In the past couple years, there've been about three times when I've had occasion to suggest starting points for reading Samuel R. “Chip” Delany's work. So I thought it was time I wrote up my thoughts and posted them.
But my recommendation varies depending on what you like and what you're interested in. So I'll break this up into sections.
But in case you're in a hurry, I'll start by saying that the short version of my recommendation is: Start with the short-story collection Aye, and Gomorrah: And Other Stories, which includes most of my favorites of his stories.
Most of the books I'm mentioning here are available in recent paper editions and as ebooks.
If you don't like short stories, then you might as well skip down to the next section. But some of Chip's short stories are among my favorite stories, and among my favorite works of his, so this is where I'm focusing.
His most famous stories are probably “Aye, and Gomorrah...” (1967)—a short piece about people who have a fetish for spacers; groundbreaking at the time for its handling of sexuality—and “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones” (1968), which on the surface is about a con artist and a street singer and the ways that information passes through a society, among other things, but also I've heard a variety of people cite it as their first introduction to BDSM, in a sort of “Wow, there are people like me!” kind of way. (Potential content warning: It could alternatively be read as involving someone who engages in self-harm.) My own tastes run to the vanilla, so that wasn't a factor for me; but even without that factor, it's a good story, and an influential one, and it has one of the great Delany-story titles. (My other favorite of his titles being “We, in Some Strange Power's Employ, Move on a Rigorous Line,” although that's not among my favorites of his stories.)
(I was going to link to the archive.org copies of a couple of his stories that were published in Sci Fiction, but it turns out those copies are mysteriously missing their dashes and some other characters, which makes them hard to read. So I'm not providing those links after all. But it also turns out that one of them was reprinted in Strange Horizons, so I did link (above) to that one.)
Also well-known and lovely: “Corona” (1967), about a spaceport worker and a young genius telepath and the power of music. Lesser-known but also lovely: “Prismatica” (1977), a fairy tale that's explicitly an homage to Thurber, presumably specifically to The Thirteen Clocks.
So where can you find these stories? Well, most of my favorites of his were originally collected in a book called Driftglass, but that's long out of print. Several of the same stories also appeared in a collection called Distant Stars, which also included the compelling short novel “Empire Star” (with fascinating four-segment illustrations) and “Prismatica.” But that too is long out of print. Fortunately, Vintage came out with a collection in 2003 called Aye, and Gomorrah: And Other Stories, which includes all the stories from Driftglass plus a few others, including “Prismatica”; the only thing it's missing from Distant Stars is “Empire Star.”
(...The Vintage book may actually be titled Aye, and Gomorrah: Stories; the cover and the title page disagree.)
So my strong recommendation for an intro to Delany is to buy and read the Vintage collection. Unfortunately, it appears to be available only in print (in trade paperback), not in electronic form. But it's a nicely attractive edition, and goes well with the Vintage editions of some of his other books.
But I know most people prefer novels over short stories. If that's true of you, then possibly none of the above recommendations will be of any use. In which case, read on!
Early science fiction novels and novellas
If you want to start with some of the novels that vaulted Delany to the forefront of the field in the 1960s and 1970s, here are some possible starting points:
- Empire Star (1966)
- As noted above, an intriguing and compelling short novel, about a young man named Comet Jo coming of age in an interstellar culture. As Wikipedia says, “the story has several layered loops of events which run back upon themselves—and the concepts, layering, and ordering of the events are as important as the story itself.”
- Babel-17 (1966)
- I recently heard an sf editor say that this was the only good starting point for reading Delany. I disagree, but I would say it's not a bad starting point—it's certainly interesting and unusual and worthwhile—as long as you don't mind it taking the strong Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis for granted. Which is to say, you have to be willing to accept, or at least suspend disbelief about, the idea that language determines thought.
- The Star Pit (1967)
- Here's some of what I wrote in my notes to myself when I read (or maybe re-read) this a year ago: “it's mostly about life, and wanderlust, and feeling trapped, and the ways people can be cruel to each other, and love, and other stuff like that. Pretty good overall. Nowhere near Delany's best, but worth reading.” It also has a minor poly sidelight. I wouldn't necessarily recommend it as a starting point, but it wouldn't be a terrible one.
- Nova (1968)
- I read this long ago and haven't yet revisited it, so my memories are vague at this point, but I recall thinking of it as a solid and excellent science fiction novel that felt to me less experimental than a lot of Delany's other work. Judith Merrill wrote (according to Wikipedia): “Here are (at least some of) the ways you can read Nova: As fast-action far-flung interstellar adventure; as archetypal mystical/mythical allegory (in which the Tarot and the Grail both figure prominently); as modern myth told in the SF idiom...”
- Trouble on Triton (1976)
- A novel set in a more-or-less-minarchist human society on Neptune's moon Triton. The protagonist, Bron, is not a very sympathetic character, which led me to not especially like the book when I first read it; on the other hand, some parts of the book (such as the street-theatre scenes) stuck with me. And reading Sherryl Vint's 2002 essay “Both/And: Science Fiction and the Question of Changing Gender” (which includes major spoilers for both Trouble on Triton and John Varley's Steel Beach) gave me a lot more sympathy to what Delany is doing in this book. Side note: Wikipedia points out that this is set in the same universe as “Time Considered...”
I'm leaving out several other early short novels (The Jewels of Aptor, The Ballad of Beta-2, the Fall of the Towers trilogy, The Einstein Intersection), not because they're not worth reading but because I don't think they'd make as-good starting points.
A difficult masterpiece
Dhalgren (1975) is a 900-page tour de force of experimental literary speculative fiction. It's definitely worth reading, but I kinda suspect it would not make a good starting point, unless you're coming from a background of loving experimental literary sf and long novels that include a lot of discussion of being a writer.
(I mean “masterpiece” in the sense of a work that signals a transition from the journeyman stage of a career into the master stage; I don't mean to suggest that it's his one and only Best Work.)
Sword and sorcery and semiotics
From 1979 through 1987, Chip wrote a series of stories and novels set in a world called Nevèrÿon. In addition to being sword-and-sorcery stories, they're also explicitly about literary-criticism theory, and culture, and race, and real-world history, and the development of science, and gender, and BDSM, and AIDS, and all sorts of other stuff. I'm currently (slowly) reading the Nevèrÿon series, but I kind of feel like it's not the best starting point for reading Delany. But if you like sword-and-sorcery mixed with philosophy, it could be.
Chip has written two book-length autobiographies/memoirs:
- Heavenly Breakfast (1979)
- I read or re-read this recently, and found it not only one of my favorite books of the year in which I read it, but also an excellent example of how to write a memoir, and especially how to explicitly note that there are things you're not saying. Interestingly, it manages to be an entire (short) book about Delany's youth in NYC without ever explicitly mentioning that he's gay.
- The Motion of Light in Water (1988)
- A more detailed autobiography, written later than Heavenly Breakfast but documenting an earlier time in his life. It was originally published in 1988, but a later version of the book doubled its length. I haven't finished reading it yet; I think it might not be as good a starting point as Heavenly Breakfast, but from what I've read of it so far, it's well worth reading.
Chip has written lots of nonfiction, including a lot of literary-criticism essays. I wouldn't normally suggest nonfiction as a starting point for an author, because I generally prefer fiction; but if you're into nonfiction, either of these two books could be good starting points, in very different ways:
- The Jewel-Hinged Jaw (1977)
- A volume of essays about reading and writing science fiction. Lots of good stuff here; some of these pieces did a lot to shape the way I think about sf. Although I have an unfortunate tendency to misremember and misquote bits of them. Reissued in 2009 by Wesleyan University Press; appears to also be available in ebook form for Kindle but not for iBooks.
- Times Square Red/Times Square Blue (1999)
- A pair of long essays about Times Square in particular and cities in general. One is focused primarily on porn theatres and Chip's sexual interactions in them; the other is more about the ways in which cities bring people together across class boundaries. Both are excellent and thought-provoking.
In this post, I seem to be shifting back and forth between recommending starting points per se, and mentioning other works. So I feel like I should mention that Chip has written other novels, more recent than most of the abovementioned ones, such as Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984), They Fly at Çiron (1993, though some of it was written a couple decades earlier), and Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders (2012). But I'm not recommending these as starting points.
Chip has also written a couple of novels that I would classify as pornography. (No value judgment intended in that term.) One, The Mad Man (1994), is also literary fiction about gay men engaging in sexual activities that might or might not result in HIV infection; I found it worth reading, but here again unless this is a special interest of yours it may not be the best starting point. I reviewed it for Clean Sheets back in 1999; I'm a little embarrassed now by some of the things I said in that review, but it may give you a sense of what to expect from the book.
Okay, I think that's all my recommendations for now. But bear in mind, of course, that these are only my personal recommendations; and in a body of work as varied as Chip's, there can be a lot of different kinds of entry points.