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NYRSF: Delany and Jemisin Read Sturgeon

The NY Review of Science Fiction hosted a tribute to Theodore Sturgeon last night, down in Soho. It was a delightful evening, introduced by Jim Freund (as per usual) with Sturgeon's daughter Noël giving background on the late author and the pieces featured. She also discussed a thirteen-volume series of all Sturgeon's published short stories, published by North Atlantic Books. Samuel R. Delany and Nora K. Jemisin were our two illustrious readers for the evening.

Samuel Delany read Sturgeon's piece "The Clinic", a wonderful story that begins as a strange case of amnesia related in the first person by a non-native speaker of English. The language of the piece is allusive and strange, revealing much about the character through words and pacing. It soon becomes clear that this is a story more about disability and difference than amnesia, a sensitive piece about beings displaced, finding a new home elsewhere.

In the Q&A that followed, it came out that Delany chose the piece himself; it was not one that Noël had originally selected because it was slightly on the longer side. But it's one that Delany found moving and real; it made him weep to read.  It was an example of Sturgeon's conscience, and Delany said he loved the language of it. It was language that made one stop and focus.

N.K. Jemisin read "Bianca's Hands", a difficult, poignant, wrenching piece about a young man who becomes obsessed with and marries a profoundly mentally handicapped woman, finding in her final release. The piece is woven thorough with extraordinary descriptions of the woman's hands, beings with lives of their own. I don't recall who it was who said the piece was in the horror genre, but that seems right.

Noël said that Sturgeon had written the piece in (going on memory here) 1939 but that it wasn't published until the late 40s. One person to whom he'd sent the piece refused to have anything to do with it, finding it repellent. And one can see why, given the undercurrents of violence and death that permeate the obsession at its center.

One of the most interesting discussions of the meeting came in the Q&A, when Jemisin said she found the piece to be about eros and thanatos, but without love. She felt that the veiled sexual violence inherent in the male protagonist's overtures were not loving, but something rather more sinister. Delany however had a different take. He felt that the protagonist's inability to get his own way (he was originally rebuffed by the woman's hands, that violently wrenched him away, injuring his wrist) and his willingness to wait patiently, showed that although he may have arrived with desire, he had learned to love. It took him nineteen days to do so rather than ten years, which points to this being a work of horror rather than something more mainstream, but nevertheless it was not simply an example of an erotic urge gone awry.

Jemisin also said in the Q&A that she valued the piece because it showed how a beginning author had to avoid hanging back with the narrative. How one had to be willing to go fully into the most wrenching, deepest emotion, and how that was difficult to learn how to do. I agree with her. The temptation in writing, particularly for someone starting out, is to tone things down and aim for respectability rather than emotional depth. That goes particularly for a cerebral genre like SF.

I plead guilty.

At any rate the readings were fantastic and a fitting tribute to Sturgeon's life and work.