Thursday, May 14, 2009

Empire Star by Samuel R. Delany

I have left this review for a little bit, hoping that with digestion will come more clarity. I think that a certain acceptance of ambiguity is necessary with this story, though.

I came across Jo Walton's mention of Empire Star some time ago, and put the story immediately on the TBR list. I'm glad I did, and I'm glad it was some time ago because reading her post now, I realize that I'd forgotten some things she said that would have made the whole experience less cool. It's not that she includes spoilers, specifically, although they're there if you are looking for them; it's that she mentions certain things in a straightforward way that Delany writes about more obliquely. It's the journey with this story. And then it's the re-journey once you've read to the end and turn back to page one.

I don't read nearly enough science fiction, though I enjoy it, and I've always been curious about Samuel R. Delany's work. fishy and I were trying to decide on a story that the two of us would surely read, and probably enjoy, for our informal book club (which got off to a sputtering start several months ago before stalling). I suggested something by Delany, and we picked Empire Star specifically because it was short. Far shorter than Dhalgren, which was the one option my library had. Dhalgren is 800+ pages. Empire Star is under 100.

What really made this novella for me is Delany's use of language. His plot and characters and ideas are all interesting, and thought-provoking. But he writes wonderfully and that, to me, is the main draw. Throughout, the lanugage is poetic and lyrical, and a joy to savour.

It's hard to talk a lot about this story without giving things away. The narrator of Empire Star is the multiplexually conscious crystallized Tritovian, Jewel, who has the advantage of knowing everything and therefore being an omniscient narrator. And by the way, if much of that sentence made little sense -- um, sorry? It takes an entire novella to explain. Comet Jo is our main character, and he makes a wonderful, fascinating journey through space to deliver a message given to him by a dying man, and clarified for him by the aforementioned Jewel. Quite a lot happens, in slightly less than 100 pages, and Empire Star rewards re-reading. I saw it as a coming of age, primarily, although the story also deals with slavery and emancipation, as well as the universality of human experience.

One thing I particularly like is that there is no direct translation of current (or 60's -- the story was written in 1965) human culture and mores to space at some indeterminate time in the future. There are some standard, material and occasionally oddly clumsy reversals (men have long hair, women have short; clothes appear to be mostly optional; and so forth). But overall, the future of humanity is different -- but the human experience is still recognizeable in the pages. There were moments where I felt completely connected to the story. There were also moments where I felt completely disconnected, but not in a jarring way. More as an observer, and I am sure this is intentional.

On a slightly less profound level, I like that the indicator of a multiplex consciousness is asking questions, and knowing (or figuring out) the right questions to ask -- and that Delany also pays homage to Theodore Sturgeon, whose credo (according to Wikipedia, anyway, and I haven't fact-checked even though I am a librarian and know I should) was: "ask the next question." Nicely done.

I thoroughly enjoyed the entire experience of reading this story, and I do recommend it for anyone, even those not particularly enamoured of science fiction. The prose is beautifully lyrical and the story both entertaining and just a little mind-bending, especially the first time you read it. And don't peek ahead in this one (or read Jo Walton's post until after you've read the story!). It's got one of the best twists I've encountered recently.


Phyl said...

I'm so glad you posted this! I've only dabbled in a few SF authors, and only read one Delaney story aeons ago. So I think I'm putting this one on my TBR list. Thanks!

Unknown said...

You're more than welcome! I do hope you enjoy it. And I'd love to hear what you think once you've read it!

Ana S. said...

I think this answers the question I've always asked myself: which Samuel R. Delany book should I start with? I love beautiful prose, and also a good twist.

Unknown said...

Oh yes, this one is a good one to start with. It didn't intimidate me at all. I've heard that some of his other pieces are quite a bit more complicated, and I can believe it, but I'm looking forward to tackling them as the TBR list permits.