Samuel R. Delany: His Life and Work
Profiled by Galen Strickland
I am uploading this on April 1, 2015, which happens to be Delany's seventy-third birthday. All of his friends and business associates call him "Chip," a nickname he created for himself one year at summer camp, simply because he was jealous of his friends who had cool nicknames. I'm not sure if anyone, even family, refer to him as Samuel or Sam or any other form of his given name. I've been re-reading and reviewing some of his books over the past year, seven pages so far not counting this one, yet that barely scratches the surface. If I hadn't read other things in between, along with generally being lazy, I would have added quite a few more to that list. I have found his work just as fascinating, if not more so, this time around. There are several more books I will eventually get around to, some of which I've read before, for others it will be the first time. He has written both science fiction and fantasy, as well as autobiographical memoirs and books on literary criticism and writing techniques. There are a few others I will briefly mention, but it is likely I won't ever read them, the reasons for which I'll tell you later. All of the reviews can be found HERE, and I'll add to that page when the time comes. Since I won't be making many detailed comments on the books here, I invite you to check out the full reviews I've done so far. When I mention those books here I'll link to the reviews, for others I'll link to amazon.com.
He was born in Harlem, New York, not the most likely beginning for a future science fiction writer. I suppose when most people think of Harlem the first things that come to mind might be poverty and slums, but there are sections of the borough that have been both financially successful as well as creatively fruitful, and several in the Delany family had been in the thick of the Harlem Renaissance. Chip's family was both financially well off and highly educated. His father, Samuel Ray Delany Sr., managed a mortuary for twenty-two years until his death from cancer in 1960, and his mother was a clerk in the New York Public Library system. Two of his aunts were civil rights pioneers whose stories were told in the book Having Our Say: the Delany Sisters' First 100 Years, later adapted into a Broadway play and a TV movie. Sadie, the elder sister, was a teacher and Bessie was a dentist. Their father, Chip's paternal grandfather, was a former slave who became the first black bishop in the Episcopal Church, and another of his sons was a judge and political activist. The family lived in the upper two floors of a three-story brownstone in the midst of taller apartment buildings. Chip attended the Dalton School, a prestigious prepatory academy on Manhattan's Upper East Side, and later the Bronx High School of Science, where on his first day he met his future wife, Marilyn Hacker. I'm not sure if it's true or not, but Delany claims that when they married in 1961 they traveled to Michigan, which he says was the closest state that allowed interracial marriage. If that is true, it surprises me that New York did not. Hacker was pregnant at the time, but later miscarried. They did have a daughter thirteen years later. Delany has identified as gay since adolescence, and yet his complicated marriage with Hacker has caused some others to classify him as bi-sexual. They separated in 1975 and divorced in 1980, and Hacker has since identified herself as lesbian, while Chip has had several long-lasting relationships with men. Their marriage had always been open, and there were several periods when they lived apart, with both pursuing affairs with others of both genders.
His higher education consisted of just one semester at the City College of New York, and yet he would later be awarded honorary degrees and has taught at various universities since 1975, with a full professorship at the University of Massachusetts Amherst beginning in 1988, later at the University of Buffalo, and most recently at Temple University, although he has retired from that position. He traveled a lot through Europe and Asia at a young age, both with and without his wife, with those experiences influencing several of his early stories, which were at least partially written, or conceived, during those trips. It is obvious he is very well read, with many of his novels using quotes from various poets, novelists and philosophers as opening epigraphs, and in some cases at the head of each chapter. Most of his work reflects a fascination with myths, allegory and metaphor, and there are several recurring themes throughout his work. Beginning with Dhalgren, discussions of sexuality, and his characters' perception of themselves within that context, are prevalent. Actually, there was another sex-tinged book before that, but I had never heard of it until I was researching for this article, and it's one of the ones I might never read. I'll get to it in a bit.
The majority of SF writers begin with short stories, but Delany's first seven releases were novels. That point might be debatable because several of them were very short, and to add to the confusion there are some that have been printed in different versions, either slightly edited for errors or added passages, maybe even whole chapters excised from the initial publication. A few years ago I decided I needed to read (or re-read) and review all of the Hugo and Nebula winning novels, so when Delany was selected as last year's SFWA Grand Master, I started with the two of his which had won Nebulas. After that I went back to his very first publication, The Jewels of Aptor, begun when he was just eighteen and published when he was twenty in 1962. It's first printing was in an ACE Double with another author's work, but it has also been released on its own in several different paperback printings, both in the US and the UK. As far as I know the original version is out of copyright, because it's available in e-book format free from Project Gutenberg. You could get it from amazon for 99˘ but I'm sure Delany gets nothing from that, plus Gutenberg offers it in several different formats. You could try to track down a used copy of one of the print versions, or another option is to wait a few months and get a new omnibus edition that includes Jewels and two others, and I'm sure that will include the most recent edits of those titles. My review is based on the shorter version, and it is the only one reviewed so far that I was reading for the first time. Since then I have acquired a paperback of the expanded version, and one of these days I'll get back to it and update that review.
The following year Delany began a three book series that was later collected as The Fall of the Towers. I had intended to get to it by now, perhaps later in the year. The first book also came out in an ACE Double under the title Captives of the Flame (1963), also available free from Gutenberg. He later revised this one too, retitling it Out of the Dead City, and also made some edits to the other two books, The Towers of Toron ('64) and City of a Thousand Suns ('65), for their UK release in 1966. The version I will be re-reading is the 1970 ACE collection, in which Delany's introduction says it is essentially those same edits, but I wouldn't be surprised if the current edition contains even more changes. It has been decades since I read it, and the only thing I can recall now is that when I started it I realized I must have read either Captives or one of the others in an earlier printing. To give you an idea of how short these novels are compared to contemporary books, or even ones further along in Delany's career, the three-book omnibus I have is less than half as long as Dhalgren, and approximately a third the length of one of Martin's Song of Ice and Fire novels. This was not the last time Delany edited his work after the fact, although I don't know if that applies to 1965's The Ballad of Beta-2. I have it in a combined edition with Empire Star, which I reviewed in conjunction with Babel-17. It has also appeared on its own in paperback, so it is possible it has been expanded or edited at various points. It is another of the titles that will be available in the upcoming omnibus volume I linked to in the previous paragraph.
This brings us to 1966, which saw the publication of his first Nebula-winner, Babel-17, and the following year The Einstein Intersection also won a Nebula. These two are also very short, just barely reaching a word-count to qualify as a novel, but 1967 also saw the appearance of Delany's first short story, "The Star Pit," in the February issue of Worlds of Tomorrow, edited by Frederik Pohl. Three other shorts were printed that year, including "Driftglass" in the June issue of Worlds of If (also edited by Pohl), and "Corona" in the October Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Since I've been reading SF for nearly fifty years, it is difficult for me to recall which title by a particular author was the first I encountered, but it is possible that for Delany it would be "Aye, and Gomorrah..." which first appeared in Dangerous Visions, the landmark original anthology edited by Harlan Ellison. It won a Nebula as best short story and was nominated for a Hugo, and it is probably Delany's most oft-anthologized story, with the possible exception of "Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones," a Hugo and Nebula winner from 1968. Word count specifications must be (or used to be) different for the two awards, because the Hugo was for Short Story and the Nebula for Novelette. During this same period Delany co-edited, with his wife, four issues of an original anthology series called Quark, with both co-writing the introduction to each volume. Delany also contributed one short story and one critical essay, and there were two poems by Hacker. That short story, along with the four already mentioned and five others, appeared in his first collection, Driftglass, now out of print.
In contrast to this being a very fertile period for his writing, the years 1966-68 were chaotic in his personal life. He and Marilyn moved several times, first to San Francisco then to London, then he returned to the States and lived apart from her during the fall and winter of '67-68. For a short time he wrote music and played with a folk/rock group called Heavenly Breakfast, and ten years later he would document this experience in a book by that name. He claims that for the six month period he lived communally with the group, along with a rotating number of other hangers-on, his total income was about $25, which included one short-story sale and back royalties from one of his novels. Rent and food were paid by a couple of others whose primary source of funds was drug-dealing. I've had that book for a while, but only just read about half of it a few days ago while waiting at the dentist's office. Lots of sex, lots of drugs, lots of music, all to the rhythm of the Bohemian life of Manhattan's Lower East Side.
In 1968 Delany's contract with ACE ended for some reason, and his next novel, Nova, came from Doubleday. It was similar in style and content to his earlier work, but the next few years would prove he wanted to try different things. Something completely different, and previously unknown to me, is that he wrote two issues of the Wonder Woman comic in 1972. It was supposed to be a six issue story arc but it was canceled due to criticisms from several fronts, one of them being Gloria Steinem of all people. The climax of the story was supposedly going to be a battle at an abortion clinic. I know next to nothing about Wonder Woman outside the mid-70s TV show, and I know there was nothing remotely like that on it. Delany also labored over two books for many years, only one of them vaguely fantastical but not science fiction, but both highly erotic. It took four years for him to find a publisher for what would originally see print as Tides of Lust, but later reprintings were with Delany's preferred title, Equinox. The other book, Hogg, wasn't published until 1995, over twenty years after it was written. These are just two of a group of books that I will likely never read. I'm not a prude, and can accept a bit of graphic sex in a book if it's germane to the plot, such as in Dhalgren, but I've seen these described as mostly pornographic, and that doesn't interest me. Even though these two may be in print I'm not providing a link, because they aren't SF and I'm not interested enough to check. If you are, I'm sure you know how to use a search engine.
Due to this seeming inactivity, the release of Dhalgren in 1975 came as a surprise to Delany fans, and not a pleasant one for some. The reaction was probably similar to that of some Heinlein fans when they read Starship Troopers or Stranger in a Strange Land, although in my opinion the change that Delany presented was even more revolutionary. It is his highest selling book, and it did get a lot of critical acclaim outside of the genre (with just a little bit from insiders), but for the majority of those who had read his earlier space-operas it struck the wrong note. This may be another indication of the fact I'm not like the majority of readers, SF or otherwise, because I love Dhalgren but still happily embrace his earlier work, in much the same way I can re-read almost anything from any period of Heinlein's career and continue to enjoy them. Dhalgren was definitely a best seller, and that drew in some readers who were not SF fans, while certain genre readers may have heard of Delany but hadn't read him yet. Whomever liked the book when it was the first of Delany's they had read were not likely to be impressed with his other work. The difference for me is that I came to Dhalgren already a Delany fan, while Stranger was not only the first of Heinlein's books I read, it was the first SF novel I read, barring a few Tom Swift or Danny Dunn juveniles when I was a kid. This was another title that Delany continued to revise over several years, although it caused a lot of problems between him and Frederik Pohl, who was the general SF editor at Bantam Books at the time. He has said that Delany would frequently present revisions, which would have been okay in the galley stage, but not in the midst of the eighth, ninth or tenth printing. The mass-market paperback I re-read last year was something like the fifteenth printing I believe, but I can't check now since I gave that to my son. I'm wondering how many other changes Delany might have made to the text between then and now.
I enjoy good story-telling ability as well as a unique style or viewpoint. Delany can deliver both, although not always in equal measure. His next, 1976's Triton (later retitled Trouble on Triton), has similar themes but the narrative is not as dense as Dhalgren, and it actually has a plot although it does meander a bit. Another title with which I was unfamiliar is from 1978. Empire: A Visual Novel is what is called a graphic novel these days. It's out of print, with collectible copies fetching a high price, and I've not been able to find much information on the story itself. FantasticFiction.co.uk says it is a Comet Jo adventure, but I'm wondering if they are confusing it with Empire Star. A few brief descriptions on other sites seems to indicate it's not a retelling of that novel, but I can't be sure, and it is possible it is a different story featuring Comet Jo. Delany provided the text and the illustrations are by Howard Chaykin. Between 1979 and 1987 Delany released four novels in a fantasy series under the blanket title of Return to Nevèr˙on. Even today my preference is science fiction, but more so in those days, so I have never read them. Now that I have rekindled my interest in Delany I might seek them out and read them one of these days. I'll update this page and review them if that happens. Last week I uploaded my review of 1985's Stars In My Pocket Like Grains Of Sand, which chronologically speaking is also the last of Delany's books I've read. 1993 saw the release of They Fly at Çiron, another title that was new to me, or else, because it is more fantasy, I ignored it back then. It is a revised and expanded version of an earlier, unpublished short story from around 1962, the same year The Jewels of Aptor came out. It is out of print on it's own, but I'm seriously considering getting the new omnibus available in July, since it should contain the most up-to-date revisions to Aptor and Beta-2, along with Çiron.
Four other books would come out before Delany came back to SF, and those include the aforementioned Hogg, along with The Mad Man, Dark Reflections and the novella Phallos. All include graphic sex so aren't on my to-read list. In 2012, he released Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, which has SF elements but is also heavy on the sex, so I might use Amazon's "free sample" service for the Kindle file to check it out. Or not. Amazon's description, along with some of the customer comments, say it is not for the faint of heart, and one said it's no wonder that Saga (Brian K. Vaughan's current graphic novel series) depicted Delany as a cyclops that vomits on babies.
Getting back to books I can suggest you look for, all of the novels reviewed so far are recommended to various degrees. One upcoming review (but who knows when?) will be a page devoted to his short stories. If you can find a cheap copy of his first collection, Driftglass, don't hesitate to grab it. There are a few of the stories I can't recall at the moment, so I either didn't care for them and might not have finished them, but I'd rate seven of the ten as excellent. Distant Stars is an illustrated collection with just seven stories, three of them duplicated from Driftglass, and one of them is the short novel Empire Star. It's still available new from amazon, but they say it might take several more days to process than normal, so I'm not sure if it is technically still in print, maybe just some remaindered copies in an off-site warehouse. If you're really interested in his shorter work, the title to get is Aye, and Gomorrah...And Other Stories from 2003. It has every story from Driftglass and Distant Stars (with the exception of Empire Star and probably not the illustrations), plus two newer stories and a new introduction and afterword. Other titles that might interest writers (and some readers) are his critical essays. His first effort was The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, and both Silent Interviews and About Writing were nominated for Hugo awards. One of his memoirs, The Motion of Light in Water, did win a Hugo in 1989 as Best Non-Fiction Book. I'm not saying I recommend it since I haven't read it, but Hugo voters thought it was worthy of note.
Even though Delany seems to have abandoned traditional SF, his full body of work still places him among the very best the genre has seen, and he fully deserves the mantle of Grand Master. Not every book will appeal to everyone, but there is enough variation to please most. Just don't abandon reading him if the first you try is not to your taste, and take my comments about the various stories to direct you to ones you think you might enjoy. His characters and societies are unique and bizarre, but they are also fully realized and believable. They are at once incomprehensible, at times indefensible, and yet also deeply sympathetic. I probably should read several of his memoirs since that might give insight into some of the recurring themes and character traits. In my review of Dhalgren I mentioned the repeated appearances of the chains full of mirrors, prisms and lenses, as well as a scar on the legs of four different women. What was the significance of that? In addition to the mirrors/prisms/lenses in Dhalgren, jewels of various nature abound, as well as many forms of reflective surfaces, including water, which is also evident in how his text and concepts are mirrored between different characters. How about the fact that not only Kid, but also Mouse in Nova and another character from a short story are known for wearing just one shoe with the other foot bare? Several characters are chronic nail-biters, or they're ones who find that trait in others somehow appealing. Definitely some strange people, but there are times I could think of them as someone I might have met somewhere, even if it was only in a dream. His planet-scapes and city-scapes are described with such colorful phrasing they are easily visualized, with Bellona, Tethys and Dyethshome almost as real as any place I've ever known. It may be a while before I get to some of the other books I want to review, but I definitely have not had my fill of Delany, and probably never will.
UPDATE: Recently published is a tribute anthology, Stories For Chip, edited by Nisi Shawl and Bill Campbell.
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