Friday, January 24, 2014

Empire Star by Samuel R. Delany

Elsewhere on this blog I have reported that I read Samuel R. Delany's Nova and Ballad of Beta-2 years ago, and found them underwhelming. Today I read Delany's short novel Empire Star and found it a little underwhelming as well, despite its pretensions to depth.

I have the Bantam 1983 edition of Delany's 1966 novel, with the Wayne Barlowe cover. Barlowe's drawing and composition seem fine, but the colors are unappealingly washed out, all some shade of purple.

Empire Star is the story of Comet Jo, an 18-year-old boy living four thousand years in our future on a moon where they grow plants in caves that are made into building material. Jo's simple rural working-class existence ends when a spaceship crashes on the moon, and a dying member of the ship's crew gives Jo a small crystallized being and the instructions that he must take the being, and a message, to Empire Star. Jo undertakes this quest, even though he doesn't even know what the message is or what Empire Star is, bringing along an eight-legged cat with three horns named Di'k.

The story is told like a child's fable, with Jo meeting various mentors along the way and being given little lessons, like the importance of keeping an open mind and asking questions, the insight that criminals and artists are the most important people because they are agents of change, and the fact that slavery makes people sad and if you own slaves you can never relax. On the one hand the whole thing is cloyingly precious, but on the other Delany takes the book very seriously, with two epigraphs (one from W. H. Auden, one from Proust) and with various literary allusions which he challenges you to figure out (the easy one is to Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas), an experimental chapter in the form of a list (it almost looks like a poem) to help you follow out the time travel plot, and the revelation at the end that tries to convince you the simple story is in fact very complicated. At its conclusion we learn that Empire Star is one of those time travel stories in which everybody has been going back and forth through time again and again, providing young people crucial advice and artifacts that we have already seen them using earlier in the story, when they were older and went by different names.  For example, the person who gives Jo the crystal turns out to be Jo himself, older, and the comb that an adult woman gave Jo at the start of the story is the same comb Jo gives her at the end of the story, when she is a 16-year-old princess.

One reason I don't generally like time travel stories is because of irritating paradoxes like, "If he gave her the comb when he was old and she was young, and she gives it back when she is older and he is younger, where did the comb come from?"

There are numerous reasons why I felt the book, though it aims high and wants you to think it is an epic worthy of serious cogitation, is not a very entertaining read. The characters lack any depth and there is no reason to care about them. The tone and plot generate no tension or excitement; Jo doesn't drive the plot by making decisions or overcoming challenges or escaping dangers, he is just carried along by all the other characters who tell him what to do. You never think Jo is in danger; collisions between space ships and the infiltration of a space battleship are just treated as a joke.  All the literary references, including Delany's extravagant praise of Theodore Sturgeon of "Killdozer" fame, feel a little tacked on, like gratuitous showing off.  At times Delany seems to take an almost adversarial stance towards the reader, basically saying, "You won't understand this story unless you are sophisticated!"

I've got a lot of complaints about Empire Star and I didn't really enjoy reading it, but looking back on it as I compose this blog post, flipping though it as I try to figure out who was who and did what when, I have to grudgingly admire it for its ambition and for the way Delany gets all those moving parts to mesh together.  It is frustrating, but I can't decide whether I'm recommending this one or not.  


  1. I have failed to enjoy either Delany book I've read so far. (Triton and Dhalgren) On the other hand, many very smart people talk about how amazing he is, so I wonder if I'm just ignorant or missing something.

    1. My feelings were similar after reading Delany's Ballad of Beta-2 and Nova. We just have to accept that tastes differ, I think.

      I'm curious about Dhalgren, but it sounds like it is very long and full of typographical errors, and there is the chance I'll hate it like Harlan Ellison and Philip Dick did, so I am a little reluctant to take the plunge.

    2. I found it meandering and pornographic and, now that I think about it, I gave up 50 pages or so from the end. William Gibson really liked it, so I'm disappointed that I didn't.

  2. Giving up when you are 90% finished is pretty funny, but I did the same thing with Hodgson's The Nightland. I enjoyed the first 400 pages or whatever, then got bogged down when I could almost see the finish line in the distance.