Review: Delany’s Dhalgren

Samuel Delany

When people ask me what my favorite book is, I generally demure. Does anyone have a single favorite? I know I do not.

But as I hem and haw about what it means for a book to be my “favorite” I almost always end up discussing Dhalgren. It isn’t my favorite book, per se, but it is certainly among my favorites.

Why? I’m not entirely sure.

I’m taken by the “plot” such as it is – man walks into post-apocalyptic city in which time is nonlinear and the geography keeps changing. He has weird adventures, meets people living strange lives, has kinky sex, writes obsessively, gets involved in gang wars, and in small town politics gone bizarro.

Besides it’s plot, the book also features unconventional plot structure (are these the same characters as before? Is time moving forward, backward, randomly?), and formal experiments in style, including unconventional punctuation and grammar and parallel texts on the novels last 100 pages.

It’s a hell of a ride. And all of this may make it seem that Dhalgren is tough sledding, but it’s not. At least it wasn’t for me. I couldn’t put it down. If you’re willing to go along with the flow of the work, take in and appreciate its eccentricities while forgiving its flaws*, it can be a hallucinatory ride.*

I’ve maintained for years that when we look back at the height of post-modernist fiction of the 1970s and 80s, Dahlgren will be viewed as a masterwork of postmodern fiction. Read it and see if you agree.

This is my favorite cover of Dhalgren.

*Its too long. The writing can be uneven — some sections are stunning, others feel overwrought.

**Indeed, I have a friend who claimed whenever he looked up from the book he felt “funny”.


Review: Walton’s The Just City

The Just City
Jo Walton
Top notch speculative fiction, except here, the speculation is that Greek gods create a social experiment where they bring people from throughout human history to attempt to live out the ideas of Plato’s Republic.

What to the who now?


This kind of thing can go off the rails very easily, but I enjoyed the book. Parts of it were a bit trite (most notably some of the love affairs) but by and large, this is fun and insightful.

Do you remember the Republic? It’s a pretty messed up. Slavery, forced procreation, totalitarianism. Walton does a very good job of struggling with what it would mean to actually attempt to live the this, the strangest of the Greek classics.  Excellent stuff on the oppression of women throughout history as well. To enjoy this you need to suspend disbelief pretty strongly and not everyone can do that. But if you can, you’ll enjoy this.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Review: Bennett’s City of Stairs

City of Stairs (The Divine Cities)
Robert Jackson Bennett
As the brilliant and exceedingly well read Cosma Shalizi would say – mind candy. A well done fantasy (dare I say “urban” fantasy?) about the goings on in a once great city protected by ancient gods who may or may not be reappearing to save the city from persecution. Like many well done fantasy novels, this one is really a detective story in a weird world. Instead of setting the scene in, say, DC like Pelecanos, Bennet sets the scene in a world of monsters and dying gods. It’s a different feel than urban noir, but a feel I like. I’ll be checking out other of Bennet’s books in the years to come.

Recommended for the enthusiast.