sturgeonslawyer (sturgeonslawyer) wrote,
sturgeonslawyer
sturgeonslawyer

Voyage, Orestes!, by Samuel R. Delany (2019-26)

During his late teen, early 20ish years, in which Samuel R. Delany wrote and published his first few science fiction novels, he also wrote several "mainstream" (mimetic, bourgeois) novels, which have, for better or for worse, been lost to posterity.

Except for this bit.

The hundred eighty pages of text published here for the first time represent a section from towards the beginning of a massive (_Dhalgren_-sized at 1056 ms pages) novel whose genesis is described in some detail, but in no really full form, in _In Search of Silence_ (the first published volume of Delany's journals) and _The Motion of Light in Water_ (a memoir of those years). Despite the destruction of both the carbon (in a buried file cabinet) and the top copy (in a box lost during the relocation of Delany's agent), this chunk turned up many years later in the posession of a friend-and-mentor of Delany's, Bernard Kay.

Those previously-published notes gave me no real sense of the novel's overall shape. Nor does this fragment, though I suspect that, armed with it I could return to the journals and figure out more than I know now. What we have, then, is an almost pure artifact of words and sentences - always Delany's great strength as a writer - from which emerge some characters, some incidents.

In the fragment, the narrator - Jimmy Calvin - returns from a solo trip to New England he took to escape from the pressures of his family. His father, an undertaker, is dying of lung cancer, and in fact dies shortly after Jimmy's return. Over the course of a few days, Jimmy meets up with some old friends, makes a few new ones, and (off-page) attends his father's funeral.Then, with some of these friends, is just setting out for Harvard, for a "hootenanny", when the fragment comes abruptly to an end,

Well, it _is_ a fragment.

A few things fascinate this longtime follower of Delany's work.

1) The near-autobiographical similarity of Jimmy Calvin to the young Chip Delany. There are major differences, but this is definitely a case of "write what you know best."

2) What I can only call _sideshadowing_ of Delany's simultaneously-written (and more commercially-successful) science fiction works. The source of the title "The Fall of the Towers" is rehearsed here, as the inspiration for a poem-cycle by Jimmy's friend Geo Keller. Names like Geo and Jimmy (= Iimmi) and especially Snake, a young man whose tongue has been cut out, resonate from _The Jewels of Aptor_. And many smaller details surface that resonate with details from those early books.

3) One thing I _did_ successfully gather from the journals, which this fragment reinforces, is how heavily architected the novel would have been had it survived, in the manner of _Fall of the Towers_ (and, to a lesser extent, of _Dhalgren_). Characters come and go in patterns, incidents reflect one another both synchronically and diachronically, words pick up charges of "meaning" ("significance") and then lend those charges to their later reappearances.

In a way we have, here, a glimpse of an "alternate" Delany. 

At the end of _Motion_, Delany ponders on the question of where his life is taking him. Is he going to pursue writing (perforce science fiction, since that's where he's finding success)? Commit full time to folk music (where he had had some moderate success in the Village coffeehouses)? 

In an only slightly alternate world, _Voyage, Orestes!_ would have been published by a major house in 1964 or so, and our hypothetical Delany would have had a third career direction to consider seriously. That third choice followed would have led to a very different Delany of today indeed; one whose early SF novels would be considered juvenilia, and _Voyage_ would be considered his first "serious" work. Such a Delany might have produced some mighty fine novels - but even in the realm of mimesis, I doubt very much that we would have anything to match _Dark Reflections_ or _Atlantis: Three Tales_.

None of which matters, of course. What happened, happened, and the world, whatever other books we may be poorer by, is richer by the few dozen books the real Delany really wrote and published.

And, yes, by this fragment.
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