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To sci-fi and beyond

Whether in revolutionary science fiction or postmodern social criticism, Temple's Samuel R. Delany presents characters that, like him, can't be reduced to stereotype.

Samuel R. Delany gently pats down the famously eccentric, salt-and-pepper (well, far more salt than pepper) Zeus-meets-Santa Claus beard that hangs over his rotund belly.

Photos don't do justice to its imposing presence - just as secondhand reports on the charm, wit, and erudition of the novelist and Temple University writing professor can't do justice to his full corporeal grandeur.

"Delany is a genius, a living legend," declares Jacob McMurray, senior curator at the Experience Music Project/Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame, which inducted Delany in 2002. "He's certainly one of the bright lights of science fiction . . . and he's also celebrated outside science fiction as one of the few people who has transcended that genre barrier."

Delany, who is considered one of the most influential American postwar science-fiction stylists, has come into the public eye in Philadelphia a couple of times over the last year. He was the focus of the documentary Polymath, or the Life and Opinions of Samuel R. Delany, Gentleman, which was shown at last year's Philadelphia International Gay & Lesbian Film Festival. Last month, he read a selection of his latest works to a nearly full house at the Free Library of Philadelphia.

His prolific output - more than 40 volumes of fiction, autobiography, literary and social criticism, pornography, and the odd graphic novel - includes such genre classics as the story collection Driftglass (1971) and the novels Nova (1968), Dhalgren (1975), and Triton (1976).

Rock Robertson, president of the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society, calls Delany one of Philly's most notable cultural figures.

"Delany is considered by the sci-fi community as one of the grand masters . . . alongside Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein," Robertson says, ". . . because of the force and power of his writing and how much he changed the game."

But don't remind Delany about his sci-fi prowess: He dislikes immensely being pigeonholed as a sci-fi writer.

Sitting at the cluttered desk in his chaotic office on campus ("you should see my home office"), Delany says he hasn't touched the stuff in almost three decades.

Delany, called "Chip" by friends and family, says he hung up his laser gun in the mid-1980s. Before long, an entirely different crowd embraced him as a critic and literary writer whose work explores the nature of writing and creativity. Among his best work is the ambitious 2007 novel Dark Reflections, which follows the life of a gay, African American writer partially modeled on Delany himself.

With Delany's new literary success came offers of academic jobs, including stints at SUNY-Buffalo and the University of Massachusetts.

Much of Delany's post-sci-fi output explores gay sexuality - a subject of intense personal interest to Delany, who says he has had "at least 50,000 sexual partners, all of the passing and very casual sort." His brilliant 1999 best-seller, Times Square Red, Times Square Blue, blends sexual memoir and sociology to portray efforts to rid the Times Square area of porn movie houses in the 1990s.

Temple English professor Josh Lukin, who describes Delany as "a radical gay black New York critic," says that Delany's later books deftly apply the dense theories of Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Michel Althusser, and other postmodern philosophers to real-life situations.

So what drew Delany to science fiction? And why did he abandon it? Better not ask.

"I had nothing else to do, and it was fun," he explains, adding that there has never been a time since his childhood when he was not writing fiction of some sort.

"I just write books that I want to read. Eventually, there were other books [other than sci-fi] I wanted to read, and I was fortunate enough to be able to publish those. It's absolute dumb luck."

Dumb luck, my particle accelerator.

Delany, who turned 67 on April Fool's Day - entirely appropriate, given his playful, mischievous literary style - is a man of irony and contradiction.

The future Temple prof, who grew up in Harlem and attended the Bronx High School of Science, doesn't have a degree, advanced or otherwise: He dropped out of City College in 1960 after only one semester.

He had better things to do.

At 19, he married Marilyn Hacker, an NYU undergrad who would go on to become a noted poet, and he finished his first novel, The Jewels of Aptor. (The marriage lasted 19 years and produced a daughter.) By 1968, Delany had published eight more novels, including Babel-17 and The Einstein Intersection.

Delany eventually revealed that his first book was the result of a bet with his wife that he could outdo the writers she worked with as an editor at sci-fi publisher Ace Books.

As a sci-fi writer, Delany was an anomaly.

First, he brought a rare literary ambition to his novels. "He developed a strangely clotted prose style [which was] very, very poetic and yet you could understand what was happening in the story," says Philadelphia writer, editor and critic Gardner Dozois, who edited Asimov's Science Fiction magazine from 1984 to 2004. "He was also dealing with subject matter that most of his contemporaries were not."

More conspicuously, Delany didn't look or act like the typical 1950s and 1960s science-fiction writer.

"Even today, it's rare to find a gay black man who writes science fiction. When he was doing it in the early 1960s, it was unheard of," says McMurray, the Science Fiction Hall of Fame senior curator.

Delany was "writing in opposition to the golden age of science fiction, with its brassy broads and manly dudes with ray guns," ushered in by Asimov and Heinlein, McMurray says.

David Hartwell, publisher of the New York Review of Science Fiction and a senior editor at Tor/Forge, a major sci-fi publishing house, says Delany was one of a number of young writers, including Thomas M. Dish, Joanna Russ, Roger Zelazny, and J.G. Ballard, who revolutionized science fiction by turning many of its conventions on their heads.

"They aspired to write at a higher level of prose," he says of these "new wave" writers. Influenced by avant-garde authors and artists, they "questioned the very definition of the genre . . . and worked around all sorts of edges and corners to bring a new approach to science fiction."

Most saliently, since they lived in an era of traumatic social and political upheavals, they rejected the utopian pretensions of the older generation of writers.

A self-described "boring old Marxist," Delany says he used the genre to develop his growing interest in political issues. He believed sci-fi was especially suited to social critique.

"Literature as a genre focuses on the psychology of various people," he says. "Science fiction . . . allows you to distort or reorganize and basically change what the social object looks like," whether government, economic system, or army general.

Delany used a basic sci-fi idea - the possibility that in alternate futures, race, gender, and sexuality would be defined differently - to critique present conditions.

His alternate futures were peopled with heroes otherwise considered abnormal.

"His range of characters was unprecedented," said Philadelphia sci-fi and fantasy writer Michael Swankier, author of The Dragons of Babel. "He brought African Americans and gay characters into science fiction . . . [but] also feminist academics, people from Indonesia or, say, Croatia. . . . He had stories where you wouldn't realize until three-quarters of the way through that the main character was black.

"Imagine a future where people didn't notice race the way we do."

Robertson, who says he is the first black president of the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society, explains that Delany reevaluates "the role racial and sexual outsiders have played in society. These are people who helped push society forward, to build society, yet they are pushed into the shadows."

Robertson notes that the protagonist of Babel-17 is a strong, female spy. "This is the era of James Bond, and here you have a woman who is an analytical thinker, who has power and is not a sexual object."

Delany says that if a goal unifies his writing, it is to point out that talking about race, gender, sex, age, or any other human attribute necessarily simplifies and reduces that attribute. He says he wants to "problematize discourse, to make it more complicated" by presenting characters that can't be reduced to a stereotype.

Dhalgren, Delany's most famous and controversial novel, takes aim at the economics of race relations in the inner city by writing about a city that an unknown catastrophe has reduced to a ghetto.

"They have no economy, no structure, and no future," Delany says. Ironically, two types of people seem to do well in Delany's fictional city: Celebrities, who are empty of an inner life and are made entirely by the economic powers that control them, and artists, who try to carve out their own destiny.

"Dhalgren is like the Gravity's Rainbow or the Ulysses of science fiction," says fantasy and sci-fi novelist Gregory Frost (Shadowbridge), who lives in Merion Station.

And it is no less controversial than Thomas Pynchon and James Joyce's respective masterpieces: Legendary scribe Philip K. Dick called Dhalgren "a terrible book [that] should have been marketed as trash."

Whatever its merits, Dhalgren marks a transition between Delany's earlier and later works, which deal more directly and aggressively with social power.

Myths, Delany believes, are "committee constructs" written by many hands and approved by the powers that be, which means they tend to be a conservative force.

"Myth is what society can bear to tell about itself," says Delany. "But usually, what's far more important is what the myth leaves out, the things society can't bear to talk about or face."