Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Jewels of Aptor (1962) by Samuel R. Delany

To be honest, if it weren't for the fact that the 19-year-old who wrote this novel went on to become an icon of New Wave science fiction, I'm not sure the book would still be remembered.  The Jewels of Aptor (1962) shows promise, but I'm not sure how truly distinguished it is in the mountains of 'skiffy' (or 'Ski-Ffy' or 'PorPor') out there.  Don't get me wrong, though:  I thoroughly enjoyed aspects of this novel and it truly shines in some respects.

The little prologue before chapter 1 is emblematic of the New Wave of science fiction that was starting to get under way about this time.  It feels to me that it could have as easily been written by Roger Zelazny or Harlan Ellison as Delany.  It sets up an explicitly philosophical and theological discourse the rest of the novel will try (unsuccessfully in my opinion) to embody.  As someone who is obsessed with theological SF, I was pretty amazed to see Delany explicitly evoke the Crucifixion of Christ and deliberately juxtapose that image with the Yin-Yang symbol of Chinese philosophy, asking the reader to consider the relation between the two.  The opening also sets up in swift strokes the science-fictional premise:  a post-nuclear holocaust Earth where super-technology and more ancient ways of seeing the world co-exist exotically.  It's a nicely written vignette that makes what follows a little disappointing.

The first few chapters seemed to take a little too long setting the scene of the novel's 'quest' sort of rationale. And, strangely, much of this was by means of the penny detective novel protagonist-putting-clues-together-through-improbable-dialogue trope.  (There's lots of painfully bad dialogue and goofy character interaction throughout, I'm afraid, but you almost root for this obviously young author in his infectious enthusiasm for his subject and genre.)
But when the sailors (a decently drawn little motley group of misfits, if pretty thoroughly cardboard) get on the island of Aptor, things take off brilliantly. This all-too-short segment of the novel was out and out, no-apologies, pulp fun.  I relished it. Monsters and bloody adventure galore!  And the wonderfully poetic language that describes sword-wielding winged-and-furred warriors, menacing shapeshifters, and carnivorous apes makes the grotesqueries leap off the page with pictorial zeal.  It's like Ray Bradbury if he'd written a Sword and Planet novel. And there's some freshly inventive monstrosity here too with a freakish 'super-amoeba' (all the fabulous creatures I think are given a blanket 'radioactive fallout' sort of justification) which instantaneously forms and operates groups of human-like figures that melt away just as quickly.  Not just descriptions of appearances but the action too partakes in the poetry.  For example:

Fire leaped from the boy's hands in a double bolt that converged among the dark bodies.  Red light cast a jagged wing in silhouette.  A high shriek, a stench of burnt fur.  Another bolt of fire fell in the dark horde.  A wing flamed, waved flame about it.  The beast tried to fly, but fell, splashing fire. Sparks sharp on a brown face chiseled it with shadow, caught the terrified red bead of an eye, and laid light along a pair of fangs.

Wings afire withered on the ground; dead leaves sparked now, and whips of flame ran in the clearing. The beasts retreated, and the three men stood against the wall, panting.  The last two shadows suddenly dropped from the air toward Snake [...] Snake looked up as wings fell at him, tented him, hid him momentarily.  Red flared beneath, and suddenly they fell away, sweeping the leaves - moved by wind or life, Geo couldn't tell.  Wings rose on the moon, circled further away, were gone.

Man!  How can you not thrill to that?  For my money, that's just simple imaginative pleasure.  It's the stuff of pulp book and magazine covers, but lyrically narrated, and I have zero problem with that.

(Part of the fun here is the 'cheapness' with which Delany parades one monster and marvel after another before our eyes.  But both this aspect as well as the far-future lost-technology SF premise reminded me how utterly masterful Gene Wolfe is at these same sorts of elements in his Solar Cycle series.  While Delany here handles these things deftly enough, Wolfe truly elevates such pulp staples to the stature of deep and abiding 'literature'. But I know too that Delany himself will transcend and transmute such pulpisms in his later writing.)
Halfway through the book, however, this fun diminished drastically and what was meant, I think, to be a fairly trippy and profound pilgrimage of sorts just seemed a bit bland and aimless to me. Toward the end we are at least introduced to the only character of the book that seemed like something slightly more than one-and-a-half-dimensional:  the teenage girl Argo.

In the last ten or so pages the action returns for a moment to something more engaging and then the theological discourse of the opening pages becomes explicitly articulated again, which was very welcome and very interesting at the level of ideas.  It seemed to me that Delany was, roughly, appropriating the Cross of Christian theology as a stepping stone to something more Dualist or Monist (I couldn't quite tell which).  He proposes that enduring or witnessing horrors like crosses and holocausts are prerequisites to the personal enlightenment of perceiving and experiencing the underlying unity of existence.  The view borders on what is pretty wishy-washy New Age-ism to me, but hints at possibly being something a little more rigorous and genuine and insightful.  All this is even discussed in terms of blatant 'religious experience', with full acceptance of such a category as real and meaningful.

This kind of all-unifying enlightenment is what Delany preaches for and what he preaches specifically against is experiencing any kind of 'concrete God' with the attendant desire to 'convert' others with 'evangelical fury' (all these terms are direct quotes from Delany's text).  You can see his allegiances on his sleeve, which is fine.  But it's interesting to see how this contrasts with the explicit theology expressed in R. A. Lafferty's post-apocalyptic short story 'And Walk Now Gently Through the Fire'. Take the following scathingly sardonic passage, for example, where one of the demonic social engineers of Lafferty's tale is fondly recalling how they won the war of ideas in the minds of a generation:

One smiles to recall that phrase that our fathers accidentally stumbled on and which later came back to us a hundredfold like bread cast upon the waters:  "I am all for relevant religion that is free and alive and where the action is, but institutional religion turns me off."  Incredible?  Yes.  A hog, if he could speak, wouldn't make so silly a statement:  a blind mole wouldn't.  And yet this statement was spoken many millions of times by young human persons of all ages.  How lucky that it had been contrived, how mind boggling that it was accepted.  It gave us victory without battle and success beyond our dreams.

It was like saying "I love animals, all animals, every part of them:  it is only their flesh and their bones that I object to; it is only their living substance that turns me off."  For it is essential that religion (that old abomination) if it is to be religion at all (the total psychic experience) must be institutionalized and articulated in organization and service and liturgy and art.  That is what religion is.  And everything of a structured world, housing and furniture and art and production and transportation and organization and communication and continuity and mutuality is the institutional part of religion.  That is what culture is.  There can no more be noninstitutional religion than there can be a bodiless body.  We abjure the whole business.  We're well quit of the old nightmare. [...] To us, there is nothing wrong with the term Son of God.  There is not even anything wrong with the term God, so long as it is understood to be meaningless, so long as we take him to be an unstructured God.  Our own splendor would have been less if there had not been some huge thing there which we unstructured. This unstructuring of God, which we have accomplished, was the greatest masterwork of man.
Published in a 1973 anthology (alongside the likes of Philip José Farmer and Robert Silverberg), one can't help but wonder if Lafferty had Delany, and others sympathetic to his religious views, directly in his satirical sights.  It would be tempting to see Delany as the magnanimous sage here while seeing Lafferty as the narrow crank.  But that just assumes Lafferty's critique has no force and gives default preference to Delany's views.  Furthermore, Delany seems to be denouncing and 'other-ing' here every bit as much as Lafferty.  And it is only fair to note that Lafferty also includes very poignant constructive and hopeful passages in this same story as well as a subtle and powerful overall worldview across his highly unique body of work.  Delany was a big fan of Lafferty in the 60s, as were Zelazny and Ellison, but I don't know if Lafferty could honestly proclaim the admiration mutual with any of them, not least because of these philosophical and theological antipathies.  It's a rich underlying dialogue of that era that needs to be brought to the surface by historians of SF.

At any rate, I look very forward to eventually getting into Delany's more mature and seminal output, novels like Babel-17, The Einstein Intersection, Nova, Dhalgren, and Triton.

Up next:  The Dead Lady of Clown Town (1963) by Cordwainer Smith.

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