Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Intellectual Wandering: A, B, C: Three Short Novels by Samuel R. Delany

A, B, C is a nice omnibus collection of three early short novels of SF genius Samuel R. Delany. Each novel was originally written in the early 1960's, although Delany did some revision of Çiron in the 90's.  There's quite a bit in the way of forword and afterword written in 2014.  The afterword gets a bit academic, which may not be to everyone's taste, but then I suspect most serious Delany fans aren't the type to scared by citations of Derrida and Wittgenstein and lengthy footnotes.

Like most of Delany's early work (e.g., see my review of Nova), the novels are well written with hints of the depth of his later genius.  The Ballad of Beta-2 was my favorite, but I enjoyed the others more than I was expecting.  Sticking with the alphabetic contrivance of the title, I'll review them in order.

The Jewels of Aptor is billed as "science fantasy," which means, I guess, that it's basically a fantasy-style plot that has no actual magic in it (and has other science fictional elements, which I won't spoil).  It's the story of a rag tag group of sailors (somewhat reminiscent of the rag tag crew in Nova) who take on a quest to recover some jewels for a priestess of a mysterious religion.  They eventually make it to the island of Aptor and some surprisingly creepy scenes ensue.  There's a lot more of a horror element here than I was expecting, which was cool.  The characters are a diverse lot in terms of size, color, ability, shape, and arm number, which is odd for American SF in 1962, but not odd for Delany.  There are also some thoughts to be had on topics like the arc of history, magic, and technology, although this one is somewhat meager, philosophically speaking, compared to much of Delany's other work.

The Ballad of Beta-2, my favorite of the three, is one of the best dramatizations of the joys (and dangers) of academic research I've ever read; in this single way it sort of reminds me of Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose.  A professor directs a reluctant student to look into an ill-fated pre-FTL interstellar journey, starting with a mysterious and seemingly nonsensical poem.  Through some good textual research and a bizarre site visit, the student discovers some mind-bending truths that he had no idea he even wanted to know.

The most rewarding research, in my opinion, involves those discoveries you didn't realize you were looking for.  In this world of targeted marketing based on Facebook likes, sociopolitical bubbles, narrow Google searches, and effortlessly relying on GPS or Uber to get directly to your destination, I think many of us are quickly forgetting the value of wandering in both literal and intellectual dimensions.  If you're already convinced you know what you're looking for, you'll never find anything new; there's no point in inquiry if you think you already already found the answer.  This is half of the paradox of inquiry, which arises in ancient Greek and Indian philosophy.  I'm glad at least one professor in the world of Beta-2 hasn't forgotten the value of open-minded inquiry and intellectual wandering!

I admit I was least excited about They Fly at Çiron.  It sounded much more fantasy-oriented than the others, which turned out to be true, but I enjoyed it, anyway.  The peaceful people of Çiron (they lack even a word for "weapon"!) are under attack by the brutal imperialist army of Myetra.  And into this mix there are the Winged Ones, mysterious flying people who the Çironians have feared since time immemorial.  The story turns out to be more complex than it first appears.  Even the Myetra soldiers are almost sympathetic.  And the descriptions of the three cultures and the individuals within them are really interesting, especially the ways in which individuals are both shaped by and able to challenge their respective cultures.

Rating: 89/100  (The breakdown: Aptor: 83, Beta-2: 96, Çiron: 87)

See my Goodreads review.

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