Beyond SF: The Vast Range of Samuel R. Delany

In spring 2016, novelist and critic Samuel R. Delany visited UC Santa Cruz to read from his work. The poster advertising the event described him as a “Sex Radical, Afro-Futurist, and Grand Master of Science Fiction.” What a description! But as extravagant as it is, it only hints at the diversity and range of his work, not to mention the diversity of audiences he’s moved, shocked, and astonished over the course of his 50-year career.

During that time, in addition to science fiction, Delany has written literary criticism, memoir, pornography, graphic novels, historical fiction, and—to use a term originating within the SF world—“mundane” fiction. Recently he has added a new thread to this tapestry of genres: the personal journal. (About which more below.) Given this astonishing range, one unifying intention beneath all the work—and here I use his characterization of the stories by black gay men collected in the anthology Shade, which includes a piece by Delany himself—has been to “celebrate difference—the pain of being different, surely, but also the wonder, the joy, and the truth of difference.” In a time of violent political reaction against this truth, readers need Delany’s work more than ever; for readers new to Delany, or unfamiliar with the range of his work outside SF, then, I offer this quick review.

Delany first appeared on the American literary scene in the ’60s as one of the brightest lights of what came to be called New Wave science fiction. The new generation of writers gathered under this label—very loosely affiliated in the US, more cohesively organized in England around New Worlds magazine under the editorship of Michael Moorcock—pursued literary experiments of a sort rarely found in the genre up to that point, placed human sciences like sociology and anthropology at the center of their speculations rather than the “hard” sciences, and engaged in a more direct and sustained way with the political and social issues of the day. British writers associated with the New Wave included J.G. Ballard, John Brunner, Barrington J. Bayley, and more; American writers, some of whom also published in New Worlds, included, Harlan Ellison, Thomas M. Disch, and Norman Spinrad, among others.

In this context of literary experiment and social critique, Delany produced a flurry of novels and short stories that earned him three Nebula Awards and a Hugo. The first of these award-winners was Babel-17 (1966), a space opera centering on an artificial language that hacks the brain of anyone who learns it. The second, The Einstein Intersection (1967), tells of aliens recently arrived on a far-future Earth mysteriously bereft of humans, who play-act the myths of humanity as they settle into their new home—emblematic of any young generation, newcomer to the human condition, trying on its inherited culture for size. The same year The Einstein Intersection won the Nebula for Best Novel, Delany’s “Aye, and Gomorrah” won for Best Short Story; written in the heyday of the Space Race, it tells of astronauts rendered neuter by space radiation, and the population of people for whom such neuters are the preferred sex partner. The Nebula- and Hugo-winning “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones” (1968) concerns, among other things, a solar-system-wide criminal counterculture.

As Brian Aldiss notes in his history of SF, Trillion Year Spree, when these and other works first appeared they were recognized as much for their stylistic bravura as for the intriguing angles they took on the changing social norms of the day. But for all their freshness, Delany’s works took many cues from the previous generation of SF writers, foremost among them Alfred Bester and Theodore Sturgeon. In an essay comparing the two (which can be found in his critical collection Starboard Wine), Delany discusses Bester’s stylistic panache and playful inventiveness, contrasting these qualities with Sturgeon’s sustained exploration of intimate feeling (compassion, empathy, love) and his commitment to craft, to the labor of writing. In Delany’s work, these tendencies in Bester and Sturgeon combined in a brilliant synthesis—which itself went on to influence the next generation of SF writers. As SF writer and editor Gardner Dozois commented in his anthology Modern Classic Short Novels of Science Fiction (1993): “Delany once told me that as a young writer he was trying ‘to do Bester for the ’60s’ …—and William Gibson once admitted to me that at least part of what he was trying to accomplish with his work was ‘to do Delany for the ’80s.’”

During the ’70s Delany’s artistic reach continued to expand—and with this came a widening of his readership. In 1975 came the massive novel Dhalgren—a post-apocalyptic tale that subverts many of the expectations associated with that subgenre. Trouble on Triton (1976) tells of a far-future utopia (or “heterotopia,” as its subtitle calls it) in which identity categories (race, sex, gender, orientation) are changeable at will—and shows this world through the eyes of an alienated bigot who cannot adjust to its challenges. In 1979 Delany published Tales of Nevèrÿon, the first of a quartet of volumes in which sword-and-sorcery heroics are juxtaposed with intricate mediations on history, sex, and power. Although these works traversed familiar genre territory, their angle of approach was so unusual, their reframing of basic genre assumptions so radical, that some critics within the genre reacted to the works almost as a kind of betrayal. (See, for example, Harlan Ellison and Darrell Schweitzer’s reviews of Dhalgren in, respectively, the Los Angeles Times and Outworlds.) Yet even as Delany’s work became more uncompromising from a genre standpoint, it also became orders of magnitude more successful. Dhalgren—with its relentless subversion of SF expectations, its fragmentary structure, and, especially, its steady focus on socially marginal characters—became a bestseller, and remains Delany’s most widely read work.

What else was coming to the fore in Delany’s writing of the ’70s? Among other things, an increasingly frank and sophisticated examination of sexuality and gender, a sustained engagement with philosophers of language, both Anglo-American (Quine, Wittgenstein, Chomsky) and Continental (Levi-Strauss, Derrida, Lacan, Foucault), and an intensified concern with the systemic forces that structure social life, and especially social knowledge—that is, with the way cultural convention, ideology, and differentials of power distort and divert information as it circulates through social space. All three of these tendencies converge brilliantly in “The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals,” a novella in the third Nevèrÿon volume, Flight from Nevèrÿon (1985), which has the distinction of being the first extended fictional treatment of the AIDS epidemic in the United States.

Through the ‘70s and into the ’80s Delany’s work steadily expanded into other genres. He produced a series of now-classic essays of SF criticism, collected in a trio of books: The Jewel-Hinged Jaw (1977), The American Shore (1978) and Starboard Wine (1984). He wrote the graphic novel Empire (1978)—which was illustrated by Howard Chaykin, a great genre innovator in his own right. Delany also began writing memoirs, each concerned, in one way or another, with the challenges of cobbling together modes of living and relationship on the margins of official culture. Earlier memoir pieces include Heavenly Breakfast (1979), about his experiences in an urban commune in the late ’60s, and The Motion of Light in Water (1988), about his New York City upbringing and education, the early years of his writing career, and his marriage to the celebrated poet Marilyn Hacker. More recent work in this vein includes Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (1999), Delany’s widely acclaimed book-length meditation on gay cruising venues in New York; and “Ash Wednesday,” an extended essay in The Boston Review examining Delany’s experiences with a sex club for older men (see also the companion interview with novelist Junot Diaz, currently one of the most vocal public champions of Delany’s work). Delany has also written pornographic novels, each more transgressive than the last: Equinox (1973), Hogg (1994) (actually completed in 1969 but so extreme in content as to remain unpublished for a quarter-century), and The Mad Man (1994). Delany has also written what SF writers sometimes call “mundane” fiction, most recently and notably the Lambda Literary Award-winning novel Dark Reflections (2007); readers interested in the rich responses Delany’s work can provoke should check out Matthew Cheney’s discussion of this novel in relation to questions of writerly commitment and sexual repression, as well as Lavelle Porter’s discussion of the same work in relation to the racial politics of literary communities.

In the midst of this wide-ranging work, Delany has continued to produce science fiction, including the much lauded Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984)—a tale of homoerotic connection in the context of a far-future information war; one of the major players in the war, a shadowy organization controlling the information network between the stars, is called, presciently, the Web. (Comparing Delany’s Web-network to Gibson’s cyberspace, Keith Ferrell, in Nebula Awards 32, notes that Stars “captures in text what many who surf the Net have experienced firsthand: layer upon layer of information, commingled and contralinear, all flowing everywhere at once. Delany got it just about right.”) Much more recently, Delany released Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders (2012), a novel that performs the ingenious trick of switching genres halfway through: it begins as a contemporary tale of the development of a relationship between two young working class men, and then, 400 pages in, moves beyond the present day and travels with increasing velocity into the future, carrying the two men to old age late in the 21st century. By my informal survey, one of the most consistent responses to the book by readers, including myself, was to be reduced to tears; see, for instance, Jo Walton’s review of the novel for Tor.com.

Recently Delany has added a new genre to his published oeuvre: the personal journal. At 15, Delany started to make a practice of carrying a notebook in which to record personal observations as well as draft new creative work, a practice he continues to this day. Earlier this year Wesleyan University Press published the first of a series of volumes—edited by yours truly—collecting the journal entries as well as additional material from the notebooks. (Wesleyan, it must be said, is something of a hero in Delany’s publishing history, bringing various of his earlier works back into print in the mid-’90s, and releasing new fiction and nonfiction as well.) The first volume, titled In Search of Silence, presents the journals of the ’60s—the period of Delany’s brilliant debut in the SF world. The second volume, currently in production, covers the following decade, when Delany produced Dhalgren, Trouble on Triton, Tales of Neveryon, and a good deal of nonfiction. (Readers interested in this volume should check out the Indiegogo campaign that’s currently running to support the project. In addition to the volume itself, you can get a Samuel R. Delany T-shirt, and how could you not want one of those?)

Editing Delany’s personal journals has brought many challenges. One has been the sheer volume of material to be sifted through. By my calculation, the number of pages selected from Delany’s notebooks for inclusion in Vol. 2 was over 3,000—from a total of over 13,000 pages read! (And that’s a conservative estimate.) Another has been deciding what to include beyond the journal entries themselves, since the notebooks also contain rough drafts of fiction, letter drafts, outlines for creative projects, and more—much of it useful for rounding out the personal narrative presented in the journal entries. Given Delany’s ongoing examinations, in both his fiction and nonfiction, of the ways information about marginalized lives can be distorted by convention, institutional pressure, and other systemic forces, the responsibility for decisions about editorial inclusion and exclusion weighed heavily. Fortunately, though, those very same examinations provided many critical beacons to help guide the work of selection.

The project has also brought many surprises. One was encountering the maturity of Delany’s voice even in the very earliest entries, written in his mid-teens. (Since Delany published his first novel at 20, only a few years after those entries, this doesn’t come as a complete surprise; nevertheless, his precociousness in the early pages of the journals still startles.) Another has been learning the degree to which Delany, even as he published award-winning SF at a fast clip, produced an equal amount of non-genre fiction, experimental in nature, that did not see publication; his hard and steady work on this material comes strongly to the fore in the first volume. Still another has been witnessing the extent of his participation in the American folk revival of the ’60s; during his meteoric rise as a science fiction writer, Delany pursued and tested the possibilities of a whole other artistic career as a singer-songwriter. (The longest and most detailed journal sequence in the first volume recounts Delany’s visit to and participation in the Second Annual Newport Folk Festival, where he rubs shoulders with Pete Seeger and other folk luminaries.)

Finally, the process of compiling the journals has brought many pleasures. One has simply been the opportunity to dig through the Delany archives at Boston University, perusing the manuscripts, letters, and countless other memorabilia of a rich and fascinating life. Another has been having Delany himself on hand to answer my innumerable questions of fact, context, and interpretation. (You haven’t lived until, having phoned Delany to ask a question about his participation in the folk revival, you find him singing one of his own original folks songs to you.) Still another has been encountering the writing of Marilyn Hacker in the pages of the journals; in the notebooks of the first volume in particular, Hacker adds a good deal of insight and humor in the form of her own direct commentary written on the margins of Delany’s entries.

This last pleasure, I feel, speaks to the pleasure of Delany’s writing as a whole. In Delany, each work is in dialogue with the next, the fiction illuminating the nonfiction, which in turn re-illuminates the fiction. Delany’s notebooks add a new voice to this dialogue. And within their pages, personal entries speak alongside other material, even material written by other people. Thus Delany’s journals present, in microcosm, an image of his whole body of work, and what that work explores and dramatizes: a kind of Copernican decentering, in which every individual moment of speech, every voice, happens in concert with other voices, each different from the next, in a conversation without end. It’s in celebration of this conversation that I do the work I do. I invite the reader to enter—or perhaps re-enter, from a new direction—that conversation as well.

Kenneth R. James is a noted Delany scholar and author of the introductions to Longer Views and 1984. He lives in Cushing, Maine.

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