In Samuel R. Delany's short novel Empire Star, there is a character who, as a writer, is constantly besieged by fans who begin their accolades with, "I know exactly what that was like..."
Delany's Dhalgren hit me just that way when I first read it. It was an exhilarating time: I was doing the slacker college-student thing, sleeping on friends' floors, meandering from one interesting encounter to another, having conversations about the nature of it all... the usual as it turns out.
I'd read science fiction before, tons of it, but did not have my mind thoroughly blown (not even by Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land or Frank Herbert's Dune) until I stumbled onto Dhalgren. This novel is a shifted-reality other, yes, but it is also full of characters that I can conceive of meeting, hanging out with or being afraid of in the most prosaic way possible ("Please don't hurt me. Just take the money.") Dhalgren's cityscape of Bellona is blasted, but it is also perfectly recognizable—making the distortions all the more disturbing.
Dhalgren as Science Fiction
Science fiction is often concerned with a specific problem such as surviving a hostile alien environment or defeating villain number one. The protagonist is expected to bring his talents to bear on solving the problem, with help or hindrance from supporting characters. It is often assumed that this is possible, that the protagonist can actually have an impact on the outcome.
It is the case in stories ranging from Heinlein's Have Spacesuit Will Travel to William Gibson's Neuromancer to Greg Bear's Cosm.
There are people in the world capable of Great Things, but most of us are not only emphatically Not Them, we don't even know Them. Nor do we have the wherewithal to be even a slightly credible sidekick (like the neighbor/roommate in Cosm who is introduced like a gun on the mantelpiece, waiting to go off, because she just so happens to pick locks).
What makes Dhalgren so interesting is that the disaster isn't something to be solved or overcome, but merely coped with. Even the mystery of how it all happened is secondary to how the protagonist, Kid, and the other residents of Bellona manage day-to-day living.
If Heinlein had imagined Dhalgren, some engineer type would be going about the business of straightening out the infrastructure, getting some kind of government together, fixing the water system, figuring out why communication with the outside world is impossible by phone or radio, perhaps even doing the obvious thing of getting everyone organized for an evacuation.
There are engineers in Delany's Dhalgren, two of them: Tak, a biker-leather homosexual who is quoted as saying that in a place like Bellona "You quickly become exactly who you are..." He has an apartment, loots the stores for things like a "micro-wave [sic] oven," has sex with willing men as they first arrive into the city.
The other engineer is Mr. Richards, married with three kids, the picture of square, conservative, white Middle America. He and his wife do not adapt, they deny, they rationalize, they construct elaborate illusions to keep one another happy (they believe). All the buildings in Bellona are half empty, but the husband and wife keep up a pretense of sending letters to the management office asking permission to move into an apartment higher up in the building... away from what are obviously unseen squatters who terrorize Mrs. Richards during the day, banging on her apartment door. Mr. Richards goes to work everyday, or at least he says so. His workplace is probably as deserted as the rest of Bellona.
The practical has become, if not entirely impractical, then at least useless.
Other characters include poets, a musician running an ersatz school, a bartender, a bar-dancer, a minister in a church of her own making, street gangs, a political activist, a psychiatrist, a newspaper man, and George Harrison: celebrity and demigod.
So, in this place of anarchy, within these peculiar and unique circumstances—though Mr. Delany suggests in several interviews (including one with Scott Edelman which can be read at SciFi.com) that the environment was meant to suggest the urban decay that had begun to hollow out America's inner cities—the things that matter are the relationships, who you know, what you know about them, and the stories you tell about them.
Race and Racism
I didn't come to science fiction in search of other Black people. Like most twelve year olds, it was the shiny machines and the Big Ideas that seduced me. It started more or less simultaneously with Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time and Robert A. Heinlein's Tunnel in the Sky. I'd read Tunnel several times before I realized, belatedly and how obtuse of me to have taken so long, that the character named Caroline in this book was Black. The cue was "Zulu girl" and as it didn't seem particularly important, I continued on without a clear idea of what a Zulu was. One day I looked it up. Oh, hey. Huh?
She sounded like any other female Heinlein character: smart, funny, preoccupied with getting married.
Caroline is quite capable. For the final exam of a high school wilderness survival course, she carries no obvious weapons to the alien planet, no clothes but a shirt and shorts—no shoes—and when things have gone wrong and several classes are stranded, she meets up with the others and is uninjured and well fed. She takes notes at the "tribal meetings" that are organized later, memorizing the straight transcript while actually writing down in a more informal fashion the funnier details.
Race was a non-issue. Admittedly, Caroline was a minor character, and her presence, I have a feeling, was to emphasize just that: in the future, race will be a non-issue.
Too simple, both as a character and a symbol. She is described as "a Zulu", as opposed to "Black" or "Negro" as she might have been described at the time the novel was written, if not in the far-flung future. "Zulu" implies some sort of cultural mark. However, remove the word Zulu from the text and what one is left with is this culture's default: a white girl.
In Delany's Dhalgren, race is both abstract and concrete. It is both important and ordinary; and it is never invisible.
Delany maintains the uniqueness of each character fastidiously, even that of the minor ones, so that when he makes a small revelation of the fact that Madame Brown is Black, it adds more to the proceedings than an empty question mark. Madame Brown is not Black in a vacuum, merely one Black person among many the protagonist interacts with throughout the book (nor a stereotype, but, then neither is Heinlein's Caroline, except possibly in the context of his other portrayals of women. Caroline, though vivid, is vivid in a sophisticated cartoon character way: she's there as an engaging symbol, nothing more).
It is a complex issue and there is a certain disconnect in the way race relations are perceived by some of the characters.
For example, Paul Fenster is described as being a Black activist and he does express concern about "the folks down in Jackson," Jackson being the so called Black section of Bellona. His sort of activism seems to be a kind of continuous protest against institutional racism. The problem with this is that in Bellona, there are few institutions to speak of and they seem to be fairly open: The Scorpions (a gang), to name one, Teddy's (a gay bar) to name another, and there are more. Even Calkins, Bellona's newspaper man, who passes for the White elite and has all the trappings of the rich could not withstand it if a mob decided to take away what he has. Calkins in any case doesn't seem particularly oppressive (except, possibly, in the way he arbitrarily dates the newspapers he publishes).
The only people who stay in Bellona seem to be either the most flexible or the most rigid, and the rigid seem to break in one fashion or another, like Mr. And Mrs. Richards—but not their children—and the army deserter named Jack whose lack of stability may be one of the catalysts for (or is one of the results of?) the wrecking of the city.
The question, of course, is why stay in Jackson if you don't have to? Who is oppressing these folks now, if not themselves? Stuck in an old pattern and afraid to break out...that sounds like the Richards. (Note that I am not suggesting that the people in Jackson leave the city entirely... poor is poor the world over. The Richards' have money and therefore more options, but they are too afraid to use them).
Whatever the social mobility the anarchy of Bellona offers, all is not harmony and roses. The individual racist remains, sometimes even gathering in groups to menace. Yet they are the minority in Bellona.
Sex is portrayed frankly in Delany's books. It isn't pornography, but realism.
There are a variety of couplings in Dhalgren: heterosexual, homosexual, ménage a trois, a gang bang, and an ambiguous encounter that is statutory rape, violent, with the unsettling implication that the act is consensual, a sado-masochistic shiva-dance that seems to destroy and remake Bellona to the rhythm of arousal, climax, release.
Again, events do not occur in a vacuum. The relationships (and even the raw sex of the gang bang) resonate. They are discussed among the participants, have repercussions within the community.
The same culture that allows someone to "quickly become exactly" who they are, also allows for a mainstreaming of some varieties of experience that would normally lie on the fringes of society. The dominant hangout in Bellona is Teddy's which, in the way a so-called straight bar doesn't necessarily discount homosexuals from being patrons, is open to everyone...
The prose in Dhalgren is more than merely descriptive. It is vital, sometimes lyrical, rarely resorting to the mundane:
"Charcoal, like the bodies of beetles, heaped below the glittering wall on the far corner." (p. 77, Wesleyan University Press paperback edition, 1996)
"Lanya crashed Kid's ken like a small, silent iguanodon." (p. 440)
"Around us, the sky was close as crumpled lead." (p. 785)
Delany's characters speak in true voices, even the Richards family who often take refuge in clichés the way they take refuge in the Labry Apartments from the disastrous city.
Bellona is city of words.
... and Literature
On one reading, I had a notion:
Bellona is an intersection between worlds. In "normal" science fiction, the differences between the two worlds would be obvious: strange languages, different sentient species, etc. But Delany's worlds are very similar, and the borders between them hard to discern. Perhaps Bellona exists at the intersection of reality and literature.
The construction is difficult to parse, because in the reader's reality, all of the characters of Dhalgren are fictional. But within the context of Dhalgren's metafiction, consider that some characters are (or represent) the real, for example, secondary character Lanya Colson. Others however, most notably the main character, Kid, are literary figures.
On the one side, the realism of Bellona, is evident: Many times in reading Dhalgren, I remarked to myself, "Well, how real. People eat in this book. They pee; they shit. They wash their faces."
It isn't until Lanya informs Kid that he is losing time, that we are cued to his status as a "fiction" in Bellona's landscape. His real life is being compressed into "literary time," into "book time," so what feels like hours to him are actually days. His activities during this time couldn't fill days and what's missing is sleep, bathroom moments, eating.
Even the geography of the city changes on him, distances and directions changing, shrinking and growing depending on who he's with.
The story is told entirely from his point of view so the revelation that several days have passed in "actuality" to the one day Kid has subjectively experienced is as disconcerting to the reader as it is to the protagonist.
"Suddenly, instead of you, I got what people were saying about you."—Lanya Colson, paraphrased.
Kid is striding into his status as legend. His absence from Lanya's sphere is turning him into a character in stories she hears, as if her lover is becoming fictional.
The city of Bellona is the book called Dhalgren. The covers delimn the scope of its universe. It doesn't end, however. The structure is akin to a möbius strip, or perhaps an Oroborous with a twist in the middle and devouring its own tail (the story takes place always before, after, and during cataclysm, simultaneously).
No one seems to know exactly what happened to the city. No one seems to have been there or if they were there at the time of the disaster, they didn't understand it.
At one point, another character (Tak) says, "Maybe it's science fiction." Which of course it is.
The Future of Dhalgren
To me, Delany's work as a whole still remains more adventurous than much of what is being published in the field today.
Has Dhalgren dated at all? With its talk of hippies and its street gangs almost quaint with neither guns nor the devastating economics of the drug trade, there is the sense of a past that did not continue into our present.
Ultimately, Dhalgren portrays the aliens in our midst, each of us within the terra incognita of our own heads that is only partially understood by others if at all.
I've read Dhalgren many times since and I still haven't plumbed its depths (for instance, I would love to reconstruct the narrative of Kid's female counterpart, a young Asian woman who always seems to be on some other point of causality, another fiction resonating only faintly in Kid's story. And I've only scratched the surface of the book's take on race relations).
There's plenty yet to see in the Big City...