Samuel R. Delany Delany, Samuel R. (Vol. 8) - Essay

Delany, Samuel R. (Vol. 8)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Delany, Samuel R. 1942–

An American science fiction novelist and short story writer, Delany is an experimental writer who calls his works "speculative." He has been awarded science fiction's Nebula Award four times.

[Delany is], of course, deeply concerned with myth; no doubt, any science fiction writer must be so concerned, since the writing of science fiction is, at its best, a myth-making process. However, Delaney … [does] not concern [himself] with any particular myth so much as [he concerns himself] with the rationale behind all myths; that is, [he explores] the reason why men need and create myths…. [Delany is] essentially concerned, not with ideas, but men; [he allows his] characters to create mythos out of other characters, and then proceed to show the human truth that is masked by the mythic façade. (pp. 37-8)

Samuel R. Delaney chooses to explore the rationale of human myth-making. His heroes are very often poets, musicians, singers—figures who may be termed "prophets" or "seers." In The Einstein Intersection, for example, he postulates a universe in which the figures of imagination and myth are real; and the artist-hero, Lo Lobey, assumes responsibility for confronting and dominating a variety of mythical creatures, including dragons, minotaurs, and, ultimately, "Kid Death."

In his novel Nova, Delaney again includes an artist among his major characters; in this case, Mouse, a Greek-Turkish Gypsy jack-of-all-trades who, finding vocal expression difficult because of a congenital defect of the larynx, expresses himself through sound and color by means of a technologically sophisticated instrument called a "sensory syrinx." Although Mouse is not precisely the "hero" of Nova, it is he who ultimately becomes the most important figure, as I shall try to demonstrate.

The nominal hero of the novel, Lorq Von Ray, can indeed be typified as a "Frontier hero," a gigantic figure who reaches into the unknown depths of space to bring back wealth and power in the form of Illyrion, a powerful element formed in the explosion of a star (that is, a nova). (p. 38)

Because of the damage done to his nervous system, Von Ray, while successful, is unable to tell of his success. It is, therefore, the role of Mouse, who had been among Von Ray's crew on this voyage, to tell the tale for him; to portray, in sound and color on the "sensory syrinx," the myth of Von Ray's quest. We can see in this novel that, while heroes exist and fill certain roles, the hero is nothing without the singer, or myth-maker, to carry the tale to the people, and interpret it for them. Ultimately, the singer or myth-maker is the true hero of his own myth.

It can be deduced from such examples as the works of … Delaney that, while science fiction is, indeed, literature of ideas and essentially concerned with myth, we cannot isolate any single myth or cluster of myths that science fiction is concerned with. Moreover, it must be seen that, in those novels which are concerned with the myth-making process, individuated characters are not … inconsequential. It is true that, in the "myth" which the singer-hero finally produces, individuated character may be lost, and replaced by a personification of some idea; but, if we are to study the myth-making process, as [Delany does], we must see very clearly the individual and action upon which the myth is based, if only to better understand the new creatures who exist only in the myth. (pp. 38-9)

Ronald M. Jacobs, "Some Notes on 'Science Fiction and the American Dream'," in The CEA Critic (copyright © 1974 by The College English Association, Inc.), March, 1974, pp. 37-9.

["Dhalgren's"] form is unmistakably circular. The first words in the book—"to wound the autumnal city."—seem to be the end of a sentence, and the last words of the book—"I have come to"—seem to be the beginning of the same sentence. This obvious echo of "Finnegans Wake" is both daring and defensible. It is Delany's way of flagging his intent, of proclaiming the standards he wishes to be judged by. (p. 27)

One thing is certain: "Dhalgren" is not a conventional novel, whether considered in terms of S.F. or the mainstream. But since a great deal of science fiction falls into the sub-category of "space opera"—callow adventure stories that use outer space and the far future as convenient backdrops—perhaps "Dhalgren" can best be classified as a "space-time opera." If the book can be said to be about anything, it is about nothing less than the nature of reality. (pp. 27-8)

As in Joyce's "Ulysses," mythological allusions abound. However, the most important fact about Delany's novel—in terms of contemporary science fiction, at least—is that nothing in it is clear. Nothing is meant to be clear. (p. 28)

The dissolving landscape, the ambiguous characters, the freakish events are all presented as having a reality (of some kind) outside the author's mind. Bellona [the "autumnal city"] may be a nightmare, but it is, to paraphrase Joyce, a nightmare of history….

In "Dhalgren," the premonitions of subatomic physics and cosmology are given flesh. The universe, as experienced by an ordinary person from day to day, no longer follows the old rules. Presumably, there are some rules, but they are not understood yet, and there is no assurance that men can ever know them.

To thrust the reader into this universe (instead of merely telling him about it, as in "The Einstein Intersection") Delany has found a style to match his theme: the texture of "Dhalgren" is dense and intricate, totally unlike anything else in recent science fiction. (p. 30)

I am afraid that "Dhalgren" is precisely the kind of book that most people turn to S.F. to get away from. Its virtues are apparent; but it is a chore to read. In fact, a book like "Dhalgren"—genuine S.F. conceived and executed on this level of sophistication—would have been unimaginable 10 years ago. Only in the last decade has the Academic Critical Apparatus taken serious note of science fiction. "Dhalgren" may be the first S.F. novel written with at least one eye on this new S.F. audience—the students and professors of literature who are always seeking grist for their mills of exegesis. (p. 31)

Gerald Jonas, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), February 16, 1975.

Samuel R. Delany is the most interesting author of science fiction writing in English today. No one else has managed to put the space-defying, time-denying adventure story to such high purpose—in novels like "Empire Star" (1966) and "The Einstein Intersection" (1967)—without sacrificing the narrative drive that made such stories appealing in the first place. His writing has always been experimental in the best sense: he poses a problem, embeds it in a familiar sf context and then bombards it with high-energy language to see what particles of insight he can dislodge. By the very nature of this technique, Delany is bound to be more successful in some books than others. In last year's "Dhalgren," the high purpose was more evident than the narrative drive. ["Triton"] is his most controlled, and therefore his most successful, experiment to date….

First and foremost, "Triton" is a novel of manners—those of a rich and complex society in which the avowed highest good is the free expression of each individual's personality. (p. 30)

[The] problem that Delany poses is this: given virtually unlimited freedom for self-expression, what happens to a person who cannot decide what to express?

Delany has written about seriously disturbed characters before. The premise of several of his earlier novels was that only gifted madmen are fit to live in a galactic civilization where literally any human fantasy can be realized on one planet or another. The scope in "Triton" is much smaller, which only makes [the protagonist's] disturbance more poignant…. By the end of the book [the protagonist's] despair has reached almost Kierkegaardian proportions. While mercilessly anatomizing that despair, Delany also manages to suggest the ecstasies of fulfillment that await those who overcome their fear of freedom. (p. 31)

Gerald Jonas, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 28, 1976.