Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand is a very difficult book to talk about. It’s a challenging book to read, too, but talking about it seems harder than reading it, to me. That’s usually a sign that there’s something worth thinking over, though I am struggling to find a way into discussing it.Certainly, a mere “reader reaction” of the type that one sees all over the internet seems insufficient, for the same reason it strikes one as ridiculous for someone to walk out of a hall where a piece by Mahler or Webern or Stravinsky has just been performed, and say, “Well, that bit at the beginning was really catchy!”
And yet that is where the notes I took, while reading the book, begin, because the bit at the beginning–a bit about sixty pages long, I think it was–is very catchy. It grabbed me right away. Wikipedia passes over the bit I’m quoting below, but gives context that is relevant:
The story opens on the planet Rhyonon. Korga, a tall, misfit youth, undergoes the “RAT” (Radical Anxiety Termination) procedure, a form of psychosurgery which makes him a passive slave, after which he is known as Rat Korga.
Obviously, it’s a futuristic slave narrative, and like in lots of real-world slave narratives, the protagonist lives in a misogynistic, bigot-crammed world. That part, Delany seems to lay on a bit thick: there are “men,” and there are “bitches” (a word used for a female that a male really likes, or a female that a male really dislikes) and then there are “rats” (slaves). Or, and though he doesn’t draw attention to it, there are “kids,” in whose company it’s not okay to say “bitches,” apparently.
What’s interesting is how Delany later subverts all of this: this world, presumably a lot like the urban America he lived in prior to writing the book–the world is sexist, homophobic, sexually puritanical, and highly expoitative–seems nonetheless technologically advanced compared to our world (especially circa 1984, the year Stars In My Pocket… was published). But Rat Korga’s world is in fact a backwater planet, and the things that make it similar to our world are mostly repudiated by outsiders. Not only that, but even some of those similarities to our world are undermined: for example, the term “Rat” (for people who chosen to undergo “Radical Anxiety Termination”) implies disdain and disrespect, but in one conversation it is revealed that the RAT treatment was, for a time, in vogue among intellectuals on that planet, especially poets who cracked under the pressure of artistic creation. RAT was, at one point in history, an honorific, its similarity to the word for a pestilential rodent no more than coincidence.
Delany fills the book with contradictions of this kind: the more you learn about the universe, the more you realize you don’t understand the whole of it at all. He seems, indeed, to make a game of it, introducing an element that feels familiar, then radically defamiliarizing it for you. In a lot of ways, it felt like expatriate SF–SF about the expatriate experience, that is. I don’t recall any mention anywhere of Delany having lived for an extended period outside America, mind, but then, the expatriate experience is often characterized by being an outsider, so maybe being a black gay Lacanian intellectual in 1970s America just overlaps with being an American in Paris, or Shanghai… or a Canadian in rural Korea?
At times, Delany does seem to lapse into a kind of Lacanian/Derridean sense of everything being a construct of language and culture, as per the academic vogue at the time in the humanities. The attraction of such a paradigm to an intellectual as removed from dominant (ie. expected, dictated) social norms as Delany then was is understandable, and the exploration is interesting… it just sort of rings false on occasion, such as the mention in passing of a world where acne is seen as a sign of status. But the deeper you go into the book–especially if you know just a little bit about Delany, like the way –the more you start to realize that this universe is, at least on one level, a sort of glimpse into Delany: what it’s like to be Delany, to inhabit-the-universe-as-Delany; the attraction to acne, and to big-knuckled-hands with nails chewed down to the quick, are things that are purely Delany, and which he’s mentioned in a number of works, as well as in nonfiction writings as personal predilection of his. (Here’s one example, though I think I read about it elsewhere.)