Friday, September 25, 2009

Samuel R. Delany: The Einstein Intersection

I suspect that Samuel Delany is one of those SF writers that readers either highly admire or find unreadable. My own reaction is mixed: some novels I thoroughly enjoy while others...? The Einstein Intersection belongs in the first category. It is one that I have read several times.

SF writers frequently borrow mythic themes for their tales, and Delany is no exception here. If you know the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, then you have the basic plot structure. However, don't assume that Delany slavishly follows the myth. He does bring in a few changes to the story. Moreover, Delany isn't satisfied with just bringing in one myth; in fact, some might argue that the story suffers from a touch of mythic overload. I wouldn't go so far as to say that, though. But, a few more might push it over the edge.

One of the reasons I reread it, aside, of course, from enjoying it, is the hope that one day I will be able to clear up some of the issues that perplex me. One major issue is the setting and the nature of the characters that Delany puts into that setting.

The story takes place on Earth, some time in the far future. But, the humans have long gone somewhere else. The planet is now populated by aliens who have been drawn to Earth in some way. Their civilization ranges from people living in small isolated villages, which survive with a mix of hunting/gathering, herding, and small farming plots, to at least one large city with perhaps several million people. Much of the countryside is still uninhabited.

Fortunately, for the reader anyway, we do get some answers, although I'm not sure how helpful those answers are. As befit a tale with Greek mythic overtones, we find an oracle in a cave, and that oracle is one of the computers built by humans but left behind long ago--PHAEDRA.

PHAEDRA (which stands for Psychic Harmony Entanglements and Deranged Response Association--and no, I didn't leave out the first A--it isn't there) tells Lobey, the main character,

"'Up there on the surface. I can remember back when there were humans. They made me. Then they all went away, leaving us alone down here. And now you've come to take their place. It must be rather difficult, walking through their hills, their jungles, battling the mutated shadows of their flora and fauna, hunted by their million year old fantasies."

'We try,' I (Lobey) said.

'You're basically not equipped for it,' PHAEDRA went on. 'But I suppose you have to exhaust the old mazes before you can move into the new ones. It's hard.'"

I'm not sure whether this answers any questions or just adds confusion. There's almost a suggestion that, while the humans have physically departed, there remains a psychic residue, which consists of their dreams, their terrors, and their fantasies and that the aliens are trapped into living them out until all have been exhausted or perhaps exorcised before the aliens can go on to live out their own unique destinies. Please feel free to disagree here.

I mentioned above that some might complain about a "mythic overload." I don't agree, but mythic elements are everywhere. Lobey, the main character, is a young male who lives in a very small village. He hunts and also herds goats with some of his friends. His weapon is an ax whose handle is also a flute which he has taught himself to play. At the time of the story, he and Friza, a young woman who has recently joined the tribe, have paired off. Unfortunately, she dies, seemingly for no particular reason. He hears rumors that others have died in the same way, and that Kid Death is responsible. PHAEDRA suggests that he might be able to persuade Kid Death to release Friza. This, then, is the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Orpheus, the musician, goes down to Hell to bring back Eurydice, his wife.

Delany describes Lobey as being relatively normal from the waist up, but he has the "thighs, calves, and feet of a man (gorilla?) twice [his] size (which is about five-nine) and hips to match." The hair on his legs is very dense and thick. After reading this description, I had to think of Pan, the woodland god of the Romans, with the upper body of a human and legs that are goat like in appearance. Pan is also noted for being a flutist of considerable skill.

Before Lobey begins his quest, he goes hunting and encounters a strange creature: one who appears to be human from the waist down and a bull from the waist up. This sounds much like the Minotaur that Theseus, from another Greek myth, encountered in the maze and killed. Lobey also chases the Bull into a cave with many side passages and dead ends. At the furthest end of the maze is PHAEDRA, who is also a part of the myth with Theseus and the Minotaur. She in fact becomes Theseus' wife after he kills the Minotaur, and in a sense, she is the step-sister of the Minotaur, if I have my mythic genealogy correct.

So, in Lobey, we have connections to the myths of Orpheus and Eurydice, Theseus and Phaedra, and echoes of the Roman woodland flute-playing god Pan. Moreover, we learn that the Orpheus legend got mixed up in some bizarre way with the legend of the Beatles, specifically Ringo, the one who did not sing.

Kid Death is an interesting character. In one of the rooms near PHAEDRA, Lobey discovers what appears to be a TV set. While fiddling with the dials, he sees Kid Death on the screen. The Kid tells him that "My mother called me Bonny William. Now they all call me Kid Death." William Bonney is better known as the gunfighter Billy the Kid, who boasted on his 21st birthday that he had killed someone for every year of his life. Here's a borrowing from the myths of the Wild West, and not the only one either.

While on his journey, Lobey gets taken on as a cowboy to help drive the herd to market. Actually, dragonboy would be more accurate because what's being driven to market is a herd of dragons, not cattle. One of the other drovers is Green-eye. He's relatively normal except that he has only one eye and it's green. In addition, he can perform miracles and even raise people from the dead, or so it is told.

Green-eye is taking a risk for his home town is the market city--Branning-at-sea. His family is there, as are numerous enemies. He hopes to enter the city quietly so his enemies are unaware that he is there. Not knowing this, Lobey (Judas?) tells a stranger on the road that Green-eye is with them. As they approach the city, a large crowd of Green-eye's family and friends meet him, singing and chanting in joy as they escort him into the City. Those familiar with Palm Sunday and the story of Christ's triumphal entry into Jerusalem shortly before his betrayal and crucifixion might see some similarities here. On the other hand, there's the story of Odin, the greatest of the Norse gods, who, to gain his superior wisdom, had to hang on a tree for ten days and also had to give up one eye.

One minor puzzle is that of Lobey's name. In Lobey's village, the traditional honorifics are still used. Lo means a functioning male, or at least one not so severely genetically damaged, that he can't function on his own--Lo Hawk, for example. La refers to a functioning female--La Friza-- and Le to a hermaphrodite--Le Dorik. Therefore, Lobey, when formally addressed, is called Lo Lobey. It sounds as though it should signify something, but so far I've not been able to come up with anything.

I'm not even going to try to get into the story after Lobey reaches Branning-at-sea, for that would give away too much of the plot. Let's just say it provides more evidence of Delany's imagination.

It's a short novel, less than 150 pages, but it's a fine print, so a new printing with larger print might push it up to 175 pages, maybe.

Overall Rating: Highly recommended for those looking for a story that doesn't lay out everything clearly and simply and wraps up everything neatly at the end, but requires a bit of work on the reader's part.

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