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Sat, 24 Sep 2005

Dhalgren

— SjG @ 6:22 pm

Samuel R. Delany, Vintage; 1st Vintage Books ed, originally published 1973.

Dhalgren is one of those books you hear mentioned (in hushed, reverential tones) by the more academically oriented fans of speculative Science Fiction, by people who participated in the 60s counter-cultural experience, and by students of sexual politics. It is almost always refered to as “difficult” or “challenging” by the erudite, and “a trip” by the more participatory survivors of the culture wars. Occasionally, you’ll hear it called “crap” — or worse.

In some ways, Dhalgren is a shallow metaphor for the cultural changes happening in America in the late sixties. All the old rules have changed: the City of Ballona has had some unspecified cataclysm, people in the city do whatever they want and gather in new and shifting social configurations. Race relations get redefined. The bourgoisie are frightened (while their children are seduced). Strange religions flourish, new arts emerge, senseless violence flares, and psychadelic anarchy descends. Through it all, our protagonist is never sure if he is sane, and we might be tempted to believe that the whole thing is a madman’s visions.

Additionally, there is a sense of paranoia that lurks beneath the surface. The arts and media are manipulated by one powerful individual, a man we never quite see. Many of the hallmarks of the city of Ballona (the Scorpions’ light shields, the weapons, even the semi-mystical “optical chains” worn ritually by some to commemorate some profound personal event) are found in vast storerooms, packaged like government-issued equipment. Maybe the magic of Ballona is an experiment? Timothy Leary, LSD, and MK-ULTRA anyone?

Time has blunted some of Dhalgren’s impact. Sexuality that may have been revolutionary (in print, anyway) in the early 70s doesn’t even raise eyebrows in the Internet-age. But we have to keep in mind that interracial sex was considered deviant — or even criminal — at the time the book was written, and that homosexuality and bisexuality, not to mention sadomasochism and polyamory were still shocking.

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