Visions of Paradise

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Samuel R. Delany

What can you say about a teenager who writes a dozen unpublished novels before finally selling one at age nineteen? Or about a critic who writes a book-length analysis of a 7,800 word science fiction short story? Both of these are the same person, Samuel Ray Delany, one of the most critically-acclaimed writers in science fiction history. And with good reason since Delany has done more to expand the borders of science fiction than any writer since Robert A. Heinlein, and was a leading influence on both 1980s Cyberpunk and 1990s New Space Opera.

Delany was a prolific writer for a half-dozen years in the mid-to-late 1960s following the publication of his first novel The Jewels of Aptor. During that period he published eight novels and a collection of short fiction. Most of the novels were published before Delany tried any short fiction. They included the acclaimed trilogy The Fall of the Towers–consisting of Captives of the Flame, The Towers of Toron, and City of a Thousand Suns–and the short novels The Ballad of Beta-2 and Empire Star.

Most important for the development of future science fiction were the last three novels Delany published in the decade. First was Babel-17, which won a Nebula Award for Best Novel, immediately raising Delany from obscurity to the ranks of major science fiction writers. A space opera in form, its major concern is with the role of language in shaping reality. It is also one of the first major science fiction novels with a female protagonist.

Next came The Einstein Intersection, a second Nebula winner as Best Novel. It is basically the Orpheus legend retold by aliens who have taken human form in an attempt to understand extinct humanity.

Lastly came Nova. Although it did not win any major awards, it is a superb accomplishment, and generally considered one of the best science fiction novels ever written. Like most of Delany’s early sf, it unabashedly accepted the form of a space opera yet was still intended to be a serious work of fiction. It was heavily-influenced by Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination, but it extends the earlier novel's pyrotechnics even further.

In 1967 Delany published his first piece of short science fiction “The Star Pit.” As complex and thought-provoking as his novels, it was the first of a series of major short works over the next three years. “Aye and Gomorrah” won a Nebula Award as Best Short Story. “We, In Some Strange Power's Employ, Move On a Rigorous Line” (under the considerably simpler title “Lines of Power”) was both a Hugo and Nebula nominee for Best Novella. “Time Considered As A Helix of Semi-Precious Stones” won both Hugo and Nebula Awards for Best Novelette in spite of being published in the rather obscure British science fiction prozine New Worlds.

Delany was mostly silent for six years following the publication of Nova. He re-emerged with the controversial novel Dhalgren. Over 800 pages long, it was an explicit analysis of an imaginary city on the verge of collapse. Hailed by many for its study of characters, images and relationships, others panned its long, convoluted plot structure that ends by completing a circle back to its opening scene.

Much more traditionally structured was Triton, which returned to many of Delany’s concerns of the 1960s.

Following Triton, Delany turned his attention to heroic fantasy. He created a fantasy world Neverÿon which he placed under the same careful scrutiny he had previously turned on space operas. The series included three collections Tales of Neveryon, Flight From Neveryon, The Bridge of Lost Desire, and the novel Neveryóna.

Delany returned to science fiction in 1984 with Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, which was as much a quantum leap beyond most 1980s science fiction as Nova was in 1968. Unfortunately, it was intended to be the first of a diptych, but the second novel The Splendor and Misery of Bodies, of Cities was never published, apparently a victim of Delany’s loss of interest in writing science fiction.

Besides being perhaps the most serious writer of science fiction ever, Delany has also been an important editor and critic of the genre. With his wife Marilyn Hatcher he edited a series of ground-breaking anthologies Quark. His nonfiction books include The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, a series of critical essays about science fiction; The American Shore, a book-length analysis of Thomas M. Disch's short story “Angouleme”; the semi-autobiographical novel Heavenly Breakfast; and the Hugo-winning autobiography The Motion of Light in Water.

Samuel R. Delany is one of the few science fiction writers to have successfully infused a new vision on the genre. H.G. Wells and Robert A. Heinlein are his peers in that regard. Most of the innovations in the genre of the past thirty years owe at least some of their inspiration to Delany. It is hard to imagine John Varley's groundbreaking fiction without Delany's example. It is even harder to imagine the existence of Cyberpunk, the dominant movement of the 1980s, without Delany. And most of the New Space Opera writers owe a debt to Delany if only for his embracing what was considered bad, derivative hackwork and shining it until it sparkled as brightly as any of sf’s other sub-genres.

Not only is Samuel R. Delany one of the most important science fiction writers ever, but one of the best as well. We can only dream that he rises phoenix-like and resume writing science fiction, as Theodore Sturgeon, Fritz Leiber and Ursula K Le Guin all did in earlier generations.


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