Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Jewels of Aptor by Samuel R. Delany

Afterwards, she was taken down 

to the sea.
Opening to
The Jewels of Aptor
by Samuel R. Delany
The Jewels of Aptor, published in 1962, was then 19-year-old Samuel R. Delany's first novel.  As a first novel, it shows remarkable promise.

The story concerns, Geo, a travelling poet and his three companions who are commanded by a powerful priestess to enter Aptor, a forbidding post-nuclear wasteland to retrieve both her lost daughter and a set of powerful jewels. What follows is a wild series of encounters as the three journey through a looking glass.  Oh, what they find there.

This is certainly not new territory viewed from 2012, and probably wasn't all that new in 1962 either.  In spite of a tendency to make his characters act as agents of exposition, Mr. Delany brings a level of thoughtfulness and artistry to his first novel that must have excited editors in his day.  He even manages to slip at least one bit of something radical into The Jewels of Aptor.

Mr. Delany, who is both black and openly gay, works in a genre that is not known for being friendly to either group of people.  Lt. Uhura wouldn't take her place on the U.S.S. Enterprise until 1966 and if there ever was a gay crew member his (or her) portrayal was too subtle for me to pick up on it.   (Almost 30 years would pass before a woman would get anywhere near the captain's chair.)  While The Jewels of Aptor is not about race in any way, Mr. Delany describes his main character, Geo, as dark-skinned, perhaps prying open the door a little.   I think we can read the character Geo, who is a poet, as an avatar of sorts for Mr. Delany.  He does not label Geo as gay, nor is there any mention of romance of any sort in The Jewels of Aptor, but Geo, who has spent years with his companion, who is male, is overcome with grief when his friend dies.

I know that I'm over-reaching here, placing the character Geo as both black and gay when there is no direct evidence for saying he's anything other than a poet.  But in 1962 gay people, even black people, usually had to read ourselves into the genres we loved, at least if we wanted to be the hero of the story.  By the end of the 1960's,  once he became a successful author, Mr. Delany would be one of the pioneers leading the way, though even here, in his first novel, I find a baby-step or two.

I find it disappoitingly odd that a genre concerned with the future would take so long to envision one that wasn't completely white and heterosexual.  While you can find both black and gay people in science fiction after the 1960's, largely due to writers like Mr. Delany, Octavia Butler and Urusla K. LeGuin, you have took pretty hard, and sometimes you have to read yourself into the story, just to make sure you're really there. 

1 comment:

Jeanne said...

Delany's wife (Marilyn Hacker) was a poet, and as in Babel-17, his stories were often peopled with characters for whom poetry was an integral part of life, the universe, and everything.