Sunday, the beginning of my week off at the end of the summer. What better way to start it off than with a golden oldie? As with many authors, I’ve been gradually collecting any Samuel R. Delany books that show up at the used bookstore in town, and I haven’t read any for a while. So I picked up The Fall of the Towers, an omnibus of a trilogy that Delany wrote in his early twenties. This is far from “peak Delany” and nowhere near as good as Triton or, my personal fave, Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand. Yet precursors of the themes and motifs he explores more confidently and deeply in those books show up in this trilogy … and it’s a lot of fun. This is about as “beach read” as SF can get while still being thinky, and that is a tough balance to achieve.
The Fall of the Towers takes place in the empire of Toromon. Five hundred years after the Great Fire, Toromon is the only known human habitation left on Earth. It’s isolated from the rest of the planet by impassable radiation belts. There is an uneven distribution of technology, with an aristocracy in control but a merchant class starting to rival the aristocrats. Interestingly, as Toromon reclaims the technological innovations of its ancestors, its constrained economy can’t keep up. In the face of these pressures, some people in power think it’s best for Toromon to go to war—so they conjure up an enemy “beyond the barrier” and get very creative when it comes to fighting this false war.
Delany’s cast is as interesting as it is diverse. Jon Koshar, our initial protagonist, is a somewhat stereotypical masculine hero, but this characterization is buoyed by the way he changes and relies on his allies. These include two prominent women: Petra, a Duchess far more capable than the King of Toron and mastermind of a scheme to kidnap the heir apparent so he’ll grow up in a more formative environment; and Clea, an up-and-coming brilliant young mathematician, who is also Jon’s sister. There’s also Arkor, a member of the forest giants, a race of humanity mutated by exposure to radiation in such a way that they are taller, stronger, and occasionally telepathic. Together, these people must fight off the “Lord of the Flames”, a non-corporeal being from another universe essentially causing trouble and destabilizing Toromonian society. Although they get a little assistance from the “Triple Being” (another non-corporeal but apparently more benevolent entity, and no, I didn’t miss the Christian symbolism to all this) to root out the Lord of the Flames, they are largely on their own when it comes to addressing the social problems its visit has amplified.
I want to say that reading this reminds me of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon and all the other zany, improbable, “high fantasy in space” productions of the 1940s and 1950s. Certainly this is a book heavily influenced by the zeitgeist of late 1950s science fiction: the spectre of atomic apocalypse, near-magical appliances and labour-saving devices, but with computers still envisioned as bulky, specialized equipment. There is an element of adventure and romance to this book, but by and large it’s social commentary.
Out of the Dead City depicts a corrupt aristocracy high on itself in the days before a war. The rulers on Toron have little concern for the lower classes or the people who live on the mainland. To the masterminds behind the war, these people are simply statistics: too many here, not enough there, production up or down in different places. There is a sense of calculation to this, emphasized more in The Towers of Toron, where Jon et al finally reveal the war as a sham. Yet even once they find themselves in a position of effecting meaningful change in Toromon, they are somewhat hesitant.
Thus, Delany defies the traditional hero narrative in which an exiled prince shows up, takes the throne, and it’s suddenly the good old days. It is much harder than that. Stopping the war pretty much has the opposite effect from what was intended, as the method that our protagonists use also gives everyone a brief glimpse of the horrible disconnection we suffer from each other. City of a Thousand Suns, probably the weakest of the three novels in terms of plot and writing both, features an entire empire basically attempting to recover from one hell of a collective hangover. As we revisit characters seen (or even just mentioned) in the first two novels, the protagonists have to stop the Lord of the Flames one last time, even as an evil computer threatens the safety of Toron.
If it sounds a bit hokey, that’s because it is. Lots of this book is pure, grade A cheese. The Lord of the Flames/Triple Being plot forms a convenient narrative thread throughout the novels, but it’s really just an excuse to bring these disparate characters together. Entirely too-contrived coincidences show how minor characters’ lives keep intersecting the main narrative. Some of this might be Delany trying to be clever, but I think mostly it’s a way to frame The Fall of the Towers as a kind of science-fiction fairytale or quest story. There’s just the tiniest resemblance to The Dying Earth here—I have no idea if that’s intentional or not, but that’s probably the closest comparison I can come to. This is a type of science fiction that doesn’t so much eschew magic as relabel it into “science” without actually making it scientific; this is a book that comes from a time before marketing decided to cleave SF&F into “science fiction” and “fantasy”. Although there have always been authors who straddled, moved between, or reunited these genres on their own, it is nice to see a book that is a product of a time when this was more common and conceivable.
The Fall of the Towers, then, is fun because of its age and its context. It has a lot of interesting but perhaps not groundbreaking thoughts on war and social order and life—the kind of grandiose stuff you’d write about if you’re a smart(ass) twenty-something like Samuel R. Delany was when he wrote this. I wouldn’t recommend you rush out to find a copy any time soon, but if you happen to see one lying around one day and need something to read, I think you might just like it.