Samuel R. Delany on Racism and Science Fiction
The New York Review of Science Fiction (NYRSF) have posted the entire text of Samuel R. Delany‘s 1998 article, On Racism and Science Fiction.
Since people ask me regularly what examples of prejudice have I experienced in the science fiction field, I thought this might be the time to answer, then—with a tale.
With five days to go in my twenty-fourth year, on March 25, 1967, my sixth science fiction novel, Babel-17, won a Nebula Award (a tie, actually) from the Science Fiction Writers of America. That same day the first copies of my eighth, The Einstein Intersection, became available at my publishers’ office. (Because of publishing schedules, my seventh, Empire Star, had preceded the sixth into print the previous spring.) At home on my desk at the back of an apartment I shared on St. Mark’s Place, my ninth, Nova, was a little more than three months from completion.
On February 10, a month and a half before the March awards, in its partially completed state Nova had been purchased by Doubleday & Co. Three months after the awards banquet, in June, when it was done, with that first Nebula under my belt, I submitted Nova for serialization to the famous sf editor of Analog Magazine, John W. Campbell, Jr. Campbell rejected it, with a note and phone call to my agent explaining that he didn’t feel his readership would be able to relate to a black main character. That was one of my first direct encounters, as a professional writer, with the slippery and always commercialized form of liberal American prejudice: Campbell had nothing against my being black, you understand. (There reputedly exists a letter from him to horror writer Dean Koontz, from only a year or two later, in which Campbell argues in all seriousness that a technologically advanced black civilization is a social and a biological impossibility. . . .). No, perish the thought! Surely there was not a prejudiced bone in his body! It’s just that I had, by pure happenstance, chosen to write about someone whose mother was from Senegal (and whose father was from Norway), and it was the poor benighted readers, out there in America’s heartland, who, in 1967, would be too upset. . . .
It was all handled as though I’d just happened to have dressed my main character in a purple brocade dinner jacket. (In the phone call Campbell made it fairly clear that this was his only reason for rejecting the book. Otherwise, he rather liked it. . . .) Purple brocade just wasn’t big with the buyers that season. Sorry. . . .
Today if something like that happened, I would probably give the information to those people who feel it their job to make such things as widely known as possible. At the time, however, I swallowed it—a mark of both how the times, and I, have changed. I told myself I was too busy writing. The most profitable trajectory for a successful science fiction novel in those days was for an sf book to start life as a magazine serial, move on to hardcover publication, and finally be reprinted as a mass market paperback. If you were writing a novel a year (or, say, three novels every two years, which was then almost what I was averaging), that was the only way to push your annual income up, at the time, from four to five figures—and the low five figures at that. That was the point I began to realize I probably was not going to be able to make the kind of living (modest enough!) that, only a few months before, at the Awards Banquet, I’d let myself envision. The things I saw myself writing in the future, I already knew, were going to be more rather than less controversial. The percentage of purple brocade was only going to go up.
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