The Einstein Intersection
by Samuel R. Delany
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Delany received his second Best Novel Nebula for The Einstein Intersection, one year after his first win for Babel-17. I don't consider either of these to be his best work, and even though several more of his novels would be nominated, his only subsequent wins were for shorter works. As with the previous stories this is essentially a tale of a quest, but with a twist. While the overall tone is more fantasy-like, there is a science fictional element. A parallel universe has collided with ours, and either that caused the annihilation of humanity, or perhaps we were already gone before the merge. In either case, the world has areas of high radiation, which has caused many different forms of birth defects and mutations. Many of our buildings and other artifacts survived, and the inhabitants of that other realm have taken on the semblance of humanity, culled from books, music and video recordings, and other remnants of our cultures.
The protagonist is Lobey, member of a small community beset with children afflicted with mutations, some so severe they are segregated from the more productive villagers. Some of the mutations are beneficial, or at least not viewed in a negative way, such as the way Lobey's prehensile feet are able to grasp and handle tools as well as, if not better, than he can with his hands. Other conditions are hidden, such as the telekinesis of Lobey's friend and lover, Friza. Unfortunately, that power does not save her from some unknown force, and her death both saddens Lobey as well as instills in him the need to seek out and destroy whatever killed his love. Shortly after leaving his village he encounters a huge and violent bull which has killed some of their livestock. From evidence at the scene of Friza's death he knows the bull was not her killer, but he knows he must pursue it anyway or it will continue to endanger his village. He tracks the bull to a vast underground cavern, and against all reason he overcomes his fear and descends into the darkness and is able to slay the beast. This part of his quest parallels several different human myths, such as the tale of the Minotaur and of Theseus who slayed him, as well as that of Orpheus descending to hell to return his love Eurydice to the world of the living. Even Phaedra, wife of Theseus, is referenced here, but in this case it is PHAEDRA, an ancient computer Lobey finds in the depths of the caverns.
It's a short novel, but dense with allegory and vivid imagery, told with a very poetic voice. It can also be read on several different levels. The first is simply as a fable, perhaps more elaborately told than most, but essentially a tale of love, revenge, sacrifice and redemption. Viewed from another perspective it is a look at how myths, as fantastical as they may be, help us understand ourselves and our world, and I am sure Delany meant that in contemporary terms. He began writing the book during a tour of southern Europe, including Italy, Greece and Crete, as well as Turkey and other eastern Mediterranean lands. Most of our common myths come from this area, and Delany couldn't help but notice the clash of his American way of looking at things with those of people he encountered on this trip. That clash of cultures is reflected in the clash of the two universes, and is the reason the myths adopted by the aliens from that other universe were a mix of ancient and more current pop cultural references. Lobey and his friends talk of the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Elvis much the same as the ancient Greeks spoke of Zeus and Hercules. One of the people(?) Lobey encounters goes by the name of Kid Death, and he is both the embodiment of the Devil/Death as well as Billy the Kid. Another, known as Green-Eye, turns out to be this world's version of Christ, doomed to continually return to an ancient city to be ritually tortured and killed. There is no true conclusion to the story, which may disappoint some readers. I took it as a sign that Lobey's story is much like any myth, destined to be retold again and again, perhaps with various changes in each telling. Since the answers concerning the meaning of life and death can never be definitive for everyone, like Lobey, we will all be on that quest forever.
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