Group Read 27: The 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.
James Wallace Harris, 11/23/21