Friday, July 3, 2015

Adventure classics – The dangerous vision of Mr. Delany

“Aye, and Gomorrah. . . ”
by Samuel R. Delany
When is science fiction most prophetic? When it holds a mirror to the present.

Once upon a time, science fiction eschewed social issues. It was all about science and machines, wasn’t it? Not about people? Then came the New Wave science fiction of the 1960’s. And among the new writers riding that New Wave was Samuel R. Delany. Young, black and gay. And yes, a nephew of the Having Our Say early civil rights Delany sisters Bessie and Sadie, a connection he would later write about. Still in his twenties, he had already published several notable stories when editor Harlan Ellison tapped him for his 1967 Dangerous Visions anthology.

Delaney’s short story, “Aye, and Gomorrah. . .. ” won the Nebula Award for best short story that year. Its bleak vision of a future of astronauts marked from their Earth-bound humans by the most devastating disability imaginable set the tone for the New Wave. Fellow anthology writers Philip K. Dick, Fritz Lieber and Philip Jose Farmer would also win, tie for, or be nominated for other awards that year. Ellison was cited for editing “the most significant and controversial SF book” of the year. Science fiction would never be the same.

The “Gomorrah” of Delany’s tale refers to one of the biblical “cities of the plain” destroyed by fire from heaven for its sexual exploitation of visitors.

If you’re wondering whether to delete this post from your search history before your kids find it, you can relax, but only a little. There’s actually no explicit sex in Delany’s story. In fact, the even more grotesque theme of the story is that the astronauts in the story, called “spacers” have been neutered as pre-pubescent children to avoid the possible mutagenic effects of radiation.

In return for their exploitation, the perpetually childlike spacers receive periodic shore leaves on Earth, preyed on by (or preying on) voyeuristic spacer groupies known derisively as “frelks.”

“Some people stare at spacers; some people don’t,” Delany’s nameless protagonist muses. “Some people stare or don’t stare in a way a spacer gets to recognize within a week after coming out of training school at sixteen.”

And how do frelks feel? “You really don’t regret you have no sex?” his latest pickup asks. “You have your glorious, soaring life and you have us. . . . and we have our dull, circled lives, bound in gravity, worshiping you!”

And of course, they’ll always have Gomorrah.

At the beginning of this year, realizing I needed more time to work on novels, I vowed to cut back on the number of books I wrote about in this pages each month. One, maybe two a month, I said. And then, looking for something by an African-American science fiction writer, I came across back volumes of the Nebula Award stories. Of course, Delany was there. As were the works of early women science fiction writers and classic writers who’d somehow never made it into these posts: Anderson, Ballard, Clarke. And these are mostly short stories, I told myself, so it won’t be hard to squeeze them in with other obligations. The result: this July will be a feast of science fiction, a story a week.

(Next week, Adventure classics continues a July of science fiction adventures with J. G. Ballard’s “The Cloud-Sculptors of Coral D.”)

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