Mining The Genre Asteroid: Stars In My Pocket Like Grains of Sand

10 Oct

stars in my pocket

Mining the Genre Asteroid is Paul Weimer’s look at the history of the science fiction and fantasy field, bringing to light important, interesting and entertaining books from science fiction and fantasy’s past to you.

Runaway technological singularities destroy worlds with no warning. A convict, with the status of a serf, is an unlikely survivor of one. By chance, he comes to the attention of a interstellar diplomat who is strongly attracted to him. Their affair is a prism through which to view aliens and alien humans on a set of worlds where gender is fluid, where two competing ideologies struggle for the souls of humanity, and where the threat of another singularity hangs like a sword of Damocles over every world. To say nothing of the emancipation of that former serf, who finds his place in the universe.

Stars in my Pocket like Grains of Sand (1984) is a novel by Grandmaster Samuel R. Delany. While anyone who has spent a significant amount of time in the field has heard of Delany, fewer have read him, and with his literary output low in the last two decades, readers new to the field may not have any good way to get a handle on him, or his work, or even know where to begin.

So let me offer Stars in my Pocket like Grains of Sand as an entry point. When I read it in the ’80s, it was my first encounter with Delany’s work. Describing the plot of the book more than I already have is probably besides the point. Of Plot, Character, Setting, Language, and Theme, plot is usually the aspect of a book that Delany cares the absolute least about. Language and Theme  are his Kung-fu and they are strong.

Like much of his work, sex, politics, freedom of action, gender and multiculturalism are themes that Delany explores heavily throughout Stars. Alien-human relations, the variety of cultures and the diversity of thousands of worlds hinted and glimpsed at, the sociological struggle between the conservative Family and the libertine Sygn. The ultimate fate of Karga as he rises out of his former state of serfdom (and the perverted “happiness” promised him in that state) and the ultimate implications when he is confronted with his perfect partner in matters of sexual desire.

In addition to ideas and themes, readers come to terms with Delany for another reason, and that is his prose techniques. Entire papers have been written on the techniques he uses, so I can only give you the roughest idea of some of the things that await you when you pick up a Delany novel like Stars.

Sexuality, gender and sex, as mentioned above, are commonly encountered in his fiction. In Stars he extends the considerations of this down to the language used. Female pronouns are used as the default as male pronouns are used here and now. When male pronouns are used, it is an indicator by the speaker of indicating sexual desire in the subject by the person talking. I missed this completely the first time I read it, and so when that desire became explicit, I was surprised as a reader.

Delany makes his aliens feel alien by making their gender fluid, yes, but also by changing the “default” sense. For humans, sight is our primary sense, this is something that you can see drilled down into nearly every language. Even the phrase, “you see what I mean” indicates how much it infuses our culture and our outlook (there you go again). One of the alien races in the novel, though, has taste as their primary sense, and they, as well as the humans that live with them (mixed alien/human worlds are the norm in this universe) use taste metaphors much more frequently.  Its a clever bit of world-building that also helps put the reader in this far future alien environment.

And in general the prose is beautifully written, above and beyond all this. It’s immersive, enchanting, and transporting. It’s full of mythology, allusions, and most importantly the very wonder of science fiction and fantastika. For example, when the main character finally gets a chance to read, and read for the first time, it is so vividly described, the waterfall of him falling into one book after another, that he is transported by the experience, and we, the reader, are, too. The heroine of Jo Walton’s Among Others has this book in her future,  and I can imagine Mor reacting to this passage as strongly as I did.

And did I mention the novel has what might be the most memorable dinner party in genre fiction as well as one of its more memorable hunting expeditions?

Reflecting on the novel, I can easily see the influence of the themes of this novel on Ann Leckie’s new debut novel Ancillary Justice, on Karen Lord, on Zachary Jernigan,  and a host of other writers. None of these writers dare the rocks of the lighthouse upon which his works stand, but they do navigate the seas with the aid of the light he casts out with novels like Stars.

There are a few writers who seem to be writing in a parallel field of science fiction, a parallel world of high literary, experimental science fiction that literary critics pretend SF can never be. Samuel Delany is one of those writers. Although he has even more experimental works, Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand was my introduction to Delany, and may well suit you as well in that role. Sadly, while Delany has promised a sequel, that sequel has yet to appear. Perhaps, someday, he will write it.


6 Responses to “Mining The Genre Asteroid: Stars In My Pocket Like Grains of Sand”

  1. Timothy C. Ward October 11, 2013 at 12:55 pm #

    This is great, Paul! In our recent “Clinging to the Wreckage” post, Steve Davidson of Amazing Stories chimed in to try and convince us of the need to read the roots of this genre so we can better understand what’s influenced modern SF. I’m still on the fence, mostly because I wouldn’t know where to start in terms of novels, even if it does feel as easy as throwing a dart at a wall and starting there. I like to have someone sell me on a specific book instead of just telling me I need to read it because it’s a classic. This is the kind of post I’m looking for to point me and show me why I need to read our grandmasters. I’m on chapter four of Ancillary Justice… do I have to stop and read this first?

    I’m curious about this Mining the Genre Asteroid series. Does it have more posts like this?

    • Paul Weimer (@PrinceJvstin) October 11, 2013 at 1:00 pm #

      Hi Tim!

      Yes. Mining the Genre Asteroid is a series. Stars is the fourth post, previous posts tackled Ringworld, Jirel of Joiry, and Zenna Henderson’s People stories.

      The entire series is here:

    • shaunduke October 12, 2013 at 3:39 pm #

      I’m less convinced that one *needs* to read classic works of SF/F to understand the genre than Davidson. The problem with trying to read all the classics is you’ll never escape the genre’s history. There’s too much to read. Too many great books. Too many influential authors. Too many movements and award winners. What is happening *now* in SF/F is just as important as what happened in 1957. Read a little of both. And don’t just read “the classics.” There are all kinds of amazing authors from the Golden Age who never get read because they’re not Asimov or Heinlein or whatever. Philip K. Dick wasn’t “discovered” until almost two decades after his death. Now? He’s considered one of the greats. Maybe you’ll discover a new great, too 😛

      • Timothy C. Ward October 12, 2013 at 4:08 pm #

        It does feel like I could read them for the rest of my life, but I’m so picky with stories, I can see myself narrowing down the ones I like and reading their catalogs. It’s more likely that I’ll end up stuck in this generation as awesome books come in the mail from authors who are alive and want publicity so they can keep writing.

        My goal before the end of the year is to read Ancillary Justice, Love Minus Eighty, Caliban’s War, Fortune’s Pawn, Artificial Evil and then maybe something from an older generation. The “problem” is that I’ll probably get a few dozen more books before that list is complete. Oh, forgot Brenda Cooper… See what I mean?

      • shaunduke October 12, 2013 at 11:04 pm #

        I think you and I are in a very different position from everyday readers. We get a lot of stuff to read for reviews/interviews, so our selection pool is naturally smaller (more books we “have” to read = less time for books we want to read, except when the two overlap, of course).

      • Timothy C. Ward October 12, 2013 at 11:21 pm #

        Yes we are, but conversations like this help create a reason to try and fit in an older title. Cheers to you and the similar pressure you feel to read.

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