Study Guide

Samuel R. Delany

Samuel R. Delany Essay - Delany, Samuel R. (Vol. 141)

Delany, Samuel R. (Vol. 141)

Introduction

Samuel R. Delany 1942-

(Full name Samuel Ray Delany, Jr.; has also written under pseudonym K. Leslie Steiner) American novelist, short story writer, critic, essayist, and memoirist.

The following entry presents an overview of Delany's career through 1999. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 8, 14, and 38.

Widely regarded as one of the most important science fiction writers of his generation, Delany was the first African American to earn acclaim in the genre. In works such as Babel-17 (1966), Dhalgren (1975), and his four-volume Nevèrÿon series, he established his reputation as a challenging author whose ambitious texts featured sophisticated commentary on gender, sexuality, and race. His protagonists are often artist-criminals who are able to view the world as marginalized outsiders, a perspective Delany has shared as a black, dyslexic homosexual. Both Delany's fiction and criticism reveal his preoccupation with semiotics and postmodern theory, including his belief that language constitutes, rather than reflects, reality. His theoretical approach to writing and his radical, often controversial and explicitly pornographic texts, have broadened the parameters of traditional science fiction.

Biographical Information

Born in Harlem, New York, to a prosperous funeral home director, Delany enjoyed a relatively privileged childhood. He attended the Dalton School and the Bronx High School of Science, where he studied physics and mathematics. He began writing stories and essays at an early age and also showed talent as a musician, composing a violin concerto at age fourteen. Always a good student, Delany found English and spelling difficult; it was not until high school that his dyslexia was diagnosed. As a high school sophomore he won several awards for his writing and co-edited the school magazine with Marilyn Hacker, a poet and editor whom he married in 1961. In 1960 Delany received a fellowship to the Bread Loaf Writer's Conference in Vermont, where he met Robert Frost. He briefly attended the City College of New York, but never completed a college degree. Hacker was instrumental in the publication of his first novel, The Jewels of Aptor (1962), and by age twenty-two Delany had published four more novels. At the age of twenty-three, Delany, who had thoughts of suicide, was hospitalized and treated at a psychiatric facility. Delany subsequently lived in the Heavenly Breakfast commune and spent his time writing and performing music with a rock band of the same name. From 1970-71, Delany and Hacker co-edited the first four issues of Quark, an avant-garde literary journal. In 1972 Delaney joined his wife in London, where their daughter Iva was born in 1974. In 1973 he published The Tides of Lust, a pornographic novel that suggested the direction of his next several works. Though Delany had long engaged in sexual liaisons with partners of both sexes, he eventually came to accept his identity as a gay man. He and his wife divorced in 1975, though they remained close friends and colleagues and shared parental responsibilities for their daughter. In 1979, Delany published Tales of Nevèrÿon, an American Book Award nominee and the first of the four works that comprise his Nevèrÿon series. In 1977, Delaney produced The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, the first of his acclaimed works of criticism, followed by The American Shore (1978), Starboard Wine (1984), The Straits of Messina (1989), and Silent Interviews (1994), a volume of revised interviews. Many of his critical pieces have appeared in various publications, but remain uncollected. Delany won Nebula awards for Babel-17 and The Einstein Intersection (1967), as well as for the short stories “Aye and Gomorrah” (1967) and “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones” (1969), also the recipient of a Hugo award in 1970. Delany received the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association in 1985 and the Bill Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement in Gay Literature in 1993. He has also had a distinguished academic career, including appointments at the State University of New York, Buffalo (1975), the Center for Twentieth Century Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee (1977), and at the Society for the Humanities at Cornell University (1987). Since 1988 Delany has been professor of comparative literature at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Major Works

Writing and thinking on the far edge of the margin, one of Delany's expressed objectives has been to use the power of language to diffuse the central role that convention plays in both literature and society. While his work is diverse and indicative of formidable intellect and originality, much of his fiction represents the progress of his thinking and its translation into art. Babel-17 is an unconventional space opera that features a female poet protagonist, a world-threatening weapon that is an enigmatic language, and a villain that is a concept—the inability to communicate—rather than a person. Through the action-packed adventures of Rydra Wong, the novel investigates the impact of language and linguistic difference on societal and individual behavior, and concurrently explores the linguistic potential of all science fiction literature. The Einstein Intersection is set on Earth far in the future, where a new breed of beings is struggling to impose order on their universe. Among them is protagonist Lo Lobey, a musician like the mythological Orpheus, but whose instrument can not only make music, but can kill. He stumbles through a maze of choices that only in retrospect are seen as mythic patterns that must be confronted and understood or conquered before he and his world can be free. The new society, ruled by Gödel's theorem, requires decision-making governed by irrational choice—as opposed to logic—and reliance on the mythic archetypes of the past. To a greater extent than in his previous works, sexual politics play a pivotal role in both Dhalgren and the novel that immediately followed it, Triton (1976). Dhalgren, noted for its difficulty and graphic sexual content, is set in the city of Bellona, which has been deserted in the wake of an unexplained disaster. The protagonist, an amnesiac and mental patient eventually known as Kid, undertakes a pilgrimage to attain salvation for Bellona and self-awareness for himself. By the end of the book Kid has developed a persona defined by his experiences. Typical of Delany's fiction, the novel ends in ambiguity, requiring that the reader determine the outcome from all the possibilities presented by the fragments related in the novel. In Triton Delany creates an unlikable protagonist, Bron Hellstrom, who inhabits a world of ambiguous sexuality where surgery for sexual preference, race, or gender is a common occurrence. Delany deconstructs the traditional notion of utopia in this work and, characteristically, refuses to provide closure, signifying that an ideal world in which sexual differences are not only accepted, but expected, cannot be fully rendered. Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984) is a love story set in a world where intelligent life forms are referred to by feminine pronouns, while masculine pronouns refer to beings that excite one sexually. The lovers are men who are literally from different worlds. They participate in a dragon hunt, the object of which is not to slay the dragon, but to become subsumed, if only for an instant, into the consciousness of an alien being, thus bringing about a modicum of understanding of this “other.” The novel contrasts extreme degradation and misery, including radical forms of slavery, with astonishing joy and grandeur, indicating that nothing in present experience can prepare individuals for grasping the possibilities inherent at either end of such a continuum. In Tales of Nevèrÿon and its three companion works, Neveryóna (1983), Flight from Nevèrÿon (1985), and The Bridge of Lost Desire (1987), Delany examines the intersection of language and power and explores behavior ranging from the sexual to the cultural. The series as a whole explores slavery in a context far beyond the North American experience, making clear that masters themselves can become slaves by the choices they make. Delany has written two memoirs, Heavenly Breakfast (1979) and The Motion of Light in Water (1988), which discusses his realization of his gay identity. During the later 1990s, Delany published Atlantis (1995), a collection of short stories, Longer Views (1996), a collection of essays, and Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (1999), a volume of essays on the sexual underworld of Times Square prior to its gentrification under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

Critical Reception

Delany is recognized as a leading voice in contemporary science fiction, and one who has pushed the limits of the genre with his complex works. Though his admirers regard him as a major American writer, he remains unknown to many readers outside of the science fiction community. It is Delany's provocative imagination, uninhibited eroticism, and deep concern with linguistics, mythology, and cultural theory that distinguishes his “paraliterary” writing from other practitioners of science fiction. His major works, notably Babel-17, The Einstein Intersection, Dhalgren, and the Nevèrÿon series, are regarded as science fiction classics, with Dhalgren standing as his most controversial work. While Delany's supporters commend the complexity and indeterminacy of his fiction, others have found his narrative and linguistic experiments confounding and overly ambiguous. Because he is primarily concerned with sociocultural mores rather than hard science, some critics consider his novels brilliant failures as science fiction, while others regard his work as “quantum fiction.” As many scholars observe, Delany's writing is largely informed by the thinking of French theorists Derrida, Lacan, Levi-Strauss, and Foucault. Even the most approachable of Delany's works challenge the reader's intellect and demand that one examine his or her social beliefs, particularly by recognizing the linguistic and cultural structures that inform and maintain such assumptions. Delany's application and interpretation of such difficult theoretical concerns has also won him admiration as a critic. Over the last four decades, Delany has earned respect for his continual artistic quest and his determination to challenge parochial thinking and to broaden acceptance of difference—whether sexual, racial, or gender-based.

Principal Works

The Jewels of Aptor (novel) 1962; revised 1968

*Captives of the Flame (novel) 1963; republished as Out of the Dead City, 1968

*The Towers of Toron (novel) 1964; revised 1968

The Ballad of Beta-2 (novel) 1965

*City of a Thousand Suns (novel) 1965; revised 1969

Babel-17 (novel) 1966; revised 1969

Empire Star (novel) 1966

The Einstein Intersection (novel) 1967

Nova (novel) 1968

The Fall of the Towers [contains Captives of the Flame, The Towers of Toron, and City of a Thousand...

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Criticism

Robert A. Collins (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: “Allegory in Delany's Einstein Intersection,” in Forms of the Fantastic: Selected Essays from the Third International Conference on the Fantastic in Literature and Film, edited by Jan Hokenson and Howard Pearce, Greenwood Press, 1986, pp. 87-90.

[In the following essay, Collins contends that The Einstein Intersection illustrates Delany's theme that American blacks, in the interest of establishing their own cultural identity, must “exorcize” and “discard” the inherited myths and religion of white Westerners.]

In an epigraph to one of the late chapters of The Einstein Intersection (they are not numbered), Samuel Delany quotes a...

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Michael A. Morrison (review date 31 January 1988)

SOURCE: “Samuel Delany's Sophisticated Fables of Identity,” in Washington Post Book World, January 31, 1988, p. 8.

[In the following excerpt, Morrison offers positive assessments of The Bridge of Lost Desire and The Motion of Light in Water.]

The central literary conceit of the cycle of linked tales that Samuel R. Delany calls “Return to Nevèryon” is explained by his alter-ego K. Leslie Steiner in a preface that appears at the end of the fourth and most recent book in the series, The Bridge of Lost Desire. According to Steiner, “Delany’s stories are, among other things, a set of elaborate and ingenuous deconstructions” of an Ur text called...

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Martha A. Bartter (essay date July 1990)

SOURCE: “The (Science-Fiction) Reader and the Quantum Paradigm: The Problems in Delany's Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand,” in Science-Fiction Studies, Vol. 17, No. 2, July, 1990, pp. 325-40.

[In the following essay, Bartter interprets the complexity and indeterminacy of Delany's fiction in terms of quantum mechanics, which she argues is a more fitting paradigm for Delany's work than Newtonian physics or Einsteinian relativism. Drawing attention to the controlling metaphors and structural innovations of Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, Bartter contends that Delany's “quantum” worldview challenges accepted notions of reality and pushes the boundaries of...

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Carl Malmgren (essay date Spring 1993)

SOURCE: “The Languages of Science Fiction: Samuel Delany's Babel-17,” in Extrapolation, Vol. 34, No. 1, Spring, 1993, pp. 5-17.

[In the following essay, Malmgren examines the function of language in Babel-17, which he views as the novel's central theme and also the central vehicle by which Delany creates an alternative world. According to Malmgren, the protagonist's struggle to master Babel-17, the alien language, asserts Delany's postmodern view of language as a mode of constructing and inventing—rather than simply reflecting—reality.]

Science fiction is a literature of the Beyond, as well as a literature of the impact of...

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Heather MacLean (review date Summer 1995)

SOURCE: A review of Silent Interviews, in Extrapolation, Vol. 36, No. 2, Summer, 1995, pp. 163-5.

[In the following review, MacLean offers a positive evaluation of Silent Interviews.]

Delany posits himself, black and gay and an SF writer, in the soundless space between views. This is a superb and important book for anyone interested in Delany, SF, or SF criticism (comics fans and opera buffs also will find an interview to suit them). This collection [Silent Interviews] of eleven written conversations is engaging, well put together, fun to read, and challenging. As usual, with anything written by Delany, the texts all operate at many levels: personal,...

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David N. Samuelson (review date July 1995)

SOURCE: “Talking,” in Science-Fiction Studies, Vol. 22, No. 2, July, 1995, pp. 204-11.

[In the following review, Samuelson provides an extended analysis of Delany's comments on literary theory, the politics of marginalization, and science fiction in Silent Interviews.Though noting repetition and contradiction in the volume, Samuelson finds Delany's poststructuralist perspective challenging.]

Samuel R. Delany both clings to and defies genrefication. Claiming to write “science fiction”—not speculative fiction, or sword and sorcery—because of a defining attitude he brings to it, he notes that spaceships appear first in his fifth sf novel, and argues for...

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Russel Blackford (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “Debased and Lascivious? Samuel R. Delany's Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand,” in Ash of Stars: On the Writing of Samuel R. Delany, edited by James Sallis, University Press of Mississippi, 1996, pp. 26-42.

[In the following essay, Blackford examines Delany's presentation of gender and sexuality in Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. Blackford contends that the novel, while often confusing and overly ambiguous, reveals Delany's innovative effort to subvert gender-coded language and popular stereotypes about physical beauty and sexual norms.]

I.

Samuel R. Delany has been a prolific writer in recent years,...

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Robert Elliot Fox (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: “The Politics of Desire in Delany's Triton and Tides of Lust,” in Ash of Stars: On the Writing of Samuel R. Delany, edited by James Sallis, University Press of Mississippi, 1996, pp. 43-61.

[In the following essay, Fox examines the significance of graphic, polymorphous sex in both The Tides of Lustand Triton. According to Fox, explicit sexual content in these novels provides the philosophical-aesthetic perspective from which Delany exposes the extreme contradictions of racial identity, social order, erotic desire, and individuality.]

In the breakdown of repression, the artists do their part by first dreaming...

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Russell Blackford (essay date Fall 1996)

SOURCE: “Jewels in Junk City: To Read Triton,” in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 16, No. 3, Fall, 1996, pp. 142-7.

[In the following essay, Blackford examines various scientific and linguistic inconsistencies in Triton,which he identifies as symptomatic of Delany's fiction in general. According to Blackford, Delany's elaborate future worlds and linguistic constructs create “an overall effect,” rather than a seamless alternative reality.]

Samuel R. Delany’s Triton is an experiment in radical utopian narrative. It depicts a miraculously hi-tech society, in this case set on the Neptunian moon Triton over a century hence. On Triton...

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Mary Kay Bray (essay date Fall 1996)

SOURCE: “To See What Conditions Our Condition Is In: Trial by Language in Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand,” in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 16, No. 3, Fall, 1996, pp. 153-60.

[In the following essay, Bray examines Delany's subversion of language and social organization in Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. Bray contends that the reader is drawn into a “textual webbing” that illustrates the relationship between the individual and society and brings into focus current social realities and alternative futures.]

One of the definitive characteristics of Samuel R. Delany’s fiction is its “consciousness-raising” function. The...

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Robert Elliot Fox (essay date Fall 1996)

SOURCE: “‘This You-Shaped Hole of Insight and Fire’: Meditations on Dhalgren,” in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 16, No. 3, Fall, 1996, pp. 129-35.

[In the following essay, Fox examines the etymology and function of language in Dhalgren, drawing attention to the novel's circular textual pattern, mythological associations, and embedded social commentary.]

Dhalgren can best be characterized by the words that Kid, the novel’s protagonist, uses to characterize his own book of poems: “a complicitous illusion in lingual catalysis, a crystalline and conscientious alkahest.”1 This is the sort of language one would expect to...

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David N. Samuelson (essay date Fall 1996)

SOURCE: “Necessary Constraints: Samuel R. Delany on Science Fiction,” in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 16, No. 3, Fall, 1996, pp. 165-9.

[In the following essay, Samuelson provides an overview of Delany's intellectual development, radical social consciousness, and theoretical perspective as a critic and writer of science fiction.]

Important not only as a science fiction writer, Samuel R. Delany is also a major critic and theorist of the genre. Beyond what is embedded in his fiction, he has published five volumes specifically devoted to SF criticism and theory. The core document for this purpose is The American Shore (1978), linking microcosmic and...

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Scott McLemee (review date 28 October 1996)

SOURCE: “Black, Gay, Pomo, Cyberpunk,” in The Nation, October 28, 1996, pp. 60-2.

[In the following review, McLemee provides an overview of Delany's life and literary career and offers a positive evaluation of Longer Views.]

Samuel Delany published his first novel in 1962, at the age of 20, which sounds like an early start, though not for a prodigy. As a teenager, Delany studied quantum physics at the Bronx High School of Science. He composed music, read omnivorously and wrote half a dozen novels. The manuscripts came back from editors with nice letters worrying that his prose was overly “literary” but assuring him he showed promise—the last thing any...

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Sandra Y. Govan (review date Spring 1997)

SOURCE: A review of Silent Interviews, in African American Review, Vol. 31, No. 1, Spring, 1997, pp. 164-8.

[In the following review, Govan provides an overview of Delany's literary career and offers a positive evaluation of Silent Interviews.]

Although he writes in a genre vigorously pursued by relatively few African American literary critics and scholars, it should no longer be a secret that one of the most productive African American authors is Samuel R. “Chip” Delany. Albeit the paraliterary form of science fiction is his chosen discipline, within this realm Delany reigns. For thirty-four years Delany has been on a roll, publishing more novels than...

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David Ian Paddy (review date Spring 1997)

SOURCE: A review of Dhalgren, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 17, No. 1, Spring, 1997, pp. 181-2.

[In the following review, Paddy offers praise for Dhalgren, reissued by Wesleyan University Press in 1996.]

Nothing would be easier than to declare Delany’s 1975 magnum opus a literary masterpiece that far excels the limitations of the science fiction genre. Nothing would be easier, but then nothing would be more denigrating to Delany’s work and his critical intentions. Delany has always stressed his love for the uniqueness of science fiction, and he has provided some of the most illuminating studies into how the genre requires an audience to read...

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Sylvia Kelso (essay date July 1997)

SOURCE: “‘Across Never’: Postmodern Theory and Narrative Praxis in Samuel R. Delany's Nevèrÿon Cycle,” in Science-Fiction Studies, Vol. 24, No. 2, July, 1997, pp. 289-01.

[In the following essay, Kelso addresses aspects of postmodern literary theory in the Nevèrÿon cycle, notably the influence of Derrida and Foucault on Delany's notion of deconstruction and marginality. Kelso draws attention to the motifs of sexual deviancy and degradation in the Nevèrÿon narratives, through which Delany explores the limits of racial identity, feminism, and sexual politics.]

It is something of a truism that sf writers like to work at the cutting-edge—if not the wacky...

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James Sallis (review date Fall 1997)

SOURCE: A review of Longer Views, in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. XVII, No. 3, Fall, 1997, pp. 223-5.

[In the following review, Sallis offers praise for both Longer Views and Atlantis.]

We witness a strange period in which it seems that, at the same time the canon of approved, proper literature narrows, we have ever greater access (through translations, small-press publications, courageous university presses) to the fullest range of literary possibility: Delany, for instance.

Author of thirty or so books, a cornerstone of contemporary science fiction with novels such as Dhalgren and Triton, praised by the likes of...

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Wayne Hoffman (review date 18 October 1999)

SOURCE: “Mickey & the Peep Show,” in The Nation, October 18, 1999, pp. 30-4.

[In the following review, Hoffman discusses the decline of the sex industry in Times Square and commends Delany's recollections and observations in Times Square Red, Times Square Blue.]

In 1980, amid debates about “cleaning up” Times Square, New York City Mayor Ed Koch warned, “New York cannot and should not become Disneyland.”

Seventeen years later, in June 1997, Disney organized a thirty-float electrical parade through the heart of Times Square to promote its animated film Hercules. The parade ran down 42nd Street past the new Disney Store, just...

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