Samuel R. Delany 1942-
(Full name Samuel Ray Delany, Jr.; has also written under pseudonym K. Leslie Steiner) American novelist, short story writer, critic, essayist, and memoirist.
The following entry presents an overview of Delany's career through 1999. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 8, 14, and 38.
Widely regarded as one of the most important science fiction writers of his generation, Delany was the first African American to earn acclaim in the genre. In works such as Babel-17 (1966), Dhalgren (1975), and his four-volume Nevèrÿon series, he established his reputation as a challenging author whose ambitious texts featured sophisticated commentary on gender, sexuality, and race. His protagonists are often artist-criminals who are able to view the world as marginalized outsiders, a perspective Delany has shared as a black, dyslexic homosexual. Both Delany's fiction and criticism reveal his preoccupation with semiotics and postmodern theory, including his belief that language constitutes, rather than reflects, reality. His theoretical approach to writing and his radical, often controversial and explicitly pornographic texts, have broadened the parameters of traditional science fiction.
Born in Harlem, New York, to a prosperous funeral home director, Delany enjoyed a relatively privileged childhood. He attended the Dalton School and the Bronx High School of Science, where he studied physics and mathematics. He began writing stories and essays at an early age and also showed talent as a musician, composing a violin concerto at age fourteen. Always a good student, Delany found English and spelling difficult; it was not until high school that his dyslexia was diagnosed. As a high school sophomore he won several awards for his writing and co-edited the school magazine with Marilyn Hacker, a poet and editor whom he married in 1961. In 1960 Delany received a fellowship to the Bread Loaf Writer's Conference in Vermont, where he met Robert Frost. He briefly attended the City College of New York, but never completed a college degree. Hacker was instrumental in the publication of his first novel, The Jewels of Aptor (1962), and by age twenty-two Delany had published four more novels. At the age of twenty-three, Delany, who had thoughts of suicide, was hospitalized and treated at a psychiatric facility. Delany subsequently lived in the Heavenly Breakfast commune and spent his time writing and performing music with a rock band of the same name. From 1970-71, Delany and Hacker co-edited the first four issues of Quark, an avant-garde literary journal. In 1972 Delaney joined his wife in London, where their daughter Iva was born in 1974. In 1973 he published The Tides of Lust, a pornographic novel that suggested the direction of his next several works. Though Delany had long engaged in sexual liaisons with partners of both sexes, he eventually came to accept his identity as a gay man. He and his wife divorced in 1975, though they remained close friends and colleagues and shared parental responsibilities for their daughter. In 1979, Delany published Tales of Nevèrÿon, an American Book Award nominee and the first of the four works that comprise his Nevèrÿon series. In 1977, Delaney produced The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, the first of his acclaimed works of criticism, followed by The American Shore (1978), Starboard Wine (1984), The Straits of Messina (1989), and Silent Interviews (1994), a volume of revised interviews. Many of his critical pieces have appeared in various publications, but remain uncollected. Delany won Nebula awards for Babel-17 and The Einstein Intersection (1967), as well as for the short stories “Aye and Gomorrah” (1967) and “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones” (1969), also the recipient of a Hugo award in 1970. Delany received the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association in 1985 and the Bill Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement in Gay Literature in 1993. He has also had a distinguished academic career, including appointments at the State University of New York, Buffalo (1975), the Center for Twentieth Century Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee (1977), and at the Society for the Humanities at Cornell University (1987). Since 1988 Delany has been professor of comparative literature at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
Writing and thinking on the far edge of the margin, one of Delany's expressed objectives has been to use the power of language to diffuse the central role that convention plays in both literature and society. While his work is diverse and indicative of formidable intellect and originality, much of his fiction represents the progress of his thinking and its translation into art. Babel-17 is an unconventional space opera that features a female poet protagonist, a world-threatening weapon that is an enigmatic language, and a villain that is a concept—the inability to communicate—rather than a person. Through the action-packed adventures of Rydra Wong, the novel investigates the impact of language and linguistic difference on societal and individual behavior, and concurrently explores the linguistic potential of all science fiction literature. The Einstein Intersection is set on Earth far in the future, where a new breed of beings is struggling to impose order on their universe. Among them is protagonist Lo Lobey, a musician like the mythological Orpheus, but whose instrument can not only make music, but can kill. He stumbles through a maze of choices that only in retrospect are seen as mythic patterns that must be confronted and understood or conquered before he and his world can be free. The new society, ruled by Gödel's theorem, requires decision-making governed by irrational choice—as opposed to logic—and reliance on the mythic archetypes of the past. To a greater extent than in his previous works, sexual politics play a pivotal role in both Dhalgren and the novel that immediately followed it, Triton (1976). Dhalgren, noted for its difficulty and graphic sexual content, is set in the city of Bellona, which has been deserted in the wake of an unexplained disaster. The protagonist, an amnesiac and mental patient eventually known as Kid, undertakes a pilgrimage to attain salvation for Bellona and self-awareness for himself. By the end of the book Kid has developed a persona defined by his experiences. Typical of Delany's fiction, the novel ends in ambiguity, requiring that the reader determine the outcome from all the possibilities presented by the fragments related in the novel. In Triton Delany creates an unlikable protagonist, Bron Hellstrom, who inhabits a world of ambiguous sexuality where surgery for sexual preference, race, or gender is a common occurrence. Delany deconstructs the traditional notion of utopia in this work and, characteristically, refuses to provide closure, signifying that an ideal world in which sexual differences are not only accepted, but expected, cannot be fully rendered. Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984) is a love story set in a world where intelligent life forms are referred to by feminine pronouns, while masculine pronouns refer to beings that excite one sexually. The lovers are men who are literally from different worlds. They participate in a dragon hunt, the object of which is not to slay the dragon, but to become subsumed, if only for an instant, into the consciousness of an alien being, thus bringing about a modicum of understanding of this “other.” The novel contrasts extreme degradation and misery, including radical forms of slavery, with astonishing joy and grandeur, indicating that nothing in present experience can prepare individuals for grasping the possibilities inherent at either end of such a continuum. In Tales of Nevèrÿon and its three companion works, Neveryóna (1983), Flight from Nevèrÿon (1985), and The Bridge of Lost Desire (1987), Delany examines the intersection of language and power and explores behavior ranging from the sexual to the cultural. The series as a whole explores slavery in a context far beyond the North American experience, making clear that masters themselves can become slaves by the choices they make. Delany has written two memoirs, Heavenly Breakfast (1979) and The Motion of Light in Water (1988), which discusses his realization of his gay identity. During the later 1990s, Delany published Atlantis (1995), a collection of short stories, Longer Views (1996), a collection of essays, and Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (1999), a volume of essays on the sexual underworld of Times Square prior to its gentrification under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.
Delany is recognized as a leading voice in contemporary science fiction, and one who has pushed the limits of the genre with his complex works. Though his admirers regard him as a major American writer, he remains unknown to many readers outside of the science fiction community. It is Delany's provocative imagination, uninhibited eroticism, and deep concern with linguistics, mythology, and cultural theory that distinguishes his “paraliterary” writing from other practitioners of science fiction. His major works, notably Babel-17, The Einstein Intersection, Dhalgren, and the Nevèrÿon series, are regarded as science fiction classics, with Dhalgren standing as his most controversial work. While Delany's supporters commend the complexity and indeterminacy of his fiction, others have found his narrative and linguistic experiments confounding and overly ambiguous. Because he is primarily concerned with sociocultural mores rather than hard science, some critics consider his novels brilliant failures as science fiction, while others regard his work as “quantum fiction.” As many scholars observe, Delany's writing is largely informed by the thinking of French theorists Derrida, Lacan, Levi-Strauss, and Foucault. Even the most approachable of Delany's works challenge the reader's intellect and demand that one examine his or her social beliefs, particularly by recognizing the linguistic and cultural structures that inform and maintain such assumptions. Delany's application and interpretation of such difficult theoretical concerns has also won him admiration as a critic. Over the last four decades, Delany has earned respect for his continual artistic quest and his determination to challenge parochial thinking and to broaden acceptance of difference—whether sexual, racial, or gender-based.