Samuel R. Delany and Me

[Samuel Delany reading]

This isn't so much a story as a series of vignettes. They span from my early adolescence to mid-twenties. The author Samuel R. Delany keeps popping up every now and then in my life.

Early Adolescence

My first exposure to Delany's work was in the mid-'70s. I'd started reading science fiction by then. At the local bookstore, his novel Nova caught my eye, mostly for the evocative cover. It was an unusual SF novel; its language was very rich and dense. If your standard Asimov, Clarke, or Heinlein novel was a dress shirt, Nova was a full length robe, embroidered by hand, depicting a long forgotten battle where armored people rode mythical animals into battle against the Winds.

The work was also different in that it was hard to grasp exactly what was going on. You didn't notice at first, but the robe had holes. Even after reading the book several times, its language and details, rather than plot, stay in my mind.

The bookstore had another Delany book for sale: a mammoth tome named Dhalgren. I figured if a short novel is good, then a big one must be better. I wasn't prepared for the incredible differences between the two works. If Nova was hard to follow at times, for a SF reader Dhalgren was losing oneself in a maze. It didn't help that it started out with what I figured must have been a hallucination.

There was worse to follow. In an early scene, our young (male) hero has sex with another man. Now, when I read this, I was just entering adolescence. Delany's prose style was elliptic enough that I wasn't sure exactly what was happening mechanically, but I knew what was happening in general: two men were having sex, and that scared me. I returned the book to the store, and didn't tell them why.

I was disturbed by the book. I must have had some inkling by then that I was homosexual, but it would take me years before I gained the courage to come out. In college I bought and read the whole book, but I'll always remember it as the book that was my first account of two men together.

Early Twenties

I didn't really keep up with Delany's work in between. It seems like he'd spent most of his efforts on his fantasy Neveryon series. Fantasy as a rule doesn't interest me. In the early 1980s he published a big SF novel, Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. It was one of the more interesting SF novels of the decade, and for me his most enjoyable work since Nova. Unfortunately, the book is part one of a two-part tale. The conclusion, titled The Splendor and Misery of Bodies, of Cities, still isn't finished.

Delany had been adjunct faculty for a time at the university I attended, and in April 1991 he returned for a one-night reading and Q & A session. Beth and Eric and I went, and it was good. He read from Stars...; I don't remember any of the questions. After it was over, I made my way over to him and thanked him for helping me come out. The picture above was taken by Eric during the reading.

Late Twenties

The story gets a little weird here. As part of my preparation to move to Tennessee in 1994, I gave a lot of books to friends. I sent some to a college friend in NYC. In return, he offered me a numbered print of a painting of Samuel Delany nude. Now, who am I to turn down an offer like that? The print now hangs on a wall of my computer nook, just to my left.

That wraps it up. From first reading about gay sex to having a nude print of the author. We've almost come full circle.

Now, if he'd just finish The Splendor and Misery..., I could die happy. (Well, that and Larry Marder finishing his tales of the Beanworld.)

[Oh, yeah - his memoir The Motion of Light in Water is a really interesting account of "sex and SF writing in the East Village, 1957-1965". It's a strong account of self-discovery in many different ways, and one I find myself coming back to. Recommended.]

Late Thirties

I re-read the first chapter of Dhalgren, and was surprised by not only how much I'd forgotten, but by how much I'd missed in the first place. The biggest surprise was that in that notorious male sex scene, the sex is actually really bad. The participants don't connect at all; the sex is mechanical and perfunctory. If there's one thing it's not, that would be "good".

I'm glad that I didn't realize this when I first read the scene. If I had, I might have dreaded being gay, wondering "Is that what I have to look forward to?".

Last updated 12 November 2005
All contents ©1998-2002 Mark L. Irons except image ©1991 Eric Zuckerman