Samuel R. Delany may have dropped out of college at nineteen, but he’s become the darling of the academy — not to mention a literary superstar with a cult following, critical acclaim and over thirty books to his name. A true product of the sixties, he lived on a commune in the East Village, maintained a merrily promiscuous gay sex life (he and lesbian poet Marilyn Hacker were married for a time, but divorced in 1980) and emerged as a force in science fiction, dominating the major awards and commanding unprecedented advances. In 1974, he published Dhalgren, an epic novel whose graphic descriptions of homosexual, polysexual and sadomasochistic relationships alienated many of his supporters within the field, but enthralled mainstream audiences to the tune of a million copies sold.
Here, Delany discusses the history of sex in science fiction — from the heros of the pulps to the wild experimentation of the sixties and seventies — and explains how his literary creations reflect his own legendary sexual life. — Scott Westerfeld, guest editor of Speculative Sex: The Science Fiction Issue.
SW: You’ve written about alien anal sex, kinky threesomes, shit-eating and pedophilia — unusual topics for science fiction. What are the experiences in your own life that inform the sex in your writing?
SD: I’m a gay man on the verge of sixty. That means I lived the first twenty-seven years of my life before Stonewall, and I have nothing but good to say of the gay rights movement. Still, paradoxically, there were far more opportunities for sex among men before Stonewall than since. When I was writing my early science fiction novels and living on the Lower East Side in the early sixties, I could get up in the morning, work until noon, then take a walk a few blocks down to the Second Avenue subway station, in the bathroom of which I would have sex with, say, three different guys. Then I’d grab a sandwich across Houston Street at Katz’s and be back home by quarter past one. I’d get back to work till five. Then I’d take a stroll up to Tompkin’s Square, in the men’s room of which I’d have some sort of sexual encounter with, say, another five guys. And I’d be home by six-thirty. At about eight-thirty, I’d take another walk down to the Williamsburg Bridge, where I’d hang around for maybe an hour and half or two hours, and have sex with another six men.
Now, on that day, I’d gotten in a full day’s work — ten hours worth. So if you asked me what I’d done, I’d tell you: I worked all day. I mean, I haven’t even mentioned the docks — where, nightly, orgies went on from sunset to sunrise, involving a hundred or more men (three or four hundred on a holiday weekend) — or the baths or bars like the famous Mineshaft. But that’s the kind of sexual availability I grew up with — that I had available to me from age nineteen to, say, twenty-eight or twenty-nine.
I was married at nineteen to Marilyn Hacker. But it was very easy to combine a highly satisfactory gay life with married life, since my wife was aware that I was gay. As long as my gay activity didn’t interfere with our domestic situation, there wasn’t any problem. And because of its all-but-ubiquitous availability (my general perception was that, within the confines of New York City, I was rarely more than twenty minutes away from an orgasm with another man, whenever I wanted one), it didn’t.
SW: It’s curious that you were devoted to science fiction, a genre that had such sexually repressed roots, historically speaking. Sf really became a genre in the ’20s and ’30s with the advent of pulp magazines. The pulps were pretty clearly divided between the Amazing Science Tales genre and True Detective. How come the gumshoes got the sex and gore, but sf wound up so chaste?
SD: Many of the early greats of sf — Hugo Gernsback (publisher of Amazing Stories) in particular — saw themselves as educators. The didactic thrust of science fiction got the genre initially pegged as children’s fare. It was seen, at its best, as an extension of school and, at its worst, as teenage wish fulfillment.
The pulp hero, though he may be a renegade, is a guy who doesn’t feel. Anything. Ever. And for the adolescent male — pummeled by emotions left and right, whether arising from sexuality or resulting from his necessary encounters with authority — this hero is a blessing, a relief and a release. The world he lives in, where feelings are totally under control, looks to the adolescent boy like heaven! This hero’s lack of feeling — like Star Trek‘s Spock — is what allows him to be a genius, or allows him to shoot the bad guys and/or aliens, without a quiver to his lip.
But what starts as a relief and a release, you eventually recognize as a distortion: it doesn’t reflect the real world. Precisely what gave you a certain pleasure is also a restraint. Thomas Mann said that every philosophical position exists to correct the abuses of the previous one, often to the other extreme. You could make a reasonable argument that it is the alien Spock who carves out the space of desire that is eventually filled with sf’s explicitly erotic characters — everyone from my own Kidd in Dhalgren to Maureen F. McHue’s gay character, Zhang, in her extraordinary China Mountain Zhang, not to mention all the Kirk-slash-Spock fiction.
SW: “Slash” fiction is surely the opposite extreme from the logical alien.
SD: Yes — Kirk-slash-Spock fiction, written by fans of Star Trek, is usually gay pornography in which Kirk and Spock and other members of the Enterprise crew get it on.
SW: Or relative newcomers like the X-Files‘ Mulder/Scully (or Mulder/Skinner) — also hyper-competent characters who rarely show their emotional side. Science fiction’s ur-audience is adolescent males, but slash fiction is generally written and read by women, is it not?
SD: Slash is usually written by straight women, yes, and I think it appeals to straight women in the same way lesbian sequences in commercial pornography appeal to straight men. I always say that if gay men and women didn’t exist, straight men and women would have had to invent us.
SW: So the emotionless, sexless pulp hero of the ’30s personifies sf’s celibate period. How did that come to an end?
SD: Take a story like “The World Well Lost,” written by Theodore Sturgeon in 1950. Two alien lovers come to Earth, one larger than the other, and everyone assumes that they’re male and female. The story is told from the point of view of two security men who guard their starship, themselves close friends. Eventually, the guards discover that the aliens are both male, and indeed are gay. They’ve taken flight from their home planet because of terrible homophobia there. One guard, a typical 1950s Earth male, is disgusted by this and doesn’t know what to do, he even suggests killing the aliens. But the other talks him out of it. At the end of the story, the first guard goes to sleep back in their quarters. His friend remains awake, looking at him, and we realize that he’s in love with him.
I read it in an anthology when I was about fourteen or fifteen and broke out crying, exactly as I was supposed to. I was quite touched by it, and it certainly helped make it possible to talk about those things later on in my own work, like the gay, human characters in the story, “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones.” Historically, I guess that’s how science fiction works: you start by using aliens to think the unthinkable — and then, eventually, another writer, having grown a little more comfortable with the earlier notion, brings it into the human.
Of 1970s sf, The Female Man by Joanna Russ left the biggest impression on me. It’s a three-panel portrait of the female condition: Jeannine, Janet (everyone’s favorite) and Jael — three women who share the same genes but each of whom has been raised in an entirely different environment, who summate to create Joanna. That’s the first time I remember reading anything in sf that talked about the terror of sex. It foreshadowed the terror of rejection, something that writing about sex must talk about, or it becomes mere wish fulfillment. That terror is such a large part of people’s sexual lives. It is why we don’t go up to perfect strangers and say, “Hey, you’re gorgeous, let’s go to bed.” To put that part of you out there makes you very vulnerable. Russ’ book gave me the permission to focus on fear of rejection in Trouble on Triton and the Neveryon series, in which “The Tale of Memory and Desire” is really my homage to The Female Man.
SW: Do you think the alternate worlds of science fiction create a space for alternate sexualities?
SD: I think that’s a question that, even in its formation, pretty much answers itself — that is to say, the question acknowledges that one’s sexuality is, indeed, part of one’s reality. The late John Preston wrote an essay in which he goes to an SM function, and there encounters many of the same people he’s seen previously at sf conventions. There’s a certain kind of person who wants to be in a rich semiotic environment that talks about what you desire, rather than an impoverished semiotic environment. In the “real world,” all you get is a yellow handkerchief to show what you want.
SW: Hell, straight people don’t even get that. I was recently at Norwescon in Seattle, and there was a huge showing of latex, leather, fairy wings and slave gear among the broadswords and Klingon costumes.
SD: SF cons are places that are just saturated with signs about what you are — or what you could be. There’s all this stuff that makes it easier to express desire, and attendant narratives that anchor you socially.
SW: Can you think of another way to say “rich semiotic environment”? The Nerve editors are nervous about this sounding jargon-y.
SD: Oh, a little jargon will do them good.
This is what my book Times Square Red, Times Square Blue is about, organizing places for desire. Until a decade ago, Times Square porn theaters were spaces organized around gay male sexuality. The cascade of symbols on the movie screen created an environment of sexual signs.
Part of this, I think, is good. But there’s also the fact that that’s not the way the world is structured ordinarily. Do you have to create this artificially saturated space in order to deal with sexuality, or can you deal with it in the real world? Can you come out and simply say, “I have a difficult question to ask you: I’d really like to take you back and tie you up and leave small red marks just between your third and fourth vertebrae,” and not to be absolutely crushed if you get the somewhat common negative response?
SW: But ideally, the of convention or porn theater, or the alien in sf literature, serves as a way to make the strange a bit more familiar — a bit less terrifying, don’t you think?
SD: When I went to my very first sf convention, which was Worldcon in 1966, I’d already published six or seven novels. A very young man came up to me and said, “You wrote a book called Babel-17?” I said “Yes, indeed I did.” He said, “That stuff, where three people get together and they all do it at once . . . is that possible?” I said, “Yes.” And he gave an immense sigh of relief and turned around and walked away.
At which point I thought, “I am doing something right.” This relationship between fantastic literature and real world desire has been around for a while. Christina Rosetti’s “Goblin Market” is a book-length Victorian poem about two sisters who find a heap of fairy fruit. They roll around in it, and then they lick each other clean. And it has lines like, “And she licked and licked and licked and licked and licked and licked and licked.”
SW: Porn does love repetition. But that fantastic element provided a space for sexuality, given that we’re talking about a poem published in the 1870s. The fairy fruit is an excuse, like “I was drunk.”
SD: Yes. That’s what is liberating about alternative or alien sexualities — they are new and fantastic. And in the same way that young man found Babel-17, I’m sure that many Victorian — and more recent — readers have found that poem and thought, “A-ha, so anything is possible.”
Scott Westerfeld and Nerve.com