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Delany, Samuel R

Entry updated 4 March 2024. Tagged: Author, Critic.

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(1942-    ) US critic and author, one of the most influential and most discussed within the genre; he has taught at several universities from 1975, and was professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Massachusetts Amherst 1988-1999, of English at SUNY Buffalo 1999-2000, and of English and Creative Writing at Temple University in Philadelphia since 2001. He has a somewhat mixed cultural background: he is Black, born and raised in Harlem, New York, and therefore familiar with the Black ghetto; but having won scholarships without which the cost would have been prohibitive, Delany was educated at the Dalton School and later the prestigious Bronx High School of Science (although he left college after only one term). This double background is evident in all his writing.

He became famous as one of the youthful prodigies of sf, though it was only recently that substantial portions of his first novel were published as Voyage, Orestes!: [A Surviving Novel Fragment] (written 1960-1963; 2019). His first published sf was also a novel, released when he was 20: The Jewels of Aptor (1962 dos; restored 1968; rev 1971); the later versions restore the one-third of the text originally excised by Ace Books. This was followed by the trilogy The Fall of the Towers: Captives of the Flame (1963 dos; rev vt Out of the Dead City 1968), The Towers of Toron (1964 dos; rev 1968) and City of a Thousand Suns (1965; rev 1969), all assembled as The Fall of the Towers (omni of rev texts 1970). Another early novel was The Ballad of Beta-2 (1965 dos; text corrected 1977).

The early novels had certain similarities, and some of the themes initiated in them have recurred regularly in Delany's work. The plot structure is almost invariably that of a quest, or some form of Fantastic Voyage. Physically and psychologically damaged participants are common. An economical use of colourful detail, often initially surprising but logical when considered, is used to flesh out the social background of the stories. There is an interest in Mythology, taking the form of metaphorical allusion to existing myths or of an investigation of the way new myths are formed; this is central to The Ballad of Beta-2, in which a student anthropologist (see Anthropology) investigates the facts behind a folk song garnered from a primitive Earth culture which has gone voyaging in a fleet of Generation Starships. This novel also shows an interest in problems of Communications and Linguistics which was to become central to Delany's work. The Fall of the Towers, too, is full of colourful cultural speculation, although its melodramatic story of war, mutations, mad computers and a malign cosmic intelligence is moderately conventional. The original three volumes of The Fall of the Towers were set in the same Post-Holocaust Earth as The Jewels of Aptor; however, the linking references were removed in the revised edition.

Delany published two more novels in 1966: Empire Star (1966 dos; text corrected 1977) and Babel-17 (1966; rev 1969). Both, especially the latter, which won a Nebula, reveal a notable advance in sophistication. Babel-17, whose chapters carry epigraphs from the work of the poet Marilyn Hacker – Delany's wife from 1961 to 1980 – is about language, and has a poet heroine. In a future galactic society described in sophisticated Space-Opera terms, radio broadcasts in a seemingly indecipherable Alien language are received; they are thought to be connected with sabotage and alien invasion. Much of the novel is to do with cracking the language (see Linguistics), a task whose successful conclusion so deforms/transforms the protagonist that she is no longer human. Delany espouses here the Whorfian hypothesis that our Perception of reality is partly formed by our languages; the invention of different societies in this novel, more intense and imaginative than his previous work, is mostly rendered in terms of thought- and speech-patterns.

In 1967 he began publishing short stories also. He was generally seen as being in the forefront of the New Wave, emphasizing cultural speculation, the soft sciences, psychology and mythology over technology and Hard SF. The short story "Aye, and Gomorrah ..." (in Dangerous Visions, anth 1967, ed Harlan Ellison) won a Nebula, and the novelette "Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones" (December 1968 New Worlds) won both Hugo and Nebula. These two, with Babel-17 and The Einstein Intersection (1967; 1 chapter restored 1968), which also won a Nebula, can be found in his The Complete Nebula Award-Winning Fiction (omni 1986), though a fuller assembling of his short fiction can be found in Driftglass: Ten Tales of Speculative Fiction (coll 1971; exp vt Driftglass/Starshards 1993; further exp vt "Aye, and Gomorrah" And Other Stories 2003); the second expansion incorporates all three additional short stories from Distant Stars (coll 1981), which also includes the longer Empire Star; this final version of the title, "Aye, and Gomorrah" And Other Stories, contains all Delany's best short work.

It can be argued that The Einstein Intersection is his most satisfying work, along with the next novel, Nova (1968; text corrected 1969) and the novella The Star Pit (February 1967 Worlds of Tomorrow; 1988 chap dos), which also appeared in Driftglass. The Einstein Intersection is remarkably compressed and densely patterned with allusive imagery. Earth has lost its humans (how is never made clear) and their corporeal form has been taken on by a race of Aliens who, in an attempt to make coherent sense of the human artefacts among which they live, take on human traditions, too. Avatars of Ringo Starr, Billy the Kid and Christ appear; the hero, a Black musician who plays tunes on his murderous machete, is Orpheus and Theseus. The book is a tour de force, though a cryptic one, since the bafflement of the protagonists trying to make sense of their transformed lives tends to transfer to the reader. Delany's own diaries provide part of the text of the novel. Nova is the Prometheus story and the Grail story combined in an ebulliently inventive space opera/quest; the fire from the heavens, the glowing heart of the Grail, is found only at the heart of an exploding nova (see Elements). Passages of high rhetoric are mingled (as they often are, too, in the work of Delany's contemporary Roger Zelazny) with relaxed slang and thieves' argot. The book features a characteristic Delany protagonist, the criminal/outcast/musician/artist whose literary genealogy goes back through Jean Genet (1910-1986) all the way to François Villon (1431-1485). It led Algis Budrys to call him "the best science-fiction writer in the world" (January 1969 Galaxy). The variety of cultures in these and other novels by Delany has the effect of making morality and ethics seem relative, pluralistic. Divers forms of bizarre human behaviour, many of which would have been seen as antisocial in US society of the time, emerge as natural in the circumstances created. The Star Pit, too, is a highly structured work; its central image is that of ant-colony/cage/trap/micro-ecology, and escape is seen to be intimately linked with emotional mutilation, even psychosis.

Delany's next novel – not sf, though with elements of the fantastic – was the pornographic The Tides of Lust (1973; vt Equinox 1994); the title was not his. The Mad Man (1994) and Hogg (1995) continue in the same vein. It is likely to shock most readers in its evocation of extreme sado-masochism in imagery which is sometimes poetic and often disgusting – and so intended – perhaps as a Baudelairean ritual of passage. It was, indeed, in the mid-1970s that it became generally known that Delany was bisexual. Certainly, all his later work is deeply concerned with the cultural mechanisms – actual, theoretical and sometimes labyrinthine – of eroticism and love. Much light is thrown on the relationship between Delany's own sexuality and the sf he wrote in the 1960s by his much later book, The Motion of Light in Water: Sex and Science Fiction Writing in the East Village 1957-65 (1988; exp vt The Motion of Light in Water: East Village Sex and Science Fiction Writing: 1960-65; with The Column at the Market's Edge 1990). This book, frank and priapic to the verge of the scabrous, won a Hugo for Best Nonfiction.

Delany's next two novels were Dhalgren (1975; rev 1977; rev 2001 [for full details see Checklist]) and Triton (1976; vt Trouble on Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia 1996). After a six-year gap in which Delany had published little or no sf, Dhalgren was controversial. It is very long, and his critics see it as perilously self-indulgent and flabby, lacking the old economy of effect. It became a bestseller, however, and other critics saw it as his most successfully ambitious work to date. An anonymous youth, the Kid, comes to the violent, nihilist City or Zone of Bellona, where order has fled and there are two moons in the sky, though the rest of the Near-Future USA is apparently normal. He becomes an artist, couples and fights, and writes a book that might be Dhalgren before leaving the city. The opening sentence completes the unfinished final sentence and an enigmatic circle. It is a consciously Modernist book, primarily about the possibilities and difficulties of a youth culture, and partly about being a writer. Triton is more traditionally structured, but is in some ways more sophisticated. It presents a series of future societies differentiated mainly along sexual lines; the male protagonist, who begins by displaying a rather insensitive, traditional machismo, ultimately chooses to become a woman (see Transgender SF), but remains alienated. Triton (a moon of Neptune) is an "ambiguous heterotopia" with a bewildering variety of available lifestyles. The book poses interesting questions about sexuality, and also about freedom of choice. A stage version, sequelling rather than directly adapting the book's events, is Bellona, Destroyer of Cities (2010).

Since then Delany has published two singletons of sf interest. Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984) is the first volume of a projected diptych, an exotic piece set in a galactic civilization. A complex narrative again asks questions about the arbitrary and parochial nature of our ethical expectations, using various forms of enjoyed degradation to make the point. It is probably Delany's most important work of the 1980s. Its continuation, whose announced title is «The Splendour and Misery of Bodies, of Cities», remains unwritten. Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders (2012) is an exceedingly ambitious traversal and recapitulation of his work over the previous decades, couched as the life stories of a group of gay men over the first three decades of the twenty-first century.

During the same period, he published the Nevèrÿon series, which masquerades as Sword-and-Sorcery fantasy: Tales of Nevèrÿon (coll of linked stories 1979; rev 1988); Neveryóna: Or, The Tale of Signs and Cities: Some Informal Remarks Toward the Modular Calculus, Part Four (1983; rev 1989); Flight from Nevèrÿon (coll of linked stories 1985; rev 1989) and The Bridge of Lost Desire (coll of linked stories 1987; rev vt Return to Nevèrÿon 1989). The Nevèrÿon books resemble Stars in My Pocket in their strategy of culture-building, and play both with and against the readers' expectations. They are, in fact, sf in the sense that they invent alien societies, though technically they are Fantasy, being set in a distant, fantastic, pre-industrial past, and to a degree act as both critique and re-creation of the Mighty-Thewed Barbarian genre. Delany's treatment of the idea of bondage, for example, is infinitely more sophisticated, and somewhat more elusive, than that of, say, John Norman in the Gor books. Many ideas are explored, from the erotic to the economic, the concept of Slavery appearing in both these idea-sets, and the slave-collar itself coming to be the prime erotically charged symbol; the later volumes make clear reference to the AIDS epidemic. Though allusive, ambitious, self-reflexive, seriously intended books, they do return in style to something reminiscent of the wittier, more economic, more playful Delany of the 1960s, and are among the more accessible works of his past two decades.

During the six-year hiatus (from about 1969) in his own fiction, Delany began to pay more attention to other people's, while at the same time taking up teaching positions at various universities as cited above. Much of the attendant critical and semiotic writing has been variously collected: early volumes include The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction (coll 1977), The American Shore: Meditations on a Tale of Science Fiction by Thomas M. Disch – Angouleme (1978), Starboard Wine: More Notes on the Language of Science Fiction (coll 1984) and The Straits of Messina (coll 1989; rev 2012); he was given a Pilgrim Award in 1985 for his work in this field. Delany's criticism is often post-structuralist and to a degree Postmodernist, very aware of a contemporary literary context that goes well beyond sf, sometimes very wordy, but important in its persistent attempt to describe sf in terms of the protocols required for reading it. As Delany said in his acceptance speech after receiving the 1985 Pilgrim Award for excellence in sf criticism, "We must learn to read science fiction as science fiction." The second of the four books, an analysis of the structure and images of the short story "Angouleme" (in New Worlds Quarterly, anth 1971, ed Michael Moorcock; later revised for 334 [fixup 1972]) by Thomas M Disch, is written with a spectacularly microscopic fastidiousness. The Straits of Messina collects mostly pieces by Delany that were originally published as by K Leslie Steiner, a pseudonym he uses when writing about his own work. The first and third books, essays on the language of sf, are perhaps of the most general interest. A fifth critical book, Wagner/Artaud: A Play of 19th and 20th Century Critical Fictions (1988 chap), does not bear directly on sf; though a sixth, Silent Interviews: On Language, Race, Sex, Science Fiction, and Some Comics (coll 1994) contained material of genre interest, as do Longer Views (coll 1996), Shorter Views: Queer Thoughts & the Politics of the Paraliterary (coll 1999) and About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters & Five Interviews (coll 2005). The Atheist in the Attic: Plus "Racism and Science Fiction" and "Discourse in an Older Sense": Outspoken Interview (coll 2018), which contains fiction and nonfiction, includes his mature thoughts on Race in SF.

With Marilyn Hacker, Delany edited a short series of four original anthologies, QUARK/, preferring the term "speculative fiction" to "science fiction", and emphasizing experimental writing [see Checklist below]. The slash and the capitalization are integral to the title QUARK/.

With hindsight it can be hypothesized that Delany has had different audiences at different points of his career: a very wide, traditional sf readership up to and including Dhalgren, which sold nearly a million copies in the USA alone; and a narrower, perhaps more intellectual, campus-based readership thereafter. There is no doubt that by the 1980s his fiction (and criticism) had become less accessible, and the real debate about his career must be whether or not he gained more than he lost with his adoption of a denser style towards the later 1970s. At this point his fiction also began to include more passages of obviously polemical intent, some of whose thrust, especially in their icons of abasement, did not carry conviction for all readers. But, though admirers of Delany's earlier work tend to be heavily polarized in their views of his later work, he by no means disappeared from popular notice. The first two volumes of the Nevèrÿon series sold around a quarter of a million each. Lower sales on subsequent editions may have been partly due to resistance in the publishing and book-distribution worlds to his increasingly and explicitly controversial texts.

Delany was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2002; in 2009 he received an Eaton Award for life achievement; in 2014 the Damon Knight Grand Master Award (see SFWA Grand Master Award); and in 2022 a World Fantasy Award for life achievement. His tale "The Hermit of Houston" (September/October 2017 F&SF) won a Locus Award as best novelette. [PN]

see also: Afrofuturism; Arts; Children in SF; Conceptual Breakthrough; Crime and Punishment; Critical and Historical Works About SF; Cyberpunk; Cyborgs; Devolution; Fabulation; Far Future; Galactic Empires; Games and Sports; Genetic Engineering; Gothic SF; Heroes; The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction; Milford Science Fiction Writers' Conference; Music; Mutants; New Worlds; Outer Planets; Paradox; Paranoia; Power Sources; Psychology; Science Fantasy; SF Music; Sex; Sociology; Space Opera; Speculative Fiction; Utopias; Women in SF.

Samuel Ray Delany

born New York: 1 April 1942



The Fall of the Towers


individual titles

collections and stories



The Journals

nonfiction: individual titles

works as editor



  • QUARK/1 (New York: Paperback Library, 1970) with Marilyn Hacker [anth: QUARK/: pb/Russell Fitzgerald]
  • QUARK/2 (New York: Paperback Library, 1971) with Marilyn Hacker [anth: QUARK/: pb/]
  • QUARK/3 (New York: Paperback Library, 1971) with Marilyn Hacker [anth: QUARK/: pb/Roger Penney]
  • QUARK/4 (New York: Paperback Library, 1971) with Marilyn Hacker [anth: QUARK/: pb/Martin Last]

individual titles

about the author

further reading


previous versions of this entry

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