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Ode to Samuel Delany - JSTOR Daily

Catherine Halley 12-15 minutes 2/22/2023

On April Fools’ Day, Samuel R. Delany will turn 81. These days he’s the lovable, bearded grandpa of American science fiction, but back in the 1960s Delany was a controversial young phenomenon in the field. He was born in Harlem in 1942, into a prominent black family that includes, among others, his aunts Sadie and Bessie Delany, famously known as the Delany Sisters, who were the subject of the best-selling book Having Our Say. As someone born in the 1940s, the specter of World War II looms over his early works. The Jewels of Aptor and The Fall of the Towers both imagine worlds in the aftermath of nuclear war. Like those novels, The Ballad of Beta-2 also seems to be a reckoning with what World War II wrought, including the horrors of the Holocaust and the United States’ descent into the anticommunist paranoia of the McCarthy era. We now live in a time when a former president—twice impeached but nevertheless a candidate for office in 2024, breaks bread with antisemitic, Holocaust-denying trolls. As genocidal rhetoric flourishes in public life, and people rush to embrace foolish superstitions and conspiracy theories on the web, it’s worth revisiting one of Delany’s old SF novels which offered stark warnings about the future’s return to the past.

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Words like “prodigy” and “precocious” dominate the commentary on Delany’s early novels. Understandably so. The Jewels of Aptor, his first science fiction novel, was published when he was just 20 in 1962. He would publish eight more novels before he turned 30, among them The Ballad of Beta-2, first published in 1965 as an “Ace Double” with Emil Petaja’s Alpha Yes, Terra No!. In the foreward to A, B, C: Three Short Novels (Vintage Books, 2015), an omnibus volume containing three of his earliest works, Delany describes how he fired off The Ballad of Beta-2 in the middle of writing the epic trilogy The Fall of the Towers, just another example of how ridiculously productive young Delany was. He is perhaps best known for the genre-bending bestseller Dhalgren (1975), and for his sexually adventurous non-fiction writing like Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (1999). Even as “minor” Delany, The Ballad of Beta-2 contains the markers of his literary greatness: Vivid imagery, high-concept ideas, and a propulsive narrative.

The Ballad of Beta-2 is a mysterious tale about generational starships taken over by superstition, paranoia, and misinformation, eventually descending into horrific acts of genocide. It also contains elements of the supernatural, or perhaps the alien, in the form of the Destroyer, an entity responsible for catastrophe aboard the ships, whose actions are misattributed to the marginalized population derisively known as the “One-Eyes.” Approached from one angle, and there are many to this short, intricate work, The Ballad of Beta-2 can be read through the lenses of information and misinformation. From the attempts of Joneny, the main character, to decipher the meaning of the titular ballad, to the paranoia directed toward One-Eyes, to the incident that escalates their ultimate demise, the novel finds characters searching for knowledge that will help them understand the worlds they have inherited. Yet they often find their searches are thwarted by the very technologies they rely upon to make sense of their surroundings.

The Ballad of Beta-2 follows Joneny, a graduate student of anthropology who is reluctantly researching “The Ballad of Beta-2,” a song that originated among the Star Folk who lived aboard one of twelve starships designed to populate the furthest reaches of space. With the invention of hyperspace travel, the technology of those ships became obsolete, and Joneny sets out on a research trip to learn more about the Star Folk and “The Ballad of Beta-2” as a cultural remnant of their “primitive” existence.

The book’s initial conflict comes between Joneny and his professor. Joneny believes the Star Folk are a waste of time, and he wants to study more advanced civilizations, stating that “There’s so much needed research in a field like Galactic Anthropology; and as far as I can see, the Star Folk are a dead end, with no significance at all. They were a very minor transition factor that was eliminated from the cosmic equation even before the terms were fully written out” (179-180). But his professor insists that there’s something valuable in studying “The Ballad of Beta-2” and figuring out the meaning of the tale.

A significant portion of the story is told through the journals of Captain Leela, also known as Leela RT-857. Like Rydra Wong in Babel-17 (1966), Leela is a woman in a position of authority, a common feature of Delany’s early novels. In her journals, Leela recalls her encounters with the One-Eyes, some of whom creatively made their habitats in the outer, mechanical parts of the ships. She deduces that in some ways they might be better adapted to survive the future than the people in the Cities (the main parts of the ships) who have become obsessed with arcane rituals centered on preserving The Norm, a belief predicated on faulty nostalgia for an orderly past on Earth.

“The Ballad of Beta-2” as a song is a recurring motif throughout the novel, and we see Joneny constantly trying to parse its meaning:

Then came one to the City,
Over sand with her bright hair wild,
With her eyes coal black and her feet sole sore,
And under her arms a green-eyed child.

The Ballad of Beta-2 showcases the linguistic play that would animate subsequent Delany novels like Babel-17 and Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984). As Joneny learns more about the Star Folk and their routines aboard the ships, he is prompted to revise his understanding of the ballad in which seemingly simple terms like “arm,” “leg,” and “sore feet” take on new meanings. These words evolved to fit their lives in space where “free-fall” is the default, and gravity is artificially produced by the ship’s technology. Eventually, Joneny realizes that Leela is the woman with the green-eyed child.

The Ballad of Beta-2 exemplifies Delany’s career-long depictions of disability and physical abnormality. Some of the One-Eyes are missing limbs or other body parts, others are marked as abnormal because their physical characteristics do not match The Norm. The leadership of the Star Folk uses the court system to purge impurity out of the race. As one judge puts it: “Our ancestors charged us with bringing human beings to the stars. And no deviation will be tolerated. How long ago was it that One-Eyed conspirators took over Epsilon-7 and destroyed it?” (222). Delany’s descriptions of the cold, bureaucratic show trials are some of the most chilling passages in the book.

What actually happens to the Epsilon-7 starship is where the novel takes a more supernatural, or at least superhuman, turn. The story of the Destroyer is a riff on Christian theology; Captain Leela experiences an immaculate conception, and bears the Destroyer’s green-eyed child.  (Note: I share Delany’s disdain for the very concept of “spoilers.” This novel is worth reading and re-reading, even if one knows details about its ending.)

There’s a subset of science fiction fans and critics who think of Delany as this guy who once wrote lively space operas, but who has since devolved into writing about race and sexuality. The Ballad of Beta-2 is just one example of how young Delany was already incorporating ideas of sexual and racial difference into his fiction. Delany devotees are familiar with his fetish for men’s hands with bitten-nails; that detail shows up here as a marker of deviance against the Norm and used to condemn at least one character to the Death’s Head (219).

“People are not excess,” Delany writes in an oft-quoted passage from Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (1999).  His work often deals with those who live on society’s margins, who are rendered as excess by the processes of capital, such as the street people of 1980s New York City in his academic novel The Mad Man, or the near-future SF novel Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders (2012) which follows the lives of two gay garbage men living on the mid-21st century Georgia coast. In the latter work, at least, the main characters are able to eke out an existence through a quasi-socialist program that provides them with employment and health care.

At the close of the previous century, Delany speculated on the coming one in the Village Voice. His comments turned toward the burgeoning technology of the Internet:

In the same way bad money drives out good, misinformation drives out information. (Every six months or so, a friend will sweep the Net and print 20 or 30 pages of this ‘information’ about me. Inevitably about a fifth of it is wrong, from the spelling of my name to the sex of my child to the publication dates and titles of my books.) Unless information is stabilized by a strong evaluative filter, such as science, with its controlled experiments and repeatable results, it gets swamped by simpler, stabler misinformation. If the people who design and run the Web don’t develop reliable ways to evaluate and stabilize information, the Internet may become the agent of social chaos.

Given the outsize influence of the Internet in our contemporary social lives, dominated by behemoths like Twitter, Google, and Apple, his comments were prescient. Yet Delany is no Luddite or Puritan. These days he is a devoted Facebook user, posting daily accounts of life in Philadelphia, and recollections about his career. Some of his posts appear in published form in one of his newest books Occasional Views, Volume 2 (Wesleyan UP, 2022). And yet, his prediction that the Internet could become the agent of social chaos rings true. Like Captain Leela we now find ourselves watching helplessly as human beings are pulled into terrifying conspiracy theories, hunting down deviants who do not assimilate to the Norm. States are passing new laws to restrict abortions, even floating the idea of bounties for citizens who report on offenders to authorities. Attacks on trans people are escalating. Some localities would rather defund their public libraries altogether than allow a few queer books to exist in them.

But The Ballad of Beta-2 would not have its staying power if it were just limited to topical social commentary. In an introduction to the 1977 Gregg Press edition, SF critic and editor David G. Hartwell gave the novel an incisive reading and recognized Delany’s creative talents. About that social commentary he writes, “one if its central themes is the tragic implications of racial and social prejudice, as well as the logical absurdity of prejudice itself.” However, Hartwell continues, “Delany’s novels are, in fact, novels of social observation with careful attention devoted to providing verisimilitude for his imagined societies through the inclusion of details from daily life that separate his future from our present. Another hallmark of Delany’s prose is the exclusion of excess verbiage: every word is functional, every sentence carefully constructed; every paragraph balanced and precise” (vi). Some critics might quibble with that “excess verbiage” part, especially after the 800-page Dhalgren scandalized the SF world in 1975. Nevertheless, Hartwell situates Delany among SF writers such as Alfred Bester, Ray Bradbury, and Theodore Sturgeon (one of Delany’s chief influences), all of whom drew from themes, techniques, and imagery in literature beyond the confines of science fiction. The Ballad of Beta-2 is an example of the beautiful prose that established Delany as a notable voice in SF worthy of the accolades that he has received, and continues to receive, into his sixth decade of publishing.

I recently taught The Ballad of Beta-2 in a college literature course. I was fascinated by this unsettling story of genocide, and I wanted my students to understand the social context that produced it. The novel feels particularly resonant today when bad actors are exploiting social media to engage in political and social disruption. Yet, the novel resists easy moralism. Delany attempts to make sense of humanity’s tendency to revert back to these old superstitions and prejudices when faced with new challenges and tragedies. As an “old” science fiction novel, The Ballad of Beta-2 is a past vision of the future that speaks to our present, and a meaningful text for thinking about the bad places that our disinformation problems could take us.

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