When I renewed my reading of science fiction back in June, I had in mind that Samuel R. Delany was a writer I was particularly interested in. (Astute readers will guess where this is heading.) The only thing I had ever read by Delany were a few scattered pages from his novel Hogg, possibly to this day the most obscene prose I have ever read. More on that later. But what I knew of Delany was intriguing. He was born in 1942, came from a middle-class African American Harlem background, and attended the Dalton School, that progressive Upper East Side Manhattan institution favored by affluent, artistic parents and characters in Woody Allen films. He began publishing sf around the age of nineteen and has always been considered among its more literary, experimental, and taboo-shattering practitioners. He is gay and often addresses questions of gender and sexuality in work that in addition to fiction includes memoirs and critical studies. Although he never completed a university degree himself, he is also an academic with a string of creditable appointments and currently heads the creative writing program at Temple University in Pittsburgh. Wesleyan University Press keeps much of his backlist in print.
What's not to like?
The only Delany book on the Pringle list is Nova (1968), but I bought up a range of his secondhand paperbacks, including his two most highly regarded works in their Wesleyan editions, Dahlgren (1974) and Stars in My Pocket like Grains of Sand (1984). Now I have to decide what to do with all these things, because reading them no longer seems like a possibility.
Delany was only twenty-five years old when he wrote Nova, which still makes it his fifth published novel. It's a space opera involving a crew of misfits led by a Lorq von Ray, a dashing, though facially disfigured, young captain who comes from a fabulously wealthy family with something of a pirate background. His nemesis, Prince Red -- and that is actually his name not a title -- comes from a rival, equally wealthy family, and has a mechanical arm that is responsible for our hero's scars. If I refrain from retelling anymore of the plot, it is not out of concern for inserting spoilers. I just like to keep these posts a reasonable length.
The book lost me two different ways. It has aged badly. However innovative the plotting and characters may have been in 1968, it reads today like a novelized version of any number of sy-fy network franchises. And when the literary flourishes appear, they come off as glaring attempts at elevating the style to some notion of what a modernist novel should be. The narrative also shows its age by the attention it pays to the tarot and the Holy Grail legend -- I could smell the patchouli oil and see the tie-dyed wall hangings as I read those parts.
So I am not a convert. I also read The Einstein Intersection, a Delany novella that was more fun that Nova but towards the end didn't make much sense. I quit worrying about that when I read elsewhere that ambiguous resolutions are a Delany trademark. But still what to do with Dahlgren, Stars in my Pocket like Grains of Sand, and The Fall of the Towers trilogy. I remember Dahlgren as a million-copy bestseller when it came out that I considered reading at the time although I was already over science fiction. Many critics labeled it a masterpiece, and William Gibson writes the introduction to the Wesleyan reprint. But a Harlan Ellison review of the original publication reported giving up on it less than halfway through its 800 pages. And Philip K. Dick called it "a terrible book..I just started reading it and said this is the worst trash I have ever read. And I threw it away." And I respect Philip K. Dick.
I think the jury is still out on Delany more than I had been led to believe. And then there is the question of Hogg. When I was in the book business, I was offered 100 copies of Hogg from a publisher I had never heard of. He told me it was by Delany but was not sf and was "sexually graphic." I asked for a sample, mostly to make sure that it looked professionally published, and bought them. Since I knew we would be selling it based on Delany's name and its rarity the copy had been on my desk for several days before I even bothered to thumb though it.
I am not easily shocked. Actually I am more appalled that people read books and see movies like Eat, Pray, Love than I have ever been shocked by pornography. But what the hell was Delany thinking? What did he need to get off his chest? I hope he doesn't force it on his students at Temple.
Hogg is now in print from FC2, and reviews on sites like Good Reads and Amazon range from "disgusting filth" to "an important examination of the limits of human ... " We sold the first thirty copies or so for $10, then raised the price to $50. On ABE Books that original edition now ranges from $14 to over $100.
Both my read and unread Delany paperbacks are headed for the public library donation box. They should fetch the library between fifty cents and two dollars apiece.