When it comes to imagining the possibilities for the human race, some science fiction writers go hopeful, others go bleak. Samuel R. Delany goes sideways.
The 73-year-old author, who speaks Thursday at UCSC, had his first science-fiction novel published in 1962, and in the half a century since has presented visions of both utopia and dystopia, which always made me wonder just where he stood on the scale of optimism-to-pessimism about the nature of humankind.
In an email exchange, I finally got to ask him, using as a recent example the remarkably upbeat shift in his last novel, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders (though I admitted to him I haven’t yet finished it) from its fantastic but almost downright depressing predecessor, Dark Reflections. (It’s worth noting that these books are very much companion pieces, despite their differences. And that at the core of Dark Reflections is the character of Arnold Hawley, a poet who, like Delany himself, is gay and African-American.)
Delany’s answer subverts the very nature of my question, which I maybe should have expected since he’s known for subverting pretty much everything he can.
“The notions of pessimism and optimism are a matter of framing,” he writes. “I think the movement from one to the other is a basically dialectical progression.”
Then he challenges the definition of the words, or the reading of them in this context, at least. “At the end of his story, who is more optimistic than Arnold Hawley, with his vision of the ‘village’ that cares for us all?” And then, a tease: “And you haven’t gotten to the end of Through the Valley, yet.” (Gah! It wasn’t easy to resist sneaking a peek at the end before I wrote this.)
One thing’s for certain: I love any writer who questions authority even when he is the authority. Delany is that kind of writer. Most readers probably discovered him, as I did, through his 1975 novel Dhalgren, a dystopian story set in the fictional American city of Bellona after a large-scale catastrophe which is never described. The hopeless scenario is sharply contrasted by the book’s gorgeously mysterious imagery and the lyrical, practically Joycean style of the narrative. Though he’s won four Nebula awards and two Hugos in his career for other novels and short stories, Dhalgren is sort of the people’s choice for his most important work: confounding, epic, frankly sexual and highly controversial, it sold over a million copies.
As with Frank Herbert’s Dune or Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed, the popularity of Dhalgren was almost a mini-social-movement in itself, one that not even Delany saw coming.
“I didn’t think a lot of people were going to be interested in it,” he tells me, relaying how a young editor at Doubleday bought the book through Delany’s agent on a Friday, and then was forced by higher-ups to “un-buy” it by Tuesday of the next week. “The people who overrode him never read a page of it, I gather. They read some reader synopsis which said, ‘Too long for a SF novel,’ and ‘Full of sex and strange writing.’ ‘It has no plot.’ I’d worked hard on it for five years. When it was actually published and went into five printings in the first three months, I was a very surprised writer. Happy. But surprised.”
I’ve always considered Delany to be one of a few writers in the 1970s who was able to take the most radical experimentation in science fiction and bring it to the mainstream. LeGuin and Harlan Ellison are two others, so it’s no surprise that he says he has a great respect for their work. I was, however, surprised to learn that Philip K. Dick was said to hate Delany’s style, and that the feeling is mutual. “Dick, I always found unreadable—so I’m not surprised he found me pretty much the same,” Delany says.
The release this year of High-Rise, the film adaptation of a famed 1975 novel by another experimental science fiction writer, J.G. Ballard, raises the question of whether Dhalgren could ever make it onto the big screen. Delany seems open to it, saying he was pleased with both the opera and the theater piece adapted from it—though he’s more immediately consumed with Dover Books’ upcoming reprint of Dark Reflections, along with the first volume of his journals.
“There have been tickles of interest,” says Delany of a big-screen Dhalgren. “There’s always a chance for anything.”
Samuel R. Delany will read from his work and participate in a Q&A at the Music Recital Hall at UCSC at 6 p.m. on Thursday, March 10. Free.