Tuesday, October 14, 2008
The Ballad of Beta-2
by Samuel R. Delany
Amidst his visionary images of galaxies of bejeweled alien intelligences and de-evolved clone colonies and his devilish linguistic puzzles, the chief strength of science fiction novelist Samuel R. Delany remains his incredible generosity. Thankfully, Delany doesn’t pander to his audience through his generosity. His novels are proudly difficult and knotted, even as reading them remains a joyful experience. Their complexity is warmly inviting to any adventurous reader. Oftentimes, Delany even outlines the entirety of his novels within its first ten or twenty pages. All of his syllogistic twists, narrative turnarounds and logistical about-faces are mapped out within a localized pressure point of departure. It’s all there. And still, even with everything in front of me, I find myself surprised and shocked as I finish one of his novels. There is the deep satisfaction as all the novel’s independent pieces “click,” falling into place. Delany’s novels are, in the end, a matter of perspective. The question is, which one, or rather, how many?
In a way, Samuel R. Delany’s novels function as fractal summations, with each point containing the whole while also offering an infinity of ambiguities. I am tempted to call Delany’s 1965 short novel, “The Ballad of Beta-2,” cyclical in structure, but that’s not quite right. It isn’t the correct perspective. That is, it isn’t enough perspective. If “The Ballad of Beta-2” is a circle, it is also an infinite series of bisecting circles – a sphere. The book doubles back on itself again and then again, until assuming a harmonious totality. As I said above, it’s a matter of perspective.
The novel opens with an untagged line of dialogue: “Quite simply, the answer is- because they are there!” Appropriately enough this is an affirmative declaration of being. The reader is disoriented; who is “they?” The next sentence only partially localizes the text: “White light from the helical fixture struck the sharp bones of the professor’s face.” We learn that the speaker, a professor, is the instructor of Joneny, a student in the field of Galactic Anthropology. The “they” in the first sentence are the Star Folk, a colony of star-farers who “…left Earth for the stars in their ships early in 2242, expecting to cruise through space for twelve generations before reaching an uncertain destination…[but]…they’d only been gone sixty years when the hyperspace became a large-scale reality. By the time the ten remaining-generation-ships arrived in the Leffer System, Earth had already established a going-business of trade and cultural exchange…” over a hundred years before the Star Folk arrived. The Star Folk, then, found themselves an anachronistic and isolate community, cut off from the intervening developments in the larger culture and sciences of humankind.
Joneny, despite his protests, is assigned to anthropomorphic analysis of the Star Folk colony of Beta-2, and particularly their folk poetry – with “…a complete, historical analysis of [the Ballad of Beta-2]-from primary sources.” The action of the short novel, from this point onward, is the excavation of information concerning the complete disappearance of the crew of the Beta-2 Star Ship, as well as a detailed analysis of the eponymous ballad, which is included in its entirety following the book’s short introduction as detailed above. In this way, as an analysis and re-writing of a text, Delany’s book shares superficial similarities with Nabokov’s “Pale Fire.” Delany has his own equally interesting avenues to explore though. Joneny’s complaint concerning his assignment is that in the Star Folk’s poetry, “…there’s not a single metaphor or simile that could possibly be called original or even indigenous to life on the Star Ships. There’s nothing but semi-mythical folk tales couched in terms of sand and sea and cities and nations- some of them very interesting, no doubt, but complete fantasies with no relation to the people living and dying on the ships.” Ah, okay, so we are dealing with communication across cultural contexts. Can a work of art, or anything, be honestly judged outside of this context? Joneny calls this folk-poetry “cotton-candy effusions,” and upon reading the eponymous ballad, the reader could almost agree with him. But… Of course there is a big “but” here, as we will see further down.
Let’s return to the ballad itself.
Here are images of men standing on a city wall, an executioner on a hill, and rolling desert dunes. Delany’s conceit is that this ballad is an allusive condensation of the book itself – everything that happens in the 100-plus pages following this ballad is a reiteration, though the events appear on first glance to be new. Is it because of a shift in perspective? Well, yes, it is, but to be more exact, the text identifies itself through an alien context as the narrative progresses. By reading the book, we relearn and reacquaint ourselves with familiar words in unfamiliar contexts. Leela, the first captain of the Star Ship, or “City,” Beta-2, discusses with a fellow captain how the City-born youth stretch and reform the language – in Delany’s novels, language is always wonderfully pliable. Leela observes how the youth “…pick [words] up from us, make up new meanings. Then we get ‘em back again. They affect us almost as much as we affect them.” Ah, and here we see a microcosm of the novel’s greater cyclical structure, but perhaps it is also apt to call this a redistributive system or a perpetual mechanism of equilibrium. Delany’s novels always assert their peculiar equilibrium by story’s end, even if sparkling ambiguities remain in the narrative.
Joneny investigates three cities, Gamma-5, Sigma-9, and finally Beta-2 itself, the last two ships being completely abandoned while the first ship is now home to the atrophied biological remnants of the Star Folk – lobed creatures with their eyes “…pink and small, probably half-blind. They were bald. Their ear trumpets had grown to their skulls.” Skinless and pale creatures. On Gamma-5, Joneny also encounters a strange boy who survives in the vacuum of space, teleports between locations, and multiplies himself like an amoeba. He is called the Destroyer’s Children, blurring the lines, or perhaps identifying the limits of our language’s conception of the singular and the plural. How did he come to be? What is his relation to the Star Folk and “The Ballad of Beta-2?”
The bulk of the novel’s 124 pages concern a later captain, who shares the name Leela with the earlier captain. If our reconsideration of the opening ballad is an unearthing of communicative relatives, then Leela’s encounter with a shimmering green man from the vacuum of space is also a reappraisal and reconfiguration of perceptions and perspectives. Joneny sees Sigma-9 “…shimmering with green fire…,” while Leela sees a green-eyed man of flame. Each image is of the same thing, they are both forms the Destroyer, a vast extraterrestrial presence, takes. It is important to note that the Destroyer assumes this later form in order to communicate with Leela. The Destroyer also cannot fully enter a human’s mind or else that mind is driven insane. Variances of perception must be weighted, and when we say variances what we really mean is limits, or the boundaries of said perception. The Destroyer and the Star Folk are only able to communicate, and through communication, survive, by compromise and the communion of a common ground of context – that comes in the form of the Destroyer’s Children, a Christ figure in that he is an alchemical construct, the confluence of matter and spirit.
Delany is a transcendental writer in the best sense of the word, he is concerned with limits and extensions of language, as well as a broader social transcendence. He is also one of the few science fiction writers who actually render a galaxy of diversity. His universe puts the homogeny of a Star Trek to shame. Whereas something like Star Trek stresses our own cultural mainstream as a universal norm across boundless space through a hegemonic physical form and behavior, Delany’s work bursts with variances. The diversity of physical form, sexuality, language, and behavior is practically unmatched in contemporary science fiction.
And if anyone is interested in reading further, I strongly recommend “Dhalgren,” Delany’s masterpiece and a book that belongs alongside the other great 20th century works of “polis,” such as William Carlos Williams’ “Paterson,” Charles Olson’s “The Maximus Poems,” and James Joyce’s “Ulysses.”