Dani Zweig's Belated Reviews : archive

Standard introduction for Postscripts to the Belated Reviews

Belated Reviews PS#7: Samuel R. Delany

Delany's books range from fairly to extremely good. A number of them would be superb if he weren't so self-conscious a stylist: You can almost see him putting the symbols in place, dusting off his myths and archetypes, designing nonstandard narrative styles and gimmicks, being clever even when it gets in the reader's way. His later books, especially, tend to be easier to admire than to enjoy.

(Another way of looking at it is that he's the sort of author who is more likely to win Nebulas than to win Hugos. (Yes, I know...) Delany is exceedingly self-conscious about the process of writing, of communicating with a reader, and this is a major theme in a number of books -- again, something likely to interest fellow authors.)

I think of Delany primarily as a writer of the sixties and seventies --though he might disagree. If there is such a thing as a typical Delany novel, it involves a search for identity: The protagonist, often a youngster from a backwater, goes out into the big world for whatever purpose. In the course of this protagonist's learning and mastering this larger and more complicated world (a process usually accompanied by long expository lumps), the reader also learns about the world or society of the author's creation. Delany's earlier books are less polished, but more accessible. The reverse is true of his later ones. I'll admit to being a Phillistine, and preferring the more user-friendly ones.

If you haven't read anything by Delany, his short story "Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones" (****) may be a good place to start: It is, like many of his works, a slice of very odd life -- thirty pages spent with interesting people in an interesting culture, in this case -- and it doesn't suffer from the loss of focus to which some of his longer works are prone. The story is told from the perspective of a rising member of the solar system's demimonde, who has become the target of a special police department devoted to people who make waves. (I'm not trying to be vague in this description. The frustrating thing about reviewing one of Delany's books is how little information any plot summary conveys.) It's a Hugo-winner, so it should be fairly easy to find.

"Sometime soon you will come back; and that time you will want to buy out my share of The Glacier, because I'll have gotten too big; and I won't want to sell because I'll think I'm big enough to fight you. So we'll be enemies for a while. You'll try to kill me. I'll try to kill you."
On his face, first the frown of confusion; then, the indulgent smile. "I see you've caught on to the idea of hologramic information..."

"Empire Star" (***+) is probably the last book Delany wrote which falls cleanly into what I characterized as earlier Delany. It's not his best book, or even a major one, but it's a personal favorite. It's about Comet Jo, a simple boy from a backwater planet, who is sent by a dying man to take a message to Empire Star. In the course of his travels (during which he ceases to be a simple boy), he encounters a number of people and entities at multiple stages in their lives -- the time-paradox aspects of the book are handled gently -- and eventually figures out what message he's supposed to deliver. It's a very short novel, only about a hundred pages, and has been reprinted with another short Delany novel, "The Ballad of Beta-2", which I thought a good pairing.

"I shall try and explain something to thee, Comet. Tell me, what's the most important thing there is."
"Jhup," he answered promptly, then saw her frowning. He got embarrassed. "I mean plyasil. I din' mean to use no dirty words."
"If thou passeth through the second gate, and ask a ride of a transport captain -- and thou wilt probably get it, for they are a good lot -- thou wilt be in a different world, where plyasil means only forty credits a ton, and is a good deal less important than derny, kibblepobs, clapper boxes, or boysh, all of which bring above fifty credits. And thou might shout the name of any of them, and be thought nothing more than noisy."

"Babel-17" (***) is about the effect of language on perception. Humanity has been fighting a long and nasty war against an invader, and now is being subjected to truly serious acts of sabotage, in the course of which brief transmissions have been picked up. Finally, after repeated attempts to decipher them, the military turns to Rydra Wong, the greatest poet of the day, who identifies the transmissions as a very special language -- one which shapes the abilities and world-views of those who learn it -- and as she comes to understand the language, it begins to shape her, as well. The character and actions of Rydra Wong herself carry the book, but its philosophical side is weakened by the implausibility of the claims Delany makes for his fictional languages.

"Butcher, there are certain ideas which have words for them. If you don't know the words, you can't know the ideas. And if you don't have the idea, you don't have the answer."

(A side note: "Empire Star" appears as a work of fiction in "Babel-17".)

"The Einstein Intersection" (***) finds Delany getting exotic in his themes, but still sticking to relatively standard storytelling. At least, it starts in a relatively standard way, giving the impression of a post-holocaust Earth of small communities with low technology and high mutation rates. When the narrator, a young androgyne named Lobey, goes out into the larger world, we begin to see that it is a far stranger world than we thought. For reasons it would be a serious spoiler to recount, the inhabitants have become very fuzzy about what being human entails. Which gives Delany an excuse to play new games with old myths and archetypes.(Sorry, I *said* plot summaries of Delany's books weren't very helpful. I wish I could do better.)

"There are an infinite number of true things in the world with no way of ascertaining their truth. Einstein defined the extent of the rational. Goedel stuck a pin into the irrational and fixed it to the wall of the universe so that it held still long enough for people to know it was there. And the world and humanity began to change."

"Dhalgren" (*? ****?) is Delany's great unfinished work. That is, *Delany* finished it -- all nine-hundred-odd pages of it -- but most readers don't. On the other hand, of those who do, many consider it time very well spent. How to describe it? I consider it a mainstream novel, rather than science fiction, although it was marketed as the latter. It's set in Bellona, which is more an urban mythscape than a real city -- an almost deserted city, well stocked with supplies and even some services, in which a few hundred people stay on and live as they please. (How do oddballs with plenty of canned goods and no law occupy their time? Sex, gossip, a smidgeon of violence, a smidgeon of racial tension, for the most part.) The viewpoint character -- call him the Kid -- is a man whose identity is anchored weakly enough that he is primarily -- as he keeps repeating, and for all the importance he acquires in Bellona -- an observer, reacting to his environment and reflecting it.

"Dhalgren" is a showoff piece: The author portrays a squalid city of lotus-eaters, and sets out to keep the reader reading through sheer mastery of language and technique. With some readers, he succeeds. Indeed, more than anything else, the book is *about* language and story-telling and the process of filtering the writer's reality through them (which is one reason "Dhalgren", even more than Delany's other books, tends to be thought more highly of by writers than by readers -- if one may make such a distinction). So: If you have little patience with books in which the author plays games with the reader but never properly tells his story, this book isn't for you. If you think a sufficient degree of technical brilliance might make such a book worth while, give "Dhalgren" a try: Push your way past the first few pages and read at least thirty or forty before deciding whether to continue or abandon it. (I'm on the border: I'm not sorry I read it, but there were better things I could have done with the time.)

"But there's never more than one Sunday every seven days. Or one Tuesday, either. Now, Thursdays slip up. I went to see him about that. A very polite man. And very concerned about what goes on in his city, despite what some people find a trying sense of humor. I had noticed about the frequency of Sundays myself. He explained about Tuesdays; but he held out for arbitrary Thursdays. He quite nicely offered to declare a Thursday any time I asked -- if I would give him twenty-four hour notice."

Some takes on some other books:

"The Jewels of Aptor" (**+) is Delany's first novel. I enjoyed it -- a relatively standard fantasy/sf/adventure that already shows many of the characteristics of his later works. "The Fall of the Towers" (**) (a trilogy composed of "Captives of the Flame", "The Towers of Toron", and "City of a Thousand Suns") is also an early work, but one which is too long for what it offers, and which at the same time tries to incorporate too many plot elements that don't carry their weight. Nor did I care much for "Nova" (**-), a short novel into which Delany also tries to squeeze too many elements.

"The Ballad of Beta-2" (**+) is another of Delany's earliest books, in which a student of anthropology is sent to study one of the ballads of a failed generation-ship culture -- and learns the truth behind the apparently fanciful ballad. (The weakest aspects of this short novel are the patness with which the answers fall into his lap, and the fact that nobody learned them earlier. Both, I suspect, are artifacts of the procrustean page limits imposed upon Ace Doubles.) The ballad itself blew me away when I first encountered this book. Coming back to it, I still like the ballad, but it looks better suited to recitation than to singing.

"She walked through the gates and the children cried,
She walked through the Market and the voices died,
She walked past the court house and the judge so still,
She walked to the bottom of Death's Head hill..."
The only lines of "The Ballad of Beta-2" that Nella had ammended occurred in the seventh stanza. The recorder had given the lines as:
"She walked through the gates and the voices cried,
She walked through the Market and the children died."
Well, that was an obvious correction...

"Triton" (**) is about gender identity, placed in a future world which has solved its economic problems, but is still searching for solutions to its social ones. The viewpoint character is a messed-up and unlikable man whose idea of intimacy is a monologue about himself. Towards the end of the novel, he undergoes a sex change -- and becomes a messed-up and unlikable woman. Even more than most of Delany's books, "Triton" is characterized by numerous expository lumps. (One, about genetics, is memorable by virtue of having basic facts wrong.) One of the neater throwaways in this book is the war that's going on in the background. Periodically, characters describe it as the nastiest war in history, giving the reader the impression that those characters are naive about *real* war. The impression turns out to be mistaken. Still, it's not one of Delany's better books.

"Neveryona" (***+) is typical early-Delany -- albeit in a fantasy setting, rather than a science-fictional one -- except that it wasn't written early. The viewpoint character is Pryn -- a girl who flies away from her home on dragonback, and into a much larger world than she knew existed. (Sound familiar?) This novel is placed in the same world as "Tales of Neveryon" (**), which most people with whom I've discussed these books seem to have preferred to "Neveryona", but which I didn't much enjoy. I *did* enjoy "Neveryona".

"I am pryn, the...adventurer, pryn the warrior, pryn the thief!" said pryn, who had never stolen anything in her life other than a ground oaten cake from the lip of her cousin's baking oven three weeks before -- she'd felt guilty for days!

Samuel R. Delany is more a stylist than a storyteller. He brings considerable skill to the task of hanging complex societies and complex ideas onto narrative skeletons that are long on meaning and short on story. (Not that there's any law that states that a novelist must be a story-teller.) Some readers are going to find this a delightful change of pace from the plodding and ugly prose which characterizes so much science fiction. Others will find that his refusal to simply start at the beginning, continue until he finishes, and stop, will make their teeth ache. There's no particular virtue in belonging to one class or the other but, on the chance that you belong to the former, if you haven't read any of his books, you could do worse than try. I've attempted to give an indication of which books might best reward such a try.

There is only one 'e' in 'Delany'.

Dani Zweig