Samuel R. Delany Short Fiction Analysis
In The Motion of Light in Water, Delany spoke of himself as: “A black man. A gay man. A writer.” Though these three truths do not “explain” Delany’s life, they are the primary roots from which his writings have sprung. Delany’s work often features marginalized characters, people outside society’s mainstream, such as slaves or those who have been biologically modified (through tattooing or piercing, for example).
Delany himself—in his lifestyle, chosen profession, and chosen genre—is outside the American mainstream. Yet, he has found a way, through writing, to express and empower himself. This has not been easy, and many of the characters in his early short stories, whose tales were often narrated in first person, were as full of longing—or more so—at the end of the story as at the beginning. In Delany’s later stories, particularly in Tales of Nevèrÿon, the characters often do find a place and a purpose for themselves.
Delany’s first published novels, while grand in scope and rich with allusion, metaphor, and lyricism, still fit easily within science fiction’s traditions. In 1975, however, Delany changed everyone’s perspective of him with Dhalgren, his longest book at over eight-hundred pages and his best known and most controversial work. Dhalgren has been Delany’s most commercially successful work, but, despite being nominated for a Nebula, most of the book’s critical acclaim has come from outside the science-fiction community. In fact, many within that community, both fans and other writers, disliked the book, perhaps because it met few of the expectations that had been established within science fiction.
Some fans and critics hailed Triton (1976) as a return to science fiction, but a careful reading of the book will show the same underlying complex of ideas at work. With The Mad Man (1994), Delany departed completely from science fiction and moved into realism with a tale of murder, New York, and homosexuality in the age of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).
“Aye, and Gomorrah”
Though Delany is primarily known for his novels, his short stories form a critical body of work that must be considered. One of his best-known stories is “Aye, and Gomorrah,” which was written in September, 1966, while Delany was at the Milford Science Fiction Writers Conference in Connecticut. It was immediately bought by Harlan Ellison for an influential anthology called Dangerous Visions, published in 1967. It was the story that, as Delany himself noted, helped him to make the transition from “an unknown to a known entity.”
This very brief story takes place mainly in Istanbul, Turkey, but its setting is clearly secondary to its subject: the neutering of people who work in space and those who, because of a syndrome called free-fall-sexual-displacement complex, worship them sexually. The former, known as spacers, are attracted to the latter, called frelks, only for the money that the frelks will give them to perform acts that are not specified in the story but that have clearly sexual undertones. Yet, the androgynous nature of the frelks prevents any real sexual relationship.
While on the spacer equivalent of “shore leave,” the young protagonist of “Aye, and Gomorrah” meets a Turkish girl, who wants to seduce the spacer but does not have the money necessary to bribe him. She is open about her obsession with spacers, although she does not like being a frelk—she believes that she is a “pervert” in the sense that a “pervert substitutes something unattainable for ‘normal’ love: the homosexual, a mirror, the fetishist, a shoe or a watch or a girdle.”
The idea of being a sexual outcast is a frequent theme in Delany’s work, perhaps stemming from his coming to terms with his homosexuality. In Triton, for example, the main character, Bron, undergoes a sex change, ostensibly to be able to understand women better, but instead becomes even more confused about his (or her) own sexuality. “Aye, and Gomorrah” focuses on the retarded sexuality of the spacers and the futile sexual longings of the frelks. In “The Tale of the Small Sarg” the character of Gorgik, a former slave who has become “civilized,” reveals that he cannot function sexually unless either he or his partner is wearing some physical sign of ownership, such as a slave collar.
Yet, Delany often applies a light touch to these issues in his stories. In “Aye, and Gomorrah,” the young spacer is constantly being corrected because of his tendency to assign the wrong gender of the word “frelk” in different languages. “Une frelk,” he is told by a Frenchman, and he learns from a Latina that it is frelko in Spanish.
We, in Some Strange...
(The entire section is 1989 words.)