact, the original composition of the essays and the publication of the volume were both roughly contemporaneous with Delany's Nevèrÿon period.) Likewise, several of these essays were written shortly after Delany had completed one of his early collegiate teaching stints, and some of the density of his earlier critical style seems to have been lessened by a keen awareness of the pitfalls and promise of teaching science fiction. Thus, although the essays vary greatly in their accessibility to non-academics, I would recommend the collection wholeheartedly to any active scholar of SF, and especially to those who teach SF at any level.

Cheney's appreciative introduction can also do much to help ease readers into Delany's complex personal critical universe, as it walks through most of the essays in turn with helpful contextualizations of the pieces within Delany's other works, both fictional and critical. In a sense, the introduction reads a bit like an extended review itself, such that my attempt to review the collection here can almost seem redundant. The introduction's liberal sprinkling of quotations from the work to follow also reminds us that Delany's non-fiction, despite its occasionally impenetrable involutions, is also enduringly quotable: "Science fiction is not about the future; it uses the future as a narrative convention to present significant distortions of the present" (p. xxii, quoted from p. 26); or, "if science fiction has any use at all, it is that among all its various and variegated future landscapes it gives us images for our futures" (p. 10). In fact, while Cheney does not go out of his way to make Delany fully accessible to the non-specialist reader, he does take some time to (gently) correct some of the common abuses of Delany's at times too quotable lines, especially among fans. Above all, Cheney uses his introduction to emphasize the importance of "difference" to Delany, and all that this apparently simple concept can mean. Now almost thirty years on, most academic models of science fiction have moved away from arguing for the genre's absolute difference from "literature," even in ways as sophisticated as those that Delany goes on to employ. For a useful counterpoint to any such position, see John Rieder's Pioneer Award-winning essay in Science Fiction Studies, "On Defining SF, or Not," (2010) which itself cites Delany's essay "Science Fiction and 'Literature,'" and tellingly not in its original context as a part of Starboard Wine, but as a reprinted version in a multi-author anthology.

Since the material in Starboard Wine is so diverse, I will refrain from attempting to summarize every intricacy of Delany's various theoretical arguments, and instead provide a broader overview of the collection. The book contains an even dozen essays, five of which are so narrowly focused on individual authors that Delany has adopted their surnames as titles: "Heinlein," "Sturgeon," "Russ," "Disch I," and "Disch II"; the double helping of Disch points to this author's instrumental importance in shaping the other arguments of Starboard Wine. Delany's essay on Russ was especially groundbreaking in its time, and remains a go-to model for what is now the burgeoning academic industry of Russ criticism. By contrast, his writing on Disch remains of immense value because of the almost unconscionable lack of attention paid to Disch's work in the time since Delany originally wrote them. While the presence of the Russ-Disch-Delany generation of writers is everywhere felt in the collection, the remaining seven essays treat more general subjects, and range from the charmingly and almost exclusively autobiographical ("The Necessity of Tomorrow[s]") to surprisingly engaging exercises in meta-criticism ("An Experimental Talk"). Whether Delany is writing about a particular author or poaching illustrative examples from across the field to support broader claims, his guiding concern, as framed in his introduction, remains "science fiction's status as a formal writing category, as a complex of reading protocols, as a discourse" (p. xviii). Again, this discourse that is science fiction remains, in Delany's controversial view, incommensurable with the discourse of "literary" writing: "As the SF reader knows (and the literary reader often becomes uncomfortably aware within the first few paragraphs of any given SF text), science fiction does not try to represent the world" (p. xvi); and "The separate mental constructs involved in science fiction and literature both have their separate uses" (p. xvi). Accordingly, Delany resists any mixing of the categories of science fiction and literature, either in theory or in practice, and it is significant that Delany is writing just a few years before Bruce Sterling blessed—or cursed—the field with the indelible coinage "slipstream," referring to a nebulous category of writing capable of transgressing the boundaries formerly demarcating science fiction and "the literary," whether written by an SF author or a mainstream author. Almost thirty years on, contemporary debates about the nature of these kinds of slipstream, "interstitial," or border-crossing texts have progressed beyond attempts like Delany's to partition paraliterature from literature. I personally find one of Delany's key points about the distinctive place of science fiction vis-à-vis literature, though provocative and worth discussing, ultimately unpersuasive, namely, the claim that science fiction as a discourse is by nature immune to the irresistible appeal of the Foucauldian author-function, due to its supposed privileging of the object over the subject and concomitant deemphasizing of the author. But agreement on this particular point is not necessary to appreciate the many other arguments and sub-arguments in what is an extremely diverse collection overall.

In my remaining space, I will briefly highlight the four essays that strike me as the most important and enduringly relevant: "Some Presumptuous Approaches to Science Fiction"; the aforementioned "Science Fiction and 'Literature'—or, The Conscience of the King"; "Dichtung und Science Fiction"; and the valedictory "Reflections on Historical Models." The first of these essays contains Delany's elaborate formulation of science fiction's relationship with the present—e.g., "Science fiction is about the current world . . . But it is not a metaphor for the given world" (pp. 26-27). I can affirm from experience that passages like this one work well with undergraduates with little experience of science fiction, the citation of Kristeva that follows notwithstanding. "Some Presumptuous Approaches" also quite clearly articulates Delany's consistent argument that science fiction requires its own form of criticism distinct from that traditionally applied to mainstream or "mundane" literature. "Science Fiction and 'Literature,'" perhaps the most frequently cited essay from the volume, consists primarily of a complex "defense" of what Delany calls "academic tampering" with SF. This "defense" comes with an ample helping of tough love: "The working assumption of most academic critics (an assumption that certainly, yes, distorts what they have to say of specific texts) is that somehow the history of science fiction began precisely at the moment they began to read it" (p. 65). In order to correct such blind spots, however, Delany does not simply propose a more extensive reading list for academics, but also offers his most lucid analysis both of "science fiction's literalization of the language" and of what he frames as "the encounter between values that, finally, is the encounter between literature and science fiction" (p. 70). "Dichtung und Science Fiction" almost encapsulates all of these arguments and more in a single long essay, and strives to contrast the operation of science fiction with specific examples from (mundane) literary history. Not only does this essay provide helpful examples for teaching science fiction in so doing, but its second half outlines a possible science fiction course in some detail. While resources for the teaching of science fiction have exploded in number since the original publication of Starboard Wine, Delany's special perspective on SF pedagogy as a science fiction author himself should prove invaluable, both for veteran teachers of science fiction and the inexperienced. Finally, "Reflections on Historical Models," ostensibly a specific indictment of superficial readings of "The New Wave" of the 1960s, also constitutes a forward-looking clarion call for a new model of social historiography in science fiction criticism, a call that has only been partially answered by the scholarship of the last few decades. Let this reissue of Starboard Wine be a reminder to us all to avoid oversimplification in our histories, and the siren of easy periodization.

I have only begun to hint at the tremendous range of Delany's essays. In the end, while I wouldn't describe the various arguments set forth in the book as mutually contradictory, the reality that Delany wrote the essays for different audiences over an extended period of time without a single unifying thesis has resulted in occasional lapses in consistency, usually in the area of theoretical rigor. For example, we read Delany alternately extolling science fiction as a uniquely powerful "tool to help you think about the present" (p. 13), and elsewhere arguing that we should avoid a kind of SF chauvinism that would position the genre as better than, rather than simply distinct, from other forms of writing ("Having adjudged a text science fiction, we have made no unitary statement, however vague or at what level of suggestion or implication, about its value" (p. 74)). This kind of potential inconsistency is more likely to attract the notice and disapproval of an SF scholar, and it's also true that, in the 21st century configuration of the field of academic scholarship on SF, highly theoretical work tends to be far less concerned with language than Delany's work and more inflected with some form of cultural studies, emphasizing the historical situatedness of discourses like gender, race, class, and the newcomer, species and/or the nonhuman. But for all the datedness of Delany's habit of name-dropping high theorists and his emphasis on the closest of close reading practices, we should keep in mind that he has never subscribed to programmatic academic dogmas, instead guided by a personal mélange of structuralist semiotics, deconstruction, and his own highly developed sense of historiography that owes much to his place within sf as not only a great author in his own right but also a phenomenally well-connected one. Indeed, Delany takes care to argue even in his original introduction that "science fiction, like all aesthetic productions, is a social phenomenon" (p. xi), a theoretical position emphasizing the importance of history to criticism that seems ahead of its time in Anglo-American scholarship. This savvy critical prescience, in addition to the enduring importance and popularity of the generation of authors with which Delany engages most closely with here, has allowed Starboard Wine to age quite nicely—even, well, like fine wine.


T. S. Miller is currently completing his Ph.D. in medieval literature at the University of Notre Dame. Of course, an interest in science fiction and fantasy has been the "secret vice" of many a medievalist before him, and his articles have appeared or are forthcoming in genre journals like Science Fiction Studies, Extrapolation, and The Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts.