Dangerous Visionary

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.”

How would a contemporary reader react differently to “Aye, and Gomorrah . . .” than one who first discovered it in Harlan Ellison’s controversial 1967 anthology, Dangerous Visions? “They would probably respond to it as politically troglodytic,” says Delany. “The only way to read it with any kind of sympathy at all is to realize that it’s a story written three or four years before Stonewall. It cries out to be read as an analogue of homosexuality at a time when such analogues were few and far between. The story gives more insight into the sexual landscape of ’66-’67 than it does into today.”

Still, there are reverberations of the explicit sexuality pervading other Delany works when the spacer from “Aye, and Gomorrah . . .” declares: “We’re still fighting our way up from the neo-puritan reaction to the sexual freedom of the twentieth century.” Around the same time as “Aye, and Gomorrah . . .,” Delany wrote a pornographic narrative called Hogg. “It’s the last pre-Stonewall gay novel written in America,” says Delany. “It’s very much a book that comes out of the anger of a gay man who wants to tear the whole thing down. Once Stonewall comes, once there was a concerted gay-liberation movement and there was a way for these disruptive energies to channel in more constructive ways, I don’t think I could have thought Hogg at all.

“You have to look at what the world was like,” argues Delany. “Was it 1950 that F.O. Matthiessen leapt out of a window because people knew that he was gay? Newton Arvin in 1960 suffers a complete mental breakdown because at Smith it is suddenly discovered he was gay. I was hired at the University of Massachusetts — among other things — because I was gay.”


Before we part company, Delany recommends I visit a small street in the Village called Patchin Place where e.e. cummings used to shout up to Djuna Barnes’ window. Which is appropriate because more than his favorite works by Alfred Bester and Theodore Sturgeon, this avatar of science-fiction’s most oft-read book is Barnes’ modernist novel Nightwood. “It’s a remarkable prose object,” says Delany. “Everything it talks of, from loneliness, to gender politics, to cultural dispossession, to the suffering underlying all human obsessions, glitters with wit, insight and darkly visual glamour.” As avid a reader as he is a writer, Delany — also a fan of science-fiction author L. Timmel Duchamp, theorist Giorgio Agamben, poets Rachel Blau DuPlessis and Jena Osman, and comic-book scribe Alan Moore — exhorts me to “beg, borrow or steal” to get my hands on The Truth by Robert Morales and Kyle Baker, a comic book that supposes that Captain America’s super-serum was first tested, Tuskegee-like, on black men.

Delany’s identity as a science-fiction writer and theorist is well established. But before we consider his identity — or anyone’s identity — as a helix of semiprecious memories, experiences, languages, dreams, doubts or desires, he is quick to caution us. “Identity is not an essentialist nugget at the center of things,” he explains. “It’s a category to put things in. You can’t think without categories; but you want categories that are complex enough that whatever is inside them is always questioning its own boundaries.”

Samuel R. Delany will appear in conversation with Steve Erickson, as part of the “Words in the World” series, on Sunday, May 18, 2 p.m., at the Los Angeles Public Library, 630 W. Fifth St., downtown; (213) 228-7000.

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