Okay, starting our survey of black sf writers with Samuel R. Delany is probably too obvious. I mean, if you’re not already reading Delany, what are you doing here anyway.
Yet his importance, as both a black writer and a gay writer, is almost impossible to overestimate. For many black readers and writers of science fiction, Delany was the first person they saw like themselves. He was proof that science fiction could be for them. Many of today’s young writers, black or white, gay or straight, can trace their engagement with the genre back to Delany.
I’ve already written about Delany as critic, but it is his fiction that I want to discuss here.
His earliest work, The Jewels of Aptor and The Fall of the Towers trilogy tended to be colourful quest stories set in a post-Holocaust Earth that provided a desolate background against which were played out stories that recapitulated ancient myths.
These elements continued in his later work (all of his fiction seems to have some element of the mythological about it) but became more complex, with linguistic and psychological twists that seemed to take science fiction into a new direction. The first taste of this new direction came in Babel-17, a space opera in form but a novel in which language played a key part. The basis for the novel is the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis which proposed that language shapes the way we see the world; there are those who argue that because this hypothesis has been superceded, the novel has also been devalued. It’s an argument that doesn’t really stand up. For a start, the same linguistic idea lies behind Ted Chiang’s much more recent “Story of Your Life“, and the subsequent fim, Arrival; old ideas can still play a part in forming new and exciting fictions. What’s more, Babel-17 is simply a very good novel. It involves Rydra Wong, a black female spaceship captain at a time when such were vanishingly rare, who, in the middle of an interstellar war, comes across an enemy code. This turns out to be a language which so shapes the perceptions of those who learn it that they become traitors, and Rydra has to figure out how to neutralise language used as a weapon. Babel-17 won the first of his Nebula Awards.
His next novel, The Einstein Intersection, also won a Nebula. In some ways it harks back to the mythological quest narratives of his first novels. Set on a desolate Earth, the hero, a black musician called Lo Lobey, is an Orpheus figure whose quest involves encounters with Ringo Starr, Billy the Kid and Christ among others. Gradually we come to realise that Earth has been denuded of its human population, and all of these characters are aliens recreating human myths. In the end, nothing is fully explained, largely because the characters themselves don’t fully understand what is happening and why they are enacting these myths, yet it is a strangely satisfying novel.
As was his next book, Nova, another space opera but also another re-enactment of myth. In this case it is the Grail Quest that is being played out, and it was this novel that prompted Algis Budrys to describe Delany as the best science fiction writer in the world. The story concerns a race between a rag-tag crew of misfits and a powerful adversary as they chase after the rarest and most important commodity in the universe, a commodity that is produced in the heart of a nova. Whoever wins the race could change the balance of interstellar power.
At the same time that he was writing these novels, Delany was producing a string of stories, including “The Star Pit”, “Driftglass”, “We in Some Strange Power’s Employ, Move on a Rigorous Line”, “Aye and Gomorrah” (Nebula Award Winner) and “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones” (Hugo and Nebula Award winner). Together, these and other stories marked Delany as probably the most important writer in the American New Wave. All of his best stories are gathered in the collection Aye and Gomorrah, and Other Stories.
There were elements of literary experimentation in most of these novels and stories, but the novel that really cemented his literary reputation was Dhalgren. The story is relatively simple. A young man, who may or may not have been released from a mental institution, makes his way to the city of Bellona where some sort of catastrophe has occurred. The city is dislocated from the rest of the United States, at times two moons appear at night, or the sun grows so huge that it blocks out half the sky. The young man, who acquires the name of Kidd, or Kid, or the kid, becomes part of a gang known as the scorpions, and also becomes a published poet. And in his restless journeys around the broken and distorted city he becomes involved in a series of adventures that echo stories from the Greek myths. But it is the telling of the story that is so intricate and involved: the novel begins and ends in mid-sentence, so there is a sense that it all loops around upon itself. A large part of the book is in the form of extracts from the kid’s notebooks, with marginalia, crossings-out, and passages that may have been written by someone else before the kid acquired the book. It’s a dazzling, contentious, unsettling and brilliant piece of work.
The sequence of Delany’s science fiction has taken us from the post-apocalyptic Earth of The Fall of the Towers, to the space of Babel-17, to the post-apocalyptic Earth of The Einstein Intersection, to the space of Nova, to the post-apocalyptic Bellona of Dhalgren, so it was perhaps inevitable that his next book took us into space again with Triton (later renamed Trouble on Triton). Set in the same future as “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones”, Triton follows its central character, Bron, from the harsh society on Mars where he has worked as a male prostitute to the libertarian society of Triton. Here the government has no power to regulate private behaviour, and coupled with advanced technology that allows people to change anything about themselves from their appearance to their likes and dislikes, this gives the citizens of Triton an extraordinary amount of individual freedom. But, having grown up under the restrictions of Mars, Bron is unable to settle on Triton. Though he has just about everything he might desire, he finds himself constantly at odds with those around him. Meanwhile, a war is brewing with Earth, which adds another question to the nature of life on Triton.
After this, Delany spent most of the next decade writing the four books of the Nevèrÿon sequence, which used the devices of sword and sorcery fantasy to tell a far more complex story including, in the later volumes, commenting on the AIDS crisis. But he also wrote one other science fiction novel, Stars in my Pocket Like Grains of Sand, which was intended to be the first part of a diptych, though the second volume was never written. In the distant future, humanity has created a wide variety of diverse societies right across the galaxy, but their stability is threatened by something known as Cultural Fugue, a form of societal collapse that has already completely destroyed intelligent life on several planets. When the planet Rhyonon becomes the next victim of Cultural Fugue, a slave, Rat Korga, becomes the only human ever to have survived the experience. But when Korga is identified as the ideal sexual partner of someone on another world, it turns out to be an alien experiment that itself threatens Cultural Fugue. The story isn’t resolved, but it seems we will never see the second volume that should complete the tale.
Since then, Delany has concentrated on writing mainstream fiction, memoirs, non-fiction and pornography, until his most recent novel, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, which is far and away his longest novel, and which seems to combine several of his literary interests. It starts as the mainstream story of a group of gay friends in the present, but as the story progresses, it takes their story far enough into the future to turn into an interesting work of science fiction.
If this isn’t enough to convince you of the importance of Samuel R. Delany, and hopefully send you out to read his fiction, let me just add that a number of younger writers have been so inspired by his work and his example that they have put together an excellent anthology of original stories and a few non-fiction pieces in his honour. Stories for Chip, edited by Nisi Shawl and Bill Campbell, brings together contributions by Kim Stanley Robinson, Eileen Gunn, Nick Harkaway, Ellen Kushner, Kit Reed, Hal Duncan, Junot Diaz, Thomas M. Disch, Kai Ashante Wilson, Michael Swanwick and lots of others. Enough to demonstrate the breadth and depth of his influence and his importance in the story of science fiction.
From Nebula and Hugo Award–nominated Carolyn Ives Gilman comes Dark Orbit, a compelling novel featuring alien contact, mystery, and murder.
Reports of a strange, new habitable planet have reached the Twenty Planets of human civilization. When a team of scientists is assembled to investigate this world, exoethnologist Sara Callicot is recruited to keep an eye on an unstable crewmate.