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.