Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Nova and Samuel R Delany

"Hey, Mouse! Play us something," one of the mechanics called from the bar.

"Didn't get signed on no ship yet?" chided the other. "Your spinal socket'll rust up. Come on, give us a number."

The Mouse stopped running his finger around the rim of his glass. Wanting to say "no" he began a "yes." Then he frowned.

The mechanics frowned too:

He was an old man.

He was a strong man.

As the Mouse pulled his hand to the edge of the table, the derelict lurched forward. Hip banged the counter. Long toes struck a chair leg: the chair danced on the flags.

Old. Strong. The third thing the Mouse saw: Blind.

He swayed before the Mouse's table. His hand swung up; yellow nails hit the Mouse's cheek. (Spider's feet?) "You, boy . . ."

The Mouse stared at the pearls behind rough, blinking lids.

"You, boy. Do you know what it was like?"

Must be blind, the Mouse thought. Moves like blind. Head sits forward so on his neck. And his eyes—

The codger flapped out his hand, caught a chair, and yanked it to him. It rasped as he fell on the seat. "Do you know what it looked like, felt like, smelt like—do you?"

The Mouse shook his head; the fingers tapped his cheek.

- Nova, Samuel R Delany, 1968

I've been meaning for a while to write about the works of Samuel R Delany, but it's quite a daunting thought: Delany is a much-critiqued writer, and it'd be very easy for commentary to be extremely trite. However, I had an enforced chance to re-read some of his books early in 2009 (abed with flu) so will give it a go.

I first read Delany's Nova (see longer excerpt from the introduction) in my early teens, and found the opening amazing in its difference from other SF I'd read. It was the first time I'd encountered the device of not immediately explaining a setting, and it's still intriguing. We find out pretty quickly what's going on, and the Mouse gets his wish of joining a starship crew, except (in a scenario strongly reminiscent of Moby-Dick) he finds that ship, the Roc, is captained by the scarred Lorq Von Ray, whose obsession is to seek out a nova, meanwhile pursued by a psychopathic adversary, Prince Red.

Nova - I recommend its Wikipedia article - is centrally a quest novel, with explicit references to the Grail quest. Its main story is a conflict for dominance of interstellar trade between the Red and Von Ray dynasties (think Old World vs. New World fighting over Third World interests, transferred to an interstellar arena). That could be pretty dull, but the Grail in question is "Illyrion", a prized superheavy material that powers starships and terraforming projects, and Von Ray intends to get it at source: from the heart of an exploding nova. The dynastic conflict is also very much personal, Von Ray having been facially scarred by Prince in a fight over the latter's sister.

As a melodramatic space adventure, Nova can loosely be described as space opera, but it was an early example (long before "New Space Opera" became a genre term) of how the format could have high literary standards. The Roc's crew are not the macho stereotypes of space opera, but very disparate gentle characters with a decidedly countercultural stance. The narrative is nonlinear: flashbacks tell the stories of Von Ray and the Mouse, and there are extensive observational asides on cultural issues from a narrator character, Katin. Other unusual themes are the use in this future of Tarot divination for major decisions; the Tarot is repeatedly mentioned explicitly, through scenes of divination and characters playing Tarot Whist, and implicitly in this scene where the four suits of the Tarot (cups, coins, swords and wands) appear in a video message from Prince.

Across the room Prince turned to face them. "Just what the hell" — His black-gloved hand struck a crystal beaker, as well as its embossed dish, from the table — "do you think you're doing, Lorq?" The hand came back; the dagger and the carved wooden stick clattered to to the floor from the other side.

Another resemblance to Moby-Dick is the wide racial mix of the Roc's crew. Lorq Von Ray himself is mixed-race (his father Swedish, his mother Senegalese) and this caused initial problems when the great but often conservative (and possibly racist) editor John W Campbell refused to serialise it in Analog because of his view - cringeworthy even at the time - that SF readers weren't ready for "a Negro protagonist". However, Nova's multicultural slant is perfectly normal in SF now (consider Deep Space Nine, with its African-American captain) and the book is remarkable for how little, if at all, it has dated. It was out of print from 1990-2002, but is now readily findable. A modest proposal to Hollywood: if any book deserves to be made into a movie, this does (Luc Besson would do it well; Nova's visual focus and multiracial sensibilities are not unlike those of The Fifth Element).

Nova was written in the late 60s - early 70s period when Delany's SF output peaked in quantity and mainstream SF acclaim (as judged by awards). The same time-slot saw Nebula Awards for the novels Babel-17 and The Einstein Intersection, and the short stories Aye, and Gomorrah and Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones (collected among others in Driftglass). Although varied in setting, Delany's works of this period have are common factors. They're rarely about heroes, but are more commonly about encounters among future working-class people that examine assumptions about culture and language. In Nova, for instance, all work has been converted to hands-on format by universal cyborg implants, and the abolition of disease has made hygiene taboos obsolete, so that it's perfectly normal for someone to pick up food with their foot or to accept another's sucked sweet. In The Star Pit, perpetual war has led to the institution of "group marriages" designed to give children a stable upbringing given the likelihood that some of the parents will die. Babel-17, a literal dramatisation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis - "language shapes thought", has "triples" as a routine form of marital relationship for starship-piloting teams.

Where there are characters with exceptional abilities, these tend to come with a downside, making these characters "outsiders". Aye, and Gomorrah concerns "Spacers" whose elite status as astronauts comes at the expense of being neutered before puberty; their main pleasures are general high jinks and winding up "frelks", individuals who fetishize them for their very unattainability. The novella The Star Pit has "golden", individuals whose unique ability to pilot intergalactic craft is coupled with psychopathic personality. The Mouse in Nova is a skilled "sensory syrynx" player, but has a speech impediment, as does Brass in Babel-17 (caused by his implanted fangs).

Since Barthes' essay Death of the Author took root in literary criticism, there's been a standard caution about relating text content to authorial background. Nevertheless, as Delany later moved toward more overtly autobiographical material and has been extremely candid about his background - such as in his extremely readable and Hugo-winning The Motion of Light in Water: Sex and Science Fiction Writing in the East Village - it's hard not to make such connections. As this pseudonymous autobiography by "K Leslie Steiner" describes, Delany is African-American, gay and dyslexic, which relates readily to his themes. He's also a highly-respected academic who has worked in professorial posts in English in US universities since the late 1980s: the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, University of Buffalo, and since 2001 Temple University.

These themes - culture, language, race, sexual identity, and the intellectual/academic mindset - continued to develop in his SF works in the 1970s and 80s: Dhalgren explores the adventures of a bisexual young man in Bellona, a reality-shifting dystopian city created when an American city is engulfed by a singularity; Triton is set in a utopian society where people are free to change identity, including gender; and Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand involves a romance between an intellectual and a slave in a far future where gender identity is very different (all sentient creatures are defined as female by default, but male when the object of another's attraction).

The 1970s also saw the development of new thread in Delany's work, what he openly called "his pornography", starting with The Tides of Lust (1973) - a compromise with his publisher, who wanted to call it the The Tides of Eros - and now re-released under Delany preferred title, Equinox. (I have a copy of the Savoy paperback signed by Delany - it's one of my few treasured literary possessions. It tells the story of the violent and sexual encounters that take place among a cast of low-life characters over a day and night when a black ship's captain (who, it's strongly implied, may be the Devil) arrives at a small American seaport. The work has been described as "a Baudelairean rite of passage", and is certainly serious in intent. The overall effect is distinctly unerotic, the book being full of literary quotations, knowing asides about stylistic and racial stereotypes of pornography, and literary passages in which characters step out of the action and comment on the plot.

Bibliographically, the most interesting aspect is that Equinox is inseparable from the Delany canon; it was written more or less contemporaneously with Dhalgren and is full of motifs that repeat in Delany's other works, such as Nova: a black ship's captain; a one-shoed character; one with bitten nails and a rope holding up his trousers; and brothers, one black and one white. Even the works of Delany's artist friend Russell FitzGerald make a shared appearance, as influence for the Alkane Institute's art museum in Nova and as Proctor's "Black Studio" in Equinox. Nova and Equinox also share a general focus on dark vs. light (equinox, the time when day and night are balanced, recalls Lorq's interpretation of the Tarot card The Sun in Nova:

"Two boys with hands locked for a fight. You see how one is light and the other is dark? I see love against death, light against darkness, chaos against order. I see the clash of all opposites under ... the sun. I see Prince and myself.

For critical discussion of Delany's pornographic works, see Delany's Dirt by Ray Davis. Equinox was, and still is, controversial. Like the following Hogg, it featured under-age characters (in the reprinted 1994 edition of Equinox, this was tackled by adding a "Note of Moral Intent" and adding 100 years to the relevant characters' ages). The Mad Man is very different in flavour: in Delany's description "a pornotopic fantasy", it's a massive literary novel with elements of pornography, social commentary, magic realist fantasy and romance. Set in New York just before full awareness of the impact of HIV, it features a young and brilliant African-American academic whose thesis is to investigate the biography of Timothy Hasler, a philosopher who was stabbed at a gay bar some years previously. In the process, Marr finds himself increasingly drawn into sexual encounters with homeless men, eventually establishing a permanent relationship with one.

The book is provocative by any standards; Delany has mentioned that it was inspired by his outrage at Harold Brodkey's classic New Yorker article To My Readers ("I have AIDS. I am surprised that I do") in which Brodkey takes the stance of undeserving victim. The protagonist of The Mad Man, John Marr, states the exact opposite ("I do not have AIDS. I'm surprised that I don't . . .") and the novel explicitly argues, even to the extent of citing a Lancet paper on seroconversion, that there are areas of sexual behaviour where there's no hard-edged data about HIV risks and which, anecdotally, appear to be low-risk contrary to general perceptions. Despite the theme, however, it remarkably manages not to be a dark or depressing book; for the most part there's a huge cameraderie among its large cast of outsider characters. (The Pinocchio Theory has a considerably more intelligent review than I can muster).

The Mad Man moves toward the focus of Delany's most recent works, many of which have been largely autobiographical. Hasler's relationship with a street person, "Leaky" Sowps, mirrors Delany's long-term relationship with Dennis Rickett, told in the autobiographical comic Bread & Wine: An Erotic Tale of New York. Delany recounts his experiences in the non-fictional Times Square Red, Times Square Blue too, and the protagonist of the 2007 Dark Revelations - and its overdue companion sequel, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders - isn't a million miles from Delany either. However, the novella Phallos breaks away from this territory into the interesting device of modern academic commentary framing a fictional history of Neoptolomus, a young man in the time of the emperor Hadrian. It doesn't look as if we'll be seeing any time soon From The Splendor and Misery of Bodies, of Cities, the sequel to Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand that was under way a long time back. Personally, vastly intelligent and readable though Delany's latest works are, I find it a pity that he has moved away from the richly-imagined SF that sprang from metaphorical exploration of his personal themes - I'm sure he'll be remembered as one of the SF greats - but one can hardly dictate where writers' interests go.

For more bibliographies, which include Delany's critical works and non-fiction titles such as see the bibliographies section of Jay Schuster's Samuel R. Delany Information page, which is probably the single most comprehensive guide to SRD resources online.

- Ray


  1. I have read and re-read "Nova" at least 5 times since the 1970's. I always thought it would make a great movie. I think the public will accept this story, what with all the grimy, dystopian films and series such as "Alien," "BSG," and "Firefly." Interesting that these three do not have much of a racial element, though (BSG, maybe, cylon/human).
    Thanks for your critique of Delany's work.
    Lisa K.

  2. "You're rapping, Mouse." Lorq let go of the post at the top of the steps. "Let's get bac to Taafite."

    Rapping: It was part of the African American dialect of English in the 1960s meaning "to converse", and very soon after that in its present usage as a term denoting the musical style.

    I always wondered where it came from, now it makes sense.

  3. And in this context it has the more specific meaning, since the Mouse is rambling as the bliss has kicked in: "to talk compulsively while high on drugs" (see Getting loose, by Sam Binkley).