Breaking Ground Again: The Second Resurrection of Samuel Delany

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By Greg Baldino Delany_encyc

There was a time when experimental science fiction could sell a million copies. It helped that at the time science fiction (having acquired a reputation just slightly better than that of pornography) was sold in cheap mass-market paperbacks off the spinning wire racks of grocery stores, pharmacies, newsstands and who knows where else. They were readily accessible and reasonably inexpensive; and though genre fiction might still have been seen as declassé by some, a slim paperback was easily concealed in a jacket pocket, or cradled in concealing hands on the morning commute.

The market changed, everything changed, and now you can no longer walk into a 7-Eleven and pick up a Samuel Delany novel for pocket change. Despite this, his work is both still relevant and celebrated. His groundbreaking science-fiction novel “Dhalgren” remains in print and was adapted for the stage in 2010. Authors from Neil Gaiman to Junot Diaz have cited him as an influence and inspiration. Delany spent two decades away from the genre that launched his literary reputation, but returned to science fiction last year with his novel “Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders,” which Roger Bellin of the Los Angeles Review of Books called “a book worthy of his career full of masterpieces—and a book that no one else could have written.” As philosophic as it is pornographic, the book chronicles the life of two gay men who, meeting in their late teens in 2007, forge an open and committed relationship that spans sixty-to-seventy years into the future. It is the first time a newly published Delany book has sat on the SF shelves since Knopf-Doubleday reprinted five volumes of his science fiction in stylish trade paperbacks back in the early 2000s.

There is another rediscovery of Delany’s works at hand. Coming in the aftershock of “Spiders,” several out-of-print works from his diverse and complex oeuvre have returned to the shelves. Wesleyan University Press has kept his scholarly works and several of his novels in print and available for some time now. Beginning in 2013, Wesleyan has expanded the catalog with two reissues of books originally published with small presses.

The first to arrive in the new year was “Starboard Wine.” This second volume of Delany’s criticism and commentary on the language of science fiction was originally published by Dragon Press in 1984, and collected several essays on science fiction and some of its noteworthy authors, including Joanna Russ, Thomas Disch, and Theodore Sturgeon. The essays themselves are unchanged, addressing matters of language and context, and working to establish a difference between science fiction and literature that is not based on quality but on models of reading, of understanding. What has changed is the context; Wesleyan is a very respected publisher of academic and scholarly works, and for them to publish these writings will lend an entirely different presentation to the audience.

Following the return of some of Delany’s sharpest writings on the language of storytelling was one of his more experimental fictions that offers its own challenges to such ideas with “Phallos.” A historical novel which draws upon the ideas of Jacques Lacan while exploring the “magical post-modernism” possibilities of authors such as Umberto Eco and Mark Z. Danielewski, “Phallos” tells the story of Neoptolomus in the second century, on a wild-goose chase for the jewel-encrusted phallus stolen from the statue of a forgotten god. Neoptolomus’ tale is also the subject of a novel within a novel, also called “Phallos,”in which the text is summarized and excerpted in a fictitious online essay—itself read in the context of yet another level of story, that of Adrian Rome ongoing search for the book-within-the-book in question.

It does, in fact make sense.

And it is, in fact, a lively and thought-provoking tale, revised and expanded with additional essays by several critical scholars and theorists.

But the most timely and unexpected of Delany’s works to return to print this year comes courtesy of the graphic novel publisher Fantagraphics, with their handsome new edition of “Bread and Wine.” Illustrated by the remarkable painter Mia Wolff and published by Juno Books in 1999, it tells the story of how he met his longtime partner Dennis when Delany was teaching at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and Dennis was living homeless on the streets of New York City. Wolff is the perfect visual match for Delany’s story, weaving dream-like exuberance with precise clarity, bringing the emotions of the lives within to such heat that they steam off the page with courage, concern, fear and love. The reissue features an expanded conversation between the collaborators and Dennis, as well of some of Wolff’s preparatory sketches and new paintings of the lovers. Arriving as it does when autobiographic comics are a genre to almost rival the Ubermensch themselves and queer comics are being celebrated and discovered with bold readiness, “Bread and Wine” may find the greatest new audience before it.

“Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders” proved that Delany has new and important things to say. These new editions prove that he always has.

“Phallos: Enhanced and Revised Edition”
By Samuel R. Delany
Wesleyan University Press, 224 pages, $19.95

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