Reviewed by Galen Strickland
This Hugo nominee shares several themes and motifs with the other Delany titles I have reviewed. Loner heroes, exotic locales, a mysterious quest. One thing that is different is the uncertainty of who he intended to be the protagonist. Is it Mouse, a young itinerant "socket-stud" from Earth? Is it Katin, Moon-born, Harvard-educated, would-be novelist? Or Lorq Von Ray, wealthy scion of one of the ruling families of the Pleiades Federation? If a protagonist must have an antagonist, the logical choice is Von Ray. His nemesis is Prince Red, son of Aaron Red, head of Red-Shift Limited, manufacturers of the majority of space freighters, luxury liners and private ships in Draco, which is the designation of the space sector containing the Solar System and the major planetary settlements from the first wave of human expansion. Nearly all planetary governments and industry in Draco are directly controlled from Earth. The Pleiades Federation consists of some three hundred worlds from the second wave, settled primarily by independent industrialists anxious to escape Earth's domination. A third sector of human habitation is the Outer Colonies, initially controlled by various business factions from Draco or Pleiades, but which are poised for their own bid for self-determination and self-sufficiency.
Mouse is the first character we meet, in a bar in the space port town of Hell3 on Triton, largest moon of Neptune. Most of the other bar patrons are socket-studs like Mouse, space workers who can plug directly into a ship's controls via the neural sockets surgically implanted in their bodies at various points; wrists, ankles, back of skull, base of spine. Mouse also has another unique talent, mastery of the sensory-syrynx, a computer and laser controlled instrument of sound, color, holographic images and olfactory sensation. It has been months since his last space job, and he has spent the off-time in the bars, supplementing his income through his performances. It helps that Delany has included a header on each page of the book, identifying the location and date of the action. After just four pages there is a flashback to when Mouse first obtained his syrynx, so that header changes from "Draco, Triton, Hell3, 3172" to "Draco, Earth, Istanbul, 3164" and then back, to when Mouse first encounters Lorq Von Ray, who solicits his services for a secretive mission. It is also then we meet Katin and four others on the crew. Katin frequently records notes on the process of writing his novel, but he hasn't actually begun on the text because he is waiting for inspiration as to what his subject should be.
Many authors have an alter-ego character in their stories. If Delany does, then it might be safe to assume that Katin represents him here. Then again, Mouse exhibits several characteristics shared by others. His ability on the syrynx echoes Rydra Wong's poetry and song in Babel-17 and Lobey's musical inclinations in The Einstein Intersection. Delany himself is a jazz enthusiast, and sometimes composer. I surely hope it is not Von Ray. Even though the reader's first reaction might be sympathy toward him due to the way he has been treated by Prince Red, by the end of the book he shows his true colors; self-obsession, brutal vengeance and megalomania. But back to Katin. He has a vast knowledge of Earth and humanity, not only its history but also its myths. He makes several statements that are surely Delany's thoughts on the process of the novel and the necessity of the author understanding his place in history.
"Bear in mind that the novel—no matter how intimate, psychological
or subjective—is always a historical projection of its own time. To make
my book, I must have an awareness of my time's conception of history."
Even though set more than a thousand years into our future, and concerned with space travel and people directly plugging into complex computer-controlled machinery, there are also many things that are direct comments about life in the 20th Century. Katin tells Mouse about Ashton Clark, a 23rd Century philosopher who wrote about man's disconnection from his work, which led to an engineer developing the socket technology. Even by the mid-1960s, there was already an awareness of how the Industrial Revolution had created such a disconnectedness. Advanced machinery and robotics, along with the computer revolution, led to people being removed farther and farther from the end product of their labors. The "hands-on" nature of the socket technology brought the workers back closer to the work. Another element of the novel is how the actions of the Von Rays, the Reds and other industrialists is very similar to the robber-baron mentality of the 19th and early 20th Century, and the backlash to that was still reverberating through society when Delany wrote the book (and to some extent still is today).
Delany has always been enamoured of allegory and metaphor. Another reason to view Katin as Delany personified comes on the last page of the book, as he tells Mouse that he knows he wants to write his book about the adventure they shared, but he fears the outcome if he embues the story with the mystical symbolism he thinks it deserves. Katim had earlier told Mouse about the many authors who had attempted tales of the quest for the Holy Grail, and that most had died before they could complete their stories. Katim's next statement is the last of the book, and it cuts off in mid-sentence.
You'll notice I haven't said much about the plot, what Von Ray's quest was all about or why he needed revenge against Prince Red. Although it is interesting, and there are many exciting scenes and dynamic dialog, this book is just as much about the characters, and the meanings behind why people act the way they do, as it is about plot. It's a more mature work than anything Delany had published before, and it is unfortunate his advancing mastery of craft was not awarded as his previous two novels had been. And his best was still yet to come.
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