I’ll be going to the Nebula Awards in May, and the grandmaster is the amazing, groundbreaking writer, Samuel R. Delany. In an attempt to seem like an intelligent and well-read person, I sat down to read his most famous novel, Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand.
I work on a schedule in which I need to read a complete book every three days on average. To read Stars properly would take me three years. It’s not because the language is terribly difficult. It’s because the book is marvelously thematically dense. This book explores multiple alien cultures and in doing so it explores race, gender, sexuality, slavery, knowledge and access to knowledge, culture, language, biology, politics, and economics. There are people who have two tongues and who say different words with each tongue. There’s a poet who uses “shift runes”. These are letters which are pronounced differently depending on where they are placed in the text. There’s a whole sequence about dragon hunting – when you “catch” the dragon you experience life as a dragon for a time. There are worlds in which every expression of sexuality is permitted and worlds which are oppressive, and one world in which the only thing you aren’t legally allowed to do is have sex with someone much shorter than yourself. There’s a lot going on here.
The plot is basically this: There’s a world in which you can volunteer to have your anxieties removed. You mellow right out, but you also become barely cognitively functioning and you become a slave. It’s not a trick – when you volunteer, you’re told that you’ll become a slave – a basically mindless slave. A character who is hereafter referred to as “Rat Korga” has this procedure done. The first section of the book is a futuristic slave narrative in which various things happen to Rat Korga – none of which he understands.
Rat’s world is destroyed and he is the only survivor (it’s more complicated than that, but basically he’s the only one). He is rescued by people from yet another world. There are lots of worlds, and I’m using the word “people” to describe any sentient being. Since Earth is never identified, from the readers’ point of view every character is an alien. Anyway, a diplomat named Marq is told that Rat Korga, who has been all fixed up and who’s brain is more or less restored, is his “perfect erotic match”. Will Rat and Marq be happy together? It turns out that the answer to this has repercussions that affect an entire civilization, so…no pressure.
My advice is to give yourself a season of Stars and read no more than one chapter a week. Read slow and read when you are awake – don’t try to read this when you have a huge deadline on your mind, or the flu, or a headache. You’ll want to be able to really pay attention. Some readers have said that they were captivated by the plot. For me, this wasn’t the case. I found the book very easy to put down. I found it difficult to connect to some of the characters and I found some of the passages to be repellent, especially during the first section of the book, when Rat is a slave. What made me keep picking it up again was lines like this:
To say the name of your perfect erotic object is always to say it for the first time.
And I love this beautiful passage, in which Marq tries to explain his fascination with hands:
It’s a beautiful universe, Japril, wondrous and the more exciting because no one has written plays and poems and built sculptures to indicate the structure of desire I negotiate every day as I move about in it. It’s a universe where hands and faces are all luminous all attractive, all open for infinite contemplation, not only the ones that are sexual and obsessive but the ones that are ordinary and even ugly, because they still belong to the categories where the possibility of the sexual lies. It’s a universe where what is built, what is written, what has been made, makes hands hold the beauty they do; and what is thought, or felt, or wondered over is marvelous because somebody clutched their hands, or held them very still, or merely moved them slightly during the feeling or thinking of it.
Stars is a humbling experience and one I’ll have to revisit many times. There’s so much to absorb and think about within its pages. A lot of the story is about ambiguity, and I thought this quote by the author, Samuel R. Delany, was telling, so I’ll leave with this:
I was a young black man, light-skinned enough that four out of five people who met me, of whatever race, assumed I was white…I was a homosexual who now knew he could function heterosexually.
And I was a young writer whose early attempts had already gotten him a handful of prizes…
So, I thought, you are neither black nor white.
You are neither male nor female.
And you are that most ambiguous of citizens, the writer.
There was something at once very satisfying and very sad, placing myself at this pivotal suspension. It seemed, in the park at dawn, a kind of revelation – a kind of center, formed of a play of ambiguities, from which I might move in any direction.
― Samuel R. Delany, The Motion Of Light In Water: Sex And Science Fiction Writing In The East Village