Samuel Delany was 20 when his first novel, The Jewels of Aptor, appeared. That was in 1962, and by 1967–69 (when “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones” and “Aye, and Gomorrah …” nabbed Hugo and Nebula awards), he was a luminary of American science fiction and fantasy. That is an especially awesome accomplishment considering how white and how heterosexual—unlike Delany himself—the science fiction / fantasy pantheon was in that not-so-Golden Age. Delany is best known for mind-bending novels like Dhalgren (1975) and gender-bending ones like Trouble on Triton (1976); there are those who dub him the first Afrofuturist. Academic readers revere him as the first science fiction author to drop Jacques Lacan, Claude Lévi-Strauss, and Michel Foucault effortlessly into his work, making his novels into a sort of fictional theory or theoretical fiction.
But I love him best for the dazzling complexity of the Nevèrÿon fantasy series, including “The Tale of Plagues and Carnivals, or, Some Informal Remarks toward the Modular Calculus, Part Five,” (1984) which many consider the first novel about AIDS. When he generously sat down for an interview recently, it felt like colloquy with a demigod. A longer version of this interview, recorded at Wellesley’s Newhouse Center for the Humanities in February 2019, originally aired on Recall This Book, a new podcast partnered with Public Books. You can listen to the whole thing here or by subscribing to Recall This Book on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.
John Plotz (JP): If I remember correctly, you have a boundary before which you don’t think literature can be called, formally, “science fiction.” Is that right? What about H. G. Wells, for example?
Samuel Delany (SD): Well, it’s not science fiction; you could call it proto–science fiction, if you want.
JP: Didn’t H. G. Wells call it scientific romance?
SD: Yes, I just don’t think you need to go back that far. There’s a reason why the term “science fiction” jelled around 1922.
JP: So that makes Frankenstein not science fiction?
JP: Making The Time Machine not science fiction.
SD: With all due respect, I think that’s a crock of shit. They’re gothic novels. And the gothic novel is a perfectly good and reasonable genre. There’s no point in snatching it out of one genre. The gothic novel has enough problems maintaining its own dignity.
JP: You use the word paraliterary a lot.
SD: The paraliterary genres in the mid-20th century were specifically those that if you asked someone on the street, they would say: That’s not literature. That’s science fiction, westerns, mysteries, comic books, pornography, for example. Now, I think any of those can rise to very high art. The fact that it is a separate genre means that it has its own way of becoming. That there are people who can do something with it, and then there are people who don’t do very much with it.
JP: But the point of the classification would be that, even if someone becomes great in that field, it’s not like they earned the title of literary.
SD: Yes, although there are some writers who have—Theodore Sturgeon, for example, who I think is just one of the great writers of the mid-20th century and whose collected stories create one of the best portraits we have of the world from that time through to the end of the century. And some of it was science fiction, some of it was very borderline science fiction, but it’s a great art. I would much prefer to see him in a Library of America edition than Ursula Le Guin: whom I liked personally very much, but don’t think was anywhere near as interesting a writer.
JP: This focus on the technical aspects of writing reminds me of what you’ve said before about the sentence: that the sentence is the most important unit of writing for you.
SD: For me, yes. I do go along with Gertrude Stein, in that the paragraph is the emotional unit of the English language. It’s also a point about the sentence instead of the word.
JP: Is that how you think of your own writing? Do you think of it as sentence-making?
SD: Basically, yes.
JP: And is that different for science fiction, versus fantasy and other kinds of genres?
SD: No, that’s not where the difference lies; I think all writing requires that. But I do think science fiction allows some unique combinations of words. It’s a genre that is distinguished, because certain things can happen in the language of science fiction that don’t happen anywhere else. Science fiction tends to take the literal meaning. If it has a choice between a figurative meaning and a literal meaning, the literal meaning is always available. Her world exploded. In science fiction, it’s not an emotionally fuzzy metaphor. Instead, it can literally mean a planet belonging to a woman blew up. As in, Princess Leia: Her world exploded.
JP: So, science fiction is actualization of the metaphorical?
SD: Yes. Or, He turned on his left side. Which is an insomniac tossing, of course, but it’s also that someone can “turn on” the switch on their sinistral flank.
JP: There’s another connection to language here. In the Nevèrÿon books, at least, language is a powerful force: if you write peoples’ names down, you can control them.
SD: Yes. I think that’s always been true for me. In Nevèrÿon, for instance, the gods are those who cannot be named. They have a whole series of nameless gods. They’re all really important gods, they just don’t have names. Like in the Nevèrÿon books: capitalism doesn’t get invented until money gets invented.
JP: Is writing the moment capitalism gets invented?
SD: Yes. It follows the Claude Lévi-Strauss question, What is writing used for? To keep track of the work of slaves. What’s the basic use of writing? To make sure you know what the slaves are producing.
JP: Apropos of the lovely meta-referential games that you’re playing with Steiner and the different characters inside Nevèrÿon: Do you think you’re writing fiction that happens to have some criticism in it, or is it that you’re writing theory in the form of a novel?
SD: That’s a good question. I usually have an argument that I want to address, although I’d like it to be an open-ended argument. In my novel Trouble on Triton, for instance, the question is, “Is this guy nuts?” Or “Is he hopeless, or is there hope?” I have my opinion, but you have to get to the last sentence of the book to figure out what my opinion is. You know, I think he’s nuts.
JP: Can I read you one of my favorite lines of yours? This comes from inside Nevèrÿon itself: you’re describing being in the Nevèrÿon world. You say: “Imagine going to a wonderful gallery exhibit visit with an intelligent, witty, well-spoken, and deeply cultured friend, an expert in the period, richly informed on the customs and economics of the times … a friend who you only wished, as the two of you walked from painting to painting, would shut up.”
SD: This was not me. Elizabeth Lynn said this at a party as she was describing her feelings about reading Proust. And I thought, “What a great description of Nevèrÿon,” so I included it.
JP: Do you take it as a compliment?
SD: Not as a compliment, but I do think it’s accurate. Nevèrÿon is kind of Proust-like. At a certain point, you wonder: How long is this sentence gonna go on? I have a great deal of respect for these Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, tough-guy quick sentences.
JP: So, if you had to choose between Hammett and Gertrude Stein, whom would you take?
SD: Oh, Gertrude Stein. She’s a great critic and a committed stylist.
JP: That’s what I thought. Which reminds me: I wonder about the role that poetry plays in your writing. I really like those little verses inside Nevèrÿon. I don’t know if you call them poems. For example: “I went out to Babàra’s Pit”?
SD: “I went out to Babàra’s Pit / At the crescent’s moon’s first dawning / But the Thanes of Garth had covered it. / And no one found a place to sit …”
Together: “And Belham’s key no longer fit.”
SD: Yes. They’re children’s play rhymes: that’s poetry.
JP: I have a big open-ended question. The ways that people think about the categories of race, sexuality, and gender have changed a lot in the decades you’ve been writing. Are you aware of those changes? Do they make a difference for you in your writing?
SD: They certainly make a big difference in the way I live. Stonewall didn’t happen until I was 27 years old.
JP: You’d been a published writer for seven or eight years by then.
SD: And I was one of the first people to come out in science fiction, even before Stonewall. And those stories, like “Aye, and Gomorrah …” and “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones,” were the ones that got the Nebula Awards. I’ve often said that, if gay people didn’t exist, straight people would have had to invent them. At its foundation, the Science Fiction Writers of America was not a gay-friendly organization. Boy, was it not; it was not sensitive at all. Some of the things that were written in the newsletters were enough to curl your toes. (Once Poul Anderson wrote in a letter to the editor about someone acting like a “sniveling faggot,” and that sort of thing was so common at the time it never even occurred to me to take offense.) But, at the same time, when you wrote stories that clearly had gay underthemes, like “Aye, and Gomorrah …,” the same organization gave you an award, and readers even in the organization were hungry to hear them.
JP: Were you more aware of issues around being gay, or were issues of race and sexuality both equally threatening to you in that science fiction world? I know you’ve written about moments where you felt put on the spot. The article I had in mind is called “Racism and Science Fiction.” It appeared in 1998, but it’s about a moment in 1968, at an awards banquet, when you, as a young writer, won two Nebula awards, which is a big deal—it’s like winning two National Book Awards in different categories. As you walked by Isaac Asimov’s chair, Asimov said in a stage whisper, “You know, Chip, we only voted you those awards because you’re Negro.”
SD: He was making a joke, but I took it as a reminder: Nobody’s gonna ever forget it. Here we are giving you your second prize of the evening, but you are black. And it wasn’t a stage whisper; it was full voice, so everyone could hear. (He’d also been a Trotskyite.)
JP: And here we are in 2019, and N. K. Jemisin is writing about the same thing. Like she’s guilty of winning a prize while black.
SD: Yes, exactly.
JP: It clearly didn’t deter you, but it must have shaped you?
SD: No, it didn’t deter me. It was just part of my education. I’d heard a lot worse before.
This article was commissioned by John Plotz.