A Good Life: Samuel R. Delany’s Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders

Every time I’ve written about Samuel Delany here I’ve ended by saying that I wish he’d write more SF. And now he has written more SF, and am I happy? Well, yes and no. Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders is as problematic as it brilliant. It’s an amazing science fiction novel that does that thing that science fiction so seldom does of starting off in the present (2007) and projecting forward for a whole lifetime into the future. It’s a wonderful book about aging and changing and experiencing a lifetime from one person’s perspective. Delany’s ability to imagine a fully three-dimensional future and casually slip details into the story remains unparallelled. This feels like a real future that could come from this real present, and like most futures it is unevenly distributed. We see it as it impinges on the lives of the characters, and the real story here is the love story of two men who meet in 2007, aged sixteen and eighteen, and the way they stay together until they die.

When my son was about fourteen, he took Stranger in a Strange Land out of the school library and undertook to write a book report about it. After he’d read it he was horrified, because it was of course full of sex, and he didn’t want to talk about that in a book report. Without lying at all he described the set up and talked about the book as if it was a fast paced Heinlein juvenile. Thinking uncomfortably about how to write about  Valley of the Nest of Spiders I can’t help remembering this.

Valley of the Nest of Spiders is a very good book. I cried at the end, not just standing water in my eyes but real choking sobs. And it’s great science fictional speculation.  But my goodness it’s a difficult book to read. It’s as if Delany tried as hard as he possibly could to make it hard for me to enjoy. For one thing, I had to keep putting it down. I couldn’t take it everywhere and read as I went about my day, because it’s not a book I could read on the bus or the train. It’s not just the graphic sex, though it is very graphic, very copious, and very descriptive. It’s not just the coprophagia and mutual snot-eating — though that’s what kept making me literally gag. It’s also the racial epithets that are our real modern day taboos, the “culturally charged language” as one of the characters calls it. I just can’t sit there next to some elderly Jamaican lady on her way home from church and risk her reading over my shoulder something that would distress her and which she’d only be able to interpret as racist porn. And there’s something like that on almost every page.

The book begins with huge doses of sex and racially charged words and no pay off yet to make it worth it — we’re still in 2007, so no worldbuilding, and it takes time to learn to care about the characters and the Georgia seacoast village where they live. They are great characters. It’s a fascinating choice of location. The pay offs are very much worth it when you get to them. I will read this book again. (And I’ll probably be a lot more coherent about it when I do.) But I don’t want to minimize how difficult this is to read. I’m all for “Your Kink Is OK”, but we have father/son homosexual incest starting very young, bestiality, urine drinking, and a sexualisation of dirt. We have all these things in Delany’s very visceral descriptions. There were things where I had to let my eyes go out of focus and start reading again a few lines later, and you know I never do that. Well, it turns out that I can do that if something makes my gorge rise enough. I have not read every word of this book.

Delany does have a purpose in doing all of this. It’s not pornographic. While some people may find some of it erotic rather than squicky, I think there’s probably (and intentionally) something here to squick absolutely everyone. Delany’s been saying since Triton that there’s no such thing as “normal”. What we have here is two very specific people and their specific lusts, which are part of them. They are not normal, but they are people, and both of these things are true of all of us. Sex, real thing. Stuff people do. No more or no less normal. You know, pretty much most of everything is written for my sensibilities. There’s not much I actually want to read that’s outside my comfort zone. Delany’s pushing us outside that zone, as he always has, because what he’s interested in writing about is out there.

I think he’s doing the same with the “culturally charged language”, race is also a real thing. Delany is making us think about what is taboo and why it is — for us now, talking about race and sex is something we have to do very carefully. By the end of the book, a boy called “Cum Stain” wearing transparent fronted pants, is at a party where it’s accepted that nice people don’t talk in public about science…

The more I kept reading, the more I enjoyed reading — as with Eric’s experience reading Spinoza. It’s not just that in the second half of the book we move beyond the present and so there’s more science fictional awesomeness, though that doesn’t hurt. I think it’s that I got used to what Delany was doing and the way he was doing it, and I came to care about the characters.

Eric Jeffers is a sixteen year old white gay boy from Atlanta who has been brought up mostly by his black stepfather. Eric wants to be a good person and to make the world better. As the book begins he goes for one last early morning cruise among the local homeless guys in the hope of sex before he goes to stay with his mother in Diamond Harbor. Just outside that town he gets his father to stop at Turpens, a truck stop where he has a lot of very graphic sex with some people who are going to be very very important to the story so you’d better keep paying attention. (I found the sex in Turpens to be the most difficult bit of the whole book.)

This is where Eric meets Shit Haskell. The novel is the story of how starting from there they love each other, how they negotiate loving each other, while having sex with lots of other people and animals, and precisely how the relationship works over their lifetimes as the world changes and continues to change. They are embedded in history and contexted by time. As time goes on their own past becomes mythologised by other people, and a constant struggle to correct them. Also time telescopes, so that in the end the world of the young people is as incomprehensible to them as the world where they grew up is to the young people — Eric meets the granddaughter of a man he had sex with on that first day in Turpens, she has been to Mars and is part of a political struggle for multi-person marriage rights. Delany himself is old enough now that he has very interesting angles on all of this.

The central question of the novel is “What does it mean, to lead a good life?” Delany gives us an answer in showing us Eric’s life, and it’s a powerfully provocative answer.

If you haven’t read any Delany and you want to know why he’s important to the field, I’d suggest that you pick up Nova or Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. If you have read most of Delany and liked it, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders is definitely worth the effort. It’s certainly not like anything else that’s likely to be published as a science fiction book this year.

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently the Hugo nominated and Nebula winning Among Others. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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