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Delany's Wunderjahre—1974, '75

Samuel R. Delany (b. 1942) grew up in New York and attended the Bronx High School of Science. He is something of a prodigy and a polymath as well as a very prolific writer. His first work of any size was of considerable size, three volumes, and was completed by early 1964, when he was barely over twenty-one years old. (The Jewels of Aptor, 1962, is a short novel written even earlier.) His Fall of the Towers trilogy leans toward Sword and Sorcery. But in Babel-17, which won a Nebula Award from the Science Fiction Writers in 1966, Delany found a voice and a subject matter of his own. In this book Delany used his considerable knowledge of linguistics and semiotics to write a novel about language and communication. Though the story has elements of whirlwind adventure and exotic decor in the Bester manner, the attention to language and nonverbal communication is Delany’s own. In particular, the implications of a character being conditioned to speak in a computer language which lacks the pronouns “I” and “you” are worked out with ingenuity and emotional power. The Einstein Intersection (1967, another Nebula) was in the pseudo-mythic mode favored by Zelazny, but with the insertion of fragments from the author’s journal among other epigraffiti to the chapters. Strange, in a work of science fiction, to encounter the breaking of allusion, to find the author, a young, black American discussing his task of writing the book while on a Grand Tour of the Mediterranean world. In Nova (1968) Delany set out deliberately to pay homage to Bester by imitating The Stars My Destination, but again with features that made the work his own. Where Bester had introduced elements from Blake’s romantic poetry and Rimbaud’s derangement of the senses, Delany gives us the modern story of a young man learning how to be

the writer who can write the story we are reading. As In both these excellent novels, the protagonists are cryptographer, and the two young men through Ray in Nova are a prodigious note-taker who wants to instinctive performer on the “sensory-syrinx,” which that are apprehensible by human sight, sound, and are the intellectual and emotional adventures of the another make a kind of allegory of the growth of a Mouse” and the thoughtfulness and learning of Katin showed that he could tell a rousing popular serious questions of his own—a considerable achievement.

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Babel-17 was about communication, Nova is about art. artists. Rydra Wong of Babel-17 is a poet as well as a whose eyes we follow the adventures of Captain Von write an old-fashioned novel and an almost is a kind of musical instrument that projects images smell. Attached to the physical adventures of Von Ray two artists, whose attempts to understand one literary artist, who needs the spontaneity of “the to do his work properly. In Babel-17 and Nova, Delany adventure story in the Bester manner, introducing

But he was not content to rest there.

     In 1975 Dhalgren appeared, almost eight hundred pages of dense, richly-charactered fiction, frighteningly close to here and now, but not quite our here and now. A decaying city, roaming street gangs, ever-present sexual experience (hetero, homo, and multiple)—and a dearth of love. This is a long way from pseudo-mythic fantasy, from space opera, in the direction of a reality like that of the naturalists. The book is ambitious, daring in its sexual explicitness, and challenging in the questions it raises about human relations. There is presently a good deal of critical discussion as to whether the big book is a success, whether it has crossed entirely over the imaginary line that divides science fiction from something else, or whether it has fallen between the areas of realism and fantasy without accomplishing the aims of either. It is not our business to try to settle these questions here. The book exists. It is being read and discussed. And Delany has earned the right to have his experiments taken seriously. This book makes one thing clear. Delany is not part of anybody else’s New Wave. He is a wave of his own.

     His next novel, Triton (1976), is subtitled “An Ambiguous Heterotopia”—an oblique reference to the subtitle of Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: “An Ambiguous Utopia”—is closer to traditional science fiction than Dhalgren, in that it is set clearly in a future, on a satellite of Neptune, and involves the examination of alternatives to the social structures we all know. But it is in no way a retreat from Delany’s progress toward his own vision. His characters are richer, more human, than ever, more individualized and less mythic, and above all freer and more responsible than ever. This, too, is a story about communication, and about love, and it is more somber and more moving than Delany’s pre-Dhalgren work. The protagonist, Brom Helstrom, has problems loving and communicating—and nothing, including a complete change of sex, fixes the problems. The novel is richly documented, presenting its future society with great solidity, and raising important questions about the nature of sexuality and sex roles among many other things. It is an impressive addition to an impressive career, by a writer still under thirty-five when it was published. Though unique as a writer, Delany’s ability to combine formal experiment with social vision makes his work a perfect example of what people ought to mean when they speak of a New Wave of science fiction.

—Scholes & Rabkin, 1977, p. 94–96

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Author's preferred text.

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(Trouble on Triton, author's preferred edition and title.)

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