The Jewels of Aptor
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
This is the first of Delany's published stories, completed when he was nineteen. It's a very short novel, or a long novella, depending on whose criteria you use and which version you read. It was later printed in paperback on its own, with some edited passages restored, but it was first released in an Ace Double along with James White's Second Ending. Fantastic Fiction has that White title listed as a novel but Delany's as a novella. The edited text is out of copyright and available as a free download from Project Gutenberg, and it is the version I read. Glimpses of the author's later narrative and character strengths are evident, but the story suffers from an incoherent and confusing plot. This was the first time I had read this book, and I can't recommend it except to those whom, like me, desire to have as complete an overview of Delany's work as possible.
It has a lot of the trappings of fantasy but is science fiction once the mechanics of certain events and actions are explained, even if a few elements remain vague. It is set in a post-apocalyptic world, possibly a thousand years after a nuclear war. The two countries mentioned are Leptar and Aptor, and while several internal clues (along with an afterword) says that this is Earth, I failed to see any correlation between them and any current countries. It is implied that there have been other conflicts between these two lands, hundreds of years following the "Great Fire." During one of these conflicts forces from Leptar were able to obtain the titular jewels, and then a subsequent incursion from Aptor managed to steal one of them back. It is difficult to determine which of these countries the author wanted to be considered the "good guys." Since Aptor seems to have suffered the most from radiation and mutation it might be assumed that Leptar was the aggressor, but the story is being told from the perspective of people from Leptar, so it would be easy to believe the opposite. That confusion may have been deliberate, postulating that if war occurs neither side is without blame.
Mystical cults have been formed in the two nations, of the goddess Argo in Leptar and of Hama in Aptor. The main part of the story involves a quest by a priestess of Argo to reclaim the third jewel. A sailing expedition is formed, and along with the ship's regular crew the priestess recruits the poet Geo, his friend Urson, and a four-armed mute known as Snake. Both Urson and Snake had been involved in a previous expedition to Aptor, one which ended in tragedy with the majority of the crew killed. Only they and the first mate, Jjorde, had survived. Urson has no recollection of what transpired on that journey, and we later learn that Snake is mute because his tongue had been cut out to prevent him from revealing the truth. The person responsible for that despicable act was unaware that Snake had a mutation other than the obvious physical one; he is also telepathic, able to read thoughts and project his own to the minds of others. Snake is aware of the application of the jewels, which do have a scientific explanation, but it is unclear if he sides with Argo or Hama, or possibly is a free agent without an allegiance to either. The agenda of most of the other characters is also continually called into question, which is the basis of most of my confusion. There are several passages that begin to answer some of the questions, but then the focus shifts to another character or situation and very little is revealed. It is possible that some things went right over my head, but if it was fully revealed what had happened on that previous expedition that Urson cannot remember and for which Snake was silenced, I missed it.
Perhaps Delany lost sight of the fact that for a beginning writer simpler is better. Before you develop a unique style of narration or character development, first you must show you can tell a succinct story. Florid prose is nice, but not if it does not enhance the reader's understanding. He also frequently used words that sent me to the dictionary, and I think I have a more than adequate vocabulary. I'm sure that none of the characters in the story would know the meanings of those words either. The main reason to look for the expanded version is the hope that things would become more clear. I'd do that now if I didn't already have a mountain of other books I want to read and review. Perhaps another day I will do that, and if so I'll revisit this page.
UPDATE: A new omnibus edition will be released on June 7, 2015, which will include The Jewels of Aptor, The Ballad of Beta-2 and They Fly at Çiron, and I assume it will be the most definitive versions of each story.
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