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Delany, Samuel R. (b. 1942)  
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Writer of science fiction, memoirs, erotica, cultural studies, and postmodern criticism, and winner of multiple Nebula, Hugo, and Lambda Literary Awards, Samuel Delany infuses his chosen genres with ideas drawn from linguistics, myth, and anthropology. A prolific writer with a restless intelligence, Delany is widely regarded as one of the finest science fiction writers of his generation

Born on April 1, 1942, Delany was reared in a black middle-class family in New York City. His father ran a funeral parlor; his mother worked in a public library. Surrounded with abundant models for intellectual encouragement, he was educated through what he describes as a daily "ballistic" journey from Harlem to schools for the gifted elsewhere in New York.

Delany graduated from the Bronx High School of Science in 1960. There he met poet Marilyn Hacker, whom he married at age 19, though he had been aware of his homosexuality since adolescence. In 1975, she won a National Book Award for Poetry. Delany often interweaves her poetry into his novels.

At the time of their marriage, both partners were exploring their sexual feelings. The pair established a bond based on their mutual appreciation of literature and music. They criticized each other's work, and pursued polyamorous affairs in New York's bohemian, literary, and gay subcultures in the early 1960s. The marriage lasted until 1980; the couple had one daughter.

Delany's picaresque memoir, The Motion of Light in Water (1988), the story of "a black man, a gay man, a writer," chronicles his years of school and marriage, which is presented as a time of intellectual discovery, punctuated by meetings with notables such as W.H. Auden. He intersperses these accounts of literary experimentation and growth with frank descriptions of casual sex in New York's homosexual cruising areas. Other autobiographical works include Heavenly Breakfast (1979), an account of communal life in the 1970s, and 1984 (2000), a collection of letters describing his life as a writer and his accommodation to the new realities of AIDS.

Delany's observations on the sexual currents emanating from the bars, baths, and other cruising grounds in the years preceding Stonewall are illuminating. Comparing the "hundreds" of men he had seen cruising at night with the following morning's newspaper reports on the few who had been arrested, he credits the power of gays' becoming aware of the sheer numbers of others like them as a necessary precursor to the gay rights movement.

Delany has achieved greatest fame as a science fiction writer. He published his first novel, The Jewels of Aptor (1962), when he was only 20.

Though sometimes labeled a member of science fiction's "New Wave," he is more appropriately associated with Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions group (i.e., contributors to anthologies edited by Ellison in 1967 and 1972), along with Joanna Russ and Ursula Le Guin. Like their work, much of his subverts gender and racial expectations, and features strong female and non-white protagonists who challenge and reconstruct sexual archetypes.

Delany's protagonists assume functions similar to aliens in traditional science fiction. Outsiders who question dominant paradigms, they are constructed with a psychological validity that transcends the expectations of genre fiction. They traverse an arc of double or triple consciousness impelled by their gender, sexual, economic, or racial non-conformity.

The short story "Aye, and Gomorrah" (1967), about sex trade with a neutered and alienated sub-group, probes the allure of ambiguous gender and the impossibility of lust to reconcile with its object. In "Time Considered as a Helix of Semiprecious Stones" (1968), a bisexual con artist operates in a city depersonalized by homogeneous media and authoritarian control. In this environment, the "Singers," itinerant performers who convey the news through unrecorded songs, offer the only vehicle for truth.

In Babel-17 (1966) the heroine is scientist, action figure, and poet all rolled into one. Among her crew are navigators who can function only as members of a sexually intimate, three-person relationship. The novel explores how victims of oppression, trapped in the dominant language, become participants in their own subjugation.

The civilization in Empire Star (1966) is built by slave beings whose condition induces despair among their exploiters. Thus, the oppressor becomes the victim of the burdens she imposes on the other, and is corrupted and demeaned by the benefits derived thereby. One character proclaims what could well be Delany's manifesto: "The only important elements in any society are the artistic and the criminal, because they alone, by questioning the society's values, can force it to change."

In developing character, Delany employs a three-pronged approach. To be fully realized, he has written, characters must be shown engaging in purposeful, habitual, and gratuitous actions. He faults science fiction's depiction of women prior to Dangerous Visions for not according them all three modes of agency.

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Samuel R. Delany. Photograph by Kathryn Cramer.
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