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In Praise of Samuel R. Delany (nytimes.com)
56 points by Hooke 65 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 20 comments



I've long had a love-hate relationship with Delany's writing. He has perhaps the greatest amount of sheer verbal talent of any writer I'm acquainted with. Simply calling his work "lyrical" doesn't do it justice. He's a true poet who writes long fiction.

And he's used speculative fiction to brilliantly explore various social topics - including homosexuality - during a time when such explorations were unwelcome.

But to his detriment, he seem to be quite a. . . well, a pervert, in the most classical sense. I actually think that Delany delights in shocking his readers with detailed depictions of disgusting acts.

Reading his novel Hogg quickly becomes a kind of self-inflicted endurance test. It's just a non-stop description of graphic descriptions of murder, child molestation, incest, coprophilia, coprophagia, urolagnia, anal-oral contact, necrophilia, and rape. It's not that there's any one scene or act that's mind-blowingly horrible. It's more just the staggering quantity, and the unrelenting pace. There is literally not a single page in the book that does not describe some sexual or violent act. I found myself exhausted after each sitting, and extremely relieved when I finally reached the end of the book.

Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, his most recent major novel, is more of the same. (With the addition, I suppose, of sexualized booger-eating.)

The Tides of Lust is a study in pedophilia and sadomasochism.

A recent long essay of his in a major online publication (I can't seem to find it now) has Delany intimately describing his attendance at geriatric sex parties in random hotels. He lingers on the scene where he kisses a toothless man, describes the taste of his semen. etc. It's not educational or poetic. Again and again his desire seems to be to shock the reader.

And he has a record of defending NAMBLA.

He's a genius, no doubt - but my totally non-professional opinion is that he has something like histrionic personality disorder. And I certainly wouldn't trust my kids around him.


I've re-re-re-read most of his earlier works (Nova, Dhalgren, Driftglass and so on). I would recommend them to anyone, though Dhalgren and Triton are probably inappropriate and maybe incomprehensible for younger readers.

I got maybe 50pp into Nest of Spiders and was done. Every few months I try to read a few more pages, and always put the book down again.

However, I think that Delaney did not fail this reader. If anything, what he wrote in Spiders made me realize that I wasn't as open-minded as I thought I was. I don't care to expand those particular limits, the subject matter is definitely not my cup of tea. But I'm happy we live in a society where he can publish that work, and I'm happy to at least try to read it, and happy to do my bit to support him doing it.


> made me realize that I wasn't as open-minded as I thought I was.

I really don't understand this use of the phrase "open-minded". Open-mindedness, to me, means being willing to question deeply-held opinions and beliefs. And being okay with other humans freely making very different decisions with regards to religion, sexuality, occupation, etc.

None of that has the slightest thing to do with trying to quell instinctive reactions of disgust to pedophilia and booger-eating.


Perhaps "open minded" is not the right phrase. "Acceptance of appalling and disgusting behavior" is closer. It's definitely a value judgement on my part, I'm more conservative than I thought.

Eat all the boogers and ---- all the ----- that you want, I won't bother you and I'll even help protect your right to do it. I just don't want to know details.


People often have a stronger reaction to your religion than your booger-eating; I don't actually understand the distinction you're making here. It reads like being "open-minded" for you is to be tolerant of the things that you're currently tolerant of, but has nothing to do with the things that you are not currently tolerant of, reactions to which you deem "instinctive."

I don't believe that disgust with either of those things are instincts, they seem like examples of things that are learned and vary by culture. Instincts are more like being startled by loud noises, or things unexpectedly touching your head.


There's actually a good amount of evidence that the emotion of disgust - and even the associated facial expressions - are universal among human cultures. See research by Plutchik, Rozin, and Ekman.

It's elicited typically by potential biological contaminants, like bodily fluids, spoiled foods, vermin, bodily violations (blood, gore, etc.), and infection.


> I wasn't as open-minded as I thought I was.

Don't open it too wide, unhygienic stuff might fall in.

On a related note: why is it that people understand basic food hygiene (don't eat rotten meat, wash your vegetables, spoiled milk is bad, etc.), but can't seem to grasp that the same basic concept applies to mental food too?

You are what you eat, and that applies to what you read and consume in media too.


I tried to read one of his books back in the 80's and really couldn't get started. Now I have no regrets at all so thanks for that!


>He's a genius, no doubt - but my totally non-professional opinion is that he has something like histrionic personality disorder. And I certainly wouldn't trust my kids around him.

Don't worry, the worst perverts, as evident by court documents and surprised neighbors when a case explodes, are usually prudes. Heck, some are even catholic priests!


The worst perverts are everywhere and operate systematically from Micheal Jackson to catholic priests.


I started with Delany's Nova when I was about 12 or 13. What an incredible story! For something published in 1966, it really pushed the boundaries of science fiction not just in terms of topics (race, drugs, society, etc.) but also in terms of bringing literary sensibilities to a genre that many people regarded as imaginative yet immature trash.

Delany was not the only science fiction author doing this during the 60s and 70s, but Nova was so magical and effective. It even stands up today -- I reread it every few years, and it doesn't seem dated (although that comment maybe dates me!)

I have to say, however, that his big novels of the 1970s -- Dhalgren and Triton -- were hard reads. As TFA notes, he kept pushing the boundaries of science fiction, but the boundaries went too far "out there" for me to appreciate. They were long and abstract, and it made me feel bad that I was too obtuse to really get into them.


Remembered from the time, found at https://www.tor.com/2011/07/06/heinleins-worst-novel/

"That said, was it Analog or F&SF where a winning entry in a contest for SF-related jokes was:

Q: What do the speed of light, absolute zero, and page 60 of Dhalgren have in common? A: No one will ever get past them."


That's a great post and a great thread. It's entertaining to read the discussion of Heinlein, as I came of age in a very cloistered sci-fi literary environment and as a teen in the 1980s didn't know anyone who appreciated science fiction literature and could discuss and compare classic authors like the people in that thread.

Once I plugged into the Internet in the 90s, I subscribed to a Gene Wolfe usenet group but otherwise didn't seek out my "tribe." From time to time I get to catch up on these debates when someone mentions/links to them on HN, so thank you!


I read Nova (and Sam) for the first time a couple of years ago. It was incredible, I loved how Tarot was the fashionable form of self-advice & guidance.

For anyone in the Bay Area, check out a Friends if the San Francisco Library book sale in Fort Mason and trawl through the SF tables for some classics.


Always fun to look at the tvtropes list for authors, here is his:

https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Creator/SamuelRDelany

You need to click on each novel to see them all..


"Dhalgren" and "Stars in My Pockdt Like Grains of Sand" are two of the most revelatory, liberating novels I've ever had the pleasure to encounter.

Neither is easy. Both reward re-reading.

The man is a treasure!


I'm actually reading Stars in My Pocket right now and really enjoying it. And I loved all his early works and Triton was great too. But I can totally relate to someone not wanting to read straight up pornography which is what he described Hogg as being (and I'm sure he's right). All novelists need an editor, or someone to tell them when they're being so self-indulgent that the only person that writing will appeal to is themselves (which is fine, I just don't have to read it).

Dhalgren was really great and a true post-modern classic. When I'm done reading some more classic fantasy I'll give Neveryon #1 a try.


I see Hogg as less of a novel meant for the general public and more of an academic exercise.

Delaney's shtick was showing that pulp and smut weren't low art, often taking those genres to their academic or weird ends.

For instance in the second Neveryon story (first book) he just up and creates a page long info dump about a character we never see again -- seemingly just to flex. I loved it and I love his writing.

At the same time he is very much a pervert who makes it known he absolutely loved being a Times Square twink through various interviews and talks. It's weird, and he's a weird dude. But I adore his work.

Also I feel like if any science fiction author was gonna have their sins brought to light during the me too stuff it would have been him, but thankfully there hasn't been signs of him being a predator. I hope that remains case


I moved to the Bay in the summer of 2013 to work for a YC company. I read Dhalgren every night then. The way he weaves technology into the story is so different from other science fiction: incredibly light on exposition and origin, heavy emphasis on its performance. It is jarring at first but becomes very beautiful. I won't be the first or the last to say Dhalgren is uneven, but it's worth trying to finish a few times.


Delany's writing raises the perennial question of whether we can separate the art from the artist (the view in the current climate seems to be an emphatic "no", see for example the recent Times article about Nolde's paintings being removed from Merkel's office [1]). For the obvious comparison of Nabokov, I'm inclined to view Lolita separately from the author and his personal beliefs. If Nabokov held views similar to Humbert, he kept those thoughts to himself, and I don't think anyone reading Lolita can charge Nabokov of advocating those ideas, although it seems really popular to do so in literary circles today.

I am not sure the same case about "a lack of advocacy" can be made for Delany or his oeuvre.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/10/arts/nolde-nazi-exhibitio...




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