A Blade That Sings: Samuel Delany’s “Einstein Intersection”

To get the ugly part out of the way: Samuel Delany has gone on record making remarks supporting the North American Man-Boy Love Association, a group that advocates for the decriminalization of pedophilia. I am aware of those remarks, and I do not intend to discuss them. I believe that a work of art should be judged on its merits alone, and not on the politics or philosophy of the author. Comments regarding the author’s life outside of the narrow topic of how it relates to this particular novel will be cheerfully ignored.

Einstein Intersection was originally published in 1967, by Ace Books, when Delany was 25 years old. It is currently in print, in Kindle and trade paperback editions.

I am not sure when I first encountered this novel. Amazon shows as having been printed in 1973 the paperback with the cover I remember. My mother, however, was in the habit of buying books used, so it’s likely that it didn’t come into our house until after that. I was born in 1963, so let’s say that I first read it at 11 or 12 years old.

Since then I have returned to it again and again. I know long sections by heart. I have found allusions and echoes to other works. I can trace his influences now, and can work through the passages with a writer’s eye, learning the how of the novel and taking apart the prose to puzzle out its construction.

Let’s begin where Delany begins, with a young man sitting in a cave at the edge of the wild, playing the world’s song to himself on a blade that sings.

“There is a hollow, holey cylinder running from hilt to point in my machete. When I blow across the mouthpiece in the handle, I make music with my blade. When all the holes are covered, the sound is sad—as rough as rough can be and be called smooth. When all the holes are open, the sound pipes about, bringing to the eye flakes of sun on water, crushed metal. There are twenty holes. And since I’ve been playing music I’ve been called all different kinds of fool—more times than Lobey, which is my name.”

Lobey’s voice hooked me from the start and drew me into his world.

Within a few pages I learned that it was far in the future and that Lobey (“Lo Lobey” to give his title) was a mutant with prehensile feet and that everyone was a mutant, some functional and some non-functional, that the non-functional ones were kept in special camps (“kages”), that some of them possessed mental powers such as telepathy and telekinesis, that the overall level of technology was pre-industrial with a few jarring exceptions, that Lobey lived in a small village, but there were bigger cities in the world, that Lo was the title for men, and La for women, and that there was a third sex, titled Le.

I also learned the specifics of Lo Lobey’s own story. His lover, Friza (not “La Friza”–she was a woman, but not considered functional enough to have a title, although not non-functional enough to be in a kage) has just died. Under the guidance of the village elders, La Dire and Lo Hawk, Lobey has decided to get Friza back. He will journey across the world to find Kid Death and confront him.

All of this, mind you, without any chunks of “as you know, Dr. Frankenstein” exposition.

Lobey just tells his story. From Delany (primarily Einstein Intersection, Nova, and Triton) I learned the art of trusting the reader. It was, for me, a radical departure from the hard sci fi style of Clarke and Asimov, who tended to break into pop science lectures the way that Rodgers and Hammerstein break into song.

Lobey is a country boy, a shepherd, and from time to time other characters have to explain things to him, but Delany never explains things to the reader. He gives enough context to allow the reader to figure out the specifics on her or his own, and drives the story fast enough that it never feels like work. Lobey is on the move, almost from the beginning, and we hustle to keep up with him because we want to know where he’s going, and if he’s going to be okay once he gets there.

It’s a technique that I have unashamedly stolen for my own work.

Delany also weaves a rich tapestry of myth. Legends aren’t a distant past in Lobey’s world, they are as immediate and as uncomfortably intimate as the thick mud between his prehensile toes. They aren’t human, the inheritors of the Earth, but they are bound by human myth, forced to play out the old stories before they can write their own. It’s a fascinating and deep conceit and one that resonates with me, both as reader and as author. Orpheus and Eurydice, Pat Garret and Billy The Kid, Jean Harlow, Christ and Judas—fragments of these stories echo through Lobey’s world. Altered fragments, since nothing is quite the same.

They are different.

Difference isn’t mutation—the characters are all variants on the human form, judged not by how much they resemble some ideal human template, but on their degree of functionality. Difference is not paranormal powers—although the incidence of wild talents like telepathy and telekinesis increases as difference increases. Difference is a spiritual quality, at once shameful and vital. It is the ability to rewrite one’s own story, to step outside the maze, to choose to stop being Orpheus and to become Perseus instead.

It’s not an easy choice. Playing out an old story—even if it ends badly—is safe. You know where it is going, and if your path is constrained by high walls, well, those walls keep things out as well as keep them in. Inside the labyrinth is the fearsome Minotaur, but outside the labyrinth?

There could be anything out there. Anything at all.

This, for me, is the essence of speculative fiction, the entire reason to read and write stories that have things in them that we don’t see in the real world. This sense of wonder, the feeling of stepping past the walls of what is safe and blinking in the impossible sunlight of a new world, terrifying and fantastic.


About MishaBurnett

I am the author of "Catskinner's Book", a science fiction novel available on Amazon Kindle. http://www.amazon.com/dp/B008MPNBNS
This entry was posted in Artists That I Admire, On Publishing, On Writing, Poetry and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to A Blade That Sings: Samuel Delany’s “Einstein Intersection”

  1. Dave Higgins says:

    I’m not sure if Clarke and Asimov are the poster-authors for not trusting the reader so much as aiming for a different audience; one that is interested in the objective impacts of change rather than the subjective.

    I prefer fiction that is focused on characters facing their issues, but I can see how hard sci-fi and the fantasy equivalent could provide readers with a speculative version of the buzz they get from reading history or other such subjects.

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