Delany, Samuel R. 1942–
An American science fiction novelist and short story writer, Delany is an experimental writer who calls his works "speculative" fictions. He has been awarded science fiction's Nebula Award four times. (See also CLC, Vol. 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84.)
Samuel Delany has been the cutting edge of the SF revolution for more than ten years. He works within the traditional SF iconography (i.e., spaceships and cyborgs), but his characters come straight from Desolation Row.
Triton is set in a sort of sexual utopia, where every form of sexual behavior is accepted, and sex-change operations (not to mention "refixations," to alter sexual preference) are common. But Bron, Delany's anti-hero (who becomes, for the last quarter of the novel, an anti-heroine) doesn't know what he wants. All he knows is that he's miserable. When his lover tells him, "Your confusion hurts people," Bron replies, "Then people like me should be exterminated."
Bron's downhill drift is underscored by carefully fragmented syntax, the withholding of crucial bits of information, and a series of deliciously self-conscious set-pieces. In one, Bron enters a booth on which a sign reads: "Know Your Place In Society." The booth is supposed to display taped sequences from an individual's life, but when Bron puts in his money the tape breaks, and he doesn't even get his dough back. In another sequence, as he's reading a brutal get-lost letter from the woman he's in love with, a full-scale interplanetary war breaks out around his ears, gravity fails, and only negativity pulls him through.
Triton is an alienated, ambiguous novel. Delany's running concern with characters on the fringe of society (poets, musicians, actors and prostitutes), his stylistic departures (an incomprehensible 14-page lecture on "metalogic"), and his open bisexuality have put off many longtime SF readers. Yet Delany may very well turn out to be as important a writer as Thomas Pynchon. At the very least, he's taking up where [Theodore Sturgeon] left off; that's not very least at all. (pp. 62-3)
Michael Goodwin, "A Giant Step for Science Fiction," in Mother Jones (copyright © 1976 by the Foundation for National Progress), Vol. I, No. VI, August, 1976, pp. 62-5.∗
The fiction of Samuel R. Delany seems a striking example of what Robert Scholes calls the "structuralist imagination."… Instead of reflecting some objective "reality," the fictional work is seen as primarily a word-construct, a self-contained system whose relation to our familiar world is homologous, but in no way necessary or determined by it. Both in theory and in practice, Delany's "speculative fiction" (SF) is structuralist. Delany is a rare combination of imaginative writer and articulate critic. Because both of these operations are informed by the same imagination, they are reflexive, mutually illuminating…. To Delany writing an SF novel is a verbal activity that is simultaneously visionary and analytical. In this sense, his claims (and his works) are far-reaching and revolutionary. Indeed, he turns the tables on the defenders of the "mainstream," for he sees his chosen (and much maligned) genre as the one, among all modern forms, most supremely suited to this structuralist task. (p. 3)
Delany makes a distinction between SF and what he calls, respectively, "naturalistic fiction" and "fantasy." This distinction is drawn in terms that are primarily linguistic (and structuralist), and repays close attention. What differentiates these two modes of fiction is not "truth to life"—which implies some absolute and determined relationship between external "reality" and words—but what Delany calls their "level of subjunctivity": "Subjunctivity is the tension on the thread of meaning that runs between word and object." The various forms are described as inflexions in tense and...
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mood: in fantasy the events "could not have happened"; in naturalistic fiction they "could have happened"; SF is distinguished from these by the fact that events here simply "have not happened." (p. 4)
Delany's work may seem, at first, highly stylized or lushly ornate. This rigidity is merely a facade. All the various verbal screens, the disquisitions on symbolic logic, blend into a basic weave of imagery that is far more dynamic than static. Talk of paradox resolves into paradoxes, these in turn decomposing in ceaseless patterns of thrust and counterthrust. The dynamic nature of Delany's fiction comes from the fact that its central rhythm is not (as with Le Guin) binary alone, but rather continuous shifting between binary and ternary combinations, odds and evens. On all levels it is a fiction of unstable twos and broken threes: one boot, one bare foot, Prince Red's missing socket. Central to this process of change is the pivotal figure of the "intersection"—the point at which some duality, irreconcilable and unstable, intersects with a third term that suspends it. Here, as on a palimpsest (another favorite Delany image), double and triple rhythms are momentarily superimposed. Each of Delany's major novels has its intersection: Babel-17, Goedel's Law, metalogic.
A striking example of intersection—and one which preoccupied Delany the critic long before he incorporated it into the heart of his latest novel, Triton—is that of utopia and "heterotopia": Michel Foucault's "other place," the "shattering" of syntax and fable, the dissolving of the cement that holds the fabric of the known world—words and things—together. (p. 7)
[Delany] sees SF as a mode of writing more akin to poetry than to the traditional realist novel. Each separate word for Delany, as for the symbolists he admires, is precious, the key to some magic world, and a value to be regenerated as it passes through new and more visionary word-systems…. Successively, Delany has turned to two major modes of prose fiction. First, in a series of adventures in time and space culminating in Nova (1968), he embraces the heroic epic. Then, after a period of experimentation which may in the long run prove to be transitional, he turns this basic pattern of the quest in the opposite direction, inward rather than out. If the conventional patterns upon which Nova is built are those of initiation and adventure, Triton (1976) works upon a different base—that of psychological fiction. Pivoting around these two novels, this study examines Delany's fiction at still a different intersection: the point where freedom to deconstruct and reconstruct worlds and the abiding conventional patterns—the narrative of deeds and the narrative of motives—meet and interact. (pp. 8-9)
Contrary to what it may seem, Delany's universe remains a human one. True, Delany has a fascination with cyborgs, catmen, and other para-human forms. Yet there is far more here than what some have seen—a cosmic freak-show. If we look closely, we see that, beneath this surface, the human form divine tenaciously resists—just as at the center of these cultural explosions that lead to the wildest, most far-flung galactic civilizations our own twentieth century earth remains the key. Once again, this relationship between human and nonhuman, man and system, functions as a dynamic series of displacements and balances. Thus the dehumanization of the human form has its counter-thrust…. (p. 10)
The Tides of Lust (1973) and Dhalgren (1975) [are] essentially transitional, elaborate fictional experiments that lead the author in a new fictional direction…. What is explored in these two novels is less the relation of questing man to myth than the relation of myth to the collective mind. This preoccupation is summarized in the statement (central to Tides) that man today has confused Faust and the Devil. From here it is only one step to exploration of a new relation—myth and the inner mind, the quest within of Triton (1976)….
In one sense, [Triton] reads like an elaborate refutation of the existential novel, where even personal 'bravery' becomes little more than a subjective possibility constantly placed at the intersection with some other, indifferent system of logic. Triton also recreates the patterns of traditional psychological fiction, and not just to parody its hero's self-searchings. This is not a case of one form distorting an older one to overthrow it, or render it obsolete. On the contrary, we have intersection, an attempt to build a new mode of fiction upon this tension between two systems of narrative logic—the traditional fabula and its suspension in chaos. Delany has said that the speculative writer should explore, not condemn or condone. In his treatment of the "hero" of Triton, however, he is brought to do both. Here as in Nova he is clearly aiming at creation on the level of system. And yet the very nature of the convention chosen makes this stance more difficult. Tension in this novel approaches the breaking point. (p. 11)
On one hand, Delany's concept of tragedy is expansive: man must avoid the old patterns rather than blindly repeating them; thus he learns they are not binding in any absolute way. On the other, however, his view is contractive, for his heroes still follow the old hard way, the way of tragedy. Man must repeat the patterns that both myth and literary convention have set forth for him. Again, this is not inconsistency but intersection. From it comes that curious tension that gives Delany's best work its fascination and strength. For what he creates, at this point of tautness, is a new world in which the hero is both free and bound. Out of its construction (and his awareness or lack of awareness of his state) new truths about man can perhaps be glimpsed. (p. 12)
[The Fall of the Towers is a trilogy of novels including] Out of The Dead City (originally called Captives of the Flame), The Towers of Toron, and City of a Thousand Suns. Despite certain excesses, Towers is a very accomplished piece of writing…. In terms of the science fiction conventions it exploits, Towers is a highly unusual work. It is billed as space opera…. [Yet it] is not a trilogy in the sense this "genre" calls for—the string of episodes, each written as a self-contained entity, and grouped in progressive fashion to mark off the steps in a hero's or society's development. On the contrary, Towers is clearly one novel—a long, densely-interwoven structure obviously conceived as a whole. Nor is it an "opera"—the usual panorama or "fresco" of colorful characters and events. In fact, all such spatializing terms, with their implication of surface superficiality, are inadequate here. There is, in Towers, a horizontal sweep, but this cross-movement is merely dynamic, not progressive. There is depth as well, not that of character or social analysis, but that of system—interlocking patterns, on many levels, engaged in ceaseless change. (pp. 12-13)
[Delaney] gives us a trilogy that, although it retains [the basic tripartite] pattern, suspends the anthropomorphic vision that traditionally lies behind it. In these three novels, neither heroes nor society evolve in any clear linear pattern. And yet, triads penetrate the texture of the work on all levels. This pattern is exploited for the dynamic ambiguity it contains; such groupings may be as easily stable as unstable…. In his use of the trilogy form, Delany gives us an ironic reflection of this deeper dynamic. The three titles promise a progression: Dead City, Human City, Radiant City. And in a sense, in the fall of the towers, this order is realized: the first two cities—rivals—sink so that the third can be born. Yet, in numerous counter-currents, as these three elements come together in different patterns, such order is lost. As various arrangements are played against each other, we see nothing less than the labyrinth of possibility. (p. 13)
If Fall of the Towers has a fault, it is a too abstract focus on the workings of this system to the exclusion of the flesh and blood people who "function" in it. Characters here are counters, little more than pieces in some great chess game.
Delany's later works, while they continue to explore the dynamics of this human structure, also build upon the individual lives that must give flesh to the system. Gradually, counters become agents, and agents become human beings who feel and suffer. What Delany discovers is that this feeling and suffering becomes a powerful variable in the system. His best fiction creatively exploits a new tension: with one eye, man may see his world as an indifferent construct, a set of patterns; with the other, however, because he remains individual and mortal, man is forced to grasp it in existential terms. (pp. 13-14)
[The] abstract interplay of parts over a vast surface is more an art of arabesque than of narration. It forces us to read Towers less as a story, than a system of relationships. Indeed, what Delany calls "orchestration" occurs primarily on this level. At any given point we find him ordering his patterns on two planes simultaneously—vertical and horizontal…. Roughly, there are two axes in Towers. Vertically, the intersection is situated at the point where reality meets dream—an epistemological intersection. Horizontally, the junction comes at the point where being and becoming, progression and stasis, overlap. We can call this the existential intersection.
The landscape of Towers has a surreal feeling, as if its texture were formed of the constant interpenetration of waking and dreaming states—the familiar world forever intersecting with something that transcends or suspends it…. We cannot determine whether life is a dream, or whether the dream is a mad or a sane one, until we understand how these two elements interact—the system that governs their relationships one to the other. The focus of Delany's "surreal" narrative is less on states (waking or dreaming) than on transitions—the workings of the epistemological processes by which men relate to their universe. (pp. 16-18)
[Towers] is a marvellously constructed work…. If anything, it is over-constructed. What we have essentially is a logician's design, in which both the surreal and human axes converge to expose a problem which is neither epistemological nor existential, but essentially logical in nature. (p. 27)
In Towers the reader sees more of the system than the characters who live it. For us the interplay of change and permanence, order and chaos, would seem to be explained by the triple rhythm: perfection, death, transition…. Delany's characters are only potentially interesting here—in the end, they remain counters in a vast game, puppets in the hands of the Romantic ironist. Still, Towers is a marvelously realized beginning, a work which thoroughly explores the dynamics of a human system. In a series of later novels, Delany will loosen the web, expand upon the minds and feelings of his heroes and heroines as they too "deal with" the random. He moves toward the much more subtle balance of man and system which will mark a work like Nova.
Three novels, Babel-17 (1966), The Einstein Intersection (1967), and Nova (1968), form a whole in Delany's canon and represent what is probably his best work to date. All of these novels are relatively short. In complexity and intricacy of design, however, they equal Towers, and even surpass it in many respects. If the early trilogy remains abstract—an anatomy of the system that underlies human existence on both the individual and collective level—it nonetheless exposes the themes that Delany will explore in the sharper analytical focus of these later works. In Towers, within the coordinates of change and permanence, chaos and order, various relationships appear: language to reality, freedom to order, art to crime or violence. More firmly rooted in the destiny of an individual hero, these themes are given flesh and bones in Babel and its successors.
This deeper probing comes from a change of perspective, most radically visible in Babel. The structure contracts and polarizes around a single point—the individual and his quest. Already the world of Towers is strangely constricted. Its base is an isolated island world. In this small compass all the various functions of the system are potentially there; gradually, as more and more elements interconnect, the microcosm expands to fill a universe of relationships. The base upon which Babel rests is rather different. Here it is the individual man who reaches out to fill the space between himself and another. And the reaching out, this time, is horizontal. The form of this novel, ostensibly, is that of the linear quest.
The patterns of circle and web are of course implicit in the structure of Towers. In each of these new novels, however, they not only dominate, but are dominated by the hero's quest—they have become living, energized forms…. In the three newer novels, the questing hero has become the maker and breaker of webs. This new hero is artist as well as actor. (pp. 28-30)
In Towers, the function of art is merely discussed, in terms of how it orders the randomness of existence, how the pain of that ordering, the experience of order in chaos, in turn destroys the artist. Babel and its two successors act out the process of artistic creation itself. Each follows a similar pattern. On the surface there is action and adventure. Within these conventional forms, however, the accent shifts in a most unconventional manner—away from the external world of deeds toward a much more private battlefield, where the hero struggles to give communicable order to words. In the beginning, in Delany's universe, is the word…. In these novels, the hero discovers his place in the world only when he establishes solid links between word and object…. In these novels, the quest for meaning in a world of verbal multiplicity is simultaneously a search to control the language structure as well. Not only are the webs which are made or broken essentially verbal ones, but the shadow each character casts is primarily a language shadow. Of these, the hero's is merely the biggest and most inclusive. In the same way, his story is the biggest circle. The artist-hero solves his problem, or reaches his goal and closes the circle of action only to open another: he is ready to write the work we have just finished reading. (p. 30)
As with Towers (but to quite different ends), Babel-17 takes a number of stock SF themes and situations and shapes them into a new construct. Old familiar elements are given new functions, and we are prevented from suspending disbelief, and forced to read the tale on a level both ironic and analytical. (pp. 30-1)
Fabulous hero, super-language, the final shedding of light—all these elements belong traditionally to the celebration of reason, the triumph of will. In Babel, however, [Delany] uses the energies of space adventure to probe a contrary notion: the divided state that resulted from just such scientific presumption—the first Babel and the fall that drove men and their languages apart. (p. 31)
Playing on [the] disparity between conventional expectations and fictional reality, Delany manipulates the reader. In Babel, we run the gamut of genres—from epic beginning to tragic middle to comic end. (pp. 31-2)
In accordance with its titular image, Babel conceives of the fall of man primarily in linguistic terms. But here too we have the felix culpa, for differences in language separates men, only to unite them all the more firmly in the end. (p. 32)
In Babel the extremes of Towers—perfection and death—are given a different spatial relationship: that of circle and center. The circle can be both harmony and confinement…. [The] image pattern—the circle with hunger at its core—is mirrored in a second configuration, the web and its weaver or breaker. Again the object stands, simultaneously, for unity and isolation, interconnectedness and entanglement. And at its center is one who joins and cuts—the artist-hero. These two central images structure the complex panorama of Babel-17. (pp. 34-5)
If Babel is not a novel of action, neither is it a novel of fatality, celebrating the web that binds men together despite their will. To control is to name. Thus the webs in Babel are constructs of language; as such, they can either entangle and isolate, or unite. To break this ambiguity of the web, the heroine plunges not into action but into the language system itself. She starts by exposing a web of sabotage, and ends by investigating how webs themselves are made or broken. (p. 39)
Delany's world is clearly fallen. [The] new language may seem the perfect instrument of communication. In its speakerless perfection, however, this seventeenth variation on Babel, far from reuniting men only divides them further…. As an abstraction, Babel-17 is dangerous precisely because it denies that diversity of language that resulted from the fall of the original tower…. Delany's is a fortunate fall, for the necessary condition for unity in this world seems to be the broadest possible diversity—Babelian variety itself. In this novel true union of human beings occurs only where speech centers are most disparate; communication is most creative when tension between the speakers is at a maximum. Each man, in fact, weaves his own language web. To the extent that he knows himself, each is potentially an artist. (p. 40)
The Einstein Intersection (1967) is short, but still a work of extreme complexity and resonance. Like Babel, it is tightly patterned; yet, in its greater suggestive power, its structures resist analysis, forcing the reader to "bite through the shells" of their meanings. Einstein also approaches the human condition on the level of system; but it goes somewhat deeper…. Einstein deals with the fall in terms of … myth. Not only is there a similar profusion and confusion of myths, but they too are seen essentially as language constructs: verbal scenarios for human action sanctioned by tradition or authority. Delany's sense of the language act, in this novel, has a broader social valence. (pp. 42-3)
[Delany seeks] to redefine what is human; instead of physical norms and mythified codes of conduct, there emerges a basic rhythm of existence. In his discussion of the Einstein intersection, Spider describes this rhythm. As he displaces these intersecting explanations of man's relationship to his physical universe into the moral sphere, he himself ironically becomes an example of this dynamic at work…. To establish limits is simultaneously to deny them. Each character finds himself at every minute at this Einstein intersection. In approaching humanity at this level of system, Delany turns the traditional novel of initiation and quest upside down, freeing his narrative from the tyranny of a "realism" that itself is but another myth. In this world of dynamic bipolarities, there is constant "slippage" between coordinates…. If the hero remains on the Einsteinian edge ("which did I choose?") his journey is a linear fact that has forced stable contours to emerge in this seemingly chaotic world. These patterns, we discover, are both familiar and eminently human. (pp. 44-5)
However provocative, Einstein remains (in the structuralist sense) a novel of potentiality: it separates more than it remakes. Moving parallel to the narrative present, but not touching it, are the traditional past and the future promise of form.
To a greater degree, that promise is fulfilled in Nova (1967). Here too is mythical adventure narrated on a "structural" level, a novel aware of itself as literary process and system. In this work, however, Delany broadens both the sweep of action and the structural coordinates themselves. Nova has a genuine diachronic axis, a historical dimension. Past and future provide not only a theoretical but a dynamic, evolutionary frame for the present moment…. Nova is different: the coordinates now are history and system themselves, the intersection falling on individual man in a new position. In earlier novels, to control the world one first had to name himself. Here, on this historical axis, names take on a life of their own: they are hollow masks dropped in the stream of time, the focus of change. A name is worn by a succession of individuals or peoples who discover their own identity in the process of living the one they have inherited. The central question of Nova is: what's in a name? (p. 53)
In its cultivation of paradoxes Nova is highly stylized, to the point almost of preciosity. Yet somehow the adventure story carries it—we experience love, violence, memorable actions. If these two lives balance, it is in a particular way. In developing his tale, Delany has inverted the traditional epic relationship, in which the human subject (the quest) dominates the "form." Here instead is a "subjunctive epic." Men do not struggle against an inhuman system so much as inside an unhuman one. At the extreme limits of patterns indifferent to human values this human "content" is re-introduced and heroic actions re-examined in a context that frees them from the anthropocentrism of views such as "glory" or "absurdity." Everywhere in Nova seekers after meaning or meaninglessness pass beyond to encounter the neutral dynamic of change-in-order. Instead of absurdity they find ambiguity; instead of doubt uncertainty…. Everything in this narrative occurs on the subjunctive level. If man is placed at the center of systems, he is haunted by the possibility that relation between the two (homological or causal) is lacking…. What gives Nova its strength is [its] reaffirmation at the indifferent heart of system of collective human action—not isolated … in the arena of the mind, but bursting into the cosmic one of life and death. (pp. 59-60)
[The Tides of Lust, Dhalgren and Triton] are not inferior to … the Nova cycle, but rather (as Delany might say) "different." Yet even that must be said with reserve, for the patterned dynamics of threes and twos, the intricacies of palimpsest and filagree exposed in the earlier novels are repeated here, complicated in fact to a degree many find intolerable. The question to ask, with a writer of this sophistication, is why these complications, to what end?… These novels investigate less man's relation to linguistic or natural systems than the role he plays as maker of chaos at the heart of a human or social system. Increasingly, Delany places shadowy, uninteresting, dubious beings at the center. (pp. 60-1)
In both Einstein and Nova the realm of action is one of crime and chaos. The compensating order is brought about by art. In these novels the intersection remains the questing hero—Lobey narrates, Lorq's example drives his companions to "speak out of the net." The protagonists of Tides and Dhalgren, however, as artists or examples, are powerless to restore order. In Tides traditional moral opposites, Faust and the Devil, become artist-doubles, alike in their inability to create an artistic whole: on one hand there is the primitive "log" of the Captain, on the other the decadent Proctor "doomed to restoring old work with the energy I want to put toward new." Yet the novel itself, structured from without, is elaborately circular. The ordering of triple themes (sex, time and art) is [artificial and precious]…. The artist remains unconcerned with morality—symmetry comes first. This novel places us not at an intersection but at a split. On a far vaster scale, Dhalgren does the same. Its hero is neither hero nor artist; he is unable to act or create. As protagonist in search of his name, his maze is verbal and mythical (Kidd, the Kid, Apollo and Daphne, Newboy the poet, new boy in town, Grendalgren…). Primarily, however, his labyrinth is moral: the landscape he wanders through is made of the scattered and shifting fragments of one life. Again, we have a highly patterned work, simultaneously circular (the final line joins the first) and linear…. But this form is imposed from without—within there is 900 pages of chaos, the novel as notebook, mirror of a world that is itself the projection of the hero's moral confusion. The burning city is also utopia (everything is free), racial and sexual union is structured but meaningless in terms of values, violence is inconsequential…. Kid enters and retreats; aesthetic balance does not bring us to pass moral judgment but to suspend it. This novel with its "brass orchids" (a poem and a weapon) is Delany's ultimate garland of flowers of evil.
Triton is more problematical—as such it clearly marks a new direction, perhaps (as with Towers) a retreat from preciosity toward the human and tragic implications of man-in-the-system. If so, it turns Nova inside out. There, as man confronts systems he didn't make, heroic vanity and collective action (by sympathy if nothing else) take on positive moral value. If Triton pits a man against his systems, however, it does so from inside—the struggler against nets becomes more than ever their weaver. (pp. 61-2)
The recent Delany himself seems a Triton. On one hand he pursues his arduous career as theoretician of SF—expanding the domain of his chosen genre by claiming it the modern mode of fiction par excellence, the one most suited to deal with the complexities of paradox and probability, chaos, irrationality, and the need for logic and order. On the other he has, in his latest novel, returned creation on the level of system to conventional SF space, and in doing so raised the problem of returning man as moral center of an overwrought universe. It is this split that runs through our "literature of exhaustion" in general. Let us hope that here, at this intersection of descriptive system and moral judgment, there will be fusion, some new form of dynamic creation. (p. 63)
George Edgar Slusser, in his The Delany Intersection: Samuel R. Delaney Considered As a Writer of Semi-Precious Words (copyright © 1977 by George Edgar Slusser), The Borgo Press, 1977, 64 p.
Drawing themes out of Samuel Delany's story collection Driftglass is made much more difficult by the author's preoccupation … with texture, immediacy, being-not-meaning. Just occasionally this leads to a sort of sentimentality—the self-selecting singers who make spontaneous poetry for the masses and never go commercial, the nice adventurers who relate mysteriously to the natives wherever they go and never get taken for tourists. But these icons of dropout piety are superficial reader pleasers…. The stories make their impact through an immense zest for complication and an unrivalled ability to crystallize this in scenes, people, and objects.
T. A. Shippey, "Natural Alternatives," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd (London) 1978; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3976, June 16, 1978, p. 662.∗
The book in question is Delany's collection of critical essays and reviews called The Jewel-Hinged Jaw; Notes of the Language of Science Fiction…. [Grammatical,] stylistic and factual howlers [abound]…. But when one actually experiences the clotted precocity of his prose,… [with] its uneasy condescension and agglutinative gumminess, then the multitude of typos and other errors does seem more forgiveable, because translatorese is always hard to get a grip on; the Rube Goldberg unworkableness of much of the writing in this book, especially in the earlier and middle essays collected, does in fact make the task of winkling out paraphrasable content almost impossible…. Ultimately I failed…. I could not even patch together an adequate sense of what I had failed to understand; after all, as Delany does say in a clear moment, style and content are intersecting models of one another. I'm paraphrasing him. At the heart of this failure of mine—beyond the word-deaf gaucheries of the style, beyond the intrusive self-congratulatory garish foregrounding of the auctorial voice with all its morose cheeriness and duckpond aggro—lay a sense that when I did think I understood the terms and assumptions shaping a paragraph, by the dint of a lot of deconstruction work, what I was left with was a kind of shambles strewn with disqualified data and beheaded arguments, a spastic Guernica. (pp. 45-6)
Bits of the arguments about the nature of sf as opposed to "mundane" literature, though tendentious and embarrassing in their attempts to restrict the imaginative scope theoretically realizable within a "mundane" text, are at least arousing. And the late long essay on Ursula K. Le Guin's The Dispossessed (1974) is a brilliant demolition job. Delany is at his best when he's forced to stick close to a given text…. (pp. 48-9)
John Clute, "Books: 'The Jewel-Hinged Jaw; Notes of the Language of Science Fiction'," in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (© 1978 by Mercury Press, Inc.; reprinted from The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction), Vol. 56, No. 1, January, 1979, pp. 45-9.
"Tales of Nevèrÿon" strikes me as superb science fiction, although it deals with an ancient civilization, vaguely Mediterranean in flavor and presumably antecedent to the Sumerians, Egyptians and so on. As in his earlier science-fiction novels …, Mr. Delany explores the ways in which politics and economics affect our sense of identity, as expressed in art, sex and other forms of play.
His principal characters … are memorable. But Mr. Delany never makes the mistake of treating them as autonomous. They exist, as all characters in science fiction and fantasy must, as reflections of the world they inhabit. And because that world itself is a creation of the author, we are never very far from the realization that this story, like all stories, is simply a string of words, whose relation to "reality" is always problematical. Mr. Delany confronts this issue directly in an appendix, which "explains" that the tales of [his fictive] Nevèrÿon are an expansion of a 900-word "narrative fragment" called the Culhar' Text, which may be the oldest written document ever discovered.
The reader will do well to question at least some of the "facts" cited in this appendix. In doing so, the reader may pause to wonder about the possibility of separating fact from fiction in any archeological recreation of the beginning of civilization. At this point, he may conclude that the "science" in science fiction is not always what it seems—a fruitful insight that may, all by itself, justify the arbitrary genre label. (pp. 16, 18)
Gerald Jonas, "Science Fiction: 'Tales of Nevèrÿon'," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 28, 1979, pp. 16, 18.