By Arturo R. García
Science fiction author, futurist, essayist and literary critic Samuel R. Delany was honored at this past weekend’s Nebula Awards as the 30th writer to be bestowed the title of Grand Master by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) in celebration of his body of work.
“This award astonishes me, humbles me, and I am honored by it,” Delany was quoted as saying after the honor (formally known as the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award) was formally announced late last year. “It recalls to me — with the awareness of mortality age ushers up — the extraordinary writers who did not live to receive it: Roger Zelazny, Joanna Russ, Thomas M. Disch, Octavia E. Butler — as well, from the generation before me, Katherine MacLean, very much alive. I accept the award for them, too: they are the stellar practitioners without whom my own work, dim enough, would have been still dimmer.”
Perhaps best known for works like Dahlgren, Babel-17, and his 2012 effort, Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders, Delany can now add the Grand Master label to two Hugo Awards and four Nebula Awards wins. He is also a recipient of the Lambda Literary Pioneer Award and the William Whitehead Memorial Award for his contribution to Gay and Lesbian literature.
“I’m pleased that it happened, but you don’t invest your whole life in something like that,” he jokes in the video above, released earlier this month. “You don’t walk around saying, ‘Well, I’m Grand Master.’ But it’s tempting.”
In truth, to look at the world-bending scope of Harlem native’s work shows a variety of investments throughout his life thus far. He finished his first novel, The Jewels of Aptor, at the age of 19 and saw it published a year later. He is the grandson of a slave and the nephew of civil rights activists Bessie and Sadie Delany. From 1962 to 1968, he published nine more novels. He has been a professor or visiting professor at six different universities without having a degree himself, including Temple University, where he currently serves as Director of the Graduate Creative Writing Program.
And longtime comics fans might be surprised to know that he even scripted two issues of Wonder Woman in 1972; his scheduled six-issue stint on that series was curtailed following objections by Gloria Steinem (purportedly over the title character’s all-white costume, a decision DC Comics made before Delany was brought aboard.
“Harlem was instructive,” Delany says in the video of his childhood. “I had lots of very, very good friends on the street and in my neighborhood. And I had lots of friends at school. But there was not a lot of interchange among them. There was a sense that I lived very much in two different worlds.”
Delany directly covered the collision of two different worlds — of his professional one and his experiences as a Black man — in an August 1998 piece for the New York Review of Science Fiction, in which he recounted the night of the 1968 Nebulas, during which an SFWA member not-so-subtly denounced Delany’s eighth novel, The Einstein Intersection, as “pretentious literary nonsense” and chastised the organization for honoring it with an award.
Though the gallery cheered when Delany won a second Nebula that evening for his short story, “Aye, and Gomorrah …,” Delany said he still found himself troubled by an encounter with Isaac Asimov after accepting that award:
With a large smile, wholly saturated with evident self-irony, [Asimov] leaned toward me to say: “You know, Chip, we only voted you those awards because you’re Negro . . . !” (This was 1968; the term ‘black’ was not yet common parlance.) I smiled back (there was no possibility he had intended the remark in any way seriously—as anything other than an attempt to cut through the evening’s many tensions. … Still, part of me rolled my eyes silently to heaven and said: Do I really need to hear this right at this moment?) and returned to my table.
The way I read his statement then, and the way I read it today; indeed, anything else would be a historical misreading, is that Ike was trying to use a self-evidently tasteless absurdity (he was famous for them) to defuse some of the considerable anxiety in the hall that night; it is a standard male trope, needless to say. I think he was trying to say that race probably took little or no part in his or any other of the writer’s minds who had voted for me.
But such ironies cut in several directions. I don’t know whether Asimov realized he was saying this as well, but as an old historical materialist, if only as an afterthought, he must have realized that he was saying too: No one here will ever look at you, read a word your write, or consider you in any situation, no matter whether the roof is falling in or the money is pouring in, without saying to him- or herself (whether in an attempt to count it or to discount it), “Negro…” The racial situation, permeable as it might sometimes seem (and it is, yes, highly permeable), is nevertheless your total surround. Don’t you ever forget it …! And I never have.
In that same piece, he also encourages the science fiction community to “build a certain social vigilance” into its circles, advice that seems downright prescient in the wake of a geek economic boom that still caters primarily to white cis-males:
Because we still live in a racist society, the only way to combat it in any systematic way is to establish — and repeatedly revamp — anti-racist institutions and traditions. That means actively encouraging the attendance of nonwhite readers and writers at conventions. It means actively presenting nonwhite writers with a forum to discuss precisely these problems in the con programming. (It seems absurd to have to point out that racism is by no means exhausted simply by black/white differences: indeed, one might argue that it is only touched on here.) And it means encouraging dialogue among, and encouraging intermixing with, the many sorts of writers who make up the sf community.
That emphasis on encouraging dialogue also shines in this scene from the 2007 documentary on his life and work The Polymath, in which he discusses getting his students to speak up for themselves by raising their hands whenever he asks the class a question, regardless of whether they know the answer:
“If you don’t know the answer, I want you to say nice and clear, ‘I don’t know the answer to that, Professor Delany, but I would like to say what that person has to say.’ And so this is what we started doing. You need to teach people they are important enough to say what they have to say. It’s just very important. And that’s how you fight evil. You have to let them know that they are important enough and strong enough to do that.”