"High Weir" by Samuel R. Delany: An Appreciation by Matthew Cheney
This is one of the reasons why the archive of classic stories reprinted by Ellen Datlow at SCI FICTION is one of my favorite things on the internet: it lets me point people to the stories that shaped my entire view of what fiction is and could be. I spend a lot of time recklessly tossing opinions around, and it's helpful to be able to point people toward the raw material that influenced those opinions. (Then they can form their own, and leave me to chew on some dust.)
For instance, "High Weir". It's not "Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones" or "Aye, and Gomorrah", so it's generally considered an obscure Delany story. It doesn't represent Delany's best writing, or even his major themes, so it's not likely to have a large place in the critical literature about one of the most singular authors in the world. But I am tremendously grateful to Ellen for reprinting it, because every time I read it, even though I know all the turns and twists, the last few pages remain surprising and, more impressively, moving.
"High Weir" was first published in the October 1968 issue of If, when Delany was 26 years old. I first read it when I was about 16, in the Signet edition of Delany's collection Driftglass, and I almost skipped to the next story, because "High Weir" seemed like little more than a cross between the early stories of Ursula LeGuin and the better stories of H. Beam Piper--a linguistic-anthropological adventure story, likely to end up with some big revelation at the end, but ultimately little more than a diverting way to pass the time. I had read Delany's most famous stories by that point, though, and so I wanted more--I wanted transcendence. Thankfully, something kept me reading.
Teachers of playwrighting and screenwriting often tell their students that dialogue should "not be about what it's about"; "High Weir" is a story that's not about what it's about. The plot, which at first seems so important, by the end has become nearly irrelevant, and the characters, who at first seemed so interchangeable, by the end have become the entire focus. The story is a trick. It knows what sort of tale the reader expects, and goes a long way toward offering it, then digs deeper, takes a U-turn, jumps the rails, and splits town like a thief with a truckload of absinthe and a direct line to somebody else's god.
What we end up with is a Romantic vision of madness and a fun idea of the brain as a hologram. When I first read those last pages of the story at age 16, madness seemed artistic and alluring, and holograms were cool. Holograms are still cool, but I've experienced enough now to find madness both banal and terrifying, but there's something about the Romanticism of "High Weir" at the end that is powerful rather than grotesque. Perhaps it is the infusion of such a view into a story that is otherwise so matter-of-fact, so dry, so procedural--the two extremes balance each other, with rationality and irrationality tied together in a dance of form and meaning.
And now we do our own dance, partnering gratitude to Ellen Datlow and SCI FICTION with sadness at the demise of such a fine endeavor. Joyful appreciation entwines with anger for lost possibilities.
Let's dance all night, kids, because mourning hurts like hell.
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