The Box Of Paperbacks Book Club: The Ballad Of Beta-2 by Samuel R. Delany (1965)
(Not long ago, A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps purchased a large box of over 75 vintage science fiction, crime, and adventure paperbacks. He is reading all of them. This is book number four.)
As commenter pointed out last week (sparking considerable debate), the author of this week's book "is fairly distinguished for a sci-fi writer." I won't touch that beyond saying I think I've lost the willingness to make the distinction between genre and "literary" fiction. Part of what made this project so appealing to me is that it offers me a chance to catch up on some of the great books I didn't read in a stretch years when I abandoned the sort of book you could slip in your back pocket for what was generally considered more respectably highbrow fare. (Not that I've given up on that stuff, mind you.)
That being said, Delany's an author who moves comfortably between both worlds. Currently an English professor at Temple University, his writing now alternates between science fiction, memoirs, and literary criticism. He's sometimes credited as the first black science-fiction writer. While not correct–and Delany himself has written about his predecessors–it does suggest how homogenous the genre still was when he began publishing in 1962.
I've been meaning to read Delany, especially his reputed masterpiece Dhalgren, since our own Tasha Robinson did a fascinating interview with him back in 2001. I will confess, however, that the detail from that interview that's stuck with me the longest is Delany's notion that a city needs outlets for casual public sex in order to stay "happy" and that such sex helps relationships between classes in much the way casual, everyday politeness does. It's a real-life version of the big, bold, so crazy-it-might-not-even-be-crazy notions that make for good science fiction.
A slim, early effort, The Ballad Of Beta-2, has several such ideas. They never really come cohere, but they still make for a brisk, thought-provoking novel. Set in the actually-pretty-distant-future, the novel concerns a grad student named Joneny's reluctant quest to uncover the origin of the eponymous ballad, a song of the Star Folk. The Star Folk–and this is big, bold idea number one–were sent into space toward another habitable star system with the idea that it would take them centuries, and several generations before arriving at their final destination. It does. But by the time they arrive, humanity is already there, having found a faster way to travel in the intervening years. By this point, Star Folk civilization has changed to the point that it no longer resembles that of fellow humans.
Though not interested in pursuing what he considers to be a cultural dead end, Joneny throws himself into the task of tracking down the source of the ballad, a lyric filled with references to a "one-eyed woman and her green-eyed child." Visiting what's left of the Star Folk's ships, he finds that he can't necessarily trust his assumptions about his subjects, or even his assumptions about language itself. (That would be big, bold idea number two.)
From there the book turns into a not-so-merry-trot through space eugenics and an encounter with a transcendent alien with the ability to transform the human race, the latter anticipating 2001 by a couple of years. It's smart stuff that would benefit from being written in a less compressed, exposition-heavy style. Delany keeps shifting perspectives from his protagonist to ship's records, revealing the story piece-by-piece but getting from one piece to another more quickly than he probably should. Still, it's a gripping read, exactly the sort of gem I'd hoped to find in the box of paperbacks and, like that interview, it made me want to read more Delany, particularly books that allow him to stretch out and find his own voice a bit more.
Oddly enough, The Ballad Of Beta-2 seems never to have been brought back into print, despite Delany's growing reputation. It's not too hard to find online, however, and the only edition I've seen features a fantastic cover by the prolific Frank Kelly Freas, the "Dean Of Science Fiction Artists." My copy has an ad for a book sadly not in the box, The Anchorman, a "sensational novel of network news coverage and a top TV newscaster, his life–his passions–his conflicts–and his many loves." I'll keep my eye out for that.
Next: The Napoleons Of Eridanus, by Pierre Barbet (Note: I'm on vacation next week. I'll try to post this anyway but you might not see this column for a two weeks.) Then: Live And Let Die, by Ian Fleming