As a fan of Samuel R. Delany’s works and as a teacher who has assigned one of his memoirs to classes, I was pleased to see this novel. Readers may know of his Dhalgren, Delany’s 1973 novel, or of Stars in My Pockets Like Grains of Sand, a story which affected me deeply. As his earlier work did, this novel challenges its readers. Readers of Delany may well be familiar with pornography, and perhaps with the strange “anti-pornography” which Delany invented in works such as Equinox, The Mad Man, and Hogg, wherein de Sadean moralizing mixes with outrageous sex. As a reviewer put it, it’s the experience of reading “someone else’s pornography”.
Few readers of Icarus, or of any magazine, will be aroused by the majority of the profanity, dirt, urination and defecation, eating of one another’s nose mucus, urine-drinking, bondage, oral and anal sex, and, as always with Delany, dirty, cracked and damaged fingernails. Many readers will give up during a twenty-five page sex scene set in a truck-stop bathroom, or during the incest, bestiality, and exhibitionism which transpire among the denizens of “the Dump”, a neighborhood established as a haven for such actions by a philanthropist. (How laws concerning indecent exposure and so on aren’t enforced isn’t explained.)
The plot? Eric, a teenager, moves with his father to live in a Georgia town near the “Dump” and its inhabitants. He gets a job as a garbageman with a father and son, named Shit and Dynamite, and becomes the lover of both. After reading such descriptions of waste-management as Garbage Land by Elizabeth Royte, this reviewer is forced to regard Shit and Dynamite as unlike the trashmen whom Royte encountered in Delany’s hometown, New York. Morgre’s “tracers”, in Stars in My Pockets, are more interesting in their setting; Shit and Dynamite don’t feel real.
Shit (or Morgan) and Eric remain together, on the mainland and then on an island inhabited by a lesbian art colony for seventy years. Their relationship recalls Gean Harwood’s The Oldest Gay Couple in America, although the future in which they live seems drawn from central casting: a Mars colony, holographic buildings, a “General Screen”, topfreeness and nudity. In the end, we are left to wonder what Eric’s, or Shit’s, or any life, is worth.
What is the place of Spiders in the Delany canon, and what is its place in SF? As a response to Jonathan Lerner’s Caught In a Still Place, its tale of a life spent in community while the world wags outside bemuses and enthralls. As a bridge to the future of Trouble on Triton and Stars in my Pockets Like Grains of Sand, it’s thin stuff. As the Tempest of a mellowed, mature and loving Delany, it fascinates. The backgrounding of future, and technology, language and change, and the foregrounding of human interactions and relationships, perhaps tells us that Delany has decided that this is what matters.