How Samuel R. Delany Reimagined Sci-Fi, Sex, and the City

Last September, while working at his desk in Philadelphia, Samuel R. Delany experienced a mysterious episode that he calls “the big drop.” His vision faded for about three minutes, and he felt his body plunge, as if the floor had fallen away. When he came to, everything looked different, though he couldn’t say exactly how. Delany, who is eighty-one, began to suspect that he’d suffered a mini-stroke. His daughter, Iva, an emergency-room physician, persuaded him to go to the hospital, but the MRI scans were inconclusive. The only evidence of a neurological event was a test result indicating that he had lost fifteen per cent of his capacity to form new memories—and a realization, in the following weeks, that he was unable to finish his novel in progress, “This Short Day of Frost and Sun.” After publishing more than forty books in half a century, the interruption was, he told me, both “a loss and a relief.”

For years, Delany has begun most days at four o’clock in the morning with a ritual. First, he spells out the name Dennis, for Dennis Rickett, his life partner. Next, he recites an atheist’s prayer, hailing faraway celestial bodies with a litany inspired by the seventeenth-century philosopher Baruch Spinoza: “Natura Naturans, system of systems, system of fields, Kuiper belt, scattered disk, Oort cloud, thank you for dropping me here.” Finally, he prepares oatmeal, which he faithfully photographs for the friends and fans who follow him on Facebook. Every so often, when the milk foams, he sees Laniakea—the galactic supercluster that’s home to Earth.

In the stellar neighborhood of American letters, there have been few minds as generous, transgressive, and polymathically brilliant as Samuel Delany’s. Many know him as the country’s first prominent Black author of science fiction, who transformed the field with richly textured, cerebral novels like “Babel-17” (1966) and “Dhalgren” (1975). Others know the revolutionary chronicler of gay life, whose autobiography, “The Motion of Light in Water” (1988), stands as an essential document of pre-Stonewall New York. Still others know the professor, the pornographer, or the prolific essayist whose purview extends from cyborg feminism to Biblical philology.

There are so many Delanys that it’s difficult to take the full measure of his influence. Reading him was formative for Junot Díaz and William Gibson; Octavia Butler was, briefly, his student in a writing workshop. Jeremy O. Harris included Delany as a character in his play “Black Exhibition,” while Neil Gaiman, who is adapting Delany’s classic space adventure “Nova” (1968) as a series for Amazon, credits him with building a critical foundation not only for science fiction but also for comics and other “paraliterary” genres.

Friends call him Chip, a nickname he gave himself at summer camp, in the eleventh year of a life that has defied convention and prejudice. He is a sci-fi child prodigy who never flamed out; a genre best-seller widely recognized as a great literary stylist; a dysgraphic college dropout who once headed the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst; and an outspokenly promiscuous gay man who survived the AIDS crisis and has found love, three times, in committed, non-monogamous relationships. A story like Delany’s isn’t supposed to be possible in our society—and that, nearly as much as the gift of his writing, is his glory.

It took several months to persuade him to meet. Delany has polemicized against the face-to-face interview, reasoning that writers, who constitute themselves on the page, ought to be questioned there, too. He warned in an e-mail that a visit would be a waste of time, offering instead a tour of his “three-room hovel” via Zoom: “No secret pile will be left unexplored.” Yet a central theme in his work is “contact,” a word he uses to convey all the potential in chance encounters between human beings. “I propose that in a democratic city it is imperative that we speak to strangers, live next to them, and learn how to relate to them on many levels, from the political to the sexual,” he wrote in “Times Square Red, Times Square Blue” (1999), a landmark critique of gentrification which centered on his years of cruising in the adult theatres of midtown Manhattan.

His novels, too, turn on the serendipity of urban life, adopting the “marxian” credo that fiction is most vital when classes mix. Gorgik, a revolutionary leader in Delany’s four-volume “Return to Nevèrÿon” series, rises from slavery to the royal court in an ancient port city called Kolhari, where he learns that seemingly centralized “power—the great power that shattered lives and twisted the course of the nation—was like a fog over a meadow at evening. From any distance, it seemed to have a shape, a substance, a color, an edge. Yet, as you approached it, it seemed to recede before you.”

In January, Delany finally allowed me to visit him at the apartment complex that he now rarely leaves. A hulking beige structure near the Philadelphia Museum of Art, it looms like a fortress over the row houses of the Fairmount. I crossed a lobby the length of a ballroom and rode the elevator to the fourth floor. As I walked down the hallway, I noticed a small man behind a luggage trolley taking my picture. It was Delany, smiling in welcome with his lively brown eyes and strikingly misaligned front teeth.

With long white hair, heavy brows, and a chest-length beard that begins halfway up his lightly melanated cheeks, Delany has the appearance of an Eastern Orthodox monk who left his cloister for a biker gang. Three surgical-steel rings hang from the cartilage of his left ear; on his left shoulder is a tattoo of a dragon entwined around a skull. Under a sizable paunch dangled a heavy key chain, which jingled as he shook my hand. Leaning on his cane, he led me inside, where mist from an overactive humidifier hazed the dim entrance.

“How long are you going to sit there admiring the absence of visual clutter?”

Cartoon by Frank Cotham

As I bent to remove my shoes, he took more pictures: memory aids, but also contributions to Delany Studies, which he later posted to Facebook.

“I’m promiscuously autobiographical,” he explained. “But it’s never gotten me into trouble.”

The room, which does triple duty as foyer, dining area, and library-office, had the unmistakable clutter of a place devoted to writing. Stacks of books littered every surface; one, the height of a small child, leaned perilously in a chair near narrow windows, which let in a stingy helping of winter sun. The only indication that I wasn’t in the lair of some industrious graduate student was the prizes crowning the bookshelves: a Lambda, the Nicolás Guillén Award for Philosophical Literature, the Anisfield-Wolf Lifetime Achievement Award. Opposite stood Delany’s literary battle station, a desktop computer with a rainbow-backlit keyboard. Within easy reach were a book scanner, a back scratcher shaped like a bear claw, a biography of Flaubert, and a robust collection of gay fetish porn on DVD.

We settled at a circular table cluttered with papers and pills. Delany produced family photos, a pro-choice installment of “Wonder Woman” that he’d scripted in the seventies, a New York City tarot deck featuring him as the Hanged Man, and the original volumes of his “Nevèrÿon” series, which Bantam dropped after its third volume addressed the AIDS crisis. “What can I say?” Delany said. “Bantam is out of business. I’m in business.” (A once mighty paperback publisher, Bantam has since merged with several other imprints at Penguin Random House.) Mostly, he wanted to talk about other writers: Guy Davenport, a “brilliant” stylist unjustly neglected; Joanna Russ, one of the peers he misses most; and Theodore Sturgeon, his first lodestar in science fiction, who fired the young Delany’s imagination with his prose and once propositioned him on the way to lunch.

“It was like getting hit on by Shakespeare!” he reminisced, with a gasping, staccato laugh. He would have accepted had Sturgeon found them a motel.

Books, and a lunchtime delivery of shrimp and grits, piled up on the table as Delany darted between our conversation and his overflowing shelves. He ran his fingers through his beard as he adduced names and dates, his gaze shifting restlessly as though in search of a signal. Every other question sent him skittering across a personal web of texts, from “Conan the Barbarian” to “Finnegans Wake.” When I left, he gave me a copy of “Big Joe,” a slim volume of award-winning interracial trailer-park erotica that he’d dedicated to the boy “who started it all on the first night of summer camp” in 1952.

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