Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren: Mapping economic landscapes in science fiction

By Josephine Wideman.

In this academic article, Josephine Wideman explores themes of temporality and capital accumulation in Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren (1975). As Fredric Jameson suggests, we must find new methods of spatial and social mapping in order to navigate the geographical and cultural landscapes of late capitalism. Delany’s Dhalgren is deeply concerned with the fate of US hegemony, and with the uncertainty that capitalism has produced: the duality of its unsustainability and seeming inevitability. Bellona is a cityscape which has been devastated by the cycle of accumulation and taken off the map. Delany’s creation ultimately should not be read as a prophecy of what will come of late US capitalism, but it gives insight into the complex historical and apocalyptic consciousness that has been cultivated.

Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany

Samuel R. Delany’s 1975 novel Dhalgren is lengthy, hallucinatory, and at times unnavigable science fiction. Its form is as dense and as wavering as the urban landscape it depicts, where Delany’s protagonist, Kid, can wonder whether ‘there isn’t a chasm in front of me I’ve hallucinated into plain concrete.’1 Bellona – the fictional city where events take place – is a space ‘fixed in the layered landscape, red, brass, and blue, but […] distorted as distance itself,’ a place where ‘the real’ is ‘all masked by pale diffraction.’2 Although the scenery and scenarios of Bellona may be fictional, and perhaps even fantastic, they are also true representations of real experience. The unfixed landscape we live in becomes ‘fixed’ before us in Delany’s book. The distortions and diffractions by which it is fictionalised only increase its representational precision. The gaps in our experience, usually masked, are made visible. For although it takes an unusual form, we can recognise

this timeless city […] this spaceless preserve where any slippage can occur, these closing walls, laced with fire-escapes, gates, and crenellations are too unfixed to hold it in so that, from me as a moving node, it seems to spread, by flood and seepage, over the whole uneasy scape.3

In looking at Dhalgren, I have borrowed from the political theorist and sociologist Giovanni Arrighi in order to trace the presence and effects of capitalist accumulation in Delany’s fiction. Arrighi, in The Long Twentieth Century, describes the ‘interpretative scheme’ of capitalism as a ‘recurrent phenomena.’4 Drawing on work by the historian Fernand Braudel, Arrighi follows the Genoese, the Dutch, and the British cycles of accumulation to the current North American cycle. By examining past economic patterns and anomalies, he suggests that we may be able to gesture at the fate of our current cycle. Arrighi sets out to demonstrate that the rise and fall of these hegemonies, while never identical, tend to follow a set of stages that begin ‘to look familiar.’5 To make his argument, he proposes a new use for Marx’s ‘general formula of capital’:

Marx’s general formula of capital (MCM’) can therefore be interpreted as depicting not just the logic of individual capitalist investments, but also a recurrent pattern of historical capitalism as world system. The central aspect of this pattern is the alternation of epochs of material expansion (MC phases of capital accumulation) with phases of financial rebirth and expansion (CM’ phases).6

In Das Kapital, Marx initially proposes the formula CMC to theorise how capital functions. This theory begins with the assumption that people have needs and desires they can’t satisfy by themselves. Thus we create the commodities we know how to make (C), which are sold for money (M), which allows us to buy the commodities we want (C). As this cycle repeats, those who are skilled presumably accrue more value than others, being able to sell their commodities for a greater profit. This theory centres around the individual and his role in a capitalist system. But Marx then sets CMC aside in favour of another formula – the formula borrowed by Arrighi in The Long Twentieth Century – MCM’. In MCM’, circulation does not begin with the dissatisfied individual, but with capital itself. Money is invested (M) into the materials and labour necessary to produce a commodity (C), which is then sold for money (M). The difference between CMC and MCM’ is subtle but crucial. The first formula implies that capitalism recurs, and things are made and exchanged, in order to satisfy human desire and need. The second formula implies that money is in charge, that production and exchange are ultimately subservient to profit, and that money begets more money. For Marx, what drives capitalism is not only MCM, but MCM’ – the apostrophe signifying ‘prime’ – or the concept that money increases in value through circulation. The source of this additional, or ‘surplus’ value, is where capital really loses its lustre. This value is gained within labour – in the time spent on the creation and production of a commodity from raw material – and for Marx, its appropriation by capitalists is inherently exploitative.

Continue reading “Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren: Mapping economic landscapes in science fiction”

Vector #267

Certain topics ask for poetic treatment—love is one of them, and unrequited love in particular. Poetic writing is, through its intensity, writing that says more than it appears to say. Thus the love that dare not speak its name, in Lord Alfred Douglas’s words, lends itself to poetic treatment, in times when it focuses on an expressly forbidden topic. What we have here is, of course, essentially a literary structure: At its center is a guilty secret—and the guilt and the secrecy are both pivotal. The guilt and the secrecy creates a relationship between two persons, one who knows, and one who does not know. I suspect all writers, from time to time, can be drawn to that structure more or less strongly, whether the secret involves gay sex or not. But I suspect its hard to write a story using such a structure, possibly for its poetic potential, that is not going seem, to some readers, a coded gay tale—even to the surprise of the author; which I think may have been what happened here.

Samuel R. Delany

But the fact is, none of the writing I did about that time—or during that time—gives a direct portrait of my sexual life back then. To repeat, this was three, four years before Stonewall. Back then you didn’t write about things like that, except in code. You left clues that people could—sometimes—read, between the lines. But it was actually dangerous to write about them. You could get in real trouble. You could get your friends in trouble. So you didn’t do it—not in journals, not in letters, not in fiction. A few brave souls, like Ned Rorum or Paul Goodman, were exceptions—and later on, I tried to fill in a few incidents myself. But basically, that wasn’t me.

I tell you this, because it’s important to remember, when considering fiction—like “Aye, and Gomorrah”— just how wide a gap can fall between life and literature—and how social pressures control that gap, so that, in looking at, say, the two award-winning stories of mine that deal with matters gay from the second half of the ’sixties, you have to realize they are finally fairy tales in the way my anecdote about the African medical student cruising the park and his friends is not—even though the Science Fiction Writers of America, who handed out the awards, doubtless felt that they were congratulating me for bringing a new level of “mature realism” to the genre, simply because I was dealing directly with something they thought of as sordid and probably wouldn’t have recognized it at all if I had presented it in any other way. Possibly, at that time, I wouldn’t have recognized it either.

For much the same reasons Nabokov says that Madame Bovary— famed at its time of publication for its realism, it even helped found the school of realism—is finally as much a dark fairy tale as “Jack and the Beanstock” and “Sleeping Beauty.”

Samuel R. Delany

Vector 267

Go away for a week, and all sorts of things happen! Vector 267 arrived while I was traveling. Most people seem to have received their copies on Saturday, although a fair minority of those were partially soaked from the ongoing rains.

This quarter’s mailing includes, in addition to Vector, a booklet of Maureen Kincaid Speller’s writings, edited by Jonathan McCalmont and laid out by Martin McGrath.

This issue contains a broad assortment of intriguing and (I hope) thought-provoking content, including a few pieces, including Sam Mardon’s elegant cover, in honour of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Arthur C Clarke Award.

Cover of Vector 267 by Sam MardonTable of Contents

Matrix: A Magazine out of Time, Ian Whates
Introducing The BSFA Review, Martin Lewis
Sci-Fi London in 2011 in REview, Alys Sterling
Against Utopia: Arthur C Clarke and the Heterotopian Impulse
Homer’s Odyssey: The World’s First Fantasy Novel?, Juliet E McKenna
An Interview with Samuel R Delany, Roz Kaveney
Avatar: The New Fantastic Horizons of Oneiric Justice, Roberto Quaglia, trans. Teo Popescu
Kincaid in Short, Paul Kincaid
Now and Then, Terry Martin
Resonances, Stephen Baxter
Foundation Favourites, Andy Sawyer

The BSFA Review, edited by Martin Lewis

The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction, edited by Mark Bould, Andrew M. Butler, Adam Roberts and Sheryl Vint (Routledge, 2009) – Reviewed by Glyn Morgan
The Mervyn Stone Mysteries: Geek Tragedy, DVD Extras Include: Murder and Cursed Among Sequels by Nev Fountain (Big Finish, 2010) – Reviewed by Gary Dalkin
Sci-Fi London Film Festival: Dinoshark (2010), Sharktopus (2010), One Hundred Mornings (2009), Zenith (2010), Gantz (2011) and Super (2010) – Reviewed by Martin McGrath
Ignition City, written by Warren Ellis and illustrated by Gianluca Pagliarani (Avatar, 2010) – Reviewed by James Bacon
Twin Spica: Volume 1 by Kou Yaginuma (Vertical, 2010) – Reviewed by Nick Honeywell
Mardock Scramble by Tow Ubukata, translated by Edwin Hawkes (Haikasoru, 2011) – Reviewed by Alan Fraser
Gantz (2011) – Reviewed by Lalith Vipulananthan
Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay (Harper Voyager, 2010) – Reviewed by Dan Hartland
The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi (Orbit, 2010) – Reviewed by Andy Sawyer
On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers (Corvus, 2011) – Reviewed by Paul Kincaid
The Broken Kingdoms by NK Jemisin (Orbit, 2010) – Reviewed by Sandra Unerman
The Dragon’s Path by Daniel Abraham (Orbit, 2011) – Reviewed by Sue Thomason
The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie (Gollancz, 2011) – Reviewed by Maureen Kincaid Speller
The Scarab Path by Adrian Tchaikovsky (Tor, 2010) – Reviewed by Nic Clarke
The Wolf Age by James Enge (Pyr, 2010) – Reviewed by A.P. Canavan
Blood and Iron by Tony Ballantyne (Tor, 2010) – Reviewed by David Towsey
The Evolutionary Void by Peter F Hamilton (Pan MacMillan, 2010) – Reviewed by Martin Potts
Point by Thomas Blackthorne (Angry Robot, 2011) – Reviewed by Alan Fraser
Embedded by Dan Abnett (Angry Robot, 2011) – Reviewed by Stuart Carter

Vector welcomes letters of comment, or feedback on the forum.

Reading List: “Aye, and Gomorrah”

Another story I’ve read before, and had a slightly different response to this time. My first reading was when the story appeared at the late lamented Sci Fiction, at which time — without really knowing anything about the story beforehand other than that it won a Nebula and was nominated for a Hugo — what I took away, in general terms, was the experience of being othered, the experience which Hal Duncan describes so expressively in his tribute to the story, on the occasion of Sci Fiction’s demise:

Which, in its clipped tumult of young neutered spacers tearing up the town on shore leave and the fetishists, the frelks, they scorn, tease, hustle and, in one brief fling of incommunication, try to understand–in short, of desires abandoned and frustrated–managed to articulate in a way I couldn’t the disjunction at the zero-spot of my queer adolescent sexuality. Laid out in dynamic snapshots of an Earth of foreign cities, the Other, what it is to be it and what it is to want it. Delany riffed with his modern jazz of language, concise yet complex, and I understood something of the frelk in me, that thwarted appetence, and the spacer, the corresponding surgical disconnect, the pervert and the neuter . . . and the gap of need between them filled with energy.

It’s there in the coupling of constant movement — up and down — with repetition, that is without progress or change, the Spacers encountering the same limited spectrum of understandings and responses wherever on the Earth they go. And, as Duncan identifies, it’s there in the gaps in the story, the bits that don’t quite connect.

This time around, I read the story in a copy of the book it originally appeared in, Dangerous Visions (1967, although the Sci Fiction text has copyright of 1971; I don’t know what the revisions might be), and it struck me as being more about the process of othering, and how human sexuality and society interact to produce alienation. Not for nothing does Delany describe it in an afterword as “a horror story”; it describes a tragic arms-race of sexuality, encouraged by the technological ability to reshape human bodies. The encounters between spacers and frelks “only allay. They cure nothing”. On either side; the frelk tells the narrator. “If spacers had never been, then we could not be … the way we are.” And later:

She looked back at me. “Perverted, yes? In love with a bunch of corpses in free fall!” She suddenly hunched her shoulders. “I don’t like having a free-fall-sexual-displacement complex.”

“That always sounded like too much to say.”

She looked away. “I don’t like being a frelk. Better?”

“I wouldn’t like it either. Be something else.”

“You don’t choose your perversions. You have no perversions at all. You’re free of the whole business. I love you for that, Spacer. My love starts with the fear of love. Isn’t that beautiful? A pervert substitutes something unattainable for ‘normal’ love: the homosexual, a mirror; the fetishist, a shoe or a watch or a girdle.”

Glamorisation of otherness has become as much a dead-end as an attempt to repress it.

Of course, the story is actually always about both sides of the equation, as Duncan identifies, and Graham Sleight does too:

The Spacers’ nature becomes apparent as the story progresses. They have somehow been altered to make their bodies withstand the rigours of space travel. (It’s impossible not to remember Cordwainer Smith’s “Scanners Live in Vain” [1950] in this context.) The process deprives them of the ability to have sex, and so Spacers are chosen from children whose sexual responses are “hopelessly retarded at puberty” (p. 97). Frelks are unaltered humans who find spacers sexually attractive. The story is a series of vignettes exploring these two linked conditions, from the point of view of the group being objectified. (At one point, a female frelk launches into an extended rhapsody about the “glorious, soaring” life of Spacers (p. 97). It seems very detached from how they experience their lives.) Anyhow, nothing is “resolved” in the story: the Spacers go up and come down in place after place. At the end, they and we have a clearer sense of where they stand, but they still have no abiding city.

“Scanners Live in Vain” is indeed one of the stories that comes to mind; the other, for me, was Tiptree’s “And I Awoke And Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side” (1972), in which aliens represent a hypernormal sexual stimulus to humans; their perceived beauty is irresistable as the perceived glamour of the spacers is for frelks, and to the same futile end. (There’s also an echo of Delany’s story in the liaison of Shaheen Badoor Khan and the nute Tal in Ian McDonald’s River of Gods.) Perhaps the resonance with Tiptree’s story, the memory that it uses sexuality to critique science fiction‘s outward urge, is what gave me a fresh spin on Delany’s story, or perhaps it was just noticing this passage:

Marsscapes! Moonscapes! On her easel was a six-foot canvas showing the sunrise flaring on a crater’s rim! There were copies of the original Observer pictures of the moon pinned to the wall, and pictures of every smooth-faced general in the International Spacer Corps.

On one corner of her desk was a pile of those photo magazines about spacers that you can find in most kiosks all over the world: I’ve seriously heard people say they were printed for adventurous-minded high school children. They’ve never seen the Danish ones. She had a few of those too. There was a shelf of art books, art history texts. Above them were six feet of cheap paper-covered space operas: Sin on Space Station #12, Rocket Rake, Savage Orbit.

Duncan heads towards this point when he suggests that, “Maybe it’s appropriate that I wanted to be this story’s . . . worshipper? . . . so bad I end up trying to express my reverence by imitating its style”, but the above passage makes it explicit: this frelk’s perversion is fannish.