Saturday, July 24, 2010

SF Masterworks #79: Samuel R. Delany, Dhalgren

The late 1960s and early 1970s were a turbulent time.  Youth movements throughout the Americas and Europe challenged long-accepted gender, racial, and sexual prejudices.  Radical ways of viewing how the world should be often led to direct and sometimes violent confrontations with authorities of besieged institutions, with several of these confrontations having aftershocks that have persisted until the current day.  From the American Civil Rights movement to the bra burnings in several countries to protest the unequal treatment of women to the Stonewall Riots that marked the birth of the gay rights movement, the decade between 1963 and 1973 has spawned social movements that continue today to urge for a new, transformed world where divisions by race, gender, and sexual orientation would no longer exist.

There was an analogue to this in SF during the same time period.  In both North America and Great Britain (and to some extent in the non-Anglophone European countries),writers such as Ursula Le Guin, J.G. Ballard, Michael Moorcock, and Samuel R. Delany began to question why SF could not be more than the exploration of scientific concepts in a fictional setting.  This "New Wave" of writers incorporated some of the ideas and questions raised by the social movements mentioned above into their writings.  In stories such as Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness, Ballard's Crash, and Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius novels, issues of social status, gender equality, and sexual identity were explored.  But it was in Delany's 1975 novel, Dhalgren, where each of these important social issues of the time came to find their highest form of expression.

Dhalgren is set in the fictional American city of Bellona, after an apparent, unspecified apocalypse.  But this event is never referred to directly, only implied.  It, along with the resulting chaos, lurk in the background, like an itch that is never truly scratched.  Dhalgren's first paragraphs give clues to just how dense and foggy Delany's story is:

to wound the autumnal city.

So howled out for the world to give him a name.

The in-dark answered with wind.

All you know I know:  careening astronauts and bank clerks glancing at the clock before lunch; actresses cowling at light-ringed mirrors and freight elevator operators grinding a thumbful of grease on a steel handle; student riots; know that dark women in bodegas shook their heads last week because in six months prices have risen outlandishly; how coffee tastes after you've held it in your mouth, cold, a whole minute.

A whole minute he squatted, pebbles clutched with his left foot (the bare one), listening to his breath sound tumble down the ledges.

Beyond a leafy arras, reflected moonlight flittered.

He rubbed his palms against denim.  Where he was, was still.  Somewhere else, wind whined.

The leaves winked.

What had been wind was a motion in brush below.  His hand went to the rock behind. (p. 1)

Here Kid (or sometimes, Kidd) is introduced.  He is a male with no sense of identity; he appears and does not know his name nor remember most of his past.  He is of indeterminate racial background and he is bisexual.  His wandering through Bellona, his hooking up with a quasi-gang known as the scorpions, his interactions with both males and females, white and black alike, are at first told nearly straight-forward.  But there are gaps in what is discussed.  There seem to be nightly horrors that are rarely referenced and never addressed.  Through the book, Kid searches to make sense out of chaos, to forge an identity out of the disparate remnants of his former self.

Delany's story is so encompassing that it is difficult to pick out a single strand (or even three) and say, "this is what the story is really about."  It does not invite easy comparisons, nor does it provide a linear structure.  What one can only hope to do is to take the text as it is and to wrestle with the myriad questions revolving around identity and see if one can forge a self-identification with the text similar to what Kid does with his new life in Bellona.  Although this is not the easiest of stories to read, the effort expended in trying to grasp what is occurring is more than rewarded by the book's end.

Below is an exchange between Kid and a fellow survivor, Tak, discussing not just Bellona, but also the imagination:

"Do you think that's what happened to Bellona?"  Someday I'll die, turned irrelevantly through his mind:  Death and artichokes.  Heaviness filled his ribs; he rubbed his chest for the reassuring systolic and diastolic thumps.  Not that I really think it might stop, he thought:  only that it hasn't just yet.  Sometimes (he thought), I wish I couldn't feel it.  (Someday, it will stop).

"Actually," Tak was saying, "I suspect the whole thing is science fiction."

"Huh?  You mean a time-warp, or a parallel universe?"

"No, just...well, science fiction.  Only real.  It follows all the conventions."

"Spaceships, ray-guns, going faster than light?  I used to read the stuff, but I haven't seen anything like that around here."

"Bet you don't read the new, good stuff.  Let's see:  the Three Conventions of science fiction - " Tak wiped his forehead with his leather sleeve. (Kid thought, inanely:  He's polishing his brain)  "First:  A single man can change the course of a whole world:  Look at Calkins, look at George - look at you!  Second:  The only measure of intelligence or genius is its linear and practical application:  In a landscape like this, what other kind do we even allow to visit?  Three:  The Universe is an essentially hospitable place, full of earth-type planets where you can crash-land your spaceship and survive long enough to have an adventure.  Here in Bellona - "

"Maybe that's why I don't read more of the stuff than I do," Kid said.  He had had his full of criticism with Newboy; the noise was no longer comforting.  "Wasn't there a street lamp working on this block?"

Tak bulled out the end of his sentence:  " - in Bellona you can have anything you want, as long as you can carry it by yourself, or get your friends to."

"It's funny, not that many people have that much."

"A comment on the paucity of our imaginations - none at all on the wonders here for the taking.  No - it's a comment on the limits of the particular mind the city encourages.  Who wants to be as lonely as the acquisition of all those objects would make them?  Most people here have spent most of their time someplace else.  You learn something from that." (pp. 372-373)

This is, I believe, a key passage in the book.  Although it can be taken also as an embedded critique of earlier SF, I think the issue of limits and what the city is perceived to encourage its denizens to think and do lies near to the heart of much of the action that transpires here in Dhalgren.  This issue of limits is brought up again later in the novel, in a much more direct fashion:

I am limited, finite, and fixed.  I am in terror of the infinity before me, having come through the one behind bringing no knowledge I can take on.  I commend myself up to what is greater than I, and try to be good.  That is wrestling with what I have been given.  Do I rage at what I have not? (Is infinity some illusion generated by the way in which time is perceived?)  I try to end this pride and rage and commend myself to what is there, instead of illusion.  But the veil is the juncture of the perceived and perception.  And what in life can rip that?  Is the only prayer, then, to live steadily and dully, doing and doubting what the mind demands?  I am limited, finite, and fixed.  I rage for reasons, cry for pity.  Do with me what way you will.  (p. 583)

This is perhaps the most powerful single moment in Dhalgren.  Kid's questions resonate because so many of us have asked similar questions before?  "Who am I?",  "What am I to do?",  "Why can't I understand?":  these questions and the ones generated from them form the core of our identity shapings.  Kid, stripped of his past (something mentioned directly in this passage), is about to search deep within in an attempt to discover just what sorts of identity he has come to possess.  In the final section of the book, "The Anathemata:  a plague journal," with its marginalia and excerpted texts creating a fractured narrative "time" for the final part of Kid and his companion's experiences in Bellona, this is explored in a fashion where the very confusing layout of these disparate texts serve as a symbol for the inner turmoil that is roiling within Kid.

Is Dhalgren worthy of being considered a "Masterwork?"  It is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the most ambitious novels written in the late 20th century.  Thirty-five years later, it still sparks controversy among those who try to process everything that it contains.  Its discussions of gender roles, racial identity, and sexuality are still controversial in many parts of contemporary society and the novel's power to stir strong emotions has hardly abated.  Such powerful works, written in a bold, unconventional narrative style, may not be enjoyed by everyone, but for those who are willing to wrestle with it and to win some sort of understanding (if it only be an understanding of one's own limits to comprehend), Dhalgren is easily one of the best novels of the 20th century in any genre and it likely will continue to be held up as being one of the best New Wave SF novels ever written.


  1. Hey, great review! I've always wanted to read this book, but I don't dare do it before I've read more of the "easier" Delany (so far my sole experience with him has been Babel-17)

  2. That's another never-read-yet Delany I must read urgently. Several friends of mine in Rio and São Paulo have old editions, so I can borrow them - I wonder if I'll do it sooner or later this semester (too many readings, not enough reviews)

  3. One of my favourites, I always come back to it and find something new to think about each time I re-read.

  4. No Delany is "easy" Delany - the others I've read have their own thematic explorations that can be quite challenging at times!

    And Fábio, better earlier than later, you know!

    Jan, I do as well, such as with this review after my second read of Dhalgren.

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  6. The New Wave didn't magically appear on both sides of the Atlantic at the same time. It was a British thing, created by the magazine New Worlds under the editorship of Michael Moorcock. Some US authors picked up aspects of it, but the US New Wave was never quite the same thing as the British one. Which is not to say either didn't produce some excellent fiction.

  7. While I agree that the two scenes were mostly independent, I do think the American side does date to roughly the same time period (Le Guin certainly was active before the late 1960s, for example), so in terms of talking about issues of social concerns during the 1960s and 1970s that authors on both sides of the Atlantic addressed in their fictions, "New Wave" has become conflated over the years, despite the differences that you note and that I purposely left out of my introduction to this piece.

    Perhaps should have worked that into the Ballard piece, come and think of it, since his viewpoint diverges quite a bit from the American version of New Wave and those divergences seem to be related to some of what was transpiring within the pages of New Worlds, as you rightfully mention here.

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