Feb 19 2009 11:16am

Like pop rocks for the brain: Samuel R. Delany’s Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand

Samuel Delany is intimidatingly brilliant, and Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand is (arguably) his best book. Even though he’s been one of my favourite writers since I was a teenager, and I’ve read all his books multiple times, I try not to re-read him when I’m writing because he sets such a high standard I feel that I might as well give up now.

You know how life and real history is always more complex and fractal than fiction can manage? Delany manages it. He does the thing where his science fictional innovations have second and third order consequences, where they interlock and give you worldviews. Other people do it, but he does it all the way down. He’s astonishing. This book has the density of very sparkly neutronium.

I first read Stars in My Pocket in 1985 on the night before an exam. (Don’t worry, I aced it, and though my essay style may have been a little Delanyan, nobody noticed.) I was at Lancaster University, and living off-campus in a converted barn out in the countryside, with friends. We were in town buying food and walking along what had been a boring street when I discovered that Lancaster had suddenly sprouted a science fiction bookshop, Interstellar Master Traders. I insisted we go in, and I rushed around buying US imports (this was 1985! There was no internet. US books were treasure!) while my friends stood there, bored and twitching. I went home with a huge pile of books and sat down to read the Delany first.

Reading Delany is like pop rocks for the brain. He scintillates. Things sparkle and explode all over, and it’s not entirely comfortable but it is quite wonderful.

Stars in My Pocket begins with a prologue, in third person, set on the planet Rhyonon (though it is not named in the prologue) and dealing with Rat Korga, though he isn’t named in it either. What it’s really about it how reading can blow the top of your head off and open it up to the universe, so it’s recursive in the very best way. There’s a passage in Byatt’s Possession where the narrator says that books have their bravura descriptions of sex and food but they don’t describe the joy of reading, and then goes on to do it. When I read that, years later, I stopped dead and tried to figure out a way of getting Byatt to read Delany. (I’m still working on it.)

The problem with talking about Stars in My Pocket is that it’s too big and too great. I could write a whole post of the length I usually write explaining what’s so amazing about the prologue, which takes up the first eighty-four pages in the Grafton edition I own. There’s so much in it, so much history and culture and scientific speculation and plot that it’s hard to cover any of it at all and not just sit here burbling “brilliant, brilliant.” I can’t be detached about it.

First, I want to say that the surface level story and characters are very engaging. It’s so easy when you start talking about clever details to lose sight of that. This is a book where I care deeply about the characters and where, the first time I read it, I stayed up half the night (with an exam the next morning) to find out what happened.

In Rhyonon, where Rat Korga comes from, sex between males is permitted for people over twenty-seven, but sex between tall people and short people of any gender is entirely and completely forbidden. The universe is a very big place, and the first person narrator of the rest of the book, Marq Dyeth, is an Industrial Diplomat whose job1 is delivering weird goods from planet to planet. (There isn’t much interstellar trade, and what there is is mostly weird. The economics? Convincingly complex.) Marq comes from Velm, from the south of Velm, from a little city called Morgre, and there consensual sex between any species and any gender is freely available a matter of preference. There are “runs,” safe spaces you can walk through where people who like the kind of sex you like hang out and might be interested in sex with you. (I gather from things Delany has said external to the novel that this may be based on gay male culture in 1970s New York. I took this as entirely exotic and science fictional, because it’s like nothing whatsoever in my experience, then or now.) Marq and Rat are each other’s perfect erotic object... and when Rat’s world is entirely destroyed and he is the only survivor, the Web (which is a space-based organization a whole lot like Google only more powerful), sends Rat to visit Marq for what turns out to be only a few days.

Gender is constructed very differently. “She” is the standard pronoun for any sentient being, and “woman” is the standard term for a person. “He” is the pronoun for someone you desire. “Man” is an obsolete poetic word. “Mother” is a role anyone can choose if they are parenting. This use of pronouns is a little odd. It helps that Marq and Rat are attracted to men, but there are important human characters in this book where you literally do not know the gender because Marq doesn’t find them attractive and doesn’t mention whether they have breasts or not. The names give no clue—and why do you need to know? Thinking about why you want to know is interesting. Reading all these people as female (because they’re she, after all) and then rethinking them as male can be interesting. Japril, in particular, reads very differently to me male, which is unquestionably revealing of my subconscious biases and expectations. This is one of the best feminist re-use of pronouns I’ve ever come across. It isn’t clunky, it isn’t awkward, and it doesn’t get in the way of the story.

I mentioned Marq had a “job1.” That’s like a profession or a vocation. Your job2 tends to determine where you live and tends to be more how you make your living. It is what a lot of people in our world call their “day job.” (Delany, for instance is a writer1 and a professor2.) There’s also homework3 which is the kind of work that’s never done. This is an interesting conceit, though not really explored very much because of the time period the story covers. Also on jobs, on Velm, at least in the south (in the north there’s ethnic conflict between humans and the native lizardlike intelligences the evelmi), tracers, who are rubbish collectors, have very high social status. This on its own would be enough background for some novels.

Humans have found alien intelligences on a lot of different worlds, but only one other starfaring civilization, the mysterious Xlv. Human/alien relationships are varied and complex. On Velm, in the south the humans and evelmi live close together and can be lovers or family members. In the north they’re fighting each other. On other planets, other problems. The Xlv seem to have some interest in, concern with, or even involvement with, Cultural Fugue, the real threat to civilization. Cultural Fugue is when a whole planet destroys itself, as Rhyonon does at the beginning of the book, and as other planets have from time to time. It’s what everyone worries about when something goes wrong. It isn’t defined, though what happened to Rhyonon is described in detail. There are two main paths of civilization, which stand opposed to each other. The Family (which has a cult centred in their belief in humanity’s origins on a planet called Earth, since lost in the confusion) and which is generally reactionary and rigid, and the Sygn, which believes in multi-culturalism and relativism.

One of the most awesome things about this book is the way in which detail is layered on detail to make you believe in the complexity of the cultures, or the histories and the customs. Food in particular, which tends to be rather badly dealt with in SF, is positively fractal here. There’s a description of an informal breakfast and a formal dinner which are nothing like anything from Earth, but which are wonderfully solid. And sex—I mentioned sex, but there’s a throwaway mention that people from recently settled planets tend to use a lot of erotic technology. And as for technology, Rat has artificial eyes which go clear in bright light, look normal in normal light and reflect in dim light like a cat.

One of the themes of the novel is that a world is a very big place but the universe is a very small one. While most of the planets humanity has settled are dry and sandy, there aren’t any “desert planets” here. And culturally—there’s somebody Marq meets at a conference who uses weird honorifics which confuse him a little, and it turns out they’re from a different city on Velm, and she’d learned them to make him think she was from home...

There’s a thing called General Information, which is like having Google in your head only more reliable. The one thing Delany got wrong there was that the Web isn’t the net of a thousand lies, information is reliable, when available. (But the book was published in 1984.) Apart from that, and that it is only an encyclopaedia that can give you brain-downloadable skills, the way they use it is exactly like the way I use Google now, and nothing like anything in the world in 1984, when as I understand it email had just been invented for people in the US military. The future in Stars in My Pocket has not been made obsolete by computers, the way a lot of older SF has. Delany was aware that what you need is not information but a sorting system, and if you control that sorting system you’re very powerful.

Stars in My Pocket was supposed to be the first half of a diptych, and the sequel, The Splendor and Misery of Bodies, of Cities, has never been written and probably never will be. It’s worth knowing that Stars in My Pocket isn’t a whole story, but as it is so good, unless you are absolutely addicted to knowing what happens, you can probably cope. Personally I’ve given up longing for it. If he can’t write it, he can’t. I do wish he’d write some more SF though.

Joe Tortuga
1. JoeTortuga
I've still not given up on the second novel, but I've learned to be content with what we have. I re-read this once a year, and like my copy of Dhalgren, it's tattered and worn and falling apart.

Thanks for this look at it. Now I need to pull it off my own shelf;)
Jon Evans
2. rezendi
I once mused about putting together an anthology of spellbinding standalone openings to books that afterwards become quite different (but remain superb.) Thus far it would include the first eighty pages of Stars In My Pockets..., the first fifty pages of DeLillo's Underworld, and ... um ... actually, so far that's it.

Wasn't a fragment of Splendor and Misery of Bodies, of Cities published in some small magazine once upon a time? I have a vague memory of references to such in rasfw, way back when.
3. AndrDrew
Amazon says there is :

"The article is delivered in HTML format and is available in your Digital Locker immediately after purchase." irony detector is going off again. excuse me.
Beth Meacham
4. bam
I wish he'd write it too. But I understand why he can't.

The universe is joggling my elbow to reread Delany. I think I shall have to comply. Soon.
John Cater
5. katre
I found this book sitting abandoned on a stoop in Brooklyn many years ago. I had read Empire Star so I grabbed it, took it home, and promptly had my mind blown.

Every now and then I try to re-read it, but then I remember that the sequel will never be written, and it makes me so sad I put it away. But maybe it's time to try again.
6. CarlosSkullsplitter
It's a little unfortunate that the major creative response to Stars has been John Barnes, although unlike many SFnal responses which diminish the context of the original, Barnes hasn't managed to coarsen Delany.

The published fragment of Splendor suggests that in addition to his personal circumstances changing, Delany had plotted himself into a corner. The Xlv occupy the place where Vondramach Okk stood, switching known and unknown in a difficult to resolve way, given the previous oppositions Delany set up.
Declan Ryan
7. decco999
Not an easy book to find. No reviews from readers on Amazon.Co.UK either. I've only read one other novel by Samuel Delany: Babel-17. As I recall, it was a little heavy but expertly written. I'll give this one a go, based on the above superlatives, even if my only option is a second-hand purchase.
Liza .
8. aedifica
Now I have to read this one! After a years-long break from reading Delany, I'm re-reading Dhalgren now and finding things in it that weren't there last time, layers and levels of them. Usually my favorite of his is the Towers trilogy, but your mention of Rat's eyes gave me a sudden longing to re-read Babel-17 (because of the use of body modification as an expression of personality). And as I mentioned at the beginning, your description here tells me I have to finally get around to reading Stars!

How you said you feel about the prologue is how I feel about the introduction to Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness (and then I was shocked to find that the introduction isn't included with all editions of the book).
Jo Walton
9. bluejo
Carlos: Actually, considering Delany's astounding and intimidating genius, I'm sure he could have got that sorted if he could have found the place emotionally whence he could have written the book, because I can see the shape of it myself. From years and years of reading Stars in My Pocket and looking at the light and shadow of it, I have a good grip on the expected shape and structure of the other half, if not the density. That Xlv reversal would work backwards, out of darkness, between two-thirds and three-quarters of the way through, and it would connect up with the Mantichorio, the tunnels and the torchlight.

I could be wrong, but this really feels right to me.
10. CarlosSkullsplitter
Jo, I don't know. It strikes me that if the Xlv's unknowability is overtly resolved -- which looks a little like the way the published fragment of Splendor was progressing -- the aporia which Delany carefully set up in Stars in parallel to Marq's emotional state and the Sygn's multivalent worldview becomes resolved into one interpretation only, and Splendor becomes, of all things, a Family book. Which seems unlike Delany.

This assumes that Splendor is meant to be a complementary half of the diptych, and not some other type of half, of course.

(A more horrible thought, but one also unlike Delany, is if the question of the Xlv were not only resolved, but by traditional SFnal means.)
11. Randwolf
"do not know the gender"

Do not know the sex. Words have genders, people have sexes.
Tikitu de Jager
12. tikitu
Oh you just spoiled my day.

I did not know the completion was never written. I expected to come across it someday in a second-hand bookstore, a cheap paperback with unsuitable cover art ("The astonishing sequel to ...").

That's absolutely tragic. You're right, Stars is a masterpiece.

Don't mind me, I'll be over here in the corner, mourning.
Cassandra Phillips-Sears
13. cphillips-sears
The only Delany I've read was Babel-17, in college--he came to speak, and I figured I had to read something, even though I was in the midst of three different papers. I picked the shortest novel I could find so I would be done with it by midnight, and stayed up until 2 am crying; it was one of the few books I'd ever read that I felt spoke to me. Not talked at me, like most other books do, but that we were in conversation with each other, and it was a conversation that helped me heal something I hadn't previously realized was broken.

Of course, I tried to express all that in an incredibly stupid, sleep-deprived question, but his answer was gentle and still makes me think about how much I have to learn about the ways that other people see the world.

I picked up Bread & Wine in a used bookstore a while back, but I have to admit I'm somewhat frightened to read another Delany novel.
14. R. Emrys
You know, I'd always assumed--because of the poetic title, and the way nobody ever said anything about it except that it Discussed Gender issues--that this was one of those classic books with no plot. Happily, there are several copies up for grabs on Paperbackswap.
Bruce Cohen
15. SpeakerToManagers
What you said, all of it. This is one of my very favorite books of all time for all the reasons you gave. It may be the closest I've ever come to reading a detailed description of the day-to-day workings of a real alien world. It works, it works on many levels, and it works through the entire book.

I would give quite a lot to be able to read the second book.

Minor correction: email was available to the academic and high-tech corporate worlds in the late '70s; my first email account was at Intel in 1981, when I discovered the joys of both usenet and the arpanet digests, and that an email conversation might take only a few hours between question and answer. By 1984 it wasn't the net wasn't the same as it is now, but it was considerably less linear than people in the 70's expected it would be.
Liza .
16. aedifica
Randwolf @ 11: People do have gender in addition to sex. "Sex" is the biological component (what genitals one has), "gender" the sociological (as in the phrase "gender roles").
17. Randwolf
aedifica: true, true. But that's the point.
Cassandra Phillips-Sears
18. cphillips-sears
Just started Stars in my Pocket like Grains of Sand yesterday. Thank god it has chapters in it, natural places where I can stop; otherwise I'd be reading it for about 3 days--and I don't think that I can take that much prose that's that good for that long at one time.

Already sorry that there won't be a sequel.
19. Bob B
Just read your review of Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders (which I have bought but have not read yet) and had to see what you said about my favorite Delaney novel (although Babel 17 and Nova are close seconds). You said it perfectly. After my first reading of Stars in My Pocket.. I thought that Delany was the only SF author that had a real time machine, went to the future and picked up the greatest novel of that era brought it back and published it as SF. It is that subtle and convincing.
Andrew Breitenbach
20. breity
I know I'm late to this party, but to comment specifically on Splendor and Misery of Bodies, of Cities: I talked to Delany about this when he came to speak at the University of Utah last year. I asked him point-blank if Stars in My Pocket had a "real ending", or if it basically went unresolved because Splendor and Misery had never been published. He said that he always intended Stars in My Pocket to be a single stand-alone novel, but the publisher went and printed that it was book one of a duology because trilogies and duologies were all the rage back then and saying it was part of one would (supposedly) help sales. He looked at Splendor and Misery as a sequel rather than the second half of one long novel. (And since the AIDS crisis apparently repudiated so many of the assumptions behind Stars in My Pocket while he was working on Splendor and Misery, he couldn't in all conscience continue the charade to finish writing the book.) So its non-appearance, though sad for Delany fans, is not quite the narrative disaster Stars in My Pocket's dust jacket would lead you to believe. :-)

(Hopefully this makes a lick of sense -- I'm typing this during hour 24 of my current wakefulness. Oy.)
Pamela Adams
21. PamAdams
Not only pop rocks, but with a mouthful of Coke too.

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