Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand by Samuel Delany


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.)

Highly personal, but in Stars in My Pocket… they constitute elements of the universe. Desire seems to be a fundamental building block of this universe, in other words, and since it’s Delany’s universe, the desires are fundamentally his. He dives overtly into that in the last section, too:

You’ve blotted the rich form of desire from my life and left me only some vaguely eccentric behaviors that have grown up to integrate so much pleasure into the mundane world around me. What text could I write now? It’s as though I cannot even remember what I once desired. All I can look for now, when I have the energy, is lost desire itself– and I look for it by clearly inadequate means. At best such an account as I might write would read like the life of anyone else, with, now and again, a bizarre and interruptive incident, largely mysterious and completely demystified– at least that’s what it has become without the day-to-day, moment-to-moment web of wanting that you have unstrung from about my universe. Without it, all falls apart. In a single gesture you’ve turned me into the most ordinary of human creatures and at once left me an obsessive, pleasureless eccentric, trapped in a set of habits which no longer have reason because they no longer lead to reward. And if I had enough self-confidence, in the midst of this bland continual chaos into which you’ve shunted me, for hate, I should hate you. But I don’t have it.

Which is to say, on some level this is a novel about desire–and as such, it’s interesting that one of the few things that is less problematized and not-so-culturally-constructed is sexual orientation. (It’s still problematized, but less than most other things in the book.) Desire, that seems to be the fundamental anvil of the text, and after all, most of the book is about the encounter between Rat Korga and his mutual “perfect” (to a bunch of decimal places) “erotic object,” an interstellar diplomat named Marq Dyeth. That is: it’s about a man who’s suffered radical neurological mutilation and the loss of his homeworld meeting his perfect lover. That sounds trite, but it’s really this kind of erotic force that the whole book–well, everything following the opening section, anyway–draws its force. The universe here is an erotic construct, a structure of desire through which the protagonist–most of the time, Marq Dyeth, because Rat Korga doesn’t really have much of a subjective self of any sort we could access and understand, or, well, not quite that, but something very roughly like that. In other words, this is a novel where the worldbuilding seems fundamentally to be based both upon Delany’s own experiences of desire, and upon his own experiences of his own desire within a culture and society in which those desires weren’t part of the official public transcript of how desire is “supposed” to work. That’s pretty interesting: it’s write what you know in a sort of radical sense: writing your own alienation and othering as a positive critique of blindness, by performing the experience of that blindness for your reader, and having your reader perform it herself as well.

That’s not all there is to see in this novel, of course, but it surely does help in piecing the thing together: think of it as a kind of conscious, artistic concatenation of Delany’s experience, and suddenly familiar SF tropes aren’t just being turned on their head or played with, they’re being used to talk about how the fundamental experience of social life informs the most deep and private parts of ourselves–how the line between those two zones, the public and the deeply private, can move and shift. For example, the “runs” on Dyeth’s homeworld–passages through which the saurian natives of the planet, a very sexually-free three-gendered species, congregate for (among other things) public sex–are an echo of some of the elements of the gay subculture in New York that Delany consciously wanted to celebrate. (In various interviews he mentions the role of that scene in the subsequent HIV/AIDS crisis as one reason he didn’t complete the remainder of the second novel, though it’s not the only reason.)

Likewise, the idea of a universe ruled by a binary, opposing pair of factions is, well… kind of ridiculous, and feels very Cold War. But when you think of it in terms of human psychology, suddenly it makes much more sense: the Sygn embody those forces in human beings that yearn for radical freedom, while the Family seek to control, to castigate, to regulate. One cannot help but think of Delany’s own struggle (related at the same link as above) to come to terms with his sexuality, to come to terms with the need to find his own language to talk about his own sexuality–not just “coming out” as a homosexual, but “coming out” to himself  as Samuel Delany in all his particularized detail, including those of his sexuality–to see how this pair of forces really embody a kind of tension that exists in every person: the urge toward radical honesty about the self in all its baffling, endless particularity, versus the urge to have a niche, a place to fit into the social world that we, as gregarious animals, so long to be a part of.

Which, to return to that opening section, seems to be part of what Delany’s getting at there, too: the brutality of experience in a world like ours, in the world he grew up in, in which he wrote the novel: one could argue that in what we regard as “normal” socialization, there’s a degree of radical neurological mutilation: all of us–but especially those missing one or another prerequisite of privilege–rigorously trained to submit ourselves all all sorts of indignities and irrationalities in our language, in our entertainment, in our art and “great literature,” and rigorously punished when they dare to speak another language at all. Rat Korga’s surrendering of his own anxiety for termination looks, on the outset, reminiscent of  any number of 18th and 19th century slave narratives: the “Rat” is spoken down to, treated in ways that chill and horrify, and even his brush with literature during a brief abduction by a masochistic woman recalls comments on the suppression of literacy made in a number of slave narratives. (The suppresison of literacy among slaves comes up a lot in slave narratives.)

That whole section–the abduction by the woman–is actually pretty fascinating on its own, too. Korga, while still a passive slave, is temporarily given a glove that allows him to “absorb” books from cubes very rapidly. He absorbs a bunch of them in a single session, in what is one of the most convincing passages I’ve ever read of someone devouring books, and certainly a passage that pushed buttons of mine, in terms of the fantasy of devouring books in an instant, but also evocative of the joys of reading; of finding connections, vast silent gossamer networks of reference or stylistic influence or biographical connection between books and authors; and of course, of being to absorb books without reading them as slowly as I do. At the end of it, when Korga is questioned by his master, he lists a number of books written by women, unaware of the reaction to come:

“What a strange view of world culture you must have!” She leaned forward and shook her head. “When I was packing those, I called myself taking all the important, profound, and indispensable titles I could–nearly filled the box. But one of the more eccentric librarians at the internment compound I’d gotten permission to rifle had put up a whole shelf full of cubes of women writers or texts about women. She was convinced nobody could be truly educated unless they’d read them–though nobody I ever met had, except her, maybe. Anyway.” She pressed another pedal again. Outside, headlights brightened. “I decided I might as well take those too, as a lark, and loaded the box up with cubes from her special shelf. I’m afraid they were the top three inches in the carton. From the titles, it sounds to me like that’s what you got stuck in!”

“But…” he began.

She pushed the thrust bar. The transport lurched on into desert night.

“But Horeb–Saya Anif–” he said, “was the most famous writer… in the world.” He added: “For almost thirty years,” and felt odd making a contestatory statement about his world; till now it had never occurred to him he’d had one.

“She may well have been,” the woman said. “But that thirty years was many years ago. You can be sure: most people today haven’t even heard of her–which I suppose was my eccentric librarian friend’s point in putting that shelf together in the first place. You say you can drive this. I want you–” She leaned forward and punched a lot of buttons below the e-output meter – “to get me to these coordinates.” She frowned. “Can you?”

He leaned forward to look at the numbers that had appeared on the locale screen. “No…” The coordinates were six-figured ones, and the only system he was used to from the Muct was the two-figured one for finding your way around within a city. But, certainly, it must work more or less the same way as the two-figure system. “Yeah.” Coordinates were coordinates. He could figure them out. “I can.”

“Good.” She slipped from her seat. “Then I’m going to sleep, in the back.”

It’s interesting to read this in context: I cannot help but think of Joanna Russ’s How To Suppress Women’s Writing. Or, you know, the experiences I’ve heard lots of SFF authors who aren’t straight white men describe. Hell, Delany is talking about precisely the same stuff that we’re still slogging through in the SF world these days. (As Kameron Hurley rightly notes, plenty of people are fighting the good fight.) Not that I mean to say–look, see, here’s a male authority on the subject, of course, but the degree to which Delany was on the ball even about that tendency (to look for male experts on sexism in SF) is noteworthy… I direct you to these comments from the bottom of page 82 from, yes, the same link I’ve posted twice above:


Likewise, this is clearly not just about gender: there seems to be a pointed criticism of Eurocentrism, for example: “Saya Artif’s” name, and even more so her pseudonym, “Horeb,” certainly sound vaguely Arabic to me.

It’s also interesting that it’s a female captor who is insisting on the irrelevance of women’s writing: the slave isn’t the only one who has internalized the oppression of his world, clearly, and to some degree, we all internalize our own subjugations. In the 1970s and 1980s, literature departments were all about male modernist poets–so much Ezra Pound, so much Eliot, and maybe just a little HD… I felt almost like Korga (who is a gay male character with reddish-brown skin, but in a society where race seems, in the first section at least, to be largely irrelevant–and is definitely irrelevant in terms of his world’s form of slavery–and an intergalactic civilization in which gendered pronouns have a very different function than in our world) was recapitulating the revelations in academia in the 1970s that followed the burst in interest in Austen  after Gilbert and Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic stirred interest in Jane Austen and, thereafter, other female authors of the 19th century. After all, Delany seems to be expanding the language of the novel in ways people say Austen did; certainly, he’s expanding he possible vocabulary of the novel: from a male territory, to a territory where women could work, to… well, someone as radically different as Delany.

I could be way off: reading the long passage on forgotten female authors, I felt as if I were just narrowly missing references to actual authors in our history; a few flitted through my mind, but nothing too clearly linked to the “books” in the text. It felt more like a funhouse mirror of literary ignorance and internalized misogyny and racism being unwound from a mind. Again, this seems to feel something like the externalized dramatization of a personal narrative; his own internalization of toxic (to him) social expectations, values, and norms; and when Rat Korga’s world is destroyed in a “Cultural Fugue” event–in one of those ultimate moments where the system cannot hold together any longer, and cataclysm results–it seems symbolically suggestive that Rat Korga alone survives. That seems to me to say something radical about the self, about individuality and the highly individuated nature of desire, at least for those who bother to fight and struggle to really come to terms with who they are, and how much of who they are comes from within, rather than being imposed from without. Slavery, here, seems not only a literal form of oppression, but also the more extreme version of something more ubiquitous and something which, very insidiously, we all seem to take for granted. In other words, in some way it bends your mind when you see this, and the “real” world  (with all its assumptions and pressures and norms) starts to look like some particularly backward, warped form of dystopian science fiction.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of this book: there’s all kinds of interesting stuff about Delany’s imagined version of a galactic internet, some very odd and interesting stuff about “hunting”; some curious stuff about celebrity and how instantaneous communications can lead to shocking instances of mobbing (especially online celebrity, which reminded me of a video Ted Chiang recently shared on Facebook); to thoughts on cultural sensitivity and how it can dovetail with naïveteé or ignorance at a certain point.

I can say that I admire Stars in My Pocket… as a text. As a novel, I’m not sure what I think of it, not so much because of what it lacks, but just because it is so radically unlike what I come to a novel expecting to experience. (It’s not the first time I’ve felt this way about Delany’s work: for whatever reason, I failed to get into The Einstein Intersection and Babel-17 when I read them years ago, even though I could see he was an intelligent and skilled writer. Maybe I was callow and young, or had expectations that didn’t match well with what he was doing; maybe Delany grew as a writer by 1984, or maybe this is just a very different kind of book from those? That’s what I wondered when I was just a little ways into the book. I’m stil a little daunted by the sheer volume of Dhalgren, the other Delany book I’ve owned for years, and often considered reading, only to pick it up, flip through it, and then put it back down saying, as little Arya Stark says to the god of death on the TV: “Not today… not today.”

But as for Stars in My Pocket… well, it’s a fascinating universe, but more because Delany’s a fascinating guy (and the universe is in some sense a kind of space-operafication of Delany’s own internal experience of desire, identity, and culture, and his thinking circa 1984 in general), than because I believe in this universe as a universe. It’s not the oft-noted lack of a complicated plot, I don’t think; lots of books and stories have “no plot” by common reckoning and suit me just fine. It’s more just that this novelistic mode is really, well… unusual. It’s like walking into a cinema, and instead of a movie, there’s a video projected of guy on the stage who performs self-surgery on his intestines, all the while singing and reciting poetry and talking about how fucked up society is, and then he extracts chickens and goats from his intestine and you realize the whole thing is some kind of weird, tricky allegory you can’t quite piece together. You’re impressed, but… was that a film? Is it a movie? Sure, maybe not by Hollywood standards, but something this unusual feels like it might be some new sort of thing.

I found myself wondering, What was that? I found myself thinking, “This is some new sort of thing,” even though, in some ways, the postmodernity of the book isn’t new. (Go read Tristram Shandy or Don Quixote if you really think it is.) It just feels like, this is some kind of SF that Delany was inventing at the time. (And now I feel like maybe Adam Roberts follows in Delany’s path in some ways, also writing weird allegorical SF novels, and leaving me both admiring and awkwardly disturbed at the same time, as I discussed here a few years ago.)

Right now, I can say that I respect Delany’s Stars in My Pocket Like Grain of Sand, but I feel certain that I won’t know what I really think of until I’ve read it again, and I suspect even then I won’t know quite what I think of it. But there’s something terribly admirable about its audaciousness, even if there are things in the text that rub me the wrong when when I try to read it as an SF novel in anything like the usual realist mode of storytelling. I do wish the second book in the dyptich had gotten written, though it seems unlikely at this point that it will be, or that it would actually relate much to whatever Delany was originally getting at. (We don’t have the right to complain, even: Delany ended up having to go into academia to support himself, when he should have There are clearly the seeds of something more there, but we don’t necessarily have to go there to appreciate this.

2 thoughts on “Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand by Samuel Delany

  1. Oh, for those who haven’t read their eyeballs dry:

    Here’s an interesting recent discussion of Delany’s work.

    Also, and this is a tiny thing, but Vondramach–this ancient dictator-figure who lurks deep in the backstory for Stars in My Pocket…, and shows up in some short story Delany apparently published which I haven’t read–sounds so suspiciously like the name of Vonda McIntyre, an author who’d come onto the scene in the 1970s and made waves between then and the time Stars in My Pocket… came out; I can’t help but wonder whether Delany tuckerized her in the book. (I seem to recall McIntyre’s work showing up in one or another of the anthologies edited by Delany, so presumably he respected her as an author. One is tempted to shrug it off, but Damien Broderick’s discussion of the SF metafictional references in the book–in the chapter in Reading by Starlight, which, yes, is floating out on the internet if you look for it–leads me to think there’s very little in the novel that doesn’t sound like something else for a reason. If Korga should remind us of “Vorga” from The Stars My Destination then Vondramach certainly reminds me of Vonda’s name.

    (Though not much of her personally, mind you: she was lovely and not at all tyrannical or sociopathic when I met her briefly in Seattle in 2006: she even gave me a beautiful hand-crocheted anemone (like the ones pictured on her website), which I still carry about and keep near where I write.)

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