July 18th, 2012

Considering if "Through the Valley..." is "utopian"

So, in last night's post of random thoughts about Delany's Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, (the heartrending conclusion of which I'd just reached), I stopped while still wanting to consider to what extent the novel is science fiction and to what extent it is pornography, the genre labels which its author affixes to it (and we already stipulated that it is Real Literature based on the fineness of its writing and the lovely architecture of its narrative).

If SF is still supposed to be that genre where differences between the current real world and the world of the fiction are expressed in terms of scientific and technological changes that may happen in the future (or in an alternate history), then Through the Valley... fits genre-well in that its timeframe reaches into the eighth decade of this century (the Future), and indeed there are a number of science/tech advancements that affect the lives of future people, even if Eric and Shit remain rather isolated from them, quite on the sidelines of it all. But SF has also been far too rigidly, even ideologically, defined as a literature where the entire story and everything about it hinges totally on a principle of science or future tech without the presence of which the entire enterprise collapses and it is no longer, by definition, science fiction. Or: if the same, exact story could be told without the science/tech element, then it's not SF. I have to say that this narrow conception of the genre hamstrung for many years my own attempts to write in it, made me feel I couldn't even try to tell such a story if I didn't have some kind of plausible, ironclad scientific linchpin holding the whole thing together--as if a cadre of real scientists were going to review my work and denounce it as impossible. If SF were to be defined so dogmatically, then maybe Delany's book doesn't make the cut. Because the same story could certainly be told without the futuristic details that abound as the narrative moves later into the century. He could have had the 2030s and 2070s look exactly like our own present year and completely ignored the likelihood that tech and the way people behave around each other may evolve, that cultural norms may shift, that things--as much as they stay the same--will still look different. But that would have been weird, and maybe ridiculous, and certainly detrimental to a story that really must start when it does in real-world years and end when it does in future years. No, what Delany wrote here is SF whether or not it fits a strict Golden Age/Old Men of Science Fiction definition of the genre. And, besides, he's bent the hell out of that old mold for fifty years and is one of the best practitioners of the genre ever. Doubt it? Then read Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, one of the greatest achievements of space opera ever and packed with more "science" stuff than most writers and readers can easily apprehend in a single book. So, science fiction: check.

But is it also pornography just because it has a lot of graphic sex in it? And it really does have a lot of graphic sex in it, almost, maybe more than is really reasonable even for a novel such as this, so much that the individual scenes occasionally seem far too long and too back-to-back and too repetitive of stuff that happened earlier (but this may be on purpose, pushing the reader to slog through it, because within all this surfeit of bodies and fluid are constantly-discovered little gems about the characters as real people--but you have to work for them, all the while reading about a lot of cocks and cum and snot). It's also a range of sexuality that seems designed to push pretty much every single reader outside his/her comfort zone--even a nearly-no-limits fag like me. The Venn diagram with the deeply purple-shaded area that represents the overlap of every single kink and predilection depicted in this novel's sex-content probably, in real life, contains no one at all (maybe the author himself? But I wonder). So is it porn if its intent/result is not just to titillate, arouse, induce masturbation? As sexy as some of it was to me as I read it, I never responded to it as I might to something tailored as porn for my particular biases and kinks. But if porn is a form or sub-genre within the fantasy genre, then maybe this is a giant accomplishment in that genre.

[Wait, what's fantasy? The intrusion of un-reality? magic? suspension of consensus-reality rules?]

Because in this world that Delany describes, the sex ain't ever bad. It is always consensual and pleasurable--even when among immediate family--and it is always available in the most unlikely locations and at the weirdest times. If you are horny in this world, you will get promptly laid. If you like it with multiple partners at once, they are at your disposal. Any kink you can imagine getting off upon will be available. A truck stop and a giant movie theater are well known as places for public sex among men and they exist openly, totally un-harassed by the law and society (save for some occasional interference from the ineffectual background villain Johnston). Likewise a "Gay Friendly Rest Room" at the market (which scene, by the way, involves some seriously funny comic writing). The protag Eric has a fetish for piss, and so there exists for a while a bar that is designed to make his  fantasies real, almost as if it were put into business years before specifically anticipating his arrival in town. This is why the porn of Through the Valley... is a whole different thing than the porn of Delany's earlier novel Hogg (written way, way back even before Dhalgren but not published until many years later). There's no horror, coercion or brutality in this newer book. Instead, it's a sex utopia. Fantasy, even if it's not your particular personal fantasy. So, if porn is fantasy-about-sex, then this novel works easily, almost silkily and insidiously, within that definition. 

But is a utopia (science-based or sex-based) of any kind, where everything's easy, inherently boring? I think I just read about one that's not.