Stars In My Pocket Like Grains Of Sand
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
While I like this book for several reasons, it is not one I can recommend to many others. It lays out an intriguing premise and introduces interesting characters, but does not follow through in explaining much. Most of that is due to the fact that Delany intended to follow it up with a second novel, The Splendor and Misery of Bodies, of Cities. Thirty years later and that second book has yet to be completed. In various interviews he has explained that he will probably never finish it because the impetus behind the story no longer exists. The two main characters are male homosexuals, as is Delany, and around the time Stars was finished he experienced the break up of an eight year realtionship. He did, however, keep the dedication of this book to his former lover. Another factor was the AIDS scare which traumatized the gay community. These and other situations led him to believe he would not be able to develop the story as originally invisioned.
In every edition of this book, including the current print and e-book versions, it is still stated that it is the first book in an SF diptych. That refers to an ancient type of hinged, two-leafed writing tablet, or else a pair of paintings or carvings hinged together. This leads me to believe the events in the second book would have mirrored those in the first, but in exactly what way we'll probably never know. This book has to be judged on its own, and even with those limitations it does present several interesting and meaningful ideas. As is the case with both Dhalgren and Triton, Delany articulated concerns about what it means to be human over thirty years ago that still resonate today. This tale of vast galactic collectives involving humans and extra-terrestrial species, with rival political and ideological entities, mirrors many things that were going on at the time it was written as well as some that continue today, just as the then (and also current) struggles of the gay community mirror those of blacks and other minorities earlier in the 20th Century.
The lengthy prologue (about sixty pages), written in third person, introduces Korga, an inhabitant of the planet Rhyanon. When he was about nineteen he underwent Radical Anxiety Termination, a brain-altering technique that made him more docile and manipulable, a RAT. The first sentence has someone telling him, "Of course, you will be a slave." Approximately fifteen years of his life is recounted in brief segments of his experiences at three different facilites, with little detail given about the exact nature of the work performed. He is subsequently referred to as Korga the rat, later as Rat Korga. The remainder of the book is written in first person, the narrator being Marq Dyeth, an Industrial/Information Diplomat from the planet Velm. This is probably thousands of years into our future, with humanity spread to more than six thousand worlds, some aligned with the Family, others with the Sygn. Unfortunately, I can't tell you much about them except to say the Sygn are considered more liberal and progressive. On most of the Family worlds, even those with aboriginal cultures, humanity remains segregated, while the Sygn worlds embrace cooperation among species. Marq's "nurture stream" (his family) includes both human and evelmi parents and siblings, with the culture's enlightened and liberated nature embracing inter-species sexual encounters.
Marq's job1 takes him to many other worlds, both Family and Sygn, while his job2 when he is back home on Velm is as a teacher at a school operated at his homestead, Dyethshome. At one point he says it is pronounced Death's Home, but I'm not sure if that was a joke or not. A seldom used hall was where an assassination had taken place hundreds of years before. Those sub-scripts are used for several other things throughout the book, here meaning that one's job1 was the primary one, the way one earned their livelihood, while a job2 or job3 indicated an avocation or voluntary pursuit. Humans have embraced many evelmi traditions, including the "hunting" of a dragon species that has an evolutionary connection to modern evelmi. The bow used in the hunt is not to kill, but rather it produces an empathetic bond between hunter and prey, and some evelmi even employ them against humans to get a better understanding of how the other species thinks and feels.
One of the major concerns of both the Family and Sygn worlds is Cultural Fugue, which in the past has caused the destruction of entire civilizations. Like several other things it is not fully explained, but I gather it was caused by over-population, famine or disease, along with societal ennui due to frustrations over little-understood advanced technologies. Rhyanon is destroyed, with many suspecting Cultural Fugue, although it is also speculated that the alien species Xlv might have been responsible. Again, little is explained about them, but that might be because little is known of them. They are believed to be the only species besides man that has faster-than-light space ships, but no one knows their plans or motives. Rat Korga is the only survivor found on Rhyanon, and his life and that of Marq Dyeth's is manipulated by members of the Web. Sorry to admit ignorance again, but little is explained about this group as well. I believe they were responsible for the development of most technology used, and that they counted both Family and Sygn worlds as customers, but whether they were also a political faction is not clear.
The majority of the narrative recounts little more than a day on Velm, as Korga arrives there as a student under the instigation of the Web. They have determined that he is as close to the perfect emotional and sexual partner that Marq could ever find. And they're right. A close bond is formed between them in very short time, and yet Rat Korga's fame as the only Rhyanon survivor causes problems. Many want to meet him, even regard him as some sort of messiah. Things are also complicated by the arrival of a group of Family diplomats, upset that the Dyeth's might hinder a venture they wish to undertake. The Web fears the turmoil this has caused might trigger Cultural Fugue, and they are able to get Korga away from Dyethshome and off-planet, which of course infuriates Marq. The thing I would most like to find out if the second book is ever published is how and when they find each other again, and whether or not they really are the "perfect couple." When someone from the Web asks Marq if he loves Korga, his reply is, "How can I know? I've known him less than a day, but shouldn't I have the chance to find out?"
Thirty years before Ann Leckie employed a gender neutral style in her award-winning Ancillary Justice, Delany did much the same in this novel. Just as we use man and mankind to also include women, in this society everyone is referred to as a woman, humanity as a whole as womankind, although if one needs to specify gender then the terms male and female are used. It is confusing only briefly until you get familiar with the different characters. The prejudices of the Family worlds reflects similar feelings some people today have about interracial or same-sex marriage, and of course to Delany's credit, such opinions are revealed for what they are, ignorance and bigotry. Delany knows that whether our world is just this lone planet Earth, or if it encompasses the vast reaches of space, the things that will be most helpful in ensuring our success are love, empathy, understanding and cooperation. Several critics' blurbs on this book call it "Delany's first masterpiece," or "his best novel to date." I have to disagree with that, with Dhalgren being my pick as his best, but the ideas expressed still make it one of SF's most daring and challenging tales.
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