A Sense of Wonder is a serious critical appraisal of many of Samuel R. Delany's central works. Within the focus author Jeffery Allen Tucker sets for himself, the work is quite successful. Given that caveat, it is clear that I have some issues with the study, but let me begin by reviewing what the book does well, and who it will serve.
As the subtitle "Race, Identity, and Difference" indicates, A Sense of Wonder does not study Delany primarily as a writer and critic of speculative fiction. Instead, Tucker meticulously examines Delany as an African-American intellectual whose work grapples with several issues of ongoing importance to contemporary discussions of race, identity (personal, political, racial, social, gender, and even biological), and difference. Here, "difference" refers to the postmodern qualities of Delany and his writing: Delany refused to be defined by any single strictly delineated category even at a young age, and his work often foregrounds such a denial, and the shifting of conceptual and perceptual paradigms these denials demand. To put it more simply, Delany's work is never only science fiction, or gay literature, or Black literature, or political action; it is science fiction and gay fiction, or gay science fiction, or gay Black science fiction. The more words you pile on top of one another, the more you see how Delany's work crosses, confuses, and examines these boundaries, asking the reader, essentially, "Now what made you call this story that?"
Tucker uses contemporary critical theory to analyze Delany's work. He begins with an extended direct discussion of how Delany's work intersects with the political arguments around identity, and then devotes a chapter each to Dhalgren, the Return to Neveryon series, The Motion of Light in Water (Delany's autobiography), and Atlantis: Model 1924, before closing with a discussion of Delany's AIDS-related writing. This sliding focus is useful for both academic and genre readers, as it demonstrates the links between the elements of Delany's work with which each camp is familiar and the other points on his highly varied spectrum. I fall into both camps, and I learned a great deal about Delany's work through Tucker's study.
That said, there are elements of the book that will frustrate both sets of readers. Genre readers will be baffled by the limited attention paid to both Delany's award-winning short stories and his highly influential critical essays. Academic readers familiar with both postmodern theorists and genre theory will grow restless at Tucker's nearly absolute failure to integrate the two. Both sides may grow a little restless at Tucker's extended introduction and early chapter discussing identity. To be blunt, this section is slow going, and reads too much like a dissertation in which Tucker is intent on showing how fully he's mastered the critical terms current in the field.
Finally, I suspect a number of readers will be flat out confused by Tucker's decision not to discuss Delany's extremely pornographic work Hogg. Why he leaves Hogg out when he discusses the meaning of the sexually explicit passages in other works escapes me. To simply say, as Tucker does, that he's leaving this task to "more intrepid critics," is not enough; this left me wondering what else about Delany, and the task of making sense of him, Tucker was not intrepid enough to tackle.
Greg Beatty has a PhD in English from the University of Iowa, where he wrote a dissertation on serial-killer novels. He attended Clarion West 2000, and any rumours you've heard about his time there are, unfortunately, probably true. Greg publishes everything from poetry about stars to reviews of books that don't exist. Greg recently got married.
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