Where to begin when discussing the life and work of Samuel R. Delany? The man’s oeuvre is so complicated, so vast, so intelligent, so erotic, that it’s hard to find a jump-off point. Should we start with his science-fiction? That is where his career began. What about his essays? They certainly tackle important issues: class, memory, language, sexuality, perception. He is also a literary critic who focuses on queer studies and issues in science-fiction. All of these facets are worth contemplation. I think, however, that it might be best to start with something simple: Samuel R. Delany likes coffee.
Delany was born in New York City in 1942. Raised in Harlem, his aunts were the civil rights pioneers Sadie and Bessie Delany; his father, Henry, was the first Black Bishop of the Episcopal Church. Though he has identified as gay since adolescence, he was married to poet, translator, and critic Marilyn Hacker for fourteen years (she was aware of his orientation and has identified as a lesbian since their divorce). The first short story he ever sold is the focus of today’s post, “Aye, and Gomorrah…”, which appeared in Harlan Ellison’s seminal 1967 anthology Dangerous Visions. The story won the Nebula Award for Best Short Story that same year. His work has earned four Nebula Awards, two Hugo Awards, the Stonewall Book Award, two Lambda Awards, and the Brudner Prize. While not a theme, per se, you will notice that coffee is mentioned often in many of his works.
As he moved later into his career, his work began to explore sexual themes to an extent still not seen in most mainstream writing. Delany views sexuality as a means of contact and connection that should be celebrated; he posits that ignoring it is dangerous and limits dialogue between children and parents on the subject. Novels such as Dhalgren and Stars In My Pocket Like Grains of Sand contain many explicit passages, leading some to label his work as pornography (a term that Delany himself endorses). These themes have carried through to his most recent work, including his 2012 novel Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders. His essay collection Times Square Red, Times Square Blue eloquently argues that the “cleaning up” of Times Square in the 1990s that eliminated the area’s infamous peepshows and sex movie houses in the name of family values was actually a campaign of gentrification that damaged the landscape of the city – for Delany, these theaters were valuable because they represented a microcosm of city life that transcended boundaries of race, class, and orientation.
“Aye, and Gomorrah…” does not contain any of the explicit eroticism of his later work, but sex still hovers over the proceedings. The story concerns itself with a group of “Spacers,” or astronauts. To counteract certain effects of space radiation, Spacers are neutered before puberty, sterilizing them and giving them an androgynous appearance that makes their birth sex difficult to determine. Spacers are fetishized by a subculture of “frelks,” those who find their sexlessness and unattainability arousing. The Spacers take advantage of this subculture by prostituting themselves out for amusement or money, or perhaps to ease their own loneliness. The majority of the story takes place in Istanbul, and follows an unnamed Spacer who is slowly and tentatively propositioned by a native frelk (also unnamed).
The first time I read this story, I wasn’t sure exactly what I had just experienced. After some thought, I realized this was because Delany does not spoon feed his readers a single bit of information. The history of his world and the culture being presented are rendered in small background details and in dialogue. He follows the rule of “show, don’t tell” more faithfully than almost any writer I have thus encountered. This a story that requires a read just to work out what exactly is going on. Only in subsequent reads, after the surface details have been worked out, can the reader focus on the meat of the story.
The second time I read this story, I was struck by how profoundly sad it is. Spacers live in perpetual motion. They have no home; between jobs on Mars, Jupiter, or Ganymede, they bounce around Earth looking for entertainment. Wherever they land, they are not welcome: A recurring refrain throughout the story is, “Do you not think, Spacer, that you…people should leave?” They do not have their own language; at several points the Spacer attempts to speak in the local language and is immediately corrected. They do not really have maturity, as the process to transform them into Spacers essentially leaves them as children. They do not have sex and have no interest in sex. They are the ultimate Other, of our world but of the stars, of our species but unable to propagate it. They belong in their own social class, and are reminded of that at all turns. Despite their worship of Spacers, ultimately the frelks merely objectify them. This is a story about loneliness, about people who do not belong anywhere.
The parallels to homosexuality are unmistakable. “Aye, and Gomorrah…” was written three years before the Stonewall riots, and fifteen years before the discovery of AIDS. The 1950s saw McCarthyism target homosexuals as security risks; thousands of people lost their jobs or were discharged from the military on the mere suspicion of being gay. The Post Office tracked where homosexual material was mailed. Police frequently raided gay bars. For decades homosexuality was listed in the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual (DSM) as a mental disorder. Gays were so marginalized that many became invisible. The Spacers are a symbolic representation of this isolation: Early in the story, an obviously homosexual blonde man tells the Spacer, “The police. They don’t bother us. You are strangers, though…” As the ultimate outsiders, Spacers face even less protection from the police than gay people. In light of that, it is not surprising that the Spacers never stay in any one place too long.
The frelks are as important to this parallel as the Spacers. They are, in their way, as marginalized as the Spacers. Even the objects of their desire look down on them. Sometimes they even look down on themselves: “Perverted, yes? In love with a bunch of corpses in free fall!” Delany uses the relationship between frelks and Spacers to mirror common arguments used by conservative groups against homosexuals over the years. Because Spacers have been neutered they cannot receive sexual pleasure or reproduce with their frelk partners – those who claimed that homosexuality is “unnatural” often pointed to the lack of ability to reproduce as a reason for that unnaturalness. Indeed, the frelk in the story seems to think her own desires are wrong. But she also voices what is perhaps Delany’s moral for the whole story: “You don’t choose your perversions.” It does not matter who you love; what matters is connection.
“What will you give me? I want something,” I said. “That’s why I came. I’m lonely. Maybe I want to find out how far it goes. I don’t know yet.”
“It goes as far as you will. Me? I study, I read, paint, talk with my friends” – she came over to the bed, sat down on the floor – “go to the theater, look at spacers who pass me on the street, till one looks back; I am lonely too.”
In the fifty years since this story was written, gay rights have come a long way. There were the aforementioned Stonewall riots, which kicked off the modern LGBT rights movement in the United States. In 1977 homosexuality was finally removed from the DSM. In 1982, Wisconsin became the first state to pass anti-discrimination laws for gay people. 1988 saw the first World AIDS Day. In the 1992 ruling of Romer v. Evans, the Supreme Court found that Colorado’s 2nd amendment denying gays rights was unconstitutional. In 2009, President Barack Obama signed into law the Matthew Shepard Act. There were setbacks, such as the signing of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) by President Bill Clinton in 1996 and the passing of Proposition 8 in California in 2008. However, the historic Supreme Court ruling of Obergefell v. Hodges granted gays the right to marry in 2015.
In light of this, I think the story has a different meaning today than at the time of its writing. When Delany wrote it, he clearly meant for Spacers to represent homosexuals. Now, in 2016, I think the Spacers more closely parallel the transgendered community, which is still struggling for equality. The Spacers, having no easily identifiable gender, are continuously rejected for that very fact. Like many transgendered people, they are treated as sexual curiosities rather than individuals. Delany himself is slightly more coy on the subject: “I’m not sure how the change in the social status of homosexuality, sadomasochism, and the like have changed how we read the story today. Ask me what the story is about now, however, and I’ll probably say it’s somehow about the desire for desire.”
I fear that I have made this story sound like a thesis about gender and sexual politics. It is not, nor is it endless gloom. Remember that this story won the Nebula; Delany knows how to write. Like Hemingway, his style is economical, but he has a eye for detail that can result in understatedly gorgeous prose:
Bo laughed to break tensions. “Say, last time I was in Istanbul – about a year before I joined up with this platoon – I remember we were coming out of Taksim Square down Istiqlal. Just past all the cheap movies we found a little passage lined with flowers. Ahead of us were two other spacers. It’s a market in there, and farther down they got fish, and then a courtyard with oranges and candy and sea urchins and cabbage. But flowers in front.”
To sum up, this is a classic story, beautifully written with complex themes. It’s well worth reading, and can be found in several anthologies. I recommend Aye, and Gomorrah, and Other Stories, published in 2003, that collects almost the entirety of Delany’s short sci-fi/fantasy stories.
Before I go, a note on the title. The title clearly refers to the Biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, destroyed by God, according to some interpretations, for the sin of homosexuality. Delany, as a gay man, clearly does not find homosexuality to be wrong, and there is no explicit explanation for this title in the story. I suspect he means for us to thoughtfully consider the issue. Perhaps I’ll ponder the matter over a cup of coffee.
NEXT TIME: “The Willows” by Algernon Blackwood!