Roundtable on Samuel R. Delany, Grand Master
In December 2013, Samuel R. Delany was named Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master by SFWA. Delany has influenced science-fiction and fantasy, and literature in general, in different ways—as fiction writer, critic, theorist, memoirist, editor, teacher. How has Delany influenced your own work or views on writing and literature? For readers who haven’t read much by Delany, is there such a thing as a Delany “gateway” story, novel or essay?
As someone who got to support Steven Gould in his choice of Delany, I’d like to start off by saying, “Yay!”
I’m embarrassed to admit that I haven’t read much of his fiction—some of the Neveryon stuff, and a few short stories, but little else so far. I did, however, use About Writing and The Jewel-Hinged Jaw as textbooks for a course I taught this past summer, on speculative fiction creative writing. My students were all twelve, which most people would say is too young for Delany… but it was part of Duke’s TIP program for gifted students, and we were told to design our syllabi like entry-level college courses, crammed into three weeks. So I thought, if I’m going to melt my students’ brains into goo, I might as well melt them with the best!
Delany has been a great influencer of my worldview and of my work since I started, writing in Portuguese in the late eighties, and now more than ever (I had the supreme honor and pleasure of having him as my instructor last July at Clarion West in Seattle, for crying out loud–it doesn’t get much better than this). He inspired me to write in a non-linear way (but never forgetting to tell a story, or stories) and to write in different POVs, genderwise. My gateway drug to Delany was Aye, and Gomorrah in my late twenties, and then Babel-17. Speaking of non-fiction, I’d strongly recommend About Writing, but recently I read Conversations with Samuel R. Delany, edited by Carl Freedman, and it was the most delightful reading I had in a while.
Delany’s The Fall of the Towers was the first adult SF I ever read. My father brought it back from an airport PB rack and I must have read it five or six times in my teens.
His book About Writing has been tremendously useful to me and when stuck I sometimes do what he calls “writing to discover,” focusing on transcribing the moment in the story and letting the act of transcribing tell me what comes next.
As far as gateway—I love Nova, Babel-17, and The Fall of the Towers. I consider his Neveryon books important to fantasy–perhaps even paving the way for the “grittier” generations to come, but they’re something to be sampled separately from the SF.
Delany is amazing. Moments in his writing blow me away, make me stop and marvel how he’s constructed them. He awes me with his virtuosity and courage in writing.
As a sidenote, I got to read with him in New York a few years back. That was one of the top ten occasions of my life. Thrilling!
Chip is an amazing person. He reads beautifully, and he’s charming and funny. I should add that he can also deconstruct most completely your story while being warm, witty, and encouraging. With that formidable white beard of his, he should also be named Zeus of the Grand Masters’ Pantheon!
Nowadays I frequently teach “Aye, and Gomorrah…”, and use Dhalgren as well for teaching purposes. There is no novel more central to my experience of science fiction or of writing. I can’t really put it any better than I did back in 1999 (!), reviewing a reissue of The Einstein Intersection for The New York Review of Science Fiction:
“When I was a teenager growing up in the geographic and temporal suburb of the 70s, a voracious reader of all things science fictional, with aspirations of breaking into the field myself one day, no writer loomed larger in my private pantheon of SF gods than Samuel R. Delany. I knew next to nothing about him. It was enough that he—and his books—existed. My friends and I invoked his surname with the kind of reverential awe kids our age normally reserved for rock stars. And in fact Delany was a rock star to us, right up there with other one-named wonders like Hendrix and Bowie. Not just because he was young and hip and wrote about sex and drugs in ways guaranteed to piss off our parents. There was a supremely musical quality to his prose such as I had never before encountered or even imagined possible. His style was incisive, poetic, complex, allusive and elusive, alive with swirling, clashing melodies woven layer upon layer. It was beautiful, disturbing, hallucinatory. It was also, and somehow most of all, a miracle of translucence able to communicate, as if effortlessly, truths beyond the everyday capacity of language to convey or of reason to comprehend. At least my language, my reason. It rocked.”
I love Delany’s short stories, especially “Aye, and Gomorrah…”, which as story and as part of Dangerous Visions has had an enormous influence on me becoming an editor. It showed me that sexuality and gender could be fruitfully explored in a field that at the time was not doing so.
I also love Dhalgren, which entranced me when I read it in my early 20s.
My intro to Delany was The Einstein Intersection. It wasn’t so much what he was writing about as how he was writing about it. What he could do with words was like some kind of magic. At the time I was reading a lot of Nabokov, which had been perfect preparation for my early Delany encounters. Right away I picked up the Signet short story collection, Driftglass. Just stunningly good. Then it was on to Nova and others. Delany became a major influence on my own writing method. His essay on process, which first appeared in Those Who Can (writers who were also teachers) provided validation for what I considered my own angsty, self-doubting approach. Delany was all for doubt. It made you better. And the way he talked about finding the exactly right arrangement of words and how that sharpened the writer’s interior vision—this was great stuff.
I keep returning to where I started with Delany, the stories in his collection Driftglass. I was only 7 years old when that volume came out in 1971, so I read it much later, in my 20s. I remember scanning the table of contents, slowing down quickly as I began to read the titles aloud: “Aye, and Gomorrah…”, “Time Considered as a Helix of Semiprecious Stones”, “We, in Some Strange Power’s Employ, Move on a Rigorous Line”.
Then I turned to the story openings, my favorite of which is still the unforgettable “High Weir” (“Boiled potatoes! My God, boiled potatoes!”), with “Time Considered as a Helix” right behind. It begins: “Lay ordinate and abscissa on the century. Now cut me a quadrant. Third quadrant if you please. I was born in ’fifty. Here it is ’seventy-five.”
That collection still reads like the state of the art, and its range, wit, priorities, and cadences still inspire me.
Just behind that collection, in terms of its personal impact, is Delany’s memoir The Motion of Light in Water, as beautiful and brave as the fiction. I want to put in a plug, too, for the Quark anthologies co-edited by Delany and Marilyn Hacker, which never have gotten their due. His non-fiction collection Silent Interviews is a trove of inspiration. Well, I could name all the books, of course. They’re all troves of inspiration.
When I was in graduate school at North Carolina State, Delany came to campus to do a reading, and John Kessel loomed over my cubicle wall that morning and said, “You want to go to lunch with me and Chip Delany?” Guess what my answer was. Just guess. I joined them, but I don’t remember saying anything, or eating anything. I just gaped at Delany, amazed that anyone could be so off-the-cuff brilliant and simultaneously relaxed, conversational, and charming. I still gape at him. Delany is an excellent illustration of Joe and Gay Haldeman’s rule of convention panels: Decide what to attend based not on the topic, but on the panelists. If “Uncle Chip,” as I think of him, is on the panel, then I go. He seems not only to have read everything, but to have thought about all of it, and to have seen how it’s all connected.
Delany’s novel Empire Star ends this way: “In this vast multiplex universe there are almost as many worlds called Rhys as there are places called Brooklyn Bridge. It’s a beginning. It’s an end. I leave to you the problem of ordering your perceptions and making the journey from one to the other.” To me, that passage encapsulates part of Delany’s necessity. He’s a happy, multiplex citizen of our multiplex universe, and he leaves us such glorious problems to work on!
Karen Joy Fowler
I also started with Driftglass. I loved those stories; they were some of the first science fiction I ever read and I thought that I hadn’t understood before how close to poetry science fiction was in its precision and its sweep. I never worked with Delany, but I took a class from Stan Robinson who had him as a Clarion instructor so I got a lot of great Chip advice channeled through the inestimable Robinson. I remember reading an interview with him in Science Fiction Eye after I’d begun to publish and finding the parts I understood to be awesome and the parts I didn’t understand to be awesome too in ways I didn’t understand. When I finally met him, he turned out not to be scary at all! He talked to me about some of the contemporary writers he particularly admired (hello, Nancy Kress) and it was wonderful to see how attentive and generous he was to other writers. Smart, well we all knew that, but also lively and funny and one hell of a mafia player.
I remember reading Delany pretty much in order as the Ace novels appeared. I was a college undergrad and understood that he was only a couple years older than I was, but that didn’t seem like a big deal at the time. A half-century later (and with several decades spent looking over my wife’s shoulder at undergraduate creative-writing work), I’m amazed. Musicians and mathematicians peak early, but I’ve come to expect very young writers to produce work lacking in both substance and chops. Delany came on like a Charlie Parker or Charlie Christian, with no (visible) fumbling apprenticeship period. He did wonderful, surprising things with familiar tropes. I followed the fiction right up to Dahlgren, which stopped me cold, twice. I did enjoy Triton, but the fiction that followed just didn’t do anything for me. I’m not sure what I would discover about either the books I enjoyed or the ones I bounced off were I to revisit them now. Various insights and observations from the essays have long since been field-stripped, sorted, and stowed in the toolbox with the serial numbers filed off. Seems very appropriate that his Grand Master title includes the name of another always-surprising and critically-inventive writer (whose analytical gadgets are also in that toolbox jumble).
I picked up all of Delany’s Ace Books one by one as they appeared, most from a newsstand in a subway station in what used to be Scolley Square in Boston, from The Jewels of Aptor on, and became more impressed with every one. There was nothing else like them being done in the science fiction of the day. I remember staying up all night to finish The Fall of the Towers trilogy, and still think it’s a great work, and too-little read today, even by Delany fans. “Driftglass” remains one of my favorite SF stories ever. By the time Nova came out, I was in complete agreement with A.J. Budrys that Delany was the best science fiction writer in the world.
Given that Delany was so wonderful when a young writer, what happened? Why have his later books proven to be so problematic? Have we, as readers, simply not been able to keep up with him? Or did his prodigious intellectuality gradually inhibit anything resembling conventional storytelling? His career—prodigy, master, academic, grand old man—isn’t all that unusual, except that he and most of science fiction diverged and have never, it would seem, really come back together again. Chip is admired, envied and loved, but his later books don’t seem to be much read. Perhaps they’re simply too difficult or tendentious. I don’t really know. But it must be hard when people only to want to talk about the stuff you wrote when you were in your twenties and thirties.
Delany was the reason I decided to write SF. I read Dhalgren when it first came out in 1974 and realized that science fiction could be so much more than I’d imagined—I was a fan of SF movies and Judith Merrill’s anthologies, but hadn’t grown up on Heinlein juveniles or the like. Dhalgren blew my mind, as we said back in the day. I then went and read everything I could find by Delany, and kept up with each new novel as it was published, as well as with The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, one of the best non-fiction works ever written on the genre. As far as a gateway work, I’d go with the stories in Driftglass, though any ambitious reader can’t go wrong with Dhalgren or Trouble on Triton.
What Paul Witcover said. I’ll add to that the fact that I first met Paul in 1980, when we bonded over our shared love of Delany’s work. No better way to meet and begin a 34-year-long collaborative friendship.
I think Dhalgren is the turning point. Those who were into his work before Dhalgren tended to react less well to it afterward; those who started with Dhalgren perhaps had less difficulty with and more appreciation for his later work. Like Russell, Dhalgren stopped me cold two or three times, and I never did finish it. There were things I liked about his later SF novels, like Triton, but I can’t honestly say I appreciated them as much as I appreciated some of his earlier stuff, and if I’d hit Dhalgren or even Triton first, without having read the early stuff, I don’t know how much of a Delany fan I would have become. (I never got into the Neveryon books either.)
I think a clue to what changed can be seen in Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. The first half of that book is paced like a runaway freight-train, as headlong and exciting as anything Delany ever wrote, and I remember thinking “Wow, the old Delany is back!” The second half of the book slows way, way down, and tends to get bogged down in minutia. A lot of what a lot of us liked about early Delany is that he mated headlong adventure pacing and storytelling with more complex and sophisticated content. Later on, he pretty much gave up on that.
I’m probably the odd exception in this list in that I’m equally a fan of both ends of Chip’s SF work (both early and late—middle too if there is a middle) as well as his post-SF work, and feel that, despite the obvious and profound differences between the two, there are some real points of continuity as well (philosophically, in terms of interest in language, in terms of the approach to gender and sexuality, etc.). I tend to feel that each side of his work informs the other in a way that gives it more intensity and depth, and that the more widely you read in Delany’s body of work, the harder it is not to admire him.
The book I came to first was Babel-17, and I still remain fond of it, though I don’t think it’s the best of those early books. I do think that Gardner’s right and that Dhalgren is a turning point, and one’s response to it is probably a pretty good indicator of what one is likely to think of the work that follows. At the same time I’d like to think that there are more people like me out there, people who think of Delany’s work as representing a worthwhile continuity from beginning to end—even if moments of that continuity are challenging reads indeed.
I think the short stories now gathered in Aye, and Gomorrah are terrific, and I find myself going back to my favorites among them often (including, like Ellen, that title story). I’m teaching his “Some Notes for the Intermediate and Advanced Creative Writing Student” in my Form and Theory of Narrative class this semester, and teach it or other parts of About Writing often. I re-read and reviewed Hogg when it was reprinted a few years ago and still found it an incredibly tough book, but also think it’s the kind of book that is much harder on you if you get halfway through it and don’t finish it than if you work your way through to the end. It’s the kind of book that I admire despite still feeling its claw marks on me. I also am glad that Chip wrote it so that I didn’t feel that I had to do it myself. Very fond in a strange, prickly way of Phallos and The Mad Man as well, and see a kind of bridge between Dhalgren and The Mad Man in terms of connecting the SF and the non-SF work. But I’m just as happy reading The Ballad of Beta-2 or Empire Star or Nova. And like Andy, The Motion of Light in Water had a big impact on me. I was surprised by Dark Reflections, which strikes me as quite different from Delany’s other work, wonderfully ruminative. And I was very privileged both to be one of the dedicatees for Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders and to introduce Chip when he read from it at Saint Marks Bookstore.
For me personally, it’s been the range of the work that’s been important, and the idea that you don’t have to just keep writing in the way you begin. Delany’s had many shifts as a writer, gaining and losing portions of his audience along the way, but as I say, I think that if you spend enough time with the work it feels less and less like it should be corralled into different camps or periods and more like a continuity. He started as an SF writer and then took his concerns into other arenas; I saw that as encouragement to let me know I could do the reverse.
I’d go on to talk about how Chip is one of the kindest people I’ve met (which is in fact true), but then it starts to sound too much like a eulogy. I’m going to insist on a few more books from him before I get out the shovel. 🙂
I agree that “Aye, and Gomorrah…” is a great place to start.
I really have a lot of affection for Trouble on Triton which I think is very accessible, but I would warn readers who are considering picking it up for the first time to be prepared for poor treatment of trans issues; it plays off of the discredited idea of autogynephilia.
It was an accident but culpable for anyone seriously interested in SF, but I am still waiting to read Chip properly, to go back to the beginning decade and immerse, and then climb onwards. Dhalgren blindsided me with information overload, perhaps through its agglutinations, and I was maybe too old for that city. The kid left behind in Hamelin by the Piper, my loss. Chip himself I’ve known for more than 40 years, in various turns of the kaleidoscope of his life, and cherish each of those times, and will see him again this side of.
Gardner’s is an interesting point. I started with Dhalgren and loved Triton, but when I worked backwards and read the early novels, I thought they were thin and found them far less appealing. I’m not sure I would have started with them and kept reading. I first read Dhalgren when I was seventeen and still in high school, so it was definitely aspirational reading (with a LOT of graphic sex). But there was genuine mystery there, too, and I loved trying to tease meaning from the story. Most of all, Delany’s fictional Bellona remains an urban landscape nearly as vivid to me as anything I’ve encountered in the real world. It’s an amazing achievement.
I loved Stars in My Pocket and was always sorry he never completed the sequence—although the hardcover copy I read was missing a signature (a bound-in section of pages, for those of you too young to remember carbon-based books), and it took me a while to figure out a whole chunk of the novel was missing. I thought the fractured storyline was a narrative experiment!
I could never get into the Neveryon books. I diligently read them, but found them deadly boring.
Paul Graham Raven
Apart from the canonical few anthologised shorts, I found Delany very late. In truth, my first extended encounter with him was About Writing, which Farah had put on the preliminary reading list of my Masters course; when it turned up, I originally planned to just dip into it, but ended up pretty much reading it end to end over the course of a week. All of the individual pieces are fine things in and of themselves, but collected together they form something that feels like a form of autobiography, and I think it was the sense of an incredibly fascinating, gentle and profound person slowly revealing themselves while seemingly talking about something else entirely that pulled me through the whole thing.
(I couldn’t write a word for weeks afterwards, ironically enough. No sugar coating on those pills.)
Since then I’ve read Triton, and made two assaults on Mount Dhalgren, neither to completion; it’s an odd book, you’ve got to be in the right sort of headspace to even be able to navigate the text (a headspace much like Bellona itself, in fact), and I have yet to return with sufficient time (and bottled oxygen) for the final ascent. But this thread’s a handy reminder that there’s a rich trove of Delany books that I have yet to read and will likely enjoy, whenever I next get a period in my life when I can read whatever the hell I want for its own sake….
*eyes PhD schedule* *whimpers slightly*
Guy Gavriel Kay
Dhalgren may be one of a very small category of books where you must read them young (I did) but you can’t read them young. The impact received by a teen is not the impact delivered, and later, too many other things intervene. I remember being blown away, but am not sure now how that took place and it didn’t leave footprints, only a lingering aura.
Paul Graham Raven
Yeah, I can see that; sorta like how each generation has its important albums, and you can appreciate the earlier ones when you discover them later (I didn’t really discover Pink Floyd until the late nineties, f’rex; my parents’ idea of music was Crystal Gayle and John Denver), but the ones of your own era are gonna be more in tune with your own generational sense of zeitgeist and angst.
While they’re very different in terms of style (not to mention size!), I can see Jeff Noon’s Vurt being something of a Dhalgren for us GenX/Y types; both of them crystallised something about being a reckless and confused adolescent in chaotic yet thrilling times, perhaps.
Kathleen Ann Goonan
My intro to Delany was not until 1988, when I attended Clarion West. Someone recommended Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. Stunning title! Stunning book. I loved it, and moved on to Dhalgren. I think I’ve read all of it, though not in a linear way. I’d read long stretches for the prose and the delicious sense of not knowing what in the world was going on and not really caring. I thought that eventually it would all resolve, but I don’t think it did, so it is glimpses of a world that has weight and sense but that I still do not completely understand—just like life.
I enjoyed all of his literary theory books, and About Writing is the one book I have my writing students buy. It is not full of rules, but has information that a writer can relate to, in different ways, no matter what her progress along the path may be.
As to his humor, I told him a few years ago at Readercon that I found it very useful in my classes. He said, “I do too,” and grinned.
Michael Dirda is brave to point out the elephant in the room. Here’s one way to look at it.
Within the rank-and-file sf community, sex is still a touchy subject, far more touchy than, say, violence or politics—though, if you involve sex in either of those topics, so that you’re focusing on sexual violence or sexual politics, the community becomes hyper-prickly; for a single recent example among dozens, witness the opposition, in some circles, to instituting even the most common-sense harassment policies at conventions.
So in writing about sex from virtually the beginning of his career, and being increasingly open about his own sex life in all its complexity, Delany has put himself on an increasingly confrontational position with the SF community he clearly loves—and that clearly loves him.
Granted, one needn’t be a prude to recoil at the pedophilia or coprophagy or rape that Delany writes about, but I’m thinking, instead, of his wonderful memoir, The Motion of Light in Water. While the subtitle, accurately, is “Sex and Science Fiction Writing in the East Village”, the sexual content of that book, as I recall it from having last read it years ago, involves homosexuality, bisexuality, what used to be called “open relationships,” and casual sex with strangers in public places. While these are certainly minority pursuits, they shouldn’t shock us, either, and they shouldn’t be unpleasant simply to read about—certainly not by 1988, when the book was published.
I have praised that book for years, on panels and in private conversations, with scores of people in the sf community—and on multiple occasions, people have responded with discomfort, regret (“That was Too Much Information for me”), or outright disgust (“Ewwwww!”). Not everyone, mind you, and not most people, but enough.
Delany has lived with these responses for a long time, is fully aware of them, and has thought a lot about them. Of course they aren’t limited to the SF community, though they were commonplace enough within that community even in the 1960s for Frederik Pohl to unforgettably skewer them in his 1966 story “Day Million”: “Who the hell wants to read about a couple of queers?” (That may be a misquote, as my cat Hillary is asleep in my lap, and I don’t want to disturb her just to walk to my Pohl shelf, but I bet I’ve got it right; it’s that sort of sentence.) And so Delany keeps right on pushing those buttons, and adding new buttons and pushing them, harder and harder.
He’s telling us, insistently, something about ourselves, and—unsurprisingly—that doesn’t always go over very well. Much easier just to talk about the early work, that was published when Chip, and we, were young.
But his early work was quite open and transgressive about sex (“Aye, and Gomorrah…” and Dhalgren).
I think for the purposes of this conversation, “early work” is shaking down to “pre-Dhalgren.” Certainly Dhalgren contained much more explicit
sex than anything that Delany had written up to that point.
I only came to Delany with Dhalgren and “Aye, and Gomorrah…” so, to me they’re his “earlier” work.
If I may be so bold as to jump in for a second, I’m struck by how Jo Walton’s review of Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders on <Tor.com> in 2012 lines up with what Andy is saying about button-pushing:
“Valley of the Nest of Spiders is a very good book. I cried at the end, not just standing water in my eyes but real choking sobs. And it’s great science fictional speculation. But my goodness it’s a difficult book to read. It’s as if Delany tried as hard as he possibly could to make it hard for me to enjoy.”
Early work contains explicit and transgressive sex, but I think not the extensive engagement with coprophagia and snot-eating reported in Spiders. Though we focus on these elements perhaps at our peril.
I knew a woman who doggedly made her way through Dhalgren over a period of several years, and she reported that “after page 300, it gets really interesting.”
Yes, I agree with Andy, and agree as well with Jo Walton’s review: much of Chip’s more recent work is marvelous, but also very difficult to read. I think if you don’t read through to the end, you just end up with the difficulty, rather than feeling like you’ve “undergone” something and come out of it to something quite rewarding. But of course that asks for a lot for readers, and asks too for us to share interests and obsessions that we might not share in our day to day lives. But I don’t mind sharing them for the length of a book, even a very long book….
Paul Di Filippo
Ah, Gardner, you forget Tides of Lust (1973), which prompts my own Delany story.
I had been reading Chip’s SF religiously and with great excitement up to 1973. My reactions to those early books pretty much mirror everything already said here.
Then I walked into a somewhat sleazy convenience store one day and on the spinner rack of mass-markets saw a mauve/lavender Lancer paperback, its otherwise unadorned cover bearing the title Tides of Lust and the Delany byline. How could I resist?
Talk about mind-blowing new directions for an author we all thought we knew! Here was the first hint of Chip’s capacious and roving mind-body quest. That book is a perfect little gem of its kind. If Dhalgren equals Little, Big, Tides of Lust equals Engine Summer. I imprinted on that book so hard, that decades later I had to write my response, A Mouthful of Tongues. Then, guess what? Having become friends with Chip, I dared to ask him for a blurb, which he kindly supplied.
And oh yeah: someday ask Chip about the two times he and I read aloud simultaneously from his Atlantis, the segment where the page has dual columns. Now, that was a HAPPENING!
Do you think that Chip lost interest in commercial publishing after he entered academia? I wonder if his passion for ideas—for thinking brilliantly about literature and culture—led him ever deeper to into the seductive glades of theory, to the detriment of storyteling, in part because he was living in an environment that valued and rewarded such writing. Who, after all, is his audience these days? Many of his later books remind me of the philosophical pornography one associates with such French intellectuals as Georges Bataille, Maurice Blanchot, Pierre Klossowski and others.
I think it happened before that, Michael, that Chip was already well on the way to moving in his own direction by the time he took an academic job. It might have been just a way to support continuing to do what he wanted to do….
SF has (as just about every history of the field written since, oh, 1970 acknowledges) had speculative or transgressive or mildly uncomfortable/unconventional dealings with sexuality (and even the Acts Themselves) at least since Farmer’s The Lovers and various bits of Sturgeon (and perhaps, outside the pulp borderlands, since Stapledon). Paul Di Filippo’s post indicates that Delany’s interest in sexual matters was always there, and I suspect that his increasingly open and/or challenging treatment of them is at least partly a result of a post-Sixties public environment that allowed such expressions without fear of engaging the Porn Police. I also suspect that this is distinct from the other part of his trajectory, into increasingly “difficult” or esoteric literary modes. (Not unlike Joyce’s trajectory from Dubliners to the Wake. Does that make Dhalgren Ulysses?)
The thing about transgressive art is that it is meant to be transgressive—not just teasing or faux-shocking (Ooh! He said “pee-pee”!) for an easily épaté’d bourgeoisie, but actually discomforting (or frightening or disorienting or disgusting). When I read that a book could not have been published ten or twenty years earlier because it’s transgressive, I am unlikely to be attracted to it. At my age, with my reading and life experience, with my imagination (educated by contemplation of the lovely 20th century), I don’t know that I need all that much transgressing-at, and I certainly don’t look to second-hand transgression as a leisure activity. If I find a work neither dulce nor utile, I’ll pass. I have become squeamish in my old age. I will never re-read Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon or Phil Farmer’s Image of the Beast. (I stopped reading horror decades ago.) As for the appeal of the difficult or avante-garde or merely knotty, that’s a matter of taste, for which famously there’s no accounting.
Certainly, but those examples are exceptions.
It may be that Delany’s interest in expressing sexual matters in his work was always there, but that he couldn’t get away with publishing it, in an A-list trade book, much before Dhalgren, just as Heinlein’s interest in sex was clearly always there, but he couldn’t get away with putting much of it into his books before the publishing environment had changed (and perhaps until he’d become enough of a bestselling author that he could refuse to cut it from the text and get away with it). People don’t remember how prudish a field SF was, for the most part (with an occasional exception, like Farmer’s famously controversial “The Lovers”) until well into the late ’60s/early ’70s, when even mentioning that characters had had sex was frowned upon, and DESCRIBING it in any sort of detail was completely beyond the pale (as was using “dirty words”), but I started publishing in the mid-’60s, and had been submitting manuscripts for some years before that, and I remember it. Fred Pohl went through my first published story and careful changed every “damn” to “darn,” for instance. The “dirtiest” SF book I’d ever read up to about 1965 or so, the one with the most explicit sexual content, was Edgar Pangborn’s Davy—which carried an enthusiastic blurb from Heinlein.
F. Brett Cox
An interesting discussion; sorry I’m coming late to it. A few observations, mostly echoing what others have already said.
My initiation into SF was, like many, via Heinlein/Asimov/Clarke/Bradbury, but that all blew wide open when I read Dangerous Visions at an impressionable age. That book contained “Aye, and Gomorrah…”, which was my first encounter with Delany. After that, I devoured his work, along with that of the other “New Wave” writers, especially Delany’s own glimmer twin Roger Zelazny. I confess I’m not as well-read in his later work as I should be.
Those early, richly literate works pointed me in a direction I wanted to go—like Karen, I was astonished that SF could Do That. Much, much later, encountering Delany’s criticism was an equally liberating experience. And ditto to Andy’s praise of The Motion of Light in Water, one of the best literary memoirs I’ve ever read.
As for sex, and pre/post-Dhalgren, and all that: I’ve taught “Aye, and Gomorrah…” more than once, and I continue to be astonished at its power to unsettle my students. Lord knows how they’d react to the later, more explicit work. But it seems to me that early vs. later Delany isn’t so much a matter of shorter vs. longer or less explicit vs. more explicit. It’s a matter of an artist at different stages of his career. The differences among, say, The Einstein Intersection and Stars in My Pockets Like Grains of Sand and Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders isn’t that the second is a more fully developed work than the first or that the third may (I confess I haven’t read it yet) contain passages God would not touch wearing latex gloves. The difference is that the first was written by someone in his twenties, the second by someone in his forties, and the third by someone in his sixties. I would hope that three such different periods of life would produce three very different books.
Ditto also to those who have spoken of Delany’s staggering erudition, warmth, and good humor, which I’ve experienced on convention panels (as both audience and participant) and, happily, less formal conversation. How has Delany influenced us? Ask the well-established-in-his-own-right writer who, upon meeting Chip for the first time, automatically addressed him as “Mr. Delany” and shyly asked if he could take a selfie of the two of them. Ask my academic colleagues who respond with vague politeness when I mention my writing of, and about, SF, but zero in when I cite Samuel R. Delany. Get in a time machine and go back to the kid buying the Quark anthologies off a spinner rack in a small-town drugstore (oh, if They only knew…) and tell him that one day in the far future he’ll be asked to write about Chip Delany on a world-wide communications web, and check out the expression on his face.
>Dhalgren may be one of a very small category of books where you must read them young (I did) but you can’t read them young. The impact received by a teen is not the impact delivered, and later, too many other things intervene. I remember being blown away, but am not sure now how that took place and it didn’t leave footprints, only a lingering aura.
I think I may agree…. I read Dhalgren at perhaps the right age…. I was 15 or 16 when it appeared and I read it right away, and I thought it very cool but I knew I didn’t really get it. And it’s never really grown in my memory.
I did read Triton with enjoyment, and I liked parts of the Neveryon books quite a lot. I confess I didn’t have the stomach to try some of the erotica… very likely my loss.
But the earlier work… it is simply beyond wonderful. For me perhaps the short stories in Driftglass… perhaps especially the somewhat neglected “The Star Pit”… are the peak. (Not to denigrate famouser stuff like “Aye, and Gomorrah…” and “Time Considered…”.)
And Nova is one of my favorite SF novels ever, a delight from beginning to not quite end.
I’ve never met Delany (having only come to conventions somewhat late, and even now only to Midwest conventions), but just reading him he seems like about the nicest person in the world.
I vow to read some of the later books—The Motion of Light in Water sounds like something I really must read. If I do wish he would want
to write something more in the vein of Nova these days I also recognize that that’s unfair—he needs to write what he is ready to write, not what we want.
And, too, totally on a tangent, I’d have never read Marilyn Hacker’s poetry had I not recognized her name as Delany’s ex-wife… and that in itself was very rewarding.
Self-centeredly, I’d like to ask if anyone in the group has words on Delany’s Heavenly Breakfast. It happens to have been my first Delany; I discovered it by accident when I was fifteen or so. In retrospect, I’m glad things worked out that way, since the writing was accessible and it introduced me to Delany’s life and thought in a pretty straightforward, compact way. That helped inspire in me the sort of reading confidence that would come in handy when tackling some of the longer, tougher works.
Karen Joy Fowler
I have to confess I have never read it, Alvaro.
I’ve not been contributing to this discussion, as I have not read Delany in—er, uh—40+ years. But I was compelled by all of the scintillating insights to dig out my (mass-market–remember them?) paperback of Driftglass, which now goes to the top of my “to be (re)read” pile. May those knights (and knightesses) outside of this Roundtable do the same. Time travel paradox notwithstanding, I cannot wait to see what my 56-year-old self makes of the stories that my 14-year-old self (14 to 17 seems to be the Golden Age for reading Delany in this group) thought were the next best thing to sliced-white Ellison.
First printing: November 1971. My paperback is the 4th printing. Clearly, Chip was reaching a bigger audience than just SF readers back then. Or else Signet was clueless about how to market genre writers, but was hopeful. (Very probable.)
Coverline on front panel: “A dazzling journey to the world BEYOND 2001.” Evidence that 40-something years ago, they had no idea how to market Chip except in terms of what was break-out popular at the time.
I think Heavenly Breakfast is a great place to start, Alvaro. It’s frank about Delany’s sexual life and his participation in alternative communities without being explicit. It gives you ways of understanding productively those communities when they appear in Dhalgren. It’s clear and very focused, and concise, and does a remarkable job introducing even the initiated to commune life in New York City over the course of a year. It’s a good stepping stone, too, to the excellent autobiography that Andy mentioned, The Motion of Light in Water. And you can read some of what’s said about community and music back into the earlier SF books. Plus, it gives you, too, an understanding of how Delany seems sexually open communities that redirects your sense of what’s going on in Hogg and other of the difficult literary books slightly. It’s definitely a great thing to start with.
3 thoughts on “Roundtable on Samuel R. Delany, Grand Master”
Delany is still one of my favorite SF writers. I agree almost completely with Gardner though. (Except for his feelings about STARS IN MY POCKET… which is one of my favorites). Most of his work from DHALGREN on has been problematic for me if not flat out disappointments. In any case, he is one of the most important SF writers in the history of the genre even if his output of SF has not been that high. For me he is the Cordwainer Smith of my generation.
Delany changed my life in high school. My dad used to take me to a bookstore and let me pick out books–I remember once trying to decide between Storm Constantine’s Wraethu and Dhalgren. Chose Constantine, became so frightened 100 pages in at the sex that I had to put it down and never finished it.
4 months later I try Dhalgren–whatta trip! The disgusting sex, the mystery, the poetry, sent me on a literary journey through “New Wave” authors that has been unparalleled by any other experience. Remember the boy falling down the elevator? The gang (what was that strange weapon, all those strange artifacts!) Maybe I’ll never make it through Naked Lunch or Ulysses–I feel Dhalgren is all I need, and I would copy it by hand if it could show me how such effect was achieved.
As some of the earlier commentators said, the earlier stuff has seemed pale to me. The memoirs and later novels excite me more. And I can’t wait to read Spiders!
I’d also add: perhaps my information-age-desensitization has allowed the accessibility of Delany’s more pornographic writing. The notion that it is “transgressive,” in that it repulses the reader while breaking their boundaries (or lending them some arcane Crowley-type knowledge held at the outer limits of sexuality) I think is a thin way to regard it. Makes the grotesque seem a mere device– I think there’s more depth to be had, and it’s the same type of depth that science fiction and fantasy yield at core:plumbing the impossible reality, the possible fantasy.
If it makes the reader shudder, then the reader should put it down…unless something else compels the reader to hold the pages even tighter. For many readers I think that is the response; the perverse excitement may be negatively correlated with age. In a way, isn’t it akin to gothic literature, the ghost story, the ultimate horror staged in plain light?