Delany was born in 1942, in Harlem. His mother was a library clerk and his father owned a funeral home. He started writing in his teens, and he turned to science fiction not because he viewed the genre as particularly open to a young black man from Harlem but because, he said, “I read it. It was in front of me.” He married the poet Marilyn Hacker, in 1961, and soon after she took a job at Ace Books, an important publisher of paperback science fiction and fantasy. Hacker dropped one of Delany’s novels into a slush pile under a pen name. In 1962, Ace published the manuscript as “The Jewels of Aptor.” (That work is being reprinted this month alongside two other early novels, in a collection titled “A, B, C: Three Short Novels.”) Delany became something of a wunderkind in the science-fiction world. “You are accepted,” he says, “by the genre that can accept you.”
Delany’s novels and stories have taken place in outer space and the future and other alien worlds. His plots are speculative: the race to harvest an energy source from the sun, the struggles of a libertarian society on one of Neptune’s moons, the plight of slaves in a pre-industrial world of magic and barbarism. But he does not believe that science fiction is the right genre for his concerns any more or less than another genre would be. “Nothing about the sonnet is perfect for the love poem, either,” he said. “Genre simply provides a way for the reader to look for things that have been done. A form is a useful thing to use. It has history and resonance. It informs you as to the way things have been done in the past.” In the preface to “A, B, C,” Delany writes that, “though the genre can suggest what you might need, it can never do the work for you.”
Some of Delany’s works have become essential to the history of science fiction. His 1968 novel “Nova” describes people being plugged directly into computers, a staple of what would become cyberpunk. “Dhalgren,” published in 1975—and one of the more difficult novels in any genre—describes the exploits of the Kid in a post-apocalyptic urban waste virtually devoid of any access to the outside world. Delany’s most recent book, the 2012 novel “Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders,” traces the lives of two young gay men from 2007 into the future. It features coprophagia, bestiality, and the erotic sharing of snot.
No matter how he upends conventions, though, one rarely gets the sense that Delany is trying to shock his readers. “There is nothing in ‘Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders’ that you can’t find on Google in five minutes,” he told me. Just because such acts are not often talked about in polite company does not mean they don’t exist, he said.
This is a lesson Delany learned in part from living in New York City as a gay man in the nineteen-seventies and eighties. In “Times Square Red, Times Square Blue,” a 1999 book that brings together two autobiographical essays, Delany describes the subculture of the Times Square movie theatres in those decades. His sexual exploits are considerable, but Delany focusses his attention on the lives of his partners, such as the one-legged Arly, who will one day go with Delany to visit Delany’s stroke-afflicted mother. In the movie houses sex was not furtive; it was enjoyed openly and without fear, and yet it could only exist in this way within these marginal limits. And it involved a shared language: the men in these theatres talked about what they were doing, whom they did it with, how it went. They created a way of speaking that was as real as any other, no matter how shadowy or illicit people on the outside imagined it to be.