Friday 14 February 2014

The Einstein Intersection - Samuel R. Delany (1967)

Samuel Delany’s Nebula Award winning novel from 1967 has one of the best titles in science fiction. Delany is quite a character, a black American homosexual, a professor of english since 1975; a critic, editor and winner of the Nebula Award four times and the Hugo Award twice. Delany’s 1975 novel Dhalgren is recognized as one of the most complex and difficult science fiction novel’s in the genre’s history. Unsurprisingly The Einstein Intersection transcends perceived pulp limitations of science fiction with the kind of themes and metaphorical layering usually found in literary fiction; exploring the nature of mythology, discrimination and identity.

The Einstein Intersection is a wild mythologically inspired psychedelic ride into Earth’s deep future. Humanity has left for the stars, leaving behind vestiges of their civilization, both ancient and advanced, for an array of weird lifeforms to pick through. The principle protagonist is Lo Lobey, an Orpheus type character who is also the most human-like of the various lifeforms. Lo Lobey is an engaging first person narrator who wields a sword that doubles as a flute whilst he navigates the wonders and dangers of a radioactively transformed Earth. In his village he is given the title of Lo because of his genetic advantage of being humanoid and functional, compared to those who reside in the kage, an enclosure housing those who, due to the radiation, are less genetically fortunate. Much like Orpheus, Lo Lobey charms with his musical skills and embarks on a quest. In Lo Lobey’s case it is to rescue his beloved Friza from a colourful character called Kid Death. Lo Lobey’s fighting skills with his musical blade come to the fore during one of the novel’s most inspired sequences in which he battles with a giant creature that resembles a Minotaur in mysterious underground ruins.

Throughout the novel the sense of surreal adventure is palpable. Delany’s clipped prose is highly visual without being excessively descriptive. Earth’s far future landscape, the underground ruins and Lo Lobey’s travels with dragon herders whilst on his quest are all rendered beautifully. The narrative pace is well balanced, never resting too long or burdened by over explaining. Delany’s characters are vivid and authentic, despite their alien weirdness. Spider, the seven foot red skinned, four handed dragon herder is particularly charismatic; as is Kid Death, who appears on and off with dangerous impetuosity throughout the narrative. 

For such short novel (a novella really), The Einstein Intersection packs a literary punch. Delany indulges himself in some metafiction, inserting his own musings about writing the novel and his travels in Europe into the quotes that begin each chapter. Fortunately rather than being pretentious it’s a gambit that actually pays off. It is unclear just how the Greek myths that litter the narrative fit into Delany’s overall vision, however they are powerfully rendered. Much clearer are the analogies for the racism and perhaps homophobia that Delany would have been exposed to growing up in mid twentieth century America. The writhing marginalized genetic freaks who inhabit the kages provide some sharp social commentary to balance out the speculative flourishes.

The Einstein Intersection is an excellent science fiction novel and if the rest of his work is of a similar vein then Delany is up there with some of the past’s greatest science fiction writers. I’ll be hunting down his books in dusty second hand book stores run by ancient curmudgeons (much like this one). As for the title? Delany does reveal its meaning and it is intriguing enough to encourage some research. It’s exactly what you want from a science fiction novel, it both stimulates your imagination and your intellect. If I had a beard like Delany’s I would be stroking it thoughtfully right now.

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