Visions of Paradise

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Empire Star

The late 1960s were my “Golden Age” of science fiction, and I discovered most of my favorite writers during that era: Robert Silverberg, Clifford D. Simak, Roger Zelazny, Jack Vance, Ursula K Le Guin, and the subject of this review, Samuel R. Delany. Delany has published the least f&sf of anybody on this list, but because of that his average quality has probably been higher than any of the above authors. I bought his first collection Driftglass in 1973, and loved it. A decade later he published Distant Stars, which contained 4 of the same stories, the short novel Empire Star, and several other then-recent stories. Because of the overlap, I did not buy it, a serious gap in my collection which I have recently rectified.

Empire Star is a major story which was originally published as half of an Ace Double, although I first bought it was one-third of an Ace book with the title The Ace Science Fiction Reader, along with Jack Vance’s “The Last Castle” and Clifford D. Simak’s “The Trouble With Tycho.” While that book is one of the highlights of my collection, I am pleased to finally have a copy of Delany’s book in his portion of my bookshelf.

Empire Star is the story of Comet Jo, a “simplex” youth living on a world which enjoys few, if any, of the technological advancements of the rest of the settled galaxy. He happens to be the only human nearby when a spaceship crashes, killing its two crewmembers, but not before one of them morphs into its crystalized jewel form, and the other instructs Comet Jo to take the jewel and an important message to Empire Star, but does not tell him what the message is.

Jo has no idea what those instructions mean, so he contacts his friend at the spaceport who has a “complex” mind with both knowledge and understanding of the rest of the galaxy. She sends him on a spaceship with his Jewel and devil-kitten Di’k (which has eight legs and horns) with the eventual goal of reaching Empire Star.

Aboard ship, Comet Jo becomes the protegé of San Severina who is transporting her group of nonhuman slaves to a group of devastated worlds which have been destroyed in wars and which the slaves will rebuild for her. The slaves–called Rll–are one of two thematic hearts of the story. For their own protection, they have been altered to emit protective pheromones which cause anybody near them to feel incredibly sad. Their owner, San Severina, feels even sadder from the moment she obtains them. Since she owns an unheard-of seven Rlls, she feels exponentially sadder to the seventh power than other owners of a single Rll would feel.

The other thematic heart of the story is Comet Jo’s growth from a simplex person to a complex person and, eventually, to a multiplex person questioning and understanding the world from many viewpoints. Since Delany always loves to play with story structure, the plot of Empire Star itself grows from simplex (a boy with a message to deliver tries to find his way to Empire Star) to complex (as he learns gradually about the message and the nature of the jewel) to multiplex (in a climax which springs from prior events in the story while simultaneously twisting them in various ways).

Empire Star was a grand story for its structure, its characters, and its color, a reminder of what a fabulous storyteller Samuel R Delany was, and how he was able to update pulpy old space operas into a rich, dynamic form . He also developed most of the machinery of cyberpunk in a far future which is much more interesting than the near future which dominated sf twenty years later. If you have never read this story, I strong suggest you find a copy of it somewhere and see what the quality of science fiction can be in the hands of a true master.


  • I like your list of favorites. When I really started reading SF in the early 80's Simak was definitely my favorite. Silverberg (Majipoor series), Leguin (dispossessed, earthsea), Zelazny (Amber) made it, too. I have to throw in Heinlein, Asimov, Herbert, and maybe CJ Cherryh and Donaldson.

    If I ever get a chance, I'll have to check out Vance and Delany.

    By Blogger John Loyd, At 1:38 PM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home