Vintage Book reissues ''Dhalgren,'' ''Babel-17,'' and other classics

By Karen Valby
Updated June 08, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT
Credit: Samuel Delany: Len Irish

It’s four rickety flights up to the home of Samuel Delany. The front door is ajar. ”Welcome to the owl’s nest,” he says, as his round face widens into a great bearded grin. He is in a good mood. He is a man back in print.

Delany, 59, is revered for head-spinning science fiction classics like ”Babel-17,” ”Nova,” and ”Dhalgren,” which has sold well over a million copies since its release in 1975. He is widely considered to be the first black — and first openly gay — sci-fi author, a pair of titles whose weight, frankly, fails to impress him. In the back room of his cluttered apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, four Nebula awards (one of the genre’s greatest honors) gather dust.

Until recently, one had to hunt for tattered paperback copies of Delany’s award-winning books in secondhand stores. In 1988, within a matter of months, his publisher pulled his 13 books from the printing presses. ”I started getting phone calls from Bantam every two weeks,” he remembers. ”’Oh, we’re just calling you to say the sales don’t warrant keeping ”Dhalgren” in print.’ And the next week, ”We’re just calling to let you know that we’re putting ”Nova” out of print.”’

Each call was a little chipping at the heart. With his books gone, Delany turned to academia, writing award-winning scholarly criticism while teaching at the University of Massachusetts, SUNY Buffalo, and currently, Temple University. A less glamorous life, maybe, but a good one.

But Vintage Books believes a new generation of readers is ripe for a Delany resurgence. ”I loved these books when I was a kid,” says his editor, Edward Kastenmeier, ”and they’ve been so hard to find for too long.” In the next year the publisher will reissue ”Babel-17,” ”Empire Star,” ”Nova,” and ”Driftglass.” But it is ”Dhalgren,” an 800-page genre-busting mind trip, that is paving the way.

The action of this bizarre sprawl of a novel unfolds in Bellona, a burned-out city smoldering somewhere in middle America. Delany’s vision sprang from the sudden transformation of the American inner city in the late ’60s and early ’70s. ”There was an exodus from Harlem that left the once-thriving neighborhood an abandoned shell. It looked like a species of malevolent black magic. I just postulated a city in which whatever strange thing was happening to neighborhoods all over America suddenly took over an entire city.”

Amid the rubble, men and women, men and men, blacks and whites engage in sweaty, urgent couplings. When the book was first published, conservative readers bristled at what the author refers to as the novel’s ”polymorphous perverse sexuality.” Not only was Delany writing openly and unapologetically about sex, his characters were all antiheroes, squatters living on scraps on the fringes.

At a science fiction conference, a disgruntled academic leaned over and demanded of him, ”Why are you writing about these people?” ”Because they exist,” he responded. Delany promises that there’s another boundary-crossing novel knocking around in his head. But his immediate concern is a five-city book tour.

On his first stop in Chicago, more than 150 hardcore fans filled 57th Street Books to welcome him back to the shelves. ”I’m humbled,” says Delany of ”Dhalgren”’s second life. ”I had really assumed that once the books were out of print, that was it. Because this happens to writers all the time, you have your moment in the sun and then you go on.” Here comes the sun.