Expanded Course in the History of Black Science Fiction: Samuel R. Delany’s The Jewels of Aptor

Over a year ago, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination published an essay by me called A Crash Course in the History of Black Science Fiction. Since then I’ve been asked to write individual essays on each of the 42 works mentioned. This month’s installment is a call for the appreciation of Samuel R. Delany’s first published novel, The Jewels of Aptor. Written in Delany’s teens, Aptor was first published as an Ace Double in 1962, when the author was twenty. But that version had been shortened to fit the Ace Double format; for its 1968 solo edition fifteen cut pages were restored.

 

WHAT HAPPENS

Poet and student Geo seeks summer employment on a ship with his friend Urson and a four-armed, tongueless thief they call Snake. The ship is bound on an occult mission under the orders of a woman claiming to be the Goddess Argo incarnate. The first task is to retrieve a mind-controlling jewel, the missing third of an arsenal once owned by an enemy nation; the second is to rescue the Goddess’s daughter. Geo, Urson, Snake, and a black sailor named Iimmi penetrate the island of Aptor’s mysterious environs with the help of unseen dwellers in the deep. The post-apocalyptic ruins they find there swarm with werewolves, batwomen, corpse eaters, and an amoeba-like Ur-zombie. Theft and rescue take place but in unexpected circumstances: the theft is desired by the erstwhile victims and the rescued girl has been staying on the island voluntarily, learning the arcane arts of electrical engineering.

 

WHAT THE AUTHOR GOT AWAY WITH

Delany included several subversive elements in Aptor. The most obvious, and the one most attuned to contemporary sensibilities, is its anti-war stance. This is clear not just in the military nature of the “Great Fire,” an atomic conflict that set world culture back some 3000 years (1500 years after its end, the technology is barely medieval); Aptor’s ruins are attributable to similar misuse of its Jewels.

Racial equality is also a key concept in Aptor. Though whiteness is the book’s default setting, the “Negro” Iimmi is no mere sidekick but a full-fledged adventurer. He’s one of only two survivors of a dozen sailors sent on an earlier Aptor expedition, introduced to readers upon the murder of his co-survivor. A lesser (or less invested) author than Delany might have gotten rid of Iimmi rather than the ironically named “Whitey;” instead he joins the heroes on the book’s central quest.

More clandestinely, homoeroticism rears its glistening head here. Delany fans and scholars will recognize his archetypal romantic couple in Geo and Urson: the slim, slight, intellectual youth and the large, highly muscled working man. Like Marq Dyeth and Rat Korga in Stars in my Pocket Like Grains of Sand, or Small Sarg and Gorgik in the Neveryon series, these two love one another truly, as Geo comes to acknowledge in his grief at the novel’s end.

Delany touches on disability a few times in Aptor, also. Mutants like four-armed Snake are more common than in our time, and Delany mocks the Othering magical qualities attributed to these “Strange Ones” by placing claims of such in Urson’s unsophisticated mouth—and then having even Urson laugh at the stupidity he’s repeating. Another, perhaps more pointed, instance of disability being foregrounded: one of Geo’s arms has to be partially amputated halfway through the novel. The potential for a disability-erasing cure is posited much later, but this is treated as only “a pleasant thought” and not a cue for more action.

Though Aptor’s dramatis personae is overwhelmingly male, feminism is represented in the person of the Goddess Argo’s daughter, who steals the components to make a miniature generator from her supposed captors, then basically rescues herself.

By far the most subversive element of Delany’s first novel is how he normalizes all this. Black adventurers? Poets who’ve lost major limbs? Scientific-minded women? Seeing as we’re also being presented with sentient amphibioids and vampiric nuns, the author seems to ask, why not? Who’s going to complain about a lack of realism with all these other, more extreme examples? No character questions Iimmi’s presence on the ship’s crew or among those exploring Aptor, nor does he appear to need any justification for being black. He simply is.

 

WHY IT’S A JOY

Samuel R. Delany is one of the best writers who has ever lived. On every level. Of course this is a matter of opinion. In support of my position I offer this passage from Aptor as proof of the author’s word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence powers:

The sharp muzzle had blunted now and the claws in the padded paw stretched, opened into finger and thumb. The hairlessness of the underbelly had spread to the entire carcass. Hind legs lengthened, and bare knees bent as now human feet dragged through the brown leaves and a human thigh gave a final contraction, stilled, and one leg fell out straight again.

Thus a dying werewolf returns to the shape of a man. Fast and fascinating, Delany’s description here conveys shock, clarity, and the irrevocableness of death.

But novels aren’t made of mere words and sentences: they comprise scenes and plots. In a recent instructional text Delany claims that plots don’t exist in and of themselves—that they are solely an effect of characters. Which may be true; if so, the characters in this book are marvelously effective. Geo’s lyric curiosity, Urson’s bluffing reticence, Snake’s deceit and loyalty, Iimmi’s learned incredulity, all move them forward on a quest which could easily have devolved into a series of set pieces with predictable outcomes: here they trek through the decayed remnants of a twentieth century city and accidentally unearth forgotten treasures; there they venture into the sacred precincts of those who supposedly kidnapped the goddess’s daughter and are captured. But multiplexity—a term Delany develops in another early novel, Empire Star, to talk about the synthesis of complex viewpoints—saves the day. Fully-rounded characters create a deeply involving story with their fully-grounded actions and reflections.

Awareness of his fiction’s philosophical underpinnings, assumptions, and conclusions permeates Delany’s works like perfume. His thoughts on such matters are sweet, and sweetly worded.

 

WHY IT’S HISTORIC

Though by no means the first popular black author of imaginative fiction, Delany came to prominence at a crucial time in the genre’s history. Aptor was part of a swelling tide of science fiction—not the much ballyhooed Campbellian Golden Age of the 1920s and 30s, but a later period which was arguably at least as important. The 1960s and 70s saw the emergence of the experiments of SFF’s New Wave Movement as well as imaginative fiction by feminists such as Ursula K. Le Guin and Octavia E. Butler. The modern field was shaped by their contributions and the like. Delany was there then, and he’s here now: thinking, talking, reading, writing; a living memory of the future.

Everfair by Nisi ShawlNisi Shawl is a writer of science fiction and fantasy short stories and a journalist. She is the author of Everfair (Tor Books) and co-author (with Cynthia Ward) of Writing the Other: Bridging Cultural Differences for Successful Fiction. Her short stories have appeared in Asimov’s SF Magazine, Strange Horizons, and numerous other magazines and anthologies.

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