Review of Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand by Samuel R. Delany
Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand
by Samuel R. Delany
So … I don’t think I’d go as far as The New York Times Book Review does in praising this book. According to the blurb on the back of my edition, “it invites the reader to collaborate in the process of creation, in a way that few novels do”. Umm … yeah. Sure. Someone has been critiquing literature a little too long. But the blurb is right about one thing: Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand is both extraordinary and transcendent.
Samuel R. Delany is an interesting author for someone like me to try reading. So much of his writing is grounded in the cultural revolutions of the twentieth century, from the civil liberties movement to the sexual revolution to demarchist and anarchist alternatives to the democratic/communist stalemate of the Cold War. Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand is only thirty years old, but in some ways it feels like it’s from an era much further away in time. My experience is so different from Delany’s, as a result of where and when I grew up (not to mention the colour of my skin). Sometimes it’s not a matter of books not aging well so much as the semiotics of a book changing as the context in which it’s read changes. (I wonder if this is an aspect of reader-response theory?)
But oh, look at me getting all literary critic now.
Basically, if you have read Delany before, you will recognize him here: very little exposition, and what exposition there is exists entirely within the context of the story. That is to say, the narrator—Marq Dyeth—talks to you as if you are a fellow traveller in this universe and not a human from Old Old Old Earth (or whatever) cast adrift in this strange far future. As with Triton: An Ambiguous Heterotopia (in the review of which I see I also mention reader-response theory, so hey, at least I’m consistent), Delany creates a society so different from our own that it’s nearly unrecognizable. Simple nouns like “hunting”, “dinner”, “room”, and “family” seem to mean the same thing but don’t. Marq inhabits a universe where it is necessary to acknowledge that one cannot possibly know all there is to know about one’s own world, let alone the entire span of human civilizations across the galaxy. It is a staggering, humbling concept.
The way in which Delany uses language to establish difference and a sense of the Other is, as always, paramount. Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice rightly raked in the praise and recognition last year. One attribute consistently remarked upon is the way in which Leckie chooses to use feminine pronouns, she and her, to refer to all people regardless of their actual sex/gender. While I’m not trying to belittle Leckie’s approach to presenting gender, it’s important to note that Delany did it thirty years before her. Perhaps the most significant language difference in this book is that all humans (and other sentients, like evelm) are women, even if they are male (or neuter). Masculine pronouns only exist either as archaic references or to be used when referring to an object of sexual desire. Is there a serious point here? Sure. Is Delany doing this to fuck with our heads? Yes, definitely. Every time you read the word “her” you automatically conceptualize the person as being female, except that a few sentences later, Delany might toss in a bit of physical description indicating the person is actually male. Oops. The shift in pronouns is an important part of the larger change Delany demonstrates, a society in which gender still exists but is largely insignificant. People exhibit whatever sexuality makes them comfortable; people reproduce through a variety of ways—“old-fashioned”, cloning, whatever works. Marq spends entire chapters walking around and doing stuff completely nude. There’s a lot of difference here, and the more closely you pay attention and read how Delany actually describes things (like the use of a subscript 1 and 2 to denote different connotations for words like job and work) the more difference you will perceive.
Delany exemplifies science fiction’s powers of possibility. A great deal of science fiction imagines a world much like ours with just a small difference. And that’s fine for the stories that those authors want to tell. But science fiction can be such a powerful tool in the hands of a grandmaster like Delany. Who cares how we could get from our current society to the one he depicts here? That’s not his problem to solve. What he’s concerned with is exploring how that society would function and how it affects Marq Dyeth and Rat Korga. He dares to dream different, and the result is a story that takes place on a vast interstellar canvas.
Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand is primarily a story about attraction and desire. Marq and Korga are supposed to be each other’s “perfect erotic objects”. Delany is careful to differentiate between sexual desire and love here. So most of the story is about establishing how Marq and Korga come from such different places, which then gives us a context for understanding their strange meeting on Marq’s homeworld. This takes up relatively little of the novel compared to what came before, but it’s all about Delany preparing us for the meeting. It has been a while since I’ve read a novel so relentlessly character-driven … Daniel Deronda comes close, but even that, I think, was more linked to a plot than this one.
Still, there is an ongoing story arc that affects the wider universe. The mysterious Xlv appear to be responsible for destroying Korga’s home planet. The Web knows more than it’s saying. And why have the Thants really changed allegiance from the Sygn to the Family? I guess I’ll have to read the sequel to find out.