Engineer Al's Sci-Fi Library: Samuel R. Delany

Engineer Al's Sci-Fi Library: Samuel R. Delany Hot
engineer Alengineer Al   September 29, 2015  

Engineer Al shares his love of Sci-Fi literature.

Samuel Delany is magic. Not Sword & Sorcery or Wizards with wands magic. Delany is the kind of magic that happens when you are innocently reading a fast paced yarn loaded with intrigue, adventure and incredible inventions and suddenly you are walloped in the back of the head with an unseen truth about life, love, mankind or society. After all the best science fiction is not just aliens and ray guns, but it is when futuristic settings and fantastic societies are used as a mirror that allows us to look at ourselves from a different point of view. Delany's work (well, much of it) is not just fiction, it is literature. It is "art". Art with a message and art that is presented in lavish and beautiful language. His work includes truly unique and exotic images presented in a manner that is unparalleled by any other author. Delany's work, in my mind, falls into three different categories.

THE EARLY YEARS (1962-1965):

Delany began publishing novels at a very young age. The first one he wrote while he was 19 years old. Yes he was talented, but he also had some connections that helped him to get work. This is great in the respect that he would possibly never have grown to become such a fantastic talent without this opportunity. Unfortunately his work in the early years is not very impressive. Books from this period include a fantasy trilogy containing THE JEWELS OF APTOR, TOWERS OF TORON and CITY OF A THOUSAND SUNS. These novels were collected together in THE FALL OF THE TOWERS, which is one of the few books in my entire lifetime that I could just not bring myself to finish. Boring, pointless, and lacking in style. Avoid it. Delany also published CAPTIVES OF THE FLAME in this time period (1963) which I did finish, but it was fairly bland.

THE WONDER YEARS (1965-1975):

Suddenly Delany's style is polished, artful and unique. Everything written during this period is something worth reading. THE BALLAD OF BETA-2 is the story of multigenerational interstellar flight that ends in tragedy. This story shines a light on religion, society, and racism as well as featuring a mysterious monster from space! EMPIRE STAR is a multi-layered story about adventure and maturity and the fact that perception can become reality. BABEL-17 is a brilliant novel packed to the brim with "mind blowing" concepts, potent imagery and a powerful story about an unknown language that can change the way a person thinks. THE EINSTEIN INTERSECTION is a novel almost impossible to describe. It won the Nebula Award for best novel in 1967 and revolves around myth, music and the last days of Earth. NOVA is a novel very different from any of Delany's previous works. It is sometimes difficult and perhaps needlessly opaque, but this science fiction version of Moby Dick contains some of the most beautiful imagery I have ever encountered in any story, let alone Science Fiction. It is a novel that I think about often. Delany also wrote a fistful of excellent short stories during this time period. They are collected in several volumes, but my favorite is DRIFTGLASS which does not contain any stories from the later years. The short stories are an excellent way to acquaint yourself with this gifted writer.

Before we move on to the next time period, let's talk about DHALGREN.

DHALGREN (1975) is without a doubt Delany's best known work. It is also highly controversial. Some think it is wonderful, a literary masterpiece. I know that a certain respected reviewer on Fortress: AT who shall remain nameless (but is Michael Barnes) happens to fall into this camp, and I can understand why. DHALGREN is overflowing with Delany's incredible ability to create unforgettable imagery and landscape. It is an expertly crafted work that falls into its own exclusive category. However... it is also close to a thousand pages long. And it goes nowhere. I can't say that I didn't enjoy reading it, but somewhere around page six hundred I was thinking to myself "I sure hope this develops into some kind of plot somehow". It did not. And when I finally reached the end with hope for some glimmer of understanding, I was sorely disappointed. Now, I read somewhere that DHALGREN is a novel loved by people who do not read science fiction and hated by those who love science fiction. Perhaps this statement is true. Something to consider before giving it a try. It is closer to Joyce than it is to Heinlein.

THE PRETENTIOUS YEARS (1976 – present)

After DHALGREN Delany's works no longer seem like novels. They read more like books written to show how to write a novel. They are too perfect. They directly take on important social and political issues. They are dull and painful. The language is exquisite. They are an exercise in reading. Perhaps it is because I know that Delany has taught creative writing at several universities that I see these books as text books for writing Science Fiction, but that is how they feel to me. TRITON was OK, but nothing special. STARS IN MY POCKET LIKE GRAINS OF SAND is one of the greatest titles I have ever heard of, but despite several attempts I have never been able to make it more than halfway through this one before moving on to something more... enjoyable. I made two attempts at reading the RETURN TO NEVERYON series, each time starting with a different book, but they were not able to hold my attention. THEY FLY AT CIRON I was only able to handle the first few pages. As I said previously, I rarely don't finish a book that I've started. Most of the time when this does happen, I am reading Delany. But that's because the good stuff was SO GOOD I just couldn't give up on him despite the disappointments. However, I have never attempted anything Delany wrote after 1993 (when I finally did give up) and he may have written something more worthwhile since that time. If so, someone should let me know. In the meantime, I think I'm going to go and reread THE EINSTEIN INTERSECTION.

Posted: 29 Sep 2015 19:20 by Frohike #211625
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I was actually introduced to Samuel R. Delany's work through Tales of Neveryon, which was a part of my Lit 101 syllabus that also included Kaja Silverman's The Subject of Semiotics, some Freud and Lacan texts, some William Carlos Williams, some Philip K Dick, some... well I don't quite remember all of it. Suffice to say, Neveryon's blending of Sword & Sorcery tropes, queer identity theory, BDSM practices, intertextuality, and hemmoraging of semiological theory into the fiction, all fit perfectly into college academia. It was gloriously pretentious. It also blew my fucking mind.

From that point forward, I went back.

Or rather I went on parallel tracks, retracing various aspects of his work, in the thrall of an intellectual crush that could only really happen during one's college years. While other literature students were geeking out to Derrida or Foucault, I was in the library stacks reading more Delany (ok, maybe an unhealthy amount of Foucault as well).

I think people outside of academia should be aware that, in addition to his fiction, Delany wrote a large, amazingly erudite body of essays and epistolary-style "silent" interviews. These were the subject of borderline obsessive rereading and theorizing on my part, but I'd like to think that this wasn't just because I was a starry-eyed college student.

The essays/interviews are deep but also approachable in an oddly escalating way, where Delany will often launch with an interesting anecdote, followed by some relatively easy-to-follow pondering and analysis, maybe a visual model, then hit the afterburners on a theory that can really stretch the boundaries of what you can synthesize, and will inevitably tie it back to your initial point of entry. It's engrossing but can also become a little overwhelming & disorienting; often warranting multiple rewinds and rereads.

I now have a second copy of Silent Interviews: On Language, Race, Sex, Science Fiction, and Some Comics because my college year scrawls and highlights all over my first copy haven't aged all that well. I highly recommend reading through that collection for a glimpse at the wide swath of topics and theory that swarmed around his composition of science fiction from the "wonder years" period forward. Some of his earlier essay collections have been reprinted (Starboard Wine, Jewel-Hinged Jaw, and The American Shore), but I think Silent Interviews gives an easier survey for newer readers and it's my nostalgic favorite. "Toto, We're Back!" in that collection is an absolute must read.

The next collection Longer Views isn't as topical for most readers here since it branches out to areas that are not immediately connected to SF (Wagner, Donna Haraway, language poetry, etc). It's a good tome of intellectual gymnastics, but skippable for anyone who just wants to tour his SF/paraliterary criticism.

There is an essay in the later Shorter Views that is totally worth a close read by anyone here who is interested in SF, comics, and the discourse of "how stuff signifies" (particularly apt in games criticism). In "The Politics of Paraliterary Criticism," Delany skewers some aspects of Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics in a manner that remains respectful of Scott's work, while enlightening an assumed dichotomy between "craft" and "art" that is much less formally inherent and much more political than one would initially think. Fantastic, illuminating read, with lots of incidental asides that will interest game critics.

Those less into essay-reading and theorizing should also know that he wrote an outstanding, page-turner of an autobiography titled The Motion of Light in Water. It almost feels like the non-fictional twin of Dhalgren in the register of experience and language that it gives the reader; vivid, disorienting, engrossing, sexually candid, poetic. This was a life-changing book that hit me in a sea of already ongoing life changes, on the cusp of my college years, at the precipice of a big move to NYC. It illuminated a new way for me to bring my detached, overloaded, academic theory brain into a closer, more enriching, and more engaged relationship with lived experience. Both of these books are side-by-side on my shelf and will never leave my possession.

I think Delany is probably one of the most brilliant minds to have landed in SF and Sword & Sorcery writing & criticism, and considering my age at this point, I'm not sure I'll ever look at more contemporary thinkers in genre fiction such as Mieville without seeing them as diminished, less assiduous or broadly versed theorists. It's an incurable bias that I'll probably take to my grave.

Despite all of this fanboy gushing, though, I must confess that I too personally prefer Delany's fictional work when he had just achieved escape velocity from writing borderline fan fiction (the "early years") and hadn't quite yet entered the event horizon of post-structuralism and academia. If Chip were to read this, he would likely posit that trajectory as being a convenient fiction itself. He was probably already deeply ensconced in academia in some form or other during that era (I mean, Empire Star is basically "Deconstruction: The Novella"). But his writing during those "wonder years" feels more free, allegorical, and dangerous, more infused with his then recent quasi-bohemian experiences on foreign shores (e.g. Greece in The Einstein Intersection) and the ships where he worked to gain passage to those shores.

While I look back at the Neveryon series fondly and can appreciate it on occasional sittings, I find its allure greatly diminished in my current context as an aging father of two, immersed in a very different framework of social expectations, obligations, and time constraints. I'm no longer in the hyper-interpretive institutional system that framed & validated that series of novels with an intellectual wonder that I think I only could have experienced as a college kid. This is an odd reversal of Chip Delany's own timeline when it comes to his writing, which has never really seemed targeted to a specific, loyal readership. He seems to just write honestly and deeply in the contexts most immediately relevant to him, no matter how esoteric or alternately pornographic, or both, those contexts increasingly become, which distance his writing further and further from my own shores with each year, a sail sinking just past my horizon.

From this point forward, I'm still going back. I chill out with The Einstein Intersection or Dhalgren much more often than Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders and I think Delany would actually be ok with this.

Some recent Delany talks:
Posted: 30 Sep 2015 10:40 by engineer Al #211637
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Wow, Paul. Thanks for ALL of this. Just took a quick peek at the link and it looks incredibly cool. Also, you are not the first person to recommend The Motion of Light in Water. I definitely need to pick that one up.
Posted: 30 Sep 2015 18:45 by Michael Barnes #211659
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Good lord Frohike. I was going to stop in to say "yeah, Dhalgren, woo" and then THAT. I feel like I ain't even been to kolledge!

I've read Dhalgren (of course), Triton, Einstein Intersection, Stars in my Pocket, the first Tales of Neveryon, and Nova. So kind of the "major works".

He's definitely a compelling, intensely _skilled_ writer aiming for quite a bit more than the usual genre touchpoints. Even his more rootsy SF works are full of these eccentricities, academic hooks and intellectual exercises that set him apart from someone like, say, Heinlein. But you do have to kind of be wired to appreciate this kind of thing, because I think it goes without saying that Delany is not for everyone. There is undoubtedly a challenge he is issuing to readers, and some of his material can actually be quite off-putting or willfully difficult.

Dhalgren is a great example of that...but you know, it's a book that needs to be considered closer to Ulysses than anything else in the SF genre. The interesting thing about about that book, at least from my experience with it, is that you can pick it up and start reading anywhere and it's interesting, extremely well-written and impactful. I've done that numerous times, and because so much of it is surreal, indescribable or frustratingly obtuse in terms of specific narrative I actually appreciate it more in pieces than as a whole.

Frohike really kind of nailed why I like writers like Delany...he's somebody that "landed" in SF/fantasy but completely obliterated genre boundaries to create his work. You look at the academic, intellectual and emotional scope of Delany in comparison to just about any SF author today and the gulf is vast. Other writers might be more accessible, entertaining or interesting at a surface level, but this is somebody that you can dig WAY DEEP into across a number of vectors.

Let's keep these coming, I love this feature. Suggestions- Blish, Disch, Butler, Bester, Wolfe...
Posted: 30 Sep 2015 18:48 by Josh Look #211660
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+1 Bester