Intergalactic queers looking for love in space
Theatre company Elbow Room is tackling the great mind of sci-fi writer Samuel R. Delany. Stephen A Russell talks to artistic director Marcel Dorney about The Motion of Light In Water.
Science fiction is at its best when it holds up as a mirror to society, as a way of exploring possibilities beyond the realm of what’s acceptable right now. New York-based author Samuel R. Delany, Chip to his friends, as an openly gay black man who was formerly married to poet Marilyn Hacker, has, more than most, made full use of the genre’s ability to poke holes in what we know and aim for something higher.
Something of a literary genius, he penned his first novel, The Jewels of Aptor, in 1962 at the tender age of 19. Always pushing boundaries, the Nebula award-winning Babel-17 (1966) was one of the first US sci-fi tomes to feature a woman as its central protagonist, starship captain, poet and telepath Rydra Wong. Exploring sexuality, gender and the power of language, central to Babel-17 is the conceit that her spaceship is navigated by means of a three-way relationship.
Dystopian novel Dhalgren was a huge bestseller, but the fantasy novel The Tale of Plagues and Carnival, which broached the subject of HIV/AIDS, was banned by one of America’s biggest booksellers.
The forward-thinking life of this fascinating man and his incredible body of work, with over 40 published titles to his name, forms the basis of Melbourne theatre company Elbow Room’s latest work, The Motion of Light In Water – voyaging to St Kilda’s Theatre Works as part of their selected works program. Elbow Room artistic director Marcel Dorney marvels at Delany’s command of the medium and his ability to challenge the status quo.
“With science fiction, the power of this vast idea of ‘normal’ that doesn’t exist is temporarily suspended, and in that window you’re able to ask questions which in everyday life, and even in realistic fiction, are actively repressed,” Dorney says.
“We’re looking at how language affects the individual’s relationship with the world, in the context of somebody who’s trying to write a science fiction book.”
Billed as a ‘queer sci-fi love story’, the metatextual piece features characters drawn from Delany’s novels, including the trailblazing Wong, Hacker’s poem The Navigators and Delany’s own autobiography, from which the work borrows its title.
Ray Chong Nee plays Delany, aka Chip, with each of the cast, including Laura Maitland (Yes, Prime Minister) and Tom Dent (Dangerous Liaisons), inhabiting several characters. The Sweats will provide the space age sounds, alongside designers Matt Adey and Kris Chainey, with Zoe Rouse creating the costumes.
[Image] Author Samuel R. Delaney. Photo: Facebook.
Dorney also draws on Delany’s novella Empire Star, a time travel tale narrated by a character called Jewel.
“What really impresses is how he’s so far ahead on the emotional traps of time travel, meeting people who don’t yet know who you are. Realising your destiny affects them in ways you can’t articulate to them. We bring that trope to the author, with his characters living in one possible future. That’s fun.”
Something of a pioneer, possessing incredible intelligence and devouring literature, Delany’s novels shine a unique light into the social upheaval of the 60s.
“The really subversive thing about sci-fi is making you ask the questions about what you consider to be human, what you think is worthy of respect or love or the right to life,” Dorney says. “Delany’s early novels are written before Stonewall, before the gay rights movement had articulated itself into the national conversation. The possibilities for exploring the politics of sexuality through writing were paradoxically larger in science fiction than they were anywhere else.”
Delany’s work is rich with cultural history in a way that Dorney says differentiates it from the “mind control and bug-eyed monsters” of Cold War pulp, moving towards something grander, like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey or Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris.
“Delany’s work is instrumental in the shift towards science fiction being more of a philosophical and political realm, rather than thrills for adolescent boys,” Dorney says.
“He’s asking the big questions about who we are, where we come from, where we’re going and what we’ll look like when we get there. It’s surprising how rare that is in a lot of science fiction, which is like war movies or cowboys in space. When you look at history this way, you start to see Star Wars as a step backwards.”
[Main image] The Motion of Light In Water. Photo: Sarah Walker
The Motion of Light In Water, Theatre Works, 14 Acland Street, St Kilda, July 17 -27, 2014. theatreworks.org.au