Night and Day: The Place of Equinox in Samuel R. Delany's Oeuvre

Reviewed by Matthew Cheney

The Einstein Intersection cover

Nova cover

Equinox cover

Of Samuel R. Delany's early novels, The Einstein Intersection (1967) and Nova (1968) have received the most attention from scholars and critics. The two books offer different experiments with form and, especially, with the possibilities inherent within certain types of science fiction—The Einstein Intersection reimagines the story of Orpheus and Eurydice (among other myths) within the context of a far-future postapocalypse, while Nova presents a space opera version of a Holy Grail quest. The critical attention is justified, because not only are the uses of myth within the two novels some of the most interesting among the science fiction of their time (along with the early work of Roger Zelazny), but the two books also seem to the majority of critics to be the most aesthetically accomplished of Delany's works before Dhalgren (1975). Nor have academic critics been the only people to value the books: The Einstein Intersection won Delany his second Nebula Award for Best Novel, and both books were nominated for Hugo awards.

The novel that Delany wrote after Nova, Equinox (first published in 1973 as The Tides of Lust), has not been ignored by critics, but neither has it found nearly as many readers as the other two books. Nonetheless, considering Equinox alongside its predecessors reveals a continuum of tendencies and techniques from which Delany would build in later novels, particularly Dhalgren and Hogg (1995, but written in 1969-73). Considering all five books together shows that what many readers thought to be a radical change in Delany's writing was more a development that expanded and complexified ideas already clearly present within the work.

That Equinox has not had the same sort of attention as its predecessors is hardly surprising, and not just because the original edition and the 1994 reissue (under Delany's preferred title) can be difficult to find. The book is pornography, and tells the tale of various cartoonish characters in search of endless orgasms and orgies, who encounter all manner of sex and sexuality, some of it violent. A reader might wonder, "Why is it pornography and not, for instance, erotica? Or a book that includes graphic sexual scenes?" The basic answer is, because every time Delany discusses the book, he calls it pornography, and there's a reason for that even beyond the book's extremely graphic contents. Delany is concerned with the description, presentation, production, history, and implications of paraliteratures, and throughout his critical writings he advocates for acknowledging the differences between paraliteratures and between paraliterature and literature. Their textual functions are, he maintains, different, and an understanding of those differences is necessary and significant.

Interest in questions of reading and interpretation, along with a parallel interest in writing and language, was evident from Delany's first published novel, The Jewels of Aptor (1962). Such questions are central to the form and structure of The Einstein Intersection, Nova, and Equinox in a way they had not been before; previously they had been integral elements of the novels' plots, but not a major concern within the novels' own forms. The Einstein Intersection, Nova, and Equinox foreground their textuality through different techniques, but the effects are similar, serving to draw attention to the artificiality of each text. We could say there are two broad types of novels: ones that do not admit their own artificiality, and ones that do. Once Delany started writing the latter, his fiction gained a new depth and resonance.

The first glimpses of this new depth and resonance appear in The Einstein Intersection, where the basic narrative (although concerned with art, myth, history, and culture) does not display any awareness of its own artificiality, but readers are encouraged to think beyond the text-as-stated through both the epigraphs, taken from a purported "Writer's Journal" that offers ideas and reflections about the book in hand, and through the play of references throughout the book to mythical and actual characters—Orpheus, Jesus, Billy the Kid, Ringo Starr, Elvis Presley. We are left to consider our own reality (the distant past of the novel) as the stuff of myth. The process by which such thinking is encouraged is the process of reading that Delany identifies in his critical writings as separating science fiction from other literatures: we are told about a future world through glimpses and hints within the words of the text, we take those glimpses and hints and extrapolate histories and technologies through them, and by creating these histories and technologies we are forced to think about our own world in terms of how that world is different from the one in the text. An experienced reader of science fiction will do this without thinking about it, and for the most part while reading The Einstein Intersection there is little reason for such a reader to think outside the text, but by the last few chapters, the narrative has become so fluid, so disconnected, so open to various possible meanings that it is more ambiguous (or overdetermined) than anything Delany wrote before Dhalgren.

Nova, the reader suspects by the end, is the book one of the characters has promised to write, and it ends in mid-sentence as a way to prevent the "jinx" that supposedly kills most writers of Grail legends before they can finish. Despite this self-referentiality, it is a less ambiguous, more stable fiction than The Einstein Intersection. Nova is outward-looking in how it absorbs the conventions and ideas of certain types of science fiction. It has all the trappings of space opera—interstellar travel, galactic empires, quests, intrigue—but it is as if those are a stage set on which a different play is being performed, because often the basic expectations those trappings create are exchanged for different concerns and emphases in the story. Yet it is also as if Delany has tried to explore some of the same territory Isaac Asimov did in his Foundation books: the territory of history, politics, economics, society. Subjectivity and representation are topics in the novel, often linked to history or to writing, and so Nova becomes in part about itself, about its own creation, achieving within its narrative what the epigraphs in The Einstein Intersection achieved outside the narrative.

There are three moments in Nova, though, that are particularly worth noting, because they do break the narrative open. They occur near each other, within chapters 4 and 5. The first is a moment when a narrator intrudes into the third-person narrative:

"You call me superstitious because I spit in the river? Now you tell the future with cards! Ahnnn!" which is not really the sound he made. Still it meant disgust. (p. 101)

Of the clause "which is not really the sound he made" we must ask who it is who is telling us that the representation we have here of the sound Ahnnn is "not really" the sound. Who is calling attention to the written text and its inadequacy at conveying the "true" sound?

The next two moments where the narrative breaks its patterns are less subtle and less radical. The first occurs early in Chapter 5 on page 128, the second later in the same chapter on 134, and both are moments where a character's thoughts are represented from their point of view; in the first case Mouse's, in the second Katin's. They are only jarring because they are anomalies, and so they pull us out of the novel's diegesis and force us to reconfigure our reading.

Such breaks in the narrative pattern as Nova displays are more common in Equinox, where asking "Who speaks?" must become a habit. The purpose and implications of the pornographic aspects of the book have been discussed by other critics, and I don't mean to diminish those aspects by discussing other things here—rather, what interests me here is that a book so apparently different from The Einstein Intersection and Nova in its content and audience could have so much in common with them in its techniques of representing fictional reality.

Equinox uses a variety of strategies to undermine the reality of the narrative, and right from the dedication, where Delany calls the book "artificial, extravagant, and pretentious ... [but] honest before its artifice" we know that the intentions are something other than those of a more steadfastly realist writer. The sections of the story designated as "The Scorpion's Log," written by the Captain (the only name provided for him), discuss writing and reading and are continuously aware of their own narrative and representational strategies and conundrums. The other parts of the text, while less generally aware of themselves than the log sections, include moments of confused (and confusing) points of view, as well as moments where characters, in the middle of the action, refer to themselves or the people around them as being in a book.

Parts of Equinox are separated and labeled as "A Cartoon" (e.g. "A Cartoon: Disney" in Chapter 3, "A Cartoon: UPA" in Chapter 5), highlighting not only their artificiality but their genre and sub-genre status (with the different studios identified being the creators of different types of cartoons). In addition to the Captain's opportunities to narrate in the "Scorpion's Log" sections, other characters also get their say: "Bull's Tale" in Chapter 2, "Sambo's Tale" in Chapter 4, "Proctor's Address" in Chapter 5, and "Catherine from the Altar" in Chapter 6. Finally, within the basic narrative itself there are moments when the characters "break," such as in Chapter 4 when the character of Nazi says, "Niggers can't smile in this book" (p. 86).

Ray Davis has suggested that Delany's heightening of artifice in Equinox is necessary to his being able to show "a shifting of imaginative focus" so that he may "attempt to speak truthfully in a genre marked as both offputtingly honest and offputtingly artificial" ("Delany's Dirt"). Equinox is a pornographic novel that interrogates its own pornography, bringing attention to artifice so that we as readers are required to ask not only, "Who speaks?" but also, more uncomfortably, "What am I imagining?" and "What do I feel?" Pornography is about arousal, and Delany exploits every possible meaning of that word in his pornographic writings.

Other aspects of Equinox are also self-consciously artificial. The names, for example—naming is an issue important to many of Delany's works, but particularly to Equinox, Dhalgren, and Hogg. In all three of those books, and especially the two pornographic ones, many of the characters' names are provocative, allusive, descriptive. They call attention to themselves. They seem sometimes archetypal (or anti-archetypal), sometimes ridiculous, sometimes disturbing, sometimes perplexing. In Equinox there are characters named Sambo, Nig, and Nazi. Jonathan Proctor, the novel's semi-Faustus figure, has a name that calls up that of John Proctor, a Puritan killed during the Salem witch trials after he proclaimed the innocence of his family, all accused of witchcraft; he was also given a prominent role as a character in Arthur Miller's The Crucible. Some of the names will continue, slightly alterred, into Hogg, where there are characters named Nigg and Big Sambo and many others—mostly gang members of one sort of another—with nicknames, appellations: Hawk, Rat, and, of course, Hogg himself. Names become even more important in Dhalgren, where the protagonist can't remember his name, and is called Kid and The Kid and Kidd, and the Scorpions all have nicknames (no Sambo this time, but a Tarzan), and the name of a Beatle, George Harrison, is given to a black man who poses for pornographic posters and becomes the man in the moon and a god.

Throughout his career, sex and sexuality have provided Delany with ways of exploring aspects of identity, difference, power, and community. Graphically sexual scenes did not appear in Delany's non-pornographic fiction until Dhalgren, but throughout his early work characters discover and express desires that are hardly conventional within the science fiction of the time, though various iterations of tendencies lumped together under the term "The New Wave" (the rather different waves surfed by such editors as Judith Merril, Michael Moorcock, and Harlan Ellison) opened the science fiction field to more frank and imaginative portrayals of sexuality.

In terms of sex, The Einstein Intersection is closer to Equinox than to Nova, partly because Nova gives surprisingly (and relatively) little notice to sex among its characters. The Einstein Intersection gives some space to consideration of genetics, procreation, and even eugenics, but one of the most notable elements is its variation on Delany's recurring motif of triples—in this novel, the triple involves Lobey, Dorik, and Freza. Questions of gender that will be important to Trouble on Triton and Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand get raised briefly and suggestively when Lobey talks with Dorik about their experiences (which Lobey feels compelled to frame as childish indiscretions):

"Actually," Dorik said, "I was always sort of sad you never came around. We used to have fun. I'm glad Friza didn't feel the way you did. We used to—"
"—to do a lot of things, Dorik. Yeah, I know. Look, nobody ever bothered to tell me you weren't a girl till I was fourteen, Dorik. If I hurt you, I'm sorry."
"You did. But I'm not. Nobody ever did get around to telling Friza I wasn't a boy. Which I'm sort of glad of. I don't think she would have taken it the same way you did, even so." (p. 42)

Lobey's apology is reminiscent of the moments of nascent empathy expressed by the unnamed 11-year-old narrator in Hogg, moments when he wonders if someone is hurt, or if he is able to relieve their hurt (e.g. Hogg p. 74, p. 97). Dorik seems vastly more mature here than Lobey, more deserving of our respect, more comfortable with himself. He's neither male nor female, and also both, and yet he's not a character made tragic because of his sexuality, which was (and remains today) a common attribute of fiction involving characters who are anything other than the most conservatively heterosexual and monogamous. (Dorik dies, but not for reasons of sexuality.)

Being pornography, Equinox has much more freedom and cause to explore sex of every possible sort, and does so. But because Equinox is so unstable in its narrative, it is difficult to locate any perspective that could be said to be the moralizing one—many of the characters proclaim many things, and do so with authoritative tones, but every few pages we are encouraged, in some way or another, to distrust the text we are reading. We are forced as readers to choose our own limits if we want there to be limits. If we are to attach values to our desires, if we are to be either proud or ashamed of our arousals, then we have no authority to appeal to within the text itself, and we must look elsewhere. That, too, is our freedom; a personal one. We have moved from the almost quaint "tolerance" of The Einstein Intersection through the sociologized/anthropologized/historicized intellectual valoration of diversity within Nova, to the radical, unsettling, and in all senses of the word profound refusal of Equinox to create any moral or ethical authority within a narrative that must provoke all but the most nihilistic readers to want to impose limits on at least some of its scenes. Equinox leaves us having to assess our own tolerance and its boundaries, our own sensual and intellectual relationship to the events and characters of the book, in a way that ultimately Hogg will extend and Dhalgren will broaden.

So although The Einstein Intersection and Nova (as well as the novella Empire Star before them) deliberately foreground their status as artifacts and artifices, none of Delany's writing before Equinox uses its artifices to create such a complex relationship between text and reader (or signifier and signified). More than once, Delany has said that he saw the third book of his Fall of the Towers trilogy, City of a Thousand Suns, as a representing a break in technique from his previous novels—a leap forward—and while that may be true, it seems to me the most significant break (or leap) before the Nevérÿon series (and perhaps the most significant break in his oeuvre) is between Equinox and everything that came before it.

Editions Cited

The Einstein Intersection. 1967. Hanover: UP of New England/Wesleyan UP, 1998.

Equinox. 1973 (as Tides of Lust). New York: Rhinoceros, 1994.

Nova. 1968. New York: Bantam, 1969.

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Matthew Cheney's work has appeared in a wide variety of venues, including English Journal, Locus, SF Site, Rain Taxi, Failbetter.com, and Rabid Transit. He writes regularly about SF and literature at his weblog, The Mumpsimus, which was nominated for a 2005 World Fantasy Award, and he is the series editor for Best American Fantasy from Prime Books. You can also find his work in our archives.