Samuel R. Delany: Overview

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Author: George Slusser
Editor: Jay P. Pederson
Date: 1996
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 3,568 words

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Delany's career is a fascinating one in terms of the cultural development of science fiction. Born in Harlem in 1942, Delany's own transmigration took him into the nascent hippie culture, and in 1962, with the publication of his first novel, The Jewels of Aptor (he was 20 at the time), into a world of pulp science fiction then undergoing radical reorientation. In the early 1960s, Campbell's "Golden Age" was over, but it had generated a flood of writers and formulas that poured, from the mid-50s on, into the new medium of paperback novels. Out of this flow, however, a new kind of SF writer was emerging. Judith Merril's blurb on the cover of the Ace Books first edition of Jewels of Aptor sees in young Delany "a mythopoetic power comparable only to that of Sturgeon, Ballard, Vonnegut, and Cordwainer Smith." Here we have the emerging line: Sturgeon, link to the Golden Age; Ballard and Vonnegut, British and American surrealists respectively; the indescribable SF fantasist "Cordwainer Smith." Delany's early work, published in the (for the decade) garish and pulpy Ace paperback line, fits at once into this emergent "mythopoetic" SF tradition. His career, from this point on, is a voyage, via the "New Wave" SF, out of this pulp matrix, into first of all the world of "literature," then (following perhaps the much-discussed exhaustion of that literature), into the academic world of postmodernism, and a university professorship.

From the beginning, it is clear Delany entered science fiction with the desire to be a "literary" writer. His earliest novels—Jewels of Aptor, and the three novels that comprise The Fall of the Towers (Captives of the Flame, 1963; The Towers of Toron, 1964; and City of a Thousand Suns, 1965)—all reveal a highly sophisticated sense of literary composition, and what we call today a "metafictional" mastery of pulp conventions, which Delany employs as framing devices that allow him to explore complex questions of human communication and multi-ethnicity. It is curious today to see a work such as The Towers of Toron coupled, back to back in the Ace Double format, with a novel like Robert Moore Williams's The Lunar Eye, adorned with the tag—BEWARE: SPIES FROM SPACE! The young Delany had to cut his grandiose fictional designs to fit such formats; he saw his novels adorned with covers by current pulp artists like Jack Gaughan, some in the pseudo-surrealist mode of Richard Gid Powers, others in the stock lantern-jawed hero style, but none fitting the content of his fictions. Delany has striven in later editions of these early works (the 1968 version of Jewels is an example) to restore the often sizeable passages cut from the original editions.

Of the early fiction, The Fall of the Towers is most interesting in its sense of design and scope; in terms of the intricate variational system Delany builds here, this large work looks forward to the labyrinthine complexities of Dhalgren (1975), and even those of the Nevèrÿon series (begun with Tales of Nevèrÿon, 1979). Already in this...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420002178