Jo Walton’s new book What Makes This Book So Great (U.S. / U.K.), is a collection of some of her best Tor.com posts honoring, analyzing, and reassessing science fiction and fantasy. The full collection, featuring over 130 essays, is out on January 21st and includes great opinion pieces like this, originally published in February of 2009.
Samuel Delany is intimidatingly brilliant, and Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984) 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 are 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 U.S. imports (this was 1985! There was no Internet. U.S. 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 is 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 job 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 and 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 “job.” That’s like a profession or a vocation. Your job 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 writer and a professor.) There’s also homework 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), which is generally reactionary and rigid, and the Sygn, which believes in multiculturalism 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 that are nothing like anything from Earth, but that 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 that 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 that 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 U.S. 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.
Jo Walton won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2002, and the World Fantasy Award for her novel Tooth and Claw in 2004. Her several other novels include the acclaimed “Small Change” alternate-history trilogy, comprising Farthing, Ha’penny, and Half a Crown. Her novel Among Others won the Hugo and Nebula Awards in 2012.