I was always vaguely aware of Samuel R. Delany as one of the towering figures of science fiction, but I never thought very much about him until I read Damien Broderick’s Reading by Starlight for my undergraduate thesis. In the intervening time, I’ve come to discover that Delany, like Le Guin, is one of science fiction’s greatest writers and commentators. Delany has a rare gift for ambitious and brilliant writing combined with an insightful critical output.
Delany views science fiction (Delany would likely prefer "speculative fiction," but as Neil Gaiman has opined, Delany has lost that fight) as the ultimate exercise in semiotics. Delany is primarily concerned with symbols and how they change, or stay the same, in different contexts. The semiotics of science fiction is a fascinating topic to those intrigued by the infinite possibilities of finite language, but it does render Delany a little opaque to those without a background in Jacques Derrida's work (or even to those with one). The Einstein Intersection is a short but rewarding read, even if it is not a particularly light one.
The plot of the novel is based loosely on the Orpheus myth, though there are shades of other myths tossed in. Our Orpheus is a young man named Lobey (in his village, to signify both his gender and his "functionality," he is called Lo Lobey). Lobey plays his combined flute-machete and herds goats with his friends. His village has had a growing number of "non-functionals," people born with severe defects that keep them from taking part in village life. "Non-functionals" are kept in a "kage," and tended to by a village member.
When the woman Lobey loves, Friza (Not "La Friza," because she is mute) dies under mysterious circumstances, Lobey is sent on a journey to kill what killed her. This adventure takes Lobey into a vast system of caves, where he fights a minotaur and discovers an ancient computer. He falls in with a group of Dragon herders. He eventually makes his way to a vast city and several times comes face to face with his enemy, Kid Death, the essence of Death itself. The plot moves along with the steady rhythm and slight physical inconsistencies of a folk tale, but as hard as some of it is to fully process, it retains the power of myth to a point beyond itself.
A Book About Myth
Lobey’s people live on the Earth of the far future, but they are not humans, they have merely inherited humanity from us. It was never clear to me what exactly this new species is supposed to be, though some signs indicate that they might be aliens or some kind of synthetic life. There is also no real revelation of what happened to humans, though a couple of lines late in the book indicate a massive war or a mass exodus or both. Ultimately, however, this all seems beyond Delany’s interest. Since it is unknown to his characters, it remains unknown to his audience. This has its merits, as it keeps the reader’s focus on the more important elements of the plot, and not on endless exposition. Delany is trying to make a point about stories and how we read them, and he doesn't want to get bogged down in creating artificial histories or dealing with theoretical physics.
Delany is a master semiotician, but he is not a scientist. The closest he gets to talking about science is explaining the theories of Einstein and Godel, but even this (the source of his title) is ultimately in the service of musing philosophically on the interplay between the rational and the irrational, the ordered and the disordered.
This is not a book about science; It is a book about myth. That is not to speak badly of the book, after all, many of the most popular science fiction movies and television shows (Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica among them) prefer to operate as modern myth-making enterprises more often than they do explorations of the nature of science. That isn’t a problem, per se, but it does mean that those who prefer the stability of hard science fiction might find themselves on shakier ground here.
The way this book deals with myth is masterful. La Dire, one of the village elders, tells Lo Lobey a story about one of the "legendary" Beatles. This story concerns Ringo, the Beatle who couldn’t sing, going to the underworld to rescue his lover, Maureen. Later, he and the other Beatles are torn apart by girls. This is compared to the story of Orpheus, who also went to the underworld to rescue his lover, Eurydice, and was also torn apart by women, this time in the form of Dionysian nymphs. Orpheus was different from Ringo in that he could sing best out of anyone in the world. Dire then muses that when myths are retold, some things become the opposite of what they were before. In the novel’s denouement, this thread is picked back up again, and the head rider of the Dragon herd tells Lobey that he is recreating a story, and his version will be defined by how it fails, succeeds, or surpasses the goal of the original.
Orpheus for the Post Modern Age
The concept provides a wonderful elaboration of Joseph Campbell’s concept of the monomyth. Campbell’s work on mythology is often misunderstood to mean that cultures globally repeat the same stories over and over again. For example, something like 2,000 cultures globally have a story in which a Divine Power floods the world and a handful of people survive. Many cultures also have stories like that of Orpheus, so many in fact that people specialize in such things have a name for it—a Katabasis myth. While some use the similarities in these stories to dismiss the supposed originality of this or that culture, Delany uses Lobey to demonstrate that while similarities communicate something important, so do the differences.
It would be a useless and pretentious exercise to simply write the story of Orpheus as a science fiction novel. There would be no need; We have already read the story of Orpheus. Delany creates an Orpheus for the post-modern age. The old story is there, the desperation to save a loved one, the beauty of a man honing his musical genius, the terrible ache of the loss of the hero’s lover. There are new elements to consider as well. Lobey’s flute is also his weapon.
Lobey describes himself as being extremely ugly, hardly a match for handsome Orpheus. Lobey also provides a challenge for Kid Death, and is not a mere mortal petitioning a deity. He becomes death’s equal. Important cultural allusions are made to tie this story to our own lives. A celebrity in the city appears on billboards challenging us to consume more. Kid Death styles himself after Billy the Kid, and loves Westerns. The chapters themselves are introduced by quotes from various works, some real, some invented by the author.
The most intriguing quotes are from Delany’s own journal, which reveals that the author wrote this novel on a journey in the Mediterranean, and shows the development of the characters in the author’s mind. This may not be significant to some, but one of my favorite moments in the novel was realizing that Kid Death’s hair was changed from black to red when Delany saw a smoldering building in a Turkish town.
Battle of Genre
Unfortunately, this novel is caught up too easily in the tiresome web of genre and classification. Is this science fiction? The title is most definitely the title of a science fiction book, but titles can be misleading. Is it fantasy by way of science fiction? It certainly has a fantasy vibe to it. Is it a treatise on the semiotics of myth dressed as a novel? Maybe that’s the closest to the truth. This is a hard one to recommend to those who need a little more hard science in their science fiction, for those who would be upset to see it all lumped together simply as “speculative fiction.” On the other hand, if that’s the sort of thing that excites you, this might be the book for you.
My copy was about 140 pages, short, but it requires a slow read to take it all in. I personally loved it, and I think every snooty English major who refuses to dirty their hands with genre fiction should have to read it. I think Broderick was wise to base his study primarily on Delany’s work, but comparing this work to, say, Foundation or Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? reveals the incredible breadth of the genre. The Einstein Intersection has been in publication since 1968, but Wesleyan University Press has a very nice edition of it with a preface by Neil Gaiman.
The Einstein Intersection by Samuel R. Delany
Nebula Award-winner The Einstein Intersection tells of the problems a member of an alien race has assimilating the mythology of earth. The alien's race has settled among the leftover artifacts of humanity. However, the underlying current explores how those who are "different" must deal with the dominant cultural ideology.