It’s that time of year again … it’s Vintage SciFi Month! (And a Happy New Year to you all, of course!) The brainchild of the Little Red Reviewer, Andrea, you can find out more about this not-a-challenge here, but in brief, January is the month to read any scifi written before you were born. And I’m kicking off with Delany.
I’ve been meaning to read Delany for about ten years now. He’s one of those names that crops up again and again when people are discussing the early really great scifi on which our current really great scifi is built. So I felt pretty lucky when this copy of Driftglass was donated (along with a whole bunch of vintage scifi) to the library. Too old to go on the shelves (the binding split in my hands when I opened it up), we put it into the booksale, from which I bought it.
And yeah, the talk is justified. Driftglass is a collection of ten short stories, (full disclosure: I am dragging myself out of a reading slump by degrees and short stories were all I could face this week), all written in the mid-to-late sixties, including the Hugo and Nebula Award winning “Time considered as a Helix of Semiprecious Stones”. They are various – moving from the edge of the galaxy to a small Greek island to Mars to Brazil to Canada to some sort of dream world – beautifully written, and absolutely jam-packed with ideas.
As with any collection of stories by a single author, there is some repetition of ideas and images, but not much. Twice Delany talks about halving holograms, and twice about telepaths, in four of his stories he describes friendships between adults and prepubescent children or teenagers, and he seems to have a fascination with people’s hands – which he describes more often than any other aspect of his characters’ appearances. This last seemed appropriate to the stories he tells however, because Delany writes about the ordinary working people of the future: the mechanics, the people laying power cables, the spaceport workers, the people using their hands.
Of the ten stories I have four firm favourites: “The Star-Pit”, “Corona”, “Driftglass” and “We, in Some Strange Power’s Employ, Move on a Rigorous Line” (say that ten times fast). The first story in the book, “The Star-Pit” opened with some serious VanderMeer vibes. The main character, Vyme, describes an “ecologarium” (a self-contained ecosystem) set up on a beach for the education of the children in his procreation group. Inside this enclosed space are crystalline plants, small sloth-like creatures with suction-cup appendages and flying lizards that start out as larvae. And while we don’t stay with this opening image for very long, it informs the rest of the story. In the present Vyme is a mechanic who fixes and maintains starships at the edge of the galaxy. To be able to travel any further than that edge, one has to be a “golden”, a person who is psychologically different in a specific way that enables them to cope with extensive space travel. Vyme is friends with thirteen-year-old Ratlit, also a mechanic at the neighbouring Poloscki’s, and the story concerns itself with these two, Vyme’s employee Sandy, the wonderful projective telepath Alegra and the feelings of enclosure that all people seem to feel, irrespective of how far out in to space they are able to travel.
In “Corona” we meet ex-con now spaceport worker Buddy and nine-year-old super-telepath Lee who meet and bond briefly over the latest hot musical sensation from Ganymede, Bryan Faust, and his new hit song ‘Corona’. I’m not giving anything else away about this one, but it was the most touching story in the collection for me (not least because Lee’s experience hits pretty close to home). Closely followed, in terms of emotional impact, by “Driftglass” in which we meet Cal Svenson, a genetically modified amphiman (able to live underwater as easily as on land) who lives alone on the edge of the sea in Brazil after having suffered a terrible accident that has left him badly mutilated. Delany is brilliant at conjuring up a sense of place in all of the stories in Driftglass and I loved his evocation of this Brazilian fishing port so accustomed to the amphimen working offshore, and sending it’s sons and daughters away to become the next generation of amphimen.
The descriptions in “Driftglass” are possibly the most beautiful too. We start the story hunting for sea glass on the beach with Cal: “It was foggy that morning, and the sun across the water moiled the mists like a brass ladle”. We learn how he became friends with fisherman Juao in just a few elegant vignettes, before being treated to both an evening beach party and night fishing expedition made up of amphimen and local fishermen. I remember reading once, somewhere, that every word needs to count in a short story because of its concentrated form, and I think this story is as near a perfect example of that as I’ve ever seen. Delany’s prose isn’t pared back or simple, but every description is beautiful and he has a knack for describing things in unusual ways. In “Driftglass” this might be someone tapping on the window, or the view of the moon from beneath the water; in “The Star-Pit” it’s the “illuminated dragon” of Manhattan Bridge; in “Night and the Loves of Joe Dicostanzo” it’s a woman standing at the edge of a puddle appearing to leap up in her reflection as she falls down.
“We, in Some Strange Power’s Employ, Move on a Rigorous Line” is a different beast. Dedicated to Roger Zelazny, this tells the story of Global Power Commission employees Mabel, Blacky, Scott and Susan (known as demons and devils depending on rank). The live and work in their Gila Monster vehicle, and have come to a remote part of Canada to lay the cable that connects most of the world (this was written before the internet). However, there is resistance from the residents of the derelict house High Haven – where a group of futuristic Hells Angels who ride flying bikes known as pteracycles and are led by the one-shoe-only Roger (a further nod to Zelazny?) – have made their home. The story deals with power and permission on both a small scale and a large without dumbing that discussion down. There is no exclusively right or wrong way to do things. Yes, people have a right to choose how they live, even if it appears barbaric or backwards. However, some of the people within a group may not have had the choice, may simply not have the power to remove themselves from the situation. If you don’t have power, are you able to deny permission? And how to get and hold onto power?
If there’s anything that unites all the stories here, it is the humanity in them. No matter how far out into space and the future he goes, Delany is still writing stories about all the griefs and joys and small dramas that we experience in the course of a lifetime. As a result, I really like Delany protagonists. For the most part they are, if not exactly aimless, then uncertain about their life’s trajectory. They have no grand plan, aren’t special in any way (i.e. not super-smart or possessing incredible charisma), and often have a past of petty crime, loss or mistake. And they are the workers of the world, as I’ve said before. Not the scientists, artists or politicians (although they are not excluded from the mix), but the blue-collar workers. Which still seems pretty unusual in science fiction even now, and keeps these stories surprisingly relevant even fifty years later.
“You have to grow all the time,” I said. “Not necessarily get bigger. But inside your head you have to grow, kid-boy. For us human-type people that’s what’s important. And that kind of growing never stops. At least it shouldn’t. You can grow, kid-boy, or you can die. That’s the choice you’ve got, and it goes on all your life.”
From: “The Star-Pit”