Sunday, October 7, 2012

30 Days of Genre - What Genre Novel Has the Most Intriguing Plot?

Stars in My Pocket, Like Grains of Sand by Samuel R. Delany
When I am thinking of intriguing plots, my thoughts always turn to Samuel R. Delany. From competing interstellar industrialists trying to find a star about to go nova so they can mine its exploding guts in Nova (read review), to a nameless kid trying to navigate his way through the dying city of Bellona in Dhalgren (read review), to art and relationships in the middle of an interplanetary war in Triton, Delany always delivers wondrous, bizarre, and amazing stories full of strangeness and beauty.

Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand is no exception, and like most great science fiction, it is fundamentally about people and how we fit together. In the novel, Delany deals with issues of cultural decay, human freedom, and sexuality, fitting everything together in a story that seems almost mundane in many places, and exotically alien in others. In Stars, humanity has expanded across the galaxy, and now inhabited thousands of worlds, all of which evolve culturally on their own. Humanity shares the galaxy with many alien races, but only one, the Xlv, that is also capable of interstellar flight. The danger that all human planets face is "cultural fugue" a poorly understood phenomenon in which technological complexity and cultural advancement interact in such a way as to create a planet destroying conflagration which, at the opening of the novel, has always destroyed every living being on a planet that experiences cultural fugue.To fend off cultural fugue, most planets are aligned with either "the Family" or "the Sygn", which attempt to provide the necessary tools to avoid this destructive event by repression and permissiveness, respectively.

Korga, a somewhat dim and psychologically unstable giant agrees to undergo "Radical Anxiety Termination" therapy, a process that will eliminate his destructive and criminal tendencies, but will make him unable to learn, unable to desire, and unable to love. After his treatment, he is a "rat" and like all other rats works as slave laborer, in Korga's case in a mining operation. But Korga's menial occupation saves him when his home planet undergoes cultural fugue and he is protected by being deep within the mines at the time. Korga becomes the only human to survive a cultural fugue, although the event is somewhat shrouded in mystery, especially since Xlv starships were seen in the area when Korga's planet annihilated itself. The action moves to industrial diplomat Marq Dyeth on the distant world of Velm. It turns out that Korga is a statistical love match for Marq, and in an experiment, Korga is equipped with a device that reverses most of the RAT process and sent to Velm to meet Dyeth.

The two fall in love and have a short idyllic period together in which they, among other things, go on a dragon hunt. The book ends at a strange dinner party hosted by Marq's "stream" at which some off-world guests, who had formerly been their friends, show up after having chosen to align themselves with the Family, and behave fairly rudely. In the end, it is determined that Marq and Korga's relationship is possibly a triggering event for a cultural fugue on Velm, and they are separated. AT this point, the story ends, with almost every plot point still up in the air. Delany originally intended to make this the first half of a diptych, with the second book to be titled The Splendor and Misery of Bodies, of Cities, but the second half has not been written, and given that twenty-eight years have passed since Stars in My Pocket was published, it seems unlikely that it will be.

That doesn't change the fact that the plot of this book is intriguing. There are so many ideas packed into the book - the cultural fugue, the RAT therapy, the nature of relationships between people in distant parts of the galaxy, the idea that relationships could be expressed via a mathematical model, and so on - and then these ideas are interwoven together in such a way as to create mysteries. And the mysteries are big and thought provoking, such as why did the Xlv show up at a planet just as it went into a cultural fugue? And how could a relationship between two men threaten an entire planet? And why would otherwise nice people align themselves with a totalitarian faction and shut out their close friends? Like most truly good science fiction, Stars in My Pocket is all about questions, and whether those questions ever get answered is not nearly as important as asking them.


  1. Samuel Delany really is extraordinary.

  2. @Julia Rachel Barrett: My only complaint is that Delany hasn't written as much stuff as I'd like him to have. On the other hand, turning out extraordinary writing every time probably takes a lot of care and thought, so if he sped up his output, the quality would probably suffer.

  3. I don't think he cares about speed. I think his focus is subject, theme, and quality.

  4. @Julia Rachel Barrett: Oh definitely. I think that Delany is mostly concerned with writing as a craft and an intellectual exercise, which is what makes his writing so good. On the other hand, this focus on non-commercial concerns has some drawbacks, as most of his books have gone out of print for long periods of time.