Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

In the introduction to The Motion of Light in Water, titled “Sentences,” Samuel Delany gives some sense of how the autobiography grew and developed. He writes how his thinking about two major events in his life precipitated writing about what can only be called a fragment of his adolescent and young adult years growing up in New York City and his emergence as a major writer of science fiction. His father died of lung cancer in 1958, when Delany was seventeen. As he thinks about the other events in his life during this time, he keeps reaching a certain impasse. Was he really seventeen? And was it really 1958? Although he later acquires enough information to know that his father died in 1960, when the young Delany was in fact eighteen, he understands that knowledge of both the impression he had of those events and the truth of those events is important to any writing about his life that he might do. Essentially he is concerned with truth, the perception of one’s reality, and the ordering that is required to know either. Whether his father died in 1958 or 1960, and whether Delany was seventeen or eighteen at the time, his father died when Delany was on the verge of adulthood and change. It is a series of major changes that marks one line of the autobiography’s development.

Delany’s autobiographical fragment is an oddity in African American autobiographical writing for a number of reasons. On the surface, Delany only accounts for a short time period, basically the time that corresponds with his emergence as a serious writer of science fiction, with all the details of his life at the time that help to account for this. His autobiography is a record of his early literary life.

Delany’s background and class also make his autobiography unique. He does not record a significant amount of racial discrimination or other typical hardships that African Americans faced during the 1950’s and 1960’s. Instead, as a member of a socially elite black family with a relatively long history of being a part of the middle and upper classes of the black community, Delany has a lifestyle of privilege and of opportunities usually not available to African Americans. Most of his immediate and extended family members were professionals, owners of property, and recipients of degrees and advanced degrees from prestigious universities. Many of Delany’s family members were proud of being examples of what African Americans could achieve if given the opportunity. Delany and his cousins, for example, were members of Jack and Jill of America, a black social club for middle-class children. Their parents took the extra effort to include programs to give their children even more mainstream educational and cultural opportunities.

It is against this background of opportunity that Delany positions his own growth and development. He attended the Dalton School, a private and progressive elementary school. At Dalton, he was encouraged to engage in all sorts of challenging academic and literary pursuits, such as writing poetry, reading in Latin and Greek, reading all of the American and British literary classics, and planning advanced science projects. His parents even had him attend summer camps where these same sorts of challenging opportunities were available. Delany makes it clear, then, that even if he were not a genius, the opportunities his parents gave him would make anyone think he was.

When he attends public high school, it is the experimental Bronx High School of Science. Students from all...

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The Motion of Light in Water Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Fitting, Peter. “Positioning and Closure: On ‘Reading Effect’ of Contemporary Utopian Fiction.” Utopian Studies 1 (1987): 23-36. Looks at Delany’s creation of utopian worlds and compares those worlds to similar ones depicted in the fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin and Marge Piercy.

Johnson, Charles. Being and Race: Black Writing Since 1970. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988. Focuses on Samuel R. Delany in his discussion of black male writers. Argues that Delany is a part of the tradition in black writing that calls for diversity of subject matter and theme.

Peplow, Michael W., and Robert S. Bravard. Samuel R. Delany: A Primary and Secondary Bibliography, 1962-1979. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980. An extremely useful compilation of material on Delany’s writing to 1979. All of the major reviews, articles, and essays are included.

Philmus, Robert, ed. “On Triton and Other Matters: An Interview with Samuel R. Delany.” Science Fiction Studies 3 (November, 1990): 295-324. Includes an interview conducted in 1986 in which Delany discusses the genesis of the Triton (1976) novel and his return to the more conventional science fiction form.

Stone-Blackburn, Susan. “Adult Telepathy: Babel-17 and The Left Hand of Darkness.” Extrapolation 30 (Fall, 1989): 243-253. Extensive treatment of the phenomenon of telepathy in Delany’s Babel-17 (1966) and the comparison of that treatment to Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969).