Samuel R. Delany

By: Tom Nealon
April 1, 2014


Though most often compared to Joyce, SAMUEL R. DELANY (born 1942) is also something of a latter day Hawthorne — dealing, as he does, with characters trapped in impossible worlds of fraught, impenetrable ambiguity. Which sounds much lamer than it really is — especially when we’re talking of books featuring body-altered starship captains who look like dragons, linguistic super-weapons, unstable lunar governments, post-apocalyptic mutant calamity, and in which everything has gone terribly and inexplicably wrong but let’s fuck and figure it out afterwards (also, has anyone seen my shoe?). In some ways, it couldn’t have been too much different from the New York (first Harlem, the Bronx School of Science and then later and even more formatively, Greenwich Village) in which Delany grew up in, a fecund city alive with post-apocalyptic electricity and music and sex, crime and hope, sneakers hung from every overhead wire; the city’s future was opaque, and its past so soundly defeated that it could have been Triton or Babel-17 or Neveryon. Like Joyce, Delany has a rare ear for the human: his characters chew their hands, defecate noisily, revel in their own stink, and screw lustily; and how to conjure the sprawling, confounding miasma-city that lies at the heart of Dhalgren without at least waving confusedly at Ulysses? But what Delany has tapped into most of all, and uniquely, is this fact: Trapped somewhere within the mutations, the bodily enhancements, the aliens, the lunar landscapes, and the cities where everything has gone mysteriously all to pieces, somewhere deep within these permutations of our weird is the key to our humanity.

NEW WAVE SCI-FI at HILOBROW: 75 Best New Wave (1964–1983) Sci-Fi Novels | Back to Utopia: Fredric Jameson’s theorizing about New Wave sci-fi | Douglas Adams | Poul Anderson | J.G. Ballard | John Brunner | William Burroughs | Octavia E. Butler | Samuel R. Delany | Philip K. Dick | Frank Herbert | Ursula K. Le Guin | Barry N. Malzberg | Moebius (Jean Giraud) | Michael Moorcock | Alan Moore | Gary Panter | Walker Percy | Thomas Pynchon | Joanna Russ | James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Sheldon) | Kurt Vonnegut | PLUS: Jack Kirby’s Golden Age and New Wave science fiction comics.


On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Jimmy Cliff, Gil Scott-Heron, D. Boon, Lon Chaney Sr.

READ MORE about members of the Anti-Anti-Utopian Generation (1934-43).