[Marxism] In Praise of Samuel R. Delany

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Aug 10 06:48:13 MDT 2019

NY Times, Aug. 8, 2019
In Praise of Samuel R. Delany
By Jordy Rosenberg

“In the long country cut with rain, somehow there was nowhere to begin.”

So reflects the nameless character, known only as “the Kid,” as he 
wanders an apocalyptic America in Samuel R. Delany’s science-fiction 
novel “Dhalgren.” A description of the book’s physical setting as well 
as the Kid’s fugue state, this sentence exemplifies what Delany has 
described as the task of fiction: achieving “resonance between an idea 
and a landscape.” It also happens to describe the vertiginous task of 
writing about Delany.

For there is, indeed, nowhere to begin with Delany. Born in Harlem in 
1942, Delany published his first novel at the age of 19, inaugurating a 
broad, genre-spanning career that now includes over 40 published works 
and several major literary awards. His writing combines space opera with 
neo-slave narrative, memoir, sword-and-sorcery fantasy and an elegy for 
the sexual freedoms of pre-Giuliani Times Square. Delany’s prismatic 
output is among the most significant, immense and innovative in American 
letters. And because there is no way to summarize his work, about Delany 
we can never be experts. We can only be enthusiasts. We cannot hope to 
describe his oeuvre, only our encounter with his oeuvre, and how this 
encounter has transformed us.

“It is not that I have no past. Rather, it fragments on the terrible and 
vivid ephemera of now.”

Maybe it was that the Kid’s experience of loss resonated with my own. In 
1992, when I was 21, my relationship with my family had been shattered 
by my queerness, and I had absconded to San Francisco for a girlfriend 
who dumped me upon arrival. In the aftermath, I found a job waiting 
tables on the overnight shift at Sparky’s Diner on Church Street in the 
Castro, and I found Delany.

Around 4:30 a.m., with the neon SPARKYS sign casting a pool of foggy 
pink onto the sidewalk — when the ravers had finished their French fries 
and tumbled off into the wet blue pre-dawn — I would crouch in the 
kitchen, reading “Dhalgren,” and later, the book that made me a Delany 
enthusiast for life, “Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand.”

“Have you ever arrived on a world at dawn?” asks that novel’s 
“industrial diplomat” and technology ambassador, Marq Dyeth. “You can 
see the world, this one orange and green with hydrocarbon soups, that 
one blue and white with oxidized hydrogen broths, another grit gray, 
still another dust brown, but all, whatever their dominant color, 
scythed away, as one circles, with night.”

This rhapsody on dawn as seen from space is delivered by Marq shortly 
after he is forcibly separated from his lover Rat Korga, a former slave 
and the sole survivor of a war-torn planet. At the hands of the General 
Intelligence — an agency that functions like a combination of OKCupid 
and the C.I.A., with even more invasive reams of personal information on 
the universe’s inhabitants — Korga is calculated to be Marq’s perfect 
erotic match and sent to him. They spend several glorious days together, 
but the G.I. deems their connection too dangerous, and Korga is deported.

“Stars” manages to connect the ethereal appeal of orbit with Marq’s 
yearning for Korga. “Desire isn’t appeased by its object, only irritated 
into something more than desire that can join with the stars to inform 
the chaotic heavens with sense,” he opines. “Fingers can’t point to 
anything anymore. And without such indications — oh, I still walk where 
I walked, look where I looked, but where I saw what once seemed 
wonderful, I see so little now — I feel so little.”

Delany’s books interweave science fiction with histories of race, 
sexuality and control. In so doing, he gives readers fiction that 
reflects and explores the social truths of our world. In fact, he traces 
the lineage of contemporary speculative fiction to Martin Delany’s 
“Blake; or the Huts of America,” a 19th-century novel about the escape 
from slavery and insurrectionary desires in Cuba and the Southern United 
States that is, as Samuel Delany argues in his seminal 1998 essay 
“Racism and Science Fiction,” “about as close to an sf-style alternate 
history novel as you can get.”

The lesson of “Stars” — one as intimidating and exciting to me now as 
when I first read it — is that desire, language and history are bound 
together, and that literature has the capacity to realize these 
connections, and, from them, to spin singular webs.

In Delany’s novels, desire and language are luminous silks, intensifying 
and refracting reality. His work thus becomes a paean to the experience 
of reading itself, which “Stars” makes palpable through ecstasies 
specific to sci-fi.

Before they are separated, Korga and Marq participate in a dragon hunt 
on the planet Vyalou. As they soar over a landscape “more mica than 
sand,” they learn that when dragon-hunting on Vyalou, one momentarily 
fuses consciousness with the creature in flight. “Fly! I flew,” Marq 
thinks. “Chills detonated my spine, my gills erupted rings of 
excitation, and I arched away, borne through the beat of other urges, to 
drop through the world built in my mouth, while Rat, at my shoulder, rose.”

The emotional dynamism of Delany’s sentences has been perhaps less 
acknowledged than his world-building, or the sweep of his vision. But 
when asked to speak about writing as a practice, Delany himself often 
turns to the art of sentences, and of how to imbue words with such 
“ekphrastic force” that they summon the material presence of an imagined 
world. When Korga and Marq return to themselves they are awe-struck, 
struggling to narrate the intensity of their own transformative 
experience. It is impossible not to hear in that a metatextual echo of 
the obsession of Delany’s practice: that of creating the most immersive 
possible aesthetic experience for us, his readers and devoted enthusiasts.

“I was a dragon,” Korga wonders aloud. And then, struck with the 
impossibility of communicating the exquisiteness of having been a dragon 
in flight, Korga reaches for the most apt simile he can imagine. “I was 
a dragon? I was a dragon!” he cries. “It’s like reading.”

Samuel Delany: A Starter Kit
The Motion of Light in Water

Although one can begin anywhere with Delany, most readers will want to 
start with this memoir, chronicling his marriage to the poet Marilyn 
Hacker, his early career as a writer, and the bubbling sexual 
expansiveness of gay male culture in midcentury Manhattan.

Return to Nevèrÿon

Delany’s four-volume, very queer fantasy series repays the reader’s 
attention. The world he builds begins with a slave uprising and tracks 
the self-emancipated Gorgik the Liberator as he travels the countryside 
fomenting further rebellions. The third book, “Flight From Nevèrÿon,” 
contains the now-canonical story “The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals,” 
which tracks the outbreak of a plague closely paralleling the onset of 
the AIDS crisis in New York.


The travels of an amnesiac drifter through a burnt-out, 
alternate-reality America. There may be no other novel of the 1970s, or 
since, that so profoundly captures the dire atmosphere of a nation in 
economic and political free fall, and the persistence of love and the 
survival of eros amid such total brutality.

Times Square Red, Times Square Blue

Two extended essays on the social space of Times Square as it has been 
transformed by waves of gentrification that routed the thriving gay male 
cultures congregating in its porn theaters. Taking inspiration from 
Pound’s “Cantos,” Delany poses the essays as “periploi”: contemporary 
versions of classical and medieval descriptions of coastlines, used as 
aids to early navigators. The “temporal coastline” of the midcentury 
42nd Street/8th Avenue zone comes to life in Delany’s classic of queer 

About Writing

Even if you aren’t a writer, you will be fascinated by Delany’s 
generous, indispensable collection of essays on the practice and theory 
of writing. He has pointed his erudition and imagination toward concrete 
advice on building sentences, using adjectives and structuring fictional 
works. The thoughtfulness of this effort makes clear how seriously 
Delany takes the reader’s experience of his texts, and how devoted he 
has been to confecting dreamworlds for us. “The fiction writer,” he says 
in a bit of advice that might describe his own oeuvre, “is trying to 
create a false memory with the force of history.”

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