Sort of a beatnik Great Gatsby, with a young writer and the playboy aristocrat both driven to extreme acts; a futuristic Moby Dick with obsession and colourful sailors and at least one character trying to rethink what a novel can do; an exotic bildungsroman where the cerebral and the instinctive are both shown to be incomplete and a weirdly inverted quest-epic where succes destroys the person making the quest and the ‘boon’ he gives to society looks likely to destroy it. Attempting to find analogies in mainstream lit is a mug’s game when you’re dealing with Delany, because he’d read all of the ones anyone might have thought of and a lot more besides. And he was twenty-five when he wrote this, his eighth published novel.
On a surface level it’s easy to follow, despite the complicated flashbacks. Two big families, the Von Rays and the Reds, have been feuding for centuries and one outcaste member, Lorq Von Ray tries to end the stalemate and social stagnation by a desperate gamble. The mineral on which the galaxy depends is formed in stellar explosions, and mined on worlds formed near where one had happened, but this time he’s going to fly a ship inside a nova as it erupts and grab enough of the stuff to bankrupt both families’ mines. He finds a crew of misfits with nothing to lose. That’s the outward story, and it sounds simple, the way Moby Dick, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and The Old Man and the Sea are all outwardly old fishermen talking about The One That Got Away.
This book came at the end of a ferocious early spurt and while he was travelling from his native New York to London, Greece, Istanbul and the Milford workshop. In one way he’s bidding farewell to the kinds of book he could write then before embarking on his thousand-page Dhalgren. It’s also the beginning of his thinking on how SF works, a process that led him to become Professor of Comparative Literature and Visiting Fellow of half a dozen universities. His first big idea, which this novel illustrates, is that SF is a sort of text-space where otherwise nonsensical sentences work and tell us about the fictional world by indirection. Try that idea out on this book if you’ve not got much experience of SF reading. The characters aren’t interested in giving us lectures (except one, and he’s ridiculed for it), they are getting on with messy, complicated lives in a lived-in, kaleidoscopic galaxy. We have to work it all out from the hints they let slip. Every detail in this book serves a purpose. It’s a book about the senses, to the extent of having three drastically different narrators giving their perspectives on events.
If this kind of space-opera-plus-symbolism appeals to you, then you might want to try the peculiar stories of Cordwainer Smith, in the collection The Rediscovery of Man. I won’t tell you who ‘Smith’ was, who some people think he might also have been or what he did for a day-job, nor will I point out all the references in the stories, but I’d recommend you save the first one, ‘Scanners Live In Vain’ until you’ve read some of the others.
(NB: Do not confuse this with Nova Swing by M. John Harrison. That’s also a lurid and heavily symbolic three-ply space opera but it’s the middle of a trilogy and we haven’t got Light or Empty Space. Ask me nicely and I may get these out of storage).
By Tat Wood