The work of Samuel Ray Delany is among the most unique and interesting in the genre of speculative fiction. Delany writes beautiful prose about complex characters on themes most other sf writers try to avoid.
To understand Delany's work one should know a little about the man himself. In a staggeringly revealing autobiography The Motion of Light in Water Delany tells of his young adulthood in the trendy and bohemian East Village in New York City in the early half of the sixties. Young, black, intellectual and liberal he married young and came to the realisation that he was gay. This and the colour of this skin has affected much of his work, even after gaining 'respectability' within and without science fiction as he pursued an academic career parallel to his writing: he is now a professor of comparative literature at an American university.
Delany's earlier work, while already showing the promise he was later to fulfil, was not bad but nothing special either. Needing money he wrote many short stories and novels such as The Jewels of Aptor and the fantasy series The Fall of the Towers. The latter is hack fantasy and interesting mainly as a forerunner to the Neveryon series, his later fantasy tetralogy.
As he matured, a series of short science fiction novels appeared. These novels Babel 17, The Einstein Intersection, Nova were not brilliant by Delany's later standards, but by the standards of the sf writers of the time they were already among the best: both Babel 17 and The Einstein Intersection won the Nebula award, given by the SF Writers of America, for best novel. Delany had begun to develop the themes and character study that were to become characteristic of his novels.
Delany does not care to write merely sympathetic characters: he does not often write sf or fantasy heroes but rather ordinary and extraordinary people who can and do act and react in understandable ways. Unlike many other sf authors, predominantly male, he has no problem writing female characters: he can write both male and female, gay and straight, black and white without pushing the differences in the reader's face. In the Neveryon series it only emerges tangentially that the main protagonists are black: elsewhere sexual preferences are blurred. The characters he does write are often grotesque, unpleasant, and in the face of it, unappealing, yet Delany has the knack of drawing the reader in, involving the reader and making them care.
Where Delany does have heroes Gorgik from the Neveryon series is a prime example they are not genre archetypes. He uses these characters to examine the nature of heroes and the creation of myth: the first we see Gorgik as a boy and then as a man and then, as we follow him through the series, gradually drawing back from him as he becomes myth in Neveryona and reality and story are confused. The nature of old stories, myth and history is one of the themes that appear in Delany's work: the development of Gorgik, the myths of Orpheus, Christ and Billy the Kid and their replaying through history in The Einstein Intersection.
Delany's other passion, and his clearest strength, is his love of, and use of language. In all of Delany's novels this is the first thing that strikes the reader: all the sentences are beautifully constructed and thought out; his use of words is unerring; his ear, the sense of what is right in his writing, what will best convey what he is trying to say, is wonderful. He can shift from stark prose to snappy dialogue to phantasmagoric description effortlessly, and in some of his novels the epic Dhalgren is a special point in question the writing alone can carry the novel so that plot is of only secondary interest 'Heresy' say the hard-sf fans, but reading is believing.
In the earlier novels the writing was clear and straightforward, a fine medium for his ideas, but by the later novels and in particular his last full sf novel, Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, Delany has begun playing with language, using it not as a passive medium but as an active showcase for his ideas and themes. In a novel that probes and examines the nature of sex and gender such as Star..., he has chosen language to suit the subject: he switches the traditional use of gender specific pronouns so that the standard pronoun is feminine you might not like it but it provokes thought do we shape language or does language shape us?
Delany is not a throw-away author like many of his contemporary sf writers: he has some of the most interesting ideas in speculative fiction but does not let them get in the way of good characterisation, beautiful writing, radical style. He is powerful, erotic, exotic and evocative: drawing on his experiences and beliefs to be one of the best speculative fiction writers of his generation.