Perhaps the most significant science-fiction novel that stands above the genre is Samuel Delany’s Dhalgren (1979). A sprawling, surreal, and obscurist book of nearly 900 pages, Dhalgren has often been called “the Ulysses of science-fiction.” More daring critics have compared Delany’s novel to Ulysses itself, as well as other modernist novels, in order to shirk conventional genre boundaries. Indeed, Dhalgren is a difficult novel that has generally puzzled those science-fiction fans searching for sci-fi action and space opera grandeur.
Dhalgren opens with three sentences, the first beginning at mid-point: “to wound the autumnal city. So howled out the world for to give him a name. The in-dark answered with wind.” An unnamed protagonist who cannot remember his origins, and who will eventually be referred to as “the Kid”, wakes up in a ruined landscape. He encounters a woman who turns into a tree. He finds a strange set of linked necklaces comprised of prisms and mirrors. He eventually decides to hitch-hike his way to the fabled city of Bellona that exists at the very centre of America. During the Kid’s journey to the fictional Bellona (and we are not entirely sure why he is driven to find this place), we learn that Bellona suffered some apocalypse: something to do with a science-based disaster, or maybe the moon, that drove the initial population insane. Now Bellona has been forgotten by the rest of America, the accident ripping it out of the collective memory, remembered only by the country’s misfits and exiles. When the Kid arrives at the outskirts of Bellona he encounters a group of fleeing women. They warn him of the city’s madness. They discuss whether they should tell him about certain people and events but decide he will eventually learn for himself, and instead give him an “orchid”; a complex set of knives that can be strapped around his hand. From here the story of Dhalgren begins, which never becomes more than an exploration of an insane and post-apocalyptic city.
The Kid is trying to make sense of both the city and himself, but never crosses the threshold of meaning. There are always signifiers that seem to indicate meaning, but since the city itself has been ripped out of understanding, the Kid can only approach, rather than grasp, a full comprehension of the Bellona Event. He finds a notebook filled with poems written by a William Dhalgren that might or might not be himself; he turns this notebook into a palimpsest, writing over its pages, which becomes the subject of the final part of the novel (“Palimpsest”) as well as a book the Kid publishes in an old printing press in Bellona under the title of Brass Orchids. Large portions of the book devolve into queer sex (the Kid, like Delany, is queer); other portions centre on racial divisions and racial violence (the Kid, like Delany, is a person of colour). And then, due to further madness and violence unleashed by the protagonist and his allies at the novel’s climax, Dhalgren ends with the Kid fleeing the city only to encounter a woman on her way into Bellona. In a passage that is almost word-for-word the same passage that explained the Kid’s entrance to Bellona, but with roles reversed and names replaced, the Kid gives this woman the orchid and attempts to warn her away. We are led to believe that this woman belonged to the group he encountered at the novel’s outset, though she cannot remember him because time perhaps has folded, and Dhalgren concludes in the following manner: “But I still hear them walking in the trees: not speaking. Waiting here, away from the terrifying weaponry, out of the halls of vapor and light, beyond holland into the hills, I have come to”. The reader is meant to link the unfinished last sentence with the unstarted first sentence; thus the novel seems, at first glance, to be circular.
Yet, Dhalgren is more of a moebius strip than a circle. The end links directly with the beginning but the structure of the entire novel moves in loops. Moreover, there are numerous points of echo in the book where passages are almost identical to previous passages – though the meaning altered – and the protagonist experiences moments of distorted repetition. If Dhalgren is meant to be linked in the fashion of a moebius strip, then its meaning is distorted from the opening passage where the reader assumes s/he is at the beginning when the beginning is only a “beginning” because it has been severed from the end. Echoing the structure, there is a point in the novel where the Kid hears the name “Dhalgren” being repeated over and over but, because he only started listening halfway through the repetition, he thinks he is hearing the name of the monster from Beowulf being repeated: “grendal, grendal, grendal.” There is a jarring effect, a shift in consciousness, when he reads the name and understands that he had a backwards grasp of repetition.
Although Dhalgren seems at first to be about the search for meaning and identity in the face of apocalypse, this might be an asinine interpretation. For there are also moments when Delany appears to be obsessed primarily with quantum events (Bellona being one such quantum event that echoes forwards and backwards through time) and perhaps the overall collapse of the foundations of “meaning” itself. And there are other moments where Delany seems more concerned with what a moebius strip would look like in literary form. Or the problem of multistable perception; the schizophrenia of Bellona and the Kid replicates the text itself. In William Gibson’s introduction to the most recent edition of Dhalgren we are told that it is “a riddle that was never meant to be solved”––and perhaps this is the most appropriate interpretation.