Tackling Samuel Delaney and Dhalgren

Samuel Delany Image Credit: Welcome To Lace.org

I’ve been hearing about Samuel Delany for awhile now, but more than that I’ve been hearing (from those who ought to know) that this was somebody I absolutely had to start reading why hadn’t I read him already don’t you consider yourself a writer of science fiction particularly an African American person writing this stuff?

And you haven’t read Samuel Delany?

I have no excuses and fewer reasons for why this didn’t take place until now, except that, well…anyway…

While I try to devise a really good-sounding excuse that will get me off the hook, let me say that as we speak (well, not exactly literally speaking, but) I’m making my way through “Dhalgren”, which is considered by some of the most respected names in scifi to be one of the strongest works of science fiction ever written. It is also one of the bestselling science fiction  novels of all time. To quote what Theodore Sturgeon says on the back of the book I checked out of my local library:

“The very best ever to come out of the science fiction field…A literary landmark.”

If you know anything at all about Theodore Sturgeon, who died in 1985, then you know this is about the highest praise you can get from one of the (other) best in the business. The man is no joke.

I’m only 155 pages in (out of nearly 800, and that’s small print), but it’s already clear I’ve never ready anything like this. Ever. Anywhere. By anybody. And I have read a lot of science fiction. H.G. Wells. Asimov. Heinlein. Frank Herbert. Octavia Butler. On and on and on. But this…?  I think this may be the first time I have ever felt quite so intimidated. It’s the closest thing to reading in three dimensions, if that makes any sense at all. Meaning you simply can’t read Dhalgren and expect to keep up simply by following the printed words on the page. There is the storyline of the main character, The Kidd, and there is the dystopian universe in which the story takes place that is somewhat familiar to those of us who have spent imaginary time tramping around on other such imaginary locales in other imaginary adventures. OK, all good.  But where most authors would be content to weave a fascinating tale of the mysterious central character navigating his way through dystopia, Delany adds several more layers of poetry and internal monologue and …just so much, man. He has, in a very real sense, created a book that can only be fully experienced using the key designed and conceived by Delany that provides the reader access to his very own rule book. Because if you don’t get the rules, then you will never get Dhalgren.

The truth? I’m not sure I will get Dhalgren either, once I’m done. The rules either. At least not after just one reading. Not completely. That doesn’t mean I won’t enjoy it because I already am, although  had to make several runs at it before I could catch the right reading rhythm to keep me on top of the wave.

But at least I’m on top, and not just treading water. For now, at least.

Damn. Now I gotta rethink everything.


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