Samuel R. Delany

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Samuel Ray Delany, Jr., was born into an upper-middle-class family in the Harlem district of New York City on April 1, 1942. His father had come to New York from North Carolina and, in the period before Delany’s birth, had established a successful career as a funeral director. Delany’s mother, the former Margaret Carey Boyd, was a library clerk with a long-standing interest in literature. In the late 1920’s, she had been a friend of several authors in the literary movement known as the Harlem Renaissance.

The prosperity of Delany’s family allowed the young Samuel to attend a number of prestigious schools. Having graduated from the private Dalton School, Delany enrolled at the Bronx High School of Science. There, a reading disorder which had troubled Delany throughout his early schooling was diagnosed as dyslexia. Despite his handicap, Delany was already making progress toward a literary career. While he was still in his early teens, he wrote several novels (none of them published) and served as coeditor of the Dynamo, his high school’s literary review. Delany’s early work won for him several local awards, and he was encouraged to continue with his literary pursuits.

Delany accepted his homosexuality. Nevertheless, on August 24, 1961, he married his former coeditor on the Dynamo, Marilyn Hacker. During that same year, he began taking courses at the City College of New York and became poetry editor of the college’s literary journal, the Promethean. Hacker, meanwhile, left school and began work as a science-fiction editor for Ace Books. Because of Hacker’s encouragement and his own conviction that he could write more interesting science fiction than that being published at the time, Delany completed his first successful science-fiction novel, The Jewels of Aptor (1962), when he was only nineteen. The Jewels of Aptor, like each of Delany’s first eight novels, was published by Ace Books. At first, the novel appeared only in a heavily edited version, bound into the same volume as fellow science-fiction author James White’s Second Ending. A revised edition of The Jewels of Aptor was issued by Ace in 1968, and the full text of the novel finally appeared in an edition published by Gregg Press in 1976.

Delany dropped out of college in 1963 and embarked upon an intense period of writing. While supporting himself as a musician, Delany published Captives of the Flame (1963), The Towers of Toron (1964), City of a Thousand Suns (1965), and The Ballad of Beta-2 (1965). In each of those novels, he united the traditional narrative of the quest with a detailed account of imaginary civilizations. That same combination was to appear in much of his later fiction.

In 1965, Delany left the United States to begin a quest of his own. On an extended journey throughout Europe and Asia, he completed The Einstein Intersection (1967), publishing it upon his return to the United States. He then resumed work as a musician in New York City and continued to write novels and short stories. In 1966, with the publication of Babel-17, Delany reached a turning point in his career. Babel-17 received a Nebula Award from the Science Fiction Writers of America and was the author’s first novel to be read widely by the general public. Delany won a second Nebula Award for The Einstein Intersection; he would receive the award again for a short story, “Aye, and Gomorrah . . .” (1967), and a novella, “Time Considered as a Helix of Semiprecious Stones” (1969).

For a brief period during the late 1960’s, Delany lived in San Francisco. Upon returning to New York City, he completed Nova (1968), a novel that proved to be another breakthrough for him. Nova was the author’s first work to be published by a press other than Ace Books (it was issued by Doubleday) and his first novel to be printed in a hardbound edition.

In the early 1970’s, Delany began experimenting with new media and avant-garde literary forms. He wrote, directed, and edited two short films, Tiresias (1970) and The...

(The entire section is 2,237 words.)