I’ve gone on about Samuel R Delany books before and well, here’s another one. In Calgary I found Stars In My Pocket Like Grains of Sand at the CBC Book Sale for a dollar. If only every dollar a person spent made you think this much.
I can’t zip through Delany’s books, no matter how much I enjoy them. I need space to let them decompress, to be wrestled with, because that’s how they’re written. Glossing through things to get to the action, the pathos or whatever basically avoids everything interesting. This book is about two people in a galaxy where travelling 60 thousand light years is expensive but possible. There are two main factions the Family and the Sygn who form the political backdrop to the galaxy. There are aliens and assassins and Industrial Diplomats and a very internet-like thing known as General Information (the book was written in the early 1980s). But the space opera things you might expect don’t happen.
Rat Korga is the lone survivor of a world where he was a slave. His story takes up the first sixth of the book and is called a prologue. Then we hit Marq Dyeth and her world-hopping ways. And already I’m mangling everything up. In this book sentient beings are referred to as women, regardless of gender (and there are several alien species too who obey this grammatical dictum). So the males and females thorughout the book are referred to as She unless they’re currently an object of sexual desire, in which case He. Since the story of Marq and Korga is told primarily through Marq’s voice she is always she even though she is male. Korga (a huge acne-scarred nail-biting male slave who’d had anxiety wiped out of his brain and now wears the rings of a long-dead poet which allow him to think) is Marq’s perfect erotic match (down to 6 or 7 decimal places) and as such vacillates between pronouns depending on how lust drives Marq. So that requires a lot of paying attention.
And then there are the Evelm, the aliens who get the most spotlight time. Marq is part of an Evelmi stream (not family as there’s no genetic correspondence between the generations; they’re Sygn-aligned) and we never get a clear “Here is what an Evelm looks like” kind of statement, which leaves you to put a lot of things together yourself. It works from Marq’s point of view as she grew up in such a household. As an example, in Pride and Prejudice you don’t get Mister Darcy described as a bipedal mammal with manipulating limbs, two eyes, a nose, ears and a mouth that does both ingestion and communication duties. It’s the same sort of thing, doing away with the clunky expositions that happen so often in science fiction. You have to go with it, be carried along.
Marq is an Industrial Diplomat and brings up the cultural differences in other ways constantly. One of the refrains in the book is that even a world is a huge place, let alone a galaxy with over 6000 of them. Cultural differences between the north and south on his world are always being brought up as Korga missteps or does exactly the right thing.
But yes, it’s a beautiful weird book.