Tuesday, October 23, 2007

On Samuel R. Delany

Samuel R. Delany is a prolific science fiction writer, memoirist, self-described pornographer, literary critic, and social commentator. Since the publication in 1962 (when he was twenty) of his first book, The Jewels of Aptor, he has published numerous novels, short stories, essays, interviews, cultural commentary, and memoirs. What's most remarkable about this prodigious output is its consistent quality, wide range, and continual development. Delany has never been one to repeat himself or rest on his laurels. Unlike some writers who, beginning in the genre and subsequently seeking literary respectability, and despite his numerous works in other genres, Delany has always strongly identified himself as a science fiction writer. But his work has always pushed at and expanded the boundaries and conventions of the field, constantly seeking out new forms, ideas, and themes. Indeed, his work has become more challenging and complex over the course of his career.

Though I am a poet and he is a prose writer (a prose writer with an active and insightful interest in contemporary poetry, one no doubt encouraged by his previous marriage to and continuing friendship with the marvelous poet Marilyn Hacker), Delany has been a crucial influence on the way I write and think about writing. Among other things, his work is a constant reminder that reading is a form of writing oneself into a text and that writing is a form of reading a potential text.

Delany has frequently acknowledged his debts to poetry. He has also written an extended and wide-ranging meditation on Hart Crane’s The Bridge (“Atlantis Rose…,” in Longer Views), as well as “Atlantis: Model 1924” (published in Atlantis: Three Tales), a vividly imagined meeting between Delany’s father and the poet on the Brooklyn Bridge, an encounter which revolves around misunderstandings and miscommunications: the two, occupying the same space at the same time, never meet at all.

At their best, science fiction and poetry have in common the production and presentation of alternative worlds in which the rules, restrictions, and categories of our world don’t apply. It was this freedom from the tyranny of what is, from the domination of the actually existing, that attracted me to both, first science fiction and then poetry.

Delany has also been an important figure in opening up the once almost exclusively white male world of science fiction to more diverse voices, both by being one of the first black science fiction writers and by writing about the experiences of nonwhite characters of all hues and backgrounds, of women, and of gay and bisexual characters. Almost none of his protagonists are heterosexual white men, but the racial identity of his characters is not an issue in his books. He creates worlds in which race as we understand it is not a significant category, and thus implicitly critiques our society’s obsession with race and racial categorization. Delany has been a trailblazer for later black writers like Octavia Butler and Steve Barnes, who have used science fiction as an arena in which to explore questions of race and identity in a speculative and imaginative manner, unrestricted by current preconceptions.

Samuel R. Delany was born in 1942 and raised among Harlem’s black middle class. His position as both marginal (as a black man and a gay man) and privileged (in the economic and social opportunities available to him) has been a major influence on his work, as has been his liminal position as a black man who could often pass for white. His autobiographical writings address the way that his early experiences of moving between different social, racial, and geographical worlds affected his worldview and his writing.

The power of language to shape human reality has been a strong theme of Delany’s work since the beginning of his career. Much of his later work explicitly refers to literary and cultural theorists such as Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault, who sought to uncover and undo assumptions about language, representation, and communication. For them, language is not a passive tool but an active social, psychological, and intellectual force. But Delany’s work has always demonstrated a strong literary and linguistic awareness and even self-consciousness, both in its style and in its subject matter. He has always been fascinated by language’s influence on the way we perceive and conceive of the world and ourselves. This may be related to his dyslexia, which he has said heightened his sense of the material reality of language.

Babel-17 (1966), inspired by the famous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic determnism (that our language controls our thought), centers on the efforts of the poet Rydra Wong to crack what is believed to be a military code used by an alien race with whom Earth is at war. What she finally discovers is that this code is a highly exact and analytical language which has no word for “I,” and thus no concept of individual identity. The novel examines the capacity of culture and language not only to control the way people see and act in the world but to determine who they are as persons. “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world,” as Ludwig Wittgenstein so famously wrote. Two different words imply two different worlds.

Dhalgren (1974), which is simultaneously Delany’s most “difficult” and his most popular novel, is about the efforts of a nameless (or many named: Kid/Kidd/The Kid) bisexual amnesiac to find his identity in the course of his wanderings through the post-apocalyptic Midwestern American city of Bellona. He can only find such an identity by constructing one, and one of the ways he does so is through writing: he becomes a poet. By the end of the book (whose final phrase loops back to its opening words), the reader is left with the strong sense that the protagonist himself has written the novel that we have just finished reading about him. The novel enacts the ways in which we create ourselves through our language and our ideas.

Delany earlier explored this idea of self-creation through self-narration in The Einstein Intersection (1967), a retelling of the myth of Orpheus set in the far distant future. In the original story, Orpheus descends into the underworld to bring his dead wife Eurydice back to life by the power of his song, only to lose her again because of his own doubts. Delany’s protagonist, Lo Lobey, is a member of an alien race that has come to earth long after humanity has departed. These aliens live out human myths and stories in an attempt to understand what it meant to be human, trying to make sense of the world that they have inherited. By the end of his quest, Lo Lobey realizes that he and his people must create their own stories, rather than live out second-hand versions of someone else’s. He must become a new Orpheus, one who no longer sings the dead songs. “We came, took their bodies, their souls—both husks abandoned here for any wanderer’s taking…You may be Orpheus; you may be someone else, who dares death and succeeds.” Thus the novel is also an allegory about the power of art to create new realities.

Delany’s work argues against the notion of a single, unified human nature. Instead, it celebrates difference, exploring the wide range of human possibilities that different languages and cultures can produce. However, Delany’s work also delves into the complications and difficulties (up to and including war) that can result from such differences, especially when they are not acknowledged or recognized. His novel Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984) is largely about a clash of cultures, the conflict of incompatible assumptions about the universe and about people—including who and what (in a universe occupied by many different intelligent species) gets to be defined as “people.” In this book, the conflict between the Family, a social ideal based on exclusion and hierarchy, and the Sygn, an ideal based on inclusion and free choice, almost ends with the destruction of a planet. The implication is that differences, even or especially the most radical differences, must be accepted if humanity is to survive, let alone to thrive. On a smaller scale, Bron Helstrom, the anti-hero of Trouble on Triton (originally published in 1976 under the title Triton) makes himself and those around him miserable because he cannot reconcile his rigid, sexist ideas of the ways in which people should live and think with the variety and openness of his society's "ambiguous heterotopia." (Even utopia is plural.)

Delany’s celebration of difference particularly focuses on the celebration of sexual difference. Many of his protagonists are women, and most of his male protagonists are gay or bisexual. In his fiction, he not only presents universes in which homosexuality is completely accepted and women are fully equal members of society, but also presents universes in which our familiar sexual categories do not apply at all. In his Nebula Award winning short story “Aye, and Gomorrah” (1967), spacers, those people who are physically capable of deep space travel, are neither male nor female, and are eagerly sought after as sexual partners. In Trouble on Triton, it's as easy to change one’s gender or one’s sexual orientation as it is to change one’s hair color.

Delany further explores the various ways and means of sexuality in the four volume “Return to Nevèrÿon” series, which includes Tales of Nevèrÿon (1979), Neveryóna (1983), Flight from Nevèrÿon (1985), and Return to Nevèrÿon (originally published in 1987 under the title The Bridge of Lost Desire). Rather than being set in the future, these books are set in the distant past, in a world in which the civilized rulers are dark-skinned and the barbarian lower classes are blonde and blue-eyed. These books are a deliberate revision of the sword and sorcery genre of which the Conan the Barbarian series is the most famous example. (I always preferred Kull the Conquerer.) In them, Delany investigates the complex and contradictory realities of such a fantasized primitive world, examining the development of civilization in order to uncover the historical roots of our own culture. Among the topics these ambitious books address are the origins and development of language, the family, sexuality, gender roles, private property, commerce, social hierarchy, and the interconnections of sex and power and of language and power.

Slavery is a major theme of the series, with clear references to American history. Gorgik, the protagonist of the series, is a former slave who rises to power and abolishes slavery. He is also a gay man whose sexual desires are all sadomasochistic, based on submission and domination. This is an example of the difficulty of separating sexuality and power in a hierarchical society in which, like our own, all people are not equal or equally free: slavery is both a socio-political phenomenon and a state of mind. But by making a mutually consenting game out of the power some people exercise over others (he can only achieve sexual fulfillment while wearing his slave collar), Gorgik is able to defuse it to an extent, and to create pleasure out of pain. In the third book of the series, Delany makes explicit the parallels between the ancient world he has created and our contemporary world by juxtaposing a plague which affects only homosexuals in his fictional world with the AIDS epidemic in nineteen-eighties New York City. In so doing, he directly addresses questions of homophobia and social stigma.

Beginning and continuing as a practitioner of a fringe literary genre, what he calls paraliterature, Delany has gained recognition and acclaim not only in the field of science fiction, but in those of literary theory and gay and lesbian literature. Despite controversies regarding the intellectual and stylistic challenges of some of his work (controversies which seem to exercise critics more than fans), and the graphic, deliberately (and polymorphously) perverse sexual content of novels such as The Mad Man (1994) and Hogg (1998) (novels I admit to having trouble reading), his reputation as an important writer and thinker is secure and growing.


Anonymous said...

Hey Reginald --

I just read your piece in Conjunctions 48, which I loved, and it reminded me of Delany -- I guess in the prose style. SRD is a terrific writer, and it is great to see him "get respect" (although I kind of miss the days when he was junked as a genre scifi guy -- the canonization is happening to Dick as well.) I first read him as a scifi youngster and was blown away.


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Unknown said...

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the canonization is happening to Dick as well.) I first read him as a scifi youngster and was blown away.
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Joseph P. said...

Samuel R. Delany work includes a number of novels, many in the science fiction genre, as well as memoir, criticism, and essays on sexuality and society.

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