Friday, April 30, 2010

Book Review: The Einstein Intersection

Samuel R. Delany
Awards: Nebula
Rating: ★ – – – –

SPOILER ALERT (Not that it matters)

Samuel Delany published his first novel at age 20, which earned him a reputation as a prodigy. The Einstein Intersection, which he wrote at 24, seems like a desperate effort to hold on to that reputation. Everything about this book – the ambitious but half-resolved plot lines, the trippy sentence structure, the trendy 1960s themes, the inclusion of his own writer’s journal in the quotations that start each chapter – gives the impression of a writer using every technique he can think of to impress us with his brilliance without having the content to back it up.

The story takes place 30,000 years after humans have disappeared from Earth for unspecified reasons. Aliens from “the other side of the universe” have colonized the empty Earth and have somehow taken human form in an attempt to adapt better to the planet. But the human form doesn’t work quite right for the aliens, so every generation has a lot of mutation. Those who are mutated range from “functionals,” who can mix with “normals” in everyday society, to “non-functionals” who have to be kept in a “kage” and tended all their lives.

The characters keep talking about how there is a lot of prejudice towards anyone who is considered “different.” You are “different” if you have a mutation of any kind, whether it is a harmful mutation or a special ability like telepathy or telekinesis (like the X-Men). According to the book’s publicists this is supposedly one of the most powerful elements of the book, but we never run into any situations where this prejudice is really manifest or where it has any major impact on the story.

The main character, Lobey, is “different.” His difference is that he can hear the music that is playing in somebody else’s head and he can play it on his flute. Lobey falls in love with a “different” woman, Friza, who is telekinetic. Friza is mysteriously killed and Lobey is told by the elders of his village to go discover what killed her and kill it.

Through a series of hallucinations and/or visions he learns that Friza’s murderer is another “different” person named Kid Death, who can look through other people’s eyes anywhere they are and see what they see. When he gets bored with looking through their eyes, he closes their eyes permanently and thereby kills them. Lobey leaves his small village, joins up with a group of dragon herders and travels with them to the big city where the Kid is. Eventually he does manage to kill the Kid with the help of the herders and manages to also learn some life lessons in the process.

There are several bothersome things about the book, not least of which are the bold but half-explained and semi-developed themes.

One of these central themes is myth. Lobey is a rough parallel to Orpheus, who was a musical genius (on the lyre) and who traveled (unsuccessfully) to Hades to bring the woman he loved back from the dead. A modern retelling of a myth is a good device in theory but Orpheus’ story seems kind of pointless to me – his lover dies, he goes to Hades to go get her, he isn’t able to bring her back so he comes back home. I’m afraid that Lobey’s journey seems equally pointless.

Another theme of the book is the convergence of rational and irrational thought (whatever that is). One of the elders explains to Lobey that long, long ago, Albert Einstein defined the rules of the rational world and Kurt Gödel came as close as anyone can to defining the rules of the irrational world. At the intersection of the two… well, this is where the explanation kind of peters out, but it has something to do with society reaching a pinnacle of both scientific and spiritual development. It’s not really clear how it relates to Lobey’s journey, but it certainly sounds very cool to talk about.

Myth also shows up in the cheesy references to 1960s pop culture which have supposedly become lore in Lobey’s world – the tale of the Myth of Ringo, the swearing in Elvis’ name, the referring to death as “returning to the great rock and the great roll.” These might have been funny when the book first came out but seem trite now.

Delany starts each chapter with a quotation or two. Most of the quotations are from a self-consciously eclectic mix of writers from Bob Dylan to Thomas Chatterton and the Marquis de Sade, which is annoying enough. But some of the quotations are also from the author himself, from the journal he kept while traveling through Europe and writing this book. The entries always casually mention his current exotic location while talking about how he’s struggling with telling Lobey’s story: Oh, I’m having a devil of a time expressing Lobey’s pain while sitting in a small tea shack on the Bosporus with a group of Turkish sailors with whom I’m conversing in French.

At the very end of the book, he signs off the story with “— New York, Paris, Venice, Athens, Istanbul, London / Sept. ’65 – Nov. ’66.” Almost makes you feel like he wrote the book just so he could show off where he went.

In keeping with the era in which it was written, this book uses a psychedelic vocabulary and sentence structure. This sometimes works (“Chills snarled the nerves along my vertebrae”) but often doesn’t (“My ear is funnel for all voice and trill and warble you can conceive this day”). I think the main times that it doesn’t work are when Delany himself hasn’t fully thought out what he is trying to say, as in: “Music is the pure language of temporal and co-temporal relation.” What?

Delany is self-conscious about this writing style, which also makes us too conscious of it. In one of his journal entries, Delany says, “In a week…I can start the meticulous process of overlaying another filigree across the novel’s palimpsest.” I think if your novel needs to be multi-layered and obscure, just write it that way – you don’t need to tell us that’s what you’re doing so we’ll be impressed.

One thing I do have to give Delany credit for is that he gave the people in this book three sexes – male, female, and androgynous. And this book came out two years before Ursula K. LeGuin’s Left Hand of Darkness, which was considered groundbreaking for its treatment of androgynous characters.

1 comment:

Lord John Whorfin said...

Ha, ha! Yes, Delany is one of the most self-indulgent writers out there, no doubt. I have more sympathy for him, because he's such a unique figure, and he addresses themes that very few other writers do in science fiction (the role of art in life, identity, etc.).

I liked Nova quite a bit actually - I'm partial to space operas anyway, but I do think it's his best novel by far.

But I find that the short story format works best for him -- they sort of force him to rein in his most exasperating tendencies. If you want to give him one more shot, check out "Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones." It's really good.

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