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Samuel R. Delany
Vintage Books/Random House, 816 pages

Samuel R. Delany
Samuel R. Delany was born in 1942 in Harlem, New York. He's lived in Greece, San Francisco and London but most of his life has been spent living in New York City. In 1988, he began working as a professor at the University of Massachusetts.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Interview: Samuel R. Delany
SF Site Review: Nova
Samuel R. Delany Tribute Site

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

In the moonlit woods, a man with ugly hands who claims to be 27 years old but looks 16, encounters (well, more than just encounters, copulates with) a woman distinguished by a scratch down her lower leg. She leads him to the discovery of a chain of prisms that he wraps around himself.

The man does not remember his name or much of his past. Upon his arrival in Bellona, a city in which the rules of modern American life have been discarded, he receives a sort of welcoming gift, a wrist band from which seven blades protrude, called an orchid. There is no need of money. A sort of hippie communal lifestyle prevails, for those who wish to partake of it. A black man is celebrated for his sexual prowess. The white girl he raped seeks him, but though he isn't all that hard to find, can never confront him. Sex in a variety of configurations -- hetero, homo, bi -- in single and group settings and at times involving those under the legal age of consent, is routine to the point where it is unremarkable. There's a certain tolerance for acts of violence, even murder. Everybody can, more or less, "do their own thing."

Because of his youthful appearance and apparent naivete, the man is given the name of Kid (later to become Kidd, then to become Kid again, as if the dropped "d" represents the gaining and loss of innocence). He meets several men and women and has sex with them, alone or in various combinations, but seems most connected emotionally to Lanya and, later on, a fifteen year old boy named Denny. (Have I mentioned there's a lot of sex in this book?) Kidd goes from being a menial servant to a strange couple attempting to maintain middle-class normalcy in a post-apocalyptic world to a gang leader and local folk hero. He writes poetry. He loses track of time.

He's not sure if he wrote the journal he carries with him. He's not sure if he's learning about events that actually happened by reading the journal, or has made up these events, or that he has written things down so he can remember them, or if someone else has written it. There's a list of names (the significance of which is unknown), including that of William Dhalgren, who may or may not be someone he has known, or maybe is him. As Kidd, he is an innocent trying to make his way; as Kid, he becomes a bit obnoxious, a bit of a manipulator now that he knows his way around. Presumably, he is the same person.

He keeps meeting people who wear the same chains as he does. He is not sure if any of them could be the girl with the scarred leg.

He wears only one sandal.

What is Samuel R. Delany's Dhalgren about? I have described it only in its most literal terms, which means I haven't really described it at all. Among other things, what I think it signifies:
creativity and authorial intention
how easily the thin fabric of civilized behavior is torn
sexual freedom and sexual exploitation, the ennui of routine sex that reduces the act to a mere past time
the fault lines of relations between the races and the sexes
the basic "unknowability" of reality.

All that, and probably much more that I haven't even begun to fathom. William Gibson perhaps describes the situation best in his foreword to the novel:

I have never understood it. I have sometimes felt that I partially understood it, or that I was nearing the verge of understanding it... Dhalgren is not there to be finally understood. I believe its "riddle" was never meant to be "solved."
Gibson is just one of a number of SF writers who claim Dhalgren to be inspirational, among them Paul DiFillipo and Elizabeth Hand. Note the thread between Delaney's opening line:
to wound the autumnal city. So howled out for the world to give him a name. The in-dark answered with the wind.
...and Gibson's famous first sentence in his equally ground-breaking work, Neuromancer:
The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
The connection here is permission taken to truly go where no one had gone before in a field in which such a phrase begs mockery. Delaney and his ilk take the genre out of the pulps and into the realm of literature. The Vintage reissue in very small type classifies this work as "Science Fiction." One of the few things I can say with some certainty about this book is it is not that, its end-of-the-world setting and the one or two incidental uses of unusual technology notwithstanding. It's not space cowboys. It's not cyberpunk. It's not sword and sorcery.

It's its own thing. Of which I only understand a glimmer. But what brilliance even that small perception sheds.

Copyright © 2002 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.

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