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Samuel Delany

      . . . writer. Famous as a Nebula and Hugo Award winning science fiction writer, Mr. Delany broke new fictional ground with his controversial 1974 novel, Dhalgren, which sold over a million copies. He has also published scholarly criticism, fantasy books, poetic novellas and erotica. Mr. Delany’s teaching posts have included SUNY Buffalo, the University of Massachusetts/Amherst and Temple University. In 1993, Mr. Delany won the William Whitehead Memorial Award for a Lifetime’s Contribution to Lesbian and Gay Writing.

Excerpts3:10 secs

Everyone has the same Big Problem, according to science fiction legend Samuel Delany. Everyone now has to pay attention to everything and to review everyone else’s truth-claims about everything. That leaves us all feeling burned out by the amount of information demanding our attention, a problem Mr. Delany has seen in the arts, science and social situations.

What’s the fix? Dialogue must replace community-killing monologue, Mr. Delany believes. It can happen across the many, many language communities to which we all belong, Mr. Delany proposes. How do these language communities work? Think about kids. They talk to their parents using one vocabulary, to their teachers using another one, to strangers they meet on the street with yet another. The power is in the overlap. And we all have it.

Our own overlapping language communities allow for the possibility of dialogue and the possibility of dialogue allows for the possibility of change, Mr. Delany asserts. That holds the promise of vast opportunities, across apparent barriers. For instance, Mr. Delany describes himself as a boring old African-American Marxist, he is certain he has a great deal in common with bigots whose life experiences and beliefs are dramatically different -- shared language communities provide shared fundamental concepts, even when we disagree about them. Result? Possibilities.

Mr. Delany has been a prolific and widely honored writer since his remarkable teenage literary debut in the late ‘60s. He made a big name for himself writing science fiction -- he’s won both Nebula and Hugo awards -- in addition his groundbreaking 1979 novel, Dhalgren. It alone sold a million copies then and is now back in circulation. In addition, Mr. Delany is a professor, influential literary critic and he writes across a broad spectrum of non-fiction.

When all is said and done, what interests Samuel Delany is everyday life. What he thinks about, he says, is how to present its texture, make the experience of ordinary things vivid and immediate for people who read -- to explore what we see, what the world tastes, smells and feels like when we bump up against it. After a lifetime writing, what Mr. Delany has discovered is an essential paradox: all the things words cannot do. So he’s come to think of language as an “aid memoir.” The kinds of things that make a memory vivid give a writer the necessary information to write vividly.

Where does Mr. Delany find these things?

He bumps around, relishing the particularity of the texture of life he sees as he walks down the street, in the things around him, in the way people are organized into the world they inhabit. He’s interested in how people negotiate the everyday experiences -- getting up in the morning, getting out of the house, going to work, working, stopping working and coming home again. If he should happen to cross a boundary, says this genre-smasher who describes himself as “traditional,” it’s not because he set out to cross it. It’s because he wandered in that particular direction. Perhaps you recognize Mr. Delany’s mentor, Jane Austen, in his words.

Samuel Delany cares about quality, particularly the quality of writing. That, he believes, comes into existence when readers argue about what’s good. And not good.  What they like and don’t like.  What a writer does well or badly. (The one person never party to that argument is the writer.)   According to Mr. Delany, this very act of engagement is what produces the social affect of quality. When dialogue begins, Samuel Delany’s confident that community becomes a real...possibility.

[This Program was recorded May 23, 2001 in Atlanta, Georgia, US.]

Conversation 1

Samuel Delaney tells Paula Gordon and Bill Russell what really interests him. He offers the paradox of all the things words can and cannot do and tells us what he tells his students about writing.

Conversation 2

Reminding us of the power of everyday life, Mr. Delany places himself firmly in the tradition of Jane Austen and amplifies with examples. He quotes Blanche McCrary Boyd on writing. He gives a sketch of his famous novel, Dhalgren. He describes both its origins and why he thinks there is renewed interest in it. A variety of kinds of communities are considered.

Conversation 3

Mr. Delany connects the characters and actions in Dhalgren to a current longing for community. He remembers how The Sixties appeared to him as he wrote Dhalgren and how the novel came about. He reminds us of the powerful changes unleashed in that time, describing how much has truly changed in the intervening decades. He relates those larger changes to what has occurred in the academic community. The once-dominant role of "work" is considered in the context of the overwhelming responses Mr. Delany got to Dhalgren. He labels himself and describes his approach as a writer in society. He tells how quality is created and evaluated in written works.

Conversation 4

The genesis of sci-fi is discussed (with special thanks to Schenectady) as Mr. Delaney gives examples of how a story unfolds. Crediting his poetic friend George Stanley, Mr. Delaney elaborates on the epigram from Dhalgren, "You have confused the true and the real." The political role of this pursuit is considered. Mr. Delany distinguishes "truth" from "truth-claims" and explains how important this distinction is now. He asserts that art is the place where we can say anything, disturbed when journalism asserts poor truth-claims. The importance of patterns in human thought is suggested.

Conversation 5

Continuing with the malleability of patterns, Mr. Delany suggests the difficulty in distinguishing among often "undecidable" claims. The conversation turns to the role of science in science fiction. Mr. Delany objects to circumstances when science is turned into religion. He talks about being both an insider and an outsider and considers where the relative centers of both coincide. He describes the vast amount of overlap among individuals' diverse "identities" and describes the impact of belonging to many "language communities." The possibility of dialogue, he maintains, is what allows the possibility of change. He elaborates. Spoken and written language are compared.

Conversation 6

Mr. Delaney tells how impressed he is with the effectiveness of today's science. He suggests an appropriate relationship between engineering and science, science and technology. Having been a literary child prodigy, Mr. Delany compares how differently older and younger people think and express their thoughts. He works to overturn the general wisdom about wisdom. He objects to the abuse of technology, the result of separating it from the science he considers "aestheticized technology." Science needs more narrative, it is agreed, then Mr. Delany assures us that "the big problem" is everyone's need to pay more attention to everything.


It was our very real pleasure to welcome the versatile and charming Mr. Delany to our program.

Esther Levine of "Book Atlanta" was her usual helpful self in bringing this program to pass and, as always, we thank her for her on-going interest in connecting us with interesting people.

Related Links:
Dhalgren, Mr. Delany's 1974 novel which sold a million copies at the time, has been reissued by Vintage Books. Vintage is re-releasing other Delany classics, including the Nebula Award-winning Babel-17; Nova, which will be back in print after 10 years; and collected short fiction in Driftglass. Mr. Delany's remarkable collection of other award-winning science fiction and nonfiction works are available from a variety of sources.

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