Samuel R. Delany Delany, Samuel R. (Vol. 14) - Essay


(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" fictions. He has been awarded science fiction's Nebula Award four times. (See also CLC, Vol. 8, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 81-84.)

Michael Goodwin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.∗

George Edgar Slusser

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 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...

(The entire section is 4518 words.)

T. A. Shippey

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.∗

John Clute

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Gerald Jonas

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

"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.