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Graham Sleight’s Yesterday’s Tomorrows: Samuel R. Delany

If fiction aspires to be – in John Gardner’s phrase – a vivid and continuous dream, then surely SF of all genres should prize vividness in the worlds it gives readers. But too often, SFnal futures are described with all the colour of furniture assembly manuals. Some writers are exceptions, like Roger Zelazny, whom I discussed last time. I can think of no clearer example of vividness in SF than the early work of Zelazny’s near-contemporary Samuel R. Delany. His sequence of novels from The Jewels of Aptor (1962) to Nova (1968) had a wealth of colour, specificity, and strangeness that was entirely new to the field. Although many of the books were paperback originals that vanished quickly, they’ve since been handsomely reissued, especially thanks to the US publisher Vintage. As a sample of what Delany can do, here’s the passage that first hooked me many years ago, a few pages into Nova:

The Mouse stared at the pearls behind rough, blinking lids.

‘‘You, boy. Do you know what it was like?’’

Must be blind, the Mouse thought. Moves like blind. Head sits forward so on his neck. And his eyes –

The codger flapped out his hand, caught a chair, and yanked it to him. It rasped as he fell on the seat. ‘‘Do you know what it looked like, felt like, smelt like – do you?’’

The Mouse shook his head; the fingers tapped his cheek.

‘‘We were moving out, boy, with the three hundred suns of the Pleiades glittering like a puddle of jeweled milk on our left, and all blackness wrapped around our right. The ship was me; I was the ship. With these sockets – ’’ he tapped the insets in his wrists against the table: click ‘‘ – I was plugged into my vane-projector. Then – ’’ the stubble on his jaw rose and fell with the words ‘‘ – centered on the dark, a light! It reached out, grabbed our eyes as we lay in the projection chambers and wouldn’t let them go. It was like the universe was torn and all day raging through. I wouldn’t go off sensory input. I wouldn’t look away. All the colors you could think of were there, blotting the night. And finally the shock waves: the walls sang! Magnetic inductance oscillated over our ship, nearly rattled us apart. But then it was too late. I was blind.’’ He sat back in his chair. ‘‘I’m blind, boy. But with a funny kind of blindness: I can see you. I’m deaf. But if you talked to me, I could understand most of what you said. Olfactory nerves mostly shorted out at the brain end. Same with the taste buds over my tongue.’’

‘‘Jeweled milk,’’ for me, is the magic phrase there. It taps into one’s dreams of voyaging among the stars at a very primitive level. It’s a dream of freedom and potential, grounded by the devastated state of the story’s teller. But there’s more in that passage. One of Delany’s particular strengths is his sensitivity to the telling sensory detail: the rasp of a chair on the floor, the click of an embedded socket on a table, the feel of fingers on one’s cheek. But here, the man who’s speaking is cut off from all that, as he says. Or rather, he’s suffered too much sensory input because of his voyaging – and not just his sight. Notice too how casually those embedded sockets are introduced, and with them a whole implied world of integration between humans and their machines.

The plot of Nova is self-consciously mythic, a recreation of the Prometheus story. Super-heavy elements such as ‘‘Illyrion’’ are immensely valuable, but can best be harvested from the heart of an exploding star. Nova follows Captain Lorq von Ray, who is obsessed with achieving this. He’s accompanied by Katin, a scholar, and the Mouse, a wandering musician. The story concerns itself with the old question: can one steal fire from the heavens? If so, what would the consequences be? Two things surprised me on re-reading the book. Firstly, despite the drive of the quest plot, how much of it is told through flashback or relatively static conversation. Delany takes a number of sidebars from the main line of the story to illustrate the society he’s describing. Characters are positioned with minute attention to how they sit in society, or to their economic and family context. Secondly, how much this is a dialogue-driven story. I had remembered the book as being very much weighted towards description. But those descriptions are overwhelmingly given by the characters – that is, filtered through their subjective experience of the world. (And the book as a whole, which initially looks as if it’s told in the third person, turns out to be by one of the characters.) With such gestures, Delany is making moves that immerse us in the world, that don’t allow us omniscient distance from it. Nor are we even allowed much ironic distance from it, even though the book’s real author is no stranger to irony. For all that Delany is conscious that a story is just make believe or (his appropriated term) subjunctive, Nova is also a book that very deliberately compels belief.

Many of the same features are present in Delany’s short fiction, collected in Aye and Gomorrah and Other Stories. Understandably, though, they’re more experimental and cover a wider range of territory. It’s also possible to see certain motifs from Nova and the earlier books settle into patterns that Delany used repeatedly. The protagonist is often an artist or bohemian of some kind. The science fictional novum is often described from the ground up – or rather, the default assumption is that it won’t just be perceived by its owners or winners. I’ve seen a lot of people describe stories like ‘‘Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones’’ as ‘‘garish,’’ which is true but only part of the truth. Certainly, it’s about crime in a future New York, and about the social structures that exist around it. But it’s also very visibly experimental in style, delighting in wordplay. The style is inseparable from the world that’s being described because the style is the means through which we experience the world.

Delany’s fondness for the first-person in these stories enables him to do a number of things. Firstly, it gives him a way unselfconsciously to represent the intensity of feeling underpinning some of the stories. In particular, it lets him embody this in the style: these are stories full of self-interruptions, tangents, memories. (In the afterword to this book, Delany acknowledges the influence of Theodore Sturgeon, about whom many of the same things could be said.) Secondly, it reiterates the sense that a story is told from a point of view: suggesting that there’s no such thing as an impartial point of view.

This collected stories volume also underlines a sense of Delany as someone for whom a central technique is collage. Many of these stories were written during years when Delany was travelling widely, and impressions of the places he visited are often embedded in these stories. The most visible example of that is ‘‘Aye, and Gomorrah…’’, whose globetrotting story feels now like a prefiguration of cyberpunk. But it’s true of plenty of other stories too: one is granted sight of New York’s towers or boats bobbing in a harbour, and one has the sense that these are sense-impressions Delany wanted to fix in fictional form.

I don’t think any writer in SF has more fully explained the theoretical concerns behind their approach than Delany has. Books like The Jewel-Hinged Jaw (1977) set out in great detail Delany’s views on the aesthetics of the field, and particularly on how the fantastic needs to be expressed in language. In some later works – for instance Triton or the Return to Nevèrÿon series of fantasy novels – those theoretical concerns are very close to the surface. But even without reading Delany’s critical work, one is strongly aware of a controlling intelligence behind his fictions, making very deliberate choices about how they unfold themselves. But one shouldn’t view Delany as having a static view of what science fiction should be. His career has embodied shifts in style and concern as great as any SF writer.

Nova was the last of the string of novels Delany published between 1962 and 1968. After that came a long hiatus, and then the emergence of Dhalgren (1974). This was a bestseller, a work that has had influence far beyond the SF field. It’s also regarded as a famously difficult book, one that many people have given up on before finishing. My own approach to it is that one should not expect conventional narrative pleasures from it, any more than one should expect a late Picasso painting to be a naturalistic representation of the world. Dhalgren, for me, is a work centrally concerned with conveying a mood, a state of mind, an experience. One could sum up that experience in various ways: as dislocation, for instance – as a sense that the world does not have the kind of rules that it used to. (In his superb Foreword to the Vintage edition, William Gibson identifies Dhalgren with the ‘‘city [that] came to be, in America’’ in the counter-culture ’60s. It existed in no one place or time, but took its inhabitants through places and experiences that they might afterwards have trouble believing.) The last sentence of the book is incomplete, but seems to lead back to the first sentence, and there are many places where the text reflects back, echoes, or comments on itself. There are, unsurprisingly, a huge number of literary allusions buried in the text, most prominently to the work of James Joyce.

Summarising the plot of Dhalgren is, therefore, a doomed enterprise and I won’t try. But the premise can at least be set out. Somewhere in the USA is a city called Bellona, which has suffered an unspecified catastrophe. The geography of the city is no longer stable, and a vast sun hangs in the sky. On the first page, a character we come to know as the Kid arrives on the outskirts of the city. On one level, the book can be seen as following his odyssey through Bellona. But the narrative is far more fragmentary than that. Certain motifs can be followed: light, as reflected and refracted through prisms and mirrors; a notebook journal; the tensions that circle around the power of Roger Calkins, owner of The Bellona Times.

One of the sections of the book is entitled Palimpsest, and this is a pretty clear cue to how Dhalgren should be approached. The book is overwritten with commentaries on itself, and so is the city. The work of revising is never done, and so there’s no stable way to understand either. A persistent theme in Delany’s work is how the outsider or the nomad fits into society. I was going to say that the Kid embodies that preoccupation here, but really everyone does. The whole point of the catastrophe is that everyone, to some extent, is a stranger in their own lives. Outsider status in Delany’s work is also, increasingly, sexual outsider status. This only really becomes clear by the time of Dhalgren and its successors Triton, the Return to Nevèrÿon series, and Stars in my Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984). Dhalgren is also profoundly concerned with how race is experienced in society, and many of the tensions in the book are racial ones.

But, as I say, Dhalgren is the last book from which one might want to extract a ‘‘lesson’’ or a ‘‘moral.’’ The difficulty of the style is, as always with Delany, a necessary part of the expression of the whole. Some might regret the loss of the exuberance of a book like Nova or its predecessors. I’d argue, though, that Dhalgren is that rarest of things: a book that, decades on, has not been normalised. So many innovations of style or content in SF become commodities, to be sold at ever lower prices in ever more ways. Many people have learned a great deal from Delany’s work – I’m thinking particularly of William Gibson’s focus on sensations and the surface of things. But Dhalgren is a book without real successors. If SF hasn’t fully absorbed its worth, that’s SF’s loss.


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Time February 25, 2012 at 4:44 pm

[...] Locus Online Reviews » Graham Sleight’s Yesterday’s Tomorrows: Samuel R. Delany [...]

Comment from Carlo D’Anna
Time March 5, 2012 at 12:59 pm

Great article! I read Dhalgren many years ago and still consider it to be a very important book to be read slowly and meditatively. It is probably a book that the reader should be in the mind-state to just let themselves go and ride down the stream. If I remember, the plot moved from one episode to the next, yet each episode was filled with many interesting characters.

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