Dhalgren is a pivotal work in Delany’s career. Although it continues many of the themes of his earlier novels, Dhalgren has a dense, literary style and unflinching examination of drug use, deviant sexuality, and violence that also point toward future works such as Tales of Nevèrÿon (1979) and Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984).
Unlike Babel-17 (1966), The Einstein Intersection (1967), and Nova (1968), Dhalgren explores countercultural themes such as bisexuality, drug use, race relations, and the connection between artistic and criminal cultures, without far future or deep space settings to blunt the controversial nature of these subjects. The immediacy of Dhalgren’s 1970’s setting, combined with its difficult literary style and explicit sex and violence, alienated much of Delany’s previous readership, who had come to expect works like Nova and Babel-17, which essentially were stock space epics written with stylistic flare and a 1960’s hip sensibility.
Also alienated were many science-fiction reviewers and critics, who regarded Dhalgren as at best incomprehensible and at worst a disgrace to the field. Dhalgren nevertheless sold well, more than a million copies in less than a decade. In his collection of essays The Straits of Messina (1989), Delany attributes these sales to interested readers and sympathetic reviewers outside the science-fiction field.
Dhalgren has its science-fiction defenders, most notably Theodore Sturgeon and Frederik Pohl, and the novel’s critical support has increased over the years. What critics praise in Dhalgren are its literary experimentation, its highly charged language, and its depth of character. Few other works in any field have portrayed life on the fringes of society with such richness of detail and depth of understanding. Dhalgren, with its nonlinear structure, stream-of-consciousness passages, and self-commentary, evokes the brilliant literary innovations of James Joyce, Jorge Luis Borges, and Thomas Pynchon.
Dhalgren may well be the climax of science fiction’s New Wave exploration of expanded themes and stylistic techniques. At the same time, its focus on the urban fringe foreshadows the arrival of science fiction’s cyberpunk movement in the mid-1980’s.