Julian Lucas profiles Samuel Delany, one of the most vibrant and extraordinary writers of our era. I first encountered Delany’s Babel 17 in a college course. I was obsessed with the “Return to Nevèrÿon” series in graduate school, and his books Mad Man and Times Square Red, Times Square Blue provoked me in the most profound ways. I regularly recommend or gift his memoir The Motion of Light on Water. There are few personalities, writers, and intellectuals with the capacity to surprise and provoke that Delany possesses. His independence of mind and impartiality against the world are extraordinary, something that to my mind unites him with Hannah Arendt. Lucas writes:
In the stellar neighborhood of American letters, there have been few minds as generous, transgressive, and polymathically brilliant as Samuel Delany’s. Many know him as the country’s first prominent Black author of science fiction, who transformed the field with richly textured, cerebral novels like “Babel-17” (1966) and “Dhalgren” (1975). Others know the revolutionary chronicler of gay life, whose autobiography, “The Motion of Light in Water” (1988), stands as an essential document of pre-Stonewall New York. Still others know the professor, the pornographer, or the prolific essayist whose purview extends from cyborg feminism to Biblical philology.
There are so many Delanys that it’s difficult to take the full measure of his influence. Reading him was formative for Junot Díaz and William Gibson; Octavia Butler was, briefly, his student in a writing workshop. Jeremy O. Harris included Delany as a character in his play “Black Exhibition,” while Neil Gaiman, who is adapting Delany’s classic space adventure “Nova” (1968) as a series for Amazon, credits him with building a critical foundation not only for science fiction but also for comics and other “paraliterary” genres.
Friends call him Chip, a nickname he gave himself at summer camp, in the eleventh year of a life that has defied convention and prejudice. He is a sci-fi child prodigy who never flamed out; a genre best-seller widely recognized as a great literary stylist; a dysgraphic college dropout who once headed the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst; and an outspokenly promiscuous gay man who survived the aids crisis and has found love, three times, in committed, non-monogamous relationships. A story like Delany’s isn’t supposed to be possible in our society—and that, nearly as much as the gift of his writing, is his glory.