Monday, January 9, 2017

Short Fiction Month: Aye, and Gomorrah . . . - Samuel R. Delany

This particular story originally appeared in what must surely be the most famous anthology in science fiction: Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions (1967). In it, Ellison attempted to break away from established science fiction and, whether or not you agree with his selection, it did turn out to be very influential in what we think of as the New Wave today. I have only read a few of the stories in this anthology but Aye, and Gomorrah . . . was definitely something different.

Some time in the future a group of astronauts - or spacers as they are referred to in the story -  is living a kind of life most people can only look at in awe. They travel the solar system to work on the grandest projects. It comes at a price however. They receive such a large dose of radiation in space, that rather than to try and shield them from it, their bodies have been adapted. It isolates them from the rest of humanity in ways that are not always easy to deal with.

This story is about human sexuality. A topic close to Delany's heart. Delany is gay and was, at the time this story was written, in the middle of a complicated marriage with the poet Marilyn Hacker. The sexual revolution may  have been washing over the US at that moment, it can't have been an easy life. Although the main character's position is different, some of Delany's personal experience as someone not conforming to the sexual norm must have made their way into the story. The main character is a Spacer and asexual. He, that is how he started out, never went through puberty, has an androgynous appearance and no sexual desires. That doesn't stop other people from wanting him though.

Delany does two things in this story that quite radically break away from golden age science fiction and what I think of as John W. Campbell science fiction. It removes the aura of competence and dedication from astronauts and replaces it with something a lot less glamorous. These astronauts have been changed before they could possibly oversee the consequences of their chosen career for the rest of their lives. It is a very dubious practice, that does  point out one of the major obstacles to manned space travel. You can feel the unease of the main characters when he is among regular humans. Everybody seems to be uncomfortable with it. I think this story would have had a snowball's chance in hell in the magazine market just for that aspect of it. But Delany is not done yet.

What the story also does is explore human sexual preferences that do not fit in the norm of sex within matrimony for reproductive purposes, or even more widely accepted ideas of romantic love. Sex and desire are described as urges that will not be denied, even if it makes the person experiencing them unhappy. What the situation the main character ends up in implies, there is no actual explicit scene in the story, is sex as one way traffic. The motivations of the various characters to go along with it will make a lot of readers uncomfortable fifty years after the story was published. Which should give you an idea of how 'dangerous' this story really was.

The way Delany uses loneliness, the desire for companionship and sexual fetishes in this story make it groundbreaking. It is one of those stories you really should read to understand the development of the genre. If Ellison was looking for controversy, then that is exactly what he got with this story. I'm not surprised at all he made it the parting shot of the anthology. It is, there is no other way to put it, a brilliant piece of work.

Story Details
Title: Aye, and Gomorrah . . .
Author: Samuel R. Delany
Language: English
Originally published: Dangerous Visions, edited by Harlan Ellison (1967)
Read in: Dangerous Visions, Gollancz SF Masterworks edition (2011)
Story length: Short Story, approximately 3,700 words
Awards: Nebula Award winner, Hugo Award nominated
Available online: Strange Horizons


  1. This was included in The Wesleyan Anthology of Science Fiction, a massive anthology I finally finished reading recently. I think you capture why it's such a great story. As much as I am loath to admit it (novels being the thing I love and all), Delany's short stories are often just as fine and complex as his longer works. I love how this one starts almost like it was cut-off ("And came down to Paris:"), which is just so typical Delany.

    1. He literally drops you in the middle of the story. Very nice trick.
      I wondered if there is any significance to the locations. Paris and Istanbul showed up in Nova as well.