Tue
Apr 1 2014 6:00am

There’s Not Been Enough of Samuel R. Delany

Samuel R. DelanySamuel Delany was born in New York on April 1st 1942, which makes today his seventy-second birthday. Happy birthday, Chip!

I could write a considered post about Delany’s significance to the field, but I’m just too enthusiastic about his work to do it in a properly calm way. Delany’s just one of the best writers out there, and he always has been, from his emergence with The Jewels of Aptor (1962) and The Fall of the Towers. (1963-5) to last year’s Through The Valley of the Nest of Spiders. His major work—Babel 17 (1966) (post), The Einstein Intersection (1967), Nova (1968) (post), Dhalgren (1974) (post), Tales of Neveryon (1975), Triton (1976) and Stars In My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984) (post)—is right at the top of what science fiction has ever achieved.

As a new writer Delany was a revelation. He’s gay and African-American and this intersectionality of experience gives his work dimensions that genre SF hadn’t seen before, and hasn’t seen enough of since. Delany’s worlds are notable for their complexity and solidity, their attention to class and sex and economics and gender and identity. Yet these things are always essential to the story of the characters—and it’s the characters and the world that shaped them that are memorable. Delany’s ability to evoke worlds from words is almost unrivaled.

This is the experience of going to close to a nova, in Nova:

“We were moving out, boy, with the three hundred suns of the Pleiades glittering like a puddle of jewelled milk on our left, and all blackness wrapped around our right. The ship was me; I was the skip. With these sockets—” he tapped the insets on his wrists against the table, click “—I was plugged into my vane-projector. Then —” the stubble on his jaw rose and fell with the words “—centered on the dark, a light! It reached out, grabbed our eyes as we lay in the projection chambers and wouldn’t let them go. It was like the universe was torn and all day raging through.

In my review of Nova, linked above, I said that if it was a new book now I’d be burbling about it and nominating it for awards, and I really do think this is the case. Delany’s science fiction is still fresh and exciting. So much older fiction is historically interesting—Delany remains cutting edge. He also remains thought provoking. I read a very interesting new piece on Dhalgren just the other day. Delany’s older work is still very much a part of the conversation of SF, and I recommend it to anyone who has missed out on it so far. Perhaps one of the best places to start is with his wonderful shorter work.

For the last couple of decades Delany has been mostly working as a critic and in one of his other “paraliteratures”—pornography. I find his pornography very difficult to read, but I think his essays are wonderful. Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders uses techniques of pornography and becomes science fiction in a way that isn’t like anything else, and while it isn’t easy to read I feel it’s worthwhile for fans of his work to keep persevering.

 

This post originally appeared April 1, 2013 on Tor.com


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently the Hugo 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.

19 comments
thistle pong
1. thistlepong
I read Nova and Babel 17 after Kathy Acker mentioned tghem in an interview. I think they also came up as a notable ancestor of Neuromancer. I was amazed.
Kevin Maroney
2. womzilla
The Delany work that is the clearest direct ancestor of the cyberpunks is his Nebula-winning novella "Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones". It's a great introduction to Delany in its own right. (And a reminder of the major role that novellas used to play in the f&sf field.)
knarf
3. knarf
Happy birthday Chip.
Jo Walton
4. bluejo
Womzilla: While I agree that it's a great story, I don't really see it as being at all like cyberpunk. I mean, Delany's characters are like people. The thing that made cyberpunk "cool" and what made me not like it, was that it was so affectless.
Bob Blough
5. Bob
Well, Jo,

I couldn't agree with you more. I still have Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders to read but everything else he has written in the SF field I have read. My favorites, numerable times (Those being Babel 17, Nova, Stars in My Pocket..., and Driftglass all juggling for first place.) He is as good as Sf ever gets.
Nancy Lebovitz
6. NancyLebovitz
Nova struck me as being a lot like cyberpunk without the noir.

Does anyone have any theories about what causes cultural fugue?
thistle pong
7. thistlepong
@bluejo/womzilla:

The passage quoted in the piece actually displays the cyberpunk socket set piece and the telepresent machine interface sensorum that almost defined the genre.

I
Jo Walton
8. bluejo
Thistlepong: Yes, well, but it was also 1968. Cyberpunk is a sensibility, not a technology.
Pamela Adams
9. Pam Adams
For a moment yesterday, I thought this was some sort of April 1 post- until I remembered that it really was his birthday!!

Happy Birthday, Chip! I'm off to re-read Babel 17 for the umpteenth time. (May I point out that I loved the idea about the 'gourmet' food being hot dogs and burgers/)
Kevin Maroney
10. womzilla
Bluejo,

I know that I read "Time Considered..." well after cyberpunk was established, and thought, "Oh, yes, this is definitely in their DNA". Part of the cyberpunk sensibility is a cool affect, but another large part is the concentration on the people that society deliberately excludes. And there's no one in sf who has spent more time on all the classes of the excluded than Chip does.
knarf
11. pjcamp
Pornography has techniques?
Jo Walton
12. bluejo
PJCamp: Sure it does. Like any other form of writing.

It's probably best compared to humour. You have expectations in a comic novel -- that nothing will be too downbeat, that everything will turn out all right, that all the absurdity will resolve neatly. You might forgive it implausibilities you wouldn't in other genres. And humour wants you to find it funny and stay in the right register to be amused, and to laugh out loud every so often. It doesn't want you constantly langhing or you'd break something and also get tired of it, it wants to time the real laughs, the real comedic moments need build up and careful pacing.

I'm sure you see the parallels.
knarf
13. Saskia
After reading an interview with Delaney and readinb about his voracious appetite for scatology and his fetish porn novel Hogg, I don't want to ready anything by this author anymore, no matter how good it's supposed to be.
knarf
14. Saskia
Ouch at the typos in my previous post. Apologies to all.
knarf
15. Cool Bev
Also a big Delany fan since forever (snce Driftglass or Nova, I guess). Maybe he wasn't a cyberpunk god-father, but as far as I know, he was the first to use neural interface sockets/virtual reality.

Or does anyone know an earlier instance?
knarf
16. Petar Belic
I've really enjoyed his earlier work - Babel-17 and Nova were great, but I kind of went off Delany after Triton, and trying again with Stars in my Pocket like Grains of Sand.

They just didn't engage me, and recently when I tried the 'Nest of Spiders, I've just completely lost interest in his work.

I'm glad he's doing what he loves, but I left the journey a long time ago now.
knarf
17. Jim Henry III
I've enjoyed most of his earlier work that I've read, and I enjoyed the opening of
Stars in my Pocket like Grains of Sand. But even that one had too much on-stage sex for me, so I'm not likely to try his other more recent work. (Except for some of the essays. I found About Writing fascinating, for instance.)
knarf
18. pjcamp
Delany is a major writer of postwar fiction. But I haven't been able to read any of his work since he wandered off into a project to make gay porn an artistic genre. Essentially, I haven't read anything since Hogg.

I've thought a lot about that. It isn't squeamishness at all. I read Dhalgren after all. I think it is just taste. Delany's work is always high caliber but lately it has been in really bad taste.
Jim Hardy
19. JimZipCode
Delany's nonfiction is crucial. The Jewel-Hinged Jaw and Starboard Wine continue to shape my understanding of sf. An amazingly perceptive & informative critic.

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