Notes on Delany
The following text was originally delivered as a lecture with an accompanying slideshow of images at the Bodies on Display film festival—which explores pornography, fetish, and art—organized by Joey Molina and hosted at The Mammal Gallery in Atlanta in September 2017. Research for this project took place at the Stuart A. Rose Manuscripts, Archives, and Rare Book Library at Emory University and the Auburn Avenue Research Library for African American Culture and History, part of the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System.
Samuel Ray Delany, Jr. was on April Fool’s Day 1942, befitting, as one early dust jacket biography points out, “one with such remarkable and capricious gifts.” His father, Samuel Delany, Sr., ran the Levy & Delany Funeral Home on 7th Avenue in Harlem, and his mother, Margaret, was a library clerk in the New York Public Library System.
Delany’s legal name, with its punctuated middle initial, only appears in print and on the covers of his books. For most of his life, to his friends he has simply been “Chip,” a nickname he invented for himself at summer camp when he was thirteen, having grown envious of other campers' nicknames. One of the first people to call him "Chip" was his fellow camper Ben, whom Delany describes in his memoir: “He was something of a misfit at camp. Nevertheless I liked him. Also—and I think this was certainly a point of sympathy between us—we both masturbated in the same way, rubbing ourselves against our mattresses, rather than the more socially accepted hand method. In Ben’s tent, thirty feet up the hill, this was the occasion for some teasing, but [he] was hardened enough by derision that he made no special effort to keep it from the other boys, most of whom were, after all, pursuing the same ends by manual means.”
In 1956 Delany enrolled at the Bronx High School for Science, where on his first day he met Marilyn Hacker, “a long-haired [Jewish] girl in glasses.” After four years of friendship, in which they read and encouraged each other’s early literary output, Marilyn “made it clear [they] were to go to bed” together. Through this experience, Delany writes in his memoir, he “discovered [he] could perform heterosexually.” But, he writes, “there was a whole positive aspect, somewhere in the hard-to-define area between the emotions and the physical that I knew from my experiences with other men was missing. As I explained to Marilyn, a man could physically excite me from a distance. I seemed to need actual contact with a woman in order to become excited—and I had to think about men in order to reach a climax. She seemed to find this interesting.” A year later, in August 1961, they were married.
One evening Delany’s cruising on the Williamsburg Bridge walkway led to sex with “a tall, midwestern experimental filmmaker.” When he returned home the next morning and told Marilyn, she seemed pleased. “Why don’t you go back and volunteer to give him a hand with his next film project?” she asked. Later, while she herself was walking on the Williamsburg Bridge, Marilyn was stopped by two cops curious about what a woman was doing out alone around known gay cruising grounds.
Shortly after Christmas 1961, Marilyn lied about her age to the staff at Ace Books in order to secure a job as an editorial assistant, telling them she was 21. A couple of months later, Delany, only 19 years old and a recent drop out from the City College of New York, finished his first science fiction novel, The Jewels of Aptor. It tells the story of a young poet who joins a seafaring quest in a post-atomic future where civilization has reverted to medieval or ancient customs and society. Marilyn took the manuscript, which bore a pseudonym, to the editor-in-chief at Ace Books, who liked it and accepted it for publication. Only then did Marilyn mention that “Bruno Callabro” was actually her husband, Chip.
In an essay on her beginnings as a writer originally published in a 1989 issue of Essence magazine [and later published under the title "Positive Obsession" in her 1995 collection Bloodchild and Other Stories], Octavia Butler writes, “I write science fiction and fantasy for a living. As far as I know I’m still the only black woman who does this. When I began to do a little public speaking, one of the questions I heard most often was, ‘What good is science fiction to black people?’ I was usually asked this by a black person. I gave bits and pieces of answers that didn’t satisfy me and that probably didn’t satisfy my questioners. I resented the question. But the answer to that was obvious. There was exactly one other black science fiction writer working successfully when I sold my first novel: Samuel R. Delany, Jr. Why? Lack of interest? Lack of confidence? A young black woman once said to me, ‘I always wanted to write science fiction, but I didn’t think there were any black women doing it.’ But still I’m asked, what good is science fiction to black people? What good is any form of literature to black people? What good is science fiction’s thinking about the present, the future, and the past? What good is its tendency to warn or to consider alternative ways of thinking and doing?”
In the six years following the publication of The Jewels of Aptor, Delany published eight more science fiction novels. He won one of the first Nebula Awards, science fiction’s highest honor, for his 1966 novel Babel-17, in which language itself has become a weapon of interstellar war. In the novel this is discovered by the beautiful starship captain Rydra Wong, who is also a linguist, poet, and telepath. Over the course of the book, Wong becomes involved in a polyamorous relationship with two of her fellow spacecraft navigators.
The following year, Delany won two Nebula Awards: the first the for The Einstein Intersection, a novel in which a member of an alien race grapples with the challenges of assimilating with Earth’s dominant cultural ideologies.
As Delany made his way back to his seat from receiving his second award of the night, for the short story “Aye, and Gomorrah...,” the legendary science fiction writer Isaac Asimov took him by the arm and pulled him close. Asimov said, “You know, Chip, we only voted you those awards because you’re black.”
In her 1967 essay “The Pornographic Imagination” [originally published in The Partisan Review and later collected in her 1969 book Styles of Radical Will], Susan Sontag writes, “Where does fantasy, condemned by psychiatric rather than artistic standards, end and imagination begin? Since it’s hardly likely that contemporary critics seriously mean to bar prose narratives that are unrealistic from the domain of literature, one suspects that a special standard is being applied to sexual themes. This becomes clearer if one thinks of another kind of book, another kind of ‘fantasy.’ The ahistorical dreamlike landscape where action is situated, the peculiarly congealed time in which acts are performed—these occur almost as often in science fiction as they do in pornography. There is nothing conclusive in the well-known fact that most men and women fall short of the sexual prowess that people in pornography are represented as enjoying; that the size of organs, number and duration of orgasms, variety and feasibility of sexual powers, and amount of sexual energy all seem grossly exaggerated. Yes, and the spaceships and the teeming planets depicted in science fiction novels don’t exist either. The fact that the site of narrative is an ideal topos disqualifies neither pornography nor science fiction from being literature. Such negations of real, concrete, three-dimensional social time, space, and personality—and such ‘fantastic’ enlargements of human energy—are rather the ingredients of another kind of literature, founded on another mode of consciousness. The materials of the pornographic books that count as literature are, precisely, one of the extreme forms of human consciousness.”
After releasing four short stories and the novel Nova to widespread acclaim in 1968, Delany would not publish again for five years. After moving with his wife to San Francisco on New Year’s Eve 1968, Delany began working on two pornographic novels. The first of these, originally released under the title The Tides of Lust, was published in 1973 and tells the story of a series of alternatingly erotic and violent encounters in an American seaport town following the arrival of a seafaring captain and his insatiably perverse crew.
Although he finished it just days before the Stonewall Riots in June 1969, Delany’s second pornographic novel, Hogg, was deemed unpublishable for a quarter century after its completion. The title character, a lecherous and murderous truck driver, introduces himself to the nameless narrator by saying, “They call me Hogg ‘cause a hog lives dirty. I don’t wash none. I don’t even take my dick out my pants to piss most times, unless it’s [all] over a cocksucker like you.” What follows are relentlessly graphic episodes of sex and violence that explore nearly every imaginable taboo and fetish. In an interview, Delany has stated that Hogg takes place in Pornotopia, which he describes “the land where any situation can become rampantly sexual under the least increase in the pressure of attention. Like its sister lands, Comedia and Tragedia,” he notes, “it can only be but so realistic.”
In an essay on Delany’s pornographic writing published in The Los Angeles Review of Books, Roger Bellin writes, “A laundry list of sex acts we’d usually think of as transgressive, boundary-pushing, or kinky are indulged in, with only the happiest consequences... It’s a weirdly familiar utopia, though not one we usually recognize as a utopia: that is, it’s the world of pornography—a place where sex is always wanted and always found, where every truck-stop restroom is full of exactly the people you hoped it would be, and who have all been waiting for you to get there so they can do just what you’d been hoping they’d do. [We] might assume that would mean the book is meant for a specific kind of audience (aroused) and a particular way of reading (masturbatory)... For most of its actual readers, however, the experience [will] surely be at least sometimes the difficult experience of reading someone else’s pornography, rather than their own. It is certainly possible to find worthwhile the effort it takes to attempt the broadening of one’s libidinal sympathies—the way a psychologically realistic novel can demand our sympathy with someone else’s life and thoughts, this one demands our sympathy with his sexual desires... But reading it can still be a dull, mind-numbing experience: all the characters’ pleasures, all their ‘glittering extremities,’ are decidedly not shared by their reader, and the sheer quantity of verbiage devoted to bare descriptions of who drank or ate what, while who else put his penis where, might strain the limits of anyone’s patience. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s not really the perversity that repels—but the repetition. Pornotopia, it turns out, has the same narrative problem all utopias do—a perfectly happy place is more fun to live in than it is to read about.”
In 1975 Delany published Dhalgren, an over 800-page novel that had been written alongside The Tides of Lust and Hogg. Taking place in a fictional midwestern city isolated from the rest of the world by an unnamed catastrophe, Dhalgren became Delany’s most popular book, selling over a million copies. Despite the derision it received from the science fiction community, Dhalgren was compared to the work of James Joyce and celebrated as a triumph of postmodern literary fiction. The cyberpunk pioneer William Gibson has called it “a riddle that was never meant to be solved.”
The following year Delany published Trouble on Triton, subtitled An Ambiguous Heterotopia, in which the relationships of a male sex worker from Mars unfold against the backdrop of impending interplanetary war. It was written partially as a response to Ursula K. LeGuin’s 1974 anarchist science fiction novel The Dispossessed, whose subtitle was An Ambiguous Utopia.
In his 1967 essay “Of Other Places,” Michel Foucault writes, “First there are utopias. Utopias are sites with no real place. They are sites that have a general relation of direct or inverted analogy with the real space of society... There are also, probably in every culture, in every civilization, real places [which] are something like counter-sites, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which [all] the other real sites that can be found within the culture are simultaneously represented, contested and inverted... Because these places are absolutely different from all the sites that they reflect and speak about, I shall call them, by way of contrast to utopias, heterotopias... The heterotopia is capable of juxtaposing in a single real place several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible. Thus it is that the theatre brings onto the rectangle of the stage, one after the other, a whole series of places that are foreign to one another; thus it is that the cinema is a very odd rectangular room, at the end of which, on a two-dimensional screen, one sees the projection of three-dimensional space.”
The fourteen year-long marriage of Samuel Delany and Marilyn Hacker included alternating periods of cohabitation and separation, polyamorous experimentation, and affairs with men and women conducted by both parties. In 1974 their daughter Iva was born, and that same year Hacker won the National Book Award for Poetry for her collection Presentation Piece. The couple separated for a final time a year after their daughter’s birth and were divorced in 1980. Hacker now divides her time between New York and Paris with her partner Karyn London. Since 1991 Delany has been in an open relationship with Denis Rickett, whom he met when Rickett was a homeless book vendor on the streets of New York.
A final comment from Sontag’s “The Pornographic Imagination”: “This spectacularly cramped form of the human imagination has, nevertheless, its particular access to some truth. This truth—about sensibility, about sex, about individual personality, about despair, about limits—can be shared when it projects itself into art. That discourse one might call the poetry of transgression is also knowledge. He who transgresses not only breaks a rule. He goes somewhere that others are not; he knows something that others don’t know.”