American Literature Samuel R. Delany
Sean Matharoo
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 January 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0198


Samuel R. Delany is a profoundly influential and award-winning African-American gay author, critic, and teacher, whose many novels, short stories, memoirs, and essays are among the most important of the 20th and 21st centuries. His works have fundamentally altered the terrain of science fiction (SF) due in part to their formally consummate, theoretically sophisticated, materially grounded, and politically radical explorations of difference. These explorations reach an apogee in Dhalgren (1975), a bestselling countercultural classic. Delany is a Science Fiction Writers of America (SFWA) Grand Master. He is also one of SF’s best critics. The courageous humility and pragmatism with which he treats his subjects, when considered alongside the virtuosity with which he writes, gesture at a cosmologically scaled multiplicity, the understanding of which is dependent on biography, a point rendered clear in his exquisite autobiography The Motion of Light in Water (1988). Delany was born in Harlem, New York, on 1 April 1942. He was educated at the prestigious Dalton School and Bronx High School of Science. He spent summers at progressive youth camps. He also briefly attended the City College of New York. Delany has held professorships at University of Massachusetts Amherst, SUNY Buffalo, and Temple University. From 1961 to 1980, he and poet Marilyn Hacker had an open marriage; they have one child. He has been in an open relationship with Dennis Rickett since 1991. He was astoundingly prolific at a prodigal age. He translated Rimbaud’s Le bateau ivre (1871) when he was eighteen. For a time, he lived in a commune in New York, writing songs for the folk-rock band Heavenly Breakfast. He has worked on shrimp boats in Texas. He has written graphic novels and a couple of stories for the Wonder Woman comics. He has written an opera, and he has written and directed a film. He has published pornographic novels that engage thoughtfully with the HIV/AIDS crisis. In short, to borrow a concept he develops in Empire Star (1966), Delany might be described as “multiplex”: even an ephemeral biography such as this one casts light on his singular ability to sustain and synthesize presumably opposed differences into a greater unity.

Science Fiction

Included in this section are some of Delany’s most influential science fiction (SF) novels, novellas, and short stories, which together demonstrate his commitment to using the tools of defamiliarization, extrapolation, and speculation to problematize given language and build worlds that force a reappraisal of mundane reality. Often, such reappraisal carries an affectively galvanizing charge insofar as it is designed to better attune our senses to the denaturalization, recognition, and acceptance of difference so that we might bring into our social worlds a higher degree of sensitivity and understanding. Following the formal subversions of The Jewels of Aptor, Empire Star, and Nova, the focus on language and writing in Babel-17 and The Einstein Intersection, the critical-but-celebratory engagement with difference in Delany 2003a, and the sheer pulp genius of Delany 2003b, the author published Dhalgren, which is essentially a studied refinement and explosive dilation of the aforementioned subjects. For this reason, Dhalgren is perhaps the best entry point into Delany’s SF universe. Triton is singular in its examination of utopia but nonetheless holds a key to unlocking Delany’s approach to contingency, while the unadorned intensity of Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, the author’s last SF novel, hints at stylistic directions he has taken in his late work. From The Jewels of Aptor to Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, his Afrofuturist SF never loses sight of the violence of colonial modernity. It is groundbreaking in displacing golden age SF’s privileging of technological rationalism with an ethics of intersubjective responsibility. And, like new wave SF, the author’s SF books often embrace formal experimentation, philosophical existentialism, nonnormative sexuality, and social critique. Delany, an African-American gay man in a predominantly white, masculinist, and heteronormative field, also played a significant role in diversifying SF by writing characters as people of color, indigenous people, women, queer people, and disabled people.

  • Delany, Samuel R. The Jewels of Aptor. New York: Ace Books, 1962.

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    Delany’s first novel, which he published at the age of twenty. It presents an antiwar narrative set in a postapocalyptic future past. It is noteworthy for establishing the author’s career-long interests in musicality and in subverting mythology, the quest narrative, natural language, racial inequality, and heteronormative gender roles. Additionally, it forthrightly represents homoeroticism, disability, and the figure of the outcast poet.

  • Delany, Samuel R. Babel-17. New York: Ace Books, 1966a.

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    Ostensibly a space opera, this Nebula Award-winning novel is perhaps Delany’s most concentrated SF work about language. It pivots around polymath Rydra Wong, who is hired by a military organization to decipher the titular “Babel-17,” which is revealed to be a perception-altering language used by the enemy for sabotage. Unprecedented at the time of its publication for its affirmation of queer sex and polyamory.

  • Delany, Samuel R. Empire Star. New York: Ace Books, 1966b.

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    An antislavery novella couched in a coming-of-age narrative about terraforming, it introduces his ideas on “simplexity,” “complexity,” and “multiplexity.” The author adopts a circular narrative structure that is meant to emphasize the importance of achieving a multiplex orientation toward truth whereby one omnisciently takes multiple perspectives into account. Such play with structure hints at the wildly innovative formal experiments to come in subsequent works.

  • Delany, Samuel R. The Einstein Intersection. New York: Ace Books, 1967.

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    This Nebula Award-winning novel presents a postapocalyptic and posthuman tale based on the Orpheus myth. It is remarkable for its self-consciously playful approach to relativism and incompleteness, which takes the form of intertextual citations that illustrate the problems met by language when distinguishing between the true and the false. Thus, it is perhaps Delany’s first book about writing. It is also a book about race, disability, and queerness.

  • Delany, Samuel R. Nova. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1968.

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    Often noted as an important precursor to cyberpunk, this space opera is also a subverted grail quest narrative: its central narrative device, the explosion of the sun, distorts reality and syntax, yet promises a revolution without the sun. It is perhaps Delany’s most explicit attempt at elaborating a prose style that is also a phenomenological theory of the senses. Striking in its countercultural use of Tarot and its consideration of mixed-race identities.

  • Delany, Samuel R. Dhalgren. New York: Bantam Books, 1975.

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    Following six years without publishing much, Delany published this eight-hundred-page (post)modernist SF epic that pushes aesthetic form to its limits, maps racialized violence onto an ecological scale, and celebrates queer desire and kinship. Dhalgren brings together and amplifies most of the ideas the author explored in previous works by describing a postapocalyptic future of urban decay and the circuitous wanderings of its indigenous and white poet amnesiac protagonist Kid.

  • Delany, Samuel R. Triton. New York: Bantam Books, 1976.

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    A skeptical study of utopia, this novel is in dialogue with Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974) and informed by Michel Foucault’s theory of “heterotopia.” Such skepticism may be understood through the novel’s withering critique of its masculinist and heterosexist protagonist Bron Helstrom, who is ultimately unable to see that an openly queer world has moved, to an extent, beyond the sclerosis of masculinist and heterosexist relations.

  • Delany, Samuel R. Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. New York: Bantam Books, 1984.

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    Delany’s last overtly SF novel. It might be alternatively described as a work of speculative anthropology: a sprawling epic about a future universe locked in a dualistic conflict that Delany utilizes to examine the violent marginalization of difference. It is notable for its interweaving of SF and critical theory, an interweaving that effects a combinatory writing style. It is the first part of a diptych; the second part is unfinished.

  • Delany, Samuel R. “Aye, and Gomorrah . . .” In “Aye, and Gomorrah” and Other Stories. By Samuel R. Delany, 91–101. New York: Vintage Books, 2003a.

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    A SF classic, this Nebula Award-winning short story was first published in Harlan Ellison’s infamously transgressive anthology Dangerous Visions (1967). It is noteworthy for its depiction of “spacers,” androgynous people who were neutered to avoid the harms of space travel, and “frelks,” people who objectify, exoticize, and fetishize spacers. Delany links such objectification, exoticization, and fetishization to the dehumanization of queer people and sex workers outside the text.

  • Delany, Samuel R. “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones.” In “Aye, and Gomorrah” and Other Stories. By Samuel R. Delany, 218–259. New York: Vintage Books, 2003b.

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    This Hugo Award- and Nebula Award-winning short story was originally published in New Worlds magazine in 1968, a British magazine notable for disseminating new wave SF. It is significant for its examination of criminality, impersonation, manipulation, and gay BDSM subculture, which is relayed through a precise prose style that performs its title.

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