Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #50 of 107: “Aye, and Gomorrah” by Samuel R. Delany

Samuel R. Delany was my favorite young SF writer I discovered back in the 1960s when I was growing up. I started out reading Verne, Wells, Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, but they were all old writers who had been around for years. Delany, Le Guin, and Zelazny were a new generation, SF writers who began publishing in the 1960s as I began to read new science fiction as it came out. They felt exciting and different from the old writers I loved. My all-time favorite short work of science fiction is still “The Star Pit.” But looking back, I realized I only liked a very few works by Delany: “The Star Pit,” Empire Star, Babel-17, Nova, and Dhalgren. I bought his collections, Driftglass (1971), Distant Stars (1981), and Aye, and Gomorrah (2003) as they came out, but I never got into his short works, or later novels like those stories I first read in high school.

I’ve read “Aye, and Gomorrah” several times over the years and I think it’s an impressive work, especially when you consider it’s Delany’s first published story, and was the closing story in the legendary Dangerous Visions anthology edited by Harlan Ellison. However, it doesn’t excite me like my favorite Delany stories. And when I think about that, I think it’s because I resonated with Delany’s colorful space opera at a time when I was an immature teenager daydreaming of space adventure. Later on, in the late 1970s I read Dhalgren, and I was impressed with its adultness and size. Actually, I was impressed that I finished such a large novel. It was full of vivid imagery but not thrilling action, like my favorites.

Most of the stories in Driftglass except “The Star Pit,” but including “Aye, And Gomorrah” are interesting to me intellectually because I’ve read some of Delany’s nonfiction books, and they hint that his short stories were somewhat autobiographical. Delany was traveling during those years and he put his life experiences into his science fiction stories. I’ve been wanting to find the time to read In Search of Silence: The Journals of Samuel R. Delany, Volume 1, 1957-1969 to see if that hunch is true. Delany does appeal to my literary side and there are times I want to study his early work by delving into his biographical information, and literary criticism. But that’s a whole different kind of fun than just reading a science fiction story for science fiction fun.

“Aye, and Gomorrah” uses science fiction to explore sexuality and gender, but it feels more literary than science fiction. That isn’t a criticism, but a way to explain why I like it less than Delany’s space opera. And I must also admit, sexuality and gender have never been important themes in my fiction reading. If you’re part of the lowest common denominator in any group, then understanding unique members is via abstractions. I do a lot of nonfiction reading about sexuality and gender in hopes of achieving insight, but it’s always intellectual. And fiction works best when it’s not intellectual.

Maybe here’s another angle of explanation. I love the music of Bob Dylan. I’ve bought most of his albums over my lifetime as they came out. But I favor Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde way above all the other periods of Dylan’s career. There are times I’m into his folk period, and other times I’m into his Christian albums, and other times I’m into Blood on the Tracks and Desire, but nothing compares to his 1965-1966 period to me. I’m the same way with Delany. I can get into his other periods, but I’m really hung up on “The Star Pit,” Empire Star, Babel-17, and Nova.

I’m sure artists hate when their fans fixate on a period. I bet Le Guin got tired of everyone talking about The Left Hand of Darkness, The Dispossessed, and The Lathe of Heaven and not reading her many later novels. And Heinlein probably got sick of all his fans who couldn’t get beyond his 1950s novels.

When I read “Aye, and Gomorrah,” I want to analyze it like an English assignment. And that has its fun aspects, but it’s not why I read science fiction. And I believe this line of thinking explains why the VanderMeers included so many stories I don’t like. They get excited about literary aspects of science fiction that I don’t. And that’s cool.

Rating: ****

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James Wallace Harris, 11/23/21

14 thoughts on ““Aye, and Gomorrah” by Samuel R. Delany

  1. I’ve read « Aye, and Gomorrah » and recall enjoying it. I really should pay more attention to Delaney and other new wave authors. But i’ve become more fascinated by their progenitors in the 50s—as well as farther afield. Dhalgren is a beast of a book that i’ve sadly yet to finish. Apparently influenced by the work of the French author Michel Butor.

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    1. I bought the audiobook version of Dhalgren when it came out and listened to part of it. I’m hoping to start over and finish it this time. When I read it in my mid-twenties, I was amazed by the idea of a largely abandoned city and the people who stayed. It was a slog to read, but I finished. I felt like I had climbed a mountain. What I remember is the images of certain scenes, like when the protagonist met the former astronaut.

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      1. I got about a third of the way into it a bit over a decade ago and put it down, which is the way of things i suppose. I still recall a particularly brutal scene of a character falling down an empty elevator well. I would like to return to it nonetheless.

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  2. I liked to learn about your literary relation to Delany. Boy, is he young on that photo! I can’t remember seeing him without white hairs!
    You‘ll find reviews of Einstein Intersection and Babel-17 on my blog.
    Aye and Gomorrah‘s review is the newest, from last year: https://reiszwolf.wordpress.com/2020/09/20/aye-and-gomorrah-1967-sf-short-story-by-samuel-r-delany/
    I think it’s a masterpiece and loved it. In school I always hated the recurring discussions about gender when analyzing literature. I thought that there are other, more important topics, like FTL functionality and the difficulties of time loops. After many years of staying away from that topic, I‘ve found that one cannot escape it, especially when I want to buddy read with my daughter. Alas, she’s studied English and German and has to dive fully into the topic (and has to torture pupils later on). Now, she sharpens her skills on sorry me 🤣

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  3. “And fiction works best when it’s not intellectual” — comments like this are so profoundly perplexing James…

    As for the story, I enjoy it due to its subversive take on space travel and its effects. Obviously one of the tales that inspired my recent series on depressed astronauts.

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    1. Joachim, for me, the best fiction works at an emotional level. Great fiction is so complex that we perceive it through unconscious means. We should resonate with it rather than enjoy it analytically. That doesn’t mean we can’t analyze fiction, but that’s besides its purpose.

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      1. But this resonated intensely at an emotional level! Can you imagine being a spacer and returning to Earth if this was reality? Emotional does not preclude deeper intellectual content… If anything, in the best stories, emotion is but a vehicle to convey a more complex message.

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        1. “Aye, and Gomorrah” didn’t work for me at an emotional level, probably because I kept trying to analyze it at the intellectual level. If I read it at another time, it might.

          Delany deals with powerful emotional experiences in this story, but not ones I can’t identify with. I assume this story is about Delany’s own experiences as a young hustler and the prejudices he faced in Houston and Istanbul, The story can only be exotic and colorful to me since my teen sex life was close to nonexistent. Also, as a straight white male, I’ve just haven’t had much experience with experiencing prejudice either.

          We often live emotionally vicariously through fiction, but I just didn’t connect with either the spacers or the frelks.

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        2. The thing is, one of the best elements of SF are emotional landscapes that might not be our own. I never understand the criticism of not being able to identify with a character. I don’t want to identify with every character. I do not want to encounter boring polyps of me.

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        3. The last comment I’ll make — one reads to escape. It’s hard to escape if the only people one encounters in SF simply recombobulated versions of oneself… at least that’s my perspective.

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        4. I thought one of the major pillars of SF is to place us in someone else’s shoes? An alien mind, a ship’s computer, a frelk, someone of a non-white middle class background…

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        5. Oh, I agree with what you’re saying. I think we’re just miscommunicating over slight misunderstandings. We definitely read to experience what we haven’t and to get to know people unlike ourselves. But sometimes it doesn’t always work. Even though I love other Delany stories, I’m not connecting with this one. But I also know intellectually it’s a great story.

          I try very hard to not be absolute in my judgment of what I read. I sometimes admire stories I don’t get into. In this case, I’m trying to praise this story even though it didn’t work for me. When a story doesn’t work, we can only relate to it on an intellectual level.

          It can emotionally succeed with you and not me. Sometimes when a story doesn’t work I might think it’s a poor story in general, and probably doesn’t work for many people. But I know with other stories that don’t work for me that there’s plenty there that others should appreciate. It’s also true with stories I love. Sometimes I sense I love a story that few people will.

          So when I tried to explain why this story didn’t work for me, it wasn’t a universal proclamation for all stories. Just this one.

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        6. Haha, this is all in the spirit of debate. What I might have misinterpreted was your claim — that certainly seemed like a strange absolute — “And fiction works best when it’s not intellectual.”

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