Engineer Al shares his love of Sci-Fi literature.
Samuel Delany is magic. Not Sword & Sorcery or Wizards with wands magic. Delany is the kind of magic that happens when you are innocently reading a fast paced yarn loaded with intrigue, adventure and incredible inventions and suddenly you are walloped in the back of the head with an unseen truth about life, love, mankind or society. After all the best science fiction is not just aliens and ray guns, but it is when futuristic settings and fantastic societies are used as a mirror that allows us to look at ourselves from a different point of view. Delany's work (well, much of it) is not just fiction, it is literature. It is "art". Art with a message and art that is presented in lavish and beautiful language. His work includes truly unique and exotic images presented in a manner that is unparalleled by any other author. Delany's work, in my mind, falls into three different categories.
THE EARLY YEARS (1962-1965):
Delany began publishing novels at a very young age. The first one he wrote while he was 19 years old. Yes he was talented, but he also had some connections that helped him to get work. This is great in the respect that he would possibly never have grown to become such a fantastic talent without this opportunity. Unfortunately his work in the early years is not very impressive. Books from this period include a fantasy trilogy containing THE JEWELS OF APTOR, TOWERS OF TORON and CITY OF A THOUSAND SUNS. These novels were collected together in THE FALL OF THE TOWERS, which is one of the few books in my entire lifetime that I could just not bring myself to finish. Boring, pointless, and lacking in style. Avoid it. Delany also published CAPTIVES OF THE FLAME in this time period (1963) which I did finish, but it was fairly bland.
THE WONDER YEARS (1965-1975):
Suddenly Delany's style is polished, artful and unique. Everything written during this period is something worth reading. THE BALLAD OF BETA-2 is the story of multigenerational interstellar flight that ends in tragedy. This story shines a light on religion, society, and racism as well as featuring a mysterious monster from space! EMPIRE STAR is a multi-layered story about adventure and maturity and the fact that perception can become reality. BABEL-17 is a brilliant novel packed to the brim with "mind blowing" concepts, potent imagery and a powerful story about an unknown language that can change the way a person thinks. THE EINSTEIN INTERSECTION is a novel almost impossible to describe. It won the Nebula Award for best novel in 1967 and revolves around myth, music and the last days of Earth. NOVA is a novel very different from any of Delany's previous works. It is sometimes difficult and perhaps needlessly opaque, but this science fiction version of Moby Dick contains some of the most beautiful imagery I have ever encountered in any story, let alone Science Fiction. It is a novel that I think about often. Delany also wrote a fistful of excellent short stories during this time period. They are collected in several volumes, but my favorite is DRIFTGLASS which does not contain any stories from the later years. The short stories are an excellent way to acquaint yourself with this gifted writer.
Before we move on to the next time period, let's talk about DHALGREN.
DHALGREN (1975) is without a doubt Delany's best known work. It is also highly controversial. Some think it is wonderful, a literary masterpiece. I know that a certain respected reviewer on Fortress: AT who shall remain nameless (but is Michael Barnes) happens to fall into this camp, and I can understand why. DHALGREN is overflowing with Delany's incredible ability to create unforgettable imagery and landscape. It is an expertly crafted work that falls into its own exclusive category. However... it is also close to a thousand pages long. And it goes nowhere. I can't say that I didn't enjoy reading it, but somewhere around page six hundred I was thinking to myself "I sure hope this develops into some kind of plot somehow". It did not. And when I finally reached the end with hope for some glimmer of understanding, I was sorely disappointed. Now, I read somewhere that DHALGREN is a novel loved by people who do not read science fiction and hated by those who love science fiction. Perhaps this statement is true. Something to consider before giving it a try. It is closer to Joyce than it is to Heinlein.
THE PRETENTIOUS YEARS (1976 – present)
After DHALGREN Delany's works no longer seem like novels. They read more like books written to show how to write a novel. They are too perfect. They directly take on important social and political issues. They are dull and painful. The language is exquisite. They are an exercise in reading. Perhaps it is because I know that Delany has taught creative writing at several universities that I see these books as text books for writing Science Fiction, but that is how they feel to me. TRITON was OK, but nothing special. STARS IN MY POCKET LIKE GRAINS OF SAND is one of the greatest titles I have ever heard of, but despite several attempts I have never been able to make it more than halfway through this one before moving on to something more... enjoyable. I made two attempts at reading the RETURN TO NEVERYON series, each time starting with a different book, but they were not able to hold my attention. THEY FLY AT CIRON I was only able to handle the first few pages. As I said previously, I rarely don't finish a book that I've started. Most of the time when this does happen, I am reading Delany. But that's because the good stuff was SO GOOD I just couldn't give up on him despite the disappointments. However, I have never attempted anything Delany wrote after 1993 (when I finally did give up) and he may have written something more worthwhile since that time. If so, someone should let me know. In the meantime, I think I'm going to go and reread THE EINSTEIN INTERSECTION.