Samuel R. Delany is of course one of the giants of science-fiction and I am once again embarrassed to admit that before this I have never read any of his works. I thought it was high time I rectified this hole in my knowledge base with this pick from Jo Walton’s What Makes This Book So Great. The experience however left me torn. On the other hand, I have absolutely no doubt that Delany’s in an incredible writer and this is an amazing novel. On the other hand, what he does here is so far above my reading level that I can only grasp the merest fraction of what he’s going for and so I found it impossible to truly enjoy this book.
The story starts with Korga, an poorly educated youth from the underclass on the planet Rhyonon. In exchange for his material needs being taken care of forever, he agrees to undergo a procedure called Radical Anxiety Termination. This effectively removes his capacity to care about anything, including his own well-being, and he becomes an unskilled slave laborer. Years pass and he is passed from one owner to another. One day however his entire planet is destroyed in a disaster whose cause is never fully explained. It is revealed that entire worlds are occasionally lost due to a phenomenon known as Cultural Fugue when socioeconomic pressures build up to a critical point. Due to a fluke, Korga is the only survivor of his world’s demise. Meanwhile far away on the planet Velm lives Marq Dyeth. As an Industrial Diplomat Dyeth has travelled across more worlds than most and he has grown up in a society in which humans co-exist closely with the native species, the evelm. He is informed by the mysterious inter-world organization known as the Web that according to their models, he and Korga are ideal erotic partners for each other. They arrange for the two to meet even as Korga becomes a celebrity and the subject of obsession for many for having survived his world’s Cultural Fugue.
I think that I generally have a good handle on the broad events that take place in the novel and while there are many unanswered questions such as the motivations of the Web, the role played by the Xlv, the only species apart from human who have independently developed interstellar travel technology etc. I don’t believe that all this is actually critical to fully appreciating this novel. What stands out is the depth and the richness of his exploration of the various themes. The central conflict here is between the Sygn and the Family, two opposing philosophies or factions that are each meant to stave off Cultural Fugue. The Sygn places value on diversity to an almost unimaginable extent. Dyeth’s own family unit is strongly Sygn-aligned and incorporates a tangled web of connections with both human and evelmi members and uses tightly codified rituals and customs to properly regulate social interactions. The Family instead emphasizes an idealized tight-knit nuclear family as the proper basis of society. The conflict here involves no violence and uses weaponized social rituals but it is implied that the stakes are so high that the results can be deadly.
Of course, it is abundantly clear that Delany himself, as well his main characters, is on the side of the Sygn. Both Korga and Dyeth are males so theirs is a homosexual relationship. Large portions of the text are vividly erotic in nature as the love between the two characters is very much a physical one. There are no explicit description of sex acts here but the prose does dwell at length on the fascination that Dyeth has for every part of Korga’s anatomy and how he is constantly aware of each of his movements while in his presence. I can’t say that I found this arousing but the sheer intensity of the passion on display here is frightening. As a paean to embracing diversity in all of its myriad forms, the novel goes much further. In one scene, Dyeth teaches Korga how to have sex with the evelmi of his world, who have three genders, and Korga comes away amazed that he can even feel lust for lizards. Delany blows past so many of the norms, rules and strictures of society that it leaves even me profoundly shocked.
Delany also plays with language itself in order to further reinforce his theme that the established conventions of society are arbitrary. Though some characters are clearly male and others are female, everyone is referred to as ‘women’ and there are hints that the archaic term ‘men’ is taboo for some reason. This does make the text harder to parse. Similarly, much new language is required to describe the ways of the evelmi who with their three tongues experience much of the world by tasting things. Every writer who creates a fictional world can only show the tiniest fraction of it but the trick is using this to convince the reader that a much larger world exists. This novel succeeds at doing this to a flabbergasting degree. In one scene, the uneducated Korga is given a device that allows him to absorb books near instantly. Doing so awakes a great hunger for knowledge in him and the novel summarizes the books he reads, talking about the different schools of literature and philosophy of his world, of great teachers and writers, of how these works came to be seen by later historians and so on. All of this is of course fake but the summaries are written so seriously and in such detail that it feels almost impossible that these ancient books and writers don’t actually exist.
Still while I generally understood the sequence of events, there are entire layers of meaning that I’m sure I missed. I also don’t really understand how the government on Dyeth’s world works such that the clamour around Korga’s visit was allowed to build up to such dangerous levels. I could reread the book in order to better understand it and this certainly counts as a book that is very much worth reading multiple times. Yet while this isn’t a particularly long novel, it is so dense in terms of ideas and concepts that even reading it once was quite a chore for me so I don’t find myself enthusiastic at the prospect of doing it again. While I am in awe of the intellectual achievement that this work represents, I can’t find it in me to actually enjoy the process of reading it. I run into this problem occasionally with great films that are widely praised by critics but which I’m not quite able to fully grasp.
Perhaps one day I will have the patience and the proper mindset needed to fully appreciate this novel. But for now I will have to put it aside while acknowledging that it is indeed one of the great science-fiction works.