Photo by Kyle Cassidy
Alone as a queer, young, black sci-fi nerd: then I discovered Samuel Delany
October 30, 2014
By Alex Smith
It was 1997, and I was running my fingers along the dust-strewn shelves, pacing back and forth as I stared at the rows of smarmy pulp-novel covers, searching for one particular kind of science fiction writer. One who could reflect my life and my future back to me. Because I knew there had to be at least one—right?—just one queer, black sci-fi writer out there, among the stacks, among the stars.
Bookstore after bookstore, though, I left confused, bereft and actually kind of hurt. This was pre-Google, remember—before the Tumblr- and Facebook-fueled blossoming of queer-empowered film, art, music and literary movements we take for granted today. Perhaps I could have asked the local librarian, but as a 20-something in the South, I wasn’t even sure how to phrase my query.
Ultimately, the way I discovered the writing of Samuel Delany, grand master of science fiction—that’s not hyperbole; his peers gave him a plaque that says so—was the same way many folks discovered punk rock or avant-garde film: A friend handed me a copy of one of his books, Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, and casually mentioned the author was bisexual. “Oh, neat,” I thought, as I stood mesmerized by the cover: a swirl of golden suns cascading around a disheveled man who looked as if he was stumbling through a portal in deepest space. Then I saw something that almost made my head explode: the “About the Author” page, where a picture of Delany, rosy cheeks on smooth brown skin, cropped-tight afro and thick glasses, portrayed a subtle, academic coolness—OMG HE’S A BLACK NERD!—that rocked my universe.
It is almost impossible to sum up how this novel has affected me: in my writing, my mode of thinking, and even my dress style. A book about freedom and slavery and possible futures, its tale is born out of the loneliness and othering that so many gay men feel; its themes resonate with clarity on attraction, on star-crossed love and the universal acceptance of one’s true self. And all this told through a richly plotted, poetically rendered sci-fi epic! While many radicals, punks and back-packers of the late ’90s to early ’00s carried around with them such enigmatic bibles as Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth or Hakim Bey’s TAZ or Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael, I had Stars.
Though he’s written much about his years in New York City, Samuel Delany—Chip, to his friends—has been a mainstay on the Philadelphia literary scene for decades. Teaching as a professor of English and creative writing at Temple, insisting on sharing his new works at community venues like Giovanni’s Room and Robin’s Books, Delany’s been at the forefront of visualizing new ways to bring science fiction’s wonderful, speculative ideas to the imaginations of readers across generational lines. Yet while the spritely, white-bearded author’s work has been honored at the global level, here in Philly, he remains in the trenches with us.
What perplexes many of us nerds is that Delany’s groundbreaking role as a brilliant, queer, black sci-fi novelist has been somewhat placed on the cultural back-burner—as if his relevance as an inspiration to countless writers hasn’t been cosmic. I mean, sure, anyone can go on YouTube and find Samuel Delany reading and lecturing and being interviewed; he’s not a secret, and he’s not shy. But in an era when a sort of black, gay avatarship (if you will) within media is becoming more palpable, we would be wise to revisit this man’s writing. I’m asking, world: Can we have pages and pages written about him, cover stories on gay newspapers and magazines, documentaries and stage plays already? It’s the least we can do for one of the greats of American literature—for the powerful, out gay man who, to say nothing of his award-winning essays, novels and short stories, gave us these sentences: “I have a fire in my eyes. I have that whole collapsing sun in my head. The light balled up a rainbow and stuffed each socket full. That’s what I’m seeing now, you highlighted there, a solarized ghost across hell from me.” The man who taught us to dream with him.