By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
|Photo by Heungman|
Samuel R. Delany is an author so multifaceted in his identity that he navigates, with equal grace, the disparate worlds of academic conferences and comic-book conventions. As a black, gay science-fiction writer, Delany spans both highbrow literature and underground culture — as comfortable discussing poststructuralism and semiotics as he is fetishism and S&M. On a quiet Sunday morning he meets me in an old taproom in midtown Manhattan. Carrying a cane and stroking his flowing white beard, Delany comments on the passersby who have likened him to Santa Claus; once, he laughs, he was instead compared to Karl Marx.
Behind this calm, sagelike visage, Delany is a pioneer in gay literature and a science-fiction icon who has sustained, as well as subverted, the genre. More than a pre-eminent voice of contemporary science fiction over the last five decades, Delany, 61, explores and interrogates concepts of sexuality and identity in fiction and nonfiction that is as cerebral as it is sensual, as philosophical as it is visceral. Since publishing his first novel at the age of 20, his prolific and provocative writing has ranged from Melvillean space opera (Nova) and mythopoeic investigation (The Einstein Intersection) to post-apocalyptic urban epic (Dhalgren) and gender-bending carnivalesque (Trouble on Triton).
In the 1980s, Delany fused fantasy with critical theory to create the four-book Nevèrÿon series, which included the powerful AIDS-inspired novella The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals. One of the most neglected novels of the ’90s, The Mad Man encompasses academia, homosexual life in the early years of AIDS, and homelessness in 1980s New York. His autobiographical works, from The Motion of Light in Water to Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, along with his novella Atlantis: Model 1924, are cultural histories of sex, cities and bygone eras. Delany has also published several collections of critical essays and written both science-fictional and autobiographical comic books.
After 12 years teaching at the universities of Massachusetts and Buffalo, Delany is now professor of English and creative writing at Temple University. When not working in his Upper West Side apartment on weekends, he explains, “I’m a guy who lives in Philadelphia without a television or a telephone.” Because he keeps an office in both locales, “Physically, I write all over the place,” Delany says. “I keep a notebook by me 24/7 — and have since I was 14. I’m always ready to sit on the sidewalk with my back against a foundation if the muse decides to trampoline down just then.”
Vintage Books is now reissuing many of Delany’s novels, beginning with a volume that includes both the Nebula-award-winning Babel-17 and Empire Star, Nova, and the landmark Dhalgren, and continuing soon with The Fall of the Towers. The latest Vintage reissue, Aye, and Gomorrah, is a collection of the 15 science-fiction and fantasy stories Delany published between 1965 and 1988. Though Delany’s stories are populated with “goldens” and “amphimen,” “spacers” and “frelks,” “telepaths” and “singers,” most of these protagonists are outcasts and storytellers familiar to our own world. Originally written as a wedding present for poets Anne Waldman and Lewis Warsh, his acclaimed “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-precious Stones” is narrated by a character engaging in a futuristic version of silence, exile and cunning, with each of his many aliases derived from the initials of the shifting protagonist of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. “I liked the notion of a kind of ‘Harry Clyde Everyman,’” says Delany. “It was a way of giving some resonance to the main character.”
Delany views science fiction as not a literary but a “para-literary” genre. “Many people think of it as a kind of disposable text that doesn’t have any stylistic, intellectual or aesthetic merit — and I think it does,” he explains. “I think the fact it’s been considered this way for a long time has had a great effect on how the genre writes itself, thinks itself, puts itself together. Obliterating the distinction between para-literature and literature is probably not a good thing, because it obliterates a great deal of the history of the genre.”
In “Aye, and Gomorrah . . .,” as the spacers land in various international ports of call in search of frelks, the story is as much about linguistic transactions as sexual ones. “The initial idea was playing with the notion that there are languages that gender everything,” says Delany. “If you have such a language, what do you do with something like a spacer who is sexually neutered? When you get to the main story, most people read it as an encounter between a man and a woman. Underneath it all, we know that ‘he’ is not really ‘he’ or ‘she,’ and that puts ‘she’ in a different position than that of an ordinary woman.”
In his intergalactic saga Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, again, identity turns on a single pronoun when a slave named Rat Korga assimilates an entire canon of literature, only to discover that he has absorbed a collection of marginal or forgotten women’s writing. “One of the things I wanted to do with that scene is put so much variety into the material so all the reader sees is the variety and only later realizes, ‘Oh, all the writings were by women.’ I’ve been playing with the pronouns all through the book to allow this to happen. The point, of course, is that there can’t be a canon. When the field itself becomes too large to be knowable, the concept of a canon just deliquesces.”