ISBN REAL Samuel R. Delany is best known as a science fiction writer. And it's a good bet that once people see the documentary The Polymath, or The Life and Opinions of Samuel R. Delany, Gentleman screening this week at the San Francisco International LGBT Film Festival Delany will be equally well known as a prolific tea-room queer (50,000 and counting), a lifestyle that has informed much of his fiction. By all rights, either of these enthusiasms should provide the best inroad to Delany's work. But I'm not so sure that's true.
What I've read of Delany's science fiction is ambitious, path-clearing, and fearless in its treatment of sex and race. It also tends to let ideas outperform style. Some selections of his work tighten the gap more successfully than others. Triton (Bantam, 1976), sometimes published as Trouble on Triton, is simultaneously much more effective and much less ambitious a work of art than its megahit predecessor Dhalgren (1975), a book of commendable narrative and sociological experimentation that still feels, page by page, overdetermined and overly dependent on dialogue for orientation.
When Delany writes about sex beyond the speculative landscape, he has no less a tendency to dote on ideas, often leaving the reader bloated with enlightenment and blue-balled by the promise of a tight story. His "pornotopic" novel Mad Man (Voyant, 2002) is in many ways a beautiful rumination on the staggered evolution of social tolerance, the ways in which our complex alliances and prejudices can work at cross-purposes. While it's also admirably brutal on the average reader's gag reflex, it's still probably best to select a few boutique items like maybe the scat play and interspecies fellatio and save the cavernous foreskin tubes of smegma for another novel. Similarly, while Dark Reflections (Running Press, 2007) is equal to Christopher Isherwood's 1964 A Single Man at exposing the animal humility of an aging literary life, it relinquishes its eerie sad hush to a bulbous interlude of bathroom-sex protocol.
Really, Delany is too forgiving of his enthusiasms be they technological, sexual, or literary to exclude what thoughts they might inspire, to avoid treating fiction as specimen capture. Some of the most impressive bits of Mad Man are simple lists of autonomous thoughts discovered in the notebook of a deceased philosopher. But the beauty of the lists make them no less transparent an opportunity for Delany to do some housecleaning. And while he was able to parlay his mania for inclusion into the artistic success of Phallos (2004), a great little faux-academic novel about an erotic text of mysterious provenance, writing about writing seems an awfully limiting way of solving the problem.
Unless you do it up right, in nonfiction. Though they are not by and large what have earned him his notoriety, works of criticism, memoir, and pedagogy shine brightest on Delany's mantle. His elegy to the egalitarian sex culture of pre-Giuliani Times Square, Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (NYU Press, 1999), is deservedly well known. Though not as prominent, About Writing (Wesleyan, 2005) is a fantastic collection of essays, letters, and interviews on writing as a craft. Equally worthy is Silent Interviews (Wesleyan, 1994), a collection of souped-up interviews that deftly handle many of the concepts he has tried, with mixed results, to illuminate in his fiction. One particularly memorable piece in the collection is "Toto, We're Back!", a 20-page crucifixion of some insidiously parochial questions posed by a couple of poor professors who thought they were being obsequious. Not only is it a brilliant demonstration of intellectual sadism, it's also an intriguing examination of the nature of genre as well a solid beginner's guide to the notables of science fiction.