Samuel R. Delany Essay - Critical Essays

Samuel R. Delany American Literature Analysis

It is not surprising that so much of Delany’s work in the late 1970’s and the 1980’s was in the field of literary criticism; even his early fiction reveals an extensive knowledge of literary theory and of mainstream literary traditions. For example, in The Jewels of Aptor, the quest for telepathic jewels places Geo, the hero of the novel, in the same tradition as numerous other protagonists of epic quests, including Gilgamesh, Jason, and Percival. Delany even makes an explicit association between Geo and Jason, the leader of the Argonauts, by adopting the name “Argo” for one of the central deities in the novel.

In traditional epics, heroes of quests begin their journeys because of a desire to seek adventure or a wish to recover some physical object. Delany’s characters, however, are motivated more by a desire to seek knowledge than by any hope of material gain. Thus Rydra Wong, the heroine of Babel-17, begins her voyage hoping to obtain the information that she needs to decipher a strange alien dialect. Joneny, the protagonist of The Ballad of Beta-2, sets out to learn about the Star Folk. In traditional quest stories, physical journeys usually serve as a metaphor for the protagonist’s inner journeys of self-discovery. Delany, aware of this tradition, has merely exposed the metaphor, making knowledge both the symbolic and the actual goal of the quest.

Delany’s familiarity with modern philosophy and with anthropology has had a major impact upon his novels. The goddess Argo in The Jewels of Aptor was inspired by Delany’s reading of The White Goddess (1947), an examination of religion and folklore by the poet and novelist Robert Graves. The White Goddess dealt extensively with the origins and influence of the pre-Greek goddess Cybele. Graves’s exploration of Cybele’s connection with the earth and fertility may be seen in Geo, The Jewels of Aptor’s protagonist, whose name is derived from the Greek word for “earth.” Moreover, in such novels as Triton and Tales of Nevèrÿon (1979), Delany used the techniques of modern anthropology to analyze the fictional societies which he himself had created.

The stories set in Nevèrÿon provide a space in which Delany can explore the form of “sword and sorcery” fiction while simultaneously critiquing it. At the same time, the world of Nevèrÿon provides a setting where Delany has explored the inadequacy of language, perceptions of gender roles, the psychology of bondage and domination, the shaping of society by economic pressures, alternate sexualities, slavery, semiotics, and the control of history.


First published: 1966

Type of work: Novel

An intergalactic poet attempts to foil saboteurs by breaking their code and learning their language.

Babel-17, Delany’s first novel to receive a Nebula Award, was also the first to address issues found in many of his later works. Part novel and part philosophical inquiry, Babel-17 explores the degree to which language shapes the perception of reality. Babel-17, the artificial language from which the novel receives its name, is described by Delany as lacking both first-and second-person pronouns. As a result, Delany suggests, speakers of this language would not have any ability to be “self-critical” to separate reality from what the language has “programmed” them to see as reality. On the other hand, Babel-17’s analytical superiority over other languages is said to ensure that its speakers develop technical mastery over most situations.

One of the questions raised by the novel, therefore, is how much one’s language dictates the way in which one perceives the world. In Babel-17, the word for a member of the Alliance would mean something roughly translatable as “one-who-has-invaded”; this, Delany suggests, causes those who think in the Babel-17 language instinctively to view the Alliance as a hostile force that must be destroyed. As one reads the novel, one wonders how much one’s own linguistic structures—including, for example, such expressions as “upper class,” “Far East,” and “New World”—not only reflect, but also actually determine, a system of values.

With a poet as its protagonist, Babel-17 is also a work that explores the nature and power of literature. In the poetry of Rydra Wong, the novel’s main character—as well as in the quotations taken from the poetry of Marilyn Hacker, Delany’s wife, which serve as epigraphs for major sections of the novel—one finds poetry continually represented as an effective medium of communication. Rydra Wong’s success throughout the galaxy is proof that words can unite individuals regardless of their backgrounds, cultures, or even the planets on which they live.

On yet another level, Babel-17 functions as a sociological novel, exploring the ways in which people wrongly assume that social conventions reflect a universal law. In the intricately detailed world that Delany has created, many contemporary customs are presented in an exaggerated fashion so that the reader might view them from a new perspective. For example, a reader may be repulsed initially by the novel’s description of “cosmetisurgery,” a procedure by which lights, flowers, and mechanical devices are implanted into one’s body as decorations.

Yet, in the characters’ discussions of this practice, it quickly becomes apparent that surgical alteration of the body for purposes of beauty or hygiene has parallels to the familiar customs of circumcision, ear-piercing, and creating tattoos. In a similar way, the discomfort that some of the novel’s characters experience when encountering a “triple” (a form of marriage among three people) is intended to reflect the discomfort of Delany’s readers’ society when dealing with those whose sexual lives deviate from accepted norms.

The Einstein Intersection

First published: 1967

Type of work: Novel


(The entire section is 2499 words.)