It’s a truism that science fiction is as much about the present as it is about any imaginary future. A Scanner Darkly tells the story of counterculture disintegration and paranoia better than any realist novel of the period. Still, I’m always jarred when I start reading an SF novel (they tried to call it ‘speculative fiction’ for a while to gussy it up – thank god that name didn’t stick) and I start to see a world I know refracted through it. Samuel Delany’s Dahlgren is one of those books.
Dahlgren is set in an American city disordered in time and space. Some force keeps phone calls and television broadcasts from entering or leaving his ‘Bellona’, which is covered in perpetual cloud. One night the clouds part to reveal two moons. The next day, a giant red sun rises, terrifying people until the cloud cover returns. Street signs and landmarks shift constantly and nobody remembers when the last time he slept. Buildings burn for weeks without collapsing and gangs roam the nighttime streets, the gang-members hidden within holographic projections of insects or mythological monsters. Residents rely on stores of canned food and bartering to survive. The newcomers to dying Bellona are young drifters and loners; Delany’s amnesiac protagonist is called Kid. One of his only memories is of having spent time in a mental hospital.
Delany puts Bellona in the Midwest but to me it feels like his hometown of New York in the late ’60s and early ’70s. It’s not just anywhere in New York though – not the mansions of West Side Drive or the glass mountains of the Wall Street, not the fetid, teeming blocks around Times Square. Delany writes about the margins – empty streets, abandoned buildings, feral teenagers, and ordinary civilians trying to ignore the disintegration. Images of Delany’s city rippled across the country, thrilling us in movie theaters and living rooms. It was the city of Taxi Driver, where Travis Bickle watched a liquor store owner shoot a robber and then helped him dump the body into the street. The center, in particular, did not hold. That was the city I came to in the 1990s, except decades had passed and the fires had burned out.