Dhalgren by Samuel Delany
I've admired most of Delany's books that I've read, but felt distant from them to a degree, that didn't happen here. The presence of language does a lot with this, it seemed. The text engages in some very ambitious use of represented mythology, boundaries of different genres, construction of racial and gender identities. This never came across as remote, though, in large part because speech effectively expressed a sense of lived in space, the way that people (particularly younger people) would plausibly think and talk about both race and sexuality. The sheer length of the book does play a major part in this (and it earns the right to its 800 pages more than about any other long novel I've encountered since Infinite Jest) building up impressions, sexual encounters and patterns of the city's dynamic such that it forces an impression. It still comes across as shocking, although not as much as it must have in '75, and not primarily due to the eroticism--yet it's still fascinating to see Delany be as unconcerned with describing the nature of the catastrophe and rebuilding process, instead centering on a bubble of lived identity in relation to the larger dislocating shift.
The irony is that in giving such a non-systematic view of the new community, so free of usual pattern of establishing big-scale assessments of community, it is a powerful structural challenge. It shifts the focus of science fiction pretty dramatically, onto an awareness of the body, the way that it is used, benefited and exploited through sex, violence, politics, and constructions of racial difference. In a lot of ways this forms a great companion piece to the near-contemporary The Dispossessed. Le Guin's book has a more elaborated pattern of political analysis, opening up of utopian alternates as well as questioning long-term tendencies of such patterns. Dhalgren goes further in looking at character within the limits of change and breakdown, in what I take to be a recognition of how pre-crisis systems were already virtually science fiction, already constructed and contrived across very precise narratives. That is to say the biggest point I take on this first reading is that there is no community or personal narrative, or science fictional narrative, without some kind of grappling with race, gender and sexuality, that our ability to even imagine these things is bounded. It's somewhat convenient to see that (and I'm sure that I am missing a lot in the book) as it's something I've been persuaded of for awhile, a bit through Delany's articles and from other academic texts more widely. It's still staggering to see that emerge as the push of a novel, particularly one of such raw power.
This is exactly the sort of book that needs to exist, and that demands more attention and general reworking of assumptions that it challenges. I have a great deal of respect for genre fiction of the '60s and '70s, particularly the New Wave, and even by this standard it's a stand-out. This is exactly the type of book that justifies the past and continued existence of science fiction. It also gives a rather sobering reflection on more recent take. Recently I've read a lot of science fiction and fantasy from across the last fifteen years, much of it very good. In recent years I'd have no hesitation in referencing Lavinia, The Dervish House, the City and the City, Windup Girl, In Great Waters, as indication that speculative fiction is still very much involved with issues of quality. Yet I don't think any of these are anywhere in the same league as Dhalgren, and I'm not sure that I've encountered anything from the past ten years which is. I wonder what that implies.
On the other side of the recognition, looking back I see that the Hugo voters didn't even nominate this book, although the Nebula's did, as one of the unprecedented before or since eighteen nominees. Only to give the award to The Forever War, also bypassing The Female Man. Forever War was a major work and an important statement on recent reality, but come on.