Driftglass, Samuel R. Delany (Part 1)

Driftglass collects Samuel R. Delany’s first 10 published short stories. These stories were originally published in a four-year period from 1966 to 1970. Before any of these stories appeared, Delany had already written eight novels, but when he wrote the last of them he was still aged in his 20’s. I read a 1977 facsimile of the 1971 Signet edition. According to Wikipedia, all of these stories are also available in the 2003 collection Aye, and Gomorrah, and Other Stories.

The collection shows why Delany is often ranked with the likes of Gene Wolfe as one of the foremost literary stylists in science fiction. In a few cases, Delany’s style has suffered from age, for example when he uses contemporary slang, like “rumble” for fight. Otherwise, his prose is as evocative and compelling as any author in SF.

The Star Pit This story pretty much hits you right in the nose with its theme, which is our reaction to human limitations. The story starts with the narrator, Vyme’s, recollection of an ant farm he had as a child, and the central premise is that most people die if they attempt to leave our home galaxy. Only a limited few, known as golden, have the psychological make-up needed to survive travel to other galaxies. The flip side is that golden are all more-or-less psychotic, uninterested in the feelings of others.

Vyme lives at the Star Pit, a waystation on the edge of the galaxy, compelled to push the limits of his containment. There he encounters a variety of other societal misfits, some of whom turn out to be golden. Finally the golden discover aliens who can travel to places the golden cannot, and they too must face the limits of their containment.

Knowing Delany is one of very few African-American SF writers, its hard not to draw a parallel with the black experience in America. In the ’60’s even more than today, blacks faced constraints and limits that did not affect the whites around them. And whites by-and-large must have seemed as callous toward blacks as golden toward normal humans in the story. Realizing that whites face their own social limitations must be small consolation to those who were (or are) stuck in some narrow role dictated not by their own will but by uncontrollable forces.

And there’s much more to the story than just human limits. There’s Vyme’s lost family and others scarred by war; and there’s Vyme’s fatherly adoption of various young riff-raff of the Star Pit. There’s really as many intertwined themes here as you’d normally find filling out a novel. This is truly a fantastic piece of science fiction.

“Dog in a Fisherman’s Net” On a small Greek island the fishermen value their nets so highly that when a dog is caught in Panos’ net, his friends rush to kill the dog rather than let it tear the net. Indeed they are so intent on the dog that they don’t notice Panos himself has fallen on his knife and is mortally wounded. The story explores the relationship between Panos and his brother Spyro, the narrow world of the isolated island, and the seperate hopes of Spryo and an orphaned young woman to leave the island for greater things.

This is one of two fantasies in the collection; and what fantasy there is, is subdued, mostly in the minds of the islanders. Nonetheless, the tale is magical.

“Corona” A brilliant young girl, Dianne Lee Morris, is hospitalized, cursed with telepathy that mostly manifests in connections with people in moments of pain or fear, driving her to attempt suicide. In the hospital she meets (telepathically) Buddy, a young man with a limited intellect and a history of getting into trouble. Together they discover that the music of pop sensation Bryan Faust can give them enough joy to help them endure the other pain in their lives. Even after they’re separated, their moment of human contact remains to blunt their suffering.

Perhaps not the strongest in this collection, but still a quality story, and particularly evocative in the description of Buddy’s hardships and clumsy reactions to them.

“Aye, and Gomorrah” Spacers must give up their sexuality for their profession, to the point where its difficult to tell what sex they were born with. Among non-spacers certain maladjusted souls, frelks, have developed a sexual fascination with the spacers. Spacers, though they perhaps don’t understand the sexual drive of the frelks, take advantage of them for money. But our protagonist somehow hopes to connect with a frelk on a different level. He won’t taker her money, but hopes she’ll give him some thing of hers.

Originally published in Dangerous Visions (see Wikipedia), this story intentionally pushes the envelope of “acceptable topics” as they were in 1967, and probably could still be considered dangerous today. Mainly there is the parallel between the frelks seeking liason with spacers in back alleys and certain established corners of city parks with the necessarily circumspect arrangements made by gays in pre-Stonewall times (and later). This maybe doesn’t resonate so strongly in today’s relatively accepting climate, particularly with straight readers in urban America. But its likely to still connect with gays, and could potentially open the eyes of straights in more traditional societies.

This is an example of science fiction that is both a dramatic extrapolation into a possible future, and a sharp and thoughtful commentary on the present–both the contemporary present of the writer and today’s present.

This gets me about halfway through the collection, but these stories are so dense I’m taking some time to get this review into words. Just these four stories ought to justify reading the collection, but I do hope to get reviews out on the rest of them in “Part 2”.


5 Responses to “Driftglass, Samuel R. Delany (Part 1)”

  1. I Love this Quote…

    “Driftglass,” I said. “You know all the Coca-Cola bottles and cut-crystal punch bowls and industrial silicon slag that goes into the sea?”

    I know the Coca-Cola bottles.”

    They break, and the tide pulls the pieces back and forth over the sandy bottom, wearing the edges, changing their shape. Sometimes chemicals in the glass react with chemicals in the ocean to change the color. Sometimes veins work their way through in patterns like snowflakes, regular and geometric; others, irregular and angled like coral. When the pieces dry, they’re milky. Put them in water and they become transparent again.”
    — Samuel R. Delany (Driftglass)

  2. An interesting collection of stories from the always ambitous pen of Samuel Delany. Some of these stories read almost like sketches for Dhalgren, most obviously the Angels in “We, in Some Strange Power’s Employ, Move on a Rigorous Line,” and the party scene in “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones.” Bellona shows up as a place name in a couple of them as well. Another example which seems to point to Delany working through different variations on a concept can be seen in almost identical discussions about holographs in two of the stories included here, “High Weir” and “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones.” Delany’s writing is at times dense, at other times almost lyrical. He frequently plumbs the most intimate thoughts of his characters. My favorites from the collection were “The Star Pit,” “Dog in a Fisherman’s Net,” “Corona,” and “We, in Some Strange Power’s Employ, Move on a Rigorous Line.” “Aye, and Gomorrah,” one of Delany’s most famous stories, has never done much for me.

  3. Teeter – if “Aye, and Gomorrah” doesn’t resonate with you, at least remember that he wrote it from the point of view of an “outsider” about a group of definite outsiders, and it may have something to teach those of us in the mainstream about other parts of society.

    As for the hints of future work, I haven’t read Dhalgren (I think I tried once, years ago, but bounced on the graphic sex scenes), so I can’t say much more about that.

    Also, you might want to watch out for the word “holograph”. I don’t think that word means what you think it means…

  4. I’d forgotten how great this collection is.

    I’m guessing I read this first while in high school, and I recall revisiting it a number of times. But, eventually, it fell somewhere in the library and I got involved in reading other things. Then, recently, something reminded me of “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones” and I picked up this volume to re-read it. Interestingly, as I read “Time…” I realized that wasn’t the story I was remembering; I was recalling “Aye, and Gomorrah”. Which I then re-read. But then, I remembered “Driftglass” and had to read that. And by then, I was re-reading the entire collection because, as I said, I’d forgotten just how good this collection is.

    If you haven’t read Delany’s short fiction, this is the place to start. And if you have, then this collection is still a wonderful synopsis of some of his finest early writing. “Time…” and “Aye, and Gomorrah” are both Nebula award winners, and “Time…” is a Hugo winner. And, I’m not sure how some of the others didn’t win also. All these stories combine to present an interesting picture of alienation and fear/handling of change. That is not to say they are connected stories (in fact, there is little linking them except some themes and the author) but, as a whole they explore similar subjects. In particular, exploring alienness, whether it be external or internal. There are more exhaustive and later collections of Delany’s work, but this is a great short collection that has few weak spots.

  5. psicologos salamanca…

    […]Driftglass, Samuel R. Delany (Part 1) « Garbled Signals[…]…

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