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A, B, C: Three Short Novels
by Samuel R Delany
Vintage, $16.95, 496pp
Published: July 2015

Samuel R Delany is one of those legends of science fiction whom I have never read, so I'm glad to be introduced to his work through this collection of three early novels.  The 'A, B, C' of the title refers to the three novels which it includes:

A is 'The Jewels of Aptor', his first novel to see print, written when only 19 and published as half of an Ace Double in 1962. This is the complete version, though, as published five years later with the ten percent of the story restored that had been cut to fit into the 146 page limit of those doubles.

'The Ballad of Beta-2', representing B, came along in 1965, written in part during a lull in his 'Fall of the Towers' trilogy and again half of an Ace Double. There wasn't a ten percent to restore with this novel, so it feels notably shorter than the other two in this volume.

Finally, the C is his second novel, 'They Fly at Ciron', which grew out of a few early short stories. It was written in the sixties but didn't see print until 1993, after all of his more famous, best-selling and/or award-winning work, such as 'Babel-17', 'The Einstein Intersection' and 'Dhalgren,' as well as his '’Return to Nevèrÿon’ quartet.

While I hadn't read any Delany, I knew a little about him, such as that he's as far from the stereotypical science fiction writer as can comfortably be imagined: a bearded African-American folk rocker, university professor and pornographer, dyslexic and dysmetric, gay but formerly married with children. Some of his work, such as 'Dhalgren' and 'Hogg,' is intensely controversial and has divided readers and critics alike for decades. Clearly I should continue reading through his books because I have a fondness for more controversial art.

'The Jewels of Aptor' is challenging for different reasons. It's a science fantasy novel, clearly set on a post-apocalyptic Earth but nowhere that's recognisable. There are hints to suggest the north-eastern United States, but they're only hints and others suggest that this might just be the future of a different Earth entirely. Given that the themes revolve around duality, that's a strong possibility.

The story plays out like a quest fantasy. A young poet named Geo, together with his huge drinking buddy, Urson, take work on a boat and become part of a mission. The strange lady who hires them is both a priestess of the goddess Argo and a former personification of her, in the manner of some eastern religions. She also hires a four-armed thief called Snake, who has one of the three jewels of Aptor around his neck. She has another and they sail from Leptar to find the third jewel and her daughter, the current representation of Argo, both of which are allegedly in the power of the dark god, Hama, on the dangerous island of Aptor.

While this feels like a fantasy, it ventures into the realm of science fiction when this merry band arrive on Aptor and find that it contains a post-atomic city still plagued by radiation which has caused no end of mutation in the locals. Some became little more than monsters, while others continue to use some of the ancient technology around them.

If anything, it works best as neither a fantasy nor a science fiction yarn, but as a mystery, with Geo challenged to figure out who to trust at every point in the story. Even when he believes someone to be trustworthy, that doesn't mean that they're doing what's right or that he should be following their guidance. Hey, that sounds rather like life, right? Well, Geo is our avatar in this world and we struggle as much as he does to figure out these things, especially as the challenges come thick and fast.

I didn't follow all the philosophy, but there's a great deal of riffing on the dual nature of everything: not merely love and hate, good and evil and right and wrong, but also man and beast, mother and daughter and poetry and prose, all woven here into the pairings of both Argo and Hama and Leptar and Aptor. Even though that ten percent of cut story is restored here, I get the feeling that Delany, writing in 1962, didn't have the luxury of the length he might have liked to get his ideas across, so this does seem somewhat crammed, but it's an interesting read and an interesting beginning to a career.

If 'The Jewels of Aptor' works primarily as an introduction, 'The Ballad of Beta-2' is an emphatic arrival. I adored this novel, as short as it is (and it only runs 85 pages or so). It connected to me intellectually and emotionally, which the prior work didn't.

It follows Joneny, a graduate student in the field of galactic anthropology, who's really unhappy at the assignment his professor is insisting on giving him. Instead of the interesting project he has lined up for himself, the task he's given is to investigate a people known as the Star Folk and specifically one of their songs or poems, 'The Ballad of Beta-2.' Joneny considers what little is known of their cultural output as 'cotton candy effusions,' devoid of either artistic or anthropological importance. What's more, he's told to provide a historical analysis from primary sources, which means that he'll become the first person in decades to even attempt to visit the Star Folk.

They're so named because they've seen more of the stars than anyone else, as the remaining population of a set of generation starships which left Earth in 2242 on a twelve-generation journey to a new system. Ten of them made it to the Leffer system, but by then they'd become irrelevant for a few reasons. One is that the human race developed a hyperspace drive sixty years after the Star Folk started on their voyage, so had already spent over a century building interstellar exchange by the time the early birds arrived. Another is that they didn't make it in the form in which they left, having descended into a savage and less than human state, albeit apparently not a hostile one. So they were left alone in their ships, 'allowed to dodder towards extinction' in isolation from the rest of humanity.

Now, of course, Joneny is going to find something special because otherwise we wouldn't have a novel, but the surprises that Delany sets up for him are glorious. Initially, what he finds are little details, linguistic definitions that serve to highlight how utterly wrong he was to assume that their ballads were 'complete fantasies with no relation to the people living and dying on the ships,' nothing 'original or even relevant to life on a starship.' Each discovery fleshes out a little more of 'The Ballad of Beta-2,' but soon what he finds is bigger and more important even than that. His professor's thought that the Star Folk need to be studied because 'they did something that had never been done before - that will never be done again - and because remnants of them are still there now' is completely vindicated.

I should add that this is utterly accessible stuff, even with its focus on scholarly anthropological research. Gone are the odd little sciency bits that jarred within the fantasy of 'The Jewels of Aptor'. In their place are stories, recordings and transcripts, each of which constitutes another piece of a jigsaw puzzle, and the picture eventually revealed is bigger than Joneny could ever have imagined. I couldn't put this one down.

'They Fly at Ciron' returns to a fantasy setting, but continues some of the themes of these early works: the relationship between society and language, culture shock and the meaning of civilisation.

It's an interesting piece, though it came as no surprise that Delany struggled to write it, instead evolving it in fits and starts over thirty years. I found it a little dreamlike, in that it didn't quite know where its focus should be. Perhaps some might find that one of its charms, but I much preferred the tight story of 'The Ballad of Beta-2.'

Ciron is a town, the sort of blissfully happy place seen only in paintings where the locals work hard and play well. They've been happy for a long time, long enough that these farmers and miners don't even know what weapons are, let alone why they might ever want to use them. Of course, this doesn't bode well when the army of Myetra comes clanking in, eager to conquer and so create more space for their ever-expanding nation.

The lack of focus extends to the leads. Are we following Rahm, a huge strong type, a sort of barbarian with a heart of gold? Or are we following Qualt, the clever garbageman who can't find a way to pronounce his feelings to the girl he loves? Both befriend winged ones, a nearby community of human bats who have their own culture but have been traditionally not been seen as friends for no apparent reason other than that they're human bats. That changes here as needs must; that Myetran army isn't going to stop at Ciron as it has a whole set of other towns to blitz through before it's done.

We follow Rahm and we follow Qualt, but we also follow the minstrel lady, Näa, and the Myetran lieutenant, Kire. We jump back and forth, piecing together a story with a distracted sort of leisure, as if we were one of the townsfolk of Ciron. It's a very odd war story, one without antagonism or hate, just people doing what they've always done, whether they be Myetran soldiers expanding a nation or Cironian farmers wondering who these people are who come storming into their town.

As a young and poor American black man writing initially in the 1960s, Delany must have experienced prejudice in real life but he abstracted it into this novel in an odd way. If we read between the lines, he seems to suggest that the white man never hated the black; he simply looked down on him because it's what he'd always done, especially when following a bitter leader. Delany was clearly wondering why we couldn't just all get along. His solution to this age old conundrum is truly bizarre: a vague combination of guerrilla warfare and exploitation of apathy. This war doesn't end so much as it morphs into peace. This feels idealistic and short-sighted (after all this approach didn't work too well for the Polish Jews) but Delany's prose makes it seem almost natural.

While I prefer 'The Ballad of Beta-2', a novel which leaps into my select list of favourites, there's a lot more on which to ponder in 'They Fly at Ciron'. It's also accompanied by a pair of short stories, set in this world but aside from this novel: 'Ruins' and 'Return to Ciron.' The latter is a sort of coda while the former resembles a sword and sorcery tale without any swords. Then again, that almost makes sense.

There's also a short, distracted foreword and a long, rambling afterword from the author. There are nuggets of history and wisdom in the latter but they're much tougher to make it through than the novels about which they ostensibly comment. Don't torture yourself with them. Leap straight into the meat of the volume and see which novel speaks to you. In their way, the three tell the same story but set in different worlds, taking different approaches and commenting from different perspectives. Which you identify with the most is likely to be your favourite. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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