Samuel R. Delany Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

In many of his works, Samuel R. Delany explores the way in which preconceptions affect perceptions. How do the heroes come to realize that their perceptions may be at fault? Why might Delany consider this an important moment?

Delany’s work often uses a quest structure, in which a physically or psychically damaged protagonist attempts to find a way to reverse that damage. How does that structure work— for or against the story—in Dhalgren?

Why does Delany use a genre form, the fantasy story, in his Neveryon series? What phenomena does using it allow him to explore? What assumptions are automatically made in a fantasy story that Delany uses in the books?

In Atlantis: Three Tales, why are all three protagonists named Sam? What similarities do they possess, and how do those similarities help them reach their final conclusions?

Why, in Triton, does Delany deliberately use an antihero? What characteristics of Bron does he not want the reader to identify with? How would a traditional hero have acted differently?

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Samuel R. Delany has produced more than a dozen novels, including Hogg (1993), They Fly at Çiron (1993), and The Mad Man (1994), and a relatively small body of highly acclaimed short fiction. He has worked primarily in science fiction and fantasy, but all his fiction is known for its intricate literary qualities. His work has been translated into many languages and is internationally renowned. Delany’s memoirs, especially The Motion of Light in Water: Sex and Science Fiction Writing in the East Village, 1957-1965 (1988), provide insight into his formative writing years. His nonfiction works include Shorter Views: Queer Thoughts and the Politics of the Paraliterary (1999) and Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (1999).


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Throughout Samuel R. Delany’s career, his work has been recognized as far above the level of “pulp” science fiction. Many of his novels and short stories have been nominated for Nebula or Hugo awards, including The Ballad of Beta-2 (1965), “The Star Pit” (1966), “Driftglass” (1971), Nova (1968), Dhalgren (1975), Triton (1976), and Prismatica (1977). The Einstein Intersection (1967), “Aye, and Gomorrah” (1967), and “Time Considered as a Helix of Semiprecious Stones” (1969) won the Nebula Award. “Time Considered as a Helix of Semiprecious Stones” also won a Hugo Award. In 1980, Delany was honored with an American Book Award nomination for his Tales of Nevèrÿon, and he was given the Science Fiction Research Association’s Pilgrim Award in 1985. The Motion of Light in Water was awarded a Hugo Award for Nonfiction in 1989, and in 1996 he received the Lambda Literary Award in Science Fiction and Fantasy for Altantis. In 1993, Delany received the William Whitehead Memorial Award for a Lifetime Contribution to Gay and Lesbian Literature.

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Samuel R. Delany is known for his work in a number of literary forms other than the novel, including the short story, autobiography, and, most notably, literary criticism and theory. Delany’s short stories have been collected in Driftglass: Ten Tales of Speculative Fiction (1971), and some have been reprinted along with new stories in Distant Stars (1981). Heavenly Breakfast: An Essay on the Winter of Love (1979) is a memoir describing Delany’s experiences as a member of a commune in New York. The Motion of Light in Water: Sex and Science-Fiction Writing in the East Village, 1957-1965 (1988) is an autobiography covering Delany’s youth and the early part of his writing career.

Delany has also published a number of important essays on science fiction, some of which have been collected in The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction (1977), Starboard Wine: More Notes on the Language of Science Fiction (1984), The Straits of Messina (1987), and Longer Views (1996). In addition to other, uncollected essays, introductions, and speeches, Delany has written The American Shore: Meditations on a Tale of Science Fiction by Thomas M. Disch (1978), a structuralist-semiotic study of Disch’s short story “Angouleme,” and Silent Interviews (1994), a collection of what Delany calls “written interviews.” With his then-wife Marilyn Hacker, Delany coedited the journal Quark: A Quarterly of Speculative Fiction in 1970-1971. He has also written for comic books, including a large-format “visual novel,” Empire (1978), and he made two experimental films, Tiresias (1970) and The Orchid (1971).


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Samuel R. Delany is one of a handful of science-fiction writers to have been recognized by the academic community as well as by authors and fans of the genre. Unlike such similarly successful figures as Kurt Vonnegut and Margaret Atwood, however, who refuse to accept the “science fiction” label for their relevant work, Delany has always been a vigorous defender and promoter of genre fiction in general and science fiction in particular. In his criticism as well as in his practice, he has continually stressed the importance of care, thought, and craft in writing. His own work, like that of those writers he most consistently praises (including Joanna Russ, Thomas Disch, and Roger Zelazny), is marked by its attention to language and its concern with issues other than science and technology, particularly with the roles of language and myth in society and the potential of and constraints on human behavior within different social constructs.

Delany’s own background informs these social concerns: One of a handful of African American science-fiction writers, he also developed an intense interest in sexuality by virtue of his own homosexuality. His criticism and his fiction writing converged over the years, as Delany sought to incorporate his theoretical interests and insights into his fiction and further develop them in that practical context, using both activities to inform his teaching of creative writing. Although the intense intellectualism of Delany’s theoretical investigations alienated many of the fans of his early, more colorful fiction, he gained other readers by way of compensation. He has long been one of the foremost contemporary writers, theoreticians, and critics of science fiction, and he successfully expanded this interest in the latter part of his career to wider enterprises in literary theory and more varied literary endeavors.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Barbour, Douglas. Worlds Out of Words: The SF Novels of Samuel R. Delany. London: Bran’s Head Books, 1979. This fairly early critique of Delany’s works gives a brief biography of Delany and a general discussion of his works, before concentrating on different aspects such as cultural, literary, and mythological allusions and some individual works. Includes notes and primary bibliography.

Dery, Mark. “Black to the Future: Interviews with Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate, and Tricia Rose.” The South Atlantic Quarterly 92 (Fall, 1993): 735-778. Examines why so few African Americans write science fiction, since it is a genre in which encounters with the Other are central; discusses these matters with Delany and others.

Fox, Robert Elliot. Conscientious Sorcerers: The Black Postmodernist Fiction of LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka, Ishmael Reed, and Samuel R. Delany. New York: Greenwood Press, 1987. Fox’s text is useful for comparing and contrasting Delany’s writing with that of his contemporaries in black fiction. Despite the gulf between their genres, Fox manages to find some similarity in the styles and subjects of these writers. Contains bibliographical information and an index.

Freedman, Carl. Critical Theory and Science Fiction. Hanover, N.H.: Wesleyan University Press, 2000. One chapter is devoted to a reading of Stars in My Pockets Like Grains of Sand.

Gawron, Jean Mark. Introduction to Dhalgren, by Samuel R. Delany. Reprint. Boston: Gregg Press, 1977. Gawron’s forty-three-page introduction to this edition is an excellent starting point for readers wishing to deal with the complexities...

(The entire section is 733 words.)