Visions of Paradise

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Distant Stars

Last week I discussed Empire Star, the centerpiece of Samuel R. Delany’s collection Distant Stars. Since then I have read the rest of the book, and it holds up very well indeed nearly thirty years after its publication.

Two of the short stories particularly impressed me. “Corona” starts out like typical Delany: Buddy is a mixed-up kid who works at the Kennedy space station, while Lee is a powerful telepathic girl who has experienced so much trauma in other people’s lives that she is wildly suicidal. After an accident at the space station, Buddy ends up in the hospital where his distress from the accident causes Lee to undergo a strong attack of emotional pain. In an attempt to stop his projecting his emotions, Lee sneaks out of her hospital room and goes to Buddy’s room.

Things change almost immediately at that point, as we realize that Delany is equally-capable of writing tender emotions as he is strong and violent ones. The ending of “Corona” was so touching that this is one of the finest short stories I have read in a long time.

The other impressive short was “Ruins,” which read like a rift on Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian stories, a tale of a thief who discovers an ancient city filled with treasures, and the lone woman who inhabits it. But the ending is much different than I expected, and more moving than sword-and-sorcery usually delivers.

Other short stories were slighter fun. “Prismatica” was a fantasy which reminded me of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth stories. It involves a young roustabout named Amos who is hired by an evil ship captain to seek the three broken portions of a magical mirror. Along the way he meets a captive of the captain who claims to be a prince who originally owned the ship until it was stolen by the current captain. It was a fun story about clever heroes using their wits to obtain the mirror portions.

“Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones” is a romp about a small-time crook who is friendly with one of New York City’s official Singers (a combination celebrity, entertainer, icon) who is harassed by the police department’s Special Services which only seeks to arrest small-time crooks on their way up to becoming major mobsters. Later the protagonist comes into a horde of valuable stones which he arranges to sell to a major mobster named the Hawk (as opposed to the Singer friend named simply Hawk) at a posh uptown party. Nothing much else happens, and the story combines NYC grittiness with overlays of space and near-future furniture in a story which is frothy fun compared to the denser Empire Star and “Corona.”

The concluding story is the well-known “We, in Some Strange Power’s Employ, Move on a Rigorous Line,” which was a tribute to Roger Zelazny with a dedication in the beginning and an antagonist whose name was Roger “followed by something Polish and unpronounceable that began with Z and ended in Y.” This had been one of my two favorite stories in Driftglass, and I wondered if it held up well. Happily, it did, reading like a well-done Zelazny story, which is a very good thing considering that at the time the story was written–late 1960s–both Delany and Zelazny were writing their most stunning science fiction.

The story tells of a future in which global power lines provide nearly every need humans have so that famine, disease, poverty and war have basically been exterminated. By law, every human must have access to the power lines, which causes a problem when a traveling work crew–who live in a mechanical Gila Monster–learn of a small group living on the American-Canadian border. They are the remnants of a turn-of-the-21st-century motorcycle gang, but are now only 20+ members led by Roger. They live a primitive lifestyle, cooking their food over open firepits, and eschewing most, although definitely not all, modern conveniences. They consider the crew intending to lay power lines a threat to their way of life.

The protagonist is Blacky, who establishes a rapport with Roger and begins to understand the latter’s point of view. But Blacky is only second-in-command of the crew (although he is actually equal leader with Mabel, she has 21 years of experience while he has only been appointed a “crew devil” recently, so he accedes to her wishes), so when Mabel decides the law is more important than the rebels’ wishes, a power struggle commences between Roger and Blacky.

“Lines of Power” (the story’s abbreviated title when it appeared in F&SF) is not as rich a portrait of the future as other Delany stories, but Blacky is more nuanced and less a stereotypical rebel than other Delany protagonists. The story itself is also simpler, more straightforward plotting than nearly any other Delany story I can recall. In spite of that, or perhaps partly because of that, it is one of his finest stories, a fitting conclusion to a very strong collection.

If you do not have copies of either Empire Star or “We, in Some Strange Power’s Employ, Move on a Rigorous Line,” then you definitely need to find a copy of Distant Stars. Reading it, you will see that both Cyberpunk and New Space Opera were direct descendants of Samuel R. Delany’s 1960s writings.


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