The Ballad of Beta-2 by Samuel R Delany

Another post that’s tagged up for my Digging for Gold project because the Motherload is how I acquired a copy of this book).


This 1965 novella was ninety-five pages of (mostly) fun.

The best thing about it, for me, was that it is, at least partly, about language and communication, which is one of my buttons. It tells the tale of a bright academic who poo-poos studying the ‘Star Folk’ because they “are just a dead end”. However, by researching the ‘unoriginal’ Ballad of Beta-2 at his professor’s insistence, Joneny pieces together the events that led to the Star Folk’s dead end, and discovers something (fanciful and slightly ridiculous, but hey, it was the 60s) that will enable humanity to take the next step in space exploration and contact with alien life.

Through Joneny’s disdainful little rant about the Star Folk in the opening chapter, we learn that these are the descendants of twelve generation ships that left Earth for new worlds only to find, when they reached their destination, that humanity had already arrived, having developed faster-than-light travel not long after the Star Folk departed Earth. We also learn that only ten of the original twelve generation ships made it.

We are then introduced to the ballad, which is full of imagery that seems to have little to do with space travel (markets, deserts and cities abound). We learn, too, that the researcher who collected the ballad together with other folk songs, didn’t actually bother visiting the star-ships on which the Star Folk continue to live, but sent in a robot recorder to do the work. Joneny’s academic fire is lit, along with the reader’s curiosity.

What follows is a neat unravelling of some of the images and phrases used in the ballad as Joneny learns more about common usage at the time the ballad was written. He visits two of the star-ships, the Gamma-5 and then the badly damaged Sigma-9, and through vids and diary entries he learns what happened to the two missing ships, the Sigma-9 and the empty Beta-2. He also learns the role played in these events by the green-eyed being he encounters on his research trip.

In a short space, Delany introduces a generous handful of characters, past and present, who’re all sketched in satisfying detail. I particularly enjoyed the abbreviated not-quite-a-love-story between two of the original generation-ship Captains, Leela and Hank; and Leela’s descendant, Leela RT-857 was very cool (in fact, hats off to Delany for writing excellent women characters that I still feel can be identified with today, fifty plus years later *tips hat*). These characters were mostly people I’d have liked to get to know better, barring a couple of idiots who were only really in the book so that the author could make a point.

Which brings me to what I didn’t like. In discovering the backstory to Beta-2 and its fellow star-ships, Joneny learns that the Star Folk society split into two. One group, called the One-Eyes or One-Eyed, remained curious, outward-looking, active learners, while the other group, the Norm, became not a little obsessed with ever more ridiculous ritualistic behaviours. The painfully overt message is that religion is backward- and science forward-thinking and that the two cannot co-exist (the One-Eyes are killed by the Norm on every one of the generation ships). I’m not religious, but I was raised by religious people who also energetically questioned the world around them, and I don’t like such stark lines drawn between people. Like everything else in the world, faith can be complex.

And my other niggle ties into the above: The Ballad of Beta-2 is short. I wanted a bit more – a bit more about the ships and life aboard then, a bit more about Joneny’s world and his chosen path in academia, a bit more about how the One-Eyes came to be – just a bit more of everything, really. With more space to explore some of his ideas, I feel Delany might have had room to be a little less black and white.  Also, the book opens with a two-paragraph introductory blurb (it’s an Ace Double – two stories by two authors, back-to-back – so there’s no room for a blurb anywhere else, I guess) that I’d have much rather read as part of the story. It pencils in the background succinctly, but I think it would have been more fun to discover what it outlines.

Even with the niggles though, I really like the way Delany writes. He’s perhaps my most successful vintage scifi author so far (along with C J Cherryh) because I am left with an appetite for more. And as I’ve only scratched the surface so far – I have a lot of awesome reading ahead of me.




    • Being so short, it’s an excellent introduction to his writing style without committing to a hefty tome. And it’s still a very good story, if a bit rushed. Can recommend! 🥰


  1. Babel-17 might be right up your alley if you enjoyed the writing of female characters and the emphasis on linguistics. It’s a good light read with some Big (if, in hindsight, totally incorrect) Ideas and plenty of cool scenes.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Went and read it on your rec and golly its good. So many thanks for shouting this one out.

    And on your niggles

    1) I don’t read the Norm as religion, but any group that that puts rules and doing things right over people – if any group in particular, general conservatism given the emphasis on social rules, ancestry, and eugenics

    2) I loved how short and focused this was

    Think this was my first 5 star fiction of the year.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed it, Peat!

      Hmmm, interesting that you didn’t read the Norm as religion – I wonder if that’s just something I’m very quick to see and criticise.

      How did YOU find Delany’s prose in this one? As dense as your previous experience of his writing? I’m curious.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Just right on the prose. Light and flowing to read, but with plenty of substance and heaviness where needed. I did Tales of Neveryon and found it like chewing packing foam. But this is a very different beast.

        I think it is rather easy to read the Norm as religion, just that I didn’t until I came back to read your review again. I would also suggest that while there is a reading of religion there, it’s a particular type of religion in the same way Pratchett criticises religion in Small Gods (of course, Delany doesn’t show the rest of it like Pratchett does).


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