By Peter Bebergal
In 1968, Samuel Delany attended the third annual Nebula Awards, presented by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). At the ceremony that night, “an eminent member of the SFWA,” as Delany later put it, gave a speech about changes in science fiction, a supposed shift away from old-fashioned storytelling to “pretentious literary nonsense,” or something along those lines. At the previous Nebula Awards, the year before, Delany had won best novel for “Babel-17,” in which an invented language has the power to destroy (his book shared the award with Daniel Keyes’s “Flowers for Algernon”), and earlier on that evening in 1968, Delany had again won best novel, for “The Einstein Intersection,” which tells of an abandoned Earth colonized by aliens, who elevate the popular culture of their new planet into divine myths. Sitting at his table, listening to the speech, Delany realized that he was one of its principal targets. Minutes later, he won another award, this time in the short-story category, for “Aye, and Gomorrah . . . ,” a tale of neutered space explorers who are fetishized back on Earth. As he made his way back to his seat after accepting the award, Isaac Asimov took Delany by the arm, pulled him close, and, as Delany (who goes by the nickname Chip) recalled in his essay “Racism and Science Fiction,” said: “You know, Chip, we only voted you those awards because you’re Negro . . . !”
It was meant to be a joke, Delany immediately recognized; Asimov was trying, Delany later wrote, “to cut through the evening’s many tensions” with “a self-evidently tasteless absurdity.” The award wasn’t meant to decide what science fiction should be, conventional or experimental, pulpy or avant garde. After all, where else but science fiction should experiments take place? It must be—wink, wink—that Delany’s being black is the reason he won.
On the phone recently, I suggested to Delany that Asimov’s poor attempt at humor—which, whatever its intent, also served as a reminder, as Delany notes in “Racism and Science Fiction,” that his racial identity would forever be in the minds of his white peers, no matter the occasion—foreshadowed a more recent controversy, centered on a different set of sci-fi awards. In January, 2013, the novelist Larry Correia explained on his Web site how fans, by joining the World Science Fiction Society, could help nominate him for a Hugo Award, something that would, he wrote, “make literati snob’s [sic] heads explode.” Correia contrasted the “unabashed pulp action” of his books with “heavy handed message fic about the dangers of fracking and global warming and dying polar bears.” In a follow-up post, citing an old SPCA commercial about animal abuse, he used the tag “Sad Puppies”; what he later called “the Sad Puppies Hugo stacking campaign” has grown to become a real force in deciding who gets nominated for the Hugo Awards. The ensuing controversy has been described, by Jeet Heer in the New Republic, as “a cultural war over diversity,” since the Sad Puppies, in their pushback against perceived liberals and experimental writers, seem to favor the work of white men.
Delany said he was dismayed by all this, but not surprised. “The context changes,” he told me, “but the rhetoric remains the same.”
Delany came of age at a time when the genre was indeed characterized by gee-whiz futurism, machismo adventuring, and white, heterosexual heroes. From the beginning, Delany, in his fiction, pushed across those boundaries, embraced the other, and questioned received ideas about sex and intimacy. And, within a few years of publishing his first stories, he won some of the field’s biggest awards. Delany’s career now spans more than half a century, and comprises dozens of novels and short stories, many of which have challenged every notion of what science fiction could or should be. Even now, when graphic sex and challenging themes are hardly unusual, Delany’s rapturous sexuality and his explorations of race within the trappings of science fiction have the power to startle.