Dancing on the Edge of a Precipice

The Motion of Light in Water: Sex and Science Fiction Writing in the East Village, 1957–1965 — Samuel R. Delany


Samuel R. Delany’s 1988 The Motion of Light in Water: Sex and Science Fiction Writing in the East Village, 1957–1965 is a Hugo-winning autobiography. The narrative covers the period from the death of his father (when Delany was still a young man) to the point when his career was just starting to take off. He had not yet written the majority of the works for which he is best known.

One might ask why I, a humble middle-brow reviewer, was tapped to review this. I am wondering that myself.

One of the pivotal events in this account is Delany’s marriage to poet Marilyn Hacker . Modern-day readers, aware that Delany is gay, might find this a counterintuitive pairing 1. Note that this was almost a decade before Stonewall and Hacker was pregnant with a child she would later miscarry. In this time and place, social convention and law required marriages to be between men and women, regardless of orientation. In this particular case, both participants were well aware that Delany preferred men to women. They agreed to an open marriage.

The couple managed to make their arrangement function for fourteen years 3, long enough that some important events (the birth of their child, their divorce) fall outside the boundaries of this work.

In the span of time covered by the text, Delany discovers a talent for science fiction. He also goes through a bewildering number of lovers, about whom he writes frankly. He and Hacker also interact with a cross-section of New York’s art world.

Biographies like this don’t just provide a portrait of the author. They illuminate the period in which they lived and the one in which they wrote the autobiography, sometimes in ways of which the author is aware and sometimes in ways that they might not realize that they are illuminating. For example, Delany was quite aware that he faced discrimination because of his race and sexual orientation. But he was seemingly unaware of the looming threat of AIDS. As everyone was. As far as he was concerned (both during the period covered and at the time he was writing the memoir) STDs were just an annoyance to be cured with a quick trip to the doctor. Although Delany was writing in the mid-1980s, by which time HIV was known, the idea of potentially lethal STDs shaping behaviour does not seem to be on his radar 4. The mortality rate in his social circle must have been appalling.

The image that emerges from the text is of a bright, curious, but oddly detached figure. Delany observes and considers what he sees; he seems to eschew judgment. This frees him to reject convention and adopt a counter-culture lifestyle, but it also means that he’s apparently indifferent to one lover’s habit of raping old ladies. I remember (having lived through the era) similar attitudes towards rape in fiction. Various works (ranging from The Girl, The Gold Watch and Everything to There Was a Crooked Man )feature comedic gang rapes. Despite knowing that this was condoned at the time, this one incident kicked me out of the book. Though I managed to finish reading, I was left with a sour taste that kept me from enjoying the rest of the autobiography.

The Motion of Light in Water: Sex and Science Fiction Writing in the East Village, 1957–1965 is available here.

1: What would have raised eyebrows back then would have been the mixed-race aspect: Delany is black and Hacker is Jewish 2.Years before Loving, only two states in the whole of the United States allowed marriage between people such as Delany and Hacker.

2: Is there a non-contentious way to ask when Americans started classifying Jews as white? Not by the period covered by this book: not only was Numerous Clausus still in force at various institutions, but Hacker ended up working for Wollheim at Ace because he made a point of hiring Jews. Cocking a snook at competitors who made a point of not hiring them.

3: If I recall correctly, marriages ending in divorce last an average of eight years. Delany and Hacker were married for fourteen.

4: Frank M. Robinson, who some of you may know best as the author of works like The Power, The Glass Inferno , and The Dark Beyond the Stars , got a lot of agro for proposing that people change their behaviour in light of the fact unprotected sex now had potentially lethal consequences (as detailed in And The Band Played On ). Even at the time, people were slow to grasp the significance of lethal, incurable, at-the-time untreatable STDs.

It’s possible that someone reading this memoir a few decades from now would miss the significance of this insouciance re HIV. Perhaps because HIV will have been cured by then, perhaps because they will not have lived through the sad period when infections and death rates were soaring.

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