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Early on in the title story of Aye and Gomorrah, Samuel R Delany has a very Samuel R Delany moment. A group of people have "come down" in Paris—how they "came down" is at this stage unexplained. After a raucous evening drinking, five of them (including the narrator) run into a four-person pissoir:

A very blond man put his arm and smiled, "Don't you think, Spacer, that you ... people should leave?"

I looked at his hand on my blue uniform. "Est-ce que tu es un frelk?"

His eyebrows rose, then he shook his head. "Une frelk," he corrected. "No. I am not. Sadly for me. You look as though you may once have been a man. But now ..." He smiled. "You have nothing for me now. The police." He nodded across the street where I noticed the gendarmerie for the first time. "They don't bother us. You are strangers, though ..." (p. 91)

First of all, it's a characteristic Delany strategy to let us know that the narrator and his friends are Spacers through dialogue, and then to take that term for granted. The same is true of "frelk." It's even more characteristic that the first thing we know about frelk is how it's gendered. Even if the gender of a French noun doesn't always have anything to do with whether we might consider it "culturally" male or female, it's a powerful hint to send out. The most visible thing about the dialogue, though, is how it places the characters in terms of—for want of a better word—class. The "very blond man" is clearly a homosexual who uses these toilets for cottaging. (If the Spacer's reaction when the man puts a hand on his arm isn't enough to confirm this, the subsequent dialogue, especially the reference to the police, certainly is.) The blond man is aware of both Spacers and frelks, and quickly clarifies where he stands in relation to these two possible groups. His words about the police tell the Spacers where they stand: as "strangers," they will enjoy even less mercy from the police than homosexuals do. So it's no surprise that, a few pages later, the Spacers "go up" again, and then come down in Houston.

The Spacers' nature becomes apparent as the story progresses. They have somehow been altered to make their bodies withstand the rigours of space travel. (It's impossible not to remember Cordwainer Smith's "Scanners Live in Vain" [1950] in this context.) The process deprives them of the ability to have sex, and so Spacers are chosen from children whose sexual responses are "hopelessly retarded at puberty" (p. 97). Frelks are unaltered humans who find spacers sexually attractive. The story is a series of vignettes exploring these two linked conditions, from the point of view of the group being objectified. (At one point, a female frelk launches into an extended rhapsody about the "glorious, soaring" life of Spacers (p. 97). It seems very detached from how they experience their lives.) Anyhow, nothing is "resolved" in the story: the Spacers go up and come down in place after place. At the end, they and we have a clearer sense of where they stand, but they still have no abiding city.

One of the other characteristic Delany moves is the sudden deluge of exuberantly specifying detail. In "Aye and Gomorrah," one of the Spacers starts reminiscing about earlier times in Istanbul:

Bo laughed to break up tensions. "Say, last time I was in Istanbul—about a year before I joined up with this platoon—I remember we were coming out of Taksim Square down Istiqal. Just past all the cheap movies we found a little passage lined with flowers. Ahead of us were two other spacers. It's a market in there, and farther down they got fish, and then a courtyard with oranges and candy and sea urchins and cabbage. But flowers in front." (p. 93)

This sort of thing is intoxicating, Delany at his most charismatic; it's interesting to know, therefore, that he places limits on its use. In an afterword to this collection, Delany describes a couple of rules that he's always tried to follow in his writing. The first is not to overwrite, to always restrict oneself to the details in a scene that matter to a character. The second is only to write about subjects that evoke a strong and complex response in you, so that your writing doesn't become thin or superficial. The third is consciously to avoid traditional or clichéd approaches to handling a story. This first rule (derived from a letter Delany quotes from Theodore Sturgeon) seems especially important for him. He's an author to whom the initial response is often that his fiction is dense with specifics. But as with everything else, he's also intensely self-conscious about what goes on the page. In Bo's speech quoted above, Delany is applying his own rule: not naming the passage, not telling you everything they had in the market, just what registered for his protagonist. And that leads on to another thought about his work. Even when his stories aren’t written in the first person, there's a sense that they’re always mediated by subjectivity. We can never apprehend all the details of a scene, just the details experienced by one person. Hence also, I'd suggest, his occasional works in what might be called the covert first-person, like Nova (1968).

Delany has never been a prolific short fiction writer. If I understand rightly, this book collects all of his short fiction—or at least all of it that he wants preserved. A 370-page body of work is not much for someone of his influence in the field. The stories here were mostly written between 1960 and 1968, with a couple of outliers, "Omegahelm" from 1973 and "Among the Blobs," from 1976. In other words, they mostly belong to Delany's first few years as a prolific writer of relatively "pure" science fiction (from The Jewels of Aptor [1962] to Nova).

Even if the early stories aren't entirely successful, they do give a clear picture of Delany as a ferociously talented, ambitious, and well-read young man. "Tapestry," for instance, was written in 1960, when he was 18. It's an almost plotless meditation on the images in a heraldic tapestry, in particular the figures of a unicorn and a virgin, and what they might signify. It's clearly influenced by the later Auden's meditations on art (Auden's "The Quest" provides an epigraph), and is a pointer to Delany's later discursive manner as a critic. "Prismatica," from a year later, is billed as "Homage à James Thurber," and shows Delany absorbing an entirely different kind of influence. "Prismatica" is something like a conventional well-made story, with a beginning, middle and end, and has an ending one would find it very difficult to imagine the later Delany writing:

Then he showed her how a white light shining through [a prism] would break apart and fill her hands with all the colours she could think of.

"Isn't that amazing," said Hidalga. I mean, can you actually believe ..."

"That's just what I said," Amos told her, and they were both very happy, for they were both clever enough to know that when a husband and wife agree about such things, it means a long and happy marriage is ahead. (p. 318)

Prisms, and their companions, mirrors, crop up again in Dhalgren, but a far more pervasive motif in these stories is the artist and their work. It's present in "Tapestry," as I've already suggested, and also in "Omegahelm," whose centrepiece is the description of the making of an astonishing and transgressive piece of art. Indeed, one suspects that many of the characters here are in part vehicles for Delany to work out his own concerns with the making of art. That's most apparent in "Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones," which concerns itself with poets and other artists in a future New York. But rather than "Tapestry"'s largely intellectual depiction of the art-process, "Helix" is about the life it engenders. Bohemian is an over-used word, but Delany here makes it impossibly vivid. That it's not totally coherent is surely part of the point. Delany's work, here and elsewhere (most obviously in Dhalgren) is about the limits of the old positivistic SF urge to "make sense" of the world. There's a long passage explaining another art-form in this world, that of the Singers (pp. 234-6); it begins, "Singers are people who look at things, then go and tell people what they've seen." What they've seen: not tell people "about the world" or "the truth," but what has registered with their subjectivity. That begs a question: if, for Delany, subjective knowledge is the only kind of knowledge, to what extent are these stories transfigured autobiography?

A full answer to this question seems to me impossible and beside the point, but a couple of specific comments do seem in order. "Dog in a Fisherman's Net," written on Mykonos in 1966, is suffused with Greek fishing culture, and makes no attempt to hide that source. More generally, a Mediterranean light suffuses many of these stories, and might be traced back to Delany's time in that region in the mid-1960s. (I might be imagining things, but another Mediterranean writer, Lawrence Durrell, seems a powerful presence here too.) "Driftglass," for instance, begins with a beachside reverie that for me perfectly evokes that part of the world. The narrator's chance meeting with a gilled woman on the beach draws parallels with the driftglass he collects; but Delany's restraint in pressing this point makes the story all the more successful. Instead, he concentrates on evocation, especially of bodily sensations—a trait he seems to have picked up from Sturgeon, one of his clear SF influences.

The other well-known stories here include "Corona," "The Star Pit," and "We, in some strange power's employ, move on a rigorous line." The first of these is another examination of the effects of art, in this case a song by a man called Bryan Faust. (Sometimes, Delany's allusion-dropping isn't that subtle.) The other two exemplify a particularly interesting Delany habit, his wish to depict what everyday working life is like. In "The Star Pit," spaceship-hopping between the stars is as grimy as driving a bus, but still tinged with the wonder that we might hope it would create. It's also, once again, a story of class, as the gap between normal humans like the narrator and the "goldens" who operate the starships becomes more and more unbridgeable.

Of the remaining stories, "Among the Blobs" is especially notable for its conflation of New York with a deliberately over-the-top SF story. It allows Delany's sense of humour off the leash, and is all the more welcome for that; it reminded me of Joanna Russ in her more sardonic moments. But that's uncharacteristic. The main impression one takes from this collection are of Delany's powers of evocation, of his determination to find language that will encompass sensation. There's also his interest in others, particularly through their speech—he's a very dialogue-driven author—as they too try to find words for their experience of the world. There are costs to this intensity of focus: these stories are not easy, and can sometimes (in their concentration on the artist's role) come over as self-involved. But anyone who's read, say, William Gibson or Elizabeth Hand, will know how much they have become part of the language of the field. How odd that a body of work so concerned with subjectivity and transience should so definitively take the sights and sounds that mattered to Delany and so definitively fix them.

Graham Sleight lives in London, U.K. He is editor of Foundation, and writes for The New York Review of Science Fiction, Locus, and SF Studies.



One comment on “Aye, and Gomorrah, and other stories by Samuel R. Delany”
Gursky

A wonderful book and an excellent review. For something like a book-length response to the quote about singers (was that from Nova?) try Javier Marias' Fever and Spear novels.

 

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